Mahayana (Sanskrit:mahāyāna, Devanagari: महायान, 'Great Vehicle') is one of the two main existing schools of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. The name Mahayana is used in three main senses:
Although the Mahayana movement traces its origin to Gautama Buddha, it is thought by most scholars on the grounds of textual evidence to have originated later as an identifiable movement, possibly in South India or else North-West India. In the view of earlier scholars, it emerged in the 1st century BC, but recent research now suggests that early texts such as the Aṣṭasahāsrika Prajñā Pāramitā were compiled in a Prakrit during the 1st Century BCE. It was first propagated into China by Lokaksema, the first translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese during the second century CE. Only in the fifth century CE did Mahayana followers begin to identify themselves as such in epigraphic records in India. Before the 11th century CE (while Mahayana was still present in India), the Mahayana Sutras were still in the process of being revised as was common for all Indian literature at the time. Thus, several different versions may have survived of the same sutra, usually in their Chinese translations. These different versions are invaluable to scholars attempting to reconstruct the history of Mahayana.
In the course of its history, Mahayana spread throughout East Asia. The main countries in which it is practiced today are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam and worldwide amongst Tibetan Buddhist practitioners as a result of the Himalayan diaspora following the Communist invasion of Tibet. The main schools of Mahayana Buddhism today are Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon, Tibetan Buddhism and Tendai. The latter three schools have both Mahayana and Vajrayana practice traditions.
The historical source of the name Mahayana is polemical, having its origin in a debate about what the real teachings of the Buddha are. As such, its use in any context except as that pertaining to a living tradition is controversial amongst Theravadin practitioners and some scholars.
The earliest extant mention of "Mahayana" occurs in the Lotus Sutra between the first century BCE and the first century CE. However, some scholars such as Seishi Karashima suggest the the term first used in an earlier Gandhari Prakrit version of the Lotus Sutra was not "mahāyāna" but the Prakrit word "mahājāna" in the sense of "mahājñāna" (great knowing). At a later stage when the early Prakrit word was converted into Sanskrit, this "mahājāna", being phontically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into "mahāyāna", possibly by contamination arising through proximity to the famous Parable of the Burning House which talks of carts (Skt: yāna).
Mahayana Buddhism in India can be divided into two periods: early Mahayana Buddhism and late Mahayana Buddhism
The commonly expressed misconception that Mahayana started as a lay-inspired movement is based on a selective reading of a very tiny sample of extant Mahayana Sutra literature. Currently scholars have moved away from this limited corpus of literature, and have started to open up early Mahayana literature which is very ascetic and expounds the ideal of the monks' life in the forest. A scholarly consensus about the origin of the Mahayana has not yet been reached, but it has been suggested that when Mahayana became popular in the fifth century AD, it had become what it originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic institution. Before that, the Mahayana movement may well have been either a marginalized ascetic group of monks living in the forest, or a group of conservatives embedded in mainstream, socially engaged early Buddhist monasteries. Most scholars conclude that Mahayana remained a marginal movement until the 5th century AD.
The earliest sutras which show some Mahayana influence are called the Proto-Mahayana Sutras such as the Ajitasena Sutra. These sutras contains a mixture of Mahayana and pre-Mahayana ideas, and occur in a world where monasticism is the norm, which is typical of the Pali Suttas; there is none of the usual antagonism towards the followers of the Early Buddhist Schools or the notion of Arahantship, which is typical of many Mahayana Sutras such as the White Lotus, or Vimalakirti Nirdesha. However, the sutra also has an Arahant seeing all the Buddha fields, it is said that reciting the name of the sutra will save beings from suffering and the hell realms, and a meditative practice is described which allows the practitioner to see with the eyes of a Buddha, and to receive teachings from them that are very much typical of Mahayana Sutras.
The earliest proper Mahayana Sutras were the very first versions of the Perfection of Wisdom series, and texts concerning Aksobhya Buddha, which were probably composed in the first century BCE in the south of India. Some slightly later early Mahayana Sutras are the Chinese translations made by the Kushan monk Lokaksema in the Chinese capital of Luoyang, between 178 and 189 CE He translated the following sutras: Astasahasrika, Aksobhyatathagatasyavyuha, Surangamasamadhisutra, an early version of a sutra connected to the Avatamsakasutra, Drumakinnararajapariprccha, Bhadrapalasutra, Ajatasatrukaukrtyavinodana, and the Kasyapaparivarta, which were probably composed in the north of India in the first century CE. Thus, the earliest Mahayana sutras were mainly composed in the south of India, and later the activity of writing additional scriptures was continued in the north.
But, to equate evidence for the presence of an evolving body of Mahayana scriptures with the existence at the time of Mahayana as a religious movement, has been described as being an assumption which may be a serious misstep.
The earliest stone inscription containing a recognizably Mahayana formulation and a mention of the Buddha Amitabha was found in the Indian subcontinent in Mathura, and dated to around 180 CE. Remains of a statue of a Buddha bear the Brahmi inscription:
However, this image was in itself marginal and extremely isolated in the overall context of Buddhism in India at the time, and had no lasting or long-term consequences
The epigraphical evidence for Mahayana in the period before the 5th century is very limited in comparison to the multiplicity of Mahayana writings transmitted from Central Asia to China at that time .
From the 5th century CE oinwards, Mahayana was a strong movement in India, possibly owing to support by the Gupta dynasty. It spread from India to South-East Asia, and towards the north to Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. The influence of Mahayana in China seems to have been reached at an earlier time than in India, where Mahayan remained an obscure group until the 5th century.
Few things can be said with certainty about Mahayana Buddhism, especially its early Indian form, other than that the Buddhism practiced in China, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana can be described as a loosely bound bundle of many teachings, which was thus able to contain the various contrasting ideas found between those differing teachings of whose elements it is comprised.
Mahayana is a large religious and philosophical structure. It constitutes an inclusive faith characterized by the adoption of new Mahayana sutras in addition to the earlier Agama texts, and a shift in the basic purpose and concepts of Buddhism. Mahayana sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha's Dharma. There is a tendency in Mahayana sutras to regard adherence to Mahayana sutras as generating spiritual benefits greater than those which arise from being a follower of the non-Mahayana approaches to Dharma. Thus the Srimala Sutra claims that the Buddha said that devotion to Mahayana is inherently superior in its virtues to the following of the Sravaka or Pratyekabuddha path.
Mahayana Buddhist schools de-emphasize the ideal of the release from Suffering and the attainment of Nirvana, found in the Early Buddhist Schools. The fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine were based around the possibility of universal liberation from suffering for all beings (hence "great vehicle") and the existence of Buddhas and Bodhisattva embodying transcendent Buddha-nature (佛性). Some Mahayana schools simplify the expression of faith by allowing salvation to be alternatively obtained through the grace of the Buddha Amitabha (अमिताभ) by having faith and devoting oneself to chanting to Amitabha. This devotional lifestyle of Buddhism is most strongly emphasized by the Pure Land schools and has greatly contributed to the success of Mahayana in East Asia, where spiritual elements traditionally relied upon chanting of a Buddha's name, of mantras or dharanis; reading of Mahayana sutras and mysticism. In Chinese Buddhism, most monks, let alone lay people, practise Pure Land, some combining it with Chan (Zen).
Most Mahayana schools believe in a pantheon of quasi-divine Bodhisattvas (बोधिसत्त्व) that devote themselves to personal excellence, ultimate knowledge, and the salvation of humanity and all other sentient beings (animals, ghosts, demigods, etc.). Zen Buddhism is a school of Mahayana which often de-emphasizes the pantheon of Bodhisattvas and instead focuses on the meditative aspects of the religion. In Mahayana, the Buddha is seen as the ultimate, highest being, present in all times, in all beings, and in all places, and the Bodhisattvas come to represent the universal ideal of altruistic excellence.
Mahayana Buddhism can in general be characterized by:
“Philosophical” Mahayana tends to focus on the first three characteristics (universalism, enlightened wisdom, compassion) and, in some schools, the Buddha-nature, without showing much interest in supernatural constructions, while “devotional” Mahayana focuses mainly on salvation towards other-worldly realms (see, for example, the Sukhavati sutras).
Mahayana traditions generally consider that attainment of the level of an arhat is not final. This is based on a subtle doctrinal distinction between the Mahayana and some of the early Buddhist schools concerning the issues of nirvana-with-remainder and nirvana-without-remainder. The Mahayana position her is similar to that of the early school of the Mahasanghika.
Some of the early schools considered that nirvana-without-remainder always follows nirvana-with-remainder (buddhas first achieve enlightenment and then, at 'death', mahaparinirvana) and that nirvana-without-remainder is final; whereas the Mahayana traditions consider that nirvana-without-remainder is always followed by nirvana-with-remainder – the state of attainment of the Hinayana arhat is not final, and is eventually succeeded by the state of buddhahood, or total Awakening.
This distinction is most evident regarding doctrinal concerns about the capability of a Buddha after nirvana (which is identified by the early schools as being nirvana-without-remainder). Most importantly, amongst the early schools, a samyaksambuddha is not able to directly point the way to nirvana after death. This is a major distinction between the early schools and some schools of the Mahayana, who conversely state that once a samyaksambuddha arises, he or she continues to directly and actively point the way to nirvana until there are no beings left in samsara (संसार). Because the views of early schools and Mahayana differ in this respect, this is exactly why some Mahayana schools do not talk about a bodhisattva postponing nirvana, and exactly why the early schools do. However, some Mahayana schools do talk of a bodhisattva deliberately refraining from Buddhahood.
For example, the early schools held that Maitreya (मैत्रेय) will not attain nirvana while Gautama Buddha's teachings still exist. In contrast, some Mahayana schools hold that Maitreya will be the next buddha manifest in this world and will introduce the dharma when it no longer exists; he is not postponing his nirvana to do so, and when he dies (or enters mahaparinirvana), he will likewise continue to teach the dharma for all time. Moreover, some Mahayana schools argue that although it is true that for this world-system, Maitreya will be the next buddha to manifest, there are an infinite number of world-systems, many of which have currently active buddhas or buddhas-to-be manifesting.
Because the Mahayana traditions assert that eventually everyone will achieve samyaksam (buddhahood) or total enlightenment, the Mahayana is labelled universalist, whereas because the Nikaya traditions assert that there are three routes to nirvana, which are distinct, they are considered not to be universalist.
The primary focus of some Mahayana schools is bodhicitta, the vow to strive for buddhahood or awakened mind both for oneself and for the benefit of all other sentient beings. As Ananda Coomaraswamy notes, "The most essential part of the Mahanyana is its emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal, which replaces the Arhatta, or ranks before it. According to Mahayana teachings, being a high-level bodhisattva involves possessing a mind of great compassion conjoined with insight into reality (prajna), realizing emptiness and/or the buddhic essence of all things. Mahayana teaches that the practitioner will realize the final goal of full Awakening (Buddhahood): an omniscient, blissful mind completely free from suffering and its causes, that is able to work tirelessly for the benefit of all living beings.
Six virtues or perfections (paramitas) are listed for the bodhisattva: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. Many “philosophical” schools and Mahayana Sutras have focused on the nature of enlightenment and nirvana itself, from the Madhyamika and its rival Yogacara, to the Tathagatagarbha teachings and Zen.
The bodhisattvas are the main actors of compassion, Avalokitesvara (known in East Asia as Guan Yin) being foremost among them. Although having reached enlightenment, bodhisattvas usually make a vow to postpone entering into nirvana until all other beings have also been saved. They devote themselves to helping others reach enlightenment. This teaching may be a "skillful means" teaching; one strives to liberate all beings only as long as one is under the delusion that there are any actual "beings" to save.
The Mahayana idea that liberation is universal (see below) also allows for one to focus less on the release of personal suffering and more on humanity's salvation, and is consequently described to be more universally compassionate and caring for the welfare of others than other traditions of Buddhism.
‘Clinging to the well-being of mere peace' signifies the lower capacity [Hinayana] attitude wherein the longing to transcend suffering is focused on oneself alone. This precludes the cherishing of others and hence there is little development of altruism. [...] When loving kindness and compassion become part of one, there is so much care for other conscious beings that one could not bear to liberate oneself alone. [...] Master Manjushriikiirti has said: ‘A Mahayana follower should not be without loving kindness and compassion for even a single moment', and ‘It is not anger and hatred but loving kindness and compassion that vouchsafe the welfare of others'.
The term Skillful Means (Sanskrit:upāya) is used in the Lotus Sutra, the earliest dated Mahayana sutra, and is a concept accepted in all Mahayana schools of thought. It refers to any effective method which aids the attainment of Awakening. It does not necessarily mean that that particular method is "untrue", but simply refers to any means or stratagem that is conducive to spiritual growth and which leads the various types of beings to Awakening and Nirvana. A skillful means could thus be certain motivational words for a particular listener or even the noble Eightfold Path itself. Basic Buddhism (what Mahayana would term sravaka-yana or pratyekabuddha-yana) is an expedient method for getting people started on the noble Buddhic path and allowing them to advance quite far. But the path is not wholly traversed (according to some Mahayana schools) until the practitioner has striven for, and attained, Buddhahood for the liberation from unhappiness of all other sentient beings. In an ultimate sense, all of verbalised Dharma is a "skillful means", since Dharma or Truth cannot really be expressed in words or concepts. Anything that effectively points the way to liberation can be termed a "skillful means" - an effective method for awakening beings from the sleep of spiritual ignorance. Mahayana often adopts a pragmatic notion of truth: doctrines are "true" in the sense of being spiritually benficial.
Some scholars have stated that the exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon. In fact the Pali term upāya-kosalla does occur in the Pali Canon, in the Sangiti Sutta of the Digha Nikaya.
Under various conditions, these realms could be attained by devotees after their death so that when reborn they could strive towards buddhahood in the best possible conditions. Depending on the sect, this salvation to “paradise” can be obtained by faith, imaging, or sometimes even by the simple invocation of the Buddha’s name. This approach to salvation is at the origin of the mass appeal of devotional Buddhism, especially represented by the Pure Land (浄土宗).
This rich cosmography also allowed Mahayana to be quite syncretic and accommodating of other faiths or deities. Various origins have been suggested to explain its emergence, such as “popular Hindu devotional cults (bhakti), and Persian and Greco-Roman theologies, which filtered into India from the northwest” (Tom Lowenstein, “The vision of the Buddha”).
The teaching of a "Buddha Principle" (Buddha-dhatu) or "Buddha Nature" innate to and inseparable from all sentient beings is a doctrine which according to a number of Mahayana sutras constitutes the "absolutely final culmination" of the Buddha's Dharma (see Nirvana Sutra). It may be based on the "luminous mind" concept found in the Agamas. The essential idea (articulated in the Tathagatagarbha sutras, but not accepted by all Mahayana) is that no being is without a concealed but indestructible interior link to Awakening (bodhi), and that this link is an uncreated element [dhatu] or principle deep inside each being which constitutes nothing less than the deathless, diamond-like "essence of the Self" (Nirvana Sutra). The Mahaparinirvana Sutra states that: "The essence of the Self (atman) is the subtle Tathagatagarbha ..." while the later Lankavatara Sutra states that the tathagatagarbha might be taken to be atman, but it is not (at least not as understood by the 'philosophers' or others who are not a Buddha). In the tathagatagarbha class of sutras, the word "atman" is used in a way defined by and specific to these sutras, see Atman (Buddhism).
According to some scholars, the "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature discussed in some Mahayana sutras does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of sunyata (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. It is the "true self" in representing the innate aspect of the individual which makes actualizing the ultimate personality possible.
The actual "seeing and knowing" of this Buddha-dhatu (co-terminous with the Dharmakaya or Self of Buddha) is said to usher in nirvanic Liberation. This Buddha-dhatu or Tathagatagarbha is stated to be found in every single person, ghost, god and creature, etc, and uncreated, deathless and ultimately beyond rational grasping or conceptualisation. Yet it is this already real and present, hidden internal element of bodhi (Awakeness) which, according to the Tathagatagarbha sutras, prompts beings to seek after Liberation from worldly suffering and enables them to attain the spotless bliss which lies at the heart of their being. Once the veils of negative thoughts, feelings and unwholesome behaviour (the kleshas) have been eliminated from the mind and character, the indwelling Buddha-dhatu (Buddha Principle / "Buddha Nature") is enabled to shine forth unimpededly and to transform the seer of it into a Buddha.
Prior to the period of these sutras, Mahayana metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Tathagatagarbha genre of sutras 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 sutras 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 which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.
The first of the Mahayana-specific writings were written probably around the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE. Some of the Mahayana Sutras, such as certain parts of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, are presented as actual sermons of the Buddha that had been hidden. By some accounts, these sermons were passed on by oral tradition, as with other sutras; other accounts state that they were hidden and then revealed several centuries later by some mythological route. In addition to sutras, some Mahayana texts are essentially commentaries.
Among the earliest major Mahayana scriptures attested to historically are the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita) sutras, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, and the Nirvana Sutra.
The Tibetan tradition classifies Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings into three categories, based on types of understanding the nature of reality, known as "turnings of the wheel of dharma (truth)": those sutra discourses containing the basic doctrines supposedly aimed at the initial disciples or Śrāvakas, the emptiness teachings associated with Madhyamika and the Prajna Paramita sutras, and the doctrines associated with Yogācāra which present the most accurate view of reality according to this scheme as originally devised. However, many Tibetan teachers, particularly the Gelugpa school, regard the second turning as the highest teaching. The Tathagatagarbha teachings are normally included in the third turning of the wheel if the need arises to classify them. The Chinese tradition has a different scheme.
The Mahayana canon was further expanded somewhat after Buddhism was transmitted to other countries such as China and Tibet, where the existing texts were translated. New texts, such as the Platform Sutra and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (圓覺經) were explicitly not of Indian origin, but were widely accepted as valid scriptures on their own merits. Other later writings included the Linji Lu (臨済錄), a commentary by Chán (禪宗) master Linji Yixuan (臨済義玄). In the course of the development of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, further important commentaries were composed. These included, for example, in Korea, some of the writings of Jinul, and in Japan, works such as Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō.