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Understanding the Mahāyāna Sūtras

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When reflecting upon modern readings and academic works regarding the Buddhist sūtras, it is clear that readers in the West are often confused and conflicted about how to approach them and how to understand their application. The challenges posed have not occurred evenly across traditions, though. Due to the simpler instructions and literary style of the Pali Canon and the Chinese Āgamas, scholars and the general public can digest these fairly well, as less background and interpretation is needed. In the case of the Mahāyāna sūtras, though, there are often vast chasms between the manner in which these are used by actual Buddhist traditions, and the way they are used by academics and casual readers who are approaching them from a completely different context. This article examines methods of reading the Buddhist sūtras, and presents the traditional manner of study and practice.

In recent years, a few western scholars have begun to see that the Mahāyāna sūtras seem to imply a mode of study in which their teachings and practice are closely intertwined. However, the general understanding of the nature of this usage has not yet fully matured. For example, an academic may readily point to passages in the Pure land sūtras that describe images to be visualized, but they have not yet recognized the underlying principles and relationships between the sūtras and the cultivation path. Instead, it is more common for scholars to wander off the trail by engaging in narrow linguistic studies, or studies that focus on one particular text. Rather than attempting a full investigation into the use of Mahāyāna sūtras in Buddhist practice (which requires looking at both ancient and modern usage), they instead look to historical information on monastic institutions, or pick apart minute linguistic details, in an attempt to find some irreducible atom of truth. The result of this approach has been that relatively little progress has been made by scholars in understanding the Mahāyāna teachings on even a basic level.

For casual readers as well as academics and specialists, the typical approach is still simply to plod along through the Mahāyāna sūtras, slowly and painfully, disregarding details that seem strange or confusing, and making some simple commentary or expressing some opinions on their general contents. It would be fair to say that such a person has understood only a small part of the material, and even of the aspects that are understood, it is usually unclear why the texts have their particular structures and contents. The Mahāyāna sūtras leave such readers, almost universally, with two major impressions given by the texts: that the scope of these works is very grand, and that it is very meritorious to read, study, and uphold such texts. Aside from these two points, there will perhaps be some other information gleaned, such as ways for the reader to develop merit, the principles of Karma, the basic conduct of a Bodhisattva, or some lessons about contrived meditation methods. Not going beyond this initial stage by then applying the Sūtra teachings in practice, this sort of superficial understanding is very common.


The above method of reading without cultivation practice, which is typical of many readers, can neither lead to an objective understanding, nor to a profound one. It will only reflect one’s own personal understanding, and this perspective will be very different from that of a more advanced cultivator. The reason for this is that the meanings of Mahāyāna sūtras unfold in accordance with one’s own particular realm of realization. Deeper understandings are contingent upon experience and the efforts one has made in practice. For example, if a reader seems to find only instructions on how to increase their merit, and he or she is uncertain about the rest of the contents, then the text is telling this person something very directly: “You lack the merit required for these teachings, so you should carry out such-and-such practices. In addition, you should definitely continue to read and uphold this text, because it is very profound, and can help you along the way.” The sūtras are clear and each part of them has meaning. It is only if we have not fully carried out the practices that are comprehensible to us, that the other parts of the text remain so opaquely incomprehensible.

This principle should be no surprise, since it is explained clearly in the texts themselves. One major recurring theme in the Buddhist teachings is that The Buddha teaches according to the capacities of his students. For the advanced monks, for example, he would teach about meditation, the Five Skandhas, and other topics. For others of less capacity, he would just teach about basic morality, and cause and effect throughout different realms of existence. This teaching principle is not only illustrated and explained in the sūtras themselves, but even illustrated in the design of the 9th century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, located in modern Indonesia. At this temple, the first tier of reliefs is those illustrating cyclic existence and the principles of Karma and its fruition. These basic principles can be understood by anyone, and serve to inspire people to do good and avoid Evil actions. In the next tier of reliefs are teachings from the Jātakas and the Lalitavistara Sūtra. These works recount the past lives of The Buddha, and summarize his Life and teachings. The highest tier of reliefs illustrates scenes from the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra, which is part of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, the teachings of which are very advanced. By carrying out the practices at each level, one develops a more advanced Perception of truth, and is then able to understand the loftier teachings naturally.

If we look to the modern Buddhist traditions that teach practice according to the Mahāyāna sūtras, we can see that their usage of the sūtras is still basically identical to that of Indian Buddhism. This is illustrated clearly in a contemporary documentary, Amongst White Clouds (2007), which presents the Buddhist practice of Chinese monks and nuns who live as hermits in Zhongnan Mountains of Shaanxi province. In this film, we can see the basic principle that the understanding one has of a Sūtra is essentially contingent upon their own level of understanding gained through meditation and other forms of self-cultivation. We can also see that these texts are regarded as the essential guides to the enlightenment path. In one scene from this documentary, the director and a Monk are sitting together in the Monk’s hermitage, drinking tea. The narrator then asks the Monk about how to find the path to Enlightenment, and how it is possible to do so while living alone as a hermit in the mountains:


    You said when you walk this road, if you get lost, you can ask others for directions. But living alone in the mountains, you must still get lost sometimes. Who do you ask? How do you find the path?

The Monk smiles slightly, as if amused by the question, and replies:

    You read the texts, right? That’s who you ask. The texts contain the true path to Buddhahood. With a little ability, wherever your mind arrives, you see, “Hey, the text talks about that place!” Your mind is there, and the text talks about it, so you have arrived there, right? Now, if you don’t have this ability, then even if you read something in a text, if your mind isn’t there, then you won't understand it. So you practice more. It’s easy to read a text, but difficult to understand it.

In the above passage, the Monk is describing this precise method of Sūtra study and practice, which has been missed by so many readers in the West. Using this method, the reader must carry out practices according to his or her own understanding of the Sūtra, and when advancing through these practices, then other parts of the text will naturally become comprehensible. This usage fully conforms to the original history of Mahāyāna practice in Indian Buddhism, and to what scholars have started to discover in recent years. The method also allows us to understand in a meaningful the way the manner in which Mahāyāna sūtras are to be utilized by those who wish to follow the Bodhisattva path. When we thoroughly understand this point, that theory and practice must converge, then we are left with a clear path ahead of us. We then have a set of principles that may be used across the entire genre of Mahāyāna sūtras, along with all their methods of cultivating realization.

At the end of a Sūtra, there is often a final section indicating that after The Buddha had finished this particular teaching, then the Fourfold Saṃgha, along with all the other beings present, believed, accepted, and practiced in accordance. Whether the listener at the assembly happened to be a Monk, nun, layman, laywoman, or one of the eight kinds of spiritual beings, each was able to hear the discourse and carry out its teachings in some manner. If a reader has not started down the path by similarly “believing, accepting, and practicing in accordance,” following the methods that he or she is able to understand, then a deeper comprehension should not be expected. Without fulfilling the basic requirements of cultivation, the reader will essentially remain at the stage of a beginner. However, when the reader is able to make progress in his or her practice, then the text will seem to open up, and the meaning of certain passages will naturally become more apparent.

When considering the basic principles of cultivation practice and their relationship to the Mahāyāna sūtras, it becomes clear that these teachings are very egalitarian. Although not everything may be understood by the reader, there are methods which are comprehensible to everyone, and these often indicate the methods that are most effective and applicable at that time. If readers are able to learn these methods and make some effort to practice them, then they can continue meaningfully along the path, and in accordance with the sūtras. In that sense, following the practices of the sūtras is really not so difficult. It just requires dedicated study along with some Consistency in cultivating the methods described. Therefore, it is not only a few advanced bodhisattvas who are able to carry out the methods prescribed in the Mahāyāna sūtras, but really anyone who develops the necessary resolve and is willing to carry out the teachings.