Special Topics

Sutras Mahayana

The Heart Sutra

1. The Causes and Conditions of Expounding the Teachings 
The Heart Sutra, which expounds the concept of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism, is the most condensed and widely-circulated sutra among the Buddhist classics. The Chinese version that has been passed on and most commonly recited was translated by Master Xuan Zang from the Tang Dynasty. This sutra was expounded at the Vulture Peak ( Grdhrakuta in Sanskrit or Ling Jiou Shan in Chinese) in Rajgir. At that time, the Buddha entered a state of deep meditation. By the power of the Buddha, Sariputra asked Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara about how to practice “prajnaparamita” to attain supreme enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sambodhi).

2. The Content and Essence
The Heart Sutra is only 260 characters in length and yet distills the essence of the 600-volume Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra. The notion of Prajna-emptiness introduced in the sutra is the theoretical foundation of Mahayana Buddhism. In the Heart Sutra, the meaning of “emptiness” was elucidated in multiple paragraphs and at varying levels. On one level, the notion of the everchanging nature of five aggregates that make up our body and mind is introduced to help cut off self-attachment. On another level, the sutra also states that all dharmas arise and diminish due to cause and conditions, thereby illustrating the emptiness of all dharmas. 

3. The Influence
Of all the Chinese translations of the Buddhist classics, the Heart Sutra is the most widely circulated. It also has the largest number of commentaries and explanations written by respectful and eminent monks and masters throughout history. There is no doubt about its importance in Buddhism. The Heart Sutra not only introduces the basic concepts in Buddhism (e.g., Four Noble Truths, Six Paramitas, Twelve Links of Dependent Origination), but also explains the wisdom of emptiness, meeting the various needs of sentient beings according to their varying capacities. 

The Diamond Sutra

1. The Causes and Conditions of Expounding the Teachings 
The Diamond Sutra was the teaching given by the Buddha at the Jetta Grove in Sravasti, at the request of Elder Subhuti. 

2. The Content and Essence
Kumarajiva’s translation of Diamond Sutra is the most widely circulated Chinese version. It mainly elucidates that Prajna (sanskrit word for wisdom) can eliminate all vexations, just as the hardest diamond in the world can cut through and break up all other mineral ores without itself being impacted; hence its full name, Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra. 

3. The Influence
Eminent Chan masters often regard the Diamond Sutra as forming the guidelines for their practice and meditation methods. While still a layman, the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng happened to hear someone chanting the line from the Diamond Sutra: “[all Bodhisattvas] should give rise to a mind that does not abide in anything”. Immediately, he got a glimpse of enlightenment and decided to renounce the household life to seek the way of liberation. Later, he visited the Fifth Patriarch Hong Ren in Huangmei, Hubei and attended his teaching of the Diamond Sutra half a year later. When Hui Neng heard again this sentence from the Diamond Sutra, he suddenly attained enlightenment. The Diamond Sutra has been highly regarded in Chinese Buddhism over the centuries. Apart from the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra is considered the most widely accepted Buddhist scripture in Chinese culture. 

The Lotus Sutra

1. The Causes and Conditions of Expounding the Teachings
The Lotus Sutra consists of teachings delivered by the Buddha during his last eight years of life. At that time, after expounding The Infinite Life Sutra, the Buddha entered into meditative absorption, radiating great light. Upon seeing this, Bodhisattva Manjusri told the assembly that the Buddha will soon give the teachings about the essence of Mahayana practice. Therefore, as was customary, Sariputra, the chief disciple of the Buddha, requested on behalf of the assembly to give teachings. However, the Buddha refused, because Mahayana teachings are fundamental, rare and difficult to understand; thus ordinary people are not able to receive and uphold them. Later, Sariputra repeated his request and the Buddha finally agreed to it. However, in that instant five thousand monastic and lay disciples bowed to the Buddha and exited. Their leaving not only confirms the reason why the Buddha intially refused to teach the Dharma, but also indicates why this sutra is subtle and difficult to understand.  

2. The Content and Essence
The Lotus Sutra is comprised of 7 volumes, 28 chapters, and approximately 60,000 words. The main theme is to elaborate on the key reason why the Buddha appeared in this world: to let all sentient beings, be they Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, or Bodhisattvas, understand and acquire the Buddha’s knowledge and insights, and set their goal on attaining Buddhahood. The sutra illustrated stories about Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin, in Chinese), Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Puxian), and Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta (Changbuqing, Bodhisattva Never-Disparaging), thereby providing practitioners with role models for their learning and practice.

3. The Influence
The Lotus Sutra was already highly regarded by the Madhyamaka School and Consciousness-Only School in times when Mahayana Buddhism prevailed in India. After it was introduced to China, this sutra formed the basis of the Tiantai School, while great masters from the Three Treatise School (Sanlun School) and Dharma Characteristics School (Faxiang School) also generated multiple commentaries of it. Owing to the regional, ethnic and cultural diversity of different areas in which the   Lotus Sutra was transmitted different methods of practice were derived from its content. Among them, for example, the "Universal Gate Chapter" became the foundation of Chinese beliefs in Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, while the "Life Span of the Tataghata Chapter" became the fundamental basis of the Nichiren School in Japan.

The Universal Dharma-Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra

1. The Causes and Conditions of Expounding the Teachings
The Universal Dharma-Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra centers around Bodhisattva Akṣayamati, who questions Buddha Shakyamuni about the origin of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s (Guan-yin) name, and how Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara traveled through the Saha World to preach the Dharma for the sake of all sentient beings.  In addition tothe Buddha who gives teachings, Bodhisattva Akṣayamati who requests the Buddha to give teachings, and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who is being praised, the text contains yet another Bodhisattva named Dharanimdhara, who summarizes the merits of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara at the end of the Universal Dharma-Door chapter.

2. The Content and Essence
The Universal Dharma-Door Chapter is the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra. The text states that, in order to deliver all sentient beings from suffering, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara manifests in 33 different forms, including Buddha, humans, non-human beings, or any other form as needed. This chapter emphasizes that, by chanting wholeheartedly the name of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara with astrong conviction, all difficulties and disasters would be resolved and relieved.

3. The Influence
The Universal Dharma-Door Chapter states that reciting wholeheartedly the name of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is a method that anyone can practice at any time and at any place. A practice easier than reciting the sutra, it is thus the most popular and commonly used method among people who are beginning Buddhist practices. Furthermore, the power of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is efficacious. Even by chanting once the name of the Bodhisattva, prayers will be heard and answered, and their suffering will be relieved; the chapter is therefore widely embraced by Buddhists.

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

Resource: Issue 327 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Lee fan (李東陽)
Translation: Olivia, Johnathan 
Editing: Jessie Goulter, Cheng-yu Chang (張振郁), Keith Brown