Special Topics

Characteristics of Buddhist Sutras: Their Fundamental Structure

When we want to read a Buddhist sutra, as long as we grasp its basic structure, know its basic elements, and have a basic understanding of its characteristics, we should be able to realize its main theme and essence.

Firstly, apart from the Dharma taught by the Buddha, Buddhist sutras may also contain statements from the Buddha's disciples, gods and immortals. Supported and confirmed by the Buddha, these statements should also be regarded as the jewels of Dharma and Buddhist sutras. The preaching and proclamations as recorded in Buddhist sutras are meant to address people's doubts and uncertainties about life, convey the methods of teaching, and develop people's faith in the Dharma, thereby inspiring them to practice and share it with others.

Three Major Elements Constituting a Buddhist Sutra

While most books are comprised of the title, author and contents, every Chinese Buddhist sutra also has a main subject, along with the name of the translator and its content. In Buddhist sutras, you don't see the name of an author, since they were compiled by the Buddha's disciples with Sakyamuni Buddha as the teacher. As Buddhist sutras were later introduced to China, the name of the translator was added.

Take the Amitabha Sutra as an example. Along with the title, "Amitabha Sutra" also comes the phrase, "translated by Tripitaka Master Kumarajiva in Yao Qin". The title of the sutra, "Amitabha Sutra", points to its purpose, namely to illustrate the merits, virtues and fundamental vows of Amitabha Buddha, with descriptions of the Western World of Ultimate Bliss. Its translator was Kumarajiva, the Tripitaka Master well learned in the sutras, Vinaya, and treatises.

The Structure of Buddhist Sutras

A focal point for sutra reading, the sutra text contains its fundamental structure. Master Daoan in the Jin Dynasty divided it into three major sections: the Introduction, Main Content, Dissemination.

Introduction: illustrates the origin of a sutra, the causes and conditions that prompted the Buddha to preach the Dharma in its regard, the audience present at the assembly, and the person making the inquiry.

Main Content: the most essential teaching in a sutra, which elaborates and illustrates its purpose and main idea.

Dissemination: explains the merit and importance of propagating and practicing a certain sutra, urging the reader to share it by making an effort to promote it.

The Beginning and Ending Words in a Buddhist Scripture

Many people would wonder why most sutras start with the line, "Thus have I heard", and conclude with "…believe and uphold…"

When Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples learnt that he was about the pass into parinirvana, they suggested that Ananda ask the Buddha four questions, one of which was to request a final teaching on the future propagation of the Dharma.

According to records in the Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom (Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra), Sakyamuni Buddha charged Ananda to ensure that every sutra he would compile in the future start with the phrase, "Thus have I heard", indicating that the contents were spoken by the Buddha himself, and heard by Ananda.

As for "…believe and uphold…" usually seen at the end of the text, it mainly serves as a promise to the Buddha. After listening to the Buddha explaining the Dharma, "the monks were delighted and rejoiced at his words." This shows that the hearers not only believed what the Buddha had taught, but were also filled with the joy connected with the Dharma, indicating that they would practice what had been taught and remain diligently vigilant.

Main Characters in Buddhist Sutras

Of the various characters appearing in Buddhist sutras, the Buddha was certainly the "first protagonist", with the hearers including bhikshus, shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, heavenly beings, humans, and non-humans. They gathered together at an assembly to listen to the Buddha preaching the Dharma.

What prompted the Buddha's talks was usually when people with doubts and questions wanted to seek guidance from the Buddha, so another key character in the sutras was the person asking the question, including regular characters such as Ananda, Sariputra, Subhuti, and Bodhisattva Manjushri. In the sutras, Shakyamuni Buddha also mentioned other relevant buddhas and bodhisattvas, such as Bodhisattva Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) in the Heart Sutra and the Universal Gate chapter in the Lotus Sutra; Bodhisattva Earth Treasure (Kṣitigarbha) in the Earth Treasure Sutra, or the Sutra of the Fundamental Vows of Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha; Plentiful-treasure Tathagata (Prabhūta-ratna Tathāgata), Bodhisattva Medicine King (Bhaiṣajyarāja) and Bodhisattva Always-Not-Despising (Sadāparibhūta bodhisattva), as found in the Lotus Sutra.

Venues Mentioned in Buddhist Sutras

Apart from the opening line of "Thus have I heard", the sutra's beginning is followed by the venue where the preaching took place. Places in India where the Buddha preached the Dharma included Gṛdhrakūṭa, or the Vulture Peak (located in the west of the ancient city Rājagṛiha, near Nalanda, Bihar, India); Anāthapiṇḍika's park (also known as Jetavana, or Jeta's Grove, situated within Sāvatthī, in the kingdom of Kosala); Rājagṛiha (capital of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha); Sāvatthī (capital of the Kosala Kingdom);and Vaiśālī (Āmrapāli in the kingdom of Licchavi). The Buddha also expounded the Dharma in the heavenly realm, in places such as the Trayastrimsa heaven and the Palace of Maheśvara, which the Buddha frequently visited.

Extended Reading:
Receive and Uphold the Buddha's Teaching by Reading Sutras
How Were Buddhist Sutras Formed?
Methods of Reading the Sutras
Sutras Mahayana

Resource: Issue 327 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Lee fan (李東陽)
Translation: Cheng-yu Chang (張振郁)
Editing: Chia-chen Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown