Sutras in

Sutras in <br class='pcdnil'>Buddhism

We introduce Buddhism and the history of
Buddhist sutras, which form the background
of “The Teaching of Buddha” and
the English Tripitaka

The History of Buddhist Sutras.

Buddha, the Founder of Buddhism

 The founder of Buddhism is Gautama Buddha (Pali: Gotama Buddha). In Japan, he is popularly known by the name, Oshakasama. Gautama Buddha was a real person in history, but the actual years of his birth and death are unknown and it is assumed that he was born 2,500 or 2,600 years ago. His life is known only through legendary stories and the most trustworthy account is given in the following manner.

He was born as a prince of the Śākya clan in Rumbini, which is in Nepal today, in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. The newborn prince was named Siddhārtha. Although he grew up with the expectation that he would be a future leader of the Śākya clan, he spent his youth in deep suffering about life and death probably because his mother Māyā had died right after his birth. As a result, at the age of 29, he left the palace, abandoning his wife Yaśodharā and son Rāhula, and became a Śramaṇa, an ascetic.

Around this time in India, Brahmanism, a kind of magico-religion based on sacred texts called the Vedas, the hymns for the deities, was predominant, and priests called Brahmin performed rituals in which they prayed for the fulfillment of wishes by invoking the power of the gods. However, as the agricultural society developed into an urban society through and with the flourishing trade and the appearance of many kingdoms, many new religions appeared in India. Their leaders were not Brahmins, but Śramaṇas.

As a Śramaṇa, the young Siddhārtha studied with two masters, but he found out that his suffering about life and death was not solved by their teachings. He left them and devoted himself to asceticism with five colleagues for six years in Uruviruvā (Buddhagaya today). Through asceticism, however, he did not obtain what he had sought. He discarded asceticism and recovered his strength by eating milk porridge offered by Sujata, a daughter of a cowherd. Then, he meditated silently under a tree standing near the river Nairañjanā.

During his meditation, Siddhārtha overcame Māra, the demon, and his three daughters representing the defilements of greed, hatred, and ignorance. He searched for the cause of suffering and realized the truth of dependent origination that every phenomenon in this world has a cause -- the root cause is ignorance and the elimination of ignorance makes one free from suffering. According to another tradition, he deeply investigated the suffering of life and death, their origination and cessation, discovered the way of the cessation of suffering and finally realized that he himself was liberated from the suffering of life and death. In any case, at that moment, Siddhartha became an Awakened One (Buddha).

 Buddha hesitated to teach the truth (Dharma) of his awakening, but with the encouragement of the creator god, Brahmā, he decided to teach the Dharma to people. Since his previous two masters had already passed away, he selected as the first recipients of his sermon the five colleagues with whom he had practiced asceticism. He visited Mṛgadāva in Varanasi and taught the Four Noble Truths: 1) there are many sufferings in life, 2) craving is the cause of suffering, 3) suffering can be ended if its cause is eliminated, and 4) there is the way to be freed from suffering. As a result, the five former colleagues one after another realized the same awakening that Buddha had experienced. Thereafter, a community of practitioners who followed Buddha’s teachings, Saṅgha, was created. Thus, the Three Treasures, (viz. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), to which Buddhists should take refuge, were established.

 For 45 years since then, Buddha continued to teach his Dharma in the kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala along the middle and lower basins of the Ganges river. When he realized that his time was drawing near, he started walking toward his hometown, Kapilavastu. However, he became ill along the way and passed away at the age of 80 under the two sal trees in Kushinagar. His body was cremated, and his remains were divided into eight portions. Stupas were built to enshrine those remains. After Buddha passed away, the stupa became the heart and soul of Buddhists in India. Many monks and lay people visited and worshipped there and placed around Buddha’s stupa small stupas enshrining the remains of their relatives, which indicates their belief that Buddha still existed there in some form or another.

Formation of Buddhist Sutras

Buddha devoted himself to teaching the Dharma, but he did not leave his teachings in any written form. This is in accordance with the tradition of oral transmission practiced in Indian culture and in those days writing was not practiced there.

Right after Buddha’s death, it is said that one of his disciples declared that “we are finally free.” With the fear that the teachings of Buddha would not be transmitted correctly, Mahākāśyapa, one of the oldest disciples of Buddha, gathered other disciples at the Cave of the Seven Leaves in the suburb of Rājagṛha, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha. There, they confirmed to each other what they had heard from Buddha about the precepts and teachings. Upāli put together the rules of the order, the precepts (Vinaya) that Buddha had established, and Ānanda, who was Buddha’s cousin and attendant, put together the teachings (Sūtra). Buddha’s disciples did not write down the teachings of Buddha confirmed by the council for a long time in accordance with the tradition of Indian culture.

Schism of Buddhist Order

 As time went on, different schools in the order arose with different interpretations of the teachings and precepts confirmed by the Buddhist council. It is said that the order was first divided into two: Theravāda and Mahāsāṃghika. After that, they further split into about 20 large and small schools. The coexistence of groups with diverse understandings is a significant feature of Buddhism as a religion, which has been passed down to the present.

Each school, by analyzing Buddha’s teachings, produced literature called “Abhidharma” (Meta-Dharma). Thus, the Tripiṭaka, which means Three Baskets consisting of Sūtra, Vinaya, and Abhidharma, was put together and transmitted by each school. However, most of those Tripiṭakas were partially preserved or lost. The only complete Tripiṭaka remaining today is the Pāli Tripiṭaka, which was transmitted by the Mahāvihāra school in Sri Lanka. The Tripiṭakas of other schools are partially kept in Chinese and Tibetan translations and in Sanskrit.

 In Sri Lanka, the island to the south of the Indian subcontinent, the teaching of the Theravāda school was transmitted around the time of King Ashoka. Though Māhāyāna Buddhism was later transmitted, eventually, the teaching of the Mahāvihāra school together with the Pāli Tripiṭaka became the mainstream of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The Tripiṭaka of the Mahāvihāra school was orally transmitted, but it is said that transcriptions of texts started because of the social and political unrests such as famines that might cause the complete disappearance of those monks who kept the oral tradition of reciting the Pali Tripiṭaka. The Theravāda Buddhism of the Mahāvihāra school with this Pali Tripiṭaka in Sri Lanka became the primary axis of Buddhism in Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Thailand.

Māhāyāna and Hīnayāna Buddhism

 About 500 years after Buddha’s death, there emerged suddenly groups of sūtras that were drastically different from those which each Buddhist school had recognized as “records of Buddha’s teaching”. Perfection-of-Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) sūtras such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā and Pure Land sūtras such as the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha are generally called “Māhāyāna Sūtras” in contrast with the Nikāyas and Āgamas of the early Buddhist schools. The early Buddhist schools strictly distinguished between the ‘sacred’ represented by monks and the ‘worldly’ represented by lay people and put more stress upon the completion of a monk’s religious practice than the salvation of lay people. The newly emerged sūtras criticized those teachings by calling them Hīnayāna, which means the inferior vehicle, and they presented the “Bodhisattva” as the ideal of Buddhist practitioners, who practice hard to obtain awakening for the salvation of people. The Bodhisattva is not satisfied with his own awakening but with great compassion tried to help people attain awakening. Such teaching was called “Māhāyāna,” which means the great vehicle that can save all people.

The Origin of Māhāyāna Sūtras

 Unfortunately, the background of the sudden appearance of new Buddhist sūtras is not clear. There are various theories regarding the origin of Mahāyāna sutras. According to one theory, lay Buddhists who gathered around stūpas played an important role in producing them. According to another theory, monks who had departed from the traditional Buddhist saṅgha produced them, or according to some other theory, an individual or a group of monks within the traditional Buddhist saṅgha produced them. In the background of the creation of Mahāyāna sutras there might have been the urgent demands from people who were caught up in the social and political upheavals caused by repeated wars in the Gandhāra region (the present north-western part of Pakistan and the eastern part of Afghanistan), where various ethnic groups such as Greeks and Iranians were mixed together. In such circumstances, Buddhists might have responded to them by producing new Buddhist sūtras.

The newly created Māhāyāna Sūtras were characterized by being copied and spread through written manuscripts, unlike early sutras, which were kept by oral transmission. The early manuscripts were written on birch barks, but the palm-leaf manuscript became more common in later periods. In Gilgit within the Gandhāra cultural region, a sūtra storehouse which stored these manuscripts was excavated, and provided important evidence showing who collected what kind of manuscripts and passed them down to later generations.

Madhyamaka and Yogācāra

Māhāyāna Buddhism produced not only new sūtras, but also various treatises as well. While the sūtra takes the form of the Buddha’s preaching, Buddhist treatises are authored by individual Buddhist scholar-monks. Their names are recorded even in the Abhidharma texts of Hīnayāna Buddhism. The first well-known Māhāyāna author was Nāgārjuna (ca. 2nd century), who, based on the thought of Emptiness (śūnyatā) expounded in the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, criticized the Abhidharma interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. His thought can be called “Madhyamaka philosophy,” which had a great influence upon the entirety of Māhāyāna Buddhism.

The Mādhyamika school, which was formed on the basis of Nāgārjuna’s thought, advocated the “quasi‐nihilistic theory” that all existents are devoid of their intrinsic natures and are empty, against the realistic philosophy of Abhidharma. They rarely described any method of practice. Then appeared the Yogācāra school that practiced meditation which they inherited from the Abhidharma tradition. They criticized the Madhyamaka idea of the Emptiness of everything and claimed that there remains something positive even after the repeated negation of things by emptiness, which is our mind or consciousness. Their claim is backed by their realization of mind/consciousness-only in meditation that all existents are manifestations of mind. Around the 4th and 5th centuries, Asanga and Vasubandhu, two brothers, systematically established the Yogācāra theories and deepened the Abhidharma analysis of mind by demonstrating that there exist “self-consciousness” and “subconsciousness” (ālaya-vijñāna) at the bottom of the five sense cognitions and mental consciousness. The Yogācāra tradition produced Dignāga (5th or 6th century) and Dharmakīrti (6th or 7th century), who established the Buddhist tradition of epistemology and logic (hetu-vidyā).

 As a matter of fact, the appearance of Māhāyāna Buddhism, which produced the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra schools, did not entail the complete disappearance of the traditional Buddhist schools altogether in India. According to the record of the Chinese monk Yijing, who travelled to India in the 7th century, the traditional Buddhist schools such as Sarvāstivāda and Sāṃmatīya coexisted with Madhyamaka and Yogācāra of Māhāyāna Buddhism.

Translation of Buddhist Sūtras

 Around the 2nd century BCE, the trade route that was later called the “Silk Road” was created between India and (Han) China via Central Asia. Buddhism had originated in India and was transmitted to the various Oasis countries scattered around the Takla Makan Desert via Gandhāra in Central Asia. Buddhism was first transmitted to China at the time of Emperor Ming of the Late Han Dynasty (the 1st century CE) and was promoted by Central Asian monks such as Lokakṣema and Zhi Qian.

Buddhist sūtras written in Sanskrit or Gandhāran language were translated into Chinese by Central Asian monks such as Dharmarakṣa (239-316) from Dunhuang and Kumārajīva (344-413) from Kucha. Chinese translations were seldom done by a single monk; they were done by groups of monks who worked together at the office of translations. Among many Chinese translations, Kumārajīva’s beautiful translation was highly estimated; his Chinese translations of the Lotus Sūtra and the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra are well-known even today by Japanese Buddhists.

As time went on, there were monks who went to India to learn Sanskrit and brought back new sūtras. One of those monks was Xuanzang (602-664), who became the model of the main character ‘Tripiṭaka Master’ in the story called “Journey to the West.” Xuanzang went through the Takla Makan Desert to India to obtain the original text of the Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra, and he brought many Buddhist texts back to China. His translation was highly regarded and was called “New Translation” in distinction from the “Old Translations.”

Collecting and Sorting Buddhist Texts

 After many Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese, there arose a need to sort them out. The first attempt was made by Dao'an (314-385) who compiled a catalog of Buddhist texts. He was followed by Seng-you and Fa-jing, who produced similar catalogs. The investigation and evaluation of the many Buddhist texts resulted in various attempts to classify Buddhist teachings. One of the most influential classifications for later generations was proposed by Zhiyi (538-597), who is regarded as the founder of the Tiantai tradition of Buddhism in China. He divided and organized all sūtras into five groups in accordance with the Buddha’s life. He considered the Avataṃsaka Sūtra to be the sūtra that was taught by the Buddha right after his awakening and regarded the Lotus Sutra and the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra as the last sūtras taught eight years before Buddha’s death. This classification was transmitted to Japan by Saichō and exerted a great influence upon Japanese Buddhism.
 The collection of all Chinese Buddhist texts was called “Yiqiejing” or “Dazangjing,” which was compiled and printed repeatedly. The first one was the “Kaibaozang,” which was printed in Shu (presently, Sichuan province) in the latter half of the 10th century (971-983). Based on this “Kaibaozang,” printing blocks were newly engraved in Goryeo (presently, Korea) in the 13th century (1236-1251). They were first placed at the Hall of Blocks at Ganghwa Island and then they were moved to Haeinsa Temple where they are now preserved as a World Treasure. There is a total of 81,258 printing blocks, and they are known as the “Eighty Thousand Goryeo Tripitaka (or Tripitaka Koreana).” The printed version of the Tripiṭaka Koreana came over to Japan through trade between Japan and Ming China in the Muromachi Period, and they are securely stored at Zōjōji temple (Tokyo) and Ōtani University (Kyoto).

 In the first half of the 20th century (1924-1934), two leading Buddhist scholars in Japan, Junjirō Takakusu and Kaikyoku Watanabe, published the Taishō Tripiṭaka, which was based on the Tripiṭaka kept at Zōjōji temple and was collated with other versions of the Chinese Tripiṭaka. The Taishō Tripiṭaka is highly estimated in the world and became an indispensable resource for the study of Buddhism.

 Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai has been publishing English translations of some important texts of the Taishō Tripiṭaka since 1982. The SAT Daizōkyō Text Database (SAT), which was established in 1994, computerized all texts of the Taishō Tripiṭaka and made it available on the internet. The Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA) in Taiwan also released online all Taishō Tripiṭaka texts except for the Japanese texts. (Pāli Tipiṭaka, Tibetan Tripiṭaka, and some remaining Sanskrit texts are now available online from some websites.)

Tibetan Tripiṭaka

Buddhism came to Tibet in the first half of the 7th century and was established as the state religion in the latter half of the 8th century, when the translation of Buddhist texts was begun. By the beginning of the 9th century, the primary Māhāyāna texts and Vinaya texts were translated, and after the latter half of the 10th century, many Vajrayāna texts were translated. In addition, the standardization of translations was done from the latter half of the 8th century to the first half of the 9th century.

In Dunhuang under the control of the ancient Tibetan dynasty, a Sūtra-copying office was established, and local Chinese people copied Buddhist texts in both Tibetan and Chinese. As a result, many Tibetan Buddhist texts were included among the enormous amount of Dunhuang documents that were discovered in the Mogao Caves in 1900.

In the 14th century, they began compiling the Tibetan Tripiṭaka, which is of two parts: Kangyur (“Translation of the Words of Buddha”) consisting of Sūtra and Vinaya, and Tengyur (“Translation of Treatises”) consisting of Abhidharma and other doctrinal treatises. In the 15th century, the first Tengyur of Yongle edition was printed in 1410 and several other editions followed it. In the 18th century, various versions of the Tibetan Tripiṭaka, which contained Tengyur too, were engraved and printed in various places; one of them being the Tibetan Tipiṭaka of the Beijing edition, which was produced in Beijing during the Qing dynasty.

In the first half of the 20th century, Japanese Buddhist monks who went to Tibet brought back the Tibetan Tripiṭaka. They are stored at Tokyo University, Tohoku University, Otani University, and elsewhere, and research is being conducted on them.

The Development of Research on Buddhist Manuscripts

In the Greater Indian Cultural Region, including Tibet and Nepal, there exists the tradition of copying religious or philosophical texts in addition to the oral tradition. Thus, temples and individuals there possess enormous numbers of Indian and Buddhist manuscripts. Many manuscripts of Sanskrit Buddhist texts discovered in Nepal and Tibet in the modern period contributed to the advancement of modern Buddhist studies.

Many manuscripts from Nepal and Tibet are complete manuscripts, but those excavated at the Buddhist sites in Central Asia such as Afghanistan and Pakistan are fragmentary. However, most of them were produced in the period earlier than those from Nepal and Tibet and contain precious clues about what the original forms of the texts were before they were revised repeatedly.
Buddhist manuscripts from Afghanistan discovered in 1996 and stored at the British Museum turned out to have been copied in the 1st century C.E. This surprised many Buddhist scholars. In this connection, we should not forget the sad and terrible fact that the social and political chaos in the region, which was triggered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970’s and which has been sustained by continuous warfare until today, made those precious manuscripts, which had been stolen from Buddhist ruins in Afghanistan, available in the market for ancient manuscripts in the world. The most symbolic event of the social turmoil was the destruction of two great statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan Valley by the Taliban in 2001.

The news that a Japanese research team discovered the original Sanskrit manuscript of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa Sūtra also attracted the great attention of Buddhists in the world. The enormous amount of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts is preserved at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and they have been gradually edited and published through the cooperation of Buddhist scholars of China and other parts of the world. These manuscript studies will greatly affect future Buddhist studies and possibly defy the commonly accepted understandings of Buddhism.


When one hears the words “Buddhist scriptures,” one might be reminded of old-fashioned books written in Chinese characters and kept in Buddhist altars. Furthermore, one may think that Buddhist scriptures, which have been chanted by many Buddhists, have no room for new discoveries, nor have any attraction for Buddhist researchers.

On the contrary, many scholars throughout the world are actively engaged in the study of Buddhist texts. Especially, they are re-evaluating Chinese translations of Buddhist texts, which Japanese Buddhists are very familiar with, because they, having been produced in the relatively early period, could represent the oldest phase of those texts. The number of western scholars who can read Chinese translations is increasing, and there are many young Japanese scholars who study abroad to learn the latest research carried out in other countries and to create friendships with scholars throughout the world. Many of these scholars are contributing to the English Tripiṭaka Project of Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai.

The study of Buddhism is developing a new frontier with the help of various academic disciplines such as archaeology, aesthetics, linguistics, and digital humanities. Long-accepted interpretations of Buddhism have been revised and even overturned one after another. Buddhist studies is a dynamic academic field. It is our wish and desire that after reading this you will become interested in the world of Buddhist texts and start reading them and learning about Buddhism.