Proto-Mahayana Features in the Agama Sutras?


The list I was looking at had:

For kings:

  1. Stealing from a place of worship or the saṃgha, or inciting others to do so.

  2. Forcing others to give up the Dharma and creating obstacles for the teachings.

  3. Forcing monastics to give up their monastic robes and abusing them.

  4. Committing any of the five heinous deeds.

  5. Advocating the philosophy of the non-existence of causality.

For ministers:

  1. Stealing from a place of worship or the saṃgha.

  2. Destroying a village, district, or town.

  3. Forcing others to give up the Dharma and creating obstacles for the teachings.

  4. Harming monastics by taking away their robes, punishing, or even killing them.

  5. Committing any of the five heinous deeds.

For śrāvakas:

  1. Killing.

  2. Taking what is not given.

  3. Impure conduct.

  4. Lying.

  5. Harming a buddha.

For beginner bodhisattvas:

  1. Teaching the profound Dharma of emptiness to spiritually immature people.

  2. Discouraging people from practicing the Mahāyāna path.

  3. Discouraging people from practicing the vinaya of individual liberation.

  4. Disparaging the śrāvaka path, saying it obstructs one from attaining enlightenment and from eradicating the afflictions.

  5. Praising oneself and lying out of jealousy and for the sake of gain and honor.

  6. Deceiving others, claiming one has realized the profound teachings on emptiness when one has not.

  7. Causing fines to be imposed on monastics and offering the bribes received to the kṣatriyas.

  8. Causing monastics to abandon their contemplative training and diverting offerings intended for contemplative monastics to benefit monastics engaged in mere recitation practice.

But this seems to be a minority list. The actual text I was thinking of, Śikṣāsamuccaya, has this ordering of the root downfalls:

(1)To steal the Triple Jewel’s possessions
Is said to be a downfall of complete defeat.
(2)The second downfall is to spurn the saddharma ,
So the sage has said.
(3)The third is to assault the monks or to take their saffron robes-
Even from the ones who spoil their discipline,
To sentence them to jail, to kill
Or cause them to abandon their monastic state.
(4)The fourth is to commit the five sins of instant retribution.
(5)The fifth is to espouse wrong views.
(6)The sixth is to destroy a homestead and the rest:
All these are fundamental downfalls, so the sage has said.
(7)Then to set forth emptiness
To those whose minds are yet untrained;
(8)To turn those entering the path to buddhahood
Away from their complete enlightenment;
(9)To cause the ones who tread the path of pratimokṣa
To leave it for the great vehicle;
(10)To hold, and to lead others to believe,
That on the path of small vehicle learning
Craving and the like cannot be overcome;

(11) To praise oneself for sake of fame and wealth

(Venerable Khenchen Kunzang Pelden, jam dbyangs bla ma’i zhal lung bdud rtsi’i thig pa , 141-2, commentary on Ven Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, quoting Śikṣāsamuccaya LXI paraphrasing the Āryākāśa­garbha­nāmamahā­yānasūtra)

So this has it at 10, where I thought it was originally.


Yeah, I caught that myself and fixed it. 猶 by itself often means “yet/still.”




I see but this appears the lists different from the lay people The Bodhisattva Vow / Precepts which consists of 6 major vows and 28 minor vows .


Thanks. I will amend the above and make a note of your corrections and @Gene’s.


As far as I know, the second list contained the root downfalls of the beginner bodhisattva. What list are you referring to? I think we are talking about the same thing, but there may be a misunderstanding.

The way I’ve been introduced to this list is such that it applied equally to lay and ordained peoples. To cite a text, instead of personal instruction, this is also how Ven Khenchen Kunzang Pelden’s exegesis of them is as well.


Anyone who has vowed to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings is a bodhisattva. Even in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, where precept-keeping is not required, one attains Buddhahood in the Pure Land and immediately returns to this world in service to all beings.


The Pali canon is an ocean of wisdom. I came to this conclusion several years ago, after reading In the Buddha’s Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Chinese canon is an ocean of wisdom as well. One is not superior to the other.


If we were to look as neutrally as possible at the early Buddhist texts available to us, could one take seriously the proto-Mahayana elements of the Chinese agamas as more than later accretions? According to this article, the doctrine of multiple contemporaneous buddhas is found in many places of the Chinese agamas, and the concept of store-consciousness can be found too: Agama - Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia


I guess it’s a matter of terminology and when I say this I say this in reference specifically to those Ekottarāgama scriptures above and those like them. Why does the 菩薩摩訶薩, the púsà móhēsà, the bodhisattva mahāsattva, only appear in a handful of alleged śrāvaka scriptures and is the norm in bodhisattva literature? Why doesn’t the Buddha mention bodhisattva (mahāsattva) practitioners in any other of his historical literature?

Bodhisattva is one thing, it is a term from EBTs, it is a feature of śrāvaka Buddhism particularly when that śrāvaka Buddhism is in Sanskrit. But “mahāsattva” is a bhūmika term, that is to say it references bodhisattva bhūmayaḥ, the “ten (or so) stages,” particularly the avaivartika bhūmayaḥ or “irreversible stages.” Beings at this set of stages, 7-10 in the Buddhāvataṁsaka (Flower Garland) tradition of daśabhūmika/10-stager mysticism, are all degrees of Buddhas. This is consonant with the presentation in Abhisamayālaṁkāra. This mahāsattva/móhēsà is a reference to Mahāyānika “people of the path” literature, the rest of which is demonstrably newer than this material in the Ekottarāgama.

Daśabhūmika literature is welded to the six perfections as a practice framework. Take even for instance a short common text like the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya.

The Lord Who Gazes Down, the Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the wisdom-perfection, perceives that all five aggregates are empty and is saved from all suffering and distress.
(T251.848c7 based on translation here)

Kannon is moving deep within the prajñāpāramitā at the sixth bodhisattvabhūmi, the abhimukhībhūmi or the stage of the manifest. She is headed towards the seventh bhūmi, the dūraṁgamābhūmi or the “Stage Gone Afar.” In short, according to various diverse schemata like those in the Buddhāvataṁsaka Mahāyānika and Abhisamayālaṁkāra Tantric traditions, she is “becoming a mahāsattva.” This stage that is “Gone Afar” is the first of the irreversible stages, the avaivartikāḥ bhūmayaḥ, enlightenment. That terminology should be familiar with anyone who knows this sūtra or even it’s ending mantra: gate gate pāragate pārasaṁgate bodhi svāhā, “gone, gone, all gone, all entirely gone, bodhi svāhā,” which Ven Thích Nhất Hạnh will translate as "“Gone, Gone, Gone beyond Gone utterly beyond. Oh, what an Awakening.” She is “going/gone afar” indeed. The prajñāpāramitā is practiced, perfected, and renounced, at the close of the 6th bhūmi.

This transition from the 6th to 7th bhūmi is nothing short of awakening itself, as demonstrated by the rest of that scripture. The sixth perfection closes off the progress to awakening, and the Heart Sūtra is an apocryphal account of Āryāvalokiteśvara’s enlightenment.

So is it more likely the entirety of X body of literature is as old as Y, flying in the face of all other consensus about Y, or that X-ist editors have interpreted the scriptures of Y in translation or editing?

Like I said before, terminology. Notice above, T251.848c7, the Heart Sūtra. The Sanskrit is well-known.

āryāvalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo gambhīrāṁ prajñāpāramitā caryāṁ caramāṇo vyavalokayati sma: pañcaskandhās tāṁś ca svābhava śūnyān paśyati sma.

Now, if we are able, we can look at various other Chinese translations. We will see they are quite divergent, some incorporating an entire “Thus have I heard, the Buddha dwelt at […]” and these ones include, generally, invented dialogue between the Buddha and Avalokiteśvara, or instead have the Buddha speaking about Avalokiteśvara’s experience in the depths of the wisdom-perfection. Sometimes Mañjuśrī’s along for the ride too. I can isolate one of these latter textual parallels, one that clearly preserves a redaction of the sentence we have been discussing, here:

As Avalokiteśvara bodhisattva mahāsattva practiced deep the prajñāpāramitā, she looked and saw the five aggregates, that of self-nature they all were empty.

Now of the various highly divergent Heart Sūtra traditions of translations, this has one of the closest textual parallels but we still see something there: 觀自在菩薩摩訶薩, Guānzìzài púsà móhēsà, Avalokiteśvara bodhisattva mahāsattva. In fact, you can see this fuller epithet used in all of the divergent latter traditions of the Heart Sūtra extant in the Taishō Canon.

This brings is back to the EBT from above:

If the bodhisattva mahāsattva has attained śamatha already, he is immediately able subdue Māra, the enemy;
(EA20.7, T125.600a29)

We have seen translators insert 摩訶薩, móhēsà, into texts like T255.850b23 where there exists no equivalent Sanskrit with āryāvalokiteśvaro bodhisattvo mahāsattvo gambhīrāṃ prajñāpāramitā. Indeed according to various daśabhūmika schemata this sūtra depicts the becoming to be of a mahāsattva.

If translators can clumsily and arbitrarily insert “mahāsattva” into a Mahāyānika text when it goes from Indic to Sinitic, as it were, why couldn’t they just as easily have done this here in this translation?

Unless I’m wrong in the above. Does anyone know the earliest appearance of mahāsattva? Is it ever in EBTs other than this one?


A quick search of CBETA shows that appears only 4 times in the four Chinese Agama collections, twice in the Ekottarika and Samyukta each. In the Samyukta, I think they may be in the Avadana material that scholars believe were added to replace a couple fascicles lost along the way. It does also appear quite a few times in a Sung dynasty translation of the Seven Buddhas Sutra (= DN.14)–quite a bit later in history than the four Agamas during the 900s CE. That’s an example of how we can see texts and ideas evolve historically in Chinese translation.

By contrast, it’s found more commonly in Jataka and Avadana collections translated during the same period as the four Agamas. Dharmaraksa’s Compassionate Flower Sutra (T152), for example, has the transliteration over 80 times. The other versions are the same for that text–the term is common. Not all of the Avadanas are like that, though. The Abhisniskramana (T190), which is a major Buddha biography text, doesn’t use the term (at least not the transliteration). It’s probably that different traditions in India adopted it sooner than others.


Well, when I look at it as neutrally as possible, I don’t really think of it as proto-Mahayana. It’s bodhisattva theory that was adopted into the mainstream of the oral tradition in India. It’s pretty clear that different sects of Buddhism accepted that the Buddha was one of many and that buddhas arise because of bodhisattvas doing what he did. The whole thing is basically a theory of the dependent origination of buddhas.

In many texts depicting other contemporaneous buddhas, they are placed in distant world-systems other than our own, probably to get around the rule of only one buddha to a world. It would be interested to know when that concept began. It’s very sci-fi to me (which I like)!

The store consciousness, as a Yogacara concept, isn’t in the Agamas, but there were passages that Asanga cited as precedent for developing the concept. There’s a voluminous section of Agama citations supporting his ideas in the Yogacara-bhumi, for example.


Absolutely. I mentioned the Heart Sūtra above and following the textual evolution and diverse manuscript history of this dhāraṇī turned sūtra is a fascinating adventure in the organic growth, evolution, and production of Buddhist literature in historical Buddhist cultures.

For those who don’t know, the Heart Sūtra is most likely a distillation of prajñāpāramitā material, a readers digest of a large body of literature, produced I think sometime after 500 CE. It quotes the prajñāpāramitā literature, apparently, by means of a particular Chinese translation of the work attributed to Ven Nāgārjuna. I believe the work is Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa but I am not sure. Several academics have been participating in this fascinating shared inquiry into the roots of this scripture, the most famous of which I believe is Jan Nattier who published this article, which got the ball rolling, so to speak, in this direction.

I’ll edit this post to include some fascinating links on the above inquiry when I have time in a few. Describing the Heart Sūtra text as a prajñāpāramitā “digest text” is actually from Jayarava’s series of articles on the subject matter.

Edit: here is the original article by Jan Nattier

I have disagreements with this author and many of the things he says, but here is a series of extended meditations on the issue brought to fore by Nattier and taken up by Jayarava Attwood.

This is him dipping his toe into the matter:

And this is him with his final (AFAIK) thesis on the matter, that he claims he can pinpoint the exact moment of the creation of a Sanskrit back-translation into Sanskrit from Chinese during the Tang dynasty based on comparative linguistic analysis of the Sanskrit and Chinese as well as by tracing certain tantric anachronisms in the Sanskrit text. There is a lot of valuable information, for certain, but I can’t help but cautious of the absolute language employed by Attwood. This is purely an insubstantial and personal opinion, but it seems to me the man figures he’s got everything perfectly figured out. Nattier’s articles are much less ambitious, but much less extreme and have a cautiousness which I prefer.

Here is another follow-up from Attwood (I think it is earlier than his Tang Dynasty Forgery piece) and IMO it is better written that a lot of the stuff from the blog above:'Epithets_of_the_Mantra'_in_the_Heart_Sutra

He also published an work on the above explorations: The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies . 15, 9-27, published 2018.

And, to be thorough, here is a rebuttal to the above work arguing against a Chinese apocryphal origin for this Mahāyānika scripture: (PDF) Issues Surrounding the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier’s Theory of a Composition by Xuanzang | ISHII Kosei -

This paper also argues for a Sanskritic origin for the sūtra: (PDF) The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch'ŭk and K'uei-chi | Dan Lusthaus -

Another fascinating work that studies the differences between the various recensions of the Heart Sūtra is Kaz Kanahashi’s The Heart Sutra: A comprehensive guide to the classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Is it not nearly as expensive as more heavy academic works but is also considerably lighter a read.


Yes, I recall when this was taken up by many scholar and practitioners a few years back (hmm, maybe over ten years now?). I’m sympathetic to the questions about the text’s origin because I personally think the possibilities of what can happen over the course of hundreds of years is something we minimize. It’s possible someone who knew Sanskrit superficially in East Asia did try their hand at creating a Sanskrit text from Chinese to chant. Then someone carried it to India. And then it was carried back and translated to Chinese. Etc.

At the same, there are multiple versions in Chinese as well, not just this one that was most popular. My overall conclusion is :man_shrugging: