Mahayana Buddhism

What does Mahayana Buddhism stand for? What is the difference between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism?

Mahayana is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, and several other nations. Since its origin about 2,000 years ago, Mahayana Buddhism has divided into many sub-schools and sects with a vast range of doctrines and practices. This includes Vajrayana schools, such as Tibetan Buddhism, which are often counted as a separate “yana” or vehicle but which are founded on Mahayana teachings.

It is difficult to make any blanket statements about Mahayana that hold true for all of Mahayana. For example, many Mahayana schools offer a devotional path for laypeople, but others are primarily monastic. Kadampa Buddhism is a Mahayana Buddhist school founded by the great Indian Buddhist Master Atisha (AD 982–1054). Some are centered on a meditation practice, while others have replaced meditation with chanting and prayer. To define Mahayana, it is useful to understand how it is distinctive from the other major school of Buddhism, Theravada.

Read more: What Is Kadampa Buddhism?

• History

The Mahayana 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.

In the course of its history, Mahayana 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. Major traditions of Mahayana Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, and Nichiren Buddhism. It may also include the Vajrayana traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahayana tradition.

• The Enlightenment of All Beings

While Theravada emphasizes individual enlightenment, Mahayana emphasizes the enlightenment of all beings.

Read more: The Enlightenment of All Beings

• Buddha Nature

Connected to sunyata is the teaching that Buddha Nature is the immutable nature of all beings, a teaching not found in Theravada. Exactly how Buddha Nature is understood varies somewhat from one Mahayana school to another. Some explain it as a seed or potential; others see it as fully manifested but unrecognized because of our delusions.

• The Trikaya

The Mahayana doctrine of the Trikaya says that each Buddha has three bodies. These are called the dharmakaya, sambogakaya and nirmanakaya. Very simply, dharmakaya is the body of absolute truth, sambogakaya is the body that experiences the bliss of enlightenment, and nirmanakaya is the body that manifests in the world.

Another way to understand the Trikaya is to think of the dharmakaya as the absolute nature of all beings, sambogakaya as the blissful experience of enlightenment, and nirmanakaya as a Buddha in human form.

Learn more about: What Does Trikaya Truly Mean?

• Scriptures

There are three canons of Buddhist scriptures, named after the languages in which they were preserved. The Pali Canon contains the collected canonical scriptures of Theravada. There is a Tibetan Canon associated with Tibetan Buddhism and a Chinese Canon that contains scriptures followed by the rest of Mahayana.

The Pali Canon is the Tripitaka as it was preserved in Pali. The Chinese and Tibetan canons have texts that correspond to much of the Pali Canon but also have added a vast number of sutras and commentaries that are strictly Mahayana and are not regarded as legitimate in Theravada. These include highly regarded sutras such as the Lotus and the Prajnaparamita sutras.

Read More: Major Mahayana Sutras

• Pali VS Sanskrit

Mahayana Buddhism uses the Sanskrit rather than the Pali form of common terms; for example, sutra instead of sutta; dharma instead of dhamma.

• A Note on Vajrayana

Vajrayana is a school of Buddhism that combines elements of Hindu yoga with Buddhist teachings. It is most closely associated with Tibetan Buddhism. Sometimes Vajrayana is presented as a third vehicle along with Theravada and Mahayana. However, all of the features of Mahayana listed above also apply to Varjayana. For that reason, Vajrayana is most often considered a variation or extension of Mahayana.

• Meditation

The Mahayana ideal is to become a bodhisattva who strives to liberate all beings from the cycle of birth and death.

Beneath the bodhisattva ideal is an understanding of the doctrine of anatman — the nature of the self — that differs from that of Theravada. Very basically, Theravada considers anatman to mean that an individual’s ego or personality is a fetter and delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana.

Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic self (a teaching called sunyata, which means “emptiness”). Therefore, according to Mahayana, individual enlightenment is not possible. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion, but because we cannot separate ourselves from each other.