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Mahayana (literally Great Vehicle) is one of the two or three major branches of Buddhism. Some of the areas in which it is practiced are China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan. From Mahayana developed the esoteric Vajrayana which claims to combine all previous schools.

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Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Scriptures
3 Doctrine
4 Description by Soothill
5 See also
6 External links


Scholars believe that Mahayana as a distinct movement began around the 1st century BCE in northwestern India. According to most scholars, the main sutras of Mahayana were put in writing after 100 BCE, as a result of sectarian conflicts among the exising sects on questions such as the mundane or supramundane nature of the Buddha and the issues of metaphysical essentialism.

During the centuries following the death of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddhist thought went through a process of evolution and segmentation leading to the formal rise of Mahayana Buddhism around the 1st century AD.

The main steps of this evolution are marked by four Buddhist councils, the first one convened in the 5th century BC after the death of the Buddha, to the fourth one in the 1st century AD convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, which confirmed the formal scission of Mahayana Buddhism from the traditional Nikaya schools of Buddhism, after a formative period usually considered to be starting around the 2nd century BC.

1st Buddhist council (5th century BC)
The first Buddhist council was held soon after the death of the Buddha under the patronage of king Ajatasatru, and presided by a monk named Mahakasyapa, at Rajagaha (today’s Rajgir). Its objective was to record the Buddha’s sayings (sutra) and codify monastic rules (vinaya).

In time, up to 18 schools of the traditional Buddhist thought arose, the only remaining one today being the Eastern Theravada school. Other schools included the Sarvastivadin and the Dharmaguptaka in Northwestern India.

2nd Buddhist council (383 BC)
The second Buddhist council was convened by king Kalasoka and held at Vaisali, following conflicts between the traditional schools of Buddhism and a more liberal interpretational movement called the Mahasanghikas.

The traditional schools considered the Buddha as a human being who reached enlightenment, the example of which was to be followed by monks under strict monastic rules (vinaya) so that they could become arhats.

The secessionist Mahasangikas tended to consider this approach too individualistic and selfish. They considered the objective of becoming an arhat insufficient, and instead proposed that the only true goal was to reach full buddhahood, in a sense opening the way to future Mahayana thought. They became proponents of more relaxed monastic rules, which could appeal to a large majority of monastic and lay people (hence their name the “great” or “majority” assembly).

The council ended with the rejection of the Mahasanghikas. They left the council and maintained themselves for several centuries in northwestern India and Central Asia according to Kharoshti inscriptions found near the Oxus and dated c. 1st century AD.

3rd Buddhist council (c.250 BC)
The third Buddhist council was convened by the Mauryan king Ashoka (260-218BC) at Pataliputra (today’s Patna), and held by the monk Moggaliputta. Its objective what to reconcile the different schools of Buddhism, and to purify the Buddhist movement, particularly from opportunistic factions which had been attracted by the royal patronage.

The Pali canon (Tipitaka, or Tripitaka in Sanskrit, lit. the “Three Baskets”), which are the texts of reference of traditional Buddhism and considered to be directly transmitted from the Buddha, was formalized at that time. They consist of the doctrine (the Sutra Pitaka), the monastic discipline (Vinaya Pitaka) and an additional new body of subtle philosophy (the Abhidharma Pitaka).

Also, emissaries were sent to various countries in order to spread Buddhism, as far as the Greek kingdoms in the West (in particular the neighboring Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, and possibly even farther to the Mediterranean according to the inscriptions left on stone pillars by Ashoka).

After 250 BC, the Sarvastivadin (who had been rejected by the 3rd council, according to the Theravada tradition) and the Dharmaguptaka schools became quite influencial in northwestern India and Central Asia, up to the time of the Kushan Empire in the first centuries of the common era. The Dharmaguptakas were characterized by a belief that Buddha was separate, and above, the rest of the Buddhist community. The Sarvastivadin believed that past, present and future are all simultaneous. They may have contributed some formative influence to Mahayana.

Since Mahayana did not develop its own set of monastic rules (the vinayas), Buddhist monks in Central Asia and China continued to abide for several centuries by Dharmaguptaka or Sarvastivadin rules, at the same time as Mahayana was gaining wider appeal.

The 4th Buddhist council (c. 100 AD)
The fourth Buddhist council was convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, around 100 AD at Jalandhar or in Kashmir, and is usually associated with the formal rise of Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism does not recognize the authenticity of this council, and it is sometimes called the “council of heretical monks”.

It is said that Kanishka gathered 500 Bhikkhus in Kashmir, headed by Vasumitra, to edit the Tripitaka and make references and remarks. It is said that during the council, there were all together three hundred thousand verses and over nine million statements compiled, and that it took twelve years to complete.

This council did no rely on the original pali canon (the Tipitaka). Instead, a set of new scriptures were approved, as well as fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine. The new scriptures, usually in the Gandhari vernacular and the Kharosthi script, were rewritten in the classical language of Sanskrit, to many scholars a turning point in the propagation of Buddhist thought.

The new form of Buddhism was characterized by an almost God-like treatment of the Buddha, by the idea that all beings have a Buddha-nature and should aspire to Buddhahood, and by a syncretism due to the various cultural influences within northwestern India and the Kushan Empire, especially from Zoroastrianism and Greco-Buddhism.

From that point on, and in the space of a few centuries, Mahayana was to flourish and spread into Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan (introduction of Buddhism in 538 AD).


Mahayana, departs from traditional Buddhist schools (Hinayana or Nikaya) by its acceptance of new scriptures, together with the older ones which are not rejected.

The first new scriptures date from the 1st century BC. Some of them, such as the Perfection of Wisdom sutras are presented as actual sermons of the Buddha that would have been hidden and then revealed several centuries later by a mythological route (the Nagas, beings with snakelike bodies and human heads, who waited until the time was right for their propagation). Others are essentially commentaries, which can easily take precedence on traditional scriptures. The Mahayana Canon is not rigidly fixed, and new scriptures have been added through the centuries.

The first major Mahayana scriptures include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (Prajna-Paramita), the Avataṃsaka, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra;, and the ṇirvana Sutra.

The Mahayana canon further expanded after Buddhism was transmitted to China, where the existing texts were translated. New texts, such as the Platform Sutra and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment did not pretend to be of Indian origin, but were widely accepted as valid scriptures on their own merits. Later writings include the Linji Lu of Chan master Linji. In the course of the development of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, further important texts were composed. These included, for example, in Korea, some of the writings of Jinul, and in Japan, works such as Dogen's Shobogenzo.

See also:
Buddhist texts
Mahayana texts
Mahayana Sutras


The way of the Mahayana, in contrast to the more conservative and austere Theravada school of Buddhism, tends to be characterized by a greater emphasis on the supernatural. These include from celestial realms and powers, to a spectrum of Bodhisattvas, both human and seemingly godlike, who can assist believers.

The primary goal of Mahayana Buddhism is bodhicitta: a mind of great compassion conjoined with wisdom realizing emptiness. With this mind the Bodhisattva will realize the final goal of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood: an omniscient mind completely free from suffering and its causes, that is able to work tirelessly for the benefit of all living beings.

The large number of Bodhisattvas and the combined inviting nature within Mahayana doctrine allows the religion to be extremely syncretic. For example, Taoism existed within China before the arrival of Buddhism, and metaphysically, there are important distinctions between the two. However, the structure of Mahayana Buddhism allows it to simply absorb Taoist deities.

Mahayana Buddhism, at its core, regards such ideas as artful means of bringing people closer to enlightenment. Bodhisattvas are the ultimate practitioners of this approach. Despite having attained enlightenment, by refusing Nirvana they remain in the physical plane - the realm of illusion (Maya) - and in so doing deprive themselves of Nirvana's bliss out of compassion for the other beings. Their purpose is to guide other beings on their path to enlightenment.

As an example, it is unlikely that a drunkard will, without assistance, achieve enlightenment. A Bodhisattva may appear to such a person as a fellow drunkard. Over time, the Bodhisattva will guide that person to a path that will lead them closer to Nirvana - often without the beneficiary ever realizing what has happened or why.

Mahayana Buddhism is characterized by a tradition of statue representations of Buddhas. This tradition as an offshoot of the Greek statues which were carried into central Asia by Alexander the Great. Early representations of Buddhas are known as Greco-Buddhist statuess and are clearly modelled after Greek statues. This tradition was later carried east from Afghanistan into India, China and Japan.

Description by Soothill

"Mahāyāna; The great yāna, wain, or conveyance, or the greater vehicle in comparison with the Hīnayāna;. It indicates universalism, or Salvation for all, for all are Buddha and will attain bodhi.

It is the form of Buddhism prevalent in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan, and in other places in the Far East. It is also called Northern Buddhism.

It is interpreted as the greater teaching as compared with the smaller, or inferior. Hīnayāna, which is undoubtedly nearer to the original teaching of the Buddha, is unfairly described as an endeavour to seek nirvana through an ash-covered body, an extinguished intellect, and solitariness; its followers are śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas (i.e. those who are striving for their own deliverance through ascetic works).

Mahāyāna, on the other hand, is described as seeking to find and extend all knowledge, and, in certain schools, to lead all to Buddhahood. It has a conception of an Eternal Buddha, or Buddhahood as Eternal (Adi-Buddha), but its especial doctrines are, inter alia,

(a) the bodhisattvas, i.e. beings who deny themselves final Nirvana until, according to their vows, they have first saved all the living;

(b) salvation by faith in, or invocation of the Buddhas or bodhisattvas;

(c) Paradise as a nirvana of bliss in the company of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, saints, and believers.

Hīnayāna is sometimes described as self-benefiting, and Mahāyāna as self-benefit for the benefit of others, unlimited altruism and pity being the theory of Mahāyāna.

There is a further division into one-yana and three-yanas: the trīyāna may be śrāvaka, pratyeka-buddha, and bodhisattva, represented by a goat, deer, or bullock cart; the one-yāna is that represented by the Lotus School as the one doctrine of the Buddha, which had been variously taught by him according to the capacity of his hearers.

Though Mahāyāna tendencies are seen in later forms of the older Buddhism, the foundation of Mahāyāna has been attributed to Nāgārjuna. "The characteristics of this system are an excess of transcendental speculation tending to abstract nihilism, and the substitution of fanciful degrees of meditation and contemplation (v. Samādhi and Dhyāna) in place of the practical asceticism of the Hīnayāna school."[Eitel 68-9.]

Two of its foundation books are the Awakening of Faith and the Lotus Sutra but a large number of Mahāyāna sutras are ascribed to the Buddha."

See also

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