Buddhist Texts

Across six courses [18 units], students will investigate Buddhist texts from the Mahāyāna and Theravāda traditions. Selections vary, but all will be primary sources.

Course 1: Prajñāpāramitā Texts

This course focuses on the “perfection of wisdom” literature, some of the earliest philosophical and spiritual compilations of the Mahāyāna teachings. These include: Diamond Sūtra, Heart Sūtra, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses [Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra], Shastra on the Door to Understanding the Hundred Dharmas, Large Sūtraon Perfect Wisdom [Abhisamaya-alaṅkāra], Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sūtra, and sections of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra.

Prajñā [wisdom], one of the core concepts of Buddhism, is held to be primary among the sixpāramitās, or perfections, that constitute the path to full awakening. It refers to a correct and accurate understanding of the way things really are. Prajñā is not simply a philosophical outlook, but a state of clear consciousness marked by sharp analytical investigation and contemplative insight resulting in a profound understanding of the ultimate nature of reality.

The texts describe three kinds of prajñā—literary, contemplative, and unmediated or direct apprehension. The three function as an interconnected exercise of conceptual and non-conceptual discernment which, when perfected, can understand emptiness [śūnyatā], the truth of no-self, and the intrinsic nature of all dharmas [the entities out of which we construct the world].

Prajñā is a wisdom that goes beyond knowledge of the world and occurs within the context of the extensive and compassionate deeds of the Bodhisattva. Thus, paradoxically, while the “perfection of wisdom” reveals the emptiness of all things, it also results in a joyous state of liberated existence expressed as “true emptiness is just wonderful existence; wonderful existence is just true emptiness.” Exploring and understanding the tension of these seeming opposites lies at the heart of the Buddhist experience and is the main concern of thePrajñāpāramitā literature.

Course 2: Pāli/Theravāda Texts

Extensive evidence for the Buddha’s ideas and early teachings resides in the Pāli canon. This seminar will focus on the Nikāyas, part of a huge collection of texts translated into English from the Pāli language. Pāli, derived from and closely related to pre-classical Sanskrit, is also probably closely related to the language the Buddha himself must have spoken [though no record now exists of this language].

Using the Majjhima Nikāya [Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha], the Saṃyutta Nikāya [Connected Discourses of the Buddha], the Aṅguttara Nikāya [Numerical Discourses of the Buddha], and the Dīgha Nikāya [Long Discourses of the Buddha], the class will explore central questions and key elements of the Buddhist experience. These include:

  • The impetus and content of the Buddha’s awakening or realization;
  • The skillful adaptation of teaching [upāya] and the use of reasoned reflection, critical inquiry, and personal experience as a criteria for generating faith and making a commitment to the pursuit of awakening;
  • The emphasis on ethics, especially as it is rooted in what may be called analogical reflection [using oneself as a model for treating others];
  • The Buddha’s analysis of the world and the issues it raises for meaning, purpose, and possibilities for liberation; the purpose and practice of meditation;
  • The topology of “persons” the texts presents with varying potentials for Buddhist practice and attainment;
  • And the implications—economic, political, personal/livelihood, and environmental—of a Dhamma-based society.


Course 3: Śūraṅgama Sūtra

The Śūraṅgama Sūtra, one of the most important and profound Mahāyāna texts in the entire Buddhist canon, has been held in great esteem in the Buddhist countries of East and Southeast Asia for over a thousand years. Its appeal lies in the broad scope of its teachings and in the depth and clarity of its prescriptions for contemplative practice. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra contains teachings from Yogācāra, Tathāgatagarbha, and Esoteric Buddhism. It makes use of Buddhist Logic, with its methods of syllogism and the fourfold negation [catuṣkoṭi] first popularized by Nāgārjuna.

Some of the main themes of the Śūraṅgama Sūtra are: the worthlessness of the Dharma when unaccompanied by samādhi power, the importance of moral precepts as a foundation for the Buddhist practice, and how one effectively combats delusions that may arise during meditation. During the past thousand years, Chinese and other East Asian masters have used the Śūraṅgama Sūtra perhaps more than any other single text in the transmission of the Dharma. Its wealth of theoretical and practical instruction in the spiritual life often made it the first major text to be studied by newly ordained monks, particularly in the Chan School.

Course 4: Śāstra

Śāstra is a Sanskrit term used to denote technical or specialized knowledge in a defined area of practice and by extension refers to a text or treatise written in explanation of some idea. In Buddhism it can be either a learned commentary on one of the sūtras or an independent treatise meant to elucidate some aspect or dimension of Buddhist philosophy. Śāstras represent a distinct and important genre of Buddhist literature as they discuss, clarify, and expand on essential concepts and practices. Works to be included: Bodhi Resolve Essay by Xingan [c. 1700]; Treatise on Generating the Bodhi Resolve by Vasabandhu [c. 300]; Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna by Aśvagoṣa [c. 553]; The Path of Purification by Buddhaghoṣa [Visuddhimagga, c. 430]; Śāstra on the Door to Understanding the One Hundred Dharmas by Vasubandhu; Great Calming and Contemplating, and Smaller Calming and Contemplating by Zhiyi [c. 550]; and selected works of Hanshan Deqing, Xuyun, and Nāgārjuna.

Course 5: Lotus Sūtra

The Lotus Sūtra [Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra], or Sūtra of the [White] Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma, presents a discourse delivered by the Buddha toward the end of his life and is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential sacred scriptures of Buddhism. Versions of it exist today in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan.

The sūtra is divided into several chapters in which the Buddha or other beings offer sermons and parables. The text contains some of the most beautiful passages among the world's spiritual literature. In terms of literary style, the Lotus Sūtra alternates between prose and poetry and illustrates a sense of timelessness and the inconceivable, often using large numbers and measurements of time and space. It avoids discussions of abstruse metaphysics and is expressed in vivid imagery and distinctive, appealing parables holding multiple layers of meaning.

Four major themes dominate:

  • That all beings have the Buddha-nature and all universally can realize Buddhahood and attain nirvāṇa. The Buddha is presented in the Lotus Sūtra as dharmakāya—the unity of all things and beings, unmanifested, beyond existence or nonexistence, unbound by time and space.
  • That Buddhahood is the goal of all practitioners of the Buddhist path. Thus, all vehicles are one vehicle [yāna; mode or method of spiritual practice]. This replaces an older topology which divided the Buddhist path into three distinct and provisional “streams,” as a simple expedient to accommodate those who would be frightened, discouraged, or wearied by the prospect of working towards full awakening [Buddhahood]. Thus, this sutra is known for its extensive instruction on the concept and usage of skillful means [upāya].
  • That the Buddha does not leave the world after his nirvāṇa but out of compassion remains for those in need of teaching. A similar doctrine of the eternality of Buddhas is repeatedly expounded in the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras, which share certain family resemblances with the teachings of the Lotus Sūtra.
  • The importance of faith and practice. The Lotus Sūtra maintains that the absolute teaching cannot be expressed in words or understood by ordinary cognition. Nor can Buddhahood be attained through intellect alone; faith and practice are the means to the realization of enlightenment.


Course 6: Avataṃsaka Sūtra

This sūtra’s title, Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra, is rendered in English as Flower Garland SutraFlower Adornment Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture. The Avataṃsaka Sūtra is an encyclopedic work of immense breadth and depth that encompasses all of the essential concepts and dimensions of Buddhism. In particular, the Avataṃsaka Sūtra shows the reader how the world and “reality” appear to a completely enlightened Buddha or advanced Bodhisattva. The text describes a cosmos made up of infinite and interdependent realms upon realms, each distinct yet mutually containing one another. Each world arises, abides, and fades away in response to the activities of the mind, and together they form a vast interconnected net, or ocean of worlds. It is perhaps the fullest and most profound treatment of the Buddhist concepts of nonduality and conditioned existence.

The vision expressed in this work was the foundation for the creation of the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhism, which was characterized by a philosophy of interpenetration. The sūtra, among the longest in the Buddhist canon, contains forty chapters on disparate topics, although there are overarching themes:

  • The interdependency of all phenomena [dharmas]
  • The progression of the Buddhist path to full Enlightenment, or Buddhahood

Two of the chapters serve as sūtras in their own right:

  1. Ten-Stages Chapter [Daśabhūmika] presents a detailed description of the course of the bodhisattva's practice through ten levels. It is perhaps the most extensive and detailed description of the Bodhisattva ideal and the levels [bhūmi] and states of development a bodhisattva must undergo to attain supreme enlightenment. The ten stages are also depicted in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. The sūtra also touches on a key element of Buddhist psychology: the development of the aspiration for Enlightenment[Bodhicitta] and the resolve to attain full awakening.
  2. Gaṇḍavyūha Chapter appears near the end of the Avataṃsaka and sometimes circulates as a separate and important text known as the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra. It details the pilgrimage of the youth Sudhana, who at the behest of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī undertakes an epic journey in search of enlightenment. The Gaṇḍavyūha depicts Sudhana’s journey as he travels from teacher to teacher, conversing with fifty-two masters in his quest for awakening. Along the way his perspective shifts and expands until he experiences the falling away of all boundaries that separate his own body and mind from the larger reality, called the Dharma-realm. The penultimate master that Sudhana visits is Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of great wisdom. That the journey ends where it began underscores one of Buddhism’s key concepts: that enlightenment is not something to be gained, but “something” already inherent, though dormant. The final master that Sudhana visits is Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, who teaches him that wisdom only exists for the sake of putting it into practice; that it is only good insofar as it benefits all living beings.