What is the difference between suttas and sutras? Sutra is the Sanskrit word and sutta is the Pali word that refers to a “discourse” attributed to the Buddha.
So to most people, these words are equivalent, just as the Sanskrit Dharma and the Pali Dhamma both refer to the “teaching” of the Buddha.
But the Sanskrit sutra and Pali sutta are not equivalent to me. Let me explain.
During Buddha’s lifetime and shortly after his passing away the community of Buddhist monastics collected and began reciting his discourses. They taught others these discourses. And this continued for almost 500 years.
Then something new happened. A group of monastics with liberal leanings began to invent new discourses that the historical Buddha never said. Instead of attributing them to themselves, they thought that the only way to get others to accept their new ideas, was to claim that the historical Buddha said them.
But they had a problem. It had been almost 500 years since the Buddha passed away. How could they get people to believe their radical claim?
They devised a number of crafty deceptions. First, they would claim that the original disciples were not ready for the full truth and could only handle a little of the truth. They then appealed to their audience’s vanity. But you, dear reader, are more mature and are ready for the full truth about the Great Vehicle (Mahayana).
When asked how these Sutras were preserved for 500 years, they said that dragons held them in safekeeping under the ocean. But now was the time for them to be revealed to this generation.
From about the turn of the century, hundreds upon hundreds of these sutras were invented, all claiming to be the authentic word of the Buddha. Most Buddhists in India never accepted these sutras, it was only when they went to other lands did they become popular. Mainly because they didn’t know of the crafty deception that originated in India.
The fact that the majority of Buddhists today are followers of these early forgeries shows just how crafty this monastics’ deception was. Today it is politically incorrect to point this out. And so I do not emphasize this here. But I have to tell you the truth.
All the counterfeit discourses of the Buddha are called by the Sanskrit name sutras. All the authentic discourses of the Buddha are called by the Pali name suttas. So I use suttas to refer to the Early Buddhist Texts.
Not That Simple
But it is not that simple. There are texts in Sanskrit that are authentic, these are the Agamas (Dīrgha, Madhyama, Saṃyukta, Ekottara, and Kṣudraka). These texts can be traced back to the time before the rise of Mahayana and their forgeries.
Theravada Buddhism is much closer, but it is not perfect. There are also texts in Pali that are not part of the Early Buddhist Texts. The whole basket known as the Abhidhamma is of later origin. And even within the suttas scholars can detect layers of development.
Most scholars believe that the closest we can get to the original discourses is through a comparison of the Agamas (Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and others) with the Pali Nikayas. All of these date to the earliest times of Buddhism. All of these discourses I refers to as suttas, in order to distinguish them of the later forgeries – sutras.
- Forrest, Jay. “Early Buddhist Texts.” JayForrest.org. February 23, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/early-buddhist-texts/
- Forrest, Jay. “The Mahayana Sutras are Forgeries.” JayForrest.org. February 18, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/the-mahayana-sutras-are-forgeries/