The Origins of the Mahayana Tradition

By Peter Della Santina


We must recognize the fact that the Mahayana has contributed a great deal to Buddhist thought and culture. It has produced a vast literature, many works of art, and many different techniques for personal development. Many countries throughout Asia have been influenced by the Mahayana, and although it was neglected by modern scholars in comparison to the Theravada, there is now a tremendous interest in Mahayana literature and philosophy and in the path of the Bodhisattva.

The Buddha Shakyamuni taught for forty-five years at many places in north east central India. He is universally believed to have taught innumerable living beings. They included not only human beings from all walks of life, but also animals and supra human beings such as the gods of the various heavens and the under world. . . The Buddha Shakyamuni set an example by his own career that people could emulate.

The goal of this career was Enlightenment and Buddhahood and the way was the way of the Bodhisattva. The Buddha spoke of the goal of enlightenment and Buddhahood as well as of the goal of Nirvana. He himself had thoroughly taught the way of attaining the goal of Buddhahood by means of the practice of the perfections of the Bodhisattva in the many tales of his former existences.

The Buddha Shakyamuni allowed his followers to accept and adapt his teaching to their own abilities and aspirations. While never abandoning the cardinal virtues of morality and wisdom, the Buddha permitted a great deal of scope for individual expression. He encouraged free inquiry among the laity and democracy within the monastic community. This is evident in many places throughout his teachings. There is, for example, the famous doctrine he articulated in his advice to the Kalamas, when he said that one should not rely on secondary means of verifying assertions about the nature of things, but test such assertions in the light of one's own personal experience and only then accept them as true.

In a similar vein, he said that one should test the truth of assertions in the light of the criteria of observation, reasoning, and self-consistency, the way a wise man tests the purity of gold by cutting, rubbing, and heating it. Again, toward the end of his career, the Buddha told his disciples to be lamps unto themselves, to light their own way with their own reasoning. His last words were, 'Subject to change are all compounded things; work out your liberation with diligence.' All these facts point to the climate that existed in the very early Buddhist community--a climate of free inquiry, democracy, and independence.

After the Buddha's death, his teachings were preserved in an oral tradition that was handed down from one generation of followers to another, maintained in their collective memory. Literacy was a privilege of the elite in India at that time, and it is another indication of the premium placed on democracy within the Buddhist tradition that literary formulation of the teaching was neglected for so long. Many people were not literate, so word of mouth was the universal medium for preservation and dissemination of the Dharma. During the five hundred years when the teaching was preserved orally, a number of assemblies or councils were convened to organize, systematize, and determine the commonly accepted versions of the doctrinal teaching and the monastic discipline, or Vinaya. There were certainly three and maybe more than six of these assemblies convened during this period at various places throughout India. The result was the emergence of a great many schools whose doctrines and disciplinary rules varied to a greater or lesser degree.

The years after the Second Council saw the emergence and proliferation of many separate schools. . . Consequently, by the time of the Third Council, held during the reign of Emperor Ashoka, in the third century B. C. E., there were already at least eighteen schools, each with its own doctrines and disciplinary rules. Two schools dominated the deliberations at the Third Council, an analytical school called the Vibhajyavadins, and a school of realistic pluralism known as the Sarvastivadins. The council decided in favor of the analytical school and it was the views of this school that were carried to Sri Lanka by Ashoka's missionaries, led by his son Mahendra. There it became known as the Theravada.

The adherents of the Sarvastivada mostly migrated to Kashmir in the north west of India where the school became known
for its popularization of the path of the perfections of the Bodhisattva. By this time, Mahayana accounts tell us, a number of assemblies had been convened in order to compile the scriptures of the Mahayana tradition which were already reputed to
be vast in number. In the north and south west of India as well as at Nalanda in Magadha, the Mahayana was studied and taught. Many of the important texts of the Mahayana were believed to have been related by Maitreya the future Buddha and other celestial Bodhisattvas or preserved among the serpent gods of the underworld until their discovery by Mahayana masters such as Nagarjuna.

The appearance of all these schools each having its own version of the teaching of the Buddha clearly illustrates the immense diversity that characterized the Buddhist tradition at the beginning of the common era. Although differing in many particulars regarding the question of the authenticity of texts and teachings, the Buddhist schools continued to acknowledge a common identity as Buddhists.

The formation of the extant written canons of the schools, both in India and in Sri Lanka, is now generally accepted by scholars to belong to a relatively late period. The Mahayana teachings, as well as those of the other schools, including the Theravada, began to appear in written form more than five hundred years after the time of the Buddha. We know with
certainty that the Theravada canon--recorded in Pali, an early Indian vernacular language--was first compiled in the middle of the first century B.C.E. The earliest Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra and the Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom are
usually dated no later than the first century C. E. Therefore, the written canons of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions date to roughly the same period.

After the death of the Buddha, the views of the elders among the monks dominated Buddhist religious life, but by the first century C. E., dissatisfaction with the ideal of the Arhat whose goal was the achievement of personal freedom had grown significantly among the monastic and lay communities. The followers of the Buddha were presented with a choice between two different ideals of religious life--Arhatship and Buddhahood. While the aspiring Arhat is interested in gaining freedom for him- or herself, the Bodhisattva or Buddha to be is committed to achieving Enlightenment for the sake of all
living beings.

The essence of the Mahayana conception of religious life is compassion for all living beings. Indeed, it is in this context that we should understand the increasing popularity of the Mahayana. It is hardly surprising if many devoted Buddhists chose to follow the example of the Buddha whose compassion and wisdom were infinite and not that of his prominent disciples, the elders and Arhats who for the most part seemed austere and remote. In short, the Mahayana, with its profound philosophy, its universal compassion and its abundant use of skillful means, rapidly began to attract an enthusiastic following not only in India, but in the newly Buddhist lands of central Asia.

I would like to conclude this chapter by spending a few moments on a brief comparison of a few ideas from the canon of the Theravada tradition and some of the salient features of the Mahayana that appear prominently in Mahayana texts like the Lotus Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Discourses and the Lankavatara Sutra. It is often forgotten that not only are there many virtually identical Discourses belonging to both canons, but also that there are traces in the Theravada canon of some of the characteristic themes of the Mahayana--such as the supramundane nature of the Buddha, and the doctrines of emptiness and the creative and luminous nature of mind.

For example, in the Theravada canon we find the Buddha repeatedly referring to himself not by name but as the Tathagata, one who is identical with suchness, or reality. Nonetheless, the Buddha is credited with the power to produce emanations for the edification of living beings. These passages contained in the Theravada canon suggest the transcendental, supramundane, and inconceivable nature of the Buddha, an idea very important to the Mahayana. Again according to the Theravada cannon, the Buddha extolled emptiness in the highest terms, calling it profound and going beyond the world. He said that form, feeling and the like were illusory, mere bubbles. Phenomena are nothing in themselves. They are unreal deceptions. This is a theme taken up and elaborated in the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom literature.

Again, according to the Theravada canon the Buddha said that ignorance and imagination are responsible for the appearance of the world. He referred to the parable of the Demigod Vepachitta who was bound or freed according to the nature of his thoughts to illustrate this point. The original nature of consciousness however shines like a jewel, intrinsically pure and undefiled. These ideas are developed in Mahayana sutras like the Lankavatara Sutra. They are the very foundation of the Mahayana view of the nature of the mind.

Thus the origins of the Mahayana tradition can be found in the very earliest phases of the Buddhist tradition and in the Buddha's own career. The five hundred years after the death of the Buddha witnessed the emergence of differing traditions of interpretation that, whatever their emphasis, all look back to the original, infinitely varied, and profound teaching of the Buddha. By the first century C.E., the formation of the Mahayana was virtually complete, and most of the major Mahayana sutras were in existence.

From The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism, by Peter Della Santina. With permission of the author.