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The Mahayana Tradition

The Mahaya movement which began 2000 years ago led to a wide range of practices, and the Mahayana schools of today are known by the traditions that evolved in places such as Tibet, China and Japan, rather than as "Mahayana." This section introduces the major themes of the Mayahana; for specific Mahayana traditions see the sections on Zen and Pure Land schools.

The bodhisattva

Mahayana practitioners seek to follow the bodhisattva path. Central to a bodhisattva's practice are:

  • Development of bodhicitta, the 'thought of enlightenment,' which inspires one to become a bodhisattva in order to save others.
  • Cultivation of compassion (karuna). From bodhicitta and an understanding of emptiness (shunyata) arises a profound compassion for the suffering of others and a determination to free others from suffering.
  • Cultivation of the paramitas, the perfections of generosity, virtue (morality), patience (tolerance, forbearance), energy (diligence, courage, enthusiasm, effort), meditation (absorption, concentration, contemplation), and transcendental wisdom.
  • The bodhisattva vow, the intention to save all beings by leading them to
    nirvana, regardless of how long it takes.

Although it is common today for people to talk about acting "like a bodhisattva," in the Mahayana schema a potential bodhisattva is already well-advanced on the path, with a deep understanding of the teachings such as dependent arising, karma, rebirth and emptiness. Some bodhisattvas are said to have already become buddhas and then chosen to practice as bodhisattvas. Others are said to have postponed their own enlightenment to be bodhisattvas of compassion. Fundamentally a bodhisattva is a buddha to be, motivated by altruistic compassion.

Bodhisattva archetypes

The Mahayana spawned a plethora of Bodhisattva archetypes, bodhisatvas who had reached the highest stages of compassion. These great bodhisattvas such as Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Maitreyacame came to be visualized as enormously powerful beings–celestial bodhisattvas.

See the Ashoka course Bodhisattas of Compassion.

The historical Buddha was not an archetypal bodhisattva but was, rather, a human being, one whose life had a profound impact on human history. The dramatic story of his life as Siddhartha Gautama, prior to his becoming the Buddha, or Awakened One, in a sense establishes the basic archetype for all bodhisattva practice.

Shunyata - emptiness

With the rise of the Mahayana, the teaching of no-self (Anatman) becomes the concept of Shunyata ('Emptiness'). This emptiness is not pure nothingness, of course; nor is it a kind of transcendental something. Rather it is a medicine to remedy the compulsive illusion-making habits of our minds, particularly their tendency to think of persons and things as separate, self-created and self-sustaining. Shunyata indicates, therefore, not the presence of something but rather a resounding lack or void, specifically a lack of inherent existence or 'own nature' (svabhava). This goes as much for dharmas, those ultimate essences of the world-process, as it does for people and things. In Abhidharma there is a general tendency to think that dharmas are somehow real, though not to the extent of posses, sing atman. In the Mahayana, however, dharmas are decreed unequivocally to be empty, along with everything else. Even Emptiness is ultimately empty! Buddhism, John Snelling

Mahayana sutras

Central to the rise of the Mahayana was the new "technology" of the written word.

With the development of the Mahayana in the beginning of the Christian era came a new body of scriptures. Mahayana Buddhists believe that the Mahayana sutras, with the possible exception of those clearly of Chinese origin, are an authentic account of teachings given during the Buddha's lifetime. However, Theravada Buddhists believe them to be later inventions of monks striving to change the original teachings of Buddha, and consider the Mahayana sutras apocryphal. Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures were composed from the first century CE onwards, with some of them having their roots in other scriptures, composed in the first century BCE.

Regardless of their authenticity as the teachings of the Buddha, these sutras came to have great authority because they seemed visionary and inspired. With these new sutras came a new Buddhist cosmology. And with this cosmology, which included planes above the human, came the notion that the Mahayna sutras emanated from the Buddha's wisdom, even if not from his earthly life.

Prajnaparamita - "Perfection of Wisdom"

One of the earliest Mahayana sutras–and one of the most important and enduring–is the Prajnaparamita ("Perfection of Wisdom) sutra, which came to exist in many versions, from 100,00 lines to the short Heart Sutra.

At first sight, The Perfection of Wisdom is bewildering, full of paradox and apparent irrationality. Yet once one accepts that trying to unravel these texts without experiencing the intuitions behind them is not satisfactory, it becomes clear that paradox and irrationality are the only means of conveying to the reader those underlying intuitions that would otherwise be impossible to express. Edward Conze succinctly summarized what The Perfection of Wisdom is about, saying, 'The thousands of lines of the Prajñāparamitā can be summed up in the following two sentences:

1. One should become a bodhisattva (or, Buddha-to-be), i.e. one who is content with nothing less than all-knowledge attained through the perfection of wisdom for the sake of all beings.
2. There is no such thing as a bodhisattva, or as all-knowledge, or as a 'being', or as the perfection of wisdom, or as an attainment. To accept both of these contradictory facts is to be perfect.'

The central idea of The Perfection of Wisdom is complete release from the world of existence. The Perfection of Wisdom goes beyond earlier Buddhist teaching that focused on the rise and fall of phenomena to state that there is no such rise and fall — because all phenomena are essentially void. The earlier perception had been that reality is composed of a multiplicity of things. The Perfection of Wisdom states that there is no multiplicity: all is one. Even existence (samsara) and nirvana are essentially the same, and both are ultimately void. The view of The Perfection of Wisdom is that words and analysis have a practical application in that they are necessary for us to function in this world but, ultimately, nothing can be predicated about anything.

Within this context of voidness, The Perfection of Wisdom offers a way to enlightenment. It represents the formal introduction to Buddhist thought of a practical ideal — the ideal of a bodhisattva. Unlike an arhat or pratyekabuddha, beings who achieve enlightenment but cannot pass on the means of enlightenment to others, a bodhisattva should and does teach. A bodhisattva must practice the six perfections: giving, morality, patience, vigour, contemplation and wisdom. Wisdom is the most important of these because it dispels the darkness of sensory delusion and allows things to be seen as they really are. The Perfection of Wisdom, R.C. Jamieson (Penguin Viking - 2000

The Middle Way School

Along with the new sutras came commentaries that laid out the philosophical basis of Mahayana beliefs. Of all the commentators, Nagarjuna is the most celebrated. (In fact, he is often referred toas the second Buddha.) Nagarjuna is said to have systematized the Prajnaoparamita teachings and to have founded the Madhyamaka or "Middle Way" school.

He used the traditional concept of the 'middle way' in a sophisticated dialectical manner, and in so doing pushed the implications of certain of the early teachings to their logical conclusion. When discussing . . . the doctrine of origination-in-dependence, the early Theravada scholastic tradition, known as the Abhidhamma ('higher dharma'), had understood this doctrine as referring to the origination and destruction of real elements, which they termed 'dharmas'. Dharmas were thought of as the building-blocks of which all phenomena were composed. They were conceived of as impermanent, but none the less real. On this basis, objects such as tables and chairs were analysed as compounds of elements rather than as entities having an enduring nature of their own. A chair, for example, might be seen as consisting only of legs, a seat, and a back: there is no 'chair' over and above these parl~s.

Nagarjuna, however, interpreted the doctrine of origination-in-dependence in a more radical way. He taught that dharmas were not just impermanent, but lacked any inherent reality at all. He summed this up by saying that all phenomena - tables, chairs, mountains, people - are simply empty of any real being. The Madhyamaka argued strongly, however, that this was not a doctrine of nihilism: the teaching does not claim that things do not exist, merely that they do not exist as independent realities in the way people normally assume. It claimed that the true status of phenomena is something midway between existence and non-existence, and it was from this interpretation of the 'middle way' that the school derived its name.

This line of thought had another important implication, namely that there can be no difference between nirvana and the realm of cyclic rebirth (samsara). If everything is void of real existence, Nagarjuna reasoned, then in a profound sense everything is on the same footing, so on what basis can the distinction between nirvana and samsara be made? No difference can be found in things themselves since they are all ultimately 'empty;' the difference, therefore, must lie in our perception of them.

The example is given of the person who mistakes a coil of rope for a snake at twilight and becomes terrified. When he realizes his mistake his fear subsides and his desire to run away disappears. What is needed for liberation, then, Nagarjuna reasoned, is essentially correct vision - to see things as they really are - rather than to embark on a flight from one supposedly imperfect reality (samsara) to a better one (nirvana). Nirvana is thus reinterpreted by the Madhyamaka as a purified vision of what is seen by the ignorant as samsara. It follows that nirvana is here and now if we could but see it. The removal of spiritual ignorance and the realization that things are empty destroys the fear—or craving—we have for them. Nagarjuna and his followers called this complex of ideas "the doctrine of emptiness" (Sunyavada) and it has been the inspiration of Mahayana thought down the centuries. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Damien Keown (Oxford U. Press - 1996)

Transcendental Buddha

With the Mahayana sutras came a new vision of Buddhist history and the essential nature of Buddha. The Theravadan idea of the Buddha achieving enlightenment in one human lifetime was replaced with the vision of the Buddha as a being who had had been enlightened for endless aeons who compassionately took birth as Siddhartha Gautama in order to assist the humans beings of our era. Being eternal and omnipresent, this transcendental Buddha could apprear in different forms at different times and could reveal different aspects of the Dharma at different times and to different people.

Mahayana and Theravada

None of the Buddha's early teachings is rejected by the Mahayana, although they are sometimes reinterpreted in radical ways. The Mahayana saw itself as recovering their true meaning which, it claimed, had been lost sight of by the early tradition. Indeed, much of what is found in the Mahayana is not new. For example, the notion of selfless compassion—which finds expression in the bodhisattva ideal—was already evident in the Buddha's life of service to others. The doctrine of emptiness can be seen in embryonic form in the teachings on impermanence and no-self. Finally, the meditator's experience of the mind in the higher trances as luminous and pure, could easily foreshadow the conclusion that consciousness itself is the underlying reality.

The areas where the Mahayana was most innovative were in its revamped Buddhology and the devotional cults which sprang up around the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. . . On balance it is most likely that devotionalism—along with . . . other innovations . . .—was an autonomous development which arose naturally at a certain cycle in the evolution of Buddhism as ideas implicit in the early teachings were worked out. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Damien Keown (Oxford U. Press - 1996)

For another presentation of the Theravada/Mahayana development process, see:

The Origins of the Mahayana Tradition
Peter Della Santina