Q: What is the theory that Mahayana sutras are not the words of the Buddha?
The theory that Mahayana sutras are not Buddhism refers to the assertion that the three Pure Land sutras (The Larger Sutra of Infinite Life , The Amida Sutra, and The Sutra of Contemplation on the Buddha of Infinite Life) as well as the Lotus Sutra, Flower Garland Sutra, and all other texts of what is known as Mahayana Buddhism were not preached by Shakyamuni Buddha but are the artistic creations of a great man who lived four or five hundred years after Shakyamuni’s death. This theory was much touted in Indian Buddhism, and was first introduced to Japan in the Tokugawa era by a man named Tominaga Nakamoto (1715-1746). His argument influenced Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843) to reject Buddhism altogether and set off the fuse leading to the violent haibutsu kishaku (“abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni”) movement during the Meiji Restoration. Master Shinran wrote in his magnum opus, Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment, as follows: The true sutra is The Larger Sutra of Infinite Life. ----“Chapter on Teaching” He also declared in The Hymn of True Faith: Shakyamuni Buddha appeared in this world solely to teach the ocean-like Primal Vow of Amida. In this way, Master Shinran taught that The Larger Sutra of Infinite Life and the two other Pure Land sutras are the actual words of Shakyamuni Buddha. For we who believe that Master Shinran’s teachings are the direct words of Amida, transmitted by Shakyamuni Buddha and the seven patriarchs without any admission of personal opinion, the theory that Mahayana texts are not Buddhism is nothing but scholars’ insignificant, empty theorizing. The words of Master Shinran are Buddha’s teaching that permeates the Three Worlds, and so they can never alter according to the trends or theories of the time. To take a practical view of the matter, if the Mahayana sutras are not the words of Shakyamuni, who else could have created such wonderful sutras? That question demands an answer. Since bodhisattvas including Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Asanga all read the Mahayana sutras as sermons of Shakyamuni, it would have to be someone holier than them. But apart from Shakyamuni, all of Indian history contains no holy man surpassing Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu. Had such a great man lived, it is unimaginable that his name would not have been recorded in history. Some people attempt to prove historically that the Mahayana texts are indeed sermons of Shakyamuni, but since all scientific theories are built on assumption, the arguments go back and forth without end. Even if it were demonstrated academically that the Mahayana texts are the words of Shakyamuni, that would not lead to our salvation. The Mahayana texts reveal a particularly deep world of Buddhist wisdom. Therefore, one cannot know whether or not these are the words of the Buddha without inconceivable faith. Here is what Master Shinran said: “Hearing” means that anyone at all hears the origin, beginning to end, of Amida’s Vow without a trace of doubt in his mind. This is “hearing.” ----“Chapter on Faith” in Teaching, Practice, Faith, Enlightenment The “origin, beginning to end” of Amida’s Vow means: “For whose sake did Amida Buddha make the vow?” “How did Amida make the vow?” “What was the result of the vow?” Master Shinran says that hearing (faith) means the state in which all doubt concerning these particulars is completely rooted out. Unless one thoroughly acquires true faith and doubt toward Amida Buddha’s Vow is eradicated, all debate is mere empty theorizing. When we attain other-power faith, Amida Buddha’s light of wisdom fills us with the clear knowledge that “the true sutra is The Larger Sutra of Infinite Life.”
The Larger Sutra of Infinite Life: The one true sutra among all Shakyamuni’s 7,000 sutras.
(Petals of Shinran, Wisteria volume 58)