Buddhism A–Z
What is Mahayana Buddhism?

Mahayana (Skt, “Great Vehicle” or “Great Path”) is one of the primary branches of Buddhism. It is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. In Tibet, it developed into Vajrayana. Its primary focus is the bodhisattva ideal, putting others’ needs—including for spiritual realization—before one’s own.

Origins and Development of Mahayana

While the essence of Buddhism never changes, the way it is taught and practiced has continually evolved to meet the evolving needs, interests, and capacities of practitioners and the times and places where it spread. The Mahayana flourishing is one such landmark in Buddhist history.

Around the second or first century BCE., at the time the earliest Buddhist teachings were being committed to writing, a new cycle of sutras began to appear called Prajnaparamita (Skt., Perfection of Wisdom) sutras. Though their status as words of the historical Buddha was and remains controversial, they gradually developed a large following. The Prajnaparamita sutras expanded the insights of Buddhism as they had been expounded up to that time—declaring that there is nothing truly existing for the mind to cling to. They proclaimed that the nature of all phenomena is shunyata (emptiness).

The path to this realization is the way of the bodhisattva, who practices disciplines known as the paramitas. Paramita literally means “the other shore,” which is a metaphor for actions that transcend the reference points of ego. While the paramitas exist in early Buddhism, they were applied in a new way in the context of the bodhisattva path. They are the transcendent perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom.

The notion of the bodhisattva, a being whose aim is not just personal liberation but the attainment of perfect buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, also existed in the earliest teachings. But the Mahayana sutras took what had been a historical description of a future buddha, and transformed it into an ideal motivation to which all practitioners could aspire.

The Mahayana sutras introduced many elements not found in the earlier sutras. They contained novel cosmologies and mythologies, stories of pure lands and cosmic buddhas and bodhisattvas. The central force of the tradition, however, lay in cultivating the experience of shunyata and engaging in practices to develop the bodhisattva virtues. A robust commentarial tradition emerged that flourished in great Buddhist monastic universities such as Nalanda and Vikramashila.

Relationship to Earlier Schools of Buddhism

For many years, scholars of Buddhism assumed the Mahayana began as a reform movement, similar to the Protestant Reformation. More recent scholarship does not support this view, positing rather that the Mahayana arose when fresh insights and practices emerged within the existing monastic orders. Early mahayanists did not set up separate schools or sects, and didn’t create a separate monastic ordination lineage or sets of rules. Mahayana monastics continued to be formal members of the early Buddhist schools and continued to follow their rules of conduct.

It is the Mahayana form of Buddhism that ended up being exported to East Asia when, according to legend, the great teacher Bodhidharma traveled from India to China around the fifth or sixth century.

Mahayana Buddhism Traditions, Teachers and Texts

Preeminent among the Mahayana foundational teachers in India were Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) tradition and Asanga, founder of the Yogacara (Yogic Practice) tradition. These two are sometimes referred to as the “Two Great Charioteers of the Teachings.”

Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka approach teaches shunyata and dependent arising: the emptiness of all dependently appearing phenomena. It emphasizes the use of intellect and logical reasonings to expose the delusions that obscure genuine reality. Asanga’s Yogacara approach teaches the luminous, empty nature of all experience. It emphasizes the practice of meditation to expose the delusions that obscure genuine reality. These two approaches are complementary, although they are often presented hierarchically.

Sometimes, the great Indian Mahayana masters are known as the “Six Ornaments of the World.” These six are enumerated as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti. Other major Mahayana figures are Chandrakirti and Shantideva.

Probably the most well-known and frequently recited text in the Mahayana tradition is the Heart Sutra (Prajñaparamitahrdaya Sutra). Other seminal Mahayana texts are Nagarjuna’s Root Verses on the Middle Way, Chandrakirti’s Entering the Middle Way, Shantideva’s Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva and Maitreya’s Uttaratantra. Influential Mahayana sutras, in addition to the Heart Sutra, include the Lotus Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, and the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is also known as the Flower Ornament Sutra and is highly influential in Chan and Zen. It includes the widely cited metaphor of Indra’s Net.

Related Reading

Mahayana, Way of the Bodhisattva, Vajrayana / Tibetan Buddhism, Sakyong Mipham, Shambhala Sun, Lion's Roar, Buddhism

The Bodhisattva Path of Mahayana Buddhism

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on the bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism.

Buddhadharma - Spring '05 Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche Mahayana mindfulness/awareness Prajna

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the Mahayana Tradition

In the Mahayana tradition, mindfulness is regarded as wisdom, transcendental knowledge, which is known in Sanskrit as prajna. There are several stages we progress through in our study and cultivation of prajna. These become the means for integrating our understanding into our experience, and progressively developing that experience into the full state of realization.

Trikaya: The Mahayana Buddhist Trinity

The “three bodies of the Buddha” may seem like a remote construct, says Reginald Ray, but the trikaya is present in every moment of our experience.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.