The Mahayana sutras are distributed into six great collections, the first five of which represent natural divisions, while the last consists of miscellaneous independent works. First comes the group of Prajnaparamita or’ Perfection of Wisdom’ sutras, of which there are more than thirty, ranging in length from some thousands of pages to a few lines.
Their principal subject-matter is sunyata or Voidness, and the Bodhisattva as the practitioner of Voidness, and they are among the profoundest spiritual documents known to mankind. The Vajracchedika, popularly known as the ‘Diamond Sutra’, forms one of the shorter texts in this class.
The Avatamsaka or ‘Flower-Ornament’ group consists principally of three enormous and complex discourses of that name, one of which, also known as the Gandavyuha or ‘World-Array’ Sutra, describes the spiritual pilgrimage of the youth Sudhana, who in his search for Enlightenment visits more than fifty teachers. In a boldly imaginative manner it expounds the mutual interpenetration of all phenomena.
The Dasabhumika Sutra, dealing with the ten stages of the Bodhisattva’s career, also belongs to this group. The Ratnakuta and Mahasannipata groups are both made up of much shorter sutras, the former including such valuable and historically important works as the Vimalakirti-nirdesa or ‘Exposition of Vimalaklrti’ and the longer Sukhavati-vyuha or ‘Array of the Happy Land’.
As its name suggests the Nirvana or Parinirvana group deals with the Buddha’s last days and his final admonitions to his disciples the sixth and last group that of the miscellaneous independent works, includes some of the most important and influential of all Mahayana sutras. Among them are the grandiose Saddharma- pundarika or ‘White Lotus of the Good Law’, which presents in dramatic and parabolic form the main truths of the Mahayana, the Lankavatara, an unsystematic exposition of the doctrine of Mind-Only, and the shorter Sukhavati-vyuha, in which is taught salvation by faith in Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light.
Abhidharma means ‘about Dharma’, though traditionally the term was often interpreted as ‘higher Dharma’ in the sense of a philosophically more exact exposition of the Teaching. The Abhidharma Pitaka is a collection of highly scholastic treatises which annotate and explain the texts of the Sutra Pitaka, define technical terms, arrange numerically-classified doctrines in order, give a systematic philosophical exposition of the teaching, and establish a consistent method of spiritual practice.
Above all, they interpret the Dharma in terms of strict pluralistic realism and work out an elaborate philosophy of relations. Two different Abhidharma Pitakas have come down to us, one compiled by the Theravadins and one by the Sarvastivadins. Each contains seven treatises which, though covering similar ground in a similar manner, are really two independent sets of works.
Among the Theravada treatises the most important are the Dhamma- sangani or ‘Enumeration of (Ultimate) Elements’ and the gigantic Patthdna or ‘(Book of) Origination’. The most important Sar Vastivada work is the encyclopedic Jndna-prasthana or ‘Establishment of Knowledge’, which is known as the kaya-sastra or ‘trunk treatise’, the others being the pada-Sastras or ‘limbs’.
According to Theravada tradition the AbhidharmaPitaka is canonical inasmuch as, though the details are the work of disciples, the matrikas or ‘matrices of discourse’ were laid down in advance by the Buddha. Sarvastivada tradition ascribes the treatises to individual authors.
The philosophical writings of the great Mahayana sages, such as Nagarjuna and Asanga, which stand in the same relation to the Mahayana sutras as the Abhidharma treatises do to their Hlnayana counterparts, are sometimes referred to as the Mahayana Abhidharma-, but, although immensely authoritative, they were never collected into a Pitaka.