How do we account for the fantastical and novel structure and content of many of the Mahayana sutras: the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra?
These sutras are dramatically different from the Pali sutras, which are simple in comparison. Usually, they just record what the Buddha said to a specific person who came to him with a specific problem or enquiry. The sutra is simply a record of what the teacher said.
In contrast, we read the Lotus Sutra or the Nirvana Sutra and we’re looking around amidst all the imagery and stories, trying to find the teaching.
What’s going on?
Nagarjuna’s decisive move in the MMK, near the beginnings of Mahayana, was to make the development of a systematic body of doctrine or of a systematic framework impossible.
That left Mahayana with a number of options.
First the essential emptiness of everything could just be reiterated. That’s what you see in the Diamond sutra. Over time, this gets rather sterile, which is probably why the schools most directly continuing Nagarjuna’s teachings didn’t prosper in China.
The second is that the teaching can go off in unusual and new directions which changes both the nature of language and the nature of teaching.
In the Pali sutras, the language is simply faithfully recording what the Buddha said.
In the Mahayana sutras by contrast, the language is expressive and performative, so the teaching isn’t, as it were, set out in the sutra. The sutra is like a teacher who will change you. The language goes from being descriptive to being performative.
It’s like somebody seizing your head so it’s pointing in a different direction.
Viewed this way, you can see the direct connection between these sutras and the koan stories.
Mahayana is accordingly not something new, but a return, in a new way, to the Buddha’s original intention, which is not to promulgate a consistent body of doctrine, but to attend to and change the person in front of him, like a doctor would.