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 1,000 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. Well over 1,000 pages long, the standard translation in English is by Thomas Cleary, entitled The Flower Ornament Sutra. A translation from the Buddhist Text Translation Society, entitledThe Flower Adornment Sutrais available for free online. Tony Prince’s book Universal Enlightenmentis a clear and accessible description of both Huayen Buddhism and the Avatamsaka Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra 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, with many translations. Especially recommended are the translation and commentary by Red Pine, Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion, and Huineng’s commentary (translated by Thomas Cleary along with The Sutra of Hui-neng).

The Heart Sutra is chanted by all Mahayana traditions. Its main teaching of emptiness deconstructs earlier, more conventional Buddhist concepts. There are many translations and commentaries; the translation in our chanting book is excellent. Googling “commentaries on the Heart Sutra” elicits over 400,000 results. To help you find your way through this thicket, we recommend the commentary by Red Pine (bundled with his translation) which cites many other commentaries and gives a good sense of the context in which the Heart Sutra arose.

The Lotus Sutra is 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. We recommend Gene Reeves’ translation and Burton Watson’s translation, which work from somewhat different texts. The Buddhist Text Translation Society also has an online free translation.

The Vimalakirti Sutra is 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 no manifest non-duality and Vimalakirti’s silence is recognized as superior to Manjusri’s speech. 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. We recommend Burton Watson’s translation.

The Lankavatara Sutra is 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, until recently it did not have a pervasive presence in either the popular or scholarly imagination in Europe or the Americas. There was no reliable and readable English translation until 2012 when Red Pine produced a translation and commentary.