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What is Mahayana Buddhism?

Mahayana Buddhism, known as the "Great Vehicle," is a path of compassion and wisdom. It emphasizes altruism and the bodhisattva ideal—seeking enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. With practices that cultivate benevolence and profound philosophical teachings, it offers a transformative journey. How might embracing Mahayana principles change your perspective on life's challenges? Explore with us.
Matthew F.
Matthew F.

Mahayana Buddhism is one of two main schools of Buddhist teachings. It originated in India and takes as its ideal the compassion and enlightenment of bodhicitta. Mahayana Buddhists view Buddha as a manifestation of a divine being, instead of a supremely enlightened man. It originated in South India in the first century CE and includes Pure Land, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. It is the most widely practiced school of Buddhism and claims hundreds of millions of followers worldwide.

This type of Buddhism incorporates a number of Mahayana sutras (Buddhist discourses or scriptures). These sutras are said to represent original teachings of the Buddha, but are more likely from centuries after his time. Because of the contradictory elements of Mahayana sutras, the teachings of the Buddhist school have been debated and scrutinized for centuries. Some of the sutras involve the ability to see reality as it really is and the attainment of high levels of consciousness through meditation.

Mahayana Buddhism is led by monks.
Mahayana Buddhism is led by monks.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are an infinite number of Buddhas, whereas other forms have only the Gautama Buddha. It relies on the practice of bodhicitta. It is an essential practice in this form of Buddhism and differs it from other froms. Bodhicitta is the pursuit of enlightment and compassion. It is obtained through a dedication to others and is supposed to bring true happiness.

In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha is seen as the manifestation of a divine being.
In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha is seen as the manifestation of a divine being.

Practicers of Bodhicitta strive toward complete enlightenment, and thus Buddhahood. The person practicing pledges themselves to helping others reach nirvana. Nirvana is reached when samsara, the cyclical existence of life in Buddhism, is escaped. The practicing Bodhisattav avoids nirvana to stay in samsara and help others achieve nirvana. This act is an act of selflessness to achieve the eventual and inevitable liberation of every soul, as opposed to the individual liberation important to other forms of Buddhism. This Buddhism emphasizes awareness and wisdom.

In Mahayana Buddhism, meditation techniques are used to help the practitioner achieve spiritual enlightenment.
In Mahayana Buddhism, meditation techniques are used to help the practitioner achieve spiritual enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhism also emphasizes the emptiness of all things, or sunyata. This teaching states that all experiences and thoughts depend on reason, and therefore are interpretive. Thus, according to this type of Buddhism, nothing exists outside of the mind in absolute terms. They are, though, real in relative terms.

Mahayana teaches, most importantly, that all living beings can become Buddhas. This Buddhism teaches that all things have the seed of Buddha in them, and through bodhicitta can strive toward Buddhahood. Mahayana Buddhism claims that any sentient being, those stuck in the samsara cycle of life, can reach bodhicitta, and help all souls reach nirvana.

An Indian prince, Siddattha Gotama, is considered the first teacher of Buddhism.
An Indian prince, Siddattha Gotama, is considered the first teacher of Buddhism.

Early Mahayana Buddhism was encouraged by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. It became the dominant form of Buddhism of all of East Asia by the seventh century. Mahayana Buddhism is led by monks, though monastic life is less restrictive than in other forms of Buddhism. The school follows many of the important texts and sutras of other schools of Buddhism. It also follows many important and more recent ones not likely derived from Gautama Buddha. Though less conservative than the original forms of Buddhism created around the fifth century BCE, it is more widely practiced than Theravada Buddhism.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main focus of Mahayana Buddhism?

Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes "sunyata," the inherent emptiness of all things.
Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes "sunyata," the inherent emptiness of all things.

Mahayana Buddhism, known as the "Great Vehicle," emphasizes the pursuit of the Bodhisattva path, aiming for the enlightenment of all beings. It focuses on compassion and altruism, encouraging practitioners to delay their own entry into Nirvana in favor of helping others achieve enlightenment. This branch of Buddhism is characterized by a diverse range of texts and philosophical teachings, with a significant emphasis on the role of bodhisattvas and the concept of emptiness (Sunyata).

How does Mahayana Buddhism differ from Theravada Buddhism?

Mahayana Buddhism differs from Theravada Buddhism, which is often called the "Teaching of the Elders" or the "Small Vehicle," in its doctrinal and philosophical outlook. While Theravada focuses on individual enlightenment and adheres to the earliest texts (Pali Canon), Mahayana includes a broader range of scriptures (Sutras) and emphasizes the collective salvation of all beings. Mahayana also introduces the concept of the bodhisattva, a being who seeks enlightenment for the sake of others, a figure less prominent in Theravada practice.

What are some key Mahayana texts?

Key Mahayana texts include the Heart Sutra, which reveals the essence of Buddhist teaching through the concept of emptiness, and the Lotus Sutra, which expounds on the importance of the bodhisattva path and the idea that all beings have the potential for Buddhahood. Other significant texts are the Diamond Sutra, emphasizing non-attachment, and the Pure Land Sutras, which describe a celestial realm where beings can work toward enlightenment more easily.

What are the major schools of Mahayana Buddhism?

Major schools of Mahayana Buddhism include Zen, known for its practice of meditation and direct insight into the nature of reality; Pure Land, which focuses on devotion to Amitabha Buddha and rebirth in the Pure Land; and Vajrayana, which incorporates esoteric practices and rituals. Other schools are Tiantai, which is based on the Lotus Sutra, and Nichiren Buddhism, which centers on the chanting of the Lotus Sutra's title.

Where is Mahayana Buddhism predominantly practiced?

Mahayana Buddhism is predominantly practiced in East Asia and the Far East, including countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet. It has also spread to other parts of the world through immigration and the interest of Western practitioners. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2010, nearly half of the world's Buddhists live in China, where Mahayana is the dominant form of Buddhism.

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Discussion Comments

anon264216

I read with interest the book "Jesus Lived in India."

The teachings of the New Testament are exactly the same as the teachings of Buddha, written some 500 years before -- in some cases, word for word!

Proxy414

I wonder how much Gnostic Greeks would have gleaned from the Eastern tradition which led to the superior/inferior divide concerning spiritual/physical things. It is difficult for many religious adherents to see anything physical as being equal to spiritual things. The Greeks were hard pressed to determine how and why their Pantheon would have created a physical world if it was inferior to them. This was part of why Christianity, the story of a physical and dying God, was and remains so hard to understand or accept, to so many faiths.

Renegade

This is an interesting parallel to old Christian beliefs about Christ. Some held that he was fully divine, others that he was fully human. The paradox was that a council resolved that he was both fully divine and fully human, since he died like a man and then rose again. It is interesting to see that this sect of Buddhism was formed out of a similar dichotomy concerning Buddha.

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    • Mahayana Buddhism is led by monks.
      By: claffra
      Mahayana Buddhism is led by monks.
    • In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha is seen as the manifestation of a divine being.
      By: goodapp
      In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha is seen as the manifestation of a divine being.
    • In Mahayana Buddhism, meditation techniques are used to help the practitioner achieve spiritual enlightenment.
      By: Antonioguillem
      In Mahayana Buddhism, meditation techniques are used to help the practitioner achieve spiritual enlightenment.
    • An Indian prince, Siddattha Gotama, is considered the first teacher of Buddhism.
      By: audy_indy
      An Indian prince, Siddattha Gotama, is considered the first teacher of Buddhism.
    • Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes "sunyata," the inherent emptiness of all things.
      By: kostin77
      Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes "sunyata," the inherent emptiness of all things.