What Is A Sutra? A Beginners Guide To Ancient Wisdom


 Whether you’ve experienced the power of sutras before or are learning about them for the first time, there is always more ancient wisdom to discover.

Sutras have the potential to radically shift your perspective on life. They challenge your preconceptions and introduce new ways of observing the world around you.

But what is a sutra? And how can you learn to tap into the limitless power of these ancient teachings?

We’re going to introduce you to some of the most famous paradigm-shifting sutras out there — and explain how you can put them to use in your life today.

What Is The Sutra Definition?

Sutras are powerful teachings distilled into a few words or sentences. They’re short aphorisms, rules, or theories stripped down to their most essential components.

The word sutra is Sanskrit for string or thread. Sutras are the threads on which tapestries of theory and knowledge can be woven. They’re the building blocks philosophers and sages once used to communicate revolutionary philosophies and theories.

Deborah King, Author of Mindvalley’s Be A Modern Master Program, explains that sutras are words and phrases that can unlock and raise your consciousness between spiritual planes. These words have immense power.

Sutras can be used during meditation. They can be sung, chanted, read, or simply used as a point of focus. They can also help you unlock the deeper, more profound wisdom of the ancient texts they belong to. 

Here are a few examples of some famous sutras:

“Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, do not increase or decrease.” —The Heart Sutra

“Although individuals perceive the same objects, these objects are perceived in different ways, because those minds are each unique and beautifully diverse.” —The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Many sutras are thousands of years old and can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. But don’t be fooled. The ancient spiritual wisdom of these sutras is as effective today as it was a thousand years ago.

diamond sutra

Diamond Sutra — The World’s Oldest Printed Book

In Dunhuang, China, in a remote oasis on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, lies a little-known wonder of the ancient world.

The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, or Mogao Grottoes, is a complex of over 500 caves dug into a sandstone cliff. The caves are over 1,000 years old. At the time of their creation, they served as a spiritual center for Buddhists of the age.

For hundreds of years, the caves were lost to the elements. In the year 1900, a traveling monk rediscovered the caves.

And the true treasure was hidden inside.

Within the caves, he found the most awe-inspiring paintings, sculptures, and Buddhist scriptures, including the incredible Diamond Sutra — the earliest dated and printed book in the history of the world.

The Diamond Sutra is 6,000 words long and tells the story of a conversation the Buddha had with one of his disciples, Subhuti. The sutra explores themes of empathy, generosity, meditation, and non-attachment.

Here’s a short excerpt from the Diamond Sutra:

“So you should view this fleeting world –

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”

Meditation is a great way to contemplate the meaning of a sutra. There is a message here for everyone and no right or wrong answer.

Your interpretation of the sutra is your own. See what you can take from the Diamond Sutra and feel free to explore the sutra in full on your own.


Heart Sutra — Exploring Attachment And Emptiness

Another famous Buddhist sutra is the Heart Sutra, also called Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya in Sanskrit, which means, “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom.”

The Heart Sutra is part of a larger collection of sutras written between 100 – 500 BCE. It’s only one page long and documents a conversation between Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, a revered sage in the Buddhist tradition, and a disciple of the Buddha, Shariputra.

The Heart Sutra is a philosophical enigma. Just when you think you’ve grasped its message, you read it again only to find it’s different meaning again. The Heart Sutra contains a profound opportunity for self-discovery. Your interpretation of this sutra could change the way you see the world.

And here’s why.  

This sutra attempts to explain one of the most fundamental concepts in Mahayana Buddhism: emptiness.

Emptiness is a challenging idea for many Westerners. When we imagine empty, we imagine an empty bag or an empty shelf. But this is not the emptiness of the Buddhist tradition.

So, what does the emptiness described in the Heart Sutra really mean?

The type of emptiness the Heart Sutra tries to explain is the emptiness of non-attachment. It’s learning how to perceive what happens around us and to us without tinting it with our perception.

So, how can we use the Heart Sutra in our everyday lives? Here’s an excerpt from the Heart Sutra to meditate on:

“Form does not differ from emptiness;

emptiness does not differ from form.

Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form.

So too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.”

Yoga Sutras — Seeking The True Core Of Yoga

You might have known that yoga is an ancient practice. But do you know the true roots of yoga or why the practice came about?

You see, there’s an entire flip side to yoga that many who practice in the West miss. Most studios that teach yoga in the West focus on the physical postures. And most of us don’t know what purpose the poses serve.

Our yoga instructors tell us that it’s important to end our yoga practice with savasana (corpse pose). But why? We know we must sync our breath to our movement, but don’t understand the significance.

And that’s a real shame because the spiritual side to yoga is mind-blowing. In fact, delving into the meditative aspects of yoga is one of the most surefire ways to rejuvenate your practice.

That’s where the yoga sutras come in.

The famous Indian sage Patanjali completed the yoga sutras around the second century CE. There are 195 sutras in total, each only a few sentences long.

These sutras instruct the yoga practitioner on how and why a yogi should practice. 

Patanjali outlines in his sutras one of the most important concepts in yoga: the eight limbs of yoga. They aren’t just a way of practising yoga. They are a way of life.

Here is the sutra in which Patanjali discusses the eight limbs:

2.29 “The eight rungs, limbs, or steps of Yoga are the codes of self-regulation or restraint (yamas), observances or practices of self-training (niyamas), postures (asana), expansion of breath and prana (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and perfected concentration (samadhi).”

This is the true core of yoga.

By using these sutras, you can learn how to deepen your connection with your yoga practice and elevate your life in every area. 

Do you want to learn more about spiritual empowerment? Heal emotional wounds and past traumas that are holding you back and take the next step in your spiritual journey with this FREE Masterclass below:

So, which of these sutras intrigued you most? Which are you keen to learn more about?

Was it the mysterious Diamond Sutra? The profound Heart Sutra? Or the illuminating yoga sutras of Patanjali?

Tell us in the comments below!

Shannon Terrell

Shannon Terrell is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. She revels in the thrill of exploration, whether it be new cultures, new landscapes, or new ways to bring on the happy. If she’s not hiking or practicing yoga, she probably has her nose in a book.

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