What is Mahayana Buddhism?

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  • Last Modified Date: 08 January 2020
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Mahayana Buddhism is one of two main schools of Buddhist teachings. It originated in India and takes as its ideal the compassion and enlightenment of bodhicitta. Mahayana Buddhists view Buddha as a manifestation of a divine being, instead of a supremely enlightened man. It originated in South India in the first century CE and includes Pure Land, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. It is the most widely practiced school of Buddhism and claims hundreds of millions of followers worldwide.

This type of Buddhism incorporates a number of Mahayana sutras (Buddhist discourses or scriptures). These sutras are said to represent original teachings of the Buddha, but are more likely from centuries after his time. Because of the contradictory elements of Mahayana sutras, the teachings of the Buddhist school have been debated and scrutinized for centuries. Some of the sutras involve the ability to see reality as it really is and the attainment of high levels of consciousness through meditation.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there are an infinite number of Buddhas, whereas other forms have only the Gautama Buddha. It relies on the practice of bodhicitta. It is an essential practice in this form of Buddhism and differs it from other froms. Bodhicitta is the pursuit of enlightment and compassion. It is obtained through a dedication to others and is supposed to bring true happiness.


Practicers of Bodhicitta strive toward complete enlightenment, and thus Buddhahood. The person practicing pledges themselves to helping others reach nirvana. Nirvana is reached when samsara, the cyclical existence of life in Buddhism, is escaped. The practicing Bodhisattav avoids nirvana to stay in samsara and help others achieve nirvana. This act is an act of selflessness to achieve the eventual and inevitable liberation of every soul, as opposed to the individual liberation important to other forms of Buddhism. This Buddhism emphasizes awareness and wisdom.

Mahayana Buddhism also emphasizes the emptiness of all things, or sunyata. This teaching states that all experiences and thoughts depend on reason, and therefore are interpretive. Thus, according to this type of Buddhism, nothing exists outside of the mind in absolute terms. They are, though, real in relative terms.

Mahayana teaches, most importantly, that all living beings can become Buddhas. This Buddhism teaches that all things have the seed of Buddha in them, and through bodhicitta can strive toward Buddhahood. Mahayana Buddhism claims that any sentient being, those stuck in the samsara cycle of life, can reach bodhicitta, and help all souls reach nirvana.

Early Mahayana Buddhism was encouraged by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. It became the dominant form of Buddhism of all of East Asia by the seventh century. Mahayana Buddhism is led by monks, though monastic life is less restrictive than in other forms of Buddhism. The school follows many of the important texts and sutras of other schools of Buddhism. It also follows many important and more recent ones not likely derived from Gautama Buddha. Though less conservative than the original forms of Buddhism created around the fifth century BCE, it is more widely practiced than Theravada Buddhism.


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Post 3

I read with interest the book "Jesus Lived in India."

The teachings of the New Testament are exactly the same as the teachings of Buddha, written some 500 years before -- in some cases, word for word!

Post 2

I wonder how much Gnostic Greeks would have gleaned from the Eastern tradition which led to the superior/inferior divide concerning spiritual/physical things. It is difficult for many religious adherents to see anything physical as being equal to spiritual things. The Greeks were hard pressed to determine how and why their Pantheon would have created a physical world if it was inferior to them. This was part of why Christianity, the story of a physical and dying God, was and remains so hard to understand or accept, to so many faiths.

Post 1

This is an interesting parallel to old Christian beliefs about Christ. Some held that he was fully divine, others that he was fully human. The paradox was that a council resolved that he was both fully divine and fully human, since he died like a man and then rose again. It is interesting to see that this sect of Buddhism was formed out of a similar dichotomy concerning Buddha.

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