The beauty of Mahayana Buddhism: a definition


Mahayana Buddhism (or the Mahayanas) can be defined as a major movement in the history of Buddhism which has its origins in India. It comprises many schools and reinterpretations of fundamental human beliefs, values and ideals, not only those of the Buddhist teachings themselves. The recorded starting point for Mahayana, known also as the ‘Great Vehicle’ (Maha meaning great, yana meaning cart or vehicle in Sanskrit) because it embraces so much, is 2nd century C.E., but it is assumed that this tidal wave of shifts began to grow before that date building on existing schools and systems. The exact origins of Mahayana Buddhism are still not completely understood because it is so broad and encompasses so much.

To help to clarify this complex movement of spiritual and religious thought and religious practice, it may help to understand the 3 main classifications of Buddhism to date: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. These are recognized by practitioners as the 3 main routes to enlightenment (Skt: bodhi – awakening; Jpn; satori or kenshö), the state that marks the culmination of the Buddhist religious path. The main countries which practice Buddhism currently are China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet (June 1950) has been adopted by international practitioners in a variety of different countries.





The main schools of Buddhism or Mahayanas practised today are: Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Shingon, and Tendai; Tibetan Buddhism is classified as Vajrayana (the Vajra vehicle, focusing on the Tantric teachings, a set of advanced and mysterious techniques to bring practitioners to enlightenment quickly).

It is significant that Theravada texts appear exclusively in Pali (thought to be the spoken language of the Buddha’s lifetime) and concern the Buddha’s life and early teachings; whereas, due to widespread propagation (spreading of the teachings), Mahayana and Vajrayana texts appear in at least 6 languages. Mahayana texts contain a rich mixture of ideas, the early probably composed in south India confined to strictly monastic Buddhism, and the later written in northern India and no longer confined to monasticism but lay thinking also.



The term ‘Mahayana’ was first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (among the final teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha) at an indeterminate date between 5th and 1st century C.E. However, according to recent scholars, it may have been a mistaken term because instead of ‘yana’ meaning ‘vehicle’ or ‘cart,’ it could have been mahajana, ‘jana’ meaning ‘knowing,’ therefore ‘great (maha) knowing.’ In this era, the Dharma, (Pâli: Dhamma), the natural law of all existence according to Buddhism, was no longer regarded as a doctrinal element but as a medicine that would heal all worldly suffering.





The main tenets of this epoch of Buddhism are compassion (karunā) and insight or wisdom (prajnā). The perfection of these human values would culminate in the Bodhisattva, a model being who devotes him or herself altruistically to the service of others; in contrast is the preceding pursuit of self-interested liberation (Hīnayana or Sravakayana). The term Hinayana has been incorrectly referred to as the ‘Small Vehicle’ (in contrast to the ‘Great Vehicle’), but ‘Vehicle of the Hearers’ or Theravada is perhaps more appropriate, ie. those who follow the teachings of the Buddha exclusively in order to become enlightened.

Compassion can be tangibly used by Mahayana practitioners in the transfer of merit to all sentient beings which is accumulated through devotional practice.

Wisdom or insight can be used to transcend the human condition via the conviction that all beings have been sown with the Buddha seed so can, therefore, become a Buddha. The basis of the Bodhisattva vow is the 6 paramitas (Skt:perfections): generosity (dãna), morality (śīla), patience (ksãnti), courage (vīrya), knowledge (jñãna) and intuitive insight (prajñã). In early Buddhism, there were 10 paramitas and later in the Mahayanas they were increased again to 10 to match the 10 stages (bhūmi) of a Bodhisattva’s spiritual progress. Liberating or saving those who were lost or suffering becomes the sole life-purpose of those who take this Bodhisattva vow, even today.






Another feature of Mahayana Buddhism is the presence of stūpas – religious towers or domes which evolved from pre-historic burial mounds and eventually had tall spires becoming known as pagodas, common structures found throughout Asia. Buddha Gautama instructed that on his death a stūpa should be constructed over his relics.

Today, surviving stūpas often contain sacred objects such as texts as well as relics or remains of revered beings. Their popularity as representing a place of worship increased as Buddhism spread to the masses who were illiterate laymen (see my article Chunda: the first lay Buddhist On the inside walls of stūpas pictures were inscribed and sculptures made depicting the life of Buddha and his previous lives as a bodhisattva.




Biographical literature of the Buddha first appeared during this Mahayana era and aided the rapid spread of Buddhism across the Silk Roads to the east of India and north into Nepal and Tibet. In addition, Buddhist poets expressed their faith using literary expressions which transcended the doctrinal lines between the different schools.

The new Mahayana epoch long after the Parinirvana (death exclusive to a Buddha) of Buddha Gautama was accompanied by a canon of scriptures or sutras known as the Prajna-paramita Sutras (‘Perfection of Insight’). They are characterized by the doctrine of emptiness (Skt:sūnyatā) which entails viewing Buddha for the first time as a supernatural being worthy of devotion. This later led to the doctrine of his nature as the trikāya or three wheel bodies – the Dharmākaya (the enlightenment or truth body), the Sambhogakāya (the bliss or clear light body) and the Nirmānakāya (the form body manifesting in time and space).





After this, new schools started to appear such as the Mādhyamaka, the Yogācāra, the Pure Land tradition, and the Vajrayāna. Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in north Asia having spread from northern India, then to Tibet and central Asia, China, Korea and lastly Japan. Due to the cultural influences and diversity of countries, the scope of Buddhist practice has widened even more to include: the Tantric practices – (Tantra meaning techniques to reach Enlightenment more quickly) and Shamanism – (a shaman is an intermediary who has access to the world of spirits and healing) from central Asia; Taoism and Confucianism giving rise to the Ch’an school of contemplation in China and Korea which developed eventually into Japanese Zen, and so on.

Notable figures of this movement are: Aśvaghosa who wrote ‘The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana’ translated into Chinese circa 550 CE; Maitreyanātha who compiled the ‘Mahayana path from the Yogācāra perspective’ made up of 800 verses; Nāgārjuna, founder of the Mādhyamaka school, born in circa 2nd century in south India and Aryadeva, his foremost disciple; Dõgen known for his teachings on Buddha Nature in Japan; Kūkai, founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan; and Huayan for the ‘Flower Garland’ tradition in China, Korea and Japan.

In the 21st century it is estimated that 488 million (9-10% of the world population) people practice Buddhism. Approximately half are practitioners of Mahayana schools in China. Mahayana Buddhism continues to flourish.






Images courtesy of and Linden Thorp