We have the impression [through the earliest found sūtras]…
that [the] Mahāyāna [tradition] was NOT distinct from
[so-called] ‘mainstream’ Buddhism at this period
[when these sūtras were being recorded],
as it became [institutionalised only] later on,
[implying that Buddhism was at first one and undivided].
– Richard Salomon
(Podcast: Early Buddhism in Ancient Gandhāra)
Another early Mahāyāna sūtra from the Bajaur [region of Pakistan] collection, whose title unfortunately does not exist, is of extraordinary significance. At nearly six hundred lines, this is the longest Gandhāra manuscript known to date [written in Gāndhārī, which is about 2000-year-old (or 1st century CE, predating all Buddhist canons, including the Pāli canon]. It records the Buddha’s teachings to 84,000 divine beings (devaputra) about the training and career of a Bodhisattva. The discourse includes a description of the world where divine beings will ultimately be reborn, the pure realm [i.e. Pure Land] of an otherwise unknown Buddha Vipulaprabhasa or Mahāprabha [Great Light Buddha; 大光佛], which is likened to the more familiar Abhirati paradise [妙喜; Wonderful Joy] of the Buddha Akṣobhya [阿閦佛].
In form and content, it is broadly similar to several other Mahāyāna sūtras, but it has no direct parallels in previously known Buddhist literature. This sūtra represents an early manifestation of Pure Land Buddhism [recorded in text], which focuses on the attainment of rebirth in the paradise of a Buddha in a distant [part of the] universe and which would become one of the most prevalent forms of Buddhism in East Asia [in terms of Pure Land Buddhism, especially as related to Amitābha Buddha]… [W]e may hope that more such unknown [early] Mahāyāna sūtras might come to light in the future [by being discovered].
The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhāra:
An Introduction with Selected Translations
Dr. Richard Salomon
(Professor of Asian Languages and Literature at University of Washington,
leading figure in field of early Buddhist studies)
Note on Mahāprabha Buddha: ‘[T]he word Vipulaprabha “(possessing) great light” is unattested as a Buddha’s name. In the SukhV [Sukhāvatīvyūha; Amitābha Sūtra; 阿弥陀经], it is used as an epithet of the Buddha Amitābha… [T]he summarizing verses… seem to indicate that this Buddha was also known by an alternative name. Instead of Viholapravha (Skt. Vipulaprabha), the verses seem to refer to the same Buddha under the name Mahapravha (Skt. Mahāprabha; 大光佛): Mahapravha ṇama ahosu sarve “They all became (Tathāgatas) called Mahāprabha” (BC2, part 8 recto, v. 11). According to the SukhV, a Buddha of this name is located in the West.‘
Note on Amitābha Buddha: Mahāprabha Buddha is the fourth western directional world’s Buddha listed in the Amitābha Sūtra , whom with all other Buddhas in each and every direction, in and from their worlds, extensively and truthfully teach that ‘You [i.e. we] and [all] other beings, should have faith in this “Sūtra With Praises Of Inconceivable Meritorious Virtues And All Buddhas’ Mindful Protection”.’ (汝等众生，当信是称赞不可思议功德，一切诸佛说护念经。) This is his link to the Pure Land teachings related to Amitābha Buddha, which are now the world’s most popular form of Pure Land Buddhism.
Whose Buddhism Is Truest?