All of the Mahayana Sutras that claim to be the word of the Buddha are forgeries. This includes the Lotus Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, the Heart Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Diamon Sutra, and thousands more.
A forgery, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is a work of literature “that purports to be the work of someone other than its true maker.” The Mahayana Sutras claim to be the word of the historical Buddha, but the claim is false. They are later creations created by a splinter group of monks who had a different idea about what Buddhism should be.
This may seem strange to many today. But as Bart D. Ehrman explains, “In the ancient world forgery was a bit different from today in that it was not, technically speaking, against the law. But even though it was not an illegal activity, it was a deceitful one that involved conscious lying, as the ancients themselves said” (15).
But in the case of Buddhists, self-deception may have also played a role. It is possible that the creators of these Sutras actually thought they were channeling the Buddha’s mind. Others may have been deceived by spiritual entities.
And I do not deny that they contain many inspiring truths. My main complaint is that they claim to be the authentic word of the historical Buddha, but are not. It is this falsehood that bothers me. I know they probably claimed to be relaying the word of the Buddha in order for other Buddhists to listen to them. But such conduct is unworthy of a truly noble one.
The Basic Facts
Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, was born in northern India in about 480 BCE. He began his search for enlightenment at the age of 29 and he is said to have reached full enlightenment at the age of 35, which would be about 445 BCE. The Buddha is said to have passed into Nirvana at 80 years old, which would be about 400 BCE. That means that he taught in India for about 45 years.
Writing was virtually unknown in India at this time (except for limited use in accounting and law). So the monks memorized the Buddha’s teachings by chanting them, even within his lifetime. This was borrowed from the Brahmin practice of chanting the Vedas.
So these chanted teachings of the Buddha’s discources were eventually written down. These are known as the Nikayas in the Theravada school of Buddhism and they are known as Agamas in the Mahayana school of Buddhism. And, as Bhikkhu Sujato notes, “the Chinese Agamas and the Pali Nikayas are virtually identical in doctrine” (Mindfulness, 16). “They are undoubtedly,” writes S. Radhakrishnan, “the earliest and most authoritative account of Buddha’s teaching now in existence” (288).
I think it is important to stress the fact that all schools of Buddhism accepted these sets of Sutras. They were, in the words of Etienne Lamotte, “the common heritage of all the sects” (156). What we are concerned about is the much later Sutras of the Mahayana school of Buddhism.
The Rise of Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism did not exist until about 400 years after the Buddha’s passing. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism says that the Mahayana “began some four centuries after the Buddha’s death, marked by the composition of texts that purport to be his words.”
So Mahayana is not original Buddhism, and neither are its texts. In fact, the acceptance of these forgeries is what distinguishes Mahayana Buddhism from early Buddhism. As Peter Harvey explains, “Anyone accepting the new literature as genuine Sutras – authoritative discourses of the Buddha – thereby belonged to the new movement” (109).
As A. K. Warder explains, “According to the Mahayana historians these texts were admittedly unknown to the early schools of Buddhism” (4). They appeared out of the blue some 500 years after the Buddha’s passing. Now how on earth are you going to explain this gap? “The Mahayana claims,” writes Bhikkhu Sujato, “that the Mahayana Sutras were written down in the time of the Buddha, preserved in the dragon world under the sea, then retrieved by Nagarjuna 500 years later” (Mindfulness 14).
Clearly, even they knew they were new to the light of day. So they had to explain this 500-year gap. They filled in this gap with a myth that no historian can take seriously. But it also shows the ignorance of the forgers. Writing did not exist in India at the time, therefore there was no way they were “written down in the time of the Buddha.”
Edward Conze writes that:
About 100 BC a number of Buddhists felt that the existing statements of the doctrine had become stale and useless. In the conviction that the Dharma required ever new reformulations so as to meet the needs of new ages, new populations and new social circumstances, they set out to produce a new literature…. So far the Mayayanistic attitude seems quite logical. What is more difficult to understand is that they insisted in presenting these new writings, manifestly composed centuries after the Buddha’s death, as the very words of the Buddha himself (Buddhism 31).
“To clinch the matter,” writes A. K. Warder, “we have the fact that linguistically and stylistically the Mahayana texts belong to a later stratum of Indian literature than the Tripitaka [Buddhist canon] known to the early schools” (4). Anybody who reads the Pali canon and the Mahaya Sutras will notice this stylistic difference. They will also notice the appearance of new audience members, the “Eighty thousand bodhisattva great ones” (Lotus Sutra).
So why did they create these forgeries? “This is probably to give the appearance of a ‘discourse’ (sutra),” writes David J. Kalupahana, “which would carry more authority than a philosophical treatise compiled by an individual” (242). They knew that their new interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings would not be accepted unless these new teachings were put into the Buddha’s mouth. The only answer was to create forgeries claiming to be the Buddha’s teaching.
And it worked. Most Mahayana Buddhists are completely ignorant of the fact that their Sutras were composed by people who knew their teaching would not be accepted if they spoke in their own authority. The ethics of this should be clear.
Practitioners, these two slander the Master. What two? One who explains what was not spoken by the Master as spoken by the Master. And one who explains what was spoken by the Master as not spoken by the Master. These two slander the Master” (AN 2.23 Forrest).
“Most Mahayanists,” writes Paul Williams, “consider that the Mahayana sutras were preached by the Sakyamuni Buddha, the ‘historical’ Buddha, and the sutras themselves almost invariably start with Ananda’s phrase “Thus have I heard at one time’, plus the geographical location of the discourse. However, source-critical and historical awareness has made it impossible for the modern scholar to accept this traditional account” (29).
One of the oldest Mahayana Sutras is “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines.” The translator, Edward Conze writes, “In its very first sentence the text proclaims itself as a Sutra of the traditional type. ‘Thus have I heard at one time’ – the ‘I’ here is Ananda who is supposed to have recited also this Sutra soon after the Buddha’s Nirvana. That is, of course, a pious fiction” (xiv). The Sutra then gives the place of this discourse as “at Rajagriha, on Vulture Peak. “This location likewise is clearly unhistorical’ (Perfection, Conze xiv). Secular scholars know these Sutras are “unhistorical” and “fiction.”
Notice the trouble the inventor of this Sutra went to. He copied the traditional format of the older Sutras, Sutras that everyone accepted as true. He had to make the forgeries believable. The problem is that they were so successful that most Buddhists don’t even know the truth about the Mahayana Sutras. And the problem is further complicated because many modern believers do not seem to care about the truth. They are committed to a school, right or wrong.
Others think that the older texts are just as unhistorical, which could not be further from the truth. There are many good reasons to believe that the Early Buddhist Tests originate from the historical Buddha. On this subject, I recommend Bhikkhu Sujato and Bhikkhu Brahmali’s book. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts.
The “false historical claim the Mahayanist has foolishly made,” writes Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson is that “that their Sutras were from the mouth of the Buddha” (88). It would not have been such a travesty if the authors would have been honest. We would not have the teachings of the historical Buddha treated as second-class truths, while the inventions of these forgers are treated as the highest teachings of the Buddha.
The Inferior Vehicle
Because the winners write the history books, the Mahayana called the followers of early Buddhism the Hinayana. I know you have been told that Hinayana means “little vehicle.” This misses the connotation of the word. As the New World Encyclopedia explains, Hinayana literally means “the low vehicle,” “the inferior vehicle,” or “the deficient vehicle.”
It is important to know that there never was a Buddhist school that called themselves Hinayana. It was a word of abuse used by the Mahayana against the older schools that rejected their new inventions. They called themselves Mahayana, which literally means “the great vehicle.” And they meant that in both senses. They were the “big boat” for everyone and the “superior vehicle” over those selfish Hinayana who just wanted to awaken and enter Nirvana.
Because of the Muslim invasion and the revival of Brahmanism Buddhism vanished from the land of its birth. Only schools of Buddhism that existed in other countries survived. And because the Mahayana had produced so many literary works, these were transported to China, Tibet, and other Asian countries. The only early Buddhist school to survive was the Theravada, which grew in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and later spread into Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, and Laos.
It is from the Theravada school that we get the Pali Canon, which is the only complete canon of the early Buddhist Sutras (known as Suttas). Huston Smith and Philip Novak say that the Theravada claim:
to represent original Buddhism, the Buddhism taught by Gautama himself. The claim is justified if we confine ourselves to the explicit teachings of the Buddha as they are recorded in the earliest texts, the Pali Canon, for on the whole those texts do support the Theravada position. But this fact has not discouraged Mahayanists from their counterclaim that it is they who represent the true line of succession (66).
So when we examine the teachings of the Buddha, “we are on safe ground only with those texts the authenticity of which is admitted by all schools of Buddhism (including the Mahayana, who admit the authenticity of the early canons as well as their own texts)” (Warder 4). This is why I am a Suttavadin Buddhist. I am one “who rely upon the Suttas.” I did not pledge allegiance to any school of Buddhism. My only desire is to be faithful to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni.
- Conze, Edward. Buddhism: A Short History. Oxford: Oneworld, 2008.
- Conze, Edward. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & Its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights, 1973.
- Ehrman, Bart D. Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.
- Forrest, Jay N. Nikaya Buddhism: Exploring The Early Buddhist Texts. Albuquerque, NM: Tserrof Books, 2021.
- Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
- Kalupahana, David J. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.
- Lamotte, Etienne. History of Indian Buddhism. Peeters Press, 1976.
- Lotus Sutra, The: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Tran. Gene Reeves. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008.
- New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Hinayana,” New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Hinayana&oldid=1008473 (accessed February 18, 2022).
- Noble, J. Veach and Gerald Bonner. “forgery.” Encyclopedia Britannica, May 22, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/art/forgery-art.
- Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, The. “Nikaya.” Robert E. Busswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez J. eds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
- Radhakrishnan, S. Indian Philosophy, 2nd, Ed. Volume 1. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2018.
- Robinson, Richard H. and Willard L. Johnson. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. 2nd ed. Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1977.
- Smith, Huston and Philip Novak. Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003.
- Sujato, Bhikkhu. A History of Mindfulness. Australia: Santipada, 2012.
- Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali. The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 2014.
- Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. New York: Routledge, 1998.