Daniel Boucher, "What Do We Mean by 'Early' in the Study of the Early Mahāyāna—and Should We Care?*


Scholars have long attempted to periodize Mahāyāna sūtra literature by a variety of internal and external criteria. One external criterion that has frequently been adopted is the earliest known date of the Chinese translation of an Indian source text. Despite recognition that Chinese translations provide only a terminus ante quem for the dates of the Indian source texts, there can be no doubt that the principal candidates for early Mahāyāna literature have been sought from among these first Chinese renderings. This has sometimes made for an awkward disparity between external criteria for dating, namely the firm dates in Chinese, and internal criteria, namely assumptions about the evolution of Mahāyāna doctrine and praxis. But recent finds of Gāndhārī Mahāyāna literature will now call some of these assumptions into question. This paper attempts to ask whether any of these criteria are indeed our most pressing desiderata for understanding the principal thrusts of this cluster of movements.