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Mah?y?na (; Sanskrit for "Great Vehicle") is one of two main existing branches of Buddhism (the other being Theravada) and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. This movement added a further set of discourses, and although it was initially small in India, it had long-term historical significance.[1] The Buddhist tradition of Vajrayana is sometimes classified as a part of Mahayana Buddhism, but some scholars consider it to be a different branch altogether.[2]

According to the teachings of Mah?y?na traditions, "Mah?y?na" also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called "Bodhisattvay?na", or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle".[3][note 1] A bodhisattva who has accomplished this goal is called a samyaksa?buddha, or "fully enlightened Buddha". A samyaksa?buddha can establish the Dharma and lead disciples to enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson.[4]

The Mah?y?na tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, with 53.2% of practitioners, compared to 35.8% for Theravada and 5.7% for Vajrayana in 2010.[5]

In the course of its history, Mah?y?na Buddhism spread from India to various other South, East and Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Mahayana Buddhism also spread to other South and Southeast Asian countries, such as Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Iran and other Central Asian countries before being replaced by Theravada Buddhism or other religions.[6] Large Mah?y?na scholastic centers thrived during the latter period of Buddhism in India, between the seventh and twelfth centuries.[1] Major traditions of Mah?y?na Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism and Vietnamese Buddhism. It may also include the Vajrayana traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mah?y?na tradition.


According to Jan Nattier, the term Mah?y?na ("Great Vehicle") was originally an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvay?na ("Bodhisattva Vehicle")[7] -- the vehicle of a bodhisattva seeking buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.[3] The term Mah?y?na (which had earlier been used simply as an epithet for Buddhism itself) was therefore adopted at an early date as a synonym for the path and the teachings of the bodhisattvas. Since it was simply an honorary term for Bodhisattvay?na, the adoption of the term Mah?y?na and its application to Bodhisattvay?na did not represent a significant turning point in the development of a Mah?y?na tradition.[7]

The earliest Mah?y?na texts often use the term Mah?y?na as a synonym for Bodhisattvay?na, but the term H?nay?na is comparatively rare in the earliest sources. The presumed dichotomy between Mah?y?na and H?nay?na can be deceptive, as the two terms were not actually formed in relation to one another in the same era.[8]

Among the earliest and most important references to Mah?y?na are those that occur in the Lotus S?tra (Skt. Saddharma Puar?ka S?tra) dating between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.[9] Seishi Karashima has suggested that the term first used in an earlier Gandh?ri Prakrit version of the Lotus S?tra was not the term mah?y?na but the Prakrit word mah?j?na in the sense of mah?jñ?na (great knowing).[10][11] At a later stage when the early Prakrit word was converted into Sanskrit, this mah?j?na, being phonetically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into mah?y?na, possibly because of what may have been a double meaning in the famous Parable of the Burning House, which talks of three vehicles or carts (Skt: y?na).[note 2][10][12]


Ancient Buddhist st?pas in Borobodur, Indonesia
Early statue of the Buddha from Gandh?ra, 1st-2nd century CE


The origins of Mah?y?na are still not completely understood.[13] The earliest Western views of Mah?y?na assumed that it existed as a separate school in competition with the so-called "H?nay?na" schools. The earliest Mah?y?na texts often depict strict adherence to the path of a bodhisattva, and engagement in the ascetic ideal of a monastic life in the wilderness, akin to the ideas expressed in the Rhinoceros S?tra.[note 3]

The earliest textual evidence of "Mah?y?na" comes from s?tras originating around the beginning of the common era. Jan Nattier has noted that some of the earliest Mah?y?na texts such as the Ugraparip?ccha S?tra use the term "Mah?y?na", yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mah?y?na in this context and the early schools, and that "Mah?y?na" referred rather to the rigorous emulation of Gautama Buddha in the path of a bodhisattva seeking to become a fully enlightened buddha.[14]

There is also no evidence that Mah?y?na ever referred to a separate formal school or sect of Buddhism, but rather that it existed as a certain set of ideals, and later doctrines, for bodhisattvas.[14] Paul Williams has also noted that the Mah?y?na never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early schools of Buddhism, and therefore each bhik?u or bhik?u adhering to the Mah?y?na formally belonged to an early school. Membership in these nik?yas, or monastic sects, continues today with the Dharmaguptaka nik?ya in East Asia, and the M?lasarv?stiv?da nik?ya in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore, Mah?y?na was never a separate rival sect of the early schools.[15] Paul Harrison clarifies that while monastic Mah?y?nists belonged to a nik?ya, not all members of a nik?ya were Mah?y?nists.[16] From Chinese monks visiting India, we now know that both Mah?y?na and non-Mah?y?na monks in India often lived in the same monasteries side by side.[17] It is also possible that, formally, Mah?y?na would have been understood as a group of monks or nuns within a larger monastery taking a vow together (known as a "kriy?karma") to memorize and study a Mah?y?na text or texts.

The Chinese monk Yijing, who visited India in the 7th century CE, distinguishes Mah?y?na from H?nay?na as follows:[18]

Both adopt one and the same Vinaya, and they have in common the prohibitions of the five offences, and also the practice of the Four Noble Truths. Those who venerate the bodhisattvas and read the Mahayana s?tras are called the Mah?y?nists, while those who do not perform these are called the H?nay?nists.

Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mah?y?na comes from early Chinese translations of Mah?y?na texts. These Mah?y?na teachings were first propagated into China by Lokak?ema, the first translator of Mah?y?na s?tras into Chinese during the 2nd century CE.[note 4]

A statue of Prajñ?p?ramit? personified, from Singhasari, East Java, Indonesia

Earliest Mahayana sutras

Based on the testimony of Candrak?rti (7th cent.) several scholars have suggested that the Prajñ?p?ramit? s?tras, which are among the earliest Mahayana sutras,[19][20] developed among the Mah?sghika along the Ka River in the ?ndhra region of southern India.[21] However, more recently Seishi Karashima has argued for their origin in the Gandhara region.[22]

The earliest Mah?y?na s?tras include the very first versions of the Prajñ?p?ramit? genre, along with texts concerning Ak?obhya Buddha, which were probably written down in the 1st century BCE in the south of India.[23][24] Guang Xing states, "Several scholars have suggested the Prajñ?p?ramit? probably developed among the Mah?sghikas in southern India, in the ?ndhra country, on the Ka River."[21]A.K. Warder believes that "the Mah?y?na originated in the south of India and almost certainly in the ?ndhra country."[25]

Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that "historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as N?g?rjuna, Dignaga, Candrak?rti, ?ryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in ?ndhra."[26] They note that the ancient Buddhist sites in the lower Ka Valley, including Amaravati, N?g?rjunako and Jaggayyape?a "can be traced to at least the third century BCE, if not earlier."[27] Akira Hirakawa notes the "evidence suggests that many Early Mahayana scriptures originated in South India."[28]

Some scholars think that the earliest Mah?y?na s?tras were mainly composed in the south of India, and later the activity of writing additional scriptures was continued in the north.[note 5] However, the assumption that the presence of an evolving body of Mah?y?na scriptures implies the contemporaneous existence of distinct religious movement called "Mah?y?na", may be a serious misstep.[note 6] Some scholars further speculate that the Prajñ?p?ramit? s?tras were written in response to the ultrarealism of abhidharma.[29]

Some early Mah?y?na s?tras were translated by the Kua monk Lokak?ema, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandh?ra. His first translations to Chinese were made in the Chinese capital of Luoyang between 178 and 189 CE.[30] Some Mah?y?na s?tras translated during the 2nd century CE include the following:[31]

  1. Aas?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra
  2. Vimalak?rti Nirde?a S?tra
  3. Larger Sukh?vat?vy?ha S?tra
  4. Ak?obhyatath?gatasyavy?ha S?tra
  5. Ugraparip?ccha S?tra
  6. Mañju?r?parip?cch? S?tra
  7. Drumakinnarar?japarip?cch? S?tra
  8. ra?gama Sam?dhi S?tra
  9. Bhadrap?la S?tra
  10. Aj?ta?atrukauk?tyavinodana S?tra
  11. Kyapaparivarta S?tra
  12. Lok?nuvartana S?tra
  13. An early s?tra connected to the Avata?saka S?tra

This corpus of texts often emphasizes ascetic practices and forest dwelling, absorbed in states of meditative concentration.[32]

Harrison points to the enthusiasm in the Lokak?ema s?tra corpus for the extra ascetic practices, for dwelling in the forest, and above all for states of meditative absorption (sam?dhi). Meditation and meditative states seem to have occupied a central place in early Mah?y?na, certainly because of their spiritual efficacy but also because they may have given access to fresh revelations and inspiration.

Mah?y?na Buddhist triad, including Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha, and Bodhisattva Avalokite?vara. 2nd-3rd century CE, Gandh?ra

Earliest inscriptions

The earliest stone inscription containing a recognizably Mah?y?na formulation and a mention of the Buddha Amit?bha was found in the Indian subcontinent in Mathura, and dated to around 180 CE. Remains of a statue of a Buddha bear the Br?hm? inscription: "Made in the year 28 of the reign of King Huvi?ka, ... for the Blessed One, the Buddha Amit?bha." There is also some evidence that Emperor Huvi?ka himself was a follower of Mah?y?na Buddhism, and a Sanskrit manuscript fragment in the Schøyen Collection describes Huvi?ka as having "set forth in the Mah?y?na."[33] Evidence of the name "Mah?y?na" in Indian inscriptions in the period before the 5th century is very limited in comparison to the multiplicity of Mah?y?na writings transmitted from Central Asia to China at that time.[note 7][note 8][note 9]

Early Mah?y?na Buddhism

During the period of early Mah?y?na Buddhism, four major types of thought developed: M?dhyamaka, Yog?c?ra, Buddha-nature (Tath?gatagarbha), and Buddhist logic as the last and most recent.[34] In India, the two main philosophical schools of the Mah?y?na were the M?dhyamaka and the later Yog?c?ra.[35] During the Kushan Empire, Mahayana Buddhism teachings encouraged societies to give generous donations to the Buddhist monasteries, which gave the people "religious merits".[36]

Earlier stage forms of Mah?y?na such as the doctrines of Prajñ?p?ramit?, Yog?c?ra, Buddha Nature, and the Pure Land teachings are still popular in East Asia. In some cases these have spawned new developments, while in others they are treated in the more traditional syncretic manner. Paul Williams has noted that in this tradition in the Far East, primacy has always been given to study of the s?tras.[37]

Late Mah?y?na Buddhism

Miniature statue of Buddha from the Tang dynasty

Various classes of Vajrayana literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Saivism.[38] The Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyatantra, states that mantras taught in the Shaiva, Garuda and Vaishnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri.[39] The Guhyasiddhi of Padmavajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamaja tradition, prescribes acting as a Shaiva guru and initiating members into Saiva Siddhanta scriptures and mandalas.[40] The Samvara tantra texts adopted the pitha list from the Shaiva text Tantrasadbhava, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.[41]


Bodhisattva seated in dhy?na. Afghanistan, 2nd century

Few things can be said with certainty about Mah?y?na Buddhism,[note 10] especially its early Indian form, other than that the Buddhism practiced in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mah?y?na Buddhism.[note 11] Mah?y?na can be described as a loosely bound collection of many teachings with large and expansive doctrines that are able to exist simultaneously.[note 12]

Mah?y?na constitutes an inclusive tradition characterized by plurality and the adoption of new Mahayana sutras in addition to the earlier ?gamas. Mah?y?na sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha's Dharma. An Indian commentary on the Mah?y?nasa?graha, entitled Viv?taguhy?rthapiavy?khy?, gives a classification of teachings according to the capabilities of the audience:[42]

[A]ccording to disciples' grades, the Dharma is [classified as] inferior and superior. For example, the inferior was taught to the merchants Trapu?a and Ballika because they were ordinary men; the middle was taught to the group of five because they were at the stage of saints; the eightfold Prajñ?p?ramit?s were taught to bodhisattvas, and [the Prajñ?p?ramit?s] are superior in eliminating conceptually imagined forms.

There is also a tendency in Mah?y?na s?tras to regard adherence to these s?tras as generating spiritual benefits greater than those that arise from being a follower of the non-Mah?y?na approaches to Dharma. Thus the ?r?m?l?dev? Si?han?da S?tra claims that the Buddha said that devotion to Mah?y?na is inherently superior in its virtues to following the ?r?vaka or pratyekabuddha paths.[43]

The fundamental principles of Mah?y?na doctrine were based on the possibility of universal liberation from dukkha for all beings (hence the "Great Vehicle") and the existence of buddhas and bodhisattvas embodying Buddha-nature. The Pure Land school of Mah?y?na simplifies the expression of faith by allowing salvation to be alternatively obtained through the grace of the buddha Amit?bha by having faith and devoting oneself to mindfulness of the Buddha. This devotional lifestyle of Buddhism has greatly contributed to the success of Mah?y?na in East Asia, where spiritual elements traditionally relied upon mindfulness of the Buddha, mantras and dh?ras, and reading sutras. In Chinese Buddhism, most monks, let alone lay people, practice Pure Land, some combining it with Chan Buddhism.[44]

Most Mah?y?na schools believe in supernatural bodhisattvas who devote themselves to the p?ramit?s, ultimate knowledge (Skt. sarvajñ?na), and the liberation of all sentient beings.

Avalokite?vara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Aja Caves, Maharashtra, India.


The Mah?y?na tradition holds that pursuing only the release from suffering and attainment of Nirva is too narrow an aspiration, because it lacks the motivation of actively resolving to liberate all other sentient beings from sa?s?ra, "suffering". One who engages in this path is called a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas could reach nirvana, but they believe it is more important to help others on their path of finding nirvana rather than committing fully to nirvana themselves.[45]

The defining characteristic of a bodhisattva is bodhicitta, the intention to achieve omniscient Buddhahood (Trikaya) as fast as possible, so that one may benefit infinite sentient beings. Sometimes the term bodhisattva is used more restrictively to refer to those sentient beings on the grounds. As Ananda Coomaraswamy notes, "The most essential part of the Mahayana is its emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal, which replaces that of the arhat, or ranks before it."[46] According to Mah?y?na teachings, being a high-level bodhisattva involves possessing a mind of great compassion and prajñ? (wisdom) to realize the reality of inherent emptiness and dependent origination. Mah?y?na teaches that the practitioner will finally realize the attainment of Buddhahood.[]

Six p?ramit?s are traditionally required for bodhisattvas:[]

  1. d?na-p?ramit?: the perfection of giving
  2. la-p?ramit?: the perfection of behavior and discipline
  3. knti-p?ramit?: the perfection of forbearance
  4. v?rya-p?ramit?: the perfection of vigor and diligence
  5. dhy?na-p?ramit?: the perfection of meditation
  6. prajñ?-p?ramit?: the perfection of transcendent wisdom

Expedient means

Expedient means[47] (Skt. up?ya) is found in the Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest-dated sutras, and is accepted in all Mah?y?na schools of thought. It is any effective method that aids awakening. It does not necessarily mean that some particular method is "untrue" but is simply any means or stratagem that is conducive to spiritual growth and leads beings to awakening and nirvana. Expedient means could thus be certain motivational words for a particular listener or even the Noble Eightfold Path itself. Basic Buddhism (what Mah?y?na would term ?r?vakay?na or pratyekabuddhay?na) is an expedient method for helping people begin the noble Buddhist path and advance quite far. But the path is not wholly traversed, according to some schools, until the practitioner has striven for and attained Buddhahood for the liberation of all other sentient beings from suffering.[]

Some scholars have stated that the exercise of expedient means, "the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is also of enormous importance in the P?li canon."[note 13] In fact the P?li term up?ya-kosalla does occur in the P?li Canon, in the Sangiti Sutta of the Digha Nik?ya.[48]


Mah?y?na Buddhism includes a rich cosmology, with various Buddhas and bodhisattvas residing in different worlds and buddha-realms. The concept of the three bodies (trik?ya) supports these constructions, making the Buddha himself a transcendental figure. Dr. Guang Xing describes the Mah?y?na Buddha as "an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities ...[He] is described almost as an omnipotent and almighty godhead."[49]

Under various conditions, the realms Buddha presides over could be attained by devotees after their death so, when reborn, they could strive towards buddhahood in the best possible conditions. Depending on the sect, liberation into a buddha-realm can be obtained by faith, visualization, or sometimes even by the repetition of Buddha's name. These practices are common in Pure Land Buddhism.{Dr. Guang Xing, The Three Bodies of the Buddha: The Origin and Development of the Trikaya Theory, RoutledgeCurzon, Oxford, 2005, p. 1}

Buddha nature

The Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas. Cave 4, Aja Caves, Mah?rtra, India

Buddha-nature, Buddha-dhatu or Buddha Principle (Skt: Buddha-dh?tu, Tath?gatagarbha; Jpn: Bussho), is taught differently in various Mahayana Buddhism traditions. Broadly speaking Buddha-nature is concerned with ascertaining what allows sentient beings to become Buddhas.[50] The term, Buddha nature, is a translation of the Sanskrit coinage, 'Buddha-dh?tu', which seems first to have appeared in the Mah?y?na Mah?parinirva S?tra,[51] where it refers to "a sacred nature that is the basis for [beings'] becoming buddhas",[52] and where it is also spoken of as the 'Self' (atman).[53]

It is called Tath?gatagarbha Buddha-dh?tu at the stage of sentient beings because it is covered with defilements, and it is called Dharmak?ya at the stage of Buddhahood, because its pure nature is revealed.[54][note 14]

The teaching of a "Buddha nature" (Skt. tath?gatagarbha) may be based on the "luminous mind" concept found in the ?gamas. The essential idea, articulated in the Buddha nature s?tras, but not accepted by all Mah?y?nists, is that no being is without a concealed but indestructible interior link to the awakening of bodhi and that this link is an uncreated element (dh?tu) or principle deep inside each being, which constitutes the deathless, diamond-like "essence of the self".[56][page needed] The Mah?y?na Mah?parinirva S?tra states: "The essence of the Self (?tman) is the subtle Buddha nature..." while the later La?k?vat?ra S?tra states that the Buddha nature might be taken to be self (?tman), but it is not. In the sagathakam section of that same sutra, however, the Tathagatagarbha as the Self is not denied, but affirmed: "The Atma [Self] characterised with purity is the state of self-realization; this is the Tathagata's Womb (garbha), which does not belong to the realm of the theorisers."[57] In the Buddha nature class of s?tras, the word "self" (?tman) is used in a way defined by and specific to these s?tras. (See Atman (Buddhism).)

Descent of Amida and 25 Bodhisattvas, Kamakura period (1185-1333), Fukushima Museum, Japan

According to some scholars, the Buddha nature discussed in some Mah?y?na s?tras does not represent a substantial self (?tman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of emptiness (nyat?) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices.[58] It is the "true self" in representing the innate aspect of the individual that makes actualizing the ultimate personality possible.[]

The actual "seeing and knowing" of this Buddha essence is said to usher in nirvanic liberation. This Buddha essence or "Buddha nature" is stated to be found in every single person, ghost, god and sentient being. In the Buddha nature s?tras, the Buddha is portrayed as describing the Buddha essence as uncreated, deathless and ultimately beyond rational grasping or conceptualisation. Yet, it is this already real and present, hidden internal element of awakeness (bodhi) that, according to the Buddha nature s?tras, prompts beings to seek liberation from worldly suffering, and lets them attain the spotless bliss that lies at the heart of their being. Once the veils of negative thoughts, feelings, and unwholesome behaviour (the kle?as) are eliminated from the mind and character, the indwelling Buddha principle (Buddha-dh?tu: Buddha nature) can shine forth unimpededly and transform the seer into a Buddha.[]

Prior to the period of these s?tras, Mah?y?na metaphysics was dominated by teachings on emptiness, in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Buddha nature genre of s?tras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination and on the mysterious reality of nirvana using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these s?tras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary that described a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.[59]

A different view is propounded by Tathagatagarbha specialist, Michael Zimmermann, who sees key Buddha-nature sutras such as the Nirvana Sutra and the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, as well as the Lankavatara Sutra, enunciating an affirmative vision of an eternal, indestructible Buddhic Self. Zimmermann observes:[53]

the existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of the TGS [Tathagatagarbha Sutra] ... the Mahaparinirvanasutra and the Lankavatarasutra characterize the tathagatagarbha explicitly as atman [Self].

The Uttaratantra (an exegetical treatise on Buddha nature) sees Buddha nature not as caused and conditioned (sa?sk?ta), but as eternal, uncaused, unconditioned, and incapable of being destroyed, although temporarily concealed within worldly beings by adventitious defilements.[60] According to C. D. Sebastian, the Uttaratantra's reference to a transcendental self (?tma-p?ramit?) should be understood as "the unique essence of the universe",[61] thus the universal and immanent essence of Buddha nature is the same throughout time and space.[62]


Statue of the Buddha with Dharmacakra Mudra, symbolizing his teaching of the Dharma. Sarnath, V?ras?.


Mah?y?na Buddhism takes the basic teachings of the Buddha as recorded in early scriptures as the starting point of its teachings, such as those concerning karma and rebirth, an?tman, emptiness, dependent origination, and the Four Noble Truths. Mah?y?na Buddhists in East Asia have traditionally studied these teachings in the ?gamas preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon. "?gama" is the term used by those traditional Buddhist schools in India who employed Sanskrit for their basic canon. These correspond to the Nik?yas used by the Therav?da school. The surviving ?gamas in Chinese translation belong to at least two schools, while most of the ?gamas teachings were never translated into Tibetan.[]

In addition to accepting the essential scriptures of the early Buddhist schools as valid, Mah?y?na Buddhism maintains large collections of s?tras that are not used or recognized by the Therav?da school. These were not recognized by some individuals in the early Buddhist schools. In other cases, Buddhist communities were divided along these doctrinal lines. In Mah?y?na Buddhism, the Mah?y?na s?tras are often given greater authority than the ?gamas. The first of these Mah?y?na-specific writings were written probably around the 1st century BCE[63] or 1st century CE.[64]

In the 4th century Mah?y?na abhidharma work Abhidharmasamuccaya, Asa?ga refers to the collection which contains the ?gamas as the ?r?vakapi?aka and associates it with the ?r?vakas and pratyekabuddhas.[65] Asa?ga classifies the Mah?y?na s?tras as belonging to the Bodhisattvapi?aka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for bodhisattvas.[65]

Turnings of the Dharma Wheel

Dating back at least to the Sa?dhinirmocana S?tra is a classification of the corpus of Buddhism into three categories, based on ways of understanding the nature of reality, known as the "Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel". According to this view, there were three such "turnings":[66]

  1. In the first turning, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi for those in the ?ravaka vehicle. It is described as marvelous and wonderful, but requiring interpretation and occasioning controversy.[67] The doctrines of the first turning are exemplified in the Dharmacakra Pravartana S?tra. This turning represents the earliest phase of the Buddhist teachings and the earliest period in the history of Buddhism.
  2. In the second turning, the Buddha taught the Mah?y?na teachings to the bodhisattvas, teaching that all phenomena have no-essence, no arising, no passing away, are originally quiescent, and essentially in cessation. This turning is also described as marvelous and wonderful, but requiring interpretation and occasioning controversy.[67] Doctrine of the second turning is established in the Prajñ?p?ramit? teachings, first put into writing around 100 BCE. In Indian philosophical schools, it is exemplified by the M?dhyamaka school of N?g?rjuna.
  3. In the third turning, the Buddha taught similar teachings to the second turning, but for everyone in the three vehicles, including all the ?ravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. These were meant to be completely explicit teachings in their entire detail, for which interpretations would not be necessary, and controversy would not occur.[67] These teachings were established by the Sa?dhinirmocana S?tra as early as the 1st or 2nd century CE.[68] In the Indian philosophical schools, the third turning is exemplified by the Yog?c?ra school of Asa?ga and Vasubandhu.

Some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism consider the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism and Vajray?na to be the third turning of the Dharma Wheel. Tibetan teachers, particularly of the Gelugpa school, regard the second turning as the highest teaching, because of their particular interpretation of Yog?c?ra doctrine. The Buddha Nature teachings are normally included in the third turning of the wheel.[] The Chinese tradition has a different scheme.

The Chinese T'ien-T'ai believed the Buddha taught over Five Periods. These are:[69]

  1. The Flower Garland Period.
  2. The Agama Period.
  3. The Correct and Equal Period (provisional Mahayana Sutras, including the Amida, Mahavairochana and Vimalakirti Sutras).
  4. The Wisdom Period (Perfection of Wisdom Sutras).
  5. The Lotus and Nirvana Period (when Shakyamuni taught from the standpoint of his Enlightenment).

Early canon

Scholars have noted that many key Mah?y?na ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism. The seminal work of Mah?y?na philosophy, N?g?rjuna's M?lamadhyamakak?rik?, mentions the canon's Katy?yana S?tra (SA 301) by name, and may be an extended commentary on that work.[70] N?g?rjuna systematized the M?dhyamaka school of Mah?y?na philosophy. He may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the canon. In his eyes the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the M?dhyamaka system.[71] N?g?rjuna also referred to a passage in the canon regarding "nirvanic consciousness" in two different works.[72]

Yog?c?ra, the other prominent Mah?y?na school in dialectic with the M?dhyamaka school, gave a special significance to the canon's Lesser Discourse on Emptiness (MA 190).[73] A passage there (which the discourse itself emphasizes) is often quoted in later Yog?c?ra texts as a true definition of emptiness.[74] According to Walpola Rahula, the thought presented in the Yog?c?ra school's Abhidharma-samuccaya is undeniably closer to that of the Pali Nikayas than is that of the Theravadin Abhidhamma.[75]

Both the M?dhyamikas and the Yog?c?rins saw themselves as preserving the Buddhist Middle Way between the extremes of nihilism (everything as unreal) and substantialism (substantial entities existing). The Yog?c?rins criticized the M?dhyamikas for tending towards nihilism, while the M?dhyamikas criticized the Yog?c?rins for tending towards substantialism.[76]

Key Mah?y?na texts introducing the concepts of bodhicitta and Buddha nature also use language parallel to passages in the canon containing the Buddha's description of "luminous mind" and appear to have evolved from this idea. [77][78]

Therav?da school

Role of the Bodhisattva

In the early Buddhist texts, and as taught by the modern Theravada school, the goal of becoming a teaching Buddha in a future life is viewed as the aim of a small group of individuals striving to benefit future generations after the current Buddha's teachings have been lost, but in the current age there is no need for most practitioners to aspire to this goal. Theravada texts do, however, hold that this is a more perfectly virtuous goal.[79]

Paul Williams writes that some modern Theravada meditation masters in Thailand are popularly regarded as bodhisattvas.[80]

Cholvijarn observes that prominent figures associated with the Self perspective in Thailand have often been famous outside scholarly circles as well, among the wider populace, as Buddhist meditation masters and sources of miracles and sacred amulets. Like perhaps some of the early Mah?y?na forest hermit monks, or the later Buddhist Tantrics, they have become people of power through their meditative achievements. They are widely revered, worshipped, and held to be arhats or (note!) bodhisattvas.

Therav?da and H?nay?na

In the 7th century, the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang describes the concurrent existence of the Mah?vihara and the Abhayagiri Vihara in Sri Lanka. He refers to the monks of the Mah?vihara as the "H?nay?na Sthaviras" (Theras), and the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihara as the "Mah?y?na Sthaviras".[81] Xuanzang further writes:[82]

The Mah?vih?rav?sins reject the Mah?y?na and practice the H?nay?na, while the Abhayagirivih?rav?sins study both H?nay?na and Mah?y?na teachings and propagate the Tripi?aka.

The modern Therav?da school is usually described as belonging to H?nay?na.[83][84][85][86][87] Some authors have argued that it should not be considered such from the Mah?y?na perspective. Their view is based on a different understanding of the concept of H?nay?na. Rather than regarding the term as referring to any school of Buddhism that hasn't accepted the Mah?y?na canon and doctrines, such as those pertaining to the role of the bodhisattva,[84][86] these authors argue that the classification of a school as "H?nay?na" should be crucially dependent on the adherence to a specific phenomenological position. They point out that unlike the now-extinct Sarv?stiv?da school, which was the primary object of Mah?y?na criticism, the Therav?da does not claim the existence of independent entities (dharmas); in this it maintains the attitude of early Buddhism.[88][89][90] Adherents of Mah?y?na Buddhism disagreed with the substantialist thought of the Sarv?stiv?dins and Sautr?ntikas, and in emphasizing the doctrine of emptiness, Kalupahana holds that they endeavored to preserve the early teaching.[91] The Therav?dins too refuted the Sarv?stiv?dins and Sautr?ntikas (and other schools) on the grounds that their theories were in conflict with the non-substantialism of the canon. The Therav?da arguments are preserved in the Kath?vatthu.[92]

Some contemporary Therav?din figures have indicated a sympathetic stance toward the Mah?y?na philosophy found in texts such as the Heart S?tra (Skt. Prajñ?p?ramit? H?daya) and N?g?rjuna's Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way (Skt. M?lamadhyamakak?rik?).[93][94]

See also


  1. ^ "The Mahayana, 'Great Vehicle' or 'Great Carriage' (for carrying all beings to nirvana), is also, and perhaps more correctly and accurately, known as the Bodhisattvayana, the bodhisattva's vehicle." - Warder, A.K. (3rd edn. 1999). Indian Buddhism: p. 338
  2. ^ Karashima: "I have assumed that, in the earliest stage of the transmission of the Lotus S?tra, the Middle Indic forn ja or *j?na (Pkt < Skt jñ?na, y?na) had stood in these places ... I have assumed, further, that the Mah?y?nist terms buddha-y?n? ("the Buddha-vehicle"), mah?y?na ("the great vehicle"), h?nay?na ("the inferior vehicle") meant originally buddha-jñ?na ("buddha-knowledge"), mah?jñ?na ("great knowledge") and h?najñ?na ("inferior knowledge")." Karashima, Seishi (2001). Some Features of the Language of the Saddharma-puar?ka-s?tra, Indo-Iranian Journal 44: 207-230
  3. ^ "As scholars have moved away from this limited corpus, and have begun to explore a wider range of Mahayana s?tras, they have stumbled on, and have started to open up, a literature that is often stridently ascetic and heavily engaged in reinventing the forest ideal, an individualistic, antisocial, ascetic ideal that is encapsulated in the apparently resurrected image of "wandering alone like a rhinoceros". Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 494
  4. ^ "The most important evidence -- in fact the only evidence -- for situating the emergence of the Mahayana around the beginning of the common era was not Indian evidence at all, but came from China. Already by the last quarter of the 2nd century CE, there was a small, seemingly idiosyncratic collection of substantial Mahayana sutras translated into what Erik Zürcher calls 'broken Chinese' by an Indoscythian, whose Indian name has been reconstructed as Lokaksema." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 492
  5. ^ Warder: "The sudden appearance of large numbers of (Mahayana) teachers and texts (in North India in the second century AD) would seem to require some previous preparation and development, and this we can look for in the South." - Warder, A.K. (3rd edn. 1999). Indian Buddhism: p. 335.
  6. ^ "But even apart from the obvious weaknesses inherent in arguments of this kind there is here the tacit equation of a body of literature with a religious movement, an assumption that evidence for the presence of one proves the existence of the other, and this may be a serious misstep." - Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 493
  7. ^ "Certainly, we have for this period an extensive body of inscriptions from virtually all parts of India. ... But nowhere in this extensive body of material is there any reference, prior to the fifth century, to a named Mah?y?na.", Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 493
  8. ^ "What is particularly disconcerting here is the disconnect between expectation and reality: We know from Chinese translations that large numbers of Mah?y?na sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century. But outside of texts, at least in India, at exactly the same period, very different -- in fact seemingly older -- ideas and aspirations appear to be motivating actual behavior, and old and established Hinayana groups appear to be the only ones that are patronized and supported., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 494
  9. ^ "In other words, once nontextual evidence is taken into account the picture changes dramatically. Rather than being datable to the beginning of the common era, this strand of Mahayana Buddhism, at least, appeared to have no visible impact on Indian Buddhist cult practice until the 2nd century, and even then what impact it had was extremely isolated and marginal, and had no lasting or long-term consequences -- there were no further references to Amitabha in Indian image inscriptions. Almost exactly the same pattern occurs (concerning Mahayana) on an even broader scale when nontextual evidence is considered." - Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 493
  10. ^ "There are, it seems, very few things that can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism", Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 492
  11. ^ "But apart from the fact that it can be said with some certainty that the Buddhism embedded in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahayana Buddhism, it is no longer clear what else can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism itself, and especially about its earlier, and presumably formative, period in India.", Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 492
  12. ^ "It has become increasingly clear that Mahayana Buddhism was never one thing, but rather, it seems, a loosely bound bundle of many, and -- like Walt Whitman -- was large and could contain, in both senses of the term, contradictions, or at least antipodal elements." - Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004): p. 492
  13. ^ Gombrich: "It is true that the term translated 'expounding in means', upaya-kausalya, is post-canonical, but the exercise of expounding to which it refers, the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon." Gombrich, Richard F. (1997). How Buddhism Began. Munshiram Manoharlal: p. 17
  14. ^ The Dharmakaya is in "Tibetan Buddhism [...] considered to be equivalent to the mind of the Buddha", since it is synonymous with perfect enlightenment (sa?bodhi).[55]


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  • "Mahayana". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2002.

Further reading

External links

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