Mahayana Buddhism – A Short Introduction and Analysis

Mahayana means greater vehicle, as compared to other schools of thought which were considered lesser vehicle. Mahayana is the dominant school of Buddhism in the world today. The form of Buddhism  found in countries such as China, Tibet, Japan and Korea is Mahayana. The now popular Zen Buddhism of Japan and the Vajrayana of the Dalai Lama are Mahayana Schools of thought. Hollywood celebrities like Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez(JLo), who was converted to Mahayana School of Buddhism by Richard Gere, add to the glamour and appeal of Mahayana in the west.

Origin and Spread

In his book , “The Religion of the Samurai and a Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan”, Kaitan Nukariya describes the origin of Mahayana School of thought.

“According tho the tradition of this sect, Sakhya Muni transmitted his mysterious doctrine from mind to mind, to his oldest disciple Mahakasyapa at the assembly held on the Mount of the Holy Vultures, and the latter was acknowledged as the first patriarch, who in turn transmitted the doctrine to Ananda, the second patriarch and so till Bodhidharma, the twenty eighth patriarch.”

In this book he  explain the Mahayana Doctrines as the purest form of  Buddhist doctrines, which though may appear to have deviated from the teachings or words  of the Buddha are in fact in line with the spirit of Buddha. The Buddha found his own way of Salvation and attained enlightenment. Every Mahayana Buddhist seeks to follow the same thing and attain liberation. In this way , they are according to Kaitan Nukariya, are in step with the spirit of Buddha.

The Mahayana School started in India but spread to other parts of Asia mainly to China, Korea, Tibet and Japan.There it combined with the local religion and a synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism took place . This new synthetic forms of Buddhism exploded during various empires and dynasties according to the support they could receive from the political establishments. Chen Hih, known as Chwen the great is said to have been accustomed to wear a Confucian hat, a Buddhist robe and Taoist shoes. He explained to Emperor Wu, the three grades of good.

“The highest good consist in the emptiness of mind and non-attachment.Transcendence is it’s cause and nirvana is it’s result.The middle good consists in morality and good administration. It results in a peaceful and happy life in heaven and in earth. The lowest good consists in love and protection of sentient beings”

– Chen Hih

This dialogue shows the results of  mixing Buddhism with Confucianism and Taoism.

In China, Mahayana Buddhism was introduced by Bodhidharma, the Buddhist  monk from southern India. His teaching came to be called as “Chan Buddhism” in China and “Zen Buddhism” in Japan. As Bodhidharma asserted in a verse attributed to him,

“A special transmission outside the scriptures, not relying on words or letters; pointing directly to the human mind, seeing true nature is becoming a Buddha.”  

In short, this is the heart of Zen doctrine.

In Tibet, Mahayana Buddhism developed into the Vijrayana Sect, of which Dalai Lama is it’s present head. This is also called “Thunderbolt vehicle” or “Diamond Vehicle”.

“Vajrayana, in the history of Buddhism, marks the transition from Mahayana speculative thought to the enactment of Buddhist ideas in individual life. The term vajra (Sanskrit: “thunderbolt,” or “diamond”) is used to signify the absolutely real and indestructible in a human being, as opposed to the fictions an individual entertains about himself and his nature; yana is the spiritual pursuit of the ultimately valuable and indestructible.

Other names for this form of Buddhism are Mantrayana (“Vehicle of the Mantra”), which refers to the use of the mantra to prevent the mind from going astray into the world of its fictions and their attendant verbiage and to remain aware of reality as such; and Guhyamantrayana, in which the wordguhya (“hidden”) refers not to concealment but to the intangibility of the process of becoming aware of reality.”

Philosophy and Doctrines

Mahayana Buddhism goes deep into metaphysics and presents it’s own version of monism, the worldview that all reality is one i.e non-duality. The non-duality here implies emptiness. The Hindu monistic thought differs by stating that all that exists in God i.e non duality,Pantheism. Both of them advocate meditation, Buddhism to experience awakening and Hinduism to experience the Ultimate reality, Brahman.

“Buddhism, like most Indian systems of thought, sees the world as a realm of transmigration, or reincarnation (samsara), from which one may escape by attaining nirvana. In the Mahayana tradition, the emphasis is less on nirvana and more on knowledge or wisdom, the mastery of which constitutes awakening. Moreover, because the fact of emptiness implies that all dualities, such as good and evil or existence and nonexistence, are ultimately false, even basic distinctions such as that between samsara and nirvana cannot be sustained. As developed by later philosophers, such as Jnanagarbha in the 8th century, the doctrine of the Two Truths, absolute truth (paramarthasatya) and conventional truth (samvritisatya), resolves the apparent conflict by stating that ultimately things do not exist as such, which is to say, do not exist as they seem to exist, substantially. Therefore, ordinary reality is ultimately nothing more than convention or tacit agreement. Understanding absolute truth consists in understanding the nature of ordinary reality as nothing more than conventional. This is realized through meditation and—in the Vajrayana tradition, which uses highly symbolic language—through various practices specifically designed to break down ordinary assumptions through shocking inversions of normal expectations.”


imagesThe Bodhisattva is the savior figure in Mahayana Buddhism. He reincarnates out of compassion, though he has attained liberation to rescue others. His merit can be transferred to other individuals so that they can attain nirvana. At present,the Dalai Lama is one such Bodhisattva.

“Central to Mahayana ideology is the idea of the bodhisattva, one who seeks to become a Buddha. In contrast to the dominant thinking in non-Mahayana Buddhism, which limits the designation of bodhisattva to the Buddha before his awakening (bodhi), or enlightenment, Mahayana teaches that anyone can aspire to achieve awakening (bodhicittot-pada) and thereby become a bodhisattva. For Mahayana Buddhism, awakening consists in understanding the true nature of reality. While non-Mahayana doctrine emphasizes the absence of the self in persons, Mahayana thought extends this idea to all things.”

“The bodhisattvas seek to understand this reality through wisdom (prajna) and to actualize it through compassion (karuna). They realize that since no individual has a “self,” there can be no real difference between themselves and others, and therefore their own liberation is not distinct from the liberation of all beings.”

This aspect of Mahayana has some similarity to the Christian doctrine of imputation of the merits of Christ, to the believers based on faith. There are multiple Bodhisattva’s whereas there is only one Christ, who died under Pontius Pilate and rose again from the dead to prove his claim as son of God and the only true savior of the world.

Means of Salvation:

Crucial to the Mahayana salvific vision is the doctrine of skillful means (upaya). Motivated by compassion and guided by wisdom and insight, buddhas and bodhisattvas wish to lead ordinary beings to liberation.

Sunyata :

The concept that all things are inherently empty is called sunyata. During the time when the number zero was invented in India, which is what sunya means, nothing or emptiness,Buddhist Philosopher Nagarjuna differentiated between ultimate truth which is emptiness and conventional truth, to show that sunyata explains reality.

‘Nagarjuna defined emptiness in terms of the doctrine of pratitya-samutpada (“dependent origination”), which holds that things are not self-arisen but produced in dependence on causes and conditions. Adopting this view allowed him to avoid the charge of nihilism, which he addressed directly in his writings and which his followers would confront over the centuries. Nagarjuna employs the doctrine of the two truths, paramartha satya (“ultimate truth”) and samvriti satya (“conventional truth”), explaining that everything that exists is ultimately empty of any intrinsic nature but does exist conventionally. The conventional is the necessary means for understanding the ultimate, and it is the ultimate that makes the conventional possible. As Nagarjuna wrote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.”’

Nirvana :

According to Buddha, Nirvana is liberation from the cycle of rebirths, which is synonymous with suffering. But the word came to be explained in both positive and negative terms in different Mahayana traditions.

“Nirvana was not regarded as a place, therefore, but as a state of absence, notably the absence of suffering. Exactly what persisted in the state of nirvana has been the subject of considerable discussion over the history of the tradition, though it has been described as bliss—unchanging, secure, and unconditioned.

Buddhist thinkers have distinguished between “the nirvana with remainder,” a state achieved prior to death, where “the remainder” refers to the mind and body of this final existence, and “the nirvana without remainder,” which is achieved at death when the causes of all future existence have been extinguished and the chain of causation of both physical form and of consciousness have been finally terminated. These states were available to all who followed the Buddhist path to its conclusion. The Buddha himself is said to have realized nirvana when he achieved enlightenment at the age of 35. Although he destroyed the cause of future rebirth, he continued to live for another 45 years. When he died, he entered nirvana, never to be born again.

With the rise in the 1st century ce of the Mahayana tradition, a form of Buddhism that stresses the ideal of the bodhisattva, the nirvana without remainder came to be disparaged in some texts as excessively quietistic, and it was taught that the Buddha, whose life span is limitless, only pretended to pass into nirvana to encourage his followers to strive toward that goal. According to this tradition, the Buddha is eternal, inhabiting a place referred to as the “unlocated nirvana” (apratisthitanirvana), which is neither samsara nor nirvana. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (150–c. 250) declared that there was not the slightest difference between samsara and nirvana, a statement interpreted to mean that both are empty of any intrinsic nature.”


Analysis and Conclusion

Mahayana Buddhism came to embrace metaphysical speculation as opposed to the warnings of it’s founder, who made it is practice to answer with a silence all questions relating to metaphysics. Buddha did not believe that man can grasp ultimate reality and so considered metaphysical speculation a waste of time and rather concentrated on practical ways of dealing with the problems of life. Thus originated Buddha’s teachings on suffering and how to be liberated from them, without delving deep into metaphysics. It was a skeptical and practical approach to finding truth, taking into consideration the possibilities and limitations.

With the passage of time, Buddhism came under attack from the various vedic philosophical systems of thought. Debates became a way of demonstrating truth to the audience. There arose a need to answer and defend Buddhist thought metaphysically. So against the wishes of the founder, Buddhism came to embrace metaphysics and various schools of thought evolved over time in order to meet the challenge posed by various opponents of Buddhism. This is how Mahayana Buddhism became metaphysical and complicated.

“They realize that since no individual has a “self,” there can be no real difference between themselves and others, and therefore their own liberation is not distinct from the liberation of all beings.” If this quote from the encyclopedia is true, then why should others get liberated separately? Should not the liberation of one automatically lead to the liberation of the others, when they have no real difference between them?

Though Mahayana Buddhism tries to give a view of reality, it fails miserably when compared with the modern scientific discoveries which at the electron microscopic level and beyond keeps coming up with newer subatomic particles. There is no intrinsic emptiness as the Mahayana philosphers theorized.

Also the big-bang cosmology proposing a finite universe also in is stark contrast to the eternal universe proposed by the Buddhist philosophers. Along with the finite universe comes the need of cause for the universe, with all it’s cosmological dimensions, constants and microscopic “irreducibly complex” design, the best explanation for which is a first cause as the bible proposes.

The Trinity with it’s unity in diversity,personality and community gives a better and broader explanation for reality. Here unity and duality intersect and thus Trinity best explains reality without having to compromise or overstate unity or duality. Whereas the Buddhist idea of intrinsic emptiness, empties everything of essential worth, Trinity gives intrinsic worth to each and every thing in the created order. God created everything and said it is good. When God says something is good, it is not the conventional good, but intrinsic good which comes from his endowing each and every thing he created with worth and value. Thus humans have intrinsic worth which was endowed on them by their creator, being created in his own image.

Mahayana traditions embrace a lot of local myths which includes belief in the presence of infinite number of Bodhisattvas, Karma, rebirth, the law of cause and effect with respect to the various births etc.

In our conversations with Mahayana Buddhists, the following tips can be used:The concept of the Bodhisattva has it’s parallel in Jesus and thus the historic Jesus, the true savior can be introduced in our conversation with the Mahayana Buddhist at the appropriate time. The assumptions of the Mahayana Buddhist have to be questioned. Leading questions like, “How can you be so sure, the ultimate reality is emptiness, given the enormous amount of matter, diversity and life we see all around us?”, “Is it possible that the Mahayana doctrines are just myths?”, “Is there any proof that the Bodhisattva’s are real?”, “Is your knowledge of what you believe about Buddhism first hand knowledge or second hand knowledge?” have to be asked so that the person is challenged to challenge his assumption and further help should be provided by explaining the biblical worldview and how it explains reality much better.

Mahayana Buddhism with it’s various sects and interpretations needs further study and analysis in order to answer specific sects and their interpretations.