8 minute read


Mahayana Buddhist Doctrines And Traditions

The origins of the second major division within Buddhism are shrouded in uncertainty. What was to be called Mahayana, or the "Great Vehicle," did not originate with any one reforming individual or emerge at any specific time. It at least partially had its roots in a pan-Indian devotional movement (bhakti) that also had a dramatic impact on the Hindu traditions of India around 150 B.C.E. and in the centuries following. Mahayana is also sometimes traced back to the "Great Assemblists," or Mahasanghikas, but it seems that for many years, even centuries, monks who eventually became Mahayana lived and studied in the same monasteries as others. Perhaps the best way to envision Mahayana Buddhism in its earliest years was as a set of new texts that introduced new doctrinal elements into Buddhism. Those who accepted the canonical legitimacy of these new texts were Mahayana.

The doctrines put forward in these new texts were not, however, represented as new. Rather, they too were supposed to originate with the Buddha; they were regarded as "turnings of the wheel of dharma" that taught the deeper meanings of the Buddha's message for disciples who were more capable.

Chief among the distinctive teachings of Mahayana was a new conceptualization of the goal of Buddhism. In early Buddhism as well as in the subsequent Theravada tradition, the attainment of nirvana was theoretically possible for anyone. But Buddhahood itself remained the unique feature of Gautama. The Mahayana Buddhists posited enlightenment and Buddhahood itself as the ultimate goal for all practitioners and regarded nirvana as a lower attainment for those of a "lesser vehicle" (Hinayana).

With this new idea regarding the goal of Buddhism came a radically different understanding of Buddhology. Gautama, for the Mahayana Buddhists, was but one of an innumerable set of Buddhas who populated the cosmos. Each Buddha ruled a region, or "heaven" or "pure land," which was also populated with highly evolved spiritual beings known as Bodhisattvas. These Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were thought to be filled with compassion and with certain abilities and powers to help those who asked for it. One of the chief features of Mahayana Buddhism is its devotional quality, consisting of the worship of and prayers to these celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Integral to the new Buddhology that distinguishes the Mahayana is the doctrine of the "three bodies" or "three forms" (rupa s) of the Buddha. The first is the "transformation body" (nirmana kaya), which refers to the physical emanations the Buddha sends out to this and other worlds. The historical Buddha, Gautama, was one such emanation according to Mahayana Buddhism—a notion that also assumes that Gautama was always and already enlightened, being merely an earthly incarnation of a previously enlightened cosmic Buddha. Under this conception, Buddhas have the capability of sending out virtually infinite numbers of transformation bodies out of their compassion and urge to help all sentient beings everywhere.

Each Buddha also has what is called an "enjoyment body" (sambhoga kaya), a subtle body of light that appears in that Buddha's heaven or pure land, a paradisiacal world populated with advanced practitioners and Bodhisattvas. Conditions in such a land are highly conducive for the attainment of Buddhahood; one form of Mahayana Buddhist practice is to pray and perform other devotional activities in the hopes that one or another of the Buddhas will admit the devotee into his or her pure land after death.

Finally there is what is called the "dharma body" of the Buddha, which refers to the ultimate nature of the Buddha's mind and to reality itself in its ultimate form. The dharma body includes the omniscience or perfect realization of wisdom in a Buddha's mind. It also includes the ultimate nature of reality itself, its "thusness" or "suchness."

Another innovation in Mahayana Buddhism was the superseding of the Eightfold Path with a new method (leading to a newly reconceived goal). This was what became known as the "Path of the Bodhisattva." The first step on this path was to attain what was termed bodhicitta, the "mind of enlightenment" or the motivating wish to attain Buddhahood out of compassion for all sentient beings. A key ingredient to bodhicitta and, indeed, a virtue that takes center stage in Mahayana Buddhism, is compassion (karuna), which, together with "loving kindness" (maitri) and wisdom (prajna), form a triad of the distinctive virtues characteristic of the Bodhisattvas ("beings of enlightenment," the ones who have attained bodhicitta) and the Buddhas as conceived by Mahayana.

Out of this driving wish for enlightenment, impelled by the altruistic intention to help end the suffering of others, the Mahayana practitioner takes various vows, swearing to live a life guided by compassion, and then engages in the "six perfections," each associated with a progressively higher stage of the Bodhisattva path. The first of these "perfections" (paramitas) is generosity, including the giving of material things, protection from fear, and the giving of dharma teachings themselves. In its most advanced form, the perfection of giving includes the willingness of the Bodhisattva to give up his or her own body if necessary. Also included under this perfection is giving in the form of what is known as "transfer of merit" (parinamana), the perpetual turning over to the benefit of others any karmic merit done by any meritorious act.

The second perfection is ethics (shila) and consists largely of avoidance of the ten basic misdeeds of body, speech, and mind (killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle speech, coveting, ill will, and wrong views). Third is the perfection of patience (kshanti), specifically combating anger with compassion and loving kindness. The fourth perfection is joyful effort or "vigor" (virya), defined as taking joy in doing meritorious and compassionate acts. Fifth comes meditative concentration (dhyana) followed by the sixth perfection, wisdom (prajna).

The "perfection of wisdom" consists of realizing the truths of the distinctive metaphysics that also defines Mahayana Buddhism. Especially associated with the great philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150–250 C.E.) is the important doctrine of "emptiness," or shunyata. Nagarjuna argued that, as a sort of universal extension of the earlier doctrine of "no-self," all phenomena are "empty" of inherent nature or self-existence. Persons and phenomena exist only dependently, not independently. Emptiness is thus not the ultimate ground of being but rather the insistence that there is no such ultimate, irreducible ground. Emptiness is not some thing but the absence of intrinsic existence to all things. But neither, argued Nagarjuna, does this mean that "nothing exists." Things do exist, but only dependently. The philosophical school associated with Nagarjuna's thought was called the "Middle Way" school (Madhyamika), positing neither nihilism nor eternalism but a median between the two.

Another important philosophical tenet of Mahayana Buddhism is the identity of samsara and nirvana. Liberation is not "outside" or "apart from" a world of suffering; they are not two separate realities. Both are equally "empty" of self-nature and exist, as all things, only dependently.

While other traditions and schools of Buddhism also went from India to China, Korea, and Japan, it was Mahayana Buddhism that flourished and was further developed in those regions. Mahayana is thus sometimes called "northern Buddhism" in contrast to the predominantly Theravada traditions of "southern Buddhism."

Mahayana Buddhism in China was heavily influenced by the preexisting religious philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism and by the presuppositions of a culture already ancient, literate, and sophisticated by the time Buddhism was brought to it in the early centuries C.E. Among the difficulties Buddhism faced in China were monasticism and celibacy, which were understood to be in opposition to the Chinese emphasis on filial piety and ancestor worship. Conversely, the Chinese readily embraced and further elaborated the Mahayana concept of all beings having a "Buddha nature," or the potential to achieve Buddhahood and enlightenment.

By the fifth century C.E. different schools of Buddhism arose in China. Some of these were simply Chinese equivalents of Indian Buddhist schools. San-lun, or the "Three Treatises" school, was the Chinese version of Madhyamika, and Fa-hsiang, or "Characteristics of the Dharma" school, was the equivalent of the Indian philosophical tradition known as Yogacara. But also at about this time, distinctively Chinese schools of Buddhism arose that reflected indigenous cultural and religious emphases. The importance of harmony, for example, produced schools like the T'ien-t'ai ("Heavenly Terrace"; Tendai, in Japan), which placed one text (in this case the Lotus Sutra) above all others and then organized the rest of the diverse Buddhist tradition into a hierarchically ordered synthesis. The T'ien-t'ai philosophy embraced the idea that Buddha nature exists in all things and that the absolute and phenomenal world are not ultimately different. Another school that attempted to harmonize the teachings of Buddhism into a syncretistic whole was the Hua-yan (Kegon, in Japan) school, which elevated the Avatamsaka Sutra to the highest place and oriented the rest of Buddhist texts and teachings around it.

Of special importance, however, were two other schools that arose in China, spread to neighboring regions from there, and survive to the present. The first of these was the "Pure Land" school (Ch'ing-t'u), a devotional and faith-based sect centering on the figure of Amitabha Buddha. Pure Land became the most popular form of the religion in China, Korea, and Japan, especially among the laity. Pure Land promises an easy path to salvation in the guise of rebirth into the heaven or pure land of Amitabha, where one will quickly become enlightened. The principal practice of this form of Buddhism has been to call upon the grace of this Buddha through repeating a formula known as nien-fo (nembutsu in Japanese). In its more radical forms, Pure Land has insisted that one must rely totally on the "other-power" of the Buddha and not at all on one's own efforts.

The second of the two most important schools that arose initially in China was that known as Ch'an, or Zen as it was termed in Japan. Deriving from a Sanskrit word for "meditation," the Ch'an/Zen tradition offers a stark contrast to the devotionalism of Pure Land. Traced back to an Indian monk-missionary named Bodhidharma, whose radical and uncompromising meditational techniques become legendary, the Ch'an/Zen tradition developed a simple but disciplined and demanding set of methods for directly intuiting one's own Buddha nature and achieving various levels of awakening (wu, or satori in Japanese). These methods included meditation, the "direct transmission" of wisdom from the mind of the enlightened teacher to that of the student, and the contemplation of riddles known as koans.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Boolean algebra to Calcium PropionateBuddhism - The Buddha And The Fundamental Doctrines Of Buddhism, Formation Of Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhist Doctrines And Traditions