Understanding the Buddhist Sutras: a (somewhat) brief overview

Buddhist Sutra Siddham

(Photo is a screen shot from the movie “Kūkai 空海” by Toei Video Co. Ltd., all rights reserved)

As an extension of my very brief history of Buddhism, I wanted to talk about this subject. The key to understanding Buddhism is a huge volume of texts called sutras or suttas, (経, kyō in Japanese or jīng in Chinese). Unlike Western religions, which derive their teachings from a particular book, or a set of books, the sutras in Buddhism are a very large collection of teachings and sermons. Some are very short, a few paragraphs, some are very long and complicated. Sometimes these are organized into collections, but it depends on which branch of Buddhism, and which volumes of sutras they inherited in that tradition. Altogether, the entire collection is called the Tripitaka (Sanskrit) or Tipitika (Pali), which means “Triple Basket” because the other “baskets” are the monastic training rules among other texts.

In ancient Indian culture (500 BC), people did not like to write down sacred teachings, because people thought this would cheapen them. Receipts, invoices, and political texts were written down, but sacred texts were memorized by followers. This was true with Buddhism, but also other religions at the time, including the ancient Vedic religion. Hinduism didn’t exist yet, and wouldn’t until much later.

But how could a person recall an entire teachings by the Buddha? They didn’t. Instead, a team of disciples did it, and recited it together to ensure mistakes were corrected, and gaps were filled. According to one story, 3 months after the Buddha passed way, all his disciples gather together to review the teachings, recite them and correct any misunderstandings. This reminds me of a documentary I once watched. The documentary was made in 1970 and showed a Hindu ceremony, and it was really interesting to watch. The particular hymn was very long, taking days to recite, but the film shows how the teacher (a Brahmin priest) trains his student to memorize the entire hymn, using many different tricks, mnemonics, even how to sway his body to the rhythm to help him remember. Even before Shakyamuni Buddha’s time, it was an established method, and the early Buddhist disciples adopted it. It’s also why sutras always begin with the phrase “Thus have I heard” as a matter of tradition, even if they were composed in later generations.

Finally though, the culture changed, and sutras were written down either in Pali or in other Prakrit (vernacular) languages.  Later, some of these texts were re-written or compiled using Sanskrit. The photo above shows how sutras looked in India, because they were written down on palm leaves, pieces of wood, etc, then bound with string. The word “sutra” just means “thread” by the way, and is related to the English word “suture”.

By the time sutras started to appear in writing, 400 years had already passed. Some would say the Buddha’s teachings had already been corrupted by this point, that they had failed to represent the Buddha’s real teachings.1 Some neo-orthodox Buddhists in the West seem to like to make this argument, and that the sutras are not important, but this assumes a callous attitude to all those countless generations of bhikkhus (monks), bhikkunis (nuns) and lay people who struggled to preserve the teachings in their generation, so that future generations could enjoy them. Before they were committed to writing, these same followers faithfully made every effort to memorize the teachings of the Buddha and pass them on to the next generation. Stylistic differences arose because of geography, and dialects, but their devotion to the Buddha and his teachings was the same regardless of culture/geography/dialect.

Anyway, a single, written sutra like the one shown above took tremendous work to copy faithfully letter by letter, and was not a trivial task. A person had to be knowledgeable of Sanskrit and had to have the time and resources to copy everything letter by letter. Try copying your favorite book by hand onto a notepad, and you’ll see how hard this is.

Thus, in the old days, even a single sutra of the Buddha was very important. It was the anchor that bound a Buddhist community together, and helped them connect with the ancient past. Even in the modern era, Thich Nhat Hanh told Westerners how many refugee families from Vietnam would flee on boats in stormy, shark-filled, pirate-infested waters, carrying nothing but their clothes and a copy of The Heart Sutra. Thus, when Buddhist teachers traveled away from India into foreign lands, they brought as many sutras they could. A single batch of sutras in a foreign land was a huge treasure for people there.

By the time sutras came to China, they had to be translated because no one in China knew Sanskrit except for a few, few Buddhist scholars. During the Tang Dynasty, many sutras were painstakingly translated from Sanskrit to Chinese, even though the two languages and cultures were so radically different. The sutras shown above were replaced with Chinese style “scrolls” and Tang Dynasty-era Chinese (Classical Chinese) became the language of choice. Even now, this is not unlike translating Classical Chinese Buddhist texts into English, two languages that are completely different and derive from different cultural assumptions. It was a monumental task, but despite the challenges Buddhism took root in China after centuries, and flourished, spreading to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Japanese priests would spend years or decades in Chinese, and risk a perilous trip1 over typhoon-plagued waters in small, sub-optimal boats, to bring back a basket full of sutras.

Even now, we are very fortunate to have Buddhist Sutras available in Western languages and online for easy distribution. A Buddhist bhikkhu or bhikkuni traveling from India to China to carry a single sutra would have to cross a vast wilderness and various tribes and kingdoms along the way. This was life along the ancient Silk Road, and it shows just how dedicated some of these men and women were to the Buddha’s teachings, almost 1,000 after the Buddha had passed into Nirvana.

The point of all this, is that the next you read a sutra, or recite a portion of its text, stop and reflect how many people worked to preserve and transmit that teaching from the earliest days of the Buddha’s community, across many lands, to the Internet today. It’s pretty amazing and humbling when you think about it. 🙂

P.S. I wanted to thank a certain blog reader who kindly donated the Kukai movie above, which provided the photo, but also the inspiration for this post. Thank you!

1 For those who still like to argue about the relevancy or historical accuracy of a given Buddhist sutra, rather than put it into practice, Prof. Epstein had some good words on the subject.

2 Japan was never very good at making ships to be honest, unlike the Ryukyu kingdom who became expert seafarers.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “Understanding the Buddhist Sutras: a (somewhat) brief overview”

  1. That Kukai video looks very interesting! As for the sutras, I am interested in ‘chanting’ or reciting the sutras aloud, as well as copying them–写経 shakyo. (Oh, I am talking about the easiest sutra copying method, where it is already printed in very light ink; the copyist darkens the kanji by tracing.) Even in translation (especially in translation?) most sutras are not easy for me to understand, so I appreciate these non-intellectual approaches to the material. Not to mention the nice meditative state that is a side-effect of both practices!


    1. HI John,

      That Kukai video is definitely available in Japan, since it was republished in DVD format to celebrate the 1,150th anniversary of Kukai’s death (or transition to eternal samadhi, depending on how you view it). Finding one with English subtitles is somewhat harder though since it’s not even on Amazon.

      As for approaching the sutras, I can definitely understand what you mean. Reading sutras out of the Pali Canon are very useful for small, topical stuff, but reading some of the more grandiose or esoteric Mahayana sutras, without some background study first, is pretty hard. I never really understood the Lotus Sutra until I read a good commentary on it by Thich Nhat Hanh, and later by Gene Reeves. Even the Heart Sutra is hard (again, Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries are quite good).

      But I also like the non-intellectual approach as well, though I’ve never actually had the experience of doing 写経 myself. The meditate side-effect you speak of is probably one of the most important reasons to put them into practice anyway, wisdom from the content notwithstanding. 🙂


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