Travel Guide


From its source in India, the Mahayana version of Buddhism spread to Central Asia, China, Japan, mainland Southeast Asia, Java, Sumatra and even Sri Lanka (Abhayagiri monastery). Also known as the Northern School, they were considered as more liberal and progressive than their southern counterpart (i.e. Theravada). Early Theravadians branded Northern Buddhism by the term “Acariyavada”, or “Doctrine of the Patriarchs”.

<< Mahayana Buddhism

Another term accepted by the Mahayanists themselves to describe the Northern School is “Bodhisattvayana”, or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle”, after the Mahayana ideal. Mahayana Buddhism is generally practiced in the countries of east Asia, namely, China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Usually, Nepal, Tibet and the rest of Asia are also included under the term of “Northern” Buddhist.

Mahayana became the Pan-Asiatic form of Buddhism and involved fundamental shifts in doctrine and approach for which, however, there were precedents in earlier schools. It taught that neither the self nor the dharmas exist. The Mahayana view, as Nagarjuna puts it, is that “There is no real, independent existence of entities in the factors (pratyaya)” (Madhyama-Karika 1, 5). Moreover, for the elite arhat ideal, it substituted the bodhisattva - i.e., the one who possesses the innate tendency to become a buddha, a disposition inherent in all persons.

In Mahayana, love for creatures is exalted to the highest; a bodhisattva is encouraged to offer the merit he derives from good deeds for the good of others. The tension between morality and mysticism that agitated India also entered the Mahayana.

Nature and characteristics

Mahayana adherents adopt the method of non-dualism (advaya), that is, it does not accept that there exist such opposites as Nirvana and samsara, or noumena and phenomena, and so on. Mahayana is more inclined towards a mystical approach, that it believes in the spiritual apprehension of Truth beyond the understanding, or that the conscious self could transcend bodily limitations and commune with, or become immersed in, some higher form of being.

Mahayana is not merely metaphysics, dealing with the basic structure and principles of reality. Its teachings can be regarded as a theoretical preparatory instructional manual for the achievement of a desired state or condition. Thus there is a coexistence of theoretical investigation and supreme experience: the former, the premise; the latter, the consequence.

The convergence of meditative exercises leads to an emptying of thought to reach a point in which one proceeds from voidness to voidness and finally to the ultimate where even the minutest thought vanishes. Rational activity is exercised until it becomes quiescent: prajna itself, the supreme wisdom, by successive emptying becomes nullified, and only in doing so does it identify with the unutterable ultimate reality.

Divinization and Multiplicity

In the Mahayana tradition, the Buddha is viewed not merely as a human master and model but also as a supramundane being. Mahayana tends to be devotional and mystical, taking Buddha almost in a theistic sense, that the Supreme Reality itself that had descended on earth in human form for the good of mankind.

He does this by multiplying Himself and is reflected in a pentad of Buddhas: Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi. Some of these, taking the place of Shakyamuni, are revealers of elaborate doctrines and complicated liturgies. The Mahayana concept of this Reality is never as a theistic creator but as Divine Love that out of compassion embodied itself in human form to uplift suffering humanity.

As Mahayana developed, a great deal of literature called Buddhavacana (Revelation of the Buddha) was circulated, but it went far beyond the ancient canons; it was proposed as the highest revelation, superseding prior texts. In this literature the teaching is viewed not as merely of one kind but as on various levels, each adapted to the intellectual capacity and karmic propensities of those who hear it.

The Buddha is no longer simply the historical sage of the Shakyas but is now supramundane (lokottara). Even the sangha is of two types: that of this world and that beyond it. The devotion of the Mahayanists gave great impetus to Buddhist art in various forms.

The Bodhisattva Ideal

<< The Bodhisattva Guan Shih Yin (One who hears the cries of the innumerable suffering)

The ideal Buddhist of the Mahayana is the Bodhisattva, a saintly figure who has vowed not to enter Final Nirvana until the whole human race has achieved salvation with him The essential premise of the bodhisattva ideal is to generate in one's own self the thought of enlightenment and to fulfill the vow to become a Buddha, foregoing entrance into nirvana in order to remain in the world as long as there are creatures to be saved from suffering.

With that vow the aspirant begins the career of a bodhisattva, which traverses 10 stages or spiritual levels (bhumi) and achieves purification through the practice of the 10 perfections (paramitas). These levels, which become progressively higher, elevate the bodhisattva to the condition of a buddha.

The first six levels are preliminary, representing the true practice of the six perfections (generosity, morality, patience, vigour, concentration, and wisdom). Irreversibility occurs as soon as the seventh stage is reached. From this moment the bodhisattva assumes the true buddha nature, even though further purification and fortification must be achieved in the stages that follow. This is the moment when, having performed his duty, he engages in activity aimed at completely fulfilling the obligations of a bodhisattva.

The difference between this and the preceding six stages is that now the activity is explained as an innate and spontaneous impulse manifested unconstrainedly and therefore not subjected to doubts. Everything is now uncreated, ungenerated; thus, the body of the bodhisattva becomes identified more and more completely with the essential body (dharma-kaya), with buddhahood, and with omniscience.

The Three Buddha Bodies (Tri-kaya)

Mahayana Buddhism developed the doctrine of the Three Bodies (trikaya) which forms the highest doctrine of this school of thought. The three bodies (tri-kaya; i.e., modes of being) of the Buddha are rooted in the Theravada teachings concerning the physical body (which consists of four elements), the mental body, and the body of the law.

It is with the Mahayana, however, that the theory of the three bodies enters into the salvation process and assumes central significance in the doctrine.

1) The phenomenal body (nirmana-kaya) is a manifestation of the Buddha among creatures to teach them the path to liberation - a body that for some schools is nothing but an illusory appearance of eternal reality.

2) The enjoyment (or bliss) body (sambhoga-kaya) is the body to which contemplation can ascend. At the higher stages of supramundane contemplation that body manifests to the bodhisattva its splendour and reveals doctrines unintelligible to those who are unenlightened.

3) The unmanifested body of the law (dharma-kaya) already appears in the Saddharmapundarika, or Lotus Sutra, a transitional text that became central in many Mahayana devotional schools (see below Saddharmapundarika and Nichiren). In many Mahayana texts buddhas are infinite, and all partake of an identical nature - the dharma-kaya.

As anticipated in ancient schools, the Buddha is the law (dharma). "He who sees the law sees me; he who sees me sees the law." There is identification of the Buddha with an eternal dharma, with enlightenment (bodhi), and hence with nirvana; later, real existence will be opposed to the mere appearance of existence, and voidness, the "thingness of things," an undefinable condition, present and immutable within the Buddhas, will be stressed.

All is in the dharma-kaya; nothing is outside of it, just as nothing is outside of space; transcendence and immanence come together. Other schools posit a presence that is innate within all human beings, even if it is not perceived. It is like a gem hidden in dross, which shines in its purity as soon as the veil of ignorance is removed.

In this aspect, the Buddha in Mahayana is taught to be intrinsically trans-human and even absolute. Since a Mahayana Buddhist can appeal for help to a god-like figure, who is a glorious redeemer, he can hope for salvation through his faith and devotion. For the average human being, this is not hard as fully living up to the Theravada ideal. In this sense, Mahayana has more appeal to the ordinary person.

New revelations

New revelations are made not only to human beings on earth but also in the heavenly paradises by Shakyamuni and other buddhas. The teaching is expounded uninterruptedly in the universe because worlds and paradises are infinite and all buddhas are consubstantiated with the essential body.

The assemblies to which they speak consist not only of shraakas (disciples) but also of bodhisattvas, gods, and demons. The authors of the new doctrines were captivated by exaltations that often make their discourses logically implausible: phantasmagoria of celestial choruses, fabulous visions in which shine flashes of new speculations, and trains of thought under the influence, more or less conscious, of speculative and mystical Indian traditions. The texts, from which new trends spring, overflow with repetitions and modulate the same arguments with a variety of readings.

The task of Mahayana thinkers was very difficult because it was not easy to produce a completely logical arrangement from this prolix literature. The appearance of some of these books is surrounded with legend.

The Prajñaparamita and the Avatamsaka-sutras, for instance, are said to have been concealed by the nagas, demigods living at the bottom of lakes and rivers, in miraculous palaces. There are various Prajñaparamita ("Perfection of Wisdom") texts, ranging from 100,000 verses (the Shatasahasrika) to only a few lines (the Prajñaparamitahrdaya-sutra, famous in English as the Heart Sutra). The Prajñaparamita-sutras announce that the world as it appears to us does not exist, that reality is the indefinable "thingness of things" (tathata; dharmanam dharmata), that voidness (shunyata) is an absolute "without signs or characteristics" (animitta).

The fundamental assumption of the Prajñaparamita is expounded in a famous verse: "like light, a mirage, a lamp, an illusion, a drop of water, a dream, a lightning flash; thus must all compounded things be considered." Not only is there no "self," but all things lack a real nature (svabhava) of their own. There are two truths: relative truth, which "applies to things as they appear," and absolute truth, the intuition of voidness (it can be of 10, 14, 18, or 20 kinds).

The Mahayana Schools and their Texts

Mahayana comprises the following main schools:

  1. The Madhyamika
  2. The Yogahara or Vijñanavada (Vijñaptamatrata)
  3. The Avatamsaka; the school of the identity of the paths to salvation (ekayana) represented by the Saddharmapundarika ("Lotus of the True Law"; the Lotus Sutra)
  4. The various devotional (Pure Land) schools; and
  5. The Dhyana school (Ch'an in China, Zen in Japan).


1)    Encyclopedia Britannica 1991-1994
2)    Wikipedia
3)    Buddhism and Asian History: The Encyclopedia of Religion

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