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Mahāyāna Buddhism

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Śunyatā • Trikāya

Mahāyāna Sūtras

Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras
Lotus Sūtra
Nirvāṇa Sūtra
Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra
Avataṃsaka Sūtra
{{IAST|Śūraṅgama Sūtra

Mahāyāna Schools

Esoteric Buddhism
Pure Land • Zen
Tiantai • Nichiren


Silk Road • Nāgārjuna
Asaṅga • Vasubandhu

Mahayana (Sanskrit: महायान, mahāyāna literally 'Great Vehicle') is one of two major divisions of Buddhism, along with Theravada. In this sense, Mahayana Buddhism is distinguished primarily by its recognition of the Mahayana sutras, which Theravadins reject as spurious.

Among its adherents, "Mahayana" also refers to a level of spiritual motivation or realization based on bodhicitta--the altruistic aspiration to achieve enlightenment not only for one's own sake, but for the sake of all sentient beings. The term contrasts with "Hinayana" (the "Small Vehicle"); and in some forms of Tibetan Buddhism, with Vajrayana (the "Diamond Vehicle," i.e., tantric Buddhism), though this is Mahayanist in terms of motivation.

Note on usage: The term "Hinayana" tends to be received as a pejorative among adherents of the Theravada tradition, and is therefore often avoided. A useful alternative, for historical contexts when "Theravada" is too narrow, is Nikaya Buddhism. In theological discussions, one may refer to followers of the Shravaka ("Hearer") or Pratyekabuddha ("Solitary Realizer") path.

Although the Mahayana movement traces its origin to Gautama Buddha, scholars believe that it originated in India in the 1st century CE,[1][2] or the 1st century BCE.[3][4] Scholars think that Mahayana only became a mainstream movement in India in the fifth century CE, since that is when Mahayanic inscriptions started to appear in epigraphic records in India.[5] Before the 11th century CE (while Mahayana was still present in India), the Mahayana Sutras were still in the process of being revised. Thus, several different versions may have survived of the same sutra. These different versions are invaluable to scholars attempting to reconstruct the history of Mahayana.

In the course of its history, Mahayana spread throughout Inner Asia and East Asia, where it took on two principal forms: Tibetan Buddhism (found in Tibet, Mongolia, and various Himalayan regions); and East Asian Buddhism (associated with China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam). The former follows the Tibetan Buddhist canon; the latter, the Chinese Buddhist canon. Major "schools" within East Asian Buddhism include Pure Land Buddhism, Tientai, Huayan, and Chan Buddhism (Zen).

Origin of the name

The historical source of the name Mahayana is polemical,[6][7] having its origin in a debate about what the real teachings of the Buddha[8] are. As such, its use in any context except as that pertaining to a living tradition is controversial amongst Theravadin practitioners and some scholars.

The earliest known mention of "Mahayana" occurs in the Lotus Sutra between the first century BCE and the first century CE.[dubious ][9] However, some scholars such as Seishi Karashima suggest the term first used in an earlier Gandhari Prakrit version of the Lotus Sutra was not "mahāyāna" but the Prakrit word "mahājāna" in the sense of "mahājñāna" (great knowing). At a later stage when the early Prakrit word was converted into Sanskrit, this "mahājāna", being phonetically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into "mahāyāna", possibly by contamination arising through proximity to the famous Parable of the Burning House which talks of carts (Skt: yāna).[10]


Mahayana Buddhism in India can be divided into two periods: early Mahayana Buddhism and late Mahayana Buddhism[11]

Early Mahayana Buddhism

The period of Early Mahayana Buddhism concerns the origins of Mahayana and the contents of early Mahayana Sutras.[12]

Origins of Mahayana

The origins of Mahayana are still not completely understood.[13] Although the Mahayana movement traces its origin to Gautama Buddha, scholars believe that it originated in South India in the 1st century CE,[1][2] or the 1st century BCE.[3][4] Alternatively, some scholars say there is some evidence that Mahayana originated in North-west India in the 1st century CE.[14] Some scholars say that Mahayana could have initially developed in the south-east of India as a non-monastic tradition, and that later it underwent a process of monasticization and emerged in the north-west of India as a monastic movement.[15] Mahayana was first propagated into China by Lokaksema, the first translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese during the second century CE.[16]

Three sources appear to have made significant contributions to the rise of Mahayana Buddhism:[13]

  1. The Early Buddhist Schools. Some important Mahayana texts such as the Prajnaparamita often refer to doctrines associated with the Sarvastivada, which were mentioned or incorporated into Mahayana texts.[17] In terms of content, however, the Mahasanghika doctrine is closer to Mahayana thought,[17] particularly those of the sub-schools such as the Lokottaravadins.[18]
  2. Biographical literature of the Buddha composed by people said to have belonged to 'the vehicle that praised the Buddha'. This literature (comprising the Jatakas, Avadanas and other texts describing the life of Buddha) may have had its origins in the various Early Schools, but developed in ways that transcended the existing sectarian lines and contributed to the rise of Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhist poets wrote their work with purposes different from those of scholars who were concerned with doctrinal issues, and they used literary expressions which transcended doctrinal lines between the schools.[19]
  3. Stupa worship. Stupas — which were initially mere monuments to Gautama Buddha — increasingly became the place of devotion and of spreading Buddhism to the masses, the majority of whom were illiterate laymen. On the inside wall of the stupa, pictures were drawn or sculpted depicting the life of Buddha and his previous lives as a bodhisattva. This has given rise to devotion to the Buddha and the bodhisattvas,[20] distinct from the purely monastic sangha of the Early Buddhist schools. However, this theory has been rejected by a number of scholars.[21] Early Mahayanists may well have used the stupas that were not affiliated with the Early Buddhist Schools as the basis for proselytizing.[22]

The commonly expressed misconception that Mahayana started as a lay-inspired movement[23] is based on a selective reading of a very tiny sample of extant Mahayana Sutra literature.[24] Currently scholars have moved away from this limited corpus of literature, and have started to open up early Mahayana literature which is very ascetic and expounds the ideal of the monks' life in the forest.[25] A scholarly consensus about the origin of the Mahayana has not yet been reached, but it has been suggested that by the time Mahayana in India became mainstream in the 5th century CE, it had become what it originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic institution.[26] Before that, the Mahayana movement may well have been either a marginalized ascetic group of monks living in the forest, or a group of conservatives embedded in mainstream, socially engaged early Buddhist monasteries.[27] Most scholars conclude that Mahayana remained a marginal movement until the 5th century CE.[28][29]

Earliest Mahayana Sutras

The monk Lokaksema translated early Mahayana sutras to Chinese.

The earliest sutras which show some Mahayana influence are called the Proto-Mahayana Sutras such as the Ajitasena Sutra. These sutras contains a mixture of Mahayana and pre-Mahayana ideas, and occur in a world where monasticism is the norm, which is typical of the Pali Suttas; there is none of the antagonism towards the śrāvakas or the notion of Arahantship, which is typical of many later Mahayana Sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, or Vimalakirti Nirdesha. However, the sutra also has an Arahant seeing all the Buddha fields, it is said that reciting the name of the sutra will save beings from suffering and the hell realms, and a meditative practice is described which allows the practitioner to see with the eyes of a Buddha, and to receive teachings from them that are very much typical of Mahayana Sutras.

The earliest proper Mahayana Sutras were the very first versions of the Perfection of Wisdom series and texts concerning Aksobhya Buddha, which were probably composed in the first century BCE in the south of India.[19][30][31] Some slightly later early Mahayana Sutras are the Chinese translations made by the Kushan monk Lokaksema in the Chinese capital of Luoyang, between 178 and 189 CE[16] He translated the following sutras: Astasahasrika, Aksobhyatathagatasyavyuha, Suramgamasamadhi sutra, an early version of a sutra connected to the Avatamsakasutra, Drumakinnararajapariprccha, Bhadrapalasutra, Ajatasatrukaukrtyavinodana, and the Kasyapaparivarta,[32] which were probably composed in the north of India in the first century CE.[33][34] Thus scholars generally think that the earliest Mahayana sutras were mainly composed in the south of India, and later the activity of writing additional scriptures was continued in the north.

But, to equate evidence for the presence of an evolving body of Mahayana scriptures with the existence at the time of Mahayana as a distinct religious movement, has been described as being an assumption which may be a serious misstep.[35]

Earliest inscription related to Mahayana

An early Mahayana Buddhist triad. From left to right, a Kushan devotee, the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and a Buddhist monk. 2nd-3rd century CE, Gandhara.

The earliest stone inscription containing a recognizably Mahayana formulation and a mention of the Buddha Amitabha was found in the Indian subcontinent in Mathura, and dated to around 180 CE. Remains of a statue of a Buddha bear the Brahmi inscription:

"Made in the year 28 of the reign of king Huvishka, ... for the Buddha Amitabha" (Mathura Museum).

However, this image was in itself extremely marginal and isolated in the overall context of Buddhism in India at the time, and had no lasting or long-term consequences[36]

The epigraphical evidence for Mahayana in the period before the 5th century is very limited in comparison to the multiplicity of Mahayana writings transmitted from Central Asia to China at that time.[37][38]

Late Mahayana Buddhism

During the period of Late Mahayana Buddhism, four major types of thought developed: Madhyamaka, Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, and Buddhist Logic as the last and most recent.[39] In India, the two main philosophical schools of the Mahayana were the Madhyamaka and the later Yogacara.[40] There were no great Indian teachers associated with tathagatagarbha thought.[41]

From the 5th century CE onwards, Mahayana was a strong movement in India, possibly owing to support by the Gupta dynasty. It spread from India to South-East Asia, and towards the north to Central Asia and Far East. The influence of Mahayana in China seems to have been reached at an earlier time than in India, where Mahayan remained an obscure group until the 5th century.

The late stage of Mahayana Buddhism in India are largely Vajrayana schools, and was replaced in India and Central Asia after the early milliennium by Islam (Sufism etc.) and Hinduism, and in South-East Asia by Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka and Islam, and maintain to exist in certain regions of the Himalayas. The earlier stage forms such as Pure land Buddhism are still popular in East Asia, where many new religious movements and syncretisms have also been formed with Mahayana elements.


Few things can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism, especially its early Indian form, other than that the Buddhism practiced in China, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahayana Buddhism.[42][43] Mahayana can be described as a loosely bound bundle of many teachings, which was thus able to contain the various contrasting ideas found between those differing teachings of whose elements it is comprised.[44]

Mahayana is a large religious and philosophical structure. It constitutes an inclusive faith characterized by the adoption of new Mahayana sutras in addition to the earlier Agama texts, and a shift in the basic purpose and concepts of Buddhism. Mahayana sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha's Dharma. There is a tendency in Mahayana sutras to regard adherence to Mahayana sutras as generating spiritual benefits greater than those which arise from being a follower of the non-Mahayana approaches to Dharma. Thus the Srimala Sutra claims that the Buddha said that devotion to Mahayana is inherently superior in its virtues to the following of the Sravaka or Pratyekabuddha path.[45]

Buddha Amithaba in Tibetan Buddhism, traditional Thanka painting.

Mahayana Buddhist schools de-emphasize the ideal of the release from Suffering and the attainment of Nirvana, found in the Early Buddhist Schools. The fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine were based around the possibility of universal liberation from suffering for all beings (hence "great vehicle") and the existence of Buddhas and Bodhisattva embodying Buddha-nature (佛性). Some Mahayana schools simplify the expression of faith by allowing salvation to be alternatively obtained through the grace of the Buddha Amitabha (अमिताभ) by having faith and devoting oneself to chanting to Amitabha. This devotional lifestyle of Buddhism is most strongly emphasized by the Pure Land schools and has greatly contributed to the success of Mahayana in East Asia, where spiritual elements traditionally relied upon chanting of a Buddha's name, of mantras or dharanis; reading of Mahayana sutras and mysticism. In Chinese Buddhism, most monks, let alone lay people, practice Pure Land, some combining it with Chan (Zen).[46]

Most Mahayana schools believe in a pantheon of quasi-divine Bodhisattvas (बोधिसत्त्व) that devote themselves to personal excellence, ultimate knowledge, and the salvation of humanity and all other sentient beings (animals, ghosts, demigods, etc.). Zen Buddhism is a school of Mahayana which often de-emphasizes the pantheon of Bodhisattvas and instead focuses on the meditative aspects of the religion. In Mahayana, the Buddha is seen as the ultimate, highest being, present in all times, in all beings, and in all places, and the Bodhisattvas come to represent the universal ideal of altruistic excellence.

Mahayana Buddhism can in general be characterized by:

  • Universalism, in that, in those schools of Mahayana that still have large followings, everyone will become a Buddha (see, for example, the Lotus Sutra);
  • Bodhicitta as the main focus of realization (see, for example, various Prajnaparamita Sutras);
  • Compassion through the transferral of merit;
  • Transcendental immanence, in that the immortal Buddha Principle (see, for example, Buddha-nature, Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Angulimaliya Sutra, Srimala Sutra, Tathagatagarbha Sutra) is present within all beings.

“Philosophical” Mahayana tends to focus on the first three characteristics (universalism, enlightened wisdom, compassion) and, in some schools, the Buddha-nature, without showing much interest in supernatural constructions, while “devotional” Mahayana focuses mainly on salvation towards other-worldly realms (see, for example, the Sukhavati sutras).


Mahayana traditions generally consider that attainment of the level of an arhat is not final. This is based on a subtle doctrinal distinction between the Mahayana and some of the early Buddhist schools concerning the issues of nirvana-with-remainder and nirvana-without-remainder. The Mahayana position here is similar to that of the early school of the Mahasanghika.


Buddha attaining Maha-Parinirvana - Depicted in cave 26 of Ajanta Caves, India

Some of the early schools considered that nirvana-without-remainder always follows nirvana-with-remainder (buddhas first achieve enlightenment and then, at 'death', mahaparinirvana) and that nirvana-without-remainder is final; whereas the Mahayana traditions consider that nirvana-without-remainder is always followed by nirvana-with-remainder – the state of attainment of the Hinayana arhat is not final, and is eventually succeeded by the state of buddhahood, or total Awakening.

This distinction is most evident regarding doctrinal concerns about the capability of a Buddha after nirvana (which is identified by the early schools as being nirvana-without-remainder). Most importantly, amongst the early schools, a samyaksambuddha is not able to directly point the way to nirvana after death. This is a major distinction between the early schools and some schools of the Mahayana, who conversely state that once a samyaksambuddha arises, he or she continues to directly and actively point the way to nirvana until there are no beings left in samsara (संसार). Because the views of early schools and Mahayana differ in this respect, this is exactly why some Mahayana schools do not talk about a bodhisattva postponing nirvana, and exactly why the early schools do. However, some Mahayana schools do talk of a bodhisattva deliberately refraining from Buddhahood.[47]

For example, the early schools held that Maitreya (मैत्रेय) will not attain nirvana while Gautama Buddha's teachings still exist. In contrast, some Mahayana schools hold that Maitreya will be the next buddha manifest in this world and will introduce the dharma when it no longer exists; he is not postponing his nirvana to do so, and when he dies (or enters mahaparinirvana), he will likewise continue to teach the dharma for all time. Moreover, some Mahayana schools argue that although it is true that for this world-system, Maitreya will be the next buddha to manifest, there are an infinite number of world-systems, many of which have currently active buddhas or buddhas-to-be manifesting.

Because the Mahayana traditions assert that eventually everyone will achieve samyaksam (buddhahood) or total enlightenment, the Mahayana is labeled universalist, whereas the stance of the early scriptures is that attaining nibbana depends on effort and is not pre-determined.[48]


The later Mahayana school holds that pursuing only the release from suffering and attainment of Nirvana (as held by Pre-sectarian Buddhism and the Early Buddhist Schools) is too narrow an aspiration, because it lacks the motivation of actively resolving to liberate all other beings from samsara, as well as oneself.

The primary focus of some Mahayana schools is bodhicitta, the vow to strive for buddhahood or awakened mind both for oneself and for the benefit of all other sentient beings. As Ananda Coomaraswamy notes, "The most essential part of the Mahanyana is its emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal, which replaces the Arhatta, or ranks before it."[49] According to Mahayana teachings, being a high-level bodhisattva involves possessing a mind of great compassion conjoined with insight into reality (prajna), realizing emptiness and/or the buddhic essence of all things. Mahayana teaches that the practitioner will realize the final goal of full Awakening (Buddhahood): an omniscient, blissful mind completely free from suffering and its causes, that is able to work tirelessly for the benefit of all living beings.

Six virtues or perfections (paramitas) are listed for the bodhisattva: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Many “philosophical” schools and Mahayana Sutras have focused on the nature of enlightenment and nirvana itself, from the Madhyamika and its rival Yogacara, to the Tathagatagarbha teachings and Zen.


Avalokitesvara - the Boddhisattva of compassion - with 1,000 arms, part of the Dazu Rock Carvings at Mount Baoding, Dazu County, Chongqing, China.

Compassion, or Karuna, is the other key concept of Mahayana, and is a necessity to Bodhicitta. Compassion is important in all schools of Buddhism, but is particularly emphasized in Mahayana. It is also linked to the idea that acquired merit can be transmitted to others.

The bodhisattvas are the main actors of compassion, Avalokitesvara (known in East Asia as Guan Yin) being foremost among them. Although having reached enlightenment, bodhisattvas usually make a vow to postpone entering into nirvana until all other beings have also been saved. They devote themselves to helping others reach enlightenment. This teaching may be a "skillful means" teaching; one strives to liberate all beings only as long as one is under the delusion that there are any actual "beings" to save.

The Mahayana idea that liberation is universal (see below) also allows for one to focus less on the release of personal suffering and more on humanity's salvation, and is consequently described to be more universally compassionate and caring for the welfare of others than other traditions of Buddhism.

A comparison between the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist philosophy approaches, made by the 10th century Tibetan author Jé Gampopa in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation follows:

‘Clinging to the well-being of mere peace' signifies the lower capacity [Hinayana] attitude wherein the longing to transcend suffering is focused on oneself alone. This precludes the cherishing of others and hence there is little development of altruism. [...] When loving kindness and compassion become part of one, there is so much care for other conscious beings that one could not bear to liberate oneself alone. [...] Master Manjushriikiirti has said: ‘A Mahayana follower should not be without loving kindness and compassion for even a single moment', and ‘It is not anger and hatred but loving kindness and compassion that vouchsafe the welfare of others'.

Skillful Means

The term Skillful Means (Sanskrit:upāya) is used in the Lotus Sutra, the earliest dated Mahayana Sutra, and is a concept accepted in all Mahayana schools of thought. It refers to any effective method which aids the attainment of Awakening. It does not necessarily mean that that particular method is "untrue", but simply refers to any means or stratagem that is conducive to spiritual growth and which leads the various types of beings to Awakening and Nirvana. A skillful means could thus be certain motivational words for a particular listener or even the noble Eightfold Path itself. Basic Buddhism (what Mahayana would term sravaka-yana or pratyekabuddha-yana) is an expedient method for getting people started on the noble Buddhic path and allowing them to advance quite far. But the path is not wholly traversed (according to some Mahayana schools) until the practitioner has striven for, and attained, Buddhahood for the liberation from unhappiness of all other sentient beings. In an ultimate sense, all of verbalised Dharma is a "skillful means", since Dharma or Truth cannot really be expressed in words or concepts. Anything that effectively points the way to liberation can be termed a "skillful means" - an effective method for awakening beings from the sleep of spiritual ignorance. Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic notion of truth:[50] doctrines are "true" in the sense of being spiritually beneficial.

Some scholars have stated that the exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon.[51] In fact the Pali term upāya-kosalla does occur in the Pali Canon, in the Sangiti Sutta of the Digha Nikaya.[52]


“Devotional” Mahayana developed a rich cosmography, with various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas residing in paradisiacal realms. The concept of trinity, or trikaya, supports these constructions, making the Buddha himself into a transcendental figure. Dr. Guang Xing describes the Mahayana Buddha as 'an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities ...[He] is described almost as an omnipotent and almighty godhead.".[53]

Under various conditions, these realms over which Buddha presides could be attained by devotees after their death so that when reborn they could strive towards buddhahood in the best possible conditions. Depending on the sect, this salvation to “paradise” can be obtained by faith, imaging, or sometimes even by the simple invocation of the Buddha's name. This approach to salvation is at the origin of the mass appeal of devotional Buddhism, especially represented by the Pure Land (浄土宗).

This rich cosmography also allowed Mahayana to be quite syncretic and accommodating of other faiths or deities. Various origins have been suggested to explain its emergence, such as “popular Hindu devotional cults (bhakti), and Persian and Greco-Roman theologies, which filtered into India from the northwest” (Tom Lowenstein, “The vision of the Buddha”).


The teaching of a "Buddha Principle" (Buddha-dhatu) or "Buddha Nature" innate to and inseparable from all sentient beings is a doctrine which according to a number of Mahayana sutras constitutes the "absolutely final culmination" of the Buddha's Dharma (see Nirvana Sutra). It may be based on the "luminous mind" concept found in the Agamas. The essential idea (articulated in the Tathagatagarbha sutras, but not accepted by all Mahayana) is that no being is without a concealed but indestructible interior link to Awakening (bodhi), and that this link is an uncreated element [dhatu] or principle deep inside each being which constitutes nothing less than the deathless, diamond-like "essence of the Self" (Nirvana Sutra). The Mahaparinirvana Sutra states that: "The essence of the Self (atman) is the subtle Tathagatagarbha ..." while the later Lankavatara Sutra states that the tathagatagarbha might be taken to be atman, but it is not. In the tathagatagarbha class of sutras, the word "atman" is used in a way defined by and specific to these sutras, see Atman (Buddhism).

According to some scholars, the "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature discussed in some Mahayana sutras does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of sunyata (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices.[54] It is the "true self" in representing the innate aspect of the individual which makes actualizing the ultimate personality possible.

The actual "seeing and knowing" of this Buddha-dhatu (co-terminous with the Dharmakaya or Self of Buddha) is said to usher in nirvanic Liberation. This Buddha-dhatu or Tathagatagarbha is stated to be found in every single person, ghost, god and creature. In the tathagatagarbha sutras, the Buddha is portrayed as describing the Buddha-dhatu as uncreated, deathless and ultimately beyond rational grasping or conceptualisation. Yet it is this already real and present, hidden internal element of bodhi (Awakeness) which, according to the Tathagatagarbha sutras, prompts beings to seek after Liberation from worldly suffering and enables them to attain the spotless bliss which lies at the heart of their being. Once the veils of negative thoughts, feelings and unwholesome behaviour (the kleshas) have been eliminated from the mind and character, the indwelling Buddha-dhatu (Buddha Principle / "Buddha Nature") is enabled to shine forth unimpededly and to transform the seer of it into a Buddha.

Prior to the period of these sutras, Mahayana metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Tathagatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination and on the mysterious reality of nirvana using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.[55]

An exegetical treatise (i.e., interpretive text) on Buddha Nature is the Uttaratantra, which sees Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) not as that which is caused and conditioned (samskrta) but as that which is eternal, uncaused, unconditioned, and incapable of being destroyed, although temporarily concealed within worldly beings by adventitious defilements.[56] According to Buddhist scholar Dr. C. D. Sebastian, the Uttaratantra's reference to a transcendental Self (atma-paramita) should be understood as "the unique essence of the universe,"[57] thus the universal and immanent essence of Buddha Nature is the same throughout time and space.[58]

Mahayana Scriptures

The Dharma wheel, often used to represent the noble eightfold path

Like Theravāda Buddhism, Mahāyāna Buddhism takes the basic teachings of the Buddha as recorded in early scriptures as the starting point of its teachings, such as those concerning karma and rebirth, the Four Noble Truths, the Middle Way and the Eightfold Path. Whereas these basic teachings are preserved in the Pali Canon, transmitted by the Theravādin tradition, Mahāyāna Buddhists use different recensions of these discourses in compilations known as the Agamas, which largely overlap with the Pali Canon in content. The surviving agamas in Chinese translation belong to at least two schools, while most of the agamas were never translated into Tibetan. In addition to accepting the scriptures of the various early Buddhist schools as valid, Mahāyāna Buddhism also maintains large additional collections of sutras not found or recognized in Theravāda Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, these Mahayana sutras have a greater importance than the Agamas. Although these scriptures claim to be the factual words of the Buddha, scholars believe that they were written by monks who felt the need to restate and change the doctrines of Early Buddhism.[59]

The first of the Mahayana-specific writings were written probably around the 1st century BCE[4] or 1st century CE.[2] Some of the Mahayana Sutras, such as certain parts of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, are presented as actual sermons of the Buddha that had been hidden. By some accounts, these sermons were passed on by oral tradition, as with other sutras; 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 attested to historically are the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita) sutras, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, and the Nirvana Sutra.

Three Turnings

Dating back at least to the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra is a classification of exoteric corpus of Buddhism into three categories, based on types of understanding the nature of reality, known as the "three turnings of the wheel of dharma". According to this view, there were three "turnings of the wheel of dharma".:[60]

  1. In the first turning Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi in the 5th century BC, which led to the founding of Buddhism and the later early Buddhist schools. Details of the first turning are described in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. The oldest scriptures do not mention any further turnings other than this first turning.
  2. The Mahayana tradition claims there was a second turning in which the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were taught at Vulture's Peak, which led to the Mahayana schools. Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures (including the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras) were composed from the first century CE onwards,[61]
  3. According to the Vajrayana tradition, there was a third turning which took place at Dhanyakataka sixteen years after Buddha's enlightenment. Scholars have strongly denied that Vajrayana teachings appeared at that time,[60] and placed it at a much later time. The first tantric (Vajrayana Buddhist) texts appeared in the 3rd century CE, and they continued to appear until the 12th century CE.[62]

The early Buddhist schools regard the second and third turnings as unauthentic and falsifications of the true teachings of the Buddha contained in the first turning. Mahayana tradition states that the first turning contains the basic doctrines aimed at the initial disciples or Śrāvakas. Mahayana claims that the Madhyamika teachings and the Prajna Paramita sutras and Yogācāra doctrines are the most accurate view of reality . Many Tibetan teachers, particularly the Gelugpa school, regard the second turning as the highest teaching. The Tathagatagarbha teachings are normally included in the third turning of the wheel. The Chinese tradition has a different scheme.

Mahayana and the Canon

Scholars have noted that many key Mahayana ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism. The seminal work of Mahayana philosophy, Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, mentions the Canon's "Katyaayana Sutra" by name, and may be an extended commentary on that work (found in the agamas).[63] Nagarjuna systematized the Madhyamaka school of Mahanaya philosophy. Nagarjuna may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the Canon. In the eyes of Nagarjuna the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system.[64] Nagarjuna also referred to a passage in the canon regarding "nirvanic consciousness" in two different works.[65]

Yogachara, the other prominent Mahayana school which exists in dialectic with the Madhyamaka school, gave a special significance to the Canon's "Lesser Discourse on Emptiness".[66] A passage there (which the discourse itself emphasizes) is often quoted in later Yogachara texts as a true definition of emptiness.[67]

Both the Madhyamakas and the Yogacarins saw themselves as preserving the Buddhist Middle Way between the extremes of nihilism (everything is unreal) and substantialism (substantial entities exist). The Yogacarins criticized the Madhyamakas for tending towards nihilism, while the Madhyamakas criticized the Yogacarins for tending towards substantialism.[68]

Key Mahayana texts introducing the concepts of "bodhicitta" and "buddha-nature" use language parallel to passages in the Canon containing the Buddha's description of "luminous mind" and may have been based on this idea.[69]

Mahayana and Theravada

Although the Theravada school is usually described as belonging to "Hinayana",[70][71][72][73][74] some authors have argued that it should not be considered such from the Mahayana perspective. Their view is based on a different understanding of the concept "Hinayana". Rather than regarding the term as referring to any school of Buddhism that hasn't accepted the Mahayana canon and doctrines (such as those pertaining to the role of the Boddhisatva),[71][73] these authors argue that the classification of a school as "Hinayana" should be crucially dependent on the adherence to a specific phenomenological position. They point out that unlike the now-extinct Sarvastivada school which was the primary object of Mahayana criticism, the Theravada does not claim the existence of independent dharmas; in this it maintains the attitude of early Buddhism.[75][76][77] On the contrary, some contemporary Theravadin figures have indicated a sympathetic stance toward the Mahayana philosophy found in the Heart Sutra and the Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way.[78][79] The Mahayanists were bothered by the substantialist thought of the Sarvastivadins and Sautrantikas, and in emphasizing the doctrine of emptiness, Kalupahana holds that they endeavored to preserve the early teaching.[80] The Theravadins too refuted the Sarvastivadins and Sautrantikas (and other schools) on the grounds that their theories were in conflict with the non-substantialism of the canon. The Theravada arguments are preserved in the Kathavatthu.[81] Thus, according to this view, no form of real "Hinayana" Buddhism survives today.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Mahayana movement claims to have been founded by the Buddha himself. Scholars however, think that it originated in South India in the 1st century CE’ – Indian Buddhism, AK Warder, 3rd edition, 1999, p. 335.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 293
  3. 3.0 3.1 Buddhist Saints in India, Reginald A. Ray, 1994, p.404
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 252
  5. Certainly, we have for this period an extensive body of inscriptions from virtually all parts of India. ... But nowhere in this extensive body of material is there any reference, prior to the fifth century, to a named Mahayana. There are, on the other hand, scores of references to what used to be called Hinayana groups — the Sarvastivadins, Mahasamghikas, and so on. From this point of view, at least, this was not “the period of the Mahayana,” but “the period of the Hinayana.”, Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 493
  6. ‘The later school which arrogated to itself the title Mahayana’. Indian Buddhism, AK Warder, 3rd edition 1999, p.4
  7. 'It is certain that the term Mahayana (which means “great or large vehicle”) was in origin a polemical label used by only one side' MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, p. 492
  8. It is certain that the term Mahayana (which means “great or large vehicle”) was in origin a polemical label used by only one side — and perhaps the least significant side — of a protracted, if uneven, Indian debate about what the real teachings of the Buddha are, Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  9. Theravada - Mahayana Buddhism Ven. Dr. W. Rahula Theravada - Mahayana Buddhism
  10. I have assumed that, in the earliest stage of the transmission of the Lotus Sutra, the Middle Indic forn jāṇa or *jāna (= Pkt < Skt jñāna, yāna) had stood in these places ... I have assumed, further, that the Mahāyānist terms buddha-yānā ("the Buddha-vehicle"), mahāyāna ("the great vehicle"), hīnayāna ("the inferior vehicle") meant originally buddha-jñāna ("buddha-knowledge"), mahājñāna ("great knowledge") and hīnajñāna ("inferior knowledge"). Seishi Karashima, Some Features of the Language of the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka-sūtra, Indo-Iranian Journal 44: 207-230, 2001.
  11. A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 7
  12. A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 8
  13. 13.0 13.1 A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 260
  14. Buddhist Saints in India, Reginald A. Ray, 1994, p.404, 405
  15. Buddhist Saints in India, Reginald A. Ray, 1994, p.407
  16. 16.0 16.1 The most important evidence — in fact the only evidence — for situating the emergence of the Mahayana around the beginning of the common era was not Indian evidence at all, but came from China. Already by the last quarter of the second century C.E. there was a small, seemingly idiosyncratic collection of substantial Mahayana sutras translated into what Erik Zürcher calls “broken Chinese” by an Indoscythian, whose Indian name has been reconstructed as Lokaksema., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  17. 17.0 17.1 A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 261, 262
  18. Buddhist Saints in India, Reginald A. Ray, 1994, p.405
  19. 19.0 19.1 A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 263, 268
  20. Akira Hirakawa, A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana, 1993, p. 271
  21. e.g. Williams, Mahayana Buddhism
  22. A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 246
  23. One of the most frequent assertions about the Mahayana ... is that it was a lay-influenced, or even lay-inspired and dominated, movement that arose in response to the increasingly closed, cold, and scholastic character of monastic Buddhism. This, however, now appears to be wrong on all counts. MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  24. MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  25. As scholars have moved away from this limited corpus, and have begun to explore a wider range of Mahayana Sutras, they have stumbled on, and have started to open up, a literature that is often stridently ascetic and heavily engaged in reinventing the forest ideal, an individualistic, antisocial, ascetic ideal that is encapsulated in the apparently resurrected image of “wandering alone like a rhinoceros.” MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  26. At this point we can only postulate that the Maha�ya�na may have had a visible impact in India only when, in the fifth century, it had become what it had originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic institution
  27. either a collection of marginalized ascetic groups living in the forest, or groups of cantankerous and malcontent conservatives embedded in mainstream, socially engaged monasteries, all of whom continued pouring out pamphlets espousing their views and values, pamphlets that we now know as Mahayana Sutras. We simply do not know. MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494 and 495
  28. ...From this point of view, at least, this was not “the period of the Mahayana,” but “the period of the Hinayana.”, Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 493
  29. At this point we can only postulate that the Maha�ya�na may have had a visible impact in India only when, in the fifth century, it had become what it had originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic institution, MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  30. ‘The south (of India) was then vigorously creative in producing Mahayana Sutras’ – AK Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd edition, 1999, p. 335.
  31. A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 253
  32. A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 248-251
  33. ‘The sudden appearance of large numbers of (Mahayana) teachers and texts (in North India in the second century AD) would seem to require some previous preparation and development, and this we can look for in the South.’ AK Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd edition, 1999 p. 335.
  34. A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 252, 253
  35. But even apart from the obvious weaknesses inherent in arguments of this kind there is here the tacit equation of a body of literature with a religious movement, an assumption that evidence for the presence of one proves the existence of the other, and this may be a serious misstep., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 493
  36. In other words, once nontextual evidence is taken into account the picture changes dramatically. Rather than being datable to the beginning of the common era, this strand of Mahayana Buddhism, at least, appeared to have no visible impact on Indian Buddhist cult practice until the second century, and even then what impact it had was extremely isolated and marginal, and had no lasting or long-term consequences — there were no further references to Amitabha in Indian image inscriptions. Almost exactly the same pattern occurs (concerning Mahayana) on an even broader scale when nontextual evidence is considered., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 493
  37. Certainly, we have for this period an extensive body of inscriptions from virtually all parts of India. ... But nowhere in this extensive body of material is there any reference, prior to the fifth century, to a named Mahayana., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 493
  38. What is particularly disconcerting here is the disconnect between expectation and reality: We know from Chinese translations that large numbers of Mahayana sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century. But outside of texts, at least in India, at exactly the same period, very different — in fact seemingly older — ideas and aspirations appear to be motivating actual behavior, and old and established Hinayana groups appear to be the only ones that are patronized and supported., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  39. A History of Indian Buddhism - Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner) - Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, p. 8,9
  40. Peter Harvey, "An Introduction to Buddhism." Cambridge University Press, 1993, page 95.
  41. Peter Harvey, "An Introduction to Buddhism." Cambridge University Press, 1993, page 113.
  42. There are, it seems, very few things that can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism, Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  43. But apart from the fact that it can be said with some certainty that the Buddhism embedded in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahayana Buddhism, it is no longer clear what else can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism itself, and especially about its earlier, and presumably formative, period in India., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  44. It has become increasingly clear that Mahayana Buddhism was never one thing, but rather, it seems, a loosely bound bundle of many, and — like Walt Whitman — was large and could contain, in both senses of the term, contradictions, or at least antipodal elements., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  45. The Shrimaladevi Sutra, tr. by Dr. Shenpen Hookham, Longchen Foundation, Oxford 1998, p.27
  46. Welch, Practice of Chinese Buddhism, Harvard, 1967, page 396
  47. Cook, Hua-Yen Buddhism, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977
  48. Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press 1995, page 87.
  49. Coomaraswamy, Ananda (1975). Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism. Boston: University Books, Inc.. pp. 229. 
  50. Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 1990, page 2
  51. ‘’It is true that the term translated 'skill in means', upaya-kausalya, is post-canonical, but the exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon.’’ How Buddhism Began, Richard F. Gombrich, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997, p. 17
  52. Thus Have I Heard: the Long Discourses of the Buddha, tr M. Walshe, Wisdom Pubns, 1987, page 486
  53. Guang Xing, The Three Bodies of the Buddha: The Origin and Development of the Trikaya Theory, RoutledgeCurzon, Oxford, 2005, pp.1 and 85
  54. Heng-Ching Shih, "The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' – A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata.'"
  55. Sallie B. King, The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature is impeccably Buddhist. [1], pages 1-6.
  56. Professor C. D. Sebastian, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Mahayana Buddhism, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 2005, p. 268
  57. Professor C. D. Sebastian, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Mahayana Buddhism, Delhi, 1995, p. 151; cf. also p. 110
  58. Professor C. D. Sebastian, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Mahayana Buddhism, Delhi, 2005, p. 278
  59. ‘Sometime after the founding of the Purva Saila school in the 1st century B.C. certain monks felt the need not simply for new interpretations of the original sutras (such as, for example, the new Abhidharma texts of the schools ...), but for wholesale restatements of the doctrine. For this purpose they rewrote the sutras, or wrote new sutras.’ AK Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd edition, p. 335.
  60. 60.0 60.1 Kitagawa, Joseph Mitsuo. The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture, p. 80. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0700717625
  61. large numbers of Mahayana sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century. MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  62. Buddhist Thought: A complete introduction to the Indian tradition by Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0203185935 pg 194
  63. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 5.
  64. Christian Lindtner, Master of Wisdom. Dharma Publishing 1997, page 324.
  65. Christian Lindtner, Master of Wisdom. Dharma Publishing, 1997, page 322. Lindtner says that Nagarjuna is referencing the DN.
  66. Gadjin M. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogachara. Leslie S. Kawamura, translator, SUNY Press, Albany 1991, page 53.
  67. Gadjin M. Nagao, Madhyamika and Yogachara. Leslie S. Kawamura, translator, SUNY Press, Albany 1991, page 200.
  68. Peter Harvey, "An Introduction to Buddhism." Cambridge University Press, 1993, page 106.
  69. Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 97.
  70. [2]
  71. 71.0 71.1 Gombrich, Richard Francis. 1988. Theravāda Buddhism. P.83
  72. Collins, Steven. 1990. Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism. P.21
  73. 73.0 73.1 Gellner, David N. 2005. Rebuilding Buddhism. P.14
  74. Swearer, Donald. 2006. Theravada Buddhist Societies. In: Mark Juergensmeyer (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions. P.83
  75. Frank J. Hoffman and Deegalle Mahinda, Pāli Buddhism. Routledge Press 1996, page 192.
  76. Richard King, Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Edinburgh University Press, 1999, page 86.
  77. Nyanaponika, Nyaponika Thera, Nyanaponika, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time. Wisdom Publications, 1998, page 42.
  78. Donald S. Lopez and Dge-ʼdun-chos-ʼphel, The Madman's Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendun Chopel. University of Chicago Press 2006, page 24.
  79. Gil Fronsdal, in Tricycle, posted online on November 8, 2007
  80. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 6.
  81. David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass, 2006, page 24.


  • "Mahayana". Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2002. 

Further reading

  • Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 1989
  • Schopen, G. "The inscription on the Kusan image of Amitabha and the character of the early Mahayana in India", Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 10, 1990
  • ”The Vision of the Buddha”, Tom Lowenstein, ISBN 1-903296-91-9
  • Kevin Lynch, The Way Of The Tiger: A Buddhist's Guide To Achieving Nirvana, Yojimbo Temple, 2005
  • Beal, Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, (London, 1871)
  • S. Kuroda, Outline of Mahayana, (Tokyo, 1893)
  • D. T. Suzuki, Outline of Mahayana Buddhism, (London, 1907)
  • Murdoch, History of Japan, volume i., (Yokohama, 1910)
  • D. T. Suzuki, in The Monist, volume xxiv, (Chicago, 1914). The Monist was edited by Paul Carus.

External links

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