We are often asked: “on what sūtras can practitioners rely?”
This is not an easy question to answer. The Dharma has a history of over 2500 years. It is no longer possible to determine authoritatively what Śākyamuni taught because the Dharma was initially transmitted by word of mouth to individual practitioners and disparate communities of both home-dwellers and home-leavers and was not recorded in writing until some time after the demise of Śākyamuni.
Be that as it may, there is always one certain way to determine the value and authenticity of any philosophical or religious text: make of oneself a pure receptacle for truth. This is the unspoken correlative of the following saying which is recorded in the Dhammapadda:
A mendicant whose pleasure is truth, who delights in truth, who contemplates truth, and who follows truth, does not fall away from truth.
We recommend and practice a combination of scholarship, conscience and Faith/Trust (Shinjin [Japanese] or citta-prasāda [Sanskrit]) in assessing the relative validity of sūtras. We need not concern ourselves with establishing the factual historicity of a teaching as coming from the mouth of Śākyamuni Buddha precisely because it is impossible for us to do so. Our primary concern should be:
- whether the teaching passes the test of the “Seals of the Law“;
- whether one can in good conscience practice what is being taught;
- whether the teaching assists one in the realization of Buddha Nature; and
- whether the teaching is relatively free of bias and externalist considerations.
We cannot, therefore, offer any hard and fast guide for assessing sūtras, but we can offer some suggestions as to those we have found to be the most useful:
First and foremost would stand the The Great and Vast Buddha Flower Ornament Scripture (Mahāvaipulya Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra), for its un-biased and comprehensive treatment of the entire continuum of Dharmic realization (although, because of its size and complexity, it is not recommended for those new to the Dharma or those without considerable capacity).
Second would be the Great Perfection of Wisdom Scripture(s) (Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra), with special emphasis on the Diamond Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Scripture (Vajracchedikāprajñāpāramitā-Sūtra) for its clarity; and the Heart (or Essence) of Perfect Wisdom Scripture (Mahāprajñāpāramitā Hṛidaya Sūtra) for its brevity.
Third would be the Scripture Unlocking the Mysteries (Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra) for its practical explanation of the pitfalls and fruits of meditative discipline.
[Note – There are other scriptures that would be in this list were we to discover a good translation with enough supporting material to make it useful for beginners and enough depth and technical accuracy to make it useful for the more knowledgeable and adept.]
And, though not a sūtra nor even a shastra, we highly recommend (for certain types of people) Yuien-bo‘s brief and eminently accessible ‘Record in Lament of Divergences‘ (Tannishō). I recommend the translation and commentary of Kemmyo Taira Sato, ‘Great Living‘; Alfred Bloom’s Text, ‘Strategies for Modern Living‘, is also excellent.