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Mahayana Buddhism

Assumptions: Mahayana Buddhism accepts the same fundamental assumptions as Theravada.  An important difference, however, is Mahayana's belief that after the Buddha attained enlightenment, he chose not to enter nirvana; rather he chose to return to this world again and again in order to teach other people how to attain nirvana.  Notice that the basic assumptions shift away from the teachings of the Buddha to the Buddha's character.  In particular, his compassion is emphasized.  The Buddha is seen as a bodhisattva:  an enlightened one who postpones entering into Nirvana in order to help others.
The Problem:  All persons have the Buddha- nature within themselves.  Theoretically, all persons over a series of lifetimes can attain enlightenment.  The problem, however, is that humans are weak.  Most have neither the time nor the resources to devote to following all parts of the Eightfold path. In fact, in Theravada Buddhism, one has to become a monk to devote himself full time to seeking salvation.  In short, while in theory humans can save themselves, in practice only a few are able to do so.
 The Cure:  The solution to the problem posed by Mahayana Buddhism is summed up in the person of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva presents two types of cure for the human dilemma.  On the one hand, the bodhisattva is the ideal that a person should imitate.  In particular, one is called the imitate the compassion of the Buddha.  The quest for enlightenment is not a selfish one; it is one that is meant to help others.  (Remember the vow of the Bodhisattva).  In a sense, living as a bodhisattva is an expression of wholeness and reconciliation to sacred reality in this world.
On the other hand, the bodhisattva is a savior to those who are weak. Once a person has become a bodhisattva, he/she has the power to help other people toward enlightenment.  This help is provided in more than just teaching and instruction.  The bodhisattva can share her or his merit with others.  A type of Mahayana Buddhism known as Pure Land Buddhism illustrates this idea.  Pure Land Buddhism traces its origins back to an ancient prince known as Amida or Amitabha.  Amida was who was initially a monk who took the vow to become a bodhisattva.  When he attained enlightenment he chose to use his virtue to prepare a special place of bliss, the Pure Land,  - a paradise in the "west."  He vowed that anyone who would call on his name could enter this land. There they could remain, or they could strive towards enlightenment, which would be much closer.  Thus, we have an example of salvation by faith in Amida.  Those who are weak can call upon him, put their trust in his merit and be assured of entering a type of paradise.

 

 Type of Salvation:  The salvation envisioned by Mahayana Buddhism may fall into more than one category.  First,  Mahayana definitely fits into the category of individual salvation through cosmic expansion.  As in Theravada, individuals seek enlightenment. Second,  in some Mahayana traditions such as Pure Land, there is clearly an element of individual salvation in another world.  Finally, one could argue that because the bodhisattva vows to save all beings, there are elements of both  group salvation through cosmic expansion or group salvation in another world.