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Religion Library: Buddhism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Julia Hardy

Another popular sutra is one that buttressed the growing lay movement within Mahayana Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Sutra. In this sutra, Vimalakirti is critical of the non-Mahayana schools, using the pejorative term Hinayana (small vehicle), because, he says, they are not interested in assisting others, but think only of their own enlightenment. Vimalakirti is then revealed as a bodhisattva who has incarnated to assist the Buddha in expounding the true ideals of the Mahayana.

For many lay people, the polemics in this sutra are less interesting than the fact that Vimalakirti was not a renunciant, but a wealthy lay follower of the Buddha. Many Buddhists had understood the Buddha's teachings to mean that one must renounce possessions and social connections to follow his teachings. Vimalakirti, however, was enlightened, like the Buddha, despite his wealth and lay status. The sutra thus validated the lay approach to Buddhism that became increasingly popular as Buddhism spread from India into other parts of Asia.

The Amitabha and Longer Amitabha Sutras tell the story of Dharmakara, who devoted millions of lifetimes to become Amitabha, the Buddha of the Pure Land. He was once a great king who gave up his throne to become a monk and began to practice the way of the bodhisattva. He went to the Buddha Lokesvararaja and expressed the wish that someday he could become a teacher to all living beings, and liberate all from suffering and rebirth.

Dharmakara then devoted five eons to cultivation and one hundred billion years of study to build up the required merit and design a Pure Land for living beings to go to after death. When his task was finally complete, he became the Buddha of this Pure Land, Amitabha. Now one has only to call the name Amitabha with sincerity at the moment of death, and one will be transported to this Pure Land, and will be exempt from rebirth. The Pure Land is beautiful and peaceful, but it also a place where one can continue to study Buddhism with the eventual goal of enlightenment and the dissolution of self.

There are many other popular sutras, including the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, just to name a few. Some of these have, like the Lotus Sutra, become the focal points for particular sects of Buddhism, and adherents will copy and recite them to gain merit. These sutras and others contain stories that are learned by children and repeated by elders because of the wisdom of the lessons they contain.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the most famous “story” within the Lotus Sutra, and what does it teach?
2.     Why are Mahayana and Hinayana schools of Buddhism referred to as the “large” and “small” vehicles, respectively?
3.     Why aren't the Buddhist sacred texts based solely upon the life of Gautama Siddhartha?