General Sūtra Section (Kangyur Section)

  • Tib.: mdo sde/

First published 2010. Last updated 6th Jun 2024.

The principal collection of 266 sūtras, varied in length, subject, interlocutors and origins (Toh 94-359).

This large section of the Kangyur is also sometimes called mdo mang (“the many sūtras”) or mdo sna tshogs (“miscellaneous sūtras”). In the Degé Kangyur it contains 266 works, while in other Kangyurs the contents and their order vary somewhat. The texts range in length from a few lines to more than 2,000 pages.

It is thought that many of these works circulated in Tibet, during the centuries preceding the evolution and establishment of the different Kangyurs, in the form of varying compilations of sūtra works called mdo mang, some of which have survived.

According to the Degé Kangyur catalog, the works in this section are arranged with Mahāyāna sūtras (Toh 94-286) first, followed by Śrāvakayāna works (Toh 287-359)‍—although not all Kangyurs and commentators agree on which texts should be assigned to these two broad groups. As Situ Paṇchen Chökyi Jungné, the 18th century editor of the Degé Kangyur, observes, sūtras of the Buddha’s third turning of the wheel of Dharma tend to predominate at first, but such categorizing is not always applicable and he himself, as he laid out the Degé Kangyur, simply respected the precedent set by past scholars who arranged the texts of the Tshalpa Kangyur. Their schema differs significantly from the way the texts are grouped in the early 9th century inventory, the Denkarma (ldan kar ma), and the slightly later Pangthangma (’phang thang ma), both of which order the texts first by vehicle and source language, and then place them in order of physical size, starting with the longest. Nevertheless, in the Degé as in many other Kangyurs, the longer files still tend to be grouped in the earlier volumes.

The sūtras in this General Sūtra section take many different forms. A large number of them relate dialogues between the Buddha and individual disciples, whether bodhisattvas, kings, ordinary men and women, gods, or nāgas. Some are teachings given by the Buddha at a particular occasion on particular topics. Sometimes they relate miraculous manifestations, describe elevated states of samādhi, teachings given by buddhas in other realms, detailed lists of ethical or philosophical points for reflection, summaries of important doctrine, explanations of individuals’ past lives or predictions of their future awakening, and so forth‍—often including several such elements in a single work.

Among the best known large sūtras are the Bhadrakalpika (Toh 94), which lists the names, vows, and other details of the thousand buddhas of the present eon; the Lalitavistara (Toh 95), the story of the Buddha’s birth, youth, awakening, and first teachings; two versions of the Laṅkāvatāra (Toh 107 and 108, from the Sanskrit and Chinese respectively); the two sūtras known as The White Lotus, the Karuṇāpuṇḍarīka (Toh 112) and the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka (Toh 113), often known as the “Lotus Sūtra” and highly influential in China and Japan; and the Samādhirāja (Toh 127).

The section contains two versions of the important Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (Toh 119 and 120), translated in the early period from Chinese and Sanskrit respectively. The latter is only one quarter of the length of the former but represents those parts of the sūtra of which fragments in Sanskrit have been found‍—perhaps an earlier, core version. There is also a fragment (Toh 121) of a later translation by Kamalagupta and Rinchen Zangpo. The Narthang, Lhasa, Stog Palace and Shelkar Kangyurs place the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra in its own, separate division.

The Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna (Toh 287) and Karmaśataka (Toh 340) are the longest works in the Śrāvakayāna category of the section, the latter among a group of avadāna narrative works illustrating the effects of karma from one life to another.

Sūtras known to have been translated from Chinese include Toh 108, 119, 122, 123, 128, 135, 199, 216, 237, 239, 242, 248, 256, 264, 341, 351, and 353.

The sūtras considered part of the Mahāsannipāta, a distinct group recognised in the Chinese tradition, are Toh 138, 147, 148, 152, 169, 175, 230, and 257.

The Mahāsūtras, Toh 288-294, (together with Toh 653 and 656, which are found in the Tantra Collection and duplicated as Toh 1061 and 1062 in the Incantations) form a special group with a particular function. They are thought to have been brought to Tibet as part of the Vinaya transmission, and are listed in the Denkarma separately from the other Śrāvakayāna works. They are probably extracted from the Āgamas of the Mūlasarvāstivāda, and their regular recitation by ordained monks is recommended in the monks’ Vinayavibhaṅga (Toh 3). For details, see Skilling, Peter, The Mahāsūtras: Great Discourses of the Buddha, 2 vols., Bristol: Pali Text Society (1997).