Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) is one of two major existing branches of Buddhism (the other being Theravāda) 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.
The Buddhist tradition of Vajrayāna is sometimes classified as a part of Mahāyāna Buddhism, but some scholars consider it to be a different branch altogether.
"Mahāyāna" also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called "Bodhisattvayāna", or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle".
A Bodhisattva who has accomplished this goal is called a Samyaksaṁbuddha, or "fully enlightened Buddha". A Samyaksaṁbuddha can establish the Dharma and lead disciples to Enlightenment.
Mahāyāna Buddhists teach that Enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson.
The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, with 53% of practitioners, compared to 36% for Theravāda and 6% for Vajrayāna in 2010.
In the course of its history, Mahāyāna 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.
Mahāyāna Buddhism also spread to other South and Southeast Asian countries, such as Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Maldives, Pakistan, Śrī Lanka, Burma, Iran and other Central Asian countries before being replaced by Theravāda Buddhism, Islam, or other religions.
Large Mahāyāna scholastic centres such as Nālanda thrived during the latter period of Buddhism in India, between the 7-12th centuries.
Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism and Vietnamese Buddhism.
It may also include the Vajrayāna traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahāyāna tradition.
2. Original Sanskrit
It is believed the term Mahāyāna ("Great Vehicle") was originally an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna ("Bodhisattva Vehicle"), the vehicle of a Bodhisattva seeking Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The term Mahāyāna (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 Bodhisattvayāna, the adoption of the term Mahāyāna and its application to Bodhisattvayāna did not represent a significant turning point in the development of a Mahāyāna tradition.
The earliest Mahāyāna texts, such as the Lotus Sūtra, often use the term Mahāyāna as a synonym for Bodhisattvayāna, but the term Hīnayāna is comparatively rare in the earliest sources.
The presumed dichotomy between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna can be deceptive, as the 2 terms were not actually formed in relation to one another in the same era.
Among the earliest and most important references to Mahāyāna are those that occur in the Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra) dating between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.
Scholars have suggested that the term at first used in an earlier Gāndhārī Prakṛti version of the Lotus Sūtra was not the term Mahāyāna but the Prakṛti word Mahājāna in the sense of Mahājñāna (great knowing).
At a later stage when the early Prakṛti word was converted into Sanskrit, this Mahājāna, being phonetically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into Mahāyāna,
possibly because of what may have been a double meaning in the famous Parable of the Burning House, which talks of 3 vehicles or carts (Skt: Yāna).
3. Origin theories
The origins of Mahāyāna are still not completely understood and there are numerous competing theories.
The earliest Western views of Mahāyāna assumed that it existed as a separate school in competition with the so-called "Hīnayāna" schools.
For most of the 20th century, the leading theories about the origins of Mahāyāna were that it was either a lay movement or that it developed among the Mahāsāṁghika Nikāya. These theories have recently been mostly overturned or shown to be problematic.
The earliest textual evidence of "Mahāyāna" comes from Sūtras originating around the beginning of the Common Era:
Some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, such as the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra use the term "Mahāyāna", yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mahāyāna in this context and the early schools,
and it may be that "Mahāyāna" referred rather to the rigorous emulation of Gautama Buddha in the path of a Bodhisattva seeking to become a fully Enlightened Buddha.
In the Ugraparipṛcchā, Mahāyāna is not a school, but a rigorous and demanding "spiritual vocation, to be pursued within the existing Buddhist community."
Several scholars suggested that Mahāyāna and its Sūtras (such as the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā genre) developed among the Mahāsāṁghika Nikāya (from the 1st century BCE onwards), some pointing to the area along the Kṛṣṇa River in the Āndhra region of southern India as a geographical origin.
Scholars think that there can be no doubt that at least some early Mahāyāna Sūtras originated in Mahāsāṁghika circles, pointing to the Mahāsāṁghika doctrine of the supra-mundane (lokuttara) nature of the Buddha, which is very close to the Mahāyāna view of the Buddha.
Historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahāyāna Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignāga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhāviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra.
However, some scholars have argued for the origin in the Gandhara region.
Some scholars also think that after a period of composition in the South, later the activity of writing additional scriptures moved to the North.
Important pieces of evidence for the Early Mahāyāna include the texts translated by the monk Lokakṣema in the 2nd century CE, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandhāra. These are some of the earliest known Mahāyāna texts:
Study of these texts show that they strongly promote monasticism (contra the lay origin theory), acknowledge the legitimacy of Arahantship, do not recommend devotion towards 'celestial' Bodhisattvas and do not show any attempt to establish a new sect or order.
Some of these texts often emphasize ascetic practices, forest dwelling, and deep states of meditative concentration (Samādhi).
Some scholars further speculate that the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras were written in response to certain theories of the Abhidharma schools.
Evidence from Sūtras which depict a close connection of Mahāyāna with Monasticism eventually revealed the problems with the lay origins theory.
The Mahāsāṁghika origins theory has also slowly been shown to be problematic by scholarship that revealed how certain Mahāyāna Sūtras show traces of having developed among other Nikāyas or monastic orders (such as the Dharmaguptaka).
Because of such evidence some scholars argue that the movement was not sectarian and possibly pan-Buddhist:
There is no evidence that Mahāyāna 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 aspiring Bodhisattvas.
Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early schools of Buddhism, and therefore each Bhikṣu or Bhikṣunī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to an early school.
Membership in these Nikāyas, or monastic sects, continues today with the Dharmaguptaka Nikāya in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Nikāya in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore, Mahāyāna was never a separate rival sect of the early schools.
While monastic Mahāyānists belonged to a Nikāya, not all members of a Nikāya were Mahāyānists. From Chinese monks visiting India, we now know that both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna monks in India often lived in the same monasteries side by side.
It is also possible that, formally, Mahāyāna would have been understood as a group of monks or nuns within a larger monastery taking a vow together (known as a "Kriyā-karma") to memorize and study a Mahāyāna text or texts.
A series of loosely connected movements developed during the 2nd century around cult shrines where Mahāyāna Sūtras were kept, and the "cult of the book" theory is also popular among other current scholars.
After examining the epigraphic evidence some scholars argue that Mahāyāna remained an extremely limited minority movement – if it remained at all – that attracted absolutely no documented public or popular support for at least 2 more centuries.
Some historians see this movement as being in tension with other Buddhists, struggling for recognition and acceptance. Their "embattled mentality" may have led to certain elements found in Mahāyāna texts such as the Lotus Sūtra.
Likewise, others speak of Mahāyāna's virtual invisibility in the archaeological record until the 5th century.
These communities were probably not a single unified movement, but scattered groups based on different practices and Sūtras:
One reason for this view is that Mahāyāna sources are extremely diverse, advocating many different, often conflicting doctrines and positions:
Thus we find one scripture (the Akṣobhya-vyūha) that advocates both Śrāvaka and Bodhisattva practices, propounds the possibility of rebirth in a Pure Land, and enthusiastically recommends the cult of the book, yet seems to know nothing of Emptiness theory, the 10 bhūmi, or the Trikāya,
while another (the Sūtra of the Original Acts which Adorn the Bodhisattvas) propounds the 10 bhūmi and focuses exclusively on the path of the Bodhisattva, but never discusses the Pāramitās.
A Mādhyamika treatise (Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) may enthusiastically deploy the rhetoric of Emptiness without ever mentioning the Bodhisattva path,
- while a Yogācāra treatise (Vasubandhu’s Madhyānta-Vibhāga-Bhāṣya) may delve into the particulars of the Trikāya doctrine while eschewing the doctrine of Ekayāna.
We must be prepared, in other words, to encounter a multiplicity of Mahāyāna flourishing even in India, not to mention those that developed in East Asia and Tibet.
One of the current leading theories is what is called "the forest hypothesis" and it is defined as:
The Mahāyāna … was the work of hard-core ascetics, members of the forest dwelling (araññavasi) wing of the Buddhist Order.
Some scholars point to how some of the earliest Mahāyāna 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 Sūtra.
It is believed that Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra represents the earliest form of Mahāyāna, which presents the Bodhisattva Path as a ‘supremely difﬁcult enterprise’ of elite monastic forest asceticism.
Critics, however, argue against both the book cult hypothesis and the forest hypothesis:
They point out that there is no actual evidence for existence of book shrines, that the practice of Sūtra veneration was pan-Buddhist and not distinctly Mahāyāna, and that Mahāyāna Sūtras advocate mnemonic (oral) practices more frequently than they do written ones.
Regarding the forest hypothesis, some point out that only 2 of the 12 or so texts of the Lokakṣema corpus directly advocate forest dwelling,
while the others either do not mention it or see it as unhelpful, promoting easier practices such as merely listening to the Sūtra, or thinking of particular Buddhas, that they claim can enable one to be reborn in special, luxurious ‘Pure Lands’ where one will be able to make easy and rapid progress on the Bodhisattva path and attain Buddhahood after as little as one lifetime.
The evidence merely shows that Mahāyāna was primarily a textual movement, focused on the revelation, preaching, and dissemination of Mahāyāna Sūtras, which developed within, and never really departed from, traditional Buddhist social and institutional structures.
4. Earliest inscriptions
The earliest stone inscription containing a recognizably Mahāyāna formulation and a mention of the Buddha Amitābha was found in the Indian subcontinent in Mathura, and dated to around 180 CE:
Remains of a statue of a Buddha bear the Brāhmī inscription: "Made in the year 28 of the reign of King Huviṣka ... for the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitābha."
There is also some evidence that Emperor Huviṣka (ruled 150–180 CE) himself was a follower of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and a Sanskrit manuscript fragment describes Huviṣka as having "set forth in the Mahāyāna."
Evidence of the name "Mahāyāna" in Indian inscriptions in the period before the 5th century is very limited in comparison to the multiplicity of Mahāyāna writings transmitted from Central Asia to China at that time.
The Mahāyāna movement (or movements) remained quite small until it became established in the 5th century, with very few manuscripts having been found before then (the exceptions are from Bamyan, currently in Afghanistan).
Likewise it is only in the 4-5th centuries CE that epigraphic evidence shows some kind of popular support for Mahāyāna, including some possible royal support at the Kingdom of Shanshan as well as in Bamyan and Mathura.
Still, even after the 5th century, the epigraphic evidence which use the term Mahāyāna is still quite small and is notably mainly monastic, not lay.
By this time, Chinese pilgrims, such as Faxian, Yijing, and Xuanzang were traveling to India, and their writings do describe monasteries which they label 'Mahāyāna' as well as monasteries where both Mahāyāna monks and non-Mahāyāna monks lived together.
After the 5th century, Mahāyāna Buddhism and its institutions slowly grew in influence:
Some of the most influential institutions became massive monastic university complexes such as Nālanda (established by the 5th-century CE Gupta emperor, Kumaragupta I) and Vikramaśilā (established under Dharmapāla c. 783 to 820) which were centres of various branches of scholarship, including Mahāyāna philosophy.
The Nālanda complex eventually became the largest and most influential Buddhist centre in India for centuries. Even so, it seems that fewer than 50% of the monks encountered by Xuanzang (c. 600–664) on his visit to India actually were Mahāyānists.
Indian Mahāyāna developed various schools of thought, some groupings include: Mādhyamika, Yogācāra, Buddha-nature (Tathāgatagarbha), and Buddhist logic as the last and most recent.
Over time Indian Mahāyāna texts and philosophy reached Central Asia and China through trade routes, afterwards spreading throughout East Asia.
In some cases Indian philosophical traditions were directly transplanted, as with the case of the East Asian Mādhyamika and East Asian Yogācāra schools.
Later, new developments in Chinese Mahāyāna led to new Chinese schools like Tiantai, Huayan and Chan Buddhism (Zen).
Forms of Mahāyāna based on the doctrines of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, Buddha Nature Sūtras, Lotus Sūtra and the Pure Land teachings are still popular in East Asian Buddhism, which is completely dominated by branches of Mahāyāna.
6. Later developments
Under the Gupta and Pala empires, a new movement began to develop which drew on previous Mahāyāna doctrine as well as new ideas and which came to be known by various names such as Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, and Tantric Buddhism;
Possibly led by groups of wandering tantric yogis named Mahāsiddhas, this movement developed new tantric spiritual practices and also promoted new texts called the Buddhist Tantras.
This new form of Buddhism eventually also spread north to Tibet and east to China.
Various classes of Vajrayāna literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Śaivism:
The Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, which later came to be classified under Kriyātantra, states that mantras taught in the Śaiva, Garuḍa and Vaiṣṇava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Mañjuśrī.
The Guhyāsiddhi of Padmāvajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamāja tradition, prescribes acting as a Śaiva guru and initiating members into Śaiva Siddhāṅta scriptures and mandalas.
The Saṁvara tantra texts adopted the Pīṭha list from the Śaiva text Tantrasadbhāva, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.
Few things can be said with certainty about Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially its early Indian form, other than that the Buddhism practiced in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Mahāyāna can be described as a loosely bound collection of many teachings with large and expansive doctrines that are able to exist simultaneously.
Mahāyāna constitutes an inclusive set of traditions characterized by plurality and the adoption of new Mahāyāna Sūtras in addition to the earlier Āgamas. Mahāyāna sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha's Dharma.
An Indian commentary on the Mahāyāna Saṁgraha, entitled Vivṛtaguhyārthapiṇḍavyākhyā, gives a classification of teachings according to the capabilities of the audience:
According to disciples' grades, the Dharma is classified as inferior and superior:
For example, the inferior was taught to the merchants Trapuṣa and Bhallika because they were ordinary men; the middle was taught to the group of 5 monks because they were at the stage of saints; the 8-fold Prajñāpāramitās were taught to Bodhisattvas and the Prajñāpāramitās are superior in eliminating conceptually imagined forms.
There is also a tendency in Mahāyāna Sūtras to regard adherence to these Sūtras as generating spiritual benefits greater than those that arise from being a follower of the non-Mahāyāna approaches to Dharma:
Thus the Śrīmālādevī Siṁhanāda Sūtra claims that the Buddha said that devotion to Mahāyāna is inherently superior in its virtues to following the Śrāvaka or Pratyekabuddha paths.
8. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are central elements of Mahāyāna:
Mahāyāna has a vastly expanded cosmology, with various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas residing in different worlds and Buddha-fields (Buddha Kṣettra).
An important feature of Mahāyāna is the way that it understands the nature of a Buddha, which differs from non-Mahāyāna understandings.
Mahāyāna texts not only often depict numerous Buddhas besides Śākyamuni, but see them as transcendental or supra-mundane (lokuttara) beings.
In Mahāyāna a Buddha is often seen as "a spiritual king, relating to and caring for the world", rather than simply a teacher who after his death "has completely ‘gone beyond’ the world and its cares".
Buddha Śākyamuni's life and death on earth is then usually understood as a "mere appearance", his death is a show, while in actuality he remains out of compassion to help all sentient beings.
Buddha in Mahāyāna is often depicted as "an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities ...He is described almost as an omnipotent and almighty godhead."
The concept of the 3 bodies (Trikāya) of the Buddha was developed to make sense of these ideas, with Nirmaņakāya Buddhas (like Śākyamuni) being seen as an emanation from the Dharmakāya.
Through the use of various practices, a Mahāyāna devotee can aspire to be reborn in a Buddha's Pure Land or Buddha-field, where they can strive towards Buddhahood in the best possible conditions.
Depending on the sect, liberation into a Buddha-field can be obtained by faith, meditation, or sometimes even by the repetition of Buddha's name. Faith based devotional practices focused on rebirth in Pure Lands are common in East Asian Pure Land Buddhism.
Mahāyāna generally holds that pursuing only the personal release from suffering i.e. Nirvāṇa is a narrow or inferior aspiration, because it lacks the resolve to liberate all other sentient beings from Saṁsāra (the round of rebirth) by becoming a Buddha.
One who engages in this path to complete Buddhahood is called a Bodhisattva. High level Bodhisattvas are also seen as extremely powerful supra-mundane beings. Popular Bodhisattvas include Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī and Maitreya.
Bodhisattvas could reach the personal Nirvāṇa of the Arahants, but they believe it is more important to remain in Saṁsāra and help others.
There are 2 models for this which are seen in the various Mahāyāna texts:
- One is the idea that a Bodhisattva must postpone their awakening until Buddhahood is attained. This could take aeons and in the meantime they will be helping countless beings. After reaching Buddhahood, they do pass on to cessation (Nirvāṇa) just like an Arahant.
The second model is the idea that there are 2 kinds of Nirvāṇa, the Nirvāṇa of an Arahant and a superior type of Nirvāṇa called apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding) that allows a Buddha to remain forever engaged in the world.
The idea of Apratiṣṭhita Nirvāṇa may have taken some time to develop and is not obvious in some of the early Mahāyāna literature.
9. The Bodhisattva path
The Mahāyāna Bodhisattva Path (mārga) or Vehicle (yāna) is seen as being the superior spiritual path by Mahāyānists, over and above the paths of those who seek Arahantship or "solitary Buddhahood" for their own sake (Śrāvakayāna and Pratyekabuddhayāna).
According to 8th century Mahāyāna philosopher Haribhadra, the term "Bodhisattva" can refer to those who follow any of the 3 vehicles, since all are working towards Bodhi (awakening) and hence the technical term for a Mahāyāna Bodhisattva is a Mahāsattva (great being) Bodhisattva.
A Mahāyāna Bodhisattva can be defined as:
That being who has taken the vow to be reborn, no matter how many times this may be necessary, in order to attain the highest possible goal, that of Complete and Perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Taking the Bodhisattva Vow to "lead to Nirvāṇa the whole immeasurable world of beings" as the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras state, is the central characteristic of the Bodhisattva.
According to the Bodhipathapradīpa (A Lamp for the Path to Awakening) by the Indian master Atiśa, the central defining feature of a Bodhisattva's path is the universal aspiration to end suffering for themselves and all other beings. This spiritual motivation is termed Bodhicitta ("the mind of awakening").
Another key virtue of a Bodhisattva is their "great compassion" (Mahā-Karuṇā) which leads one to work tirelessly for the ultimate good of all beings. This universal compassion is foundational for a Bodhisattva and leads to Bodhicitta.
According to the Indian philosopher Śāntideva, when Great Compassion and Bodhicitta arises in a person's heart, they cease to be an ordinary person and become a "son or daughter of the Buddhas".
Another foundational Bodhisattva virtue is Prajñā (transcendent knowledge or wisdom) which is an understanding of the Emptiness of things arising from study, deep consideration and meditation.
Numerous Sūtras hold that a key part of the Bodhisattva path is the practice of a set of virtues called Pāramitās (transcendent or supreme virtues). Sometimes 6 are outlined:
1. Dāna-Pāramitā: the perfection of giving
2. Śīla-Pāramitā: the perfection of moral conduct or discipline
3. Kṣānti-Pāramitā: the perfection of patient endurance
4. Vīrya-Pāramitā: the perfection of vigour or diligence
5. Dhyāna-Pāramitā: the perfection of meditation
6. Prajñā-Pāramitā: the perfection of transcendent wisdom.
Other Sūtras, such as the Daśabhūmika Sūtra, give a list of 10, with the addition of Upāya (skilful means), praṇidhāna (vow, resolution), Balā (spiritual power) and Jñāna (knowledge).
Various texts associate the beginning of the Bodhisattva practice with what is called the path of accumulation or equipment (saṁbhāra-mārga), which is the 1st path of the 5 paths schema which possibly developed from Sarvāstivāda sources.
The Daśabhūmika Sūtra as well as other texts also outline a series of Bodhisattva levels or spiritual stages (bhūmi) on the path:
The various texts disagree on the number of stages however, the Daśabhūmika giving 10 for example (and mapping each one to the 10 Pāramitās), the Bodhisattva-bhūmi giving 7 and 13 and the Avataṁsaka outlining 40 stages.
In later Mahāyāna scholasticism, such as in the work of Kamalaśīla and Atiśa, the 5 paths and 10 bhūmi systems are merged and this is the progressive path model that is used in Tibetan Buddhism:
In these systems, the 1st bhūmi is reached once one attains "direct, non-conceptual and non-dual insight into Emptiness in meditative absorption", which is associated with the Path of Seeing (Darśana-mārga).
10. Expedient means
Expedient means (Skt. Upāya) is another important skill of the Mahāyāna Bodhisattva:
The idea is most famously expounded in the Lotus Sūtra, one of the earliest-dated Sūtras, and is accepted in all Mahāyāna schools of thought.
It is any effective method or technique that aids Awakening.
It does not necessarily mean that some particular method is "untrue" but is simply any means a stratagem that is conducive to spiritual growth and leads beings to awakening and Nirvāṇa.
Expedient means could thus be certain motivational words for a particular listener or even the Noble Eightfold Path itself.
Basic Buddhism (what Mahāyāna would term Śrāvakayāna or Pratyekabuddhayāna) 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 Pāli canon:"
In fact the Pāli term Upāya-Kośala does occur in the Pāli Canon, in the Saṅgīti Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya.
Major philosophical ideas
A central doctrine discussed by numerous Mahāyāna texts is the theory of Emptiness or Voidness (Śūnyatā):
It is considered to be an essential doctrine of the Prajñāpāramitā genre of Sūtras as well as the core teaching of the Mādhyamika philosophy.
This theory amounts to the idea that all phenomena (dharmas) without exception have "no essential unchanging core", and therefore have "no fundamentally real existence."
Because of this, all things, even the Dharma, the Buddha and all beings, are like “illusions” (māyā) and “dreams” (svapna). Obtaining a deep understanding of this is said to be the Prajñāpāramitā, the perfection of wisdom.
The Mahāyāna philosophical school termed Mādhyamika (Middle Path, also known as Śūnyavāda, 'the emptiness theory'), which was founded by the 2nd century figure of Nāgārjuna focuses on refuting all theories which posit any kind of substance, inherent existence or intrinsic nature (Svabhāva).
Nāgārjuna attempts to show in his works that any theory of intrinsic nature is contradicted by the Buddha's theory of dependent origination, since anything that has an independent existence cannot be dependently originated.
The Śūnyavāda philosophers were adamant that their denial of Svabhāva is not a kind of nihilism (against protestations to the contrary by their opponents):
Using the 2 truths theory they claimed that while one can speak of things existing in a conventional, relative sense, they do not exist inherently in an ultimate sense.
They also argued that Emptiness itself is also "empty", it does not have an absolute inherent existence nor does it mean a transcendental absolute reality, but is merely a useful concept or abstraction.
In fact, since everything is Empty of True Existence, all things are just conceptualizations (prajñapti-mātrā), including the theory of Emptiness, and all concepts must ultimately be abandoned in order to truly understand the nature of things.
Vijñānavāda ("the doctrine of consciousness", a.k.a. vijñapti-mātrā, "perceptions only" and citta-mātrā "mind only") is another important doctrine promoted by some Mahāyāna Sūtras
and later it became the central theory of a major philosophical movement which arose during the Gupta period called Yogācāra:
The primary Sūtra associated with this school of thought is the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra, which claims that Śūnyavāda is not the final definitive teaching (Nītārtha) of the Buddha:
Instead, the Ultimate Truth (paramārtha-Satya) is said to be the view that all things (dharmas) are only mind (citta), consciousness (vijñāna) or perceptions (vijñapti)
and that seemingly "external" objects (or "internal" subjects) do not really exist apart from the dependently originated flow of mental experiences:
When this flow of mentality is seen as being Empty of the subject-object duality we impose upon it, one reaches the non-dual cognition of "Thus-ness" (tathatā), which is Nirvāṇa.
This doctrine is developed through various theories, the most important being the 8 consciousnesses and the 3 natures.
The Saṁdhi-nirmocana calls its doctrine the '3rd turning of the Dharma Wheel'.
The Pratyutpanna Sūtra also mentions this doctrine, stating:
"Whatever belongs to this triple world is nothing but thought citta-mātrā. Why is that? It is because no matter how I imagine things, that is how they appear".
The most influential thinkers in this tradition were the Indian brothers Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, along with an obscure figure termed Maitreyanātha.
Yogācāra philosophers developed their own interpretation of the doctrine of Emptiness which also criticized Mādhyamika for falling into nihilism.
The doctrine of Tathāgatagarbha, also known as Buddha-nature or Buddha Principle (Skt: Buddha-dhātu) is important in all modern Mahāyāna traditions, though interpreted in different ways.
Broadly speaking Buddha-nature is concerned with ascertaining what allows sentient beings to become Buddhas.
The term may have first appeared in the Mahāyāna Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra, where it refers to "a sacred nature that is the basis for beings' becoming Buddhas", and where it is also spoken of as the 'Self' (ātman).
The doctrine of a "really existing permanent element" within all sentient beings is a source of much debate and disagreement among Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophers as well as modern academics.
Some scholars have seen this as an influence from Brāhmaṇic Hinduism, while some of these Sūtras admit that the use of the term 'Self' is partly done in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics.
According to some scholars, the Buddha nature discussed in some Mahāyāna Sūtras does not represent a substantial self (ātman);
rather, it is a positive language and expression of Emptiness (Śūnyatā) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices.
Other Mahāyāna philosophies like Mādhyamika were mainly dominated by a discourse of Emptiness, which used primarily negative or apophatic language.
The Buddha nature genre of Sūtras can be seen as an attempt to state Buddhist teachings using positive language while also maintaining the Middle Way, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism.
Some however see the key Buddha-nature Sūtras such as the Nirvāṇa Sūtra and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra as teaching an affirmative vision of an eternal, indestructible Buddha Self.
The Uttarā-tantra (an exegetical treatise on Buddha nature) sees Buddha nature as eternal, uncaused, unconditioned, and incapable of being destroyed, although temporarily concealed within worldly beings by adventitious defilements.
The Uttarā-tantra's reference to a transcendental self (Ātma-Pāramitā) should be understood as "the unique essence of the universe", thus the universal and immanent essence of Buddha nature is the same throughout time and space.
Mahāyāna 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, anātman, emptiness, dependent origination, and the Four Noble Truths.
Mahāyāna Buddhists in East Asia have traditionally studied these teachings in the Āgamas preserved in the Chinese Buddhist Canon.
"Āgama" is the term used by those traditional Buddhist schools in India who employed Sanskrit for their basic Canon. These correspond to the Nikāyas used by the Theravāda school.
The surviving Āgamas in Chinese translation belong to at least 2 schools.
Most of the Āgamas were never translated into the Tibetan Canon, which only contains a few translations of early Sūtras corresponding to the Nikāyas or Āgamas.
However, these basic doctrines are contained in Tibetan translations of later works such as the Abhidharmakośa and the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra.
15. Mahāyāna Sūtras
In addition to accepting the essential scriptures of the early Buddhist schools as valid, Mahāyāna Buddhism maintains large collections of Sūtras that are not recognized as authentic by the modern Theravāda school:
The earliest of these Sūtras do not call themselves Mahāyāna, but use the terms Vaipulya (extensive) Sūtras, or Gambhīra (profound) Sūtras:
These were also not recognized by some individuals in the early Buddhist schools. In other cases, Buddhist communities such as the Mahāsāṁghika School were divided along these doctrinal lines.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Mahāyāna Sūtras are often given greater authority than the Āgamas. The first of these Mahāyāna-specific writings were written probably around the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE.
Some influential Mahāyāna Sūtras are the Prajñaparamita Sūtras, the Lotus Sūtra, the Pure Land Sūtras, the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, the Golden Light Sūtra, the Avataṁsaka Sūtra, the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtras.
Mahāyāna Sūtras contain several elements besides the promotion of the Bodhisattva ideal, including expanded cosmologies and mythical histories, ideas of Pure Lands and great, celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, descriptions of powerful new religious practices, new ideas on the Nature of the Buddha, and a range of new philosophical perspectives.
These texts present stories of revelation in which the Buddha teaches Mahāyāna Sūtras to certain Bodhisattvas who vow to teach and spread these Sūtras after the Buddha's death.
Regarding religious praxis the most commonly promoted practices in Mahāyāna Sūtras were seen as means to achieve Buddhahood quickly and easily and included:
"hearing the names of certain Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, maintaining Buddhist precepts, and listening to, memorizing, and copying Sūtras, that they claim can enable rebirth in the Pure Lands Abhirati and Sukhāvatī, where it is said to be possible to easily acquire the merit and knowledge necessary to become a Buddha in as little as one lifetime."
Another widely recommended practice is Anumodanā, or rejoicing in the good deeds of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
The practice of meditation and visualization of Buddhas has been seen by some scholars as a possible explanation for the source of certain Mahāyāna Sūtras which are seen traditionally as direct visionary revelations from the Buddhas in their Pure Lands.
You can find also dream revelations in certain Mahāyāna Sūtras such as the Ārya-svapna-Nirdeśa which lists and interprets 108 dream signs.
One feature of Mahāyāna Sūtras (especially earlier ones) is the phenomenon of laudatory self-reference – the lengthy praise of the Sūtra itself, the immense merits to be obtained from treating even a verse of it with reverence, and the nasty penalties which will accrue in accordance with karma to those who denigrate the scripture.
Some Mahāyāna Sūtras also warn against the accusation that they are not the word of the Buddha (Buddha-Vācanā), such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8000 verse) Prajñāpāramitā, which states that such claims come from Mara (the evil tempter).
Some of these Mahāyāna Sūtras also warn those who would denigrate Mahāyāna Sūtras or those who preach it (i.e. the dharmabhāṇaka) that this action can lead to rebirth in hell.
Another feature of some Mahāyāna Sūtras, especially later ones, is increasing sectarianism and animosity towards non-Mahāyāna practitioners (sometimes called Śrāvakas, "hearers") which are sometimes depicted as being part of the 'Hīnayāna' (the inferior way) who refuse to accept the superior way of the Mahāyāna.
Earlier Mahāyāna Sūtras like the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra and the Ajitasena Sūtra do not present any antagonism towards the hearers or the ideal of Arahantship like later Sūtras do.
Regarding the Bodhisattva path, some Mahāyāna Sūtras promote it as a universal path for everyone, while others like the Ugraparipṛcchā see it as something for small elite of hardcore ascetics.
In the 4th century Mahāyāna Abhidharma work Abhidharma-samuccaya, Asaṅga refers to the collection which contains the Āgamas as the Śrāvaka-Piṭaka and associates it with the Śrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas.
Asaṅga classifies the Mahāyāna Sūtras as belonging to the Bodhisattva-Piṭaka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for Bodhisattvas.
16. Other literature
Mahāyāna Buddhism also developed a massive commentarial and exegetical literature, many of which are called Śāstra (treatises) or Vṛttis (commentaries).
Philosophical texts were also written in verse form (Kārikās), such as in the case of the famous Mūla-Mādhyamika-Kārikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way) by Nāgārjuna, the foundational text of Mādhyamika philosophy.
Numerous later Mādhyamika philosophers like Candrakīrti wrote commentaries on this work as well as their own verse works.
Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition also relies on numerous non-Mahāyāna commentaries (Śāstra), a very influential one being the Abhidharmakośa of Vasubandhu, which is written from a non-Mahāyāna Sarvāstivāda–Sautrāntika perspective.
Vasubandhu is also the author of various Mahāyāna Yogācāra texts on the philosophical theory known as vijñapti-mātrā (conscious construction only).
The Yogācāra school philosopher Asaṅga is also credited with numerous highly influential commentaries. In East Asia, the Satyasiddhi Śāstra was also influential.
Another influential tradition is that of Dignāga's Buddhist Logic whose work focused on epistemology. He produced the Pramāṇa-samuccaya, and later Dharmakīrti wrote the Pramāṇavarttika, which was a commentary and reworking of the Dignāga text.
Later Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists continued the tradition of writing commentaries.
Dating back at least to the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra is a classification of the corpus of Buddhism into 3 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 3 such "turnings":
1) In the 1st turning, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Vārāṇasī for those in the Śrāvaka vehicle. It is described as marvellous and wonderful, but requiring interpretation and occasioning controversy.
The doctrines of the 1st turning are exemplified in the Dharmacakra Pravartanā Sūtra. This turning represents the earliest phase of the Buddhist teachings and the earliest period in the history of Buddhism.
2) In the 2nd turning, the Buddha taught the Mahāyāna teachings to the Bodhisattvas, teaching that all phenomena have no-essence, no arising and no passing away, are originally quiescent, and essentially in cessation.
This turning is also described as marvellous and wonderful, but requiring interpretation and occasioning controversy.
Doctrine of the 2nd turning is established in the Prajñāpāramitā teachings, first put into writing around 100 BCE. In Indian philosophical schools, it is exemplified by the Mādhyamika school of Nāgārjuna.
3) In the 3rd turning, the Buddha taught similar teachings to the 2nd turning, but for everyone in the 3 vehicles, including all the Śrāvakas, 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.
These teachings were established by the Saṁdhi-nirmocana Sūtra as early as the 1-2nd century CE. In the Indian philosophical schools, the 3rd turning is exemplified by the Yogācāra school of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu.
Some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism consider the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism and Vajrayāna to be the 3rd turning of the Dharma Wheel:
Tibetan teachers, particularly of the Gelugpa School, regard the 2nd turning as the highest teaching, because of their particular interpretation of Yogācāra doctrine. The Buddha Nature teachings are normally included in the 3rd turning of the wheel.
The different Chinese Buddhist traditions have different schemes of doctrinal periodization called panjiao which they use to organize the sometimes bewildering array of texts.
18. Theravāda school
In the early Buddhist texts, and as taught by the modern Theravāda 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. Theravāda texts do, however, hold that this is a more perfectly virtuous goal.
In the 7th century, the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang describes the concurrent existence of the Mahāvihāra and the Abhayagiri Vihāra in Śrī Lanka:
He refers to the monks of the Mahāvihāra as the "Hīnayāna Sthāviras" (Theras), and the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihāra as the "Mahāyāna Sthāviras". Xuanzang further writes:
The Mahā Vihāravāsins reject the Mahāyāna and practice the Hīnayāna, while the Abhayagiri Vihāravāsins study both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings and propagate the Tripiṭaka.
The Theravāda school is usually described by Mahāyāna authors as belonging to Hīnayāna.
Some authors have argued that it should not be considered such from the Mahāyāna perspective. Their view is based on a different understanding of the concept of Hīnayāna:
Rather than regarding the term as referring to any school of Buddhism that has not accepted the Mahāyāna canon and doctrines, such as those pertaining to the role of the Bodhisattva,
these authors argue that the classification of a school as "Hīnayāna" should be crucially dependent on the adherence to a specific phenomenological position.
They point out that unlike the now-extinct Sarvāstivāda School, which was the primary object of Mahāyāna criticism, the Theravāda does not claim the existence of independent entities (dharmas); in this it maintains the attitude of early Buddhism.
Adherents of Mahāyāna Buddhism disagreed with the substantialist thought of the Sarvāstivādins and Sautrāntikas, and in emphasizing the doctrine of Emptiness they endeavoured to preserve the early teaching.
The Theravādins too refuted the Sarvāstivādins and Sautrāntikas (and other schools) on the grounds that their theories were in conflict with the non-substantialism of the canon.