This very long work in 45 chapters fills no less than four volumes of the Degé Kangyur. In its current form, it is presented as a single extensive sūtra (vaipulyasūtra), but it probably evolved as an encyclopedic coalescence of shorter works, many of which circulated independently and are still seen as texts in their own right. The whole work is classified by Tibetan editors as belonging to the Buddha’s third turning of the wheel of Dharma.
The early 9th century Tibetan translation is of similar size and content to the late 7th century Chinese translation by Śikṣānanda, both being larger than the earlier Chinese translation by Buddhabhadra (early 5th century). Chinese translations of individual works that were later incorporated into the Buddhāvataṃsaka were made even earlier (late 2nd to early 4th century), and may provide evidence of the gradual evolution of the Buddhāvataṃsaka from its component parts. No version in any Indic language has survived, and Indian treatises only quote some of its component texts rather than the whole work by the name Buddhāvataṃsaka.
Tibetan historical tradition, however, as recounted by Tāranātha and mentioned briefly in the Degé Kangyur catalogue, tells us that in India the collection not only existed but was originally a great deal larger, with one hundred chapters (according to the Kangyur catalogue) or one thousand (Tāranātha), but is now incomplete because an arson attack on the library at Nālandā reduced it to only thirty-eight surviving chapters. The date of this event, said to have been responsible for the decimation of many other scriptures, too (including much of the Ratnakūṭa), is placed some time before the lives of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, along with accounts of other calamitous episodes during a period of political turbulence and unstable patronage for Buddhist institutions in India.
The Buddhāvataṃsaka was studied far more extensively in China than in Tibet, generating an extensive corpus of commentarial literature, and a whole school of Chinese Buddhism, the Huayan, is based on it. Although held in great esteem in Tibet, it was very little studied as a whole, and only a few of the later chapters were widely known and quoted. It was translated into Tibetan in its entirety by Jinamitra, Surendrabodhi, and Yeshé Dé, almost certainly from a Sanskrit original. The Tibetan translation contains two chapters, 11 and 32, not found in any of the Chinese translations.
According to Chinese tradition with its several versions, the whole work is divided into 34 or 39 chapters, grouped into eight or nine “assemblies” according to the places and occasions where the teachings they relate took place.
The way the text is divided into chapters is different in the Tibetan version. Several of the Kangyur catalogues mention the first 29 chapters as constituting the Buddhāvataṃsaka proper, and add various alternative titles for the work such as sangs rgyas smag chad (the buddhas’ absence of darkness), smad chad or rmad gcad (universal containment, the latter being the form used in the first line of each fascicle), as well as snyan gyi gong rgyan (ornaments for the ears) and padma’i rgyan (lotus ornaments). Following both of the surviving early text inventories, the Phangthangma and Denkarma, they then name a selection of the later chapters, leaving ambiguous their status as texts independent of the Buddhāvataṃsaka itself or part of it. The text itself gives its component parts none of the trappings of independent texts, such as Sanskrit titles or the usual opening phrases. However, as some of the later chapters are known to have circulated independently in India as well as in China and Tibet, it is reasonable to speak of the Buddhāvataṃsaka as a “family” of texts even if little is known of how and why they came to be grouped together in this way.
There are nevertheless some shared features. Most of the narrative elements of the texts (with the exception of the Gaṇḍavyūha) take place in the few weeks following the Buddha’s awakening. As tradition holds that he did not teach during this time but remained silently in meditation, the teachings set out in the texts are given by Mañjuśrī, Samantabhadra, and other bodhisattvas. Another common feature is the view that all buddhas and bodhisattvas, wherever they may manifest, are emanations of the Buddha Vairocana.
Some of the chapters with known independent status are as follows:
The Gocarapariśuddha (chapter 16) may be the same work as a sūtra with this name cited in several Indian treatises. It is listed as a separate text of the Buddhāvataṃsaka in the Mahāvyutpatti, and a work in the Tengyur (Toh 3965) summarizes its contents.
The Vajradhvajapariṇāma (chapter 30) is listed as a separate text of the Buddhāvataṃsaka in the Denkarma catalogue and is probably the Vajradhvajasūtra mentioned by Śāntideva in the Bodhicaryāvatāra (VII.46). It contains its own set of ten chapters.
The Daśabhūmika (chapter 31) is known to have circulated as an independent work in India, and has survived as a complete Sanskrit manuscript in Nepal. It is found in Kangyurs of the Themphangma tradition and independent Kangyurs as a separate sūtra, as well as a chapter of the Buddhāvataṃsaka, the two Tibetan translations in such cases being different ones. It figures in its own right in the Mahāvyutpatti.
A Sanskrit text of the Anantabuddhakṣetraguṇodbhāvana (chapter 37) has recently been discovered, with a colophon in Sanskrit describing the sūtra as from the Buddhāvataṃsaka; it also exists as two independent Tibetan translations, Toh 104 and Toh 268.
The Buddhadharmācintyanirdeśa (chapter 39) is also found in the General Sūtra section of the Kangyur with the same title as an independent work (Toh 187) that appears to be a close but not identical translation of the same original.
The Samantabhadracāryanirdeśa (chapter 42) is listed as a separate text of the Buddhāvataṃsaka in the Denkarma catalogue.
The Tathāgatotpattisambhavanirdeśa (chapter 43) is also listed as a separate text of the Buddhāvataṃsaka in the Phangthangma and Denkarma catalogues and figures in its own right in the Mahāvyutpatti. It is quoted in several Indian treatises.
The Lokottaraparivarta (chapter 44) is listed as a separate text of the Buddhāvataṃsaka in the Phangthangma and Denkarma catalogues, and figures in its own right in the Mahāvyutpatti.
Approximately the last third of the Buddāvataṃsaka is taken up by the Gaṇḍavyūha (chapter 45), one of the best known texts of the family. It is also listed as a separate text in the Denkarma catalogue, figures in its own right in the Mahāvyutpatti, and is quoted in numerous Indian treatises. It has also survived as a complete Sanskrit manuscript in Nepal. Its story narrating the youth Sudhana's spiritual quest and meetings with fifty-two teachers is depicted in detail in the stone carvings of Borobudur in central Java.
The Bhadracaryāpraṇidhāna, the dedication “Prayer of Good Action” recited widely in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, forms the conclusion of chapter 45. It is also found on its own in the Dhāraṇī section (Toh 1095).
Other works that may be considered members of the Buddhāvataṃsaka “family,” but are found elsewhere in most Kangyurs, include the Ratnolkādhāraṇī (Toh 145 and 847), passages of which are found in chapters 17 and 20, and which is listed as belonging to the Buddhāvataṃsaka in the Phangthangma catalogue and in the Mahāvyutpatti; the Tathāgataguṇajñānācintyaviṣayāvatāranirdeśa (Toh 185); the Buddhadharmācintyanirdeśa (Toh 187), which is an independent version of chapter 39, has the same title, and is close but not identical; and the Śraddhābalādhānāvatāramudrā (Toh 201).
For further details, see:
Skilling, Peter, and Saerji, “The Circulation of the Buddhāvataṃsaka in India” in ARIRIAB, vol. 16, 193-216 (March 2013).
Nattier, Jan, “The Proto-History of the Buddhāvataṃsaka: the Pusa benye jing and the Dousha jing,” in ARIRIAB vol. 7, 323-360 (March 2005).
Hamar, Imre, “The History of the Buddhāvataṃsaka-Sūtra: Shorter and Larger Texts.” In: Hamar, Imre (ed.), Reflecting Mirrors: Perspectives on Huayan Buddhism (Asiatische Forschungen Vol. 151), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp.159-161 (2007).
Tāranātha, dam pa’i chos rin po che ’phags pa’i yul du ji ltar dar ba’i tshul gsal bar ston pa dgos ’dod kun ’byung (rgya gar chos ’byung from Degé xylographs), Tezu, A.P., India: Tibetan Nyingma Monastery (1974), ff. 47a-48b. Translation in Chimpa, L. et al. (trans.), Tāranātha's History of Buddhism in India, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press (1981), pp. 140-143.