The Mahayana Canon

The Mahayana tradition contains many schools and sub-schools and is very complex. Paul Williams’s textbook Mahayana Buddhism is an excellent overview of the entire Mahayana tradition, and a helpful guide to reading individual sutras. Important sutras whose translations are of varying degrees of accessiblity:

Avatamsaka Sutra:This one of the most ornate, complex, and longest (over 1000 pages) of the Mahayana sutras. Several important concepts of Mahayana Buddhism come from it: that all things are created by mind alone; the Bodhisattva path; dependent origination. We link to Thomas Cleary’s translations (a daunting read) and to Tony Prince’s highly accessible introduction to both the sutra and to the form of Buddhism  — Huayen (Kor. Hwa Om) — based on it. [clicking on this link will get you a page with the Wikipedia link, with a link to the Cleary translation, and also a link to Tony Prince’s Universal Enlightenment]            

The Diamond Sutra which contains teachings especially important to Zen, including emptiness, dependent origination, not being attached to thinking, and a methodology that is skeptical of anything dependent on language. It is short and highly readable, as are the commentaries we link to [links are to he Wikipedia link, Red Pine and to Thich Nhat Hanh]

The Heart Sutrais chanted by all Mahayana traditions. Its main teaching of emptiness deconstructs earlier, more conventional Buddhist concepts, and we include Red Pine’s translation and accessible commentary in the links. [link to he Wikipedia link and Red Pine]

The Lotus Sutrais the key sutra in both Tiantai (Jap. Tendai, Kor. Cheontae) and Nichiren Buddhism. It is the source of many images and parables — the burning house, the dharma rain, and so on — used in many Mahayana traditions, including the Zen tradition, enveloped in ornate language praising the Buddha, his key disciples, and the sutra itself. [The link would lead to he Wikipedia link, Gene Reeves’ translation, and Burton Watson’s translation]

The Vimalakirti Sutra’s actually has a plot, which makes it among the more readable sutras. It begins with the enlightened layman Vimalakirti’s illness — an excuse for him to teach everyone the path of a bodhisattva — and ends with his besting Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, in dharma combat where the challenge is to manifest non-duality. There is an amusing (yes, it is seriously funny) episodes in which Shariputra is a foolish foil to a female deity and gender is shown to be an arbitrary concept. [The link is to the Wikipedia link and to Burton Watson’s translation.]

The Lankavatara Sutrais the highly philosophical sutra supposedly brought to China by Bodhidharma. It systematically and meticulously examines many major and minor concepts in Buddhism, cutting through all of them, and hence cutting through language and thinking. While considered a key sutra for Zen, it did not have a pervasive presence in either the popular or scholarly imagination. There was no reliable and readable English translation until 2012 when Red Pine produced a translation and commentary. [The link is he Wikipedia link and to Red Pine’s translation.]