Mahayana Buddhism


Charley Linden Thorp
published on 15 March 2017
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Translated text available in: French
Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha (by Cristian Violatti, CC BY-NC-SA)
Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha
Cristian Violatti (CC BY-NC-SA)

Mahayana Buddhism (or the Mahayanas) can be defined as a major movement in the history of Buddhism which has its origins in northern India. It is made up of many schools and reinterpretations of fundamental human beliefs, values, and ideals not only those of the Buddhist teachings.

The recorded starting point for Mahāyāna, also known as the 'Great Vehicle' because it embraces so much, is the 2nd century CE, but it is assumed that this tidal wave of shifts began to grow before that date, building on existing schools and systems, and it continues today. Its exact origins are still not completely understood, but in contrast to previous Buddhist aspirations, great emphasis was placed equally on the doctrines of compassion (Skt: karunā) and insight (Skt: prajñā). In addition, the Bodhisattva, the human being who devotes him or herself to the service of others, became the new model for religious practice as opposed to the Arhat (Hīnayāna-Hearer or Seeker) who is concerned only with the self-interested pursuit of liberation.

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This age also represents a massive social change in the way Buddhists practised because householders, lay practitioners, ie. those who have not renounced life to become monks or nuns, became equally as important as the clergy, ie. monastic practitioners devoting their whole lives to Buddha. Also, a new body of literature is associated with this movement known as the Perfection of Insight texts (Prajñā-pāramitā Sūtras) in which Buddha Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) is seen in a new light as a supernatural being (later formalized as the trikāya - three bodies) and the concept and doctrine of emptiness (Skt: śūnyatā) became of major importance. Today, Mahayana Buddhism is predominant in north Aisa and has been strongly influenced culturally and by existing religions there such as Taoism and Confucianism.


To clarify this complex movement of spiritual and religious thought and religious practice, it may help to understand the three main classifications of Buddhism to date: Theravada (also known as Hinayana, the vehicle of the Hearers), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. These are recognised by practitioners as the three main routes to enlightenment (Skt: bodhi, meaning awakening), the state that marks the culmination of all the Buddhist religious paths. The differences between them are as follows:

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Theravada is the only remaining school from the Early Buddhist period, its central texts are in Pali (Pāli Canon), the spoken language of the Buddha; and its exclusively monastic devotees strive to become enlightened for their own liberation.

Mahayana uses Sanskrit as its main language, and monastic and lay followers work for the liberation of all sentient beings, making compassion and insight (wisdom) its central doctrines.

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Vajrayana, the Diamond School, originally exclusive to Tibet (in 20th century CE the Chinese occupation of Tibet forced it out of the country), emphasizes the permanence of the Buddha's teachings as symbolized by the vajra (thunderbolt), a ritual implement used for ceremonies, employs Tantra (techniques to reach enlightenment quickly) and focuses mainly on lay practitioners.

The main schools of Buddhism practised today are Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Shingon, and Tendai (all Mahayanas); and Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayāna). It is significant that Theravāda texts exclusively concern the Buddha's life and early teachings; whereas, due to widespread propagation (spreading of the teachings), Mahāyanā and Vajrayāna texts appear in at least six languages. Mahāyāna texts contain a mixture of ideas, the early texts probably composed in south India and confined to strict monastic Buddhism, the later texts written in northern India and no longer confined to monasticism but lay thinking also.

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Schools & Notable Figures

The term Mahāyāna was first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (among the final teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni) at an indeterminate date between the 5th and the 1st century CE. However, according to recent scholarship, it may have been a mistaken term because instead of 'yana' meaning 'vehicle' or 'cart,' it could have been 'mahajāna,' 'jāna' meaning 'knowing,' therefore 'great (maha) knowing.' In this era, the Dharma, (Pali: Dhamma), the natural law of all existence according to Buddhism, was no longer regarded as a doctrinal element but as a medicine that would heal all worldly suffering.

In the Mahayanas, new schools started to appear such as the Madhyamaka (the 'Middle School', 2nd century CE), the Yogācāra or Yogachara (based on the practice of yoga, 4th century CE), the Pure Land tradition in China (dates and origins uncertain but examples are T'ien-t'ai and Ch'an), and the Vajrayāna (Tibetan Buddhism founded in 5th century CE by Padmasambhava).

Buddhist Illuminated Manuscript, Goryeo Period
Buddhist Illuminated Manuscript, Goryeo Period
Eggmoon (CC BY-SA)

Mahāyāna Buddhism is prevalent in north Asia having spread from northern India, then to Tibet and Central Asia, China, Korea, and lastly Japan. Due to the cultural influences and diversity of countries, the scope of Buddhist practice has widened even more to include the Tantric practices (Tantra meaning techniques to reach Enlightenment more quickly) and Shamanism (a shaman is an intermediary who has access to the world of spirits and healing) from central Asia; Taoism and Confucianism giving rise to the Ch'an school of contemplation in China and Korea, which developed eventually into Japanese Zen, and so on.

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Notable figures of this movement are Asvaghosa who wrote The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna translated into Chinese c. 550 CE; Maitreyanātha who compiled the Mahayana path from the Yogācāra perspective made up of 800 verses; Nāgārjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school, born c. 2nd century CE in south India; Āryadeva, Nāgārjuna's foremost disciple; Dōgen, known for his teachings on Buddha Nature in Japan; Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism; and Huayen for the 'Flower Garland' tradition in China, Korea, and Japan.


As mentioned, the main tenets of this Mahāyāna Buddhism are compassion (karunā) and insight or wisdom (prajñā). The perfection of these human values culminates in the Bodhisattva, a model being who devotes him or herself altruistically to the service of others, putting aside all self-serving notions; in contrast, is the preceding pursuit of self-interested liberation (Hīnayāna or Śrāvakayāna). Bodhisattva (Skt; Pali: Bodhisatta) means an enlightened being or one who is oriented to enlightenment. This ideal human being is inspired by the life story of Buddha Sakyamuni who began by generating the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings in the form of a vow. Then he embarked on a religious life by cultivating the Six Perfections (paramitas).

Gandhara Bodhisattva
Gandhara Bodhisattva
Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco) (CC BY-NC-SA)

Early Mahāyāna texts stipulate that a Bodhisattva can only be male, but later texts allow female Bodhisattvas. The term Bodhicitta is used to describe the state of mind of a Bodhisattva, and there are two aspects: the relative, a mind directed towards enlightenment, the ceasing of all cravings and attachments, and the absolute, a mind whose nature is enlightenment. A Bodhisattva must place themselves in the position of others in order to be selfless and embody compassion: in other words, to exchange him or herself for the other.

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With this new focus on Buddha's life lay practitioners or householders who were in a far better position than monks or nuns to fulfil the vow of a Bodhisattva emerged and became a key element of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The first lay Buddhist Cunda was enlightened at the Buddha's Parinirvāna (death of a Buddha) to the indignation of the enlightened monks and Kings attending to bring final offerings. On his departure from the world as an old man, the Buddha revealed that all beings, including women, could become enlightened not only monastic devotees. From this point onwards, enlightenment took on new meaning.


Biographical literature of the Buddha first appeared during this Mahāyāna era and aided the rapid spread of Buddhism across the Silk Road to the east of India and north into Nepal and Tibet. In addition, Buddhist poets expressed their faith using literary expressions which transcended the doctrinal lines between the different schools.

The new Mahāyāna epoch was accompanied by a canon of scriptures, known as 'Perfection of Insight,' characterised by the doctrine of emptiness, which entails viewing Buddha as a supernatural being.

The new Mahāyāna epoch, long after the Parinirvāna of the Buddha, was accompanied by a canon of scriptures or sutras, known as the Prajñā-pãramitã Sūtras (Perfection of Insight). They are characterised by the doctrine of emptiness (śúnyatā) which entails viewing Buddha for the first time as a supernatural being worthy of devotion. This later led to the doctrine of his nature as the trikāya, or three-wheel bodies (the Dharmakāya (the enlightenment or truth body), the Sambhogakāya (the bliss or clear light body), and the Nirmānakāya, (the form body manifesting in time and space).

The Bodhicaryāvatāra, 'Entering the Path of Enlightenment,' composed by Santideva (685-763), a Buddhist monk, poet, and scholar based a Nalanda University, is one of the main texts for aspiring Bodhisattvas. It describes various steps taken by a Bodhisattva to reach enlightenment. A famous quotation from it is:

Whosoever wishes to quickly rescue himself and another he should practise the supreme mystery-the exchanging of himself and the other. (8.120).

Compassion can be tangibly used by Mahāyāna practitioners in the transfer of merit to all sentient beings, which is accumulated through devotional practice. Wisdom can be used to transcend the human condition via the conviction that all beings contain the Buddha seed so can, therefore, become a Buddha. The basis of the Bodhisattva vow is the six pāramitās (perfections):

  • generosity (dāna)
  • morality (śīla)
  • patience (ksānti)
  • courage (vīrya)
  • knowledge (jhāna or dhyāna)
  • and intuitive insight (prajñā).

In early Buddhism, there were ten pāramitās, and later in the Mahāyāna, they were increased again to ten to match the ten stages (bhumi) of a Bodhisattva's spiritual progress. Liberating or saving those who were lost or suffering becomes the sole life purpose of those who take this Bodhisattva vow, even today.

Places of Worship

Another feature of Mahāyāna Buddhism is the presence of stupas – religious towers or domes which evolved from prehistoric burial mounds and eventually had tall spires known as pagodas, common structures found throughout Asia. The Buddha instructed that on his death a stupa should be constructed over his relics. Today, surviving stupas often contain sacred objects such as texts as well as relics or remains of revered beings. Their popularity as marking a place of worship increased as Buddhism spread to the masses who were mostly illiterate laymen. On the inside walls of stupas, pictures were inscribed and sculptures made depicting the life of Buddha and his previous lives as a bodhisattva.

The 'Great Stupa' at Sanchi
The 'Great Stupa' at Sanchi
Gérald Anfossi (CC BY-SA)

Lay & Monastic Practitioners

Many scholars claim that lay Buddhism was responsible for the flourishing of the Mahayanas. The centring of the movement on Buddha as the first Bodhisattva and the revelation that all beings could reach Enlightenment promoted Buddhism in everyday life rather than behind the closed doors of monasteries. There is also evidence to show that the excessive privileges and arrogance of monks was detested by householders, especially in Japan, and that the clergy looked down on lay practitioners as in other religions, notably Christianity. The Asokadattavyakarana Sutra advocated the wisdom of women and girls: the protagonist, a 12-year-old princess, refuses to salute the monks referring to them as "Hinayana jackals." At the same time, the Vimalakirtinrdusa Sutra advocates lay Buddhism in the exploits of its hero, Vimalakirti.

Stupas were administered by lay devotees and so the importance of Buddha's life became increasingly significant as a result. They provided not only an opportunity for a different kind of worship but also for social interaction. There was finally an alternative religious tradition for householders, some of whom became founders of new schools, e.g. Prince Shotoku of Japan who never took monastic vows though he lived out the Buddhist teachings in everyday life and also became the first Buddhist statesman to reorder Japan with a 17-article constitution. The widening of Mahāyāna doctrines and the universal appeal of attaining Buddhahood meant that many schools flourished outside monasteries and often focused on certain Mahāyāna texts. It might be said that for a long period of time monks remained cloistered hearing the Dharma, while the laity were actively working as Bodhisattvas in daily life.

Stupa in Ajanta
Stupa in Ajanta
Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (CC BY)

The significance of the Buddha's physical death as only an appearance is paramount in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Out of his compassion, he became ever-present to help suffering sentient beings trapped in samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death that individuals must undergo until they attain 'Nirvana' (enlightenment), in which they are blinded by the three roots of evil, namely greed, hatred, and delusion. Samsāra, although not mentioned by name, is characterised as suffering (Skt: duhka) in the first of the Four Noble Truths. It is an ancient notion common to all mainstream Indian religions dating back to circa 800 BCE.

This striking change in attitudes to the Buddha and his teachings represents its reabsorption into the society which it had renounced and become distant from in the monasteries. This fundamentally created a new religious system and a self-awareness which is evident in the body of the Mahayana Sutras and which made such doctrines respectable.

Buddhism Today

In the 21st century CE, it is estimated that 488 million (9-10% of the world population) people practice Buddhism. Approximately half are practitioners of Mahāyāna schools in China and it continues to flourish. The main countries which practice Buddhism currently are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism, due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, has been adopted by international practitioners, notably westerners, in a variety of different countries.

'Socially Engaged Buddhism,' which originated in 1963 in war-ravaged Vietnam, a term coined by Tchich Nhat Hanh, the international peace activist, is a contemporary movement concerned with developing Buddhist solutions to social, political and ecological global problems. This movement is not divided between monastic and lay members and includes Buddhists from Buddhist countries as well as western converts. Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka are the major Buddhist countries (over 70% of population practising) while Japan, Laos, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam have smaller but strong minority status.

New movements continue to develop to accommodate the modern world. Perhaps the most notable are the Dalit Buddhist Movement (Dalits are a group of Indians known as the 'untouchables' because they fall outside the rigid caste system but who are now gaining respect and status supported by UN); New Kadampa Tradition, led by Tibetan monk Gyatso Kelsang, which claims to be Modern Buddhism focused on lay practitioners; and the Vipassana Movement, consisting of a number of branches of modern Theravada Buddhism which have moved outside the monasteries, focusing on insight meditation.

Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
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About the Author

Charley Linden Thorp
Linden is a writer/university teacher living in Japan. She is also a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.

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APA Style

Thorp, C. L. (2017, March 15). Mahayana Buddhism. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Thorp, Charley Linden. "Mahayana Buddhism." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified March 15, 2017.

MLA Style

Thorp, Charley Linden. "Mahayana Buddhism." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 15 Mar 2017. Web. 22 Jun 2021.