Sutra is a type of religious literature present in many Asian traditions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. The word sutra is a Sanskrit term that means “discourse” (in the Pali language: sutta). Another meaning suggested for the word sutra is “threads”. Sutras were originally oral traditions and designed to prompt the memory, which was probably the best alternative in a context where the majority of the population was illiterate.
Sutras are believed to record important religious practices, sometimes containing the teachings of key religious figures. In Jainism, it is claimed that sutras offer the sermons of Vardhamana himself (also known as Mahavira) while in Buddhism they contain the teachings of the Buddha, between the period where he gained enlightenment (Nirvana) and his death (Mahaparinirvana). Whether the sutras actually contain the teachings of these important figures has been subject to endless debate, since many sutras unquestionably postdate the time of the figures whose teachings are claimed to be presented in them.
These texts are normally a collection of aphorisms. In Buddhism, sutras usually begin with the phrase “Thus I have heard” and they were composed to be memorized because it was not until the 1st century BCE that they started to be gradually written down.
Sutras in Buddhism
According to Buddhist tradition it was Ananda, the main disciple of the Buddha, who repeated the discourses of the Buddha during the First Buddhist Council. These teachings were memorized by 500 practitioners and during many generations they were passed on orally. After a number of centuries, combined with the growth of the Buddhist community, variations in these teachings turned out to be inevitable, which is why the accuracy of these texts is sometimes challenged.
During the 1st century BCE, Buddhist sutras began to be written down in Pali, a language from the Indo-European language family and related to Sanskrit. These early Buddhist teachings were compiled into five different collections and were included in the Buddhist canon of scripture (also known as Tripitaka) of the Theravada Buddhist school.
During the 1st century CE, Buddhism was undergoing a gradual fragmentation process and many different new Buddhist schools appeared, including the Mahayana Buddhist school. The Mahayana school started to produce a new collection of texts on many topics such as emptiness (sunyata) and other metaphysical and psychological issues. These new texts were written in Sanskrit instead of Pali. Among this early Mahayana literature creations are the many sutras belonging to the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita), c. 100 CE; the Lotus Sutra, c. 200 CE; and the Nirvana Sutra, c. 200-400 CE. During the next centuries, more sutras were written, the most notable of them being the Flower Ornament Sutra, the Descent into Lanka Sutra, and the Resolutions of Enigmas Sutra.
Buddhist Sutras in China
The first documented translations of Indian sutras into the Chinese language took place during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), in the year 148 CE. An Shigao is the first Buddhist translator mentioned in Chinese sources who established a translation centre in the Chinese imperial capital, Luoyang. The copies produced at this stage were numerous Mahayana texts written in Sanskrit.
During the third century CE other translations included the Lotus Sutra and the Perfection of Wisdom, both of which turned out to have an important role in Chinese, and later on, also Japanese Buddhism. During the 4th and 5th century BCE, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra were translated into Chinese, and both would become popular texts used for chanting in Buddhists temples.
Translations of Pali Buddhist texts into Chinese (non Mahayanist sources) would eventually happen, but the higher response and exposure that the Mahayana Sanskrit translations had in China would benefit the growth of Mahayana Buddhism and turn it into the dominant form of Buddhism in China.
The manner in which Buddhist texts were taken into China and translated was often chaotic and very disorganized. The same happened with the study of the Buddhist texts, once translated and distributed in China. This is considered one of the reasons for the development of unique Chinese Buddhist schools. An analogous process also took place as the Buddhist literature entered Tibet, which also happened in a very unsystematic fashion.
As the confusion grew, some Chinese Buddhist scholars attempted to classify the Buddhist sutras by granting them a different status according to how good their reflection of the Buddhist doctrine was. While most Buddhist schools in China were engaged in this dispute, a Chinese school named Chan (which, around the 7th century CE, would enter Japan and become known as Zen) took the opposite approach by keeping a distance from this messy debate. The Chan school decided to reject all Buddhist scripture and the practice of meditation was turned into the most important element, overshadowing all others. This feature of the Buddhist Chan school would remain later in the Japanese Zen school and even today the role of meditation is so important in Zen Buddhism that the attention to rituals, scriptures and other doctrinal material is of very little importance.