Chapter 7: Mahāyānasūtras

[64] The entire Buddhist Sanskrit literature discussed up to now belongs to the borderland and the buffer state between the Hīnayāna and the Mahāyāna Buddhism. Now we turn to those works which stand decidedly on the Mahāyāna soil. There is no canon of the Mahāyāna, and there can be none because the Mahāyāna represents no unity of sects. We are indeed, informed of a council which is said to have been held under king Kaniṣka, but whether at this council any canon was established, and if so, in what language and by what sects, is left doubtful. The so-called “nine dharmas” are no canon of any sect, but a series of books which have been composed at different periods and belong to different persuasions, though all of them enjoy a high veneration in Nepal today. These nine works are:

Aṣṭasahāsrikā Prajñāpāramitā, Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, Lalitavistara, Laṅkāvatāra, Suvarṇaprabhāsa, Gaṇḍavyūha, Tathāgataguhyaka Samādhirāja, Daśabhūmiśvara. All these scriptures are also designated Vaipulyasūtras.

Worship of Books in Nepal

The term dharma in the “nine dharmas”’ is no doubt an abbreviation for Dharmaparyāya or religious texts. A formal divine service is accorded to these nine books in Nepal, a bibliolatry which is characteristic of the Buddhism prevalent there and which is manifested in the body of the text themselves.

Hodgson’s Essays p. 13; Burnouf’s Introduction p. 29 ff.,; Kern’s Der Buddhismus II 508 ff.


The most important and as a literary production of high value among the Mahāyānasūtrasi is the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, the “Lotus of the Good Law.” It was translated into French as early as 1852 by Burnouf and in 1884 an English translation by Kern appeared in the Sacred Books [65] of the East series. The Sanskrit text was edited at St. Petersburg in 1908 in the Bibliotheca Buddhica series by the joint editors the Dutch scholar, Kern, and the Japanese professor, Bunyio Nanjio. Whoever desires to be acquainted with the Mahāyāna Buddhism with all its distinguishing features with all its excellences and shortcomings, may be recommended a study of these texts. Here very little remains of Śākyamuni as a man. The Buddha is properly speaking now higher than a god, above all the divinities, an immeasurably exalted Being, who has lived since countless æons and who will live for all eternity. “I am the father of the world,” he says of himself (xv, Gāthā 21), “who have sprung from myself (Svayambhū), the physician and the protector of all creatures; and only because I know how the fatuous are of perverted sense and blind that I who have never ceased to exist, give myself out as departed.” It is only because of his compassion for all creatures, his regard for the infirmities of human understanding, that he pretends to have entered Nirvāṇa. He is comparable to the physician who had many sons and who once during their father’s absence fell seriously ill. The father, on his return, treated them with medicaments, but only a few of them took the medicine, the others refusing it. In order to persuade even the latter to accept the treatment, the father goes out into a foreign country and pretends to be dead. The children, who now feel themselves orphans, take the prescribed physio and are healed. The Buddha has recourse to a similar stratagem when he apparently enters Nirvāṇa, but again and again he emerges to proclaim his gospel. (Chapter xv, Sacred Books of the East 21, p. 304 ff). It is his evangel that connects him with humanity, but not like the Buddha of the Pāḷi sūtras, who roams about from place to place as a mendicant friar to proclaim his doctrine, preaches the Buddha of the “Lotus.” He takes up his stay on the Gdhrakūṭa peak among “a [66] numerous assembly of monks and nuns and often still larger crowds of thousands of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, of gods and demi-gods.” And whenever he purposes “to shower down the mighty rain of religion, to sound the great drum of faith, to raise the lofty banner of faith, to kindle the illuminating torch of creed, to blow the powerful trumpet of religion, to beat the colossal kettle-drum of religion, a flash of light breaks forth from the circle of hair between his eyebrows which illuminates the eighteen thousand ‘Buddha countries’ with all the Buddhas and the creatures therein and reveals wonderous vision to the Bodhisattva Maitreya. For the Buddha of the “Lotus” is likewise a mighty sorcerer who loves by means of grand phantasmagoria to influence the minds of his audience. And thus diverging as is this Buddha from the one known to us in the ancient texts, so also deviates his doctrine from the Buddha of the Hīnayāna. True, it is his mission to conduct the creatures to “Buddha knowledge,” to enlightenment. But he gives them a particular vehicle “the Buddha Vehicle,” which leads them to the goal. Every living entity can become a Buddha that only listens to the sermon of the Buddha, that performs any deed of virtue, that leads a moral life. But even those who adore the relics, build stūpas, or construct images of the Buddha of any kind whether of precious stone, marble, wooden statues or frescoes, and even children who set up stūpas of sand while at play or scratch the lineaments of the Buddha on the wall, those who offer flowers or incense to the stūpas or make music there, – nay, even such as have fortuitously thought of the Lord with the idea of “Veneration to the Buddha,” every one of them attains to supreme illumination (chapter 2, Gāthās 61 ff, 74 ff, Sacred Books of the East 21, p. 47 ff). The three “vehicles” are only apparent. They are all supposed to lead to Nirvāṇa, – that of the disciple, that of the Pratyekabuddhas and that of the Bodhisattvas. In reality, however, it is only the grace of the [67] Buddha by which the one as well as the other reaches illumination and becomes Buddha. This tenet is elucidated with one of those charming parables which not seldom occur in the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka.

Parable of house on fire

In an old dilapidated house there lived a father with his children. Suddenly the house took fire. The father was in agony about his children. He was a strong man and could take up the younger ones in his arms and fly from the house, but the house had only one door. The children, who suspected nothing, were running about in play and took no heed of his warning. He was threatened with perishing along with his children in the surrounding fire. Now a sound idea occurred to him. Children always love toys, and he called out to them and said that he had all sorts of expensive toys, bullock-carts, toy carts, antelope carts, collected for them out of the house. No sooner did the children hear these words than they rushed out of doors and were saved. Now they asked of their father for the promised three kind of toy carts and the father, being a wealthy man, gave them splendid and beautifully upholstered bullock-carts. The children were delighted and happy. Now who would accuse the father of falsehood in that he promised the children three kinds of ordinary play carts and gave them in reality carts of a most splendid description? Similarly the Buddha treats the children that are men, inducing them to come out by promise of the three “vehicles” from the burning and dilapidated house of this world, saves them and bestows upon them a unique vehicle, the costliest of all, the “Vehicle of the Buddha.”

The Buddha is also represented in the Buddhists parable of the lost son as the good affluent father kindly disposed towards his sons, the human children: [68]

Reclaimed son: a parable.

A rich man had an only son. He roamed about in foreign countries for fifty years while the father was growing continually more wealthy and had become a great man. But the son lived in foreign lands impoverished and in straitened circumstances. At last he comes home as a beggar where his father was all this while longingly expecting him. The beggar son comes to the house of his father but he does not recognise his parent in the great man who, surrounded by a large retinue like a king, sits in the front of his mansion. As he sees the pomp and circumstance, he flies from the house in fear lest the beggar in tattered rags be maltreated. The father, however, immediately recognises him and sends out his servants to fetch the mendicant. Trembling and shaking with terror he is dragged along and falls down powerless. The father then gives orders to release him. The beggar stands up joyful and repairs towards the poor quarters of the city. Now the wealthy man bethinks himself of a plan to win the confidence of his son. He gets him oppressed with the meanest piece of work by the workmen in his house but takes opportunity frequently to associate with him and gradually worms himself into his confidence. Twenty years in this way pass by without the father being recognised by the son. When on the point of death he summons all his relations and announces that the beggar, who had become his confidential servant was his own son, and appoints him heir to all his estate. This wealthy man was the Buddha, the son that was lost and recovered are the human children who only very gradually draw themselves to the Buddha, the wise father, and finally acquire his fortunate legacy. [69]

Figurative language

The Master is as frequently compared to a physician as to a loving father. The simile is especially expanded in which the children of the world are likened to those that are born blind and whose eyes are opened by the great physician Buddha (p. 129 ff.). That the Buddha knows no partiality but is to all equally a good father and physician is brought home by means of two charming metaphors. Just as a powerful rain cloud goes down caves and refreshes all grass, verdure and trees by its moisture and just as the latter sucked by the dryness of the earth blow into it new life, so also appears the Buddha in the world and renovates all creatures by bringing them the gift of peace. As the sun and the moon send down their rays equally on all, on the good and the wicked, on the high and the low, so the precepts of the Buddha are for the whole world. (pp. 199 ff. 122 ff, 128 ff.)

Exaggeration of phrase and figure

All these similes would be more beautiful if they were not carried out too extensively and extravagantly far so that the point of comparison suffers. But this hyperbole in the figurative language is quite characteristic of the book. It is an actual intoxication of words with which the reader is deadened, the thought being drowned in the inundation of verbiage. Still more immense and magnified than words are figures. There lives, for instance, “a Buddha forty hundred thousand myriads of ten million æons, as many as there are grains of sand in the River Ganges”; and after he had attained to complete Nirvāṇa, his true religion endured for a hundred thousand myriads of ten million ages equal to the number of ears of corns in all India and a degenerated form of the true faith continued further for a thousand myriads of ten million [70] ages equal to the number of the ears of corn in the four continents. And there arose one after another in the world “twenty hundred thousand myriads of ten million” such Buddhas (chap. xi, Sacred Books of the East, 21 text, pp. 376 f. 355). In the most extravagant fashion, beyond all limits of computation the Buddha is glorified, especially in the grandiose phantasmagoria of Chapter XIV in which, through the magical powers of the Buddha, the earth splits and suddenly appear from all sides many hundred thousand myriads of ten thousand Bodhisattvas each with a following as numerous as the aggregate grains of sixty Ganges streams. And while these innumerable Bodhisattvas pay homage to the Buddha fifty ages pass away during which a great silence rules but which through the supernatural power of the Lord appear only as an afternoon. To the astonished Maitreya the Buddha says that all these Bodhisattvas have been his disciples. Equally limitless and exaggerated is the adoration of the text itself. For, strangely enough, in the midst of our text there is the recurring mention of the preaching and the exposition of the book by the Buddha and its propagation by the preceptors. Thus in Chapter XI, Śākyamuni causes to appear in the air a stūpa and from inside the stūpa is heard a voice of a Buddha dead for myriads of ages; “Excellent, excellent, exalted Śākyamuni, thou hast well uttered this sermon of the Lotus of the good Religion; yea, it is so, it is so, exalted, blessed Lord.” Time and again the merit of the preacher of the Lotus and the faithful listeners of this exhortation is praised. It is cited in Chapter XXII.

In praise of the Sūtra

The sermon of the Lotus is like fire for those who are benumbed, like clothing to the naked, like a leader to the caravan, a mother to children, a boat to those who would cross the river, a taper for the dispelling of darkness. He who writes down this book or causes it to be [71] written acquires endless merit. The female creature that hears it has lived for the last time as a female. He who listens to the sermon of the Lotus and declares his agreement with it shall always have a sweet breath as if issuing from a lotus and from his body will flow the fragrance of sandal.

Persistence of Purāṇic influence

All this immoderation of language and especially the laudation of the text in the text itself are as peculiar to the Mahāyāna sūtras as to the Purāṇas. The Amitayurdhyāna Sūtra lays down: “When a person has committed much evil, but has not spoken ill of the great Vaipulya Sūtras, and if he be a very stupid man, who neither feels reproach for his wicked deeds nor repents of them, but if he at the moment of his death encounters a good and wise preceptor who recites to him the superscription and titles of the twelve sections of the Mahāyāna texts, and if he has thus heard of all the Sūtras, he will be absolved from the great sins which would otherwise hurl him into birth and death for thousands of ages.” It is the spirit of the Purāṇas which is perceived in every line of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka. The few points of contract between the text of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka and that of the Śatapathabrāhmaṇa which Kern indicates by no means suffice to bring the work in line with the Vedic literature (Sacred Books of the East 21, p. xvi f.), and it is precisely on this account that the book cannot belong to the earliest period of Buddhism. If we did not know that it had already been translated into Chinese between 255 and 316 A.D., we should not consider it as so ancient, for the latter date must at least be its age.

Elements of diverse epochs

At all events, however, the book contains elements of diverse periods. It is impossible that the Sanskrit prose and the gāthās in “mixed Sanskrit” should have arisen contemporaneously, even if they did not incorporate often glaring inconsistency of contents. Frequently in the prose passages as also in the gāthās the [72] book is spoken of as a metrical composition. It is probable that originally the book consisted only of verse with brief prose passages interspersed by way of introduction and links between the verses. These brief prose paragraphs were subsequently expanded especially as the dialect of the verse gradually became obsolete. And, without being exactly commentary they came to serve as an exposition. It is remarkable that just those chapters which contain no gāthās prove even on other grounds to be rather accretions. These chapters, from xxi to xxvi, are more devoted to the panegyric of the Bodhisattvas while the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka in the rest of the texts sings the glorification of the Buddha Śākyamuni. One of these Bodhisattvas is Bhaiṣajyarāja, the prince of the Physician’s art who, in xxi chapter reveals magical formulæ and exorcisms (Dhāraṇīs) and in chapter xxii, after he has for twelve years fed on fragrant substance and drunk oil, covers himself in finest clothing, has an oil bath and burns himself. For twelve thousand years his body burns without cessation, and this grand sacrifice and glorious fire work has the only object of showing respect to the Buddha and to the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka! The xxivth chapter is devoted to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, a great redeemer. He who invokes him is free from every danger. The sword of the executioner breaks to pieces when the person condemned to death offers supplication to him. All fetters are loosened, only if his name is pronounced. He saves the shipwrecked and the caravans overtaken by robbers. A woman who desires a son or a beautiful daughter has only to invoke Avalokiteśvara and her wish is fulfilled. This chapter also contains a large gāthā extract to the glorification of Avalokiteśvara, but this too is a late addition. For all the gāthās are not older than the prose, many being interpolated at subsequent periods. (Kern Sacred Books of the East 21 p. xviii f). The ancient Chinese translation [73] contains doubtless chapters xxi-xxvi, but in an order different from that of our Sanskrit text. This shows that the pariśiṣṭas or appendices were not appertaining originally to the work.

Age of the Sūtra

Although, however, the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka represents later and earlier ingredients it displays a much greater unity of character than either the Mahāvastu or the Lalitavistara. It is not possible that the older and the younger components should be separated by any extensive lapse of time. If the book had assumed its present compass between 265 and 316 A.D., when the first Chinese translation was prepared or even earlier, in its primary formation it must have well arisen about 200 A.D. Even Kern, who strives to establish that the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka and the Lalitavistara have preserved materials going back to the most ancient period of Buddhism, has been able to cite instances only from the Lalitavistara. There is no ground for asserting that the older text saw the light “a few centuries earlier,” as Kern assumes (p. xxii). Bendall ascribes to the fourth or fifth century a manuscript of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka discovered by him (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1901, p. 124). Fragments of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka have been discovered also in Central Asia during the explorations by Stein and others (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1911, p. 1067 ff). One fact is incontestable. The entire Saddharmapuṇḍarīka, prose and gāthā, presupposes a high development of the Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially in the direction of Buddha-bhakti, the adoration of relics, the worshipping of images and, above all, a highly flourishing epoch of Buddhist art. For, when there is such prominent mention of thousands of myriads of ten millions of stūpas, which were erected for the relics of a Buddha or of the ten millions of vihāras which are delineated as magnificent buildings, most luxuriously, furnished there must have [74] existed at least several hundreds of stūpas and vihāras, topes and monasteries, and these were doubtless embellished with images of the Buddha in precious stones, with statues of the Buddha carved in wood or metal and with reliefs and frescoes.

See especially chapter ii, Gāthās 77 ff., Sacred Books of the East. In Japan the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka is the sacred book of the Nichiren sect, Buniyu Nanjio, Short History of the Twelve Buddhist Sects, Tokyo, 1886, p. 132 ff.

Kāraṇḍavyūha: its Theistic tendency

To the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara who has been eulogised in Chapter XXIV of the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka is also dedicated an entire Mahāyānasūtra of great compass, the full title of which is Avalokiteśvara-guṇakāraṇḍavyūha, – “The exhaustive description of the basket of the merits of the Avalokiteśvara.” The title is usually mentioned in its abbreviated shape of Kāraṇḍavyūha. We have two versions of this book, the more ancient one being in prose and the younger in ślokas. The prose text was edited by Satyavrata Shamashrami in 1873. The catalogue of the India Office library registers an edition which seems to have appeared in 1872 at Serampore.

Burnouf, Introduction pp. 196-206, Raj. Mitra, Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p, 95 ff. Bendall, Catalogue p. 9ff; La Vallée-Poussin, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics II, p.259 f.

The metrical recension occupies theistic ground. For it is related how at the beginning of things appeared the Ādibuddha or the primitive Buddha, also called Svayambhū, or Self-Being and Ādinātha or the First Lord, and created the world by his meditation. Avalokiteśvara is derived from this spirit and he co-operated in the creation of the world fashioning from his eyes the moon and the sun, Maheśvara from his forehead, Brahman from his shoulders, Narāyana from his heart, and from his teeth the goddess of speech Sarasvatī. Precisely as this introduction is of the [75] Purāṇic kind, so also are the language and style of the metrical Kāraṇḍavyūha totally of the younger Purāṇas. We have no evidence that the theistic Buddhism with its Ādibuddha as a creator existed in India, prior to the tenth century. Even La Vallée-Poussin only demonstrates that the creed of Ādibuddha was spread over India but not that it can be proved to have existed in ancient times. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, I. p. 95). Further, the fact that the Tibetan translation which was made probably in 1616 A.D. and which is found in the Kanjur and is based on the prose version, which does not contain the Ādibuddha section, shows that the poetic version was then unknown. (La Vallée-Poussin, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, II, p. 259). On the other hand, the cult of Avalokiteśvara is already familiar to the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien, about 400 A.D. He himself implores this Bodhisattva for rescue when he is overtaken by a storm on his voyage from Ceylon to China. The oldest images of Avalokiteśvara date from the fifth century. A Chinese translation of a Kāraṇḍavyūha was made as early as 270 A.D.

L. A. Waddell, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1894, p. 57; A. Foucher, Etude sur l’iconographic Boudhique de l’Inde, Paris 1900 p. 97 ff., and La Vallée-Poussin, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics II, p. 250 ff; Buniyo Nanjio, Catalogue No. 168 where the title is given a Ratnakāraṇḍaka-vyūhasūtra. A second translation was made between 420 and 479.

Potency of Avalokiteśvara

The basic idea is the same in both the versions of the Kāraṇḍavyūha – the exaltation of the marvellous redeemer Avalokiteśvara, “the Lord looking down,” that is, he who surveys with infinite compassion all the creatures. This interpretation is found in the text itself (Burnouf, Introduction, p. 201 f.), but it is possible to explain the name in other ways (La Vallée-Poussin, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, II, p. 201 f.), Avalokiteśvara here appears as a typical Bodhisattva but declines to enter into Buddhahood so long as all [76] the creatures have not been emancipated. To bring salvation to all the creatures, to succour all the sorrowing, to save all from want, to exercise unbounded commiseration which does not recoil from sin, and does not stop short at the gates of hell, this is the one and the only obligation of the Avalokiteśvara. Words are placed in the mouth of Avalokiteśvara to the effect that it is better for a Bodhisattva to commit sins in the exercise of sympathy, to suffer in hell rather than to disappoint a creature of the hopes centred by the latter in him (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, II, p. 257 f.). The opening chapter of the Kāraṇḍavyūha portrays how he descends into the fireful Avīci (hell) in order to set free the tormented from their pain. No sooner does he enter it, than the scorching glow turns into agreeable coolness; in place of the cauldrons in which millions of the damned are boiling like vegetable, there appears a lovely Lotus Pond. The seat of torture is transformed into a pleasance.

E. B. Cowell, Journal of Philology, vi, 1876, p. 222 ff., reprinted also in Indian Antiquities, viii, 249 ff. L Scherman, The Vision Literature, p. 62 ff. Cowell compares the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus and derives the Indian from the Christian legend.

His peregrinations

From this hell Avalokiteśvara passes on to the abode of the Pretas and treats with food and drink these ghosts writhing with everlasting hunger and thirst. One of his wanderings takes him to Ceylon where he converts the cannibal female giant Rākṣasī, from thence to Benares where he preaches the doctrine to the creatures who have been born as insects and worms, and thence to Magadha where he saves the inhabitants in a miraculous way from a terrible famine. In Ceylon he appears as the winged horse Balaha in order to carry away and save from perishing the shipwrecked persons enticed by the giant sorceress. [77]

Jātaka No., 196, where the winged charger is identified with the Buddha in a previous birth. In the Kāraṇḍavyūha the merchant Siṁhala carried off to Ceylon is the Buddha Śākyamuni in an earlier existence.

Little as is the claim of books like the Kāraṇḍavyūha upon our attention, on the whole we are bound to concede that hardly anywhere else human helplessness and longing for emancipation have found a more vigorous expression than in these tracts and the idea of redemption a finer instrumentality than in the personation of Avalokiteśvara.

Sukhāvatīvyūha : the Land of Bliss

The Buddhist’s longing for spiritual liberation finds a more logical outlet in the Sukhāvatīvyūha a detained description of the Land of Bliss. As the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka serves to glorify the Buddha Śākyamuni, as the Kāraṇḍavyūha is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, so the Sukhāvatīvyūha is sacred to the panegyric of the Buddha Amitābha. Among the innumerable Buddhas there is one who, by means of prayers or praṇidhāna in a former life faithfully practising the virtues of a Bodhisattva for untold ages, was born again in the world of Sukhāvatī in the Occident. There he produces boundless light, whence his name Amitābha; and immeasurable is the duration of his life, whence his other name, Amitāyus. In this “Buddha country,” the Paradise of Sukhāvatī, there is no hell, there is no existence as beasts, Pretas, or Asuras. This blessed land is filled with infinite fragrance. There grow trees of precious stones in many hundred thousand colours and equally marvellous lotus flowers. There are no mountains there but the land is a plain like the palm of the hand. Charming rivulets supply lovely sweet water and their splashing makes the most lovely music. The creatures that are born in Sukhāvatī are provided with the most fascinating qualities of body and mind and enjoy all the delights which they have only to [78] wish for. There is no difference between men and gods. There is no such thing as day or night. There is no darkness. Amitābha is continuously praised and he who constantly thinks in reverence of him, he who bethinks himself of the growth of his good deeds, he who turns his thoughts to enlightenment, and he who devoutly prays to be born in that world, to him Amitābha appears in the hour of his death and the aspirant sees the light again in the Land of Bliss. Nay, even those who think of Amitābha with a single thought are born there. But the creatures in Sukhāvatī are not born of woman. They come into being seated on lotus flowers when they have firmly believed in Amitābha or as adhering to the chalice of a lotus when their faith is not sufficiently firm. Joyous and tranquil, perfectly wise and immaculate live the creatures in that world of benignity. With that extravagance of language and exaggeration of figures which are come across in Mahāyānasūtras is also described the grandeur of Amitābha and his paradise in the Sukhāvatīvyūha.

Of this book we have two diverse recensions. The longer one which might well be the original and the shorter one which appears to be an abbreviated edition of the former with an emended introduction. Both versions have been edited by Max Müller, Bunyiu Nanjio in the Anecdota Oxoniensia Aryan Series, Vol. I, part II, Oxford, 1883, and translated by Max Müller Sacred Books of the East vol. 49, part 2. A third book called the Amitāyurdhyānasūtra is less occupied with the picture of the country of Sukhāvatī than with the exhortations to meditation or dhyāna of Amitāyus by means of which a man attains to the Blessed Land. It is translated from Chinese by J. Takakusu in Sacred Books of the East Vol. 49, part 2, p. 159 ff. [79]

This Sūtra is unfortunately not preserved to us in the original Sanskrit, but only in a Chinese translation and is interesting in that it contains the history of Ajātaśātru and Bimbisāra known also in the Pāḷi accounts. (Kern, Der Buddhismus I, 243 ff, Spence Hardy, Manual of Buddhism, London, 1860 p. 317 f.) A Sukhāvatīvyūha is reported to have been translated into Chinese between 148 and 170 and there are no less than twelve versions of it dating from different centuries. In 402, Kumārajīva translated the shorter version. A translation of the Sukhāvatīvyūha-Sūtra is also credited to Hiuen-Tsiang in 1650 A.D. (Nanjio, Catalogue Nos. 23, 25, 27, 199, 200, 863). This testifies to the favour in which the text was held in China. In Japan, however, the three texts relating to Amitāyus and Sukhāvatī form the fundaments of the doctrine of the two Buddhistic sects of Jodoshu and Shinshu. The latter has the largest number of adherents of any Buddhist sect in Japan. It is to be noted that the literary value of these texts by no means corresponds to their importance in religious history.

B. Nanjio, Twelve Japanese Buddhist Sects pp. 104 ff., 122 ff., and Anecdota Oxoniensia, Vol. I, p. xviii ff. H. Hass, Amida Buddha, our Refuge, Texts for the understanding of Sukhāvatī-Buddhism, Leipzig 1910.


In the cult and in the art of the Buddhist the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī occupies a distinguished position along with Avalokiteśvara. In the Gaṇḍavyūha, Mañjuśrī is glorified as the only one who can help the aspirant to perfect enlightenment. This work is only available in manuscript. It was translated into Chinese between 317 and 420 under the title of Avataṁsakasūtra or Buddhāvataṁsakasūtra and is the cardinal text-book of the Japanese Buddhist sect Ke-gon.

Raj. Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 90 ff; Bendall Catalogue, p. 28 According to Hodgson’s Essays, p. 16 (also see p. 49) Āryasaṅga was the author of this book; compare also Burnouf, Introduction p. 111. [80]

It is Professor Takakusu who informs us that the Gaṇḍavyūha is identical with the Chinese Avataṁsaka for he has made a comparison of the Sanskrit with the Chinese original.

See Wassiljew, Der Buddhismus, p. 171 ff, and B. Nanjio, Twelve Japanese Buddhist Sects, p. 57 ff. The Gaṇḍavyūhasūtra No 971 in B. Nanjio Catalogue (see No. 782) translated between 746-771 is altogether a different work.

Kāruṇāpuṇḍarīka Sūtra

The Sūtra, which has many points of contact with the Sukhāvatīvyūha but which has also many legends of the class of Avadānas, is the Kāruṇāpuṇḍarīka, the Lotus of Compassion. It relates to the marvellous country of Padma where the Buddha Padmottara worked and whose life was thirty world-periods. The Sūtra was translated into Chinese in the sixth century.

Raj. Mitra, p. 285 ff; Bendall Catalogue, p. 73 Sylvain Lévi has discovered and published a legend from the Kāruṇāpuṇḍarīka in the Tokharia language (Memorial) volume to Vilhelm Thomsen, Leipzic, p. 155 ff.


While these Mahāyānasūtras are devoted mainly to the cult of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas whose wonderful qualities and mighty deeds are eulogised or legends in connection with whom are recounted, there is a series of sūtras in Buddhist Sanskrit which partake more of a philosophical or dogmatic character. Of this nature is the Laṅkāvatāra, or as it is also called Saddharmalaṅkāvatāra. The book gives a report of the miraculous visit of the Buddha Śākyamuni to Ravana, the King of Ceylon. Ravana pays his reverence to the Buddha and presses him for a reply to a number of his enquiries touching the religion. The answers given by the Buddha which represent the doctrine of the Yogācāra [81] school go to form the main contents of the ten chapters of the sūtra. It is, moreover, interesting inasmuch as it explores the tenets of the Sāṁkhyas, Vaiśeṣikas, Paśupatas and other philosophical schools and religious denominations of Brahmanic origin. Remarkable is a prophetic passage in chapter 10 where the Buddha says: –

“A hundred years after my Nirvāṇa will live Vyāśa, the composer of the Mahābhārata. Then will arise the Paṇḍavas, Kauravas, Nandas and Mauryas. The Nandas, Mauryas, Guptas and Mlecchas, the most degraded of princes, will be the rulers. The domination of the barbarians will be succeeded by an upheaval which in its turn will herald the Kāliyuga.”

The teaching of the Yogācāra school is the same as the doctrine of Asaṅga and the same precepts are found in the Mahāyānaśraddhotpada.

The mention of the barbarians can only refer to the reign of the Hun princes, Toramana and Mihirakula, and consequently the book must have been composed in the beginning of the sixth century. But as again a Chinese translation of the Laṅkāvatāra had already been made in 433, the excerpt must belong to a subsequent recension or can only be an interpolation.

Burnouf, Introduction, p. 458 ff. Bendall Catalogue, p. 20 ff.; S. Ch. Vidyabhusana; An Analysis of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal 1905, ff: Raj Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature p. 113 f, where, however, the statement about a Chinese translation made in 168-190 is incorrect. See Bunyiu Nanjio Catalogue Nos. 175-177. Of the same species of literature is also Daśabhūmiśwara Mahāyānasūtra in which the Buddha holds an exhortation to the gods in Indra’s heaven on the ten states, the “daśabhūmi” through which an entity arrives at Buddhahood. This Sūtra was translated into Chinese in 400 Raj Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature, p. 81 ff., Bendall Catalogue p. 4 f. [82]


Of a dogmatic nature is also the Samādhirāja, the King of Meditations. It is a dialogue between Candraprabha and the Buddha. It is shown here how the Bodhisattva by means of the diverse meditations, especially the supreme one the sovereign meditation can achieve transcendent knowledge of the conditions which are necessary for the preparation of the mind for the loftiest stage of thought. The conditions are veneration of the Buddhas; absolute renunciation of the world, gentleness and benevolence to all creatures, complete indifference with reference to one’s own life and health; in the case of necessity, sacrifice for others; and finally the conviction of non-reality of the world or firm faith in the universal Void or Śūnyatā. When meditating on the form of the Buddha the candidate must not think of any corporeal shape because the Buddha is composed of pure religion, he is not procreated, he is effect without cause, he is the cause of all things and without beginning, of boundless greatness and illimitable beneficence. The same ideas recur repeatedly in between, there being legends of holy men who propounded the great Samādhi.

Raj. Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature, 29-7-221. Bendall Catalogue, p.22f.

Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra

Based from the standpoint of negativism or Śūnyatāvāda is likewise Suvarṇaprabhāsa or Golden Effulgence, the contents of which are partly philosophical partly legendary and partly digress into the region of Tantra-Buddhism. The Buddha is here an eternal divine Being. A Brahman asks for a relic of the Buddha, be it no bigger than a mustard seed (chapter II). But he is instructed that it is easier to have hair grown on the back of a tortoise than to find such a relic. For the Buddha is not really born but his [83] true corporeal frame is the Dharmakāya or Dharmadhātu, that is, an immaterial body consisting only of religion.

According to Suzuki’s Aśvaghoṣa’s Discourse on the Awakening of the Faith, p. 62 n. Dharmakāya denotes the Absolute.

Nor did the Buddha enter Nirvāṇa, his body being eternal. A large portion of the Sūtra is occupied with the glorification of the Sūtra itself. In chapter VIII appears the goddess Sarasvatī, in chapter IX Mahādevī, the consort of Śiva, to belaud the Sūtra. Among the legends which we find related in the Suvarṇaprabhāsa we encounter that of the prince who kills himself to serve as food to a starving tigress and the father of the prince preserves his bones in a golden casket over which to erect a stūpa. There is, however, also a recital of magical terms or Dhāraṇīs and Tantra-ritual in the book. On the whole we see a diction the most sluggish among sectarian Purāṇas and one would wonder how the Golden Effulgence had acquired such immense reputation among the Buddhists of Nepal, Tibet and Mongolia, if the people concerned were not of a comparatively a low state of culture. The Sūtra was translated into Chinese in the sixth century.

Burnouf, Introduction p. 471 ff., Raj. Mitra Nepalese Buddhist Literature p. 241 ff. Bendall Catalogue, p. 12 f.; M. Anesaki, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics IV, p. 839. According to La Vallée-Poussin Bouddhisme, Etudes and Materiaux, p. 127, the Suvarṇaprabhāsa is nothing but a Mahātmya of Dhāraṇīs. A fragment of the Suvarṇaprabhāsa, which is also quoted in the Sikṣasamuccaya, Bendall p. 160, ff., has been published by H Stonner from a zylograph discovered at Idykutsari (SBA 1904 p. 1810 ff.)

Rāṣṭrapāla Sūtra

Partly dogmatic and partly legendary in nature is the Rāṣṭrapālasūtra, also entitled Rāṣṭrapālaparipccha, which was translated into Chinese between 589-618. The Sūtra consists of two portions, the first of which is more of a dogmatic nature and contains the responses of the [84] Buddha to Rāṣṭrapāla’s questions on the qualities or Dharmas of a Bodhisattva. The second part narrates the Jātaka of the prince Puṇyaraśmi whose story has some features in common with the legend of the Buddha. But even in the first portion the Buddha briefly narrates his deeds in previous births to elucidate the Bodhisattva Dharmas and in the course of his address makes mention of fifty Jātakas. At the end of these Jātakas there is an abrupt prophecy on the future decay of the religion which is the most important section of the Sūtra. For the picture sketched here so vividly and with such precision could only be a reflection of actual facts and must be a satirical portrayal of the lax morals of the Buddhist monks, since we are told, for instance:

Prevision of degeneracy

“Without self-reproach and without virtue, proud, puffed up, irritable will be my monks; intoxicated with spirituous liquor. While they grasp the banner of the Buddha they will only serve men of the world, and they will have to themselves, like householders, wives, sons and daughters. They will not eschew lust so that they may not be born as beasts, spirits and denizens of hell. They will address homilies to fathers of families but will remain themselves unbridled.”

Rāṣṭrapālaparipccha, the Sūtra of the Mahāyāna, published by L. Finot Bib. Budd, II, St. Petersburg 1901; La Vallée-Poussin “Le Museon” IV, 1903, p. 306 ff. With the Pāḷi Ratthapālasutta our Sūtra has nothing in common except the name Rāṣṭrapāla in Pāḷi Ratthapala.

There must have been an entire class of such Paripcchas or questions among the Mahāyānasūtras like the Pūraṇaparipccha and so forth; Nanjio, Catalogue, p. xiii ff. Finot, p. ix ff, 28 ff.

This vaticination of corrupt monasticism reminds us of a similar one in the Pāḷi Theragāthā. And the Chinese translation of the Rāṣṭrapālaparipccha made between 589 [85] and 618 shows that the circumstances depicted here must have arisen already in the sixth century. But the sūtra cannot be much older than the Chinese translation as is evidenced by the barbarous language, especially in the gāthās, which is an intermingling of Prakrit and bad Sanskrit, the artificial meter and the untidy style.

The most important and the most reputed of all the “philosophic” Mahāyānasūtras are the Prajñāpāramitās, sūtras of perfection of wisdom. They treat of six perfections (pāramitās) of a Bodhisattva, but particularly of the Prajñā or wisdom, the supreme excellence. This wisdom, however, consists in the recognition of the Śūṇyavāda or negativism which declares everything as “void,” denies Being as well as non-Being and has for a reply to every question a “No”. It is believed to have been at first a sūtra of one hundred and twenty-five thousand ślokas in which this wisdom was inculcated in the shape of dialogues in which the Buddha was the principal speaker. Subsequently this sūtra was abbreviated into a hundred thousand, twenty five thousand, ten thousand, and lastly eight thousand ślokas. According to another tradition the sūtra with eight thousand ślokas was the original, it being subsequently gradually expanded. As a matter of fact, we are acquainted with Prajñāpāramitās of a hundred thousand, of twenty five thousand, of eight thousand, of two thousand five hundred and of seven hundred ślokas. In the Mahāyāna often as in the Hīnayāna there is mention of ten but more frequently of six pāramitās, viz., generosity, performance of duty, gentleness, intrepidity, meditation and wisdom. (Dharmasaṁgraha 17.)

(The Prajñāpāramitās are prose works but in India it is customary to measure even texts in prose by ślokas each unit consisting of thirty-two syllables.) [86]

The Tibetan Sher-phyin is a literal translation of the Śatasahasrika which has been quoted as Bhagavati in the Sikṣasamuccaya. It was translated into Chinese between 402 and 405 according to Anesaki (Le Museon VII, 1903). This translation contains quotations from Pāḷi texts (Bendall C. pp. 143-148 and Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1898 p. 370.

The senseless customs of embodying constant repetitions which we find so annoying in the Pāḷi suttas becomes in the voluminous Prajñāpāramitās so limitless and excessive that it would be quite possible to strike out more than half of these colossal works like the Śatasahasrika for the same sentences and phrases recur times without number. Thus, for instance, it is not only said in the introduction that out of the whole body of the Buddha rays of light break forth and an immeasurable effulgence is spread over the entire world; but it is repeated of his teeth, bones, of each member and particle of his body that rays of light issue from them to the east, the west and so on, and in the case of each cardinal point the entire description is repeated. It is not enough for these writers to say that “everything is only name,” but this everything is detailed to exhaustion in interminable series of sentences. It is conceivable that men should entertain the philosophical view that the world is not a reality and that all is negation and that man is unable to express any verdict on any question except in the shape of a negative, but that people should from this standpoint offer universal denial and write book after book and thousands of pages might appear impossible. But this impossibility is materialised in the Prajñāpāramitās. This extravagance for the sake of extravagance is explained by the supposition that the monks scribbled so much because it was with them a religious merit to transcribe as much as possible of these sacred books and to write out of them to the same extent. The same principal reiteration manifests itself in Buddhistic [87] art. Entire vast surfaces of rocks and caves are covered with the images of the Buddha. As regards the contents of these treatises the essential doctrine in the Hundred Thousand Prajñāpāramitās is the same as in the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā. The latter resembles considerable in form the Hīnayānasūtra. It consists of a few pages in which the doctrine of these texts is condensed. As in the voluminous Prajñāpāramitās here also it takes the form of a dialogue between the Buddha and Subhūti. The Śūnyatā doctrine is not explored and no attempt is made to inculcate it; but it is simply repeatedly stated. There is no pretence at argument. Starting from the ancient Buddhist dogma of the non­Ego here not only the Ego but everything else is denied, – even the doctrine of the Buddha and the Buddha himself. This we read in the Vajracchedikā (Ch. 13.)

The Vajracchedikā has been edited by Max Müller and translated by him in the Sacred Books of the East. For Stein Fragments in Khotan see Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1903. It was translated into French by Harlez (Journal Asiatique 1891). The same scholar printed and translated the Manchu version (Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes 1897). It was translated into Chinese about 401. In Japan the Vajracchedikā and the Prajñāpāramitāhdaya are the chief texts of the Shingon sects. In the Prajñāpāramitāhdaya metaphysics degenerate into magical formulæ. Fragments of the Vajracchedikā in a north Aryan translation and a Adhyardhaśatika Prajñāpāramitā in a Sanskrit recension with sections in the north Aryan have been made known to us from Central Asia by Leumann.

There are no doubt as many non-Buddhist readers who see in utterances like those of Ch. 13 profound sense as those who see nothing but nonsense in it. As a matter of fact it need not be either one or the other, but just that “middle doctrine” which proceeds in paradoxes in that it on one [88] hand asserts nihilism in the strictest sense of the word and on the other so far recognises the phenomenal world as to admit the relative truth of things and the doctrine becomes comparatively intelligible only by the assumption of a dual nature of verity, a superior and an inferior one as has been clearly and significantly taught by Nāgārjuna. It may be noted that among those who are the least enthusiastic about this phase of Buddhism is Barth who declares (Revue de l'histoire des Religions 1882) that “la sagesse transcendante, qui sait, qu’il n’y a ni choses existantes ni non-existantes, ni de realite qui ne soit aussi une non-realite, saggesse qu’ont proclammée et proclamerone des infinites de myriades d’arhats et de bodhisatvas qui ont ete et n’ont pas ete quit seront et ne seront pas; qui, grace a sa science de Buddha, a sa vue de Buddha, sant percus, aporcus, connus due Buddha, lequel luimeme, n’est ni existant ni non-existant.”