Mahayana Buddhism, often referred to as the “Great Vehicle” (to signify Buddha’s grand ability to act as a vehicle or guide for his followers) was formed around 100 CE within India. Overtime, it gained immense popularity and has contributed significantly to the cultures of Central and East Asia. The spread of Buddhism, however, has created diversity between the different sects and so Mahayana has developed beliefs, practices and traditions that are unique to themselves. It even split into different schools of its own including Zen and Pure Land.
Mahayana Buddhism is one of two major schools of Buddhism along with Theravada, which it differs from greatly. Some differences include the fact that they have adopted different texts, practices, and traditions. Additionally, Mahayana emphasizes compassion whereas Theravada emphasizes wisdom, and Mahayana is generally distributed throughout North and East Asia whereas Theravada is typically in the South and Southwest Asia.
Beliefs & Practices
Mahayana belief proclaims that anyone can work to achieve enlightenment. They also believe that a great compassion is present within enlightenment beings called, bodhisattvas. These beings possess a certain skill that allows them to understand the mental capacities of “ordinary” individuals, so that they can help guide them towards their own enlightenment. Bodhisattvas selflessly delay nirvana in order to help others achieve their own. They are centered on this idea of selflessness or, “no-self” by giving without receiving; helping others who can’t help themselves and utilizing their gift of compassion and wisdom. This combination makes them the perfect Buddhist and explains why they are held in such high regard by all Mahayana Buddhists. They also make an appearance in a handful of Buddhist literature and art where their power and greatness is emphasized.
A common practice of Mahayana Buddhists in particular is to take the Bodhisattva vow which goes as follows:
“The deluding passions are inexhaustible.
I vow to extinguish them all.
Sentient beings are numberless.
I vow to save them all.
The truth is impossible to expound.
I vow to expound it.
The way of the Buddha is unattainable.
I vow to attain it.”
Clive Erricker, Buddhism A Complete Introduction
Mahayana Buddhists use symbols to represent many enlightenment beings that they don’t have access to. For example, a powerful Bodhisattva named Manjushri is depicted with a sword to represent his “capacity of wisdom to cut through all ignorance.”
The most identifying tradition is mediation, which is prominent in not only Mahayana but all sects of Buddhism. The central idea of meditating requires a sensory process of being mindful to one’s body and spirit in order to see things clearly and truly understand reality. They believe that one cannot fully understand the essence of meditation until they experience it themselves. This process relates to the practice of yoga that we’ve done in Humanities and what has become a very common practice in modern society. Modern yoga encompasses a similar idea of being completely and solely in touch with your own mind and body. Even though many feel like they’ve mastered the technique, yoga is completely amateur when compared to the skill set required for Buddhist meditation.
- “Buddhist Ceremonies.” Buddha Net. Accessed on May 13, 2016. .
- Erricker, Clive. Buddhism A Complete Introduction. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015.
- “Mahayana Buddhism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on May 11, 2016. .
- “The Principal Spiritual Traditions of Buddhism.” Dharma Net. Accessed on May 12, 2016.
- “Religion Library: Mahayana Buddhism.” Patheos. Accessed on May 13, 2016. .