Make your own free website on

Home Syllabus Research Project Lectures Reviews

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 Scriptures: 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 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.”


It should be noted that Tibetan Buddhism has its own unique canon that is very large. In fact, a critical edition of the entire Tibetan canon has never been produced.


 2. Bodhisattvas

In Theravada a bodhisattva (literally, a "wisdom being") 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, Mahayana Buddhism believed that 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 is one's own 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.


In general, anyone can become a bodhisattva by vowing to do so and working to achieve enlightenment for the sake of others. 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.


 A bodhisattva directs his or her energies through many lifetimes toward cultivating compassion. In particular, there are six areas of training known as the Six Perfections:


  • Generosity
  • Morality
  • Patient Acceptance
  • Strenuous Endeavor
  • Meditative Concentration
  • Insight

 Prominent in the development of compassion is an emphasis on the mother-child relationship.  The reasoning is that in the course of endless rebirths, everyone has been a part of the mother child relationship.  In other words, everyone has been one’s mother and everyone has been one’s child. One must therefore treat all persons as one’s own mother or child.

As the bodhisattva attains the six perfections, he/she progresses through ten levels.  The eleventh level is the Buddha level – the state in which one has overcome all desires and has attained omniscience. One who attains the level of the Buddha also possesses the three bodies of the Buddha (see below).

Some boddhisattvas have been reborn into one of the heavenly realms (remember that there are 31 realms of existence). 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. In addition, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is believed to be the human incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion.


For Mahayana Buddhism, there are many bodhisattvas and many Buddhas. Siddhartha is not the only enlightened one.  Consequently, Mahayana refers to Siddhartha at Shakyamuni - the sage of the Shakya clan.

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:

  •   Pure universal consciousness (dharmakaya): The dharmakaya (or truth body) can be thought of as an eternal truth or principle. It is described as omniscient consciousness. Emanating from the dharmakaya is the physical or emanation body, also referred to as the "body of transformation."

  •  Body of transformation or emanation body: This is the physical manifestation that the Buddha that is known as Siddhartha.  It is the only one that appeared in this world.  

  • Body of bliss  or "complete enjoyment body."  This is the Buddha's  pure form which exists not in this realm, but in a pure land that the Buddha has brought forth.

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.

 The implications of the doctrine of the three bodies are significant.  The Buddha has become a cosmic figure who “can transcend the ordinary laws of time and space.  No longer a mortal human teacher, he generates bodies that pervade all of space, is omniscient . . .  and, perhaps most strikingly, he declares that he never truly dies or enters a final nirvana.”  He only appeared to die to provide a graphic illustration of impermanence; he actually continues to live in a “pure land,” where advanced practitioners still visit him and receive his teachings. (Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, 89).

Obviously, Mahayana Buddhism has moved toward a theistic religion. The Buddha or, at least a buddha or bodhisattva, is worshipped and venerated.

4. Emptiness (Sunyata)

A third emphasis of Mahayana Buddhism is  the doctrine of 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.

Back Next