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I have noticed that most sutras (Mahayana) have this opening verse.

What is the story behind it?

Do all sutras have this opening verse?

Is it compulsory to have it, say, if it's for Mahayana?

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2 Answers 2

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In the picture that is attached to the opening question of this thread, there are three "hànzì" (漢字, lit. the "letters of the Han" people, i.e. "Chinese characters"). These are 開, 經, and 偈. The Latin-script transliteration given in that picture is "Kai Jing Ji," which corresponds to the pīnyīn "kāi jīng jì." These three words refer to the "Gāthā of Opening the Sūtra." 偈 refers to a "gāthā," and 開經 means "opening the sūtra."

A "gāthā" is a sung or chanted hymn in a poetic meter, which is to say that it is in verse rather than prose. Specifically, the Shabda-Sagara Sanskrit-English Dictionary defines "gāthā" with the following five entries:

Gāthā (गाथा).—f.

(-thāṃ) 1. A verse, a stanza. 2. Metre, rhythm. 3. A song, a chant or verse to be chanted or sung. 4. Prakrita or any language not Sanskrit. 5. The same as the Aryya Metre, in which the verse contains sixty syllabic instants, variously arranged.

The first three entries above, which I have bolded in the excerpt, are what is directly relevant to us here in a specifically Buddhist context. A gāthā, in Buddhism, is a melodically chanted verse or set of verses.

"Opening the sūtra" (開經) refers both to the literal unfurling of the scroll that the sūtra is written on (or the book that it is written in) as well as the "revealing of the sūtra" by way of oral recitation. Oral recitation of the texts of the sūtras enables the teachings of the Buddhas, that is to say the Buddhadharma, to be heard and received by those who listen to them. The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism defines 開 ("opening") as:

Basic Meaning: to disclose

Senses: To unfold; uncover, clarify, explain in detail (Skt. prakāśana). Clarification of a provisional teaching as such. Divulge, expose, unmask (Skt. pransanga). To open, begin, institute. [Charles Muller; source(s): Nakamura, Soothill, Hirakawa]

With the knowledge that this verb is being nominalized, and is thus acting as a noun grammatically-speaking, in a "gerund-like" fashion, we can read out of the above definitions the following senses of the phrase "開經" ("opening of the sūtra"):

 - the unfolding of the sūtra
 - the uncovering (or "the revealing") of the sūtra
 - the clarification of the sūtra
 - the exposition of the sūtra
 - the exposure of the sūtra
 - the unmasking of the sūtra
 - the opening of the sūtra
 - the beginning of the sūtra
 - the institution of the sūtra

All of these diverse English senses are included and covered by way of the Chinese word 開, especially if we read "exposition" as "discourse which is intended to inform an audience about something or to explain it to them," and if we read "institution" as "the act of starting or introducing something." Both of those two definitions that I've put in italics can be found in their respective entries of the online Oxford Reference resource.

And so, with the knowledge that the "開經偈" is the Gāthā of Opening the Sūtra or the Hymn of Opening the Sūtra, we can see that the 開經偈 is, in fact, a dedicatory hymnic preface that is added to the beginning of certain recitations of the sūtras, and it is not a part of the texts of the sūtras themselves.

After all, Buddhist sūtras begin with the phrase, "Thus have I heard" (evaṃ mayā śrūtaṃ / 如是我聞). In the case of the sūtras addressed to the śrāvakas (i.e. the sūtras of the Five Āgamas¹ and also the Pāli suttas of the Pāli Canon), it is said that Master Ānanda spoke these words. In the case of the sūtras addressed to the bodhisattvas (i.e. the Mahāyāna sūtras), it is said that Bodhisattva-Mahāsattva Samantabhadra, Bodhisattva-Mahāsattva Mañjuśrī, Bodhisattva-Mahāsattva Maitreya, and Bodhisattva-Mahāsattva Guḥyakādhipati spoke these words (see Tarkajvālā IV² from Master Bhāvaviveka and sections 517a & 756b³ from the Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa).  The sūtras are not said to begin with a dedicatory expositional piece of hymnography.

This 開經偈, which is realized as "kāi jīng jì" in the Chinese tradition cited by the questioner who initiated this thread, is known as the "Kaikyōge" in the Japanese tradition of Buddhism. The lyrics of the gāthā are completely the same, but they are pronounced according to the Sino-Japanese custom, and here they are offered with an alternative translation. This Japanese version appears in the morning and evening gongyō liturgies of the Tendai-shū sect in Japan, but it also appears in the formal liturgies of many other traditions. It is recited before the sūtra chanting:

無上甚深微妙法
百千万劫難遭遇
我今見聞得受持
願解如来真実義
Mujō jinjin mimyōhō
hyakusenmangō nansōgu
gakon kenmon toku juji
gangenyōrai shinjitsugi
The unsurpassed, deep, profound, hidden Saddharma, in even hundreds of tens of millions of aeons, is rare to find. Presently, I will now see it and hear it. I will inherit, receive, and uphold it. May I unfurl the meanings of the perfect truths of the Tathāgatas.

The author of this gāthā is unknown to us today, and it is very old. It is older at least than the 500s AD, because versions of it appear in Chinese liturgical texts dating from that period.

To answer the remaining two questions:

[Do] all sūtra[s] have this opening verse?

The gāthā is traditionally sung/chanted by the Saṃgha before the chanting of a sūtra or a large section of a sūtra, but it is not mandatory. The gāthā is not a part of the sūtra itself, but it is often sung before the sūtra in the context of formal liturgical chanting.

Is [it] compulsory [to have] it, say, if it's for Mahayana?

Because this is a liturgical text, it does not have to be sung/chanted before a sūtra if the sūtra is being chanted or read in a non-liturgical context or if the rubrics of the liturgy in question specify something else be done. There is nothing wrong with personally choosing to chant it before you chant or read a sūtra privately either.

Footnotes:
¹ The "Five Āgamas" are 1) the Dīrghāgama, 2) the Saṃyuktāgama, 3) the Madhyamāgama, 4) the Ekottarikāgama, and 5) the Kṣudrakāgama.

² Tarkajvālā IV: "The Mahāyāna was taught by the Buddha [Gautama], and it was collected firsthand by its compilers: [the Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas] Samantabhadra, Mañjuśrī, Guḥyakādhipati, and Maitreya. The śrāvakas did not compile our root-collection, because the teachings of the Mahāyāna were not in their purview. As it is said in the Śiṃśapāvanasūtra: 'Ānanda, I have understood an extremely large number of dharmas, as many as there are leaves in this grove of śiṃśapā trees, but I have not taught [all of] them to you, for they are not [all] profitable for you; [for] they do not [all] cause you to be disillusioned with saṃsāra and freed from the passions.'"

³ Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa: “It is so said that Mahākāśyapa, as the leader of the Bhikṣusaṃgha, compiled the Tripiṭaka on the Gṛdhrakūṭa mountain after the Buddha’s death. The Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas Mañjuśrī and Maitreya, together with the Venerable Ānanda, compiled the sūtras of the Mahāyāna. The Venerable Ānanda understood deeply the goals and the roots of the various classes of beings, and this is why he did not speak of the Mahāyāna sūtras to the śrāvakas." (k. 100, p. 756b)

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It's a sort of preamble that highlights the profundity of whatever follows and how auspicious it is for the reader/hearer to have access to it. It also primes the mind into a state of receptivity, alertness and poise.

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