Mahāyāna Philosophical Texts
There is no canon of Mahāyāna. It is difficult to have one because in Mahāyāna philosophical texts there is no unity of sects.
A council is said to be held under King Kanishka but it is doubtful if any canon was established there and if yes, in what language and by what sects.
The well known Mahāyāna sūtras are not canon of any sect. They are a series of books composed at different times and belong to different sects.
These nine books are:
i. Prajn͂āpāramita sūtra
ii. Saddharma Pundarīka sūtra
i. The Prajn͂āpāramitas (meaning: sūtras of perfection of wisdom)
They are the most important and reputed of all the philosophic Mahāyāna sūtras.
They explain six perfections (i.e. pāramitas) of a Bodhisattva and particularly of the Prajn͂ā (i.e. wisdom) – the supreme knowledge. This wisdom consists of the knowledge of the ‘Śūnyavāda’ i.e. Nịhsvabhāvatā of all phenomena i.e. all the objects of the empirical world do not have a self existent nature of their own, hence they are ‘Śūnya’.
Evidence says that the Prajn͂āpāramitas belong to the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras – firstly, they are in the ancient dialogue form, same as the Pāli suttas.
Secondly, Buddha (called Bhagvān – the Lord) generally appears talking to one of his disciples, especially Subhūti. In other Mahāyāna sūtras Buddha usually talks to a Bodhisattva.
According to Buniyo Nanjio, Prajn͂āpāramita of ten thousand slokas was already translated into Chinese by Lokaraksha. A commentary by Nāgārjuna on Ạstasāhasrikā (8000 slokas) also indicates its early time as compared to other Mahāyāna sūtras.
It appears that the Prajn͂āpāramitas originated in South India and then spread to the East and the North India.
According to a Nepalese tradition, in the beginning there was a Prajn͂āpāramita- Mahāyāna sūtras of 125,000 slokas , and it was later reduced to similar 100,000, 25,000, 10,000 and then to 8,000 slokas respectively.
According to another tradition, the Sūtra of 8,000 slokas is the original one and was slowly enlarged more and more.
Many Prajn͂āpāramita texts of different lengths existed in India and their number increased even more in China and Tibet. Hsūan-Tsang translated 12 different Prajn͂āpāramita sūtras in his Mahā Prajn͂āpāramita sūtra: the longest contains 100,000 slokas and the shortest contains 150 slokas.
In the Chinese Tripịtaka, the first section consists of Prajn͂āpāramita sūtras only.
Tibetan Kanjur also consists of the translations of Prajn͂āpāramitas of 100,000, 25,000, 18,000, 10,000, 8,000, 800, 700 and 500 slokas.
Of the Vajrachedikā with 300 slokas in an Alpāḳsara, i.e. Prajn͂āpāramita of very few syllables and even Ekāḳsarī i.e. the sacred Prajn͂āpāramita of one syllable, the mother of all Tathāgatas, in which the perfection of wisdom is concentrated in the one sound – ‘a’.
There is a very large mass of Buddhist literature going under the name of Prajnaparamita. Prof. Ryusho Hikata of Kyushu University has recorded in his introduction to Suvikrantavikrami Pariprccha Prajnaparamitasutra, Fakuoka, Japan, 1958, as many as 27 works going under this name. All of them are not available in original Sanskrit. Some of them are known from their Tibetan translations, some from Chinese translations, and some from both.
Some of the works are known to exist in their original form in Sanskrit, published fully or in parts. They are:
1. Satasahasrika, edited by Pratapchandra Ghosa, Bibliotheca Indica, Calcutta, 1912; not yet completed, only 14 chapters of it are so far published.
2. Pancavimsatisahasrika edited in part by N.Dutta( chapter1 only ) in Calcutta Oriental series,No. 28, Calcutta ,1934.
3. Astasahasrika, edited by Rajendralal Mitra in Bibliotheca Indica, Calcutta, 1888.Haribhadra has written a commentary called Aloka on this.
4. Sardhavisasahasrika, also called Suvikrantavkramipariprccha, edited by T Matsumoto, Chapter 1.
All these are available in Sanskrit. Probably the oldest of these writings is the Ạstasāhasrikā Prajn͂āpāramita. It was expanded into larger works on one hand and was shortened into smaller texts on the other hand.
The Ạstasāhasrikā, in 32 chapters, gives dialogues between Buddha and his disciples Subhūti, Śāriputra, Pūṛna, Maitrāyạniputra and Śakra (the prince of Gods) and sometimes a Bodhisattva joins them. In the introductory verses the Prajn͂āpāramita is personified and praised as the ‘sublime producer and the beloved mother of all heroes, she whose mind is fixed firmly on the highest goal’, as the grand mother of all beings. It is said again and again that all phenomena are without any ‘Being’ (Savabhāva), Śūnya, that even Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Prajn͂āpāramita itself have no reality. But at the same time, the Bodhisattva ideal is praised again and again.
A large portion is devoted to other topics, like difficulties in obtaining right type of teacher and also a duly trained disciple. The disciple should have practised and acquired perfections in six Paramitas before he is qualified to possess prajna, which thus is a knowledge of all types and forms called Sarvakarajnata. Such aknowledge must necessarily have a preliminary course of discipline. The seeker must have an impetus to attain the Bodhicitta, desire to obtain the knowledge of the Buddha.
There must be obstacles which the seeker must overcome. Some three chapters of the work are devoted to these obstacles at three different stages, and called Marakarma, acts of Mara, the evil spirit, viz., chapters 11, 21, &27. Two full chapter are devoted to the praise of Prajnaparamita,viz., 9&10 and numerous other places throughoutthe work. Most of the characteristics of Prajna are negative in form. We are not told so much how this knowledge of Prajna is to be acquired, but we are told what it is not. This is so perhaps the knowledge of Sunyata attempts to remove from our mind all notions , vikalpa and vicara, doubts and reflections. When our mind is freed from these, it acquires the knowledge of Sunyata. Negation is the best form to attain this state of mind, which thus plays an important role in the description of Sunyata or Prajnaparamita. However, it is dangerous to cling to this Sunyata or Prajnaparamita as the doctrine for the attainment of liberation.
But this does not mean the negation of good conduct and acts of piety. One should worship Buddha and holy places, the teacher and other holy persons with all worldly means like flowers etc. One should also practice liberality towards Monks, Nuns and other fellow creatures, cultivate virtues, meditate upon the true nature of things as the law of conditional existence. It is by such means that one can acquire the perfect or the transcendental knowledge.
The book also stresses on the religious characteristics in many chapters, which says that the great merit can be earned by hearing and understanding, reading and writing, learning and teaching of the Prajn͂āpāramita.
Since it was such a great merit to read and write these sacred books, perhaps that is why there are many repetitions, embellishments and more and more new works. Each new work is larger than the previous one. But the content of the long Ạstasāhasrikā is the same as that of the Vajrachedika.
The great philosophers of Mahāyāna – Nāgārjuna, Vasubandhu and Asaṅga wrote huge commentaries on Prajn͂āpāramitas, which have come down to us in the Chinese Tripịtaka and in the Tibetan Tanjur.
But it is difficult to imagine that the sanctity given to these texts can be a valuation and understanding of the metaphysical doctrines which they teach. It is more likely that the difficult part of the doctrine has made them sacred.