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B. Mahayana (the “greater vehicle”)

            Around the beginning of the first century BCE a distinct movement arose within Buddhism.  This movement believed that the members of the sangha were too concerned with their own salvation.  They therefore labeled the Buddhism of their day as hinayana (the lesser way) and called their own movement - which encompassed monks and laypersons, male and female - Mahayana (the greater way).


While there are numerous  subdivisions or "denominations"  within Mahayana, it is possible to list several common characteristics.


1. Extensive Canon

 While the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism were limited to the Tipitaka, Mahayana embraced many additional writings including the Lotus Sutra and a large group of scriptures known as the Perfection of Insight (or Wisdom) Sutras (prajna-paramita). Most of these scriptures claim to be teaching that the Buddha imparted to a few select disciples who were capable of understanding them. In reality, the scriptures represent a reworking of the Buddha’s teachings to “bring out new meanings that were not originally stressed.”


2. Bodhisattvas

In Theravada, a bodhisattva was simply a "buddha to be."  Consequently, there was only one bodhisattva who, over the course of many lives, became the Buddha for this age.  In contrast, in Mahayana a bodhisattva was anyone (not just a monk) who devoted his or her energies to seeking enlightenment for the sake of others. Notice that this marks a shift in the focus of Buddhism.  In Theravada, the goal was enlightenment.  In Mahayana, the real goal is to rescue others; enlightenment is simply the best way to save others. A bodhisattva thus focuses on both developing compassion and achieving enlightenment.


The typical vow that one takes to become a bodhisattva is:

Beings are infinite in number, I vow to save them all;

 The obstructive passions are endless in number; I vow to end them all;

The teachings for saving others are countless, I vow to learn them all:

 Buddhahood is the supreme achievement: I vow to attain it.


 Some bodhisattvas have been reborn into one of the heavenly realms. From these celestial realms, they are able to hear and answer pleas of those in need. One of the most important celestial bodhisattvas is Avalokistesvara, the Buddha of compassionIn China, he is known as Kuan-yin and in Japan he is known as Kannon.  It is worth noting that Kuan yin often appears as a female.  Moreover, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the human incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion.

3. The Three Bodies of the Buddha

            In Therevada Buddhism, the Buddha ceased to exist as soon as he entered Nirvana.  Moreover, the Buddha was never considered to be a god.  In Mahayana, the Buddha become god like in that he is an eternal presence with three aspects or bodies

  •   Pure universal consciousness

  •  Body of bliss “radiant celestial aspect of Buddhahood that communicated the dharma to Bodhisattvas

  •  Body of transformation –the human Siddhartha Gautama

The doctrine of the three bodies of the Buddha becomes important when one considers that bodhisattvas can, through enlightenment, attain the body of bliss (by which they may do supernatural feats) and also embody the universal consciousness or Buddha nature.  Over time, some Mahayana schools taught that all individuals actually possess a Buddha nature.


4. Emptiness (Sunyata)

A third emphasis of Mahayana Buddhism is  the doctrine of sunyata or emptiness. This doctrine grew naturally out of the Buddha's teachings about impermanence and interdependent arising. Although different Mahayana schools had different interpretations, the doctrine of sunyata can be stated as follows:

  • All earthly things have no eternal reality/independent origin

  • Thus world of samsara is empty of inherent existence

  • Five aggregates of a person are empty of absolute self-nature; exist only in relation to other.