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Mahāyāna (literally Great Vehicle) is one of the two or three major branches of Buddhism. Some of the areas in which it is practiced are China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan. From Mahayana developed the esoteric Vajrayana which claims to combine all previous schools.

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Scholars believe that Mahayana as a distinct movement began around the 1st century BCE in northwestern India.

According to Williams, the development of the Mahayana was a slow, gradual process. The Mahayana was not a rival school, and therefore it was not the consequence of a schism (sanghbheda). Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks could live without discord in the same monastery, so long as they held he same code, though we have reason to believe that the non-Mahayana monks may have viewed with some scorn the beliefs and private practices of their Mahayana brethren. The idea of a schism or radical break, with dramatic religious changes, simply fails to cohere with what we now know of Buddhist religious development as it occurred, not in texts but in actual practice. (Williams, 1989)

The earliest inscriptions containing recognizably Mahayana formulations (such as quotes from uniquely Mahayana sutras) date from as late as the fourth or fifth centuries CE. Moreover, the earliest inscription, on a statue of Amitabha in North India, while clearly Mahayana, also uses formulae characteristic of non-Mahayana epigraphy. As far as inscriptional evidence is concerned, Mahayana appears to have been an uninflential minority interest until well into the Common Era, originating firmly within the framework of other monastic traditions thought of as non-Mahayana. (Schopen, 1990)

During the centuries following the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, Buddhist thought went through a process of evolution and segmentation leading to the formal rise of Mahayana Buddhism around the 1st century CE.

The main steps of this evolution are marked by four Buddhist councils, the first one convened in the 5th century BC after the death of the Buddha, to the fourth one in the 1st century AD convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, which confirmed the formal scission of Mahayana Buddhism from the traditional Nikaya schools of Buddhism, after a formative period usually considered to be starting around the 2nd century BC.

See also: Buddhist Councils


Mahayana departs from the Nikaya tradition (sometimes referred to as the Hinayana schools) in its acceptance of the Mahayana sutras. Mahayana schools do not, however, reject Nikaya sutras, such as those recorded in the Pali Canon; these are also seen as authoritative.

The Mahayana scriptures were set in writing in the 1st century BCE. Some of them, such as the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, are presented as actual sermons of the Buddha that would have been hidden. By some accounts, these sermons were passed on by the oral tradition as with other sutras, but other accounts state that they were hidden and then revealed several centuries later by some mythological route. In addition to sutras, some Mahayana texts are essentially commentaries.

Among the earliest major Mahayana scriptures that are attested to historically are the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita) Sutras, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, and the Nirvana Sutra.

The Mahayana canon further expanded after Buddhism was transmitted to China, where the existing texts were translated. New texts, such as the Platform Sutra and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment were explicitly not of Indian origin, but were widely accepted as valid scriptures on their own merits. Other later writings included the Linji Lu, a commentary by Chan master Linji. In the course of the development of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, further important commentaries were composed. These included, for example, in Korea, some of the writings of Jinul, and in Japan, works such as Dogen's Shobogenzo.


The way of the Mahayana, in contrast to the more conservative and austere Theravada school of Buddhism, tends to be characterized by a greater emphasis on the supernatural. These include from celestial realms and powers, to a spectrum of Bodhisattvas, both human and seemingly godlike, who can assist believers.

The primary goal of Mahayana Buddhism is bodhicitta: a mind of great compassion conjoined with wisdom realizing emptiness. With this mind the bodhisattva will realize the final goal of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood: an omniscient mind completely free from suffering and its causes, that is able to work tirelessly for the benefit of all living beings.

The large number of bodhisattvas and the combined inviting nature within Mahayana doctrine allows the religion to be extremely syncretic. For example, Taoism existed within China before the arrival of Buddhism, and metaphysically, there are important distinctions between the two. However, the structure of Mahayana Buddhism allows it to simply absorb Taoist deities.

Mahayana Buddhism, at its core, regards such ideas as skillful means of bringing people closer to enlightenment. Bodhisattvas are the ultimate practitioners of this approach. Despite having attained enlightenment, by refusing Nirvana they remain in the physical plane - the realm of illusion (Maya) - and in so doing deprive themselves of Nirvana's bliss out of compassion for the other beings. Their purpose is to guide other beings on their path to enlightenment.

As an example, it is unlikely that a drunkard will, without assistance, achieve enlightenment. A bodhisattva may appear to such a person as a fellow drunkard. Over time, the bodhisattva will guide that person to a path that will lead them closer to Nirvana - often without the beneficiary ever realizing what has happened or why.

Mahayana Buddhism is characterized by a tradition of statue representations of Buddhas. This tradition as an offshoot of the Greek statues which were carried into central Asia by Alexander the Great. Early representations of Buddhas are known as Greco-Buddhist statues and are clearly modelled after Greek statues. This tradition was later carried east from Afghanistan into India, China and Japan.

Description by William Edward Soothill

"Mahāyāna; The great yāna, wain, or conveyance, or the greater vehicle in comparison with the Hīnayāna. It indicates universalism, or Salvation for all, for all are Buddha and will attain bodhi.

"It is the form of Buddhism prevalent in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan, and in other places in the Far East. It is also called Northern Buddhism.

"It is interpreted as the greater teaching as compared with the smaller, or inferior. Hīnayāna, which is undoubtedly nearer to the original teaching of the Buddha, is unfairly described as an endeavor to seek nirvana through an ash-covered body, an extinguished intellect, and solitariness; its followers are śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas (i.e. those who are striving for their own deliverance through ascetic works).

"Mahāyāna, on the other hand, is described as seeking to find and extend all knowledge, and, in certain schools, to lead all to Buddhahood. It has a conception of an Eternal Buddha, or Buddhahood as Eternal (Adi-Buddha), but its especial doctrines are, inter alia,

(a) the bodhisattvas, i.e. beings who deny themselves final Nirvana until, according to their vows, they have first saved all the living;

(b) salvation by faith in, or invocation of the Buddhas or bodhisattvas;

(c) Paradise as a nirvana of bliss in the company of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, saints, and believers.

"Hīnayāna is sometimes described as self-benefiting, and Mahāyāna as self-benefit for the benefit of others, unlimited altruism and pity being the theory of Mahāyāna.

"There is a further division into one-yana and three-yanas: the trīyāna may be śrāvaka, pratyeka-buddha, and bodhisattva, represented by a goat, deer, or bullock cart; the one-yāna is that represented by the Lotus School as the one doctrine of the Buddha, which had been variously taught by him according to the capacity of his hearers.

"Though Mahāyāna tendencies are seen in later forms of the older Buddhism, the foundation of Mahāyāna has been attributed to Nāgārjuna. ...

"Two of its foundation books are the Awakening of Faith and the Lotus Sutra, but a large number of Mahāyāna sutras are ascribed to the Buddha."

See also


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