What was the process of writing 'new' suttas like?

If possible I would like to get some clarity about a historical fact: that holy scriptures were sometimes ‘made up’. In the Mahayana there are sutras so fantastic that scholars I guess would agree they are fabrications of late. Still I assume the writers were faithful buddhists, not intentionally lying. And this happened in many religions I guess.
Among kabbahlists for example the book Zohar claims to be of the 2nd century whereas scholarly work shows that it’s rather from the 13th century. In Christianity we have gospels that are old and some that are definitely not. etc. etc.

Yet, I’m not interested in fraud, but rather: what are (as far as we can know) the circumstances under which somebody writes and spreads new pseudo-old scriptures? are these for them revelations or nimittas in ecstatic or visionary states of mind? so I wonder if there is some good scholarly work on that, for example about mahanaya sutras.

It’s hard to find a better introduction than Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (2nd edition) by Paul Williams. Your question is addressed in the first two chapters.

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There was certainly an element of meditative visioning going on; some of the Mahayana Sutras explicitly state this.

But this should detract from the degree of formalistic precision that, at least in some cases, they embody.

The Mahayana sutras are like the Star Wars prequels. To someone brought up on the originals, the prequels are a travesty, losing sight of character and humanity in their obsessive focus on effects. No-one with the originals in their bones could ever think of the prequels as authentic. But if you’re born in latter days, you might see the originals as primitive, lacking polish and sophistication.

But more than that, they were composed according to exactly the same formal principles. Both the Star Wars prequels and the Prajnaparamita Sutras are based on chiasmus, or “ring structure”. This is a highly intricate, artificial structure, which in these texts is applied at such a vast scale that it is completely invisible; except to the very clever people who devoted many hours of study to uncover it!

Is there a significance to this? I believe there is. I believe that the use of such an elaborate formal structure is a sign of aesthetic decadence. And in both cases it arises from someone who is entranced by the possibilities of a new technology. For the prequels this was digital effects; for the Prajnaparamita, it was writing. This enabled the development of artificial structures in a new way, influenced, ironically enough, by the Abhidhamma texts of which they were so critical.

In art, when such artificial formalisms come to predominate, it signifies a shift from art that reflects life to art that reflects other art.

The main concern of the original Star Wars was to show that the most insignificant person could rise to become a hero by relying on their own sense of connection and intuitive wisdom. The main concern of the prequels was to set up the plot of the originals.

Similarly, the main concern of the Suttas is to respond to peoples’ suffering, and show that anyone can transcend it through their own wisdom. The main concern of the Prajnaparamita is to critique Abhidhamma philosophy. (For the record, I think that critique is correct. I just don’t think it matters very much, except to philosophers.)


We know they faced criticism by some people in the Buddhist community, but the Mahāyāna sūtras do clearly make their own claims about authorship. Although they were spoken by the bodhisattvas, major and early Mahāyāna sūtras claim to have done so through the power of the Buddha. They viewed any correct teaching of the Dharma as coming from the Buddha himself, and therefore being buddhavacana.

The most important source for this justification are the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, and its verse form, the Prajñāpāramitā Ratnaguṇasaṃcaya Gāthā gives a more poetic account. We also see the same sort of justification given in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Mañjuśrīparivarta Sūtra. In others, we see somewhat different accounts of teachings being given directly to bodhisattvas who have cultivated certain samādhis or entered certain realms.

Today people have a hard time imagining such justifications, but then this also shows how far removed Buddhist culture today is from what a certain strain of Indian Buddhism was like around 2000 years ago. If we want to understand another time and place, then we have to maintain some degree of sympathy to the ideas rather than refuting them outright.

For that matter, we see the same type of effect with the more supramundane descriptions of the Buddha. Few people today can understand them or take them seriously, but they were extremely influential all throughout India for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, by not attempting to understand or appreciate these ideas, we distance ourselves from developing a richer understanding of past Buddhist traditions.


Thanks, these are the kind of cultural links I was missing. So if I understand correctly (and I might be wrong) you see historically two pathways for new sutras to emerge:

  • a bodhisattva / highly advanced monk is convinced that he sees something correctly and assumes he can only see it correctly because the power of the Buddha works through him, a kind of ‘channeling’? So he would see himself as a tool for the real Buddha to reveal material

  • bodhisattvas / highly advanced monks would have deep meditations and in their samadhis / attained realms they would get direct teachings from Buddhas

If that is more or less what you see described in those sutras, then the next question is indeed a cultural one: when & where was this an accepted practice? did it depend on the importance of that monk for the community? was this a pan-indian accepted procedure, or only in certain groups / sects? and would we expect this also in pali-suttas?

To illustrate this with examples: Brahma Sahampatti famously asks the Buddha to teach, but If I remember correctly this part is missing in the Chinese parallel. Would this have been an accepted & true vision/revelation by a revered elder?

Other examples: If we read into biographies of Ven. Ajahn Mun or Dipa Ma we find accounts of exceptional visions and experiences involving (past) Buddha(s). I wouldn’t dare to criticize those, as a critic I’m left with ‘What do I know? It’s Ajahn Mun!!’ And I can imagine how monastics would be even more willing to accept it as a true revelation. Projecting it into the past, maybe a past when monks frequently had deep samadhis and nimittas like that I wonder if we can account some of the even sober suttas/sutras to that phenomenon.

It’s not so much about opinions but if we have historical records about how accepted these events were, when and where…

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There are a lot of questions here, and suffice it to say, it really depended on the time period, monastery, local teachers, etc. The general idea was that there were some monastics who believed the Mahāyāna teachings and there were others who did not. Often it would depend on their teacher or maybe their peer group. Sometimes an entire monastery in India would accept Mahāyāna, while another might be completely against it. In other cases it was mixed.

In the earlier period of Mahāyāna teachings, the followers of Mahāyāna generally come off as more defensive and more concerned with spreading the teachings. In the later period after it had become quite mainstream, then those who were against Mahāyāna seem more defensive and concerned with refuting the teachings.

Some of it was geographic as well, and Mahāyāna teachings definitely had “hot spots” in India where they prospered. One stronghold was southern India, in the Andhra region among the Mahāsāṃghikas. Another was generally in the Northwest, like in Gandhara, among various groups. Some Mahāyāna sūtras can even be traced to specific monastic sects in India.

The key figure was the dharmabhāṇaka, or preacher of the Dharma. These people were teachers at monasteries who would teach the meanings of the sūtras. Some accounts of how they are to preach the Mahāyāna teachings is actually given in the Mahāyāna sūtras themselves. For example, it was often done formally at Uposatha, with the preacher sitting upon a throne, teaching through the day and night. The preacher would expect to receive questions and answer questions, sometimes from hostile listeners. We do see other contexts as well, though, such as teaching to laypeople in cities and villages.

David Drewes has done some work on this authorship question. The following paper gives many more details, drawing from parts of texts that were typically ignored or glossed over in the past.

Dharmabhāṇakas in Early Mahāyāna


LLT: I found your website. Beautiful, and thanks for this. I found this entry on the “News” page, also wonderful:

There is a new translation of a small text called Jie Zi Shu (戒子書), or “Admonition to My Son,” attributed to Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮), the famous military strategist from the Three Kingdoms era. This short text is a letter written to his son, instructing him on how to study and cultivate himself well. This text continues to be used as a guide for personal development. http://lapislazulitexts.com/ancient_china/jie_zi_shu_zhuge_liang

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I can recommend two very recent papers:

Seishi Karashima (2015): Who Composed the Mahāyāna Scriptures?
Karashima argues and tries to prove that what we call now Mahayana concepts were possible in a Mahasamgika environment but was irreconcilable with Sarvastivada - first not as sutras but in Q&As (similar to a few suttas and maybe similar to the Milindapanha?). Only much later they got the title of Mahayana sutras.

David Drewes (2016): Mahayana Sutras
Drewes shows the development of our notion of Mahayana - and that they are bending the truth. Neither Mahayana as compassion-based, nor as a movement of lay-followers, nor of hardcore ascetics.

I searched a lot for my questions but couldn’t get further. I’m not so much interested which tradition/group produced which sutras but rather: How could it happen that a monk invented a sutra? I at least wouldn’t dare to compose a sutta with the Buddha speaking and acting. Was that more acceptable in distant past - as long as the content was in accord with the Dhamma? And if it was acceptable, how far does it go?

For example I was reading into Bingenheimer’s Samyukta Agama translation and found myself almost like reading the commented version of the Dhammapada - the verses in the sutras seemes important, and the pari-text seemed like a nice (and often fantastic) story.

Could that have been a normal procedure, that as long as the verses in a sutta were ‘reliable’ words of the Buddha the backstory could have been taken more casually from (hi)stories of teachers?