Mahayana Buddhism encompasses a wide range of philosophical schools, metaphysical beliefs, and practical meditative disciplines. It is more widespread and has more followers than Theravada Buddhism and includes Zen and Soka-gakkai Buddhism. It is practiced primarily in northern half of the Buddhist world: in China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan.
Mahayana Buddhism is not a single group but a collection of Buddhist traditions: Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism are all forms of Mahayana Buddhism. The division between Mahayana and Theravada is kind of comparable to the divisions between Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Just as there are many denominations of Protestant Christianity, so too are there many schools of Mahayana Buddhism.”
"Mahayana” means "the Great Vehicle." The word vehicle is used because Buddhist doctrine is often compared to a raft or ship that carries one across the world of suffering to better world. Greater is reference to the universality of its doctrines and beliefs as opposed to narrowness of other schools. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as the Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) sect. Mahayana Buddhism is not a single group but a collection of Buddhist traditions: Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism are all forms of Mahayana Buddhism.
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The embodiment of this Mahayana ideal was the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is one who has eliminated all desires and is therefore eligible to pass into nirvana. Out of a feeling of compassion for the millions of other suffering creatures, however, the bodhisattva withholds his/her/its entry into nirvana to remain in this world and help others. The various bodhisattvas have taken vows to remain in this world until all creatures are ready to enter nirvana.” Mahayana Buddhism is not one, unified entity. “The division between Mahayana and Theravada is roughly comparable to the divisions like Catholic vs. Protestant or Roman Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox in Christianity. Just as there are many denominations of Protestant Christianity, so too are there many denominations of Mahayana Buddhism. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
See Separate Articles 1) MAHAYANA BUDDHISM BELIEFS and 2) DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MAHAYANA AND THERAVADA BUDDHISM
Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ;
Mahayana Buddhism: Seon Zen Buddhism buddhism.org ; Readings in Zen Buddhism, Hakuin Ekaku (Ed: Monika Bincsik) terebess.hu/zen/hakuin ; How to do Zazen (Zen Buddhist Meditation) global.sotozen-net.or.jp ;
Wikipedia article ; Comparison of Buddhist Traditions (Mahayana – Therevada – Tibetan) studybuddhism.com ; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra: complete text and analysis nirvanasutra.net ; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism cttbusa.org ; The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravāda Theory and Practice by Jeffrey Samuels info-buddhism.com ; Zen Buddhism zen-buddhism.net ; The Zen Site thezensite.com ; Wikipedia article on Zen Buddhism Wikipedia ;
Theravada Buddhism: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org/ ; Readings in Buddhism, Vipassana Research Institute (English, Southeast Asian and Indian Languages) tipitaka.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Pali Canon Online palicanon.org ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Pali Canon - Access to Insight accesstoinsight.org ; Forest monk tradition abhayagiri.org/about/thai-forest-tradition ; BBC Theravada Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion;
Tibetan Buddhism: ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Tibetan Buddhist archives sacred-texts.com ; Buddha.net list of Tibetan Buddhism sources buddhanet.net ; Tibetan Buddhist Meditation tricycle.org/magazine/tibetan-buddhist-meditation ; Gray, David B. (Apr 2016). "Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. oxfordre.com/religion ; Wikipedia article on Tibetan Buddhism Wikipedia ; Shambhala.com. larges publisher of Tibetan Buddhist Books shambhala.com ; tbrc.org ; Tibetan Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/tibetan
Three Main Types of Buddhism
There are three main Buddhist sects: 1) Theravada Buddhism, 2) Mahayana Buddhism, and 3) Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism and Tantrism). According to the Asia Society Museum: “Three main types of Buddhism have developed over its long history, each with its own characteristics and spiritual ideals. "Foundational Buddhism," [precursor of Theravada Buddhism] often known by the pejorative term Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle"), is the earliest of the three and emphasizes the attainment of salvation for oneself alone and the necessity of monastic life in order to attain spiritual release. The Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle"), whose members coined the word "Hinayana" and believed its adherents pursued a path that could not be followed by the majority of ordinary people, teaches the salvation of all. Practitioners of the Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle"), or Esoteric Buddhism [Tibetan Buddhism], believe that one can achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, as opposed to the other two types, which postulate that it takes many eons to accrue the necessary good karma. [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org |~| ]
“These three types were not mutually exclusive, but their emphasis on different practices affected Buddhist art. For example, whereas foundational Buddhism teaches that only a few devotees are able to reach enlightenment and that they do so through their own efforts, Mahayana and its later offshoot, Vajrayana, teach that buddhahood is attainable by everyone with help from beings known as bodhisattvas. As a result, images of bodhisattvas proliferated in Mahayana and Vajrayana art and are often depicted flanking buddhas. |~|
Steven Kossak and Edith Whitney Watts wrote in “Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators”: “The earliest form of Buddhism is called the Theravada (Way of the Elders). It adheres strictly to the Buddha’s teaching and to his austere life of meditation and detachment. Theravada Buddhists believed that very few would reach nirvana. Initially, in this system, the Buddha was represented in art only by symbols, but in the first century A.D., under the Kushan rulers, the Buddha began to be depicted in human form. At about this time, a new form of Buddhism emerged called the Mahayana (the Great Way), which held that the Buddha was more than a great spiritual teacher but also a savior god. It was believed that he had appeared in perfect human form to relieve suffering with the message that, by performing good deeds and maintaining sincere faith, everyone could reach nirvana through means less strict and arduous than in Theravada (which Mahayana Buddhists called the Hinayana, or Lesser Way). [Source: Steven Kossak, Edith Whitney Watts, “Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators”, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]
“Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, grew out of Mahayana Buddhism beginning in the late sixth or early seventh century. Esoteric Buddhists accepted the tenets of the Mahayana but also used forms of meditation subtly directed by master teachers (gurus) involving magical words, symbols, and practices to speed the devotee toward enlightenment. They believed that those who practiced compassion and meditation with unwavering effort and acquired the wis- dom to become detached from human passions could achieve in one lifetime a state of perfect bliss or “clear light,” their term for ultimate realization and release. Their practices paralleled concurrent developments in Hinduism.” \^/
Theravada Buddhism ("doctrine of the elders") is the oldest and most orthodox of Buddhism's three major sects. Regarded as the belief closest to the one taught by The Buddha himself, it is based on the recollections of The Buddha's teachings amassed by the Elders — the elder monks who were Buddha's companions. It is practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta areas of Vietnam.
Theravada Buddhism was one of 18 schools that existed in centuries after The Buddha's death.. It spread from India to Sri Lanka and then to Southeast Asia and remained close to the original Pali canon (See Below). The other 17 schools disappeared when Muslims swept into northern India and destroyed the Buddhist monasteries that existed there. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) Buddhism by Mahayana Buddhists.
Theravada Buddhism stresses spirituality, the enlightenment of the individual, self-discipline, the importance or pure thought and deed, the importance of the monastic life and the strict observance of the ancient Vinaya code It has distinct roles for monks and lay people, emphasizes that each individual is responsible for his or her salvation and takes the position that only monks are capable of reaching nirvana.
History of Mahayana Buddhist
Mahayana Buddhism evolved around the A.D. 1st century during the second phase of Buddhist development as a reinterpretation of the Theravada rules for monks. It teaches that there is only one path to enlightenment and it is open to all beings; holds Bodhisattvas in great reverence; and places an emphasis on ritualistic practices, sutras and meditation and discourages forming attachments on the basis they are impermanent.
Mahayana spread to more distant lands than Theravada Buddhists because it allowed monks to travel more freely and was able to assimilate and accommodate local religions by using the concept of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists have great reverence for Bodhisttavas, the future Buddha Maitreya and Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise and the Buddhist equivalent of a savior who helps followers get into "heaven.".
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Mahayana Buddhism developed a wide variety of instructional techniques intended to reach people at all walks of life. Indeed, with its many parables, symbols, diagrams, esoteric rites, meditation aids and so forth, Mahayana Buddhism may have been the most pedagogically sophisticated form of religion in the world. It was also highly flexible and adaptable and spread rapidly throughout Central and East Asia. The core doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is Skillful Means.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org]
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism and the two main branches of Buddhism. Theravada means “Way of the Elders,” an implication that it is literally what Buddha taught. Mahayana means “Greater vehicle,” a derogatory reference that it superior to Theravada Buddhism, the Lesser Vehicle. One of the main difference between the two is that the ideal of Mahayana is becoming a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be). Buddha only referenced himself as this and never gave instructions on how one should become a Bodhisattva. Sutra that address this matter were created after he died. During his life, The Buddha stressed the need to end suffering in this very life and try for the highest goal Arhatship. Theravada Buddhists resist the idea of Bodhisattvas and regard their system of beliefs as being purer and close to what The Buddha taught.
Confusing matters is the fact that Buddha referred to himself as an Arhat (Pali for "one who is worthy" or a "perfected person" who achieved Nirvana). This seems to have implied that heas no different from any of his enlightened disciples who attained this state. The only difference was that he was a full master of all the powers and great perfections that go with being elightened, things that others didn't necessarily have. One inference of Mahayana Buddhism is that in attaining perfections and striving for nirvana one must forestall full enlightenment to continuously work on the perfections. [Source: reddit.com]
Most of Mahayana is based on the Lotus Sutra, which, according to to legend, was brought from the Nagas by Nagarjuna, regarded as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things.Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible also the Heart Sutra.
The fact that Buddha never stressed the Bodhisattva ideal as the goal of teaching has created strain between the Theravada and Mhayana Buddhist schools. The highest version of the Bodhisattva Ideal is based on Avalokiteshvara, who wanted to achieve enlightenment only when all being did so first, hence this high level means that Mahayana has a focus on compassion.
Development of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: “Between 100 to 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha, the Sangha (the monastic community) split over the political question of 'Who runs the Sangha?' A controversy over some monastic rules was decided by a committee of Arahats (fully Enlightened monks or nuns) against the views of the majority of monks. The disgruntled majority resented what they saw as the excessive influence of the small number of Arahats in monastery affairs. From then on, over a period of several decades, the disaffected majority partially succeeded in lowering the exalted status of the Arahat and raising in its place the ideal of the Bodhisattva (an unenlightened being training to be a Buddha). [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana =|=]
“Previously unknown scriptures, supposedly spoken by the Buddha and hidden in the dragon world, then appeared giving a philosophical justification for the superiority of the Bodhisattva over the allegedly 'selfish' Arahat. This group of monks and nuns were first known as the 'Maha Sangha', meaning 'the great (part) of the monastic community'. Later, after impressive development, they called themselves the 'Mahayana', the 'Greater Vehicle' while quite disparagingly calling the older Theravada 'Hinayana', the 'Inferior Vehicle'. =|=
Mahayana still retains most of the original teachings of the Buddha (in the Chinese scriptures these are known as the 'Agama' and in the Tibetan version as the 'Kangyur') but these core teachings were mostly overwhelmed by layers of expansive interpretations and wholly new ideas. The Mahayana of China, still vibrant in Taiwan, reflects an earlier phase of this development, the Mahayana of Vietnam, Korea and Japan (mostly Zen) is a later development, and the Mahayana of Tibet and Mongolia is a much later development still. =|=
Nagarjuna (A.D. c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is regarded by many as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things. Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible for the Heart Sutra.
Nagarjuna is widely considered the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Aryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñaparamita sutras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nagas (water spirits often depicted in the form of serpent-like humans). Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nalanda. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Very little is reliably known of the life of Nagarjuna, since the surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries after his death. According to some accounts, Nagarjuna was originally from South India. Some scholars believe that he was an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty. Archaeological evidence at Amaravati indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña Sri Satakari, who ruled between A.D. 167 and 196. On the basis of this association, Nagarjuna is conventionally placed at around 150–250 CE. +
According to a 4th/5th-century biography translated by Kumarajiva, Nagarjuna was born into a Brahmin family in Vidarbha (a region of Maharashtra) and later became a Buddhist. Some sources claim that in his later years, Nagarjuna lived on the mountain of Sriparvata near the city that would later be called Nagarjunakoa ("Hill of Nagarjuna"). The ruins of Nagarjunakoa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. +
Nagarjuna Writing and Philosophy
A number of influential Buddhist texts have attributed to Nagarjuna though many of the claims have dubious evidence to back them up. A lively debate over which are his authentic works continues to this day. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna's is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven chapters. [Source: Wikipedia +]
According to Christian Lindtner, the works definitely written by Nagarjuna are: Mulamadhyamaka-karika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way); Sunyatasaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness); Vigrahavyavartani (The End of Disputes); Vaidalyaprakaraa (Pulverizing the Categories); Vyavaharasiddhi (Proof of Convention); Yuktiaika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning); Catustava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality); Ratnavali (Precious Garland); Pratityasamutpadahdayakarika (Constituents of Dependent Arising); Sutrasamuccaya; Bodhicittavivaraa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind); Suhllekha (Letter to a Good Friend); Bodhisabhara (Requisites of Enlightenment). +
“From studying his writings, it is clear that Nagarjuna was conversant with many of the Sravaka philosophies and with the Mahayana tradition. However, determining Nagarjuna's affiliation with a specific nikaya is difficult, considering much of this material has been lost. Nagarjuna assumes a knowledge of the definitions of the sixteen categories as given in the Nyaya Sutras, the chief text of the Hindu Nyaya school. +
Nagarjuna's major thematic focus is the concept of sunyata, or "emptiness," which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anatman "not-self" and pratityasamutpada "dependent origination", to refute the metaphysics of some of his contemporaries. For Nagarjuna, as for the Buddha in the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are "selfless" or non-substantial; all phenomena (dhammas) are without any svabhava, literally "own-being", "self-nature", or "inherent existence" and thus without any underlying essence. They are empty of being independently existent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhava circulating at the time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism. This is so because all things arise always dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being. Chapter 24 verse 14 of the Mulamadhyamakakarika provides one of Nagarjuna's most famous quotations on emptiness: “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.” +
As part of his analysis of the emptiness of phenomena in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna critiques svabhava in several different concepts. He discusses the problems of positing any sort of inherent essence to causation, movement, change and personal identity. Nagarjuna makes use of the Indian logical tool of the tetralemma to attack any essentialist conceptions. Nagarjuna’s logical analysis is based on four basic propositions: 1) All things (dharma) exist: affirmation of being, negation of non-being. 2) All things (dharma) do not exist: affirmation of non-being, negation of being. 3) All things (dharma) both exist and do not exist: both affirmation and negation. 4) All things (dharma) neither exist nor do not exist: neither affirmation nor negation.
Evolution of Mahayana Buddhism
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The earliest forms of Buddhist practice focused on the search for personal salvation through rigorous meditational practices. Early Buddhist texts, or “ sutras”, all of which were written as the direct preachings of the Buddha himself, elaborated a detailed series of meditational exercises, corresponding to various forms of trance states and various levels of enlightened wisdom. Ultimately, the practitioner would achieve release from “ samsara “and, upon the death of his or her physical body, extinction in “ nirvana”. End of story. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“But as Buddhism developed over its early centuries, this ideal of the individually perfected yogin, called an “ arhat”, was increasingly viewed as inconsistent with the implicit ethical message of the Buddha's own career as a teacher of his way. After all, the Buddha did not “ only “strive for his own personal release; clearly, by spending the remainder of his post-enlightened life attempting to awaken others by preaching the Dharma, Buddha demonstrated real concern for the suffering of others. Surely, the ultimate personal ideal should include some such teaching. In time, the religious understanding of some forms of Buddhism came to include a belief that the Buddha's calling in this life had, in fact, never ended. Rather, with the death of his physical body and his release into “ nirvana”, some followers claimed, Buddha had made a decision to remain partially bound to the wheel of “ samsara”, delaying his own final release so that he could move in and out of this life in order to “ferry” others towards release. /+/
“These ideas represented a key turning point for Buddhism. First, they made Buddhism far more ethically appealing than it had previously been by sanctioning one single form of “attachment” to the world..a concern for the salvation of others..where the first forms of Buddhism had encouraged a fully self-regarding form of practice (although mutual support among a community of practitioners had always been encouraged). A new and cuddlier version of the perfected person, who was called a “ bodhisattva”, superseded in many teachings the austere “ arhat “ideal. Second, the idea of a type of existence with one foot in “ samsara “and another beyond it created the fertile ground upon which grew notions of saints, multiple Buddhas, heavens, and devotional formulas. Increasingly, these forms of Buddhism became typified less by monks withdrawn from society, and more by temples filled with the images of Buddhas and saints, to whom worshipers offered incense, prayers, and cash contributions. /+/
“Proponents of this new type of Buddhism called their teaching “Mahayana,” or the teaching of the “big boat.” The teachings which clung to the narrower vision of the “ arhat”, which are properly termed “Therevada” teachings, were derisively labeled “Hinayana,” or “small boat” Buddhist schools. As Buddhism migrated from India towards the rest of Asia, a pattern developed. The Therevada schools spread through the countries of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, where they remain important today. The schools that spread effectively into East Asia, however, were the Mahayana schools, and it is these teachings, with their visions of the compassionate “bodhisattva” whose goal is the salvation of all sentient beings from paramecia to people, that continue to exert a major influence in Japan, Korea, non-communist regions of the Chinese cultural sphere, and increasingly once more today in China itself. /+/
Mahayana Buddhist Practices
The tenets of Mahayana Buddhism are more vague and all-encompassing than the strict tenets of Theravada Buddhism, but its followers often conform to a very regimented routine as is the case with Zen.
Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. Its follows a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as ‘Emptiness;’ define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Mahayana Buddhism developed a wide variety of instructional techniques intended to reach people at all walks of life. Indeed, with its many parables, symbols, diagrams, esoteric rites, meditation aids and so forth, Mahayana Buddhism may have been the most pedagogically sophisticated form of religion in the world. It was also highly flexible and adaptable and spread rapidly throughout Central and East Asia. The core doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is Skillful Means. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
According to the BBC: Mahayana talks a great deal about the bodhisattva (the 'enlightenment being') as being the ideal way for a Buddhist to live. Anyone can embark on the bodhisattva path. This is a way of life, a way of selflessness; it is a deep wish for all beings, no matter who they are, to be liberated from suffering. The Boddhisattva Vow goes: “However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them. However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them. However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them. However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.
As Mahayana Buddhism evolved, Steven Kossak and Edith Whitney Watts wrote in “Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators”, a “whole pantheon of Mahayana Buddhist deities began to appear to aide the devotee—Buddhas of the past, bodhisattvas such as Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), and Vajrapani (“thunderbolt bearer”), who had evolved from the chief Vedic god Indra. Most appealing and approachable of all is the gentle Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, who can be called upon to help people in all kinds of trouble. A bodhisattva is a being who has reached the moment of spiritual transcendence but foregoes nirvana in order to guide all beings in their quest to attain enlightenment. The Mahayana faith became the more popular form of Buddhism and was carried by mer- chants and monks across Central Asia along the trade routes to China, and from there to Korea and Japan.” Through the doctrine of Skillful Means, “this understanding of deities also became the (Mahayana) Buddhist view.” [Source: Steven Kossak, Edith Whitney Watts, “Art of South and Southeast Asia: A Resource for Educators”, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Mahayana Buddhism made extensive use of various Hindu deities. Some became bodhisattvas; others became lesser divinities...Deities can be useful in Mahayana teaching and practice as inspirational symbols of desirable virtues or as objects of veneration to help train the mind. At the highest levels of understanding, there are no deities external to one's self (because, among other things, there is no self). For people at lower levels of understanding, however, deities can play a useful role in progress toward enlightenment.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The embodiment of this Mahayana ideal was the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is one who has eliminated all desires and is therefore eligible to pass into nirvana. Out of a feeling of compassion for the millions of other suffering creatures, however, the bodhisattva withholds his/her/its entry into nirvana to remain in this world and help others. The various bodhisattvas have taken vows to remain in this world until all creatures are ready to enter nirvana. They may have to wait a long time! Some textbooks liken bodhisattvas to Christian saints, but there are significant differences in the theory behind each. In practice, however, the two types of beings have much in common as objects of prayers and ritual devotion. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
Taigen Dan Leighton wrote: “One of the most colorful and illuminating representations of skillful means in Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva of compassion, called Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit, Chenrezig in Tibetan, Kuan-yin in Chinese, Kwanseum in Korean, and Kannon or Kanzeon in Japanese. As the bodhisattva who hears and responds to the cries of the world, the great variety of iconographic forms of this bodhisattva exemplifies skillful means responding to diverse suffering beings. One of the most memorable of the numerous forms of this bodhisattva has a thousand arms and hands, many of the hands with implements such as flowers, vases of ambrosia, musical instruments, ropes, daggers, hatchets, and wish-fulfilling gems. Each of these tools may be useful in specific situations with different beings. In addition to multiple hands, some forms of the bodhisattva have eleven heads, to observe beings from different viewpoints and respond effectively with different guises. [Source: Mountain Source Sangha, 2004 mtsource.org ]
Bodhisattvas and the Three Bodies of Buddha
Mahayana places great emphasis on bodhisattvas ('enlightenment being's) as being the ideal way for a Buddhist to live. Bodhisattvas are being who have progressed along the path to perfect enlightenment and salvation. Because they are so spiritually advanced, and as part of their spiritual work, they choose to convey religious assistance to devout but ordinary mortals. Anyone can pursue the bodhisattva path, which is regarded as a way of life, a way of selflessness. It is a deep wish for all beings, no matter who they are, to be liberated from suffering.
The Boddhisattva Vow
However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.
However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.
However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.
However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.
Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya): 1) Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent - he is the same thing as the ultimate truth; 2) Sambhogakaya: Buddha's body of bliss, or enjoyment body; and 3) Nirmanakaya: Buddha's earthly body - just like any other human being's body. [Source: BBC |::|]
Bodhisattva's Infinite Compassion
'Shikshasamuccaya,' 280-2 on “The Bodhisattva's Infinite Compassion” in the 'Vajradhvaha-sutra' goes: “A Bodhisattva resolves: I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am resolved to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn or run away, do not tremble, am not terrified, nor afraid, do not turn back or despond. And why? At all costs I must bear the burdens of all beings. In that I do not follow my own inclinations. I have made the vow to save all beings. All beings I must set free. The whole world of living beings I must rescue, from the terrors of birth, of old age, of sickness, of death and rebirth, of all kinds of moral offence, of all states of woe, of the whole cycle of birth-and-death, of the jungle of false views, of the loss of wholesome dharmas, of the concomitants of ignorance, from all these terrors I must rescue all beings. [Source: Edward Conze, in Conze, et al., Buddhist Texts through the Ages (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1954), Eliade Page website]
“I walk so that the kingdom of unsurpassed cognition is built up for all beings. My endeavours do not merely aim at my own deliverance. For with the help of the boat of the thought of all-knowledge, I must rescue all these beings from the stream of Samsara, which is so difficult to cross, I must pull them back from the great precipice, I must free them from all calamities, I must ferry them across the stream of Samsara. I myself must grapple with the whole mass of suffering of all beings. To the limit of my endurance I will experience in all the states of woe, found in any world system, all the abodes of suffering. And I must not cheat all beings out of my store of merit, I am resolved to abide in each single state of woe for numberless aeons; and so I will help all beings to freedom, in all the states of woe that may be found in any world system whatsoever.
“And why? Because it is surely better that I alone should be in pain than that all these beings should fall into the states of woe. There I must give myself away as a pawn through which the whole world is redeemed from the terrors of the hells, of animal birth, of the world of Yama, and with this my own body I must experience, for the sake of all beings, the whole mass of all painful feelings. And on behalf of all beings I give surety for all beings, and in doing so I speak truthfully, am trustworthy, and do not go back on my word. I must not abandon all beings.
“And why? There has arisen in me the will to win all-knowledge, with all beings for its object, that is to say, for the purpose of setting free the entire world of beings. And I have not set out for the supreme enlightenment from a desire for delights, not because I hope to experience the delights of the five-sense qualities, or because I wish to indulge in the pleasures of the senses. And I do not pursue the course of a Bodhisattva in order to achieve the array of delights that can be found in the various worlds of sense-desire. And why? Truly no delights are all these delights of the world. All this indulging in the pleasures of the senses belongs to the sphere of Mara.”
Mahayana Theory of Stages and Cycles
According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Another development associated with Mahayana Buddhism was a theory of stages and cycles concerning the appearance of Buddhas in the world and the status of their teaching. In this theory Shakyamuni was only the most recent of a whole series of Buddhas that had appeared on earth at regular intervals. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]
“The Dharma, or Buddhist teaching, goes through three phases, which together constitute one full cycle. Specifically, 500 years after the Buddha's death (or, 1000 years in a competing version of the theory) is the period of the True Dharma. During this time, the Buddha's teaching is properly practiced, and the attainment of enlightenment is possible. Next comes a period of the Semblance Dharma, which lasts 100 years (or, 500 years in a competing version of the theory). In this stage, people practice the Buddha's teachings, but they only go through the motions without true understanding making enlightenment impossible. ~
“In the final stage, the Last or Final Dharma, which lasts 10,000 years, the teaching exists, but nobody practices it, even if only going through the motions. This stage is a time of misery and suffering on a vast scale, at the end of which, a new Buddha appears and a new three-stage cycle begins. There were other Buddhas before Shakyamuni and there will be others after him. This theory caused great anxiety in Japan during medieval times starting in the late Heian period because many feared that the world was about to enter stage three, the period of the Last Dharma.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2018