In different regions, different sects of Buddhism, different sutras are emphasized. Sutras, for those who don’t know, are recorded sermons of the Buddha. The Buddha preached and taught for over 50 years and his followers, in keeping with Indian tradition, memorized the sermons and passed them onto others. This may sound like a flawed process, but Indian techniques for memorizing and orally reciting texts is highly sophisticated, involving multiple memorizing a text, reciting together to ensure accuracy, and dividing teaches into easier-to-memorize verses.
So, within Buddhism, there is a huge body of sutras, divided into collections, based on topics, or language written down, and different sects of Buddhism will have some collections but not others, and so on. It’s complicated, very complicated. You can’t point to a single “holy book” in Buddhism. The best you can get is one of two collections of texts:
- The Pali Canon for Theravada Buddhism, named so because it’s recorded in Pali language.
- The Sarvastivadin Canon better known as the Agamas. These are recorded in Sanskrit, not Pali, but are roughly parallel. The Agamas are the core texts for Mahayana Buddhism.
The Canon(s) are the core texts in elaborating the foundation teachings of Buddhism: how karma works, rebirth (not reincarnation, which is different), the life of the Buddha, etc.
In modern Buddhist scholarship, Western techniques have been applied to determine which sutras are authentic teachings of the Buddha, and which ones are apocryphal (where authenticity is in doubt). This has also lead to criticisms by some in one sect of Buddhism claiming the other is following sutras that are not genuine teachings of the Buddha. Oftentimes, I’ve found myself pondering this point as well, and I was delighted to find this article on the web by Prof. Ronald Epstein. He is discussing a controversial text called the Shurangama Sutra, which is very popular in Chinese Buddhism. The Western academic world has been divided as to whether the text is authentic or a Chinese compilation, but Prof. Epstein, rather than trying to prove the text one way or another provides a completely different way to look at the text (emphasis added):
As already mentioned, the Shurangama is connected with enlightenment of the well-known Ming Dynasty Ch’an Master Han-shan Te-ch’ing…Of course, Han-shan did not ascribe to prevalent modern Western scholarly ideas about the historical development of Buddhist texts and believed the Sutra had come directly from Sakyamuni Buddha himself, but that is not the point. What is important here is that Han-shan’s experiential verification that the text is written on the level of non-discriminative awareness reinforced his belief in the genuineness of the text. Such a criterion lies beyond the narrow band of historical and philological issues that have so far dominated modern scholarly studies of textual authenticity. It seems to me that further study of traditional criteria such as this their own terms must be a prerequisite for evaluation of their relevancy, or lack of it, in terms of the methodology and goals of modern Buddhological research.
What I believe Prof. Epstein is saying the question of authenticity may just be an academic one only, and what matters is its effectiveness for those devoted to serious study. Of course, it’s helpful to know the background behind the sutras, but there comes a time when one has to set aside the discriminating mind and just study the texts at face value, regardless of who said them and why. For example, the Heart Sutra is now believed to be a Chinese text in origin (a condense form of the 25,000-line Perfect of Wisdom Sutra), translated back into Sanskrit when Chinese emissaries visited there, but at the same time, it’s still a powerful text written by some brilliant minds.
Buddhism as a religion doesn’t have to depend on strictly Indian sources, as the religion places emphasis on praxis (doing stuff), not just knowing stuff. If the teachings in Buddhism prove to have practical, beneficial results (such as following the Five Moral Precepts), then the teachings are authentically Buddhist.
In the last hours of the Buddha’s life, he told his attendant Ananda in the Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16 of the Pali Canon):
“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.”
Ultimately, we can’t expect such-and-such sutra to teaching to solve all our problems. We still have to roll up our sleeves and practice Buddhism through meditation, the moral precepts, being mindful and through study. There’s just no way around it.