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Mahayana Buddhism Overview

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Green Gaia

Veteran Member
Mahāyāna (literally Great Vehicle) is one of the 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.


Scholars believe that Mahayana as a distinct movement began around the 1st century BCE in the northwestern Indian subcontinent, estimating a formative period of about three centuries before it was transmitted in a highly evolved form to China in the 2nd century CE. According to Williams (1989), 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 the same code.

First known scriptures

The first known Mahayana texts are translations made into Chinese by the Kushan monk Lokaksema in the Chinese capital of Loyang, between 178 and 189 CE.

Lokaksema's work includes the translation of the Pratyutpanna Sutra, containing the first known mentions of the Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land, said to be at the origin of Pure Land practice in China, and the first known translations of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, a founding text of Mahayana Buddhism.

First known inscriptions

The earliest stone inscriptions containing recognizably Mahayana formulations were 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).

Such inscriptions are rather late and few (the next known one is dated to the end of the 3rd century), in comparison to the multiplicity of Mahayana writings transiting from Central Asia to China at that time, and the involvement of Central Asian Buddhist monks, suggesting the focus of Mahayana development was probably in the northwest.

The 4th Buddhist Council

The formal rise of Mahayana Buddhism has been dated to around the middle of the 2nd century CE, when the Kushan emperor Kanishka convened the 4th Buddhist Council in Gandhara, which confirmed the formal scission of Mahayana Buddhism from the traditional Nikaya schools of Buddhism.

This was also the time and place of a rich cultural interaction between Buddhism and Hellenistic culture, which influenced the early representations of Buddhas, in what is known as Greco-Buddhist art.

Expansion (1st c.CE–10th c.CE)

From the 1st century CE and in the space of a few centuries, Mahayana was to flourish and spread in the East from India to South-East Asia, and towards the north to Central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, culminating with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in 538 CE.

Mahayana disappeared from India during the 11th century, and consequently lost its influence in South-East Asia where it was replaced by Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka.

Mahayana remains however the main Buddhist faith to this day in Eastern Asia.


The way of the Mahayana, in contrast with to the more conservative and austere Theravada school of Buddhism, can be characterized by:

* Universalism, according to which every individual is endowed with Buddha nature.
* Enlightened wisdom, as the main focus of realization.
* Compassion through the transferal of merit.
* Salvation, supported by a rich cosmography, including celestial realms and powers, with a spectrum of Bodhisattvas, both human and seemingly godlike, who can assist believers.

“Philosophical Mahayana” tends to focus on the first three characteristics (Universality, enlightened wisdom, compassion) without showing much interest for supernatural constructions, while “Devotional Mahayana” mainly focuses on salvation towards other-worldly realms.


The name "Mahāyāna" means great yāna, or the greater vehicle, in contrast to the Hīnayāna, or "Smaller vehicule", indicating universalism, or Salvation for all. This affirmation is grounded in the belief that every individual possesses Buddha nature, and therefore is a potential Buddha who will attain bodhi.

This was contrasted with Hinayana doctrine, which considers that the search for Nirvana is only possible for a few, demands to lead a monk’s life, to renounce all possessions and to cut oneself from life and its desires, an ideal only achieved by selected arhats.

Because of its universalist position, Mahayana was able to appeal more easily to the lay masses, by promising for all too various ways to enlightenment.

Enlightened wisdom

According to Mahayana, traditional Buddhism tends to focus on an ascetic, individual, approach to attain Nirvana: suppression of desire, removal from the world, solitariness. Its followers are śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas.

On the contrary, the primary focus of Mahayana is bodhicitta: a mind of great compassion conjoined with wisdom (prajna) realizing emptiness. With this mind the practitioner 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, becoming a Bodhisattva. Six virtues or perfections (paramitas) are listed for the Bodhisattva: generosity, patience, meditation, morality, energy and wisdom.

Many “philosophical” schools of Mahayana Buddhism have focused on the nature of enlightenment and Nirvana itself, from the Madhyamika to the Yogacara and culminating with Zen.


Compassion, or Karuna, is the other key concept of Mahayana, and considered the indispensable complement to enlightened wisdom. Compassion is important in all schools of Buddhism, but particularly emphasized in Mahayana. It relies on the idea that excess acquired merit can be transmitted to others. The Bodhisattvas are the main actors of compassion, Avalokitesvara 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 then devote themselves to helping others reach enlightenment.


“Devotional Mahayana” developed a rich cosmography, with various supernatural Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, residing in paradisiacal realms. The concept of Trinity, or trikaya, supports these constructions, making the Buddha himself into a transcendental god-like figure.

Under various conditions, these lands could be attained by devotees after their death so that when reborn they could endeavour 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.

This rich cosmography also allowed Mahayana to be quite syncretic and accommodating of other faiths or deities. Various origins have also 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”).

Mahayana scriptures

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 probably set in writing around 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.

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