Buddhism 101: What Are The Sutras?

During the Buddha’s lifetime, teachings were memorized and then passed down by recitation from one generation to the next. To make memorization and organization easier, these teachings were grouped into collections called nikayas and the wording would be modified to be more repetitive (and therefore easier to remember and recite). Often times these sutras begin with some kind of preamble such as:

Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in the Jeta Grove monastery of Anathapindada’s Garden at Shravasti, together with a large assembly of twelve hundred and fifty monks, who were all great arhats, well-known to the people.

–The Amitabha Sutra
(Translation by Hisao Inagaki for the Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research)

Early sutras collections had many small teachings in them, but as stated above, it became more common in later Buddhist generations to not only write them down, but also write new sutras that refreshed or encapsulated earlier teachings. These sutras might be written down in the local languages, or when sutras were introduced to new cultures, such as China, they would be translated into something readable by the local population. Thus, sutras can come in all shapes and sizes, and in many old languages depending on the original source, or tradition.

Nevertheless, even in later generations, the recitation of sutras has been a time-honored tradition. This has practical benefits:

  • It helps to “internalize” the teachings contained therein. Traditions will have a smaller number of sutras they tend to focus on, and most often recite.
  • It upholds the unbroken tradition from the time of the Buddha to repeat what was heard.
  • It generates good karma, which in turn can be shared for the benefit of others.

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