Thursday, October 7, 2010

Who authored the Mahayana sutras?—and does it matter?

Here's a touchy subject. Modern scholarship suggests that Mahayana sutras were composed centuries after the Buddha died. The traditional Mahayana explanation is that the Buddha gave these teachings to his closest disciples to disseminate at a later point because the sutras were too advanced for followers to understand during his lifetime. Some teachers take this literally, while others view this as an attempt by early Mahayanists to legitimate the sutras they themselves were composing. Advocates of the latter theory have no quarrels with the possibility that the Buddha himself did not recite these sutras, for as far as they are concerned, the teachings represent a deep, absolute truth, so it doesn't matter who composed them.

I've been ruminating on this subject a lot lately. Did the Buddha recite the Mahayana sutras? And if he didn't, does it matter? I don't know. I suppose that as long as the Mahayana sutras don't contradict the Buddha's other teachingswhich, to my knowledge, they don't; rather they expand on ideas that were already present in the earlier Canonthen it doesn't matter to me who composed them.

What really interests me is whether or not early Mahayanists believed this. In other words, when Mahayana Buddhism was spreading to Tibet, China, Korea, and eventually Japan, did these "founding fathers"to borrow a phrase from American historythemselves question whether the Buddha himself recited the Mahayana sutras. I think the answer is a clear no. Fifteen hundred years ago, Buddhists didn't have access to the breadth of the Buddha's teachings like we do today. It's probably safe to say that the average Buddhist only heard/read several sutras in his/her entire lifetimehence the reasons why some Mahayana schools devote themselves almost entirely to one sutra. So there would be little if any opportunities to compare the style, vision, and scope of the Pali Canon to Mahayana sutras. For these early MahayanistsTsongkhapa, Bodhidharma, the Fifth Patriarchnot only were the Prajnaparamita sutras the Buddha's teachings, but they may have been the only teachings familiar to them. Or at the very least, these teachings would be considered the most important ones.

This offers a viable explanation to a quandary that has fascinated and perplexed me for a long timewhy Mahayana schools like Zen and Vajrayana tend to de-emphasize what other schools view as core Buddhist teachings (i.e. Mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path). The reason may be that their founders didn't have access to these early sutras, and instead relied almost entirely upon the Mahayana canon. This would explain why, in addition to the influences of local cultures, these traditions branched off in the directions that they didZen emphasizes non-duality while Vajrayana concentrates on emptiness. This would also explain why some later Mahayana masters' teachings don't easily fit with the Buddha's original suttas (I'm thinking of Dogen, who on at least one occasion argues against rebirth, and whose understanding of nirvana is drastically different than the one found in the Pali Canon).

This is a pet theory of mine. I'm no scholar, and I'm sure that greater minds than mine have explored this topic. If you've read about it, please let me know. Either way, tell me what you think.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: nathan x. sanders


  1. You sum it up so well that there's not a lot one can add. The Mayahana sutras were transmitted to China before the Pali suttas, so that's one reason why the Mahayana became so entrenched there. I tend to believe that they did considered the Mahayana sutras to be the actual teachings of the Buddha. That is understandable for back then, but today there a quite a few who still believe this and will not be moved from that view.

    Ultimately, I don't think it matters that they were not taught directly by the Buddha. To me, they reflect an evolution of the dharma. At the same time, I think it is important to be able to put them in proper perspective, as it contributes to a more mature understanding.

  2. Good post. My knowledge of Dogen is quite limited, but I wouldn't be comfortable leaving unchallenged your implication that he didn't believe in rebirth. My understanding is that he also argued FOR rebirth in numerous places. I'll see if I can dig up the references and post them later. I think they came from B. Alan Wallace, but I'll have to look.

  3. Here's the Dogen reference from B. Alan Wallace. Sorry if this is nitpicking on a minor point in your thoughtful article, just wanted to share the comment since I brought it up.

    "Batchelor is one of many Zen teachers nowadays who regard future and past lives as a mere distraction. But in adopting this attitude, they go against the teachings of Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto school of Zen, who addressed the importance of the teachings on rebirth and karma in his principal anthology, Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma (Shobogenzo). In his book Deep Faith in Cause and Effect (Jinshin inga), he criticizes Zen masters who deny karma, and in Karma of the Three Times (Sanji go), he goes into more detail on this matter. Since Batchelor feels such liberty to rewrite the Pali suttas, perhaps he should have a go at Dogen’s writings next, to enlighten us as to their true meaning."

    - from "Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist" which you can find here:

  4. BTW, from my own perspective, I agree...ultimately I don't spend too much time dwelling on the textual and historical elements of the Buddhist teachings. Some knowledge of such things is very useful, and one doesn't want to be credulous and mistaken. But academic knowledge has only a limited utility on the spiritual path.

    An 86-year old Buddhist nun put it to me like this: there are two ways to look at the authority of scriptural sources. The first is that, if the Buddha said it, it's true. The second is that, if it's true, the Buddha said it. That second, less literal approach is a hard pill to swallow for academics and historians, but not as difficult for practitioners. At the end of the day, I don't really care where the truth comes from. Just keep it coming!

  5. I'm not so sure. I've been reading a little stuff from around that time—Vasubandhu, in particular—and he gives the impression of being extremely erudite and completely at home with the philosophical doctrines of just about every Buddhist school of the time, Mahayana and Sravakavada. Monasteries also doubled as educational institutions, and there were many great universities working at the time too.

    While your average lay Buddhist or countryside monk taking care of the village shrine would probably not have been too well read, the ones studying and teaching in monasteries certainly were. India from that time was a highly literate culture, and a great deal of that literacy got transferred to Tibet. China, of course, has its own, literate tradition that's even older; translations of sutras only added to it.

    So I'm inclined to think that the guys from that time were very familiar with both the sutras and their commentaries, Pali Canon and Mahayana. Whether they took those stories about secret teachings and dragons literally or not I don't know. Probably some did, and some didn't. There were skeptics and people who rejected supernaturalism around then, too.