Buddhism has two major traditions or schools – Mahayana and Theravada. Theravada Buddhism lays emphasis on leading a life of austerity and monasticism while studying and following the dharma as taught by the Buddha.
Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, focuses on a more inclusive approach towards enlightenment and living the dharma. Here is a brief introduction to the origin of Mahayana Buddhism, its main doctrines and the various Mahayanist sutras.
History and Origin of Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism originated over 2000 years ago in India and it was during the first century CE that this school of Buddhism arose as a departure from the orthodox monastic life and meditation-dominated philosophy of Theravada Buddhism. This school of Buddhism was known as Mahayana or the “Greater Vehicle”, since it offered the Buddhist philosophy and faith for a larger number of people and hence, greater acceptance.
According to Kevin Trainor in Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, “The Mahayana offered a new path to a newly defined goal and some strikingly new philosophical and psychological assertions.” The Mahayanists claimed that their philosophy derived from a different understanding of the Buddha’s word, based on scriptures that were given by the Buddha but had not been discovered earlier.
Today there exist many schools within the Mahayana and all of them have their own distinctive features while retaining the original essence of the Mahayana, that is, enlightenment for all.
Mahayana Buddhism and Enlightenment
The Mahayana Buddhists interpreted the word of the Buddha in a manner that encompassed everyone and not just monks and scholars as was the case with the Theravada tradition.
As Trainor states, “In the Mahayana sutras, monks who devote their lives solely to the pursuit of Nirvana for themselves are referred to as shravakas (“listeners”), because they only pursue the letter, rather than the spirit of what they have been taught.”
Mahayana Buddhism believes that instead of cutting off from the world by adopting a monastic way of life, one should strive for the emancipation of all. In other words, the path to nirvana or enlightenment included not only wisdom and intellect but also compassion and dedication to others. In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, the path to nirvana includes developing the six paramitas or perfections – generosity, morality, meditation, wisdom, patience and vigor.
As Jonathan Landaw and Stephan Bodian write, “At the center of this Mahayana conception is the figure of the bodhisattva. The Mahayanists didn’t invent this term, but they did broaden its meaning.” Landaw and Bodian elaborate that the Mahayana believed that anyone who would be truly altruistic and work for the welfare of others before his or her own nirvana could experience supreme enlightenment.
Mahayana Buddhism and the Buddha Nature
The idea of an inherent Buddha nature in all beings is a teaching that is central and unique to the Mahayana tradition. Just as all beings can strive for enlightenment, everyone has the Buddha nature present within.
Different schools of the Mahayana tradition explain this concept with slight variations. For instance, in Nichiren Buddhism, everyone has the Buddha nature present, it may be hidden because of one’s own delusions.
The Different Sutras or Teachings of Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana traditions grew in prominence around the first century CE and these Sutras were all written in Sanskrit and not Pali, which had been the script used by the Theravada scholars.
The most important of these Mahayanist teachings or sutras include The Lotus Sutra, Vimalkirti-nirdesha, The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, Lanka-vatara, Flower Ornament Sutra and Land of Bliss Sutra.
Today, the Mahayana tradition has schools such as Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism and others under its wing. While the basic principles and philosophies of the schools remain the same, there do exist certain practical differences.
However, on the whole, the theme of all the schools of Mahayana Buddhism remains the compassion and wisdom of the bodhisattva, the enlightenment of all and the realization of the inherent Buddha nature.