Mahayana Scriptures

The Mahayana Buddhists had their own scriptures, which were written in Sanskrit. These texts included:

  • The Sutras (the words of the Buddha): including the Heart Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra. (Perfection of Wisdom Sutras)

  • Shastras: the commentary on the sutras.

  • Tantras: mystical texts.

As Mahayana Buddhism grew, new texts were added. The Mahayana asserts that emptiness (similar to anatta or “no self”) permeates everything and that the earlier texts were not explicit enough on this point, a criticism of the Abhidharma. The Mahayana asserts that nothing is fixed; everything is empty, including nirvana. Nirvana is not a thing that can be attained. All concepts can lead to attachment and thus become a pitfall preventing you from experiencing prajnaparamita (“perfection of wisdom”). The Mahayana sutras explore such themes as emptiness.

The Lotus Sutra is another prominent Mahayana text that was very influential in China. The oldest surviving copy was translated in 286 C.E. The Lotus Sutra, in contrast to the Heart Sutra, is a long discourse with about twenty-eight chapters. According to Professor Mark Blum, the Lotus Sutra covers three themes:

  • A universal path to liberation

  • The eternal nature of the Buddha

  • Pragmatism represented by the bodhisattva

  • The Parable of the Burning House appears in the Lotus Sutra. Children are playing in a burning house and they don't heed their father's warning to escape because they are so enthralled with the game they are playing. Their attachment to the game represents the dangerous attachment to greed and desire. The father entices them out with a promise of better entertainment, and then gives them jewels and bells. These represent the dharma.

    The second most influential person in the history of Buddhism is Nagarjuna (the Buddha being the first). He founded the Madhyamika (“School of the Middle Way”). He cautioned that dualistic ways of perceiving are limiting and took the Buddha's notion of dependent origination (that is, nothing exists except in relationship to something else, and thus everything is interconnected) to its logical conclusion where-by the difference between nirvana and samsara disappears.

    From the Buddha's death until the third century B.C.E., Buddhism spread across many nations and took on different forms and traditions. It spread from India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Tibet, and Vietnam. Thanks to the great reformed leader King Ashoka, Buddhism became one of the greatest religions of the world, and the teachings were passed down so that they can be practiced today.

    Eighteen different schools came out of the Second and Third Councils as practitioners differed on matters of philosophy, with one surviving today as the Theravada. Today there are different traditions of Buddhism, just as there were in the past. In fact, the three major surviving traditions within Buddhism can be considered related but distinct religions: Theravada, Mahayana (for example, Zen), and Vajrayana (for example, Tibetan Buddhism).

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