Studying Mahayana Sutras

by Ratnaghosha

After many years of focussing mainly on the Pali Canon I have recently begun to study some Mahayana sutras. In particular, I’m looking into The White Lotus Sutra and the Vimalakirti Nirdesa. The world of a Mahayana sutra is a very different world to the Pali Canon (or at least most of the Pali Canon).

I have four different translations of the Lotus Sutra and three translations of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, and it’s interesting to see the scholars struggling to make sense of the texts. Indeed, I am full of admiration and gratitude to them for how well they manage to convey the sense of what is being pointed to.

In Great Faith, Great Wisdom by Ratnaguna and Sraddhapa, there is a fascinating article by Sraddhapa about the nature of translation. He speaks of translation as a near impossible task and yet one that must be done. To translate is to betray the text and not to translate is to betray humanity. He quotes the Italian saying “traduttore, traditore”, which is a play on words and sounds that works well in Italian but becomes pedestrian when translated. It means, “to translate is to betray”. 

This impossible task is made even more difficult by the demands of some Mahayana sutras. These sutras are not necessarily trying to convey ideas or concepts, they are creatively activating the imagination and drawing us into a universe where concepts are relegated to the background. To study some Mahayana sutras requires a total immersion of ourselves. Visualisation, questioning, reflection, meditation, recitation, and puja are all legitimate approaches to the wonderful world of a Mahayana Sutra, especially the two I’ve mentioned,  and if we do manage to immerse ourselves, we can experience many joys and insights.

Ratnaghosha is a member of the Dharma Team since Summer 2021 who focuses on deepening his understanding of Bhante’s presentation of the Dharma and helping others do the same. He has recently enjoyed leading study for Future Dharma Fund meetings and the Men’s Regional Order Convenors. The Dharma Team are available to respond to requests for Dharmic input during gatherings at Adhisthana.

A picture containing calendar

Description automatically generated
A picture containing background pattern

Description automatically generated
English (UK)