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Mahayana

Branch of Buddhism

Top 10 Mahayana related articles

An illustration in a manuscript of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, depicting the bodhisattva Maitreya, an important figure in Mahāyāna.

Mahāyāna (/ˌmɑːhəˈjɑːnə/; "Great Vehicle") is a term for a broad group of Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices. Mahāyāna Buddhism developed in India (c. 1st century BCE onwards) and is considered one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism (the other being Theravada); the Vajrayāna traditions are a subset of Mahāyāna which makes use of numerous Tantric methods that they consider to be faster and more powerful at achieving Buddhahood.[1] Mahāyāna Buddhism accepts the main scriptures and teachings of early Buddhism, but also adds various new doctrines and texts such as the Mahāyāna Sūtras.[2]

"Mahāyāna" also refers to the path of the bodhisattva striving to become a fully awakened Buddha (samyaksaṃbuddha) for the benefit of all sentient beings, and is thus also called the "Bodhisattva Vehicle" (Bodhisattvayāna).[3][note 1] Mahāyāna Buddhism generally sees the goal of becoming a Buddha through the bodhisattva path as being available to all and sees the state of the arhat as incomplete.[4] Mahāyāna also includes numerous Buddhas and bodhisattvas that are not found in Theravada (such as Amitābha).[5] Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy also promotes unique theories, such as the Madhyamaka theory of emptiness (śūnyatā), the Vijñānavāda doctrine and the Buddha-nature teaching.

Although it was initially a small movement in India, Mahāyāna eventually grew to become an influential force in Indian Buddhism.[6] Large scholastic centers associated with Mahāyāna such as Nalanda and Vikramashila thrived between the seventh and twelfth centuries.[6] In the course of its history, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread throughout South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. It remains influential today in China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Nepal, Malaysia, and Bhutan.[7]

The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, (with 53% of Buddhists belonging to East Asian Mahāyāna and 6% to Vajrayāna), compared to 36% for Theravada (survey from 2010).[8]

Mahayana Intro articles: 24

Etymology

Original Sanskrit

Mahāyāna Buddhist triad, including Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha, and Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. 2nd–3rd century CE, Gandhāra

According to Jan Nattier, the term Mahāyāna ("Great Vehicle") was originally an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna ("Bodhisattva Vehicle"),[9] the vehicle of a bodhisattva seeking buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.[3] 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.[9]

The earliest Mahāyāna texts, such as the Lotus Sutra, 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 two terms were not actually formed in relation to one another in the same era.[10]

Among the earliest and most important references to Mahāyāna are those that occur in the Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) dating between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.[11] Seishi Karashima has suggested that the term first used in an earlier Gandhāri Prakrit version of the Lotus Sūtra was not the term mahāyāna but the Prakrit word mahājāna in the sense of mahājñāna (great knowing).[12][13] At a later stage when the early Prakrit 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 three vehicles or carts (Skt: yāna).[note 2][12][14]

Chinese translation

In Chinese, Mahayana is called 大乘 (dasheng), which is a calque of maha (Great 大) yana (Vehicle 乘). There is also a transliteration 摩诃衍那.[15][16]

The term appeared in some of the earliest Mahayana texts, including Emperor Ling of Han's translation of the Lotus Sutra.[17] It has also appeared in Āgama. The terms 大乘 or even 小乘 do not appear in the Pāli Canon of the Theravada school.[18][19]

Some scholars think the definition is different from the common explanations of later generations.[20] When Buddhist scriptures were being translated into Chinese, Mahayana Buddhism already coexisted with other schools in India. Mahayana started to become popular with the rise of Chinese Buddhism.[21] According to comparisons with the Pali sutras, some scholars such as Yin Shun argue that the word 大乘 was added during translation into Chinese.[22]

Mahayana Etymology articles: 12

History

Buddhist expansion in Asia, from Buddhist heartland in northern India (dark orange) starting 5th century BCE, to Buddhist majority realm (orange), and historical extent of Buddhism influences (yellow). Mahāyāna (red arrow), Theravāda (green arrow), and Tantric-Vajrayāna (blue arrow). The overland and maritime "Silk Roads" were interlinked and complementary, forming what scholars have called the "great circle of Buddhism".[23]
Seated Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva. Gandharan, from Loriyan Tangai. Kushan period, 1st – 3rd century CE. Indian Museum, Calcutta.
Cave complex associated with the Mahāsāṃghika sect. Karla Caves, Mahārāṣtra, India

Origin theories

The origins of Mahāyāna are still not completely understood and there are numerous competing theories.[24] The earliest Western views of Mahāyāna assumed that it existed as a separate school in competition with the so-called "Hīnayāna" schools. According to David Drewes, for most of the 20th century, the leading theories about the origins of Mahāyāna were that it was either a lay movement (first argued by Jean Przyluski and supported by Etienne Lamotte and Akira Hirakawa) or that it developed among the Mahāsāṃghika Nikaya.[25] These theories have recently been mostly overturned or shown to be problematic.[25]

The earliest textual evidence of "Mahāyāna" comes from sūtras originating around the beginning of the common era. Jan Nattier has noted that some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra use the term "Mahāyāna", yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mahāyāna in this context and the early schools, and that "Mahāyāna" referred rather to the rigorous emulation of Gautama Buddha in the path of a bodhisattva seeking to become a fully enlightened Buddha.[17] Nattier writes that in the Ugra, Mahāyāna is not a school, but a rigorous and demanding "spiritual vocation, to be pursued within the existing Buddhist community."[26]

Several scholars such as Hendrik Kern and A.K. Warder suggested that Mahāyāna and its sutras (such as the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā genre) developed among the Mahāsāṃghika Nikaya (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.[27][28][25][29][30] Paul Williams thinks that "there can be no doubt that at least some early Mahāyāna sutras originated in Mahāsāṃghika circles", pointing to the Mahāsāṃghika doctrine of the supramundane (lokottara) nature of the Buddha, which is very close to the Mahāyāna view of the Buddha.[31]

Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that "historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra."[32] However, more recently Seishi Karashima has argued for their origin in the Gandhara region.[33] Some scholars such as Warder think that after a period of composition in the south, later the activity of writing additional scriptures moved to the north.[note 3] Joseph Walser also notes that certain other sutras "betray a northwestern origin" and mention products of trade with China (or obtained outside of India, such as silk or coral).[34]

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.[35][36][note 4] Study of these texts by Paul Harrison and others show that they strongly promote monasticism (contra the lay origin theory), acknowledge the legitimacy of arhatship, do not recommend devotion towards 'celestial' bodhisattvas and do not show any attempt to establish a new sect or order.[25] Some of these texts often emphasize ascetic practices, forest dwelling, and deep states of meditative concentration (samadhi).[37] Some scholars further speculate that the prajñāpāramitā sūtras were written in response to certain theories of the abhidharma schools.[38]

Evidence from sutras which depict a close connection of Mahāyāna with monasticism eventually revealed the problems with the lay origins theory.[25] The Mahāsāṃghika origins theory has also slowly been shown to be problematic by scholarship that revealed how certain Mahāyāna sutras show traces of having developed among other nikāyas or monastic orders (such as the Dharmaguptaka).[39] Because of such evidence, scholars like Paul Harrison and Paul Williams argue that the movement was not sectarian and possibly pan-buddhist.[25][40] 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.[17] Paul Williams has also noted that 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 bhikṣuṇī 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.[41] Paul Harrison clarifies that while monastic Mahāyānists belonged to a nikāya, not all members of a nikāya were Mahāyānists.[42] 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.[43] 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 "kriyākarma") to memorize and study a Mahāyāna text or texts.[44]

Gregory Schopen meanwhile has argued that a series of loosely connected movements developed during the 2nd century inspired by cult shrines where Mahāyāna sutras were kept, and the "cult of the book" theory is also popular among other current scholars.[25]

After examining the epigraphic evidence, Schopen also argues 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 two more centuries."[25] Schopen also sees this movement as being in tension with other Buddhists, "struggling for recognition and acceptance".[45] Their "embattled mentality" may have led to certain elements found in Mahāyāna texts such as the Lotus sutra.[45]

Likewise, Joseph Walser speaks of Mahāyāna's "virtual invisibility in the archaeological record until the fifth century."[46] Schopen, Harrison and Nattier also argue that these communities were probably not a single unified movement, but scattered groups based on different practices and sutras.[25] One reason for this view is that Mahāyāna sources are extremely diverse, advocating many different, often conflicting doctrines and positions, as Jan Nattier writes:[47]

Thus we find one scripture (the Aksobhyavyuha) that advocates both srávaka 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 ten bhumis, or the trikaya, while another (the P’u-sa pen-yeh ching) propounds the ten bhumis and focuses exclusively on the path of the bodhisattva, but never discusses the paramitas. A Madhyamika treatise (Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamika-karikas) may enthusiastically deploy the rhetoric of emptiness without ever mentioning the bodhisattva path, while a Yogacara treatise (Vasubandhu’s Madhyanta-vibhaga-bhasya) may delve into the particulars of the trikaya doctrine while eschewing the doctrine of ekayana. We must be prepared, in other words, to encounter a multiplicity of Mahayanas flourishing even in India, not to mention those that developed in East Asia and Tibet.

One of the current leading theories is what Paul Harrison calls "the forest hypothesis" and defines as:

‘the Mahāyāna … was the work of hard-core ascetics, members of the forest dwelling (aranyavasin) wing of the Buddhist Order’[48]

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.[note 5] Reginald Ray has also defended this view in his Buddhist Saints in India (1994). Likewise, Jan Nattier's study of the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra, A few good men (2003) argues that this sutra represents the earliest form of Mahāyāna, which presents the bodhisattva path as a ‘supremely difficult enterprise’ of elite monastic forest asceticism.[25] Boucher's study on the Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā-sūtra (2008) is another recent work on this subject.[49]

David Drewes argues against both the book cult hypothesis and the forest hypothesis. He points out that there is no actual evidence for existence of book shrines, that the practice of sutra veneration was pan-buddhist and not distinctly Mahāyāna, and that "Mahāyāna sutras advocate mnemic ⁄ oral ⁄ aural practices more frequently than they do written ones."[25] Regarding the forest hypothesis, he points out that only two 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 sutra, 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."[25] Drewes states that the evidence merely shows that "Mahāyāna was primarily a textual movement, focused on the revelation, preaching, and dissemination of Mahāyāna sutras, that developed within, and never really departed from, traditional Buddhist social and institutional structures."[50] Drewes points out the importance of dharmabhanakas (preachers, reciters of these sutras) in the early Mahāyāna sutras. This figure is widely praised as someone who should be respected, obeyed ('as a slave serves his lord'), and donated to, and it is thus possible these people were the primary agents of the Mahāyāna movement.[50]

Earliest inscriptions

Earliest Mahayana inscription
Inscribed pedestal with the first known occurrence of the name of "Amitabha Buddha" in the "year 26 of Huvishka" (153 CE)[51] In Brahmi script in the inscription:

"Bu-ddha-sya A-mi-tā-bha-sya"
"Of the Buddha Amitabha"[52]

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."[52] There is also some evidence that Emperor Huviṣka himself was a follower of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and a Sanskrit manuscript fragment in the Schøyen Collection describes Huviṣka as having "set forth in the Mahāyāna."[53] 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.[note 6][note 7][note 8]

Growth

Ruins of the Nalanda Mahavihara (Great Monastery) in Bihar, a major center for the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism from the fifth century CE to c. 1200 CE.

The Mahāyāna movement (or movements) remained quite small until it became established in the fifth century, with very few manuscripts having been found before then (the exceptions are from Bamiyan). According to Walser, "the fifth and sixth centuries appear to have been a watershed for the production of Mahāyāna manuscripts."[54] Likewise it is only in the 4th and 5th centuries CE that epigraphic evidence shows some kind of popular support for Mahāyāna, including some possible royal support at the kingdom of Shan shan as well as in Bamiyan and Mathura.[55] 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.[55] 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.[56]

After the fifth century, Mahāyāna Buddhism and its institutions slowly grew in influence. Some of the most influential institutions became massive monastic university complexes such as Nalanda (established by the 5th-century CE Gupta emperor, Kumaragupta I) and Vikramashila (established under Dharmapala c. 783 to 820) which were centers of various branches of scholarship, including Mahāyāna philosophy. The Nalanda complex eventually became the largest and most influential Buddhist center in India for centuries.[57] Even so, as noted by Paul Williams, "it seems that fewer than 50 per cent of the monks encountered by Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang; c. 600–664) on his visit to India actually were Mahāyānists."[58]

Indian Mahāyāna developed various schools of thought, some groupings include: Mādhyamaka, Yogācāra, Buddha-nature (Tathāgatagarbha), and Buddhist logic as the last and most recent.[59] 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 Madhymaka and East Asian Yogacara schools. Later, new developments in Chinese Mahāyāna led to new Chinese schools like Tiantai, Huayen and Chan Buddhism (Zen).

The use of mandalas was one new feature of Tantric Buddhism, which also adopted new deities such as Chakrasamvara (pictured).

Forms of Mahāyāna based on the doctrines of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, Buddha Nature sutras, Lotus sutra and the Pure Land teachings are still popular in East Asian Buddhism, which is completely dominated by branches of Mahāyāna. Paul Williams has noted that in this tradition in the Far East, primacy has always been given to study of the Mahāyāna sūtras.[60]

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 mahasiddhas, this movement developed new tantric spiritual practices and also promoted new texts called the Buddhist Tantras.[61] This new form of Buddhism eventually also spread north to Tibet and east to China.

Various classes of Vajrayana literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Saivism.[62] The Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyatantra, states that mantras taught in the Shaiva, Garuda and Vaishnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri.[63] The Guhyasiddhi of Padmavajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamaja tradition, prescribes acting as a Shaiva guru and initiating members into Saiva Siddhanta scriptures and mandalas.[64] The Samvara tantra texts adopted the pitha list from the Shaiva text Tantrasadbhava, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.[65]

Mahayana History articles: 82

Doctrine

Bodhisattva seated in dhyāna. Afghanistan, 2nd century

Few things can be said with certainty about Mahāyāna Buddhism,[note 9] especially its early Indian form, other than that the Buddhism practiced in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahāyāna Buddhism.[note 10] Mahāyāna can be described as a loosely bound collection of many teachings with large and expansive doctrines that are able to exist simultaneously.[note 11]

Mahāyāna constitutes an inclusive set of traditions characterized by plurality and the adoption of new Mahāyāna sutras 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 Mahāyānasaṃgraha, entitled Vivṛtaguhyārthapiṇḍavyākhyā, gives a classification of teachings according to the capabilities of the audience:[66]

[A]ccording to disciples' grades, the Dharma is [classified as] inferior and superior. For example, the inferior was taught to the merchants Trapuṣa and Ballika because they were ordinary men; the middle was taught to the group of five because they were at the stage of saints; the eightfold 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 Siṃhanāda Sūtra claims that the Buddha said that devotion to Mahāyāna is inherently superior in its virtues to following the śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha paths.[67]

Buddhas and bodhisattvas

Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Ajaṇṭā Caves, Maharashtra, India.

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 ksetra). 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 Sakyamuni, but see them as transcendental or supramundane (lokuttara) beings.[31] According to Paul Williams, for the 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".[68] Buddha Sakyamuni'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.[68]

Dr. Guang Xing describes the Mahāyāna Buddha as "an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities ...[He] is described almost as an omnipotent and almighty godhead."[69] The concept of the three bodies (trikāya) of the Buddha was developed to make sense of these ideas, with nirmanakaya Buddhas (like Sakyamuni) being seen as an emanation from the Dharmakaya. Through the use of various practices, a Mahāyāna devotee can aspire to be reborn in a Buddha's pure land or buddhafield, 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.[70]

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 saṃsāra (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 supramundane beings. Popular bodhisattvas include Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Maitreya. Bodhisattvas could reach the personal nirvana of the arhats, but they believe it is more important to remain in saṃsāra and help others.[71][72] There are two 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 arhat. The second model is the idea that there are two kinds of nirvāṇa, the nirvāṇa of an arhat and a superior type of nirvāṇa called apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding) that allows a Buddha to remain forever engaged in the world. As noted by Paul Williams, the idea of apratiṣṭhita nirvāṇa may have taken some time to develop and is not obvious in some of the early Mahāyāna literature.[72]

The Bodhisattva path

Illustrated Korean manuscript of the Lotus Sutra, Goryeo Dynasty, c. 1340. Notice the three carts at the top which are symbolic of the 'three vehicles', i.e. the Śrāvakayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna and the Bodhisattvayāna.
Guanyin (Avalokiteśvara) with multiple arms symbolizing upaya and great compassion, Leshan, China.

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 arhatship or "solitary buddhahood" for their own sake (Śrāvakayāna and Pratyekabuddhayāna). According to eighth century Mahāyāna philosopher Haribhadra, the term "bodhisattva" can refer to those who follow any of the three vehicles, since all are working towards bodhi (awakening) and hence the technical term for a Mahāyāna bodhisattva is a mahāsattva (great being) bodhisattva.[73] According to Paul Williams, a Mahāyāna bodhisattva is best 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. This is for the benefit of all sentient beings.[73]

Taking the bodhisattva vow to "lead to Nirvana the whole immeasurable world of beings" as the prajñaparamita sutras state, is the central characteristic of the bodhisattva.[74] 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. The spiritual motivation is termed bodhicitta ("the mind of awakening").[75]

Another key virtue of a bodhisattva is their "great compassion" (maha-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 Shantideva, 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".[75] 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.[74]

Numerous sutras hold that a key part of the bodhisattva path is the practice of a set of virtues called pāramitās (transcendent or supreme virtues). Sometimes six are outlined:[76]

  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 vigor or diligence
  5. dhyāna-pāramitā: the perfection of meditation
  6. prajñā-pāramitā: the perfection of transcendent wisdom.

Other sutras such as the Daśabhūmika Sūtra give a list of ten, with the addition of upāya (skillful means), praṇidhāna (vow, resolution), Bala (spiritual power) and Jñāna (knowledge).[77]

Various texts associate the beginning of the bodhisattva practice with what is called the path of accumulation or equipment (saṃbhāra-mārga), which is the first path of the five paths schema which possibly developed from Sarvastivada sources.[78] The Daśabhūmika Sūtra as well as other texts also outline a series bodhisattva levels or spiritual stages (bhūmis ) on the path. The various texts disagree on the number of stages however, the Daśabhūmika giving ten for example (and mapping each one to the ten paramitas), the Bodhisattvabhūmi giving seven and thirteen and the Avatamsaka outlining 40 stages.[77] In later Mahāyāna scholasticism, such as in the work of Kamalashila and Atiśa, the five paths and ten bhūmi systems are merged and this is the progressive path model that is used in Tibetan Buddhism. According Paul Williams, in these systems, the first bhūmi is reached once one attains "direct, nonconceptual and nondual insight into emptiness in meditative absorption", which is associated with the path of seeing (darśana-mārga).[78]

Expedient means

Expedient means[79] (Skt. upāya) is another important skill of the Mahāyāna bodhisattva. The idea is most famously expounded in the Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest-dated sutras, 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 or stratagem that is conducive to spiritual growth and leads beings to awakening and nirvana. 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.[80]

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."[note 12] In fact the Pāli term upāya-kosalla does occur in the Pāli Canon, in the Sangiti Sutta of the Digha Nikāya.[81]

Major philosophical ideas

A statue of the Mahāyāna philosopher Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school. Considered by some to be an Arya (noble) bodhisattva or even the "second Buddha".[82]

Śūnyavāda

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 sutras as well as the core teaching of the Madhyamaka 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."[83] Because of this, all things, even the Dharma, the Buddha and all beings, are like “illusions” (māyā) and “dreams” (svapna).[84] Obtaining a deep understanding of this is said to be the prajñāpāramitā, the perfection of wisdom.

The Mahāyāna philosophical school termed Madhyamaka (Middle theory or Centrism, also known as śūnyavāda, 'the emptiness theory'), which was founded by the second century figure of Nagarjuna focuses on refuting all theories which posit any kind of substance, inherent existence or intrinsic nature (svabhāva).[85] Nagarjuna 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 two 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-matra), including the theory of emptiness, and all concepts must ultimately be abandoned in order to truly understand the nature of things.[86]

Vijñānavāda

Vijñānavāda ("the doctrine of consciousness", a.k.a. vijñapti-mātra, "perceptions only" and citta-mātra "mind only") is another important doctrine promoted by some Mahāyāna sutras and later became the central theory of a major philosophical movement which arose during the Gupta period called Yogācāra. The primary sutra associated with this school of thought is the Saṃdhinirmocana 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 "Thusness" (tathatā), which is nirvana. This doctrine is developed through various theories, the most important being the eight consciousnesses and the three natures.[87] The Saṃdhinirmocana calls its doctrine the 'third turning of the dharma wheel'. The Pratyutpanna sutra also mentions this doctrine, stating: "whatever belongs to this triple world is nothing but thought [citta-mātra]. Why is that? It is because however I imagine things, that is how they appear".[87]

The most influential thinkers in this tradition were the Indian brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, along with an obscure figure termed Maitreyanātha. Yogācāra philosophers developed their own interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness which also criticized Madhyamaka for falling into nihilism.[88]

Tathāgatagarbha

The Tathāgata flanked by bodhisattvas. Cave 4, Ajaṇṭā Caves, Mahārāṣtra, India

The doctrine of Tathāgata store or Tathāgata womb (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.[89] The term may have first appeared in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra,[90] where it refers to "a sacred nature that is the basis for [beings'] becoming buddhas",[91] and where it is also spoken of as the 'Self' (atman).[92] 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.[93] Some scholars have seen this as an influence from Brahmanic Hinduism, while some of these sutras admit that the use of the term 'Self' is partly done in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics.[94][95]

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.[96] Other Mahāyāna philosophies like Madhyamaka 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.[97] A different view is propounded by Tathāgatagarbha specialist, Michael Zimmermann, who sees key Buddha-nature sutras such as the Nirvana Sutra and the Tathagatagarbha Sutra as teaching an affirmative vision of an eternal, indestructible Buddhic Self.[92]

The Uttaratantra (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.[98] According to C. D. Sebastian, the Uttaratantra's reference to a transcendental self (ātma-pāramitā) should be understood as "the unique essence of the universe",[99] thus the universal and immanent essence of Buddha nature is the same throughout time and space.[100]

Mahayana Doctrine articles: 166