What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

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What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Dharma Flower » Sat May 20, 2017 1:14 pm

The Prajnaparamita sutras are often referred to as the oldest Mahayana sutras. Is there any evidence for this? Are there other Mahayana sutras which are believed to be as old or older than the Prajnaparamita sutras?

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Coëmgenu » Sun May 21, 2017 11:45 pm

Dharma Flower wrote:Is there any evidence for this? Are there other Mahayana sutras which are believed to be as old or older than the Prajnaparamita sutras?
Dating a sūtra is always a tricky matter.

What often gets passed off as definitive evidence of a time of a given sūtra's prominence (i.e. when it "enters the written canon") is actually the oldest physical manuscripts that have been found, not when the sūtra is believed to have coalesced into a form that more resembles its modern presentation.

The oldest complete Mahāyāna manuscript that has ever been found is a copy of the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitāsūtra from Bāmiyān that is dateable, physically, to approx 250AD, this might seem late, but it is actually a very old document (for Buddhism in general, let alone Mahāyāna sūtras), and we are lucky to have it more-or-less complete and written in, what we can assume, is a Sanskritization that is faithful to the Prākrit that it was likely preserved in before (the transition from Prākrit to Sanskrit is often merely a matter of changing a few consonant clusters and declensions at this stage of the language).

Other sūtras, such as the Lotus Sutra, are also believed to be very old, but we just don't have copies that have survived. Erosion and time is a deadly thing.
並畢竟空。並如來藏。並實相。非三 而三三而不三。非合非散而合而散。非非合非非散。不可一異而一異。
All three truths are ultimately empty, all are tathāgatagarbha, all are true aspect. Not three, they are three; three, they are not three. Neither combined nor separated, neither uncombined nor unseparated. Neither same nor different, yet in a sense same, and in a sense different.

夫三諦者。 天然之性徳也。 中諦者。 統一切法。 眞諦者。 泯一切法。 俗諦者。 立一切法。
The three truths. Heaven-sent natural characteristics. The middle truth unifies all dharmas. The ultimate truth demolishes all dharmas. The conventional truth establishes all dharmas.

摩訶止観始終心要Móhēzhǐguān, Shǐzhōngxīnyào.

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Kim O'Hara » Mon May 22, 2017 5:26 am

There's another, quite different, problem with the question, too: what makes a sutra a "Mahayana" sutra?
It's a tricky one, firstly because (most?) Mahayana schools acknowledge the Pali Canon and its Sanskrit and Chinese equivalents (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Āgama_%28Buddhism%29 for an overview), and secondly because recent research shows Mahayanist ideas emerging gradually from pre-sectarian Buddhism. (And no, I'm not saying that means Theravada is 'older' or 'purer'. Mahayana didn't 'split off from' Theravada; Theravada also emerged gradually from the same matrix.)

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Fortyeightvows » Mon May 22, 2017 5:31 am

If one went with traditional accounts the garland sutra would be the oldest since it is often said to be one of shakyamuni's first teachings

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Dharma Flower » Mon May 22, 2017 6:36 am

Kim O'Hara wrote:And no, I'm not saying that means Theravada is 'older' or 'purer'.
Even if we were to concede that Theravada is the closest surviving sect to the Buddha's original teachings, that doesn't mean Theravada is in and of itself the Buddha's original teachings. As you point out, there may have been other sects in ancient history that were closer to the Buddha's original teachings than Theravada is today.

The same essential Dharma truths are in both Mahayana and Theravada:
https://dhammawiki.com/index.php?title= ... d_Mahayana

No matter how the Mahayana sutras came about, the important thing is that they contain the same essential Dharma truths that the Buddha originally taught.

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Kim O'Hara » Mon May 22, 2017 6:56 am

Fortyeightvows wrote:If one went with traditional accounts [whose?] the garland sutra would be the oldest since it is often said [citation needed] to be one of shakyamuni's first teachings
Sorry ... too much time on Wikipedia recently. :tongue:
Seriously, though, whose accounts? and where?

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Anders » Mon May 22, 2017 7:37 am

Kim O'Hara wrote:
Fortyeightvows wrote:If one went with traditional accounts [whose?] the garland sutra would be the oldest since it is often said [citation needed] to be one of shakyamuni's first teachings
Sorry ... too much time on Wikipedia recently. :tongue:
Seriously, though, whose accounts? and where?

:namaste:
Kim
The sutra itself says so. This was traditionally taken at face value.
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I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Anders » Mon May 22, 2017 7:50 am

One way of attempting to date Mahayana sutras is to examine what other sutras they are responding to and in dialogue with.

The lotus sutra for example responds to the thesis of the seed of bodhi as the distinctive mark of bodhisattvas vs shravakas by presenting the ekayana. This tells us that there presumably is an older cycle of Mahayana sutras that the lotus sutra is in dialogue with.

Whereas the Prajñāpāramitā sutra shows little sign of dialoguing with already established Mahayana tenets.Furthermore its main orators are arhats, suggesting this is from an early period where the Mahayana has not yet distanced itself from the arhats as an inspirational figure in favour of celestial bodhisattva figures. Making it a good bet for being one of the oldest Mahayana sutras we have available.

Still, it seems likely that it emerged in an environment where the Mahayana was already a known concept,though perhaps not that well developed. To me, I can well imagine an older cycle of sutras from a different region created the kind of vague yet readily assumed platform of inferred Mahayana knowledge that the Prajñāpāramitā sutra assumes from its reader.
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I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by smcj » Mon May 22, 2017 8:00 am

I thought these were the oldest buddhist manuscripts. They were discovered fairly recently in western Pakistan or Afghanistan.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gandhāran_Buddhist_texts
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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Coëmgenu » Mon May 22, 2017 1:51 pm

smcj wrote:I thought these were the oldest buddhist manuscripts. They were discovered fairly recently in western Pakistan or Afghanistan.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gandhāran_Buddhist_texts
Yeah, this was the Bamiyan find.
並畢竟空。並如來藏。並實相。非三 而三三而不三。非合非散而合而散。非非合非非散。不可一異而一異。
All three truths are ultimately empty, all are tathāgatagarbha, all are true aspect. Not three, they are three; three, they are not three. Neither combined nor separated, neither uncombined nor unseparated. Neither same nor different, yet in a sense same, and in a sense different.

夫三諦者。 天然之性徳也。 中諦者。 統一切法。 眞諦者。 泯一切法。 俗諦者。 立一切法。
The three truths. Heaven-sent natural characteristics. The middle truth unifies all dharmas. The ultimate truth demolishes all dharmas. The conventional truth establishes all dharmas.

摩訶止観始終心要Móhēzhǐguān, Shǐzhōngxīnyào.

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Nicholas Weeks » Mon May 22, 2017 3:42 pm

The Avatamsaka's first lines of Shikshananda's translation, via Cleary:
THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of
Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just
realized true awareness.
Distrust everyone in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!
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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Anonymous X » Tue May 23, 2017 6:39 am

Nicholas Weeks wrote:The Avatamsaka's first lines of Shikshananda's translation, via Cleary:
THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of
Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just
realized true awareness.
The Avatamsaka sutra is considered an apochryphal teaching and not one of the earlier ones. This did go on to become one of the main sutras in East Asian Buddhism.

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Admin_PC » Tue May 23, 2017 4:05 pm

Mod note: Moved this discussion to Academic subform as it is more appropriate for discussions of this nature.
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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Queequeg » Tue May 23, 2017 4:21 pm

Anonymous X wrote:
Nicholas Weeks wrote:The Avatamsaka's first lines of Shikshananda's translation, via Cleary:
THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of
Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just
realized true awareness.
The Avatamsaka sutra is considered an apochryphal teaching and not one of the earlier ones. This did go on to become one of the main sutras in East Asian Buddhism.
Not an "apocryphal teaching". In Mahayana, regardless of authorship, Avatamsakasutra is Buddhavacana, ie. Authentic Teaching.
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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Nicholas Weeks » Tue May 23, 2017 4:26 pm

Anonymous X wrote: The Avatamsaka sutra is considered an apocryphal teaching and not one of the earlier ones. This did go on to become one of the main sutras in East Asian Buddhism.
Chapters 26 and 39 are two of "the earlier ones", and thus there is nothing 'apocryphal' about the Avatamsaka Sutra collection.
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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Anonymous X » Tue May 23, 2017 6:23 pm

Nicholas Weeks wrote:
Anonymous X wrote: The Avatamsaka sutra is considered an apocryphal teaching and not one of the earlier ones. This did go on to become one of the main sutras in East Asian Buddhism.
Chapters 26 and 39 are two of "the earlier ones", and thus there is nothing 'apocryphal' about the Avatamsaka Sutra collection.
Yes, apologies. For some reason I was mixing it up with the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. It's hard to keep all these straight in my head.

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Dharma Flower » Tue May 23, 2017 11:08 pm

Anders wrote: Whereas the Prajñāpāramitā sutra shows little sign of dialoguing with already established Mahayana tenets.Furthermore its main orators are arhats, suggesting this is from an early period where the Mahayana has not yet distanced itself from the arhats as an inspirational figure in favour of celestial bodhisattva figures. Making it a good bet for being one of the oldest Mahayana sutras we have available.
Thank you for your detailed response. Are there any Mahayana schools in particular today that give high esteem to the Prajñāpāramitā sutras or were they equally influential on all Mahayana schools?

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Coëmgenu » Wed May 24, 2017 4:29 am

Dharma Flower wrote:Are there any Mahayana schools in particular today that give high esteem to the Prajñāpāramitā sutras or were they equally influential on all Mahayana schools?
The historical Madhyamaka and its contemporary children are often particularly associated with prajñāpāramitā via Nāgārjuna, although it is also safe to say that prajñāpāramitā ubiquitously informs the foundations of much of mainstream Mahāyāna Buddhism, in any school. Even schools associated with particular sūtras "alone", will also have prajñāpāramitā in their teachings.
並畢竟空。並如來藏。並實相。非三 而三三而不三。非合非散而合而散。非非合非非散。不可一異而一異。
All three truths are ultimately empty, all are tathāgatagarbha, all are true aspect. Not three, they are three; three, they are not three. Neither combined nor separated, neither uncombined nor unseparated. Neither same nor different, yet in a sense same, and in a sense different.

夫三諦者。 天然之性徳也。 中諦者。 統一切法。 眞諦者。 泯一切法。 俗諦者。 立一切法。
The three truths. Heaven-sent natural characteristics. The middle truth unifies all dharmas. The ultimate truth demolishes all dharmas. The conventional truth establishes all dharmas.

摩訶止観始終心要Móhēzhǐguān, Shǐzhōngxīnyào.

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Dharma Flower » Wed May 24, 2017 4:35 am

Coëmgenu wrote:
Dharma Flower wrote:Are there any Mahayana schools in particular today that give high esteem to the Prajñāpāramitā sutras or were they equally influential on all Mahayana schools?
The historical Madhyamaka and its contemporary children are often particularly associated with prajñāpāramitā via Nāgārjuna, although it is also safe to say that prajñāpāramitā ubiquitously informs the foundations of much of mainstream Mahāyāna Buddhism, in any school. Even schools associated with particular sūtras "alone", will also have prajñāpāramitā in their teachings.
Thank you for your response. Were the Prajñāpāramitā sutras the most influential sutras in explaining the Bodhisattva path?

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Re: What are the oldest Mahayana sutras?

Post by Anders » Wed May 24, 2017 9:51 am

Anonymous X wrote:
Nicholas Weeks wrote:The Avatamsaka's first lines of Shikshananda's translation, via Cleary:
THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of
Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just
realized true awareness.
The Avatamsaka sutra is considered an apochryphal teaching and not one of the earlier ones. This did go on to become one of the main sutras in East Asian Buddhism.
It is as apochryphal as any other Mahayana sutra.
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra

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