Six Buddhist Sutras You Should Know | Lion’s Roar (2024)

Forest of Fear

When her husband was diagnosed with cancer, Allyson Pimentel was terrified. The Karaniya Metta Sutta helped her find ease.

When was the first time I encountered the Buddha’s sermon on loving-kindness, the Karaniya Metta Sutta?

Was it in the first practitioners’ course I took as a budding student of the dharma two and a half decades ago? Was it when it was recited during a dharma talk on the metta retreat I attended some years later? Was it just now, as I scanned the sutta before settling in front of the fire to write these reflections? When was it exactly?

I don’t know, and here is why: for me, the Karaniya Metta Sutta exists outside of time and space. Although it can float down like a leaf from a tree, rain down like a sun-shower, lodge deep down into the center of my being, and raise up what’s down to hold it in the light for healing, the Karaniya Metta Sutta can’t be pinned down or contained. Although I’ve encountered this sutta many times, each encounter, each attempt to contemplate and live its teachings, is new.

The Karaniya Metta Sutta was delivered by the Buddha to a group of monks meditating in the forest who were afraid of the unseen spirits and dangers lurking around them. The Buddha offered them this teaching as an antidote to their fear: he instructed them to shine the light of their goodwill on themselves and all beings, even those who scared them the most.

Now, as I sit in front of the fire and reflect on my encounters with the Karaniya Metta Sutta, I’m catapulted back to the forest of my own fears—the year I supported my husband as he went through a grueling treatment for cancer. During the harrowing trek through diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and eventual recovery, loving-kindness was our lifeline, plumb line, protection, and medicine.

The Pali word metta (loving-kindness) is derived from the word mitta, which means “friend,” or perhaps more fully, “true friend in need.” During our time in the fearful forest of cancer, we needed each other, we needed others, and we needed loving-kindness and goodwill. We were true friends in need.

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A wise sister friend sent me metta in our text chats. Acknowledging my suffering, she offered her open-hearted presence and modeled a spaciousness I was then able to hold for my husband. “You can always call me,” she wrote. “I can listen. I can’t do much else, but I can hold space for your fear, or anger, or whatever else, and reassure you that feeling those things seems appropriate. It’s your body’s way of protecting you and giving you information to help usher you into a new, very difficult experience.”

She invoked the enlarged state of mind and boundless heart in the face of difficulty, of which the Buddha spoke. “Yes, this is happening,” she wrote. “Remember to breathe and be kind with yourself. Hold yourself, reassure yourself, and acknowledge that this is hard. Even if there’s a good prognosis. Even if it’s going to be okay. Even if…. It is so hard.”

Like the monks who were instructed to send loving-kindness and goodwill to all beings, even to the entities in the forest who scared them, my husband and I set out to regard his cancer as a formidable experience to be reckoned with, rather than despised. We respected the lessons it was teaching us, even though we didn’t like them. We practiced guided loving-kindness meditations together and apart.

The Karaniya Metta Sutta helped me accept that as much as I wanted to completely alleviate my husband’s pain, I could not.What I could do was to “remain capable and upright” and offer my openhearted presence—to myself and to him. I accompanied him through the forest, with all its lurking dangers and terrifying night sounds, as far as I could go, and then watched him disappear into the impenetrable thicket of his discomfort.

The sutta reads: “One should reflect: May all be happy and secure; May all beings be happy at heart.” I sent my husband—and all beings who were suffering in a similar way and all the beings who love them—all the metta I could muster.

I sent my husband loving-kindness as he took naps on a mat on the ground in the shifting swaths of sunlight in our backyard: May you be peaceful. I blended metta phrases into the protein shakes he lived on, along with every superfood and healthy fat I could get my hands on: May you be healed and healthy. I massaged metta into the tense muscles around his scar every night: May you live with ease of well-being.

I knew he was beginning to come out of the forest one evening soon after his final session of chemotherapy. We were resting on the couch and, for the first time in the many months since his diagnosis, he reached for my foot to give me a massage. May you be happy, his hands said. My eyes filled with tears. I was.

The Karaniya Metta Sutta isn’t something to know; it’s something to be known again and again, over and over, in new ways and old. It exists in the fertile forests of our hearts and minds; it can be reflected in our friendships, blended into smoothies, and conveyed in texts and through touch. It cannot be contained by space and time.

Where, my friend, do you encounter it?

Undefeated & Unshaken

When you ardently practice clear seeing, it’s always an auspicious day. Gil Fronsdal on the Bhaddekaratta Sutta.

An Auspicious Day (the Bhaddekaratta Sutta) is a beautiful sutta with a poem by the same name at the center of it. In the time of the Buddha, the poem was frequently memorized, recited, and used as a basis for dharma teachings. It’s sometimes seen as the “anthem” of insight (vipassana) practice in the modern world:

Don’t chase the past.
Have no expectations for the future.
The past is left behind,
The future not yet reached.

Clearly see phenomena
As they arise, here and there.
Knowing this—undefeated and unshaken—
Develop the mind.

Ardently do what should be done today—
who knows, death may come tomorrow.
There is no bargaining with mortality
And death’s great army.

Whoever lives thus ardent
—active day and night—
Is, says the peaceful sage,
One who has an auspicious day.

A good part of the poem’s power lies in its reminder of the inevitability of death, something none of us can escape. But rather than treating this as a depressing reality, the poem ends optimistically, claiming that ardently practicing clear seeing, or insight, makes any day “an auspicious day.” The reference to death is meant to encourage ardent practice here and now.

For the Buddha, defining ourselves by the projections and constructs of our mind is always problematic when these are entangled with attachments. He lists five ways we see ourselves born out of attachment, which give birth to further self-definitions.

In thinking about ourselves, we can do so from one of five modes or perspectives, and become attached to it. We could focus on 1) physical characteristics, 2) subjective sensations of pleasure or pain, 3) simple concepts and projections, 4) stories, reactions, and attachments, and 5) the basic cognizing process of knowing, on which the other four are built.

The Buddha called these five modes khandhas (skandhas in Sanskrit). While this word is commonly translated into English as “aggregates,” rendering it as “bundles” may better represent the original idea. The Buddha sometimes referred to them as the five “bundles of attachment.”

In English, these five are usually called form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. This choice of translation, however, gives the impression that they are inherent aspects of a person. For the Buddha, on the other hand, these bundles are constructs of the mind and products of attachment. Their noninherency may be easier to understand if we translate the five as appearances, subjective sensations, concepts, mental constructs, and cognition.

According to the Buddha, when we cling, we’re usually clinging to one of these five constructed divisions of our wholeness. Furthermore, it’s our attachment to particular bundles that defines our reality. Attached to appearances, we select, construct, and prioritize the appearances we think are important. Attached to subjective sensations, our likes and dislikes fixate us on particular sensations. Attached to concepts, we fit our experiences into a conceptual framework. Attached to mental constructs, we spin more stories, opinions, and expectations. Attached to cognition, we construct ideas of a cognizer self and an enduring consciousness.

The Buddha’s analysis of the poem “An Auspicious Day” concerns how we create, cling to, and define ourselves by these five bundles. When we “chase the past,” he says, we’re determining who we were in the past and then indulging in the enjoyment that comes from this construct of self. Having “expectations for the future” involves indulging in the pleasure that comes with our expectations of how we may be in the future.

The Buddha’s explication of being “undefeated” offers a more detailed look at how we construct a self-definition. He defines defeat as imagining that 1) the self is identical to any one of the bundles, 2) the self possesses the bundles, 3) the bundles are contained within the self, or 4) the self is contained within the bundles.

To be caught up in these mentally constructed “imaginings” makes present-moment experiences more complicated than necessary. Anyone wanting insight into the present is defeated if they overlay these self-definitions onto the present. Being undefeated is to be free of projections and “Clearly see phenomena as they arise, here and there.”

The poem ends by declaring that a day spent practicing clear seeing is an “auspicious day.” To have insight into life as it is lived is a great fortune. It leads to happiness and safety. It’s the auspicious practice advocated by the peaceful sage.

Sharp Like a Diamond

With the wisdom of the Diamond Sutra, we cut through all delusions, says Mu Soeng.

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In 1907, the oldest known printed book in the world was discovered in the Dunhuang caves in northwestern China. It was a copy of the Diamond Sutra, printed from a woodblock and dated May 11, 868.

The Diamond Sutra is a text in the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) genre of Indian Mahayana sutras. Its full Sanskrit name is Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra. Vajracchedika literally means “diamond cutter,” and in Buddhist usage, this refers to wisdom that’s sharp like a diamond, which cuts away unnecessary conceptualization and brings one to awakening. In Mahayana iconography, this wisdom that cuts through delusions is symbolized by Manjushri, the celestial bodhisattva holding the sword of wisdom.

The Diamond Sutra is a relatively short text of approximately six thousand words in its English translation. It’s composed of prose and poetry and consists of thirty-one small sections. Its Indian origins are unknown, though it’s assumed to have been originally composed in Sanskrit. Early translations into a number of languages have been found across Central and East Asia, suggesting that the text was widely studied and translated.

The Diamond Sutra has been one of the most influential Mahayana sutras in East Asia since early medieval times. It’s particularly associated with the Chan and Zen Buddhist traditions. (Zen is what Chan came to be known as in Japan.) One of the best-known stories about the Diamond Sutra comes from the autobiographical account of Hui-Neng (ca. 638–713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School. Hui-Neng was as an illiterate young boy selling firewood in the marketplace when he heard a monk recite a verse from the Diamond Sutra, and it triggered an awakening insight in him.

The Diamond Sutra recounts an exchange of questions and answers that take place between the Buddha and his disciple Subhuti about the nature of the ultimate reality of phenomena. The essence of this sutra is encapsulated in its famed concluding verse:

So you should view this fleeting world as—
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

This verse connects the Buddhist practitioner to the Buddha’s core insights into the nature of phenomena. These are impermanence or transience (anicca), and not-self (anatman). These twin insights into impermanence and the lack of any abiding substantiality are the Buddha’s instruction for how we should view the existence of ourselves and all things. The point is not to cling to any manifest phenomena.

This verse orients the Buddhist practitioner to the first factor in the eightfold path of enlightenment. This is the right or wholesome view in which all manifest phenomena are understood to be transient and ephemeral, as the concluding verse of the sutra indicates through a series of metaphors. In the teachings of the Buddha, this instruction on how to view manifest things is the first crucial step for walking on the path of liberation.

A broader thematic understanding of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition comes through in other verses of the Diamond Sutra. The awakened mind is said to be deeply steeped in insight into shunyata, the emptiness of phenomena, and is motivated by karuna, compassion for those who continue to cling to phenomena and suffer as a consequence. Based on insight and compassion, the awakened mind’s modus operandi is then to offer upaya—skillful means—to help others free themselves.

In a crucial sense, the emphasis on skillful means, or expedient means, helped Mahayana Buddhism appeal to a wide variety of audiences, from illiterate farmers to prosperous merchants. They saw this teaching, correctly, as responding to the range of human situations in creative and practical ways. The skillful means of the Buddha and his followers were predicated on bringing out the spiritual potentialities of different people by statements or actions, which were adjusted to their specific needs and adapted to their capacity for comprehension. The teachings the Buddha offered were not dogmatic or rooted in divine revelation. Their purpose was practical—to skillfully bring about a transformation within both a human and a society of humans.

The Diamond Sutra has long been memorized and recited to inspire in practitioners the perfection of wisdom. Chan and Zen practitioners in North America continue this tradition to this day.

Fully in Bloom

With the Lotus Sutra as her guide, Myokei Caine-Barrett discovered her own worth.

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The primordial question “why” always arises in life, especially when differences from the norm show up. I remember my own existential quest to find the reasons I was born a female, and African American and Japanese, in an era when those differences carried significant weight.

This question initiated my journey on the path of religion, as I looked for answers in all kinds of Abrahamic thought, and then discovered Buddhism. Finally, I found the answers to the questions I had in the Lotus Sutra, specifically in chanting the Odaimoku, its sacred title in Japanese, which is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. Since then, the validity and reliability of the Odaimoku has been present in my continuing ability to persevere and find joy.

This is the reason I’ve been a dedicated Buddhist practitioner for the majority of my life. I was able to discover my identity and embrace it fully, feeling my own worth and value to myself, in full recognition that my life and all of its journeys are based on my choices. Since then, I’ve continued to pursue the path with full awareness that I’m a perpetual beginner.

The Lotus Sutra is a deep pool of dharma, and every reading brings new and deeper understanding of its role as a roadmap for awakening. It’s based on faith, practice, and study, and without all three of these elements it wouldn’t be the essential vehicle for awakening that it is.

However, faith isn’t required at the beginning, as faith arises out of continuous practice. Nichiren Shonin, the founder of my tradition, always said, “Practice is the best master.” He also said, “The Buddha’s preaching of the law is called the lion’s roar, and the Lotus Sutra is the foremost roar of the lion.”

In our tradition, the Lotus Sutra is divided into two parts. Chapters 1–14, the theoretical or Shakumon, concern the historical life of the Buddha. Chapters 15–28, the essential or Honmon, concern the life of the Eternal or Primordial Buddha.

Shakumon contains the fundamental teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, such as the four noble truths, eightfold path, twelve length chain (nidanas), and bodhisattva vows. The teachings are presented in the form of expedients such as miracles, parables, similes, experiences, and stories of the previous lives of buddhas and their disciples.

Chapter 5, “The Simile of Herbs,” contains the true guiding principle in my life, even as it’s often difficult to follow. In it, the Buddha says:

I see all living beings equally.
I am not tired of giving
I am not tired of giving
The rain of the dharma to all living beings.
I have no partiality for them,
Whether they are noble or mean,
Whether they observe or violate the precepts,
Whether they live a monastic life or not,
Whether they have right or wrong views,
Whether they are clever or dull.
Those who hear the dharma from me
Will reach various stages [of enlightenment]
According to their capacities.

The identity issues that caused me such angst changed when I discovered this passage and challenged myself to actualize the mindset it describes. The more I encountered my inherent value, the more I learned I had to value myself first. Every fear I’d internalized gave way to a sense of worth, which grew as the result of overcoming those fears step by step. Essentially, as I overcame each fear, my capacity to develop in the dharma grew as well.

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As I started to teach the dharma, I was further compelled to confront my own issues of judgment and separation from others, and to learn to accept and provide welcome for all beings, even those with whom I had conflict. This passage forced me to deal with the limitations of my own thinking and compelled me to challenge every instance of judgment. This approach opens the door to walk in another’s shoes by understanding their truth.

The latter part of the Lotus Sutra, the Honmon, focuses on the path of the bodhisattva, one who forgoes reaching nirvana in order to save suffering beings. It provides concrete examples of the type of behavior we should adopt as bodhisattvas.

In Chapter 20, Bodhisattva Jof*ckyo (whose name means Never Despise) is a role model for practitioners. His practice is among the easiest to emulate, because it was simple. He was said to address others by saying, “I respect you deeply. I do not despise you. Why is that? It is because you will be able to practice the Way of Bodhisattvas and become buddhas.”

In Chapter 21, “The Supernatural Powers of the Tathagathas,” how to practice the Lotus Sutra correctly is revealed. “To sum up, all the teachings of the Tathagata…are revealed and expounded explicitly in this sutra. Therefore, keep, read, recite, expound, and copy this sutra, and act according to the teachings of it with all your hearts after my extinction!” These five ways of practice are followed to this day.

I continue to practice the Lotus Sutra because I continue to derive great benefit from it. It is not magical thinking; it’s the outline of life dedicated to the realization that the path is only accessible through the power of faith. I learned quite early that while I may have great ideas and intuition about Buddhism, I couldn’t define the path. It was I who had to change in order to follow the path as the Lotus Sutra teaches us.

Connect the Dots

We can only realize boundaryless connection if we know our boundaries. Ben Connelly on the Avatamsaka Sutra.

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The Avatamsaka (Flower Garland) Sutra is a massive, lush, mind-blowing meditation on interdependence and the path of freedom from suffering. Its teachings are rooted in basic Buddhist principles: compassion for all beings, the possibility of liberation, and the idea that each thing arises dependent on a vast array of conditions. Thich Nhat Hanh found in this sutra the core principles of the Engaged Buddhism movement he started.

Compiled from numerous shorter Indian sutras sometime in the middle of the first millennium CE, the Avatamsaka (Huayan in Chinese) Sutra profoundly influenced East Asian Buddhism. At fifteen hundred pages in English translation, it is by far the longest Buddhist sutra.

The sutra’s central theme is interdependence. At times it uses precise philosophical language to help the reader see that each thing is dependent on the whole, and in turn the whole universe is present in each thing. Other times it relies on rich imagery to invoke a sense of wonder and awe as it shatters our conventional ideas of time, space, and separation. Inside a single pore on the Buddha’s forehead, for instance, it describes a vast realm containing mountains and lakes, wheeling stars, and thousands of bodhisattvas teaching thousands of practitioners the ways of freedom from suffering.

The sutra is rooted in a central concept of Mahayana Buddhism—that each thing is empty of separate, lasting existence. Then it highlights the flip side of this truth—that we are only connection; there’s only relationship. This is medicine to awaken our compassion for everything that arises within ourselves and others. It helps us see that everything matters.

This sutra emphasizes that our liberation and our practice happen in the midst of the sensory world. It invites us to dive into the sensuous while remaining free from attachment. Buddhist sutras traditionally begin with the phrase, “Thus have I heard.” In the Avatamsaka Sutra, the dharma is also seen, smelled, tasted, and felt.

The sutra celebrates the senses because they’re the door to directly knowing our connection to all life. It describes luscious perfumes floating in the air, multicolored banners, burning coals, gorgeous choruses of tinkling bells, and sharp rocks scratching at the skin. The sutra reminds us that no matter what we’re experiencing, it contains the possibility of freedom from suffering. The sutra calls us into our bodies and our senses as the ground of liberation.

This emphasis on the sensory world had a profound impact on East Asian Buddhism. Zen folks like me are trained to meticulously clean and cook, and attend to the people around us. When asked, “What is Buddha?” great Chinese teachers reply, “An oak tree in the garden,” or “Three pounds of flax.” I’m grateful to have had Tomoe Katagiri as my teacher as I sewed my priest robes. She modeled for me that each stitch, every fold of fabric, and every word matters.

In that vein, the “Purifying Practices” chapter of the sutra offers short verses that invite us to wish all beings well as you do a simple daily task. For example:

When going to sleep at night
They should wish that all beings
Attain physical ease
And undisturbed minds.

Thich Nhat Hanh adapted this chapter of the sutra when he wrote one of his best-known verses:

Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

The sutra culminates in the story of Sudhana, a young man who feels a profound calling to promote wellness in the world and end suffering. He visits fifty-two teachers, each with a unique expression of dharma: monks, nuns, boys and girls, a mathematician, perfumers, kings, goddesses, artists, poor folks, a prince who almost dies freeing people from his father’s prisons, a merchant who gives food to countless hungry people, a mariner who helps folks cross through storms, and Maya who gives birth to the Buddha. Each teacher offers profound insights and then sends him on to another teacher to learn more. They know that liberation is a path, not a destination. Their methods of practice are often rooted in ending harmful social patterns such as shame regarding sexuality, accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, and punitive responses to wrongdoing. Their approaches depend on their particular selves and the folks they serve. They show that our cultural and personal identities matter, and that our capacity to act for the liberation of all is rooted in understanding ourselves, where we are, and who we’re with. We can only realize boundaryless connection if we know our boundaries.

The sutra reminds us that no matter where we are and what we’re doing, we are in relationship with the entire universe, and what we do matters. We don’t have to keep going down the same old wretched, rutted roads. We can change the habits and systems that cause us harm. We can find the wonder of the path in each moment and offer some care to what’s right here: our own aching hearts, our ailing Mother Earth, the sudsy dishes in our sink, our fractured, inequitable communities, our loved ones, and the ones we have yet to learn to love.

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond

Empty of a separate self, we are connected to everything and everyone. Eli Brown-Stevenson on the Heart Sutra.

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At Hosshinji Zen monastery in Japan, dawn is welcomed by the distinct high-pitched knock of wood meeting wood and the deep bellowing hum of the bell. The mokugyo drum provides a low baseline as practitioners chant this Zen anthem: “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajnaparamita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering.”

Personally, I’ve found that words and text limit how I experience what goes beyond words and text. If you want someone to experience the moon, the best descriptions are not as good as simply walking outside and pointing silently toward the moon.

True reality, or “thusness,” as we like to say in Buddhism, can only be pointed to in the same way. But the Heart Sutra, which is what those monks were chanting, does not point us to some object in the sky. Instead, it points us to an inner reality that George Leonard describes in his book The Silent Pulse: “At the heart of each of us, whatever our imperfections, there exists a silent pulse of perfect rhythm, a complex of wave-forms and resonances, which is absolutely individual and unique, and yet which connects us to everything in the universe. The act of getting in touch with this pulse can transform our personal experience and in some way alter the world around us.”

I’ve been practicing with this sutra for the last decade. Sometimes I spontaneously stop, close my eyes, and let the sutra chant internally, from a felt sense without words. Wherever I find myself, from city to nature to my daughter’s classroom, I settle, close my eyes, and experience the now by inviting the teaching of the Heart Sutra into the cacophony of life. My heart/mind is fully included in the silent pulse of perfect rhythm of the sutra’s great mantra: Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha. “Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Perfectly Enlightened, So Be It.”

As a twenty-something practitioner, I was drawn to Buddhism, and even more so to Zen practice, because of its invitation to “try things on”—not simply to follow scripture but to try it out myself, open up to the teachings, and see what’s present. This felt like an invitation into a more truthful reality.

The Heart Sutra supports us with the same realization and connection to thusness that the Buddha established when he touched the ground in response to Mara’s attacks of hope and fear. The sutra tells us that when there’s no ignorance about the true nature of things, there’s no fear.

This does not negate the travesties we face in the relative world, but it reminds us that there’s great peace is holding the divide, the hate, the anger, the pain and suffering, in complete and perfect compassion and wisdom. The sutra is an invitation to be liberated from fear and let go of the impulse to separate ourselves from anything or anyone. Because all things are inherently empty, what I see, hear, touch, taste, smell, bring to mental formation, or perceive—anything in my consciousness—is not something that’s separate. Therefore, we remain connected, touching the ground just as the Buddha did.

The tricky part of Buddhist practice is hearing its virtuous, seemingly impossible messages of inner peace, compassion, and emptiness, and then bringing them into our everyday experience and actions. This question often comes up at San Francisco Zen Center, where I practice, when there’s a major crisis in the world. How, we ask, is the Heart Sutra medicine for these heartbreaks and trauma?

In my opinion, the teachings of the Heart Sutra are more important than ever. Our world is increasingly captivated by fear. Differences, imperfections, and impermanence are being emphasized, as if humans needed any help with our already hardwired hindrances of greed, hate, anxiousness, laziness, and doubt.

So how can we make space to rest, heal, and find liberation in the midst of this chaos? With further inquiry into the Heart Sutra, can we reside in that silent pulse of perfect rhythm, letting ever-changing thusness just be? Can we experience an ever-changing unfolding of connection to things as they are, empty of permanent form? When we engage with the world from that place, we have a clearer direction on how to survive, how to live, and how to make change.

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Allyson Pimentel

Allyson Pimentel, EdD, is a psychologist and long-time practitioner of Insight Meditation. She teaches at InsightLA and is the associate director of Mindful USC.

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