What Is a Sutra in Buddhism?

Sutras Are Different in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism

Buddhas at Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand
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In general, a sutra is a religious teaching, usually taking the form of aphorisms or short statements of beliefs. The word "sutra" practically means the same thing in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, however, the sutras are different according to each belief structure. For example, Buddhists believe the sutras are the teaching of Buddha.

Hindus attribute the earliest sutras to Vedic literature and the principle teachings of Brahma from approximately 1500 B.C., and followers of the Jain tradition believe the earliest sutras are canonical sermons of Mahavira contained in the Jain Agamas, the foundational texts of Jainism.

Sutra Defined by Buddhism

In Buddhism, the word sutra means Sanskrit for "thread" and refers to a set of official teachings. Sutta is the interchangeable word in Pali, which is the religious language of Buddhism. Originally, the word was used to identify oral teachings thought to have been given directly by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), approximately around 600 B.C. 

The sutras were recited from memory by the Buddha's disciple, Ananda, at the First Buddhist Council. From Ananda's memory, they called the "Sutra-pitaka" and became part of the Tripitaka, which means the "three baskets," the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures. The Tripitaka, also known as the "Pali Canon," which had been passed on by oral tradition was first committed to written form about 400 years after the death of the Buddha. 

Various Forms of Buddhism

During Buddhism's more than 2,500 years of history, several thriving sects have emerged, each with a unique take on the teachings of Buddha and daily practice.

The definition of what makes up the sutras varies by the type of Buddhism you follow, for example, Theravada, Vajrayana, Mahayana, or Zen Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism

In Theravadan Buddhism, the teachings in the Pali Canon that are believed to be from the Buddha's actual spoken words remain the only teachings officially recognized as part of the sutra canon.

Vajrayana Buddhism

In Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, however, it is believed that not only the Buddha, but also respected disciples can, and have, given teachings that are part of the official canon. In those branches of Buddhism, not only are the texts from the Pali Canon accepted, but also other texts that are not traced to the original oral recitations of the Buddha's disciple, Ananda. Even so, these texts are thought to include truth emanating from Buddha-nature and thus are regarded as sutras.

Mahayana Buddhism

The largest branch of Buddhism, which branched from the original form of Theravadan Buddhism, acknowledge sutras other than those that came from Buddha. The famous "Heart Sutra" from the Mahayana branch is among one of the very important sutras that are acknowledged as not coming from the Buddha. These later sutras, also regarded as essential texts by many Mahayana schools, are included in what is called the Northern or Mahayana Canon.

Excerpt from the Heart Sutra:

Therefore, know that Prajna Paramita
is the great transcendent mantra
is the great bright mantra,
is the utmost mantra,
is the supreme mantra,
which is able to relieve all suffering
and is true, not false.
So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra,
proclaim the mantra which says:

gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

Zen Buddhism

There are some texts that are called sutras but are not. An example of this is the "Platform Sutra," which contains the biography and discourses of the 7th-century Ch'an master Hui Neng. The work is one of the treasures of Ch'an and Zen literature. It is generally and cheerfully agreed that the "Platform Sutra" is not, in fact, a sutra, but it is called a sutra nonetheless.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "What Is a Sutra in Buddhism?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 16, 2018, thoughtco.com/sutra-449693. O'Brien, Barbara. (2018, April 16). What Is a Sutra in Buddhism? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sutra-449693 O'Brien, Barbara. "What Is a Sutra in Buddhism?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sutra-449693 (accessed April 21, 2018).