Mahayana (the “greater
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).
are numerous subdivisions or "denominations" within Mahayana,
it is possible to list several common characteristics.
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
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
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
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:
- Patient Acceptance
- Strenuous Endeavor
- Meditative Concentration
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).
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.
of the most important celestial bodhisattvas is Avalokistesvara,
the Buddha of compassion.
In 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.
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
3. The Three Bodies of
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).
Buddhism has moved toward a theistic religion. The Buddha or, at
least a buddha or bodhisattva, is worshipped and venerated.
4. Emptiness (Sunyata)
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
earthly things have no eternal reality/independent origin
world of samsara is empty of inherent existence
aggregates of a person are empty of absolute self-nature; exist only
in relation to other.