Skip to main content

Mahāyāna Buddhism

This “Greater Vehicle” form of Buddhism is the dominant form in Mongolia, China, Tibet, Korea, Japan, and North Vietnam. Its origins are obscure, but many scholars trace it back to a sect called the Mah€sagikas (“Members of the Greater Order”) which was censured by the Second Buddhist Council of 383 BCE for holding views which are similar to those later held by some Mah€y€nists. Mah€y€na Buddhists, of course, eschew heresy and claim to preserve the essential teachings of Siddh€rtha Gautama. They refer to the Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia as “H…nay€na,” i.e., the “Lesser Vehicle.” The latter prefer to be called either simply “Buddhists” or “Therav€dins” (Sk. Sthav…rav€dins, “Believers in the Doctrine of the Elders”). They also claim that their scriptures are earlier and more authentic than those of the Mah€y€na who, they say, corrupted Buddha’s teaching by adding scriptures of their own after Buddha’s death. Mah€y€nists counter this charge by claiming that their scriptures come from the same state of consciousness as that attained by the Buddha, so are essentially teachings of the Buddha as well.

The difference between the two schools centers basically on the nature of reality. There developed in Theravšda Buddhism two main schools of philosophy, Sarv€stiv€da and Vaibh€ika, both essentially realistic, analyzing human nature into a series of “dharmas” which had certain essential or defining characteristics. (Note that Buddha’s teaching is also called the Dharma; this is a different use of that term.) It was thought that one had to realize the nature and functioning of these dharmas in oneself in order to overcome ignorance (avidy€) and attain nirv€Ša. Although Therav€da texts do mention the bodhisattva, their goal was that of an arhat (P€li “arahant”). Mah€y€na, by contrast, emphasized the “Perfection of Wisdom” (Prajñ€p€ramit€) and produced a number of texts (called S™tras), written in Sanskrit rather than P€li, developing this theme. They also placed greater emphasis on the idea of the Bodhisattva, one who has attained nirv€Ša, but renounces it in order to remain connected with the world to help suffering humanity. This is clearly indicated, for instance, in the Vajrachedik€ (“Diamond-cutter”) S™tra:

Then the Bhagavan spoke thus to him: “Anyone, O Subh™ti, who has entered here on the path of the Bodhisattvas must frame his thought thus: As many beings as there are in this world of beings, comprehended under the term of beings (born either of eggs, or from the womb, or from moisture, or miraculously), with form or without form, with name or without name, or neither with nor without name, as far as any known world of beings is known, all must be delivered by me in the perfect world of nirv€Ša. And yet, after I have thus delivered immeasurable beings, not one single being has been delivered. And why? Because, O Subhuti, no one is to be called a Bodhisattva, for whom there should exist the idea of a being, the idea of a living being, or the idea of a person.”

Note that this s™tra implies the Buddhist teaching that the world is in constant flux, hence there are really no such things as “beings,” or “persons” — there is only “becoming.”

But also note that in the process of developing this concept of the compassionate savior, the idea of nirv€Ša has been changed from a state of consciousness (which the word implies, i.e., “blowing out” the fire of desire which binds one to the wheel of rebirth or saˆs€ra) to a place (a “perfect world”). It is interesting to note that later theosophical literature agrees with this Mah€y€na idea, identifying one of the “planes” or levels of the seven-fold universe as the Nirv€Šic Plane, even though Helena P. BLAVATSKY once clearly stated, “Nirvana is a state, not a mode of visible objectiveness, nor a locality” (CW X:175). It is possible, however, that the conflict here is more apparent than real, since the Nirv€Šic Plane is essentially a non-objective realm in which, it is said, one’s usual objective consciousness (i.e., with its subject/object duality) dissolves into a sense of oneness.

Since the Bodhisattva was identified as a “compassionate savior,” it was obvious that the Buddha himself was such as well. Therefore, it was assumed that prior to his incarnation as Siddh€rtha Gautama, he must have had prior incarnations as a Bodhisattva. It was also assumed that the spiritual power of such beings emanates from an inherent Buddha-nature, which they called a “Dharma-body” (Dharmak€ya). They also considered that his ordinary human body, which appeared very much like other human bodies, could not have been the vehicle in which he experienced the bliss of nirv€Ša, hence they postulated that he had an “Enjoyment-body” (Sambhogak€ya) and that only his impermanent physical body or “Transformation-body” (Nirm€Šak€ya) was what people saw. Thus, the “Three Bodies of Buddha” idea was developed in Mah€y€na Buddhism. It was further postulated that there must have been other Buddhas prior to Gautama Buddha, some of which incarnated in earlier times and some of which never took a human form. It is from these considerations that Mah€y€na Buddhism developed their concept of a whole pantheon of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. It is interesting to note that theosophical literature generally agrees with this line of thought and claims that the world has never been without enlightened spiritual teachers; in fact the Buddhist figure of the Bodhisattva Maitreya is identified by theosophists, such as Charles W. LEADBEATER, as the Buddha- to-come and is claimed to be the real spiritual Being who manifested as the Hindu deity ®r… Krishna and who overshadowed Jesus to promulgate the teachings of Christianity.

Yog€c€ra, one of the philosophical systems to come out of Mah€y€na, postulated a form of Idealism called Vijñ€nav€da or vijñaptim€trat€ (“mind only [doctrine]”), begun by šrya Asa‰ga (c. 410-c. 500) and his younger brother Vasubandhu (c. 420-c. 500), which spread to China as Wei-shih and to Japan as the Hoss¯ School. Yog€c€ra postulated that there is no independent physical world, but only consciousness (termed vijñ€na or citta), explaining our belief in a physical world by means of habits produced by karmic “seeds” (b…jas) which distort the one basic or “storehouse” consciousness (€laya-vijñ€na). This system, as its name implies, also developed certain yogic practices designed to rid one of that habit. These practices served as a basis for later Tantric philosophical developments in both India and Tibet. But because of the complex nature of this philosophy, it never became the basis of a popular movement, although its ideas were influential among many Buddhist intellectuals and, through Tantrism, came to play a leading role in shaping the complex Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Through the La‰k€vat€ra (“Descent [of Buddhism] into ®ri Lanka”) S™tra, some of its ideas were also instrumental in the development of Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen Buddhism.

More significantly, the other Mah€y€na philosophic system, begun by N€g€rjuna (2nd cent. CE), criticized the Therav€da analysis of human nature into dharmas, proving not only that it was philosophically incoherent, but was, in effect, a denial of the Buddha’s teaching that everything in nature is transitory (anicca; Sk. anitya), hence amounted to heresy, since essential or defining characteristics of anything are considered to be unchanging. As N€g€rjuna writes in his M™lam€dhyamika K€rik€ (25.24), “No dharma has been taught by the Buddha of anything anywhere.” In fact, N€g€rjuna’s most paradoxical statement was that since both ordinary life (saˆs€ra) and nirv€Ša are “empty” (™nya) — that is to say, devoid of permanence, one of the usual defining characteristics of reality — essentially there is no difference between them, i.e., saˆs€ra = nirv€Ša. His point here is that one does not “go” anywhere when one attains nirv€Ša, nor does the ordinary empirical world suddenly disappear; what happens is that the way one conceives of the empirical world and the way one perceives oneself radically changes. To put it in Christian terms, one is in the world, but not of it.

Blavatsky states that N€g€rjuna also claimed that “every Buddha has both a revealed and a mystic doctrine” and quotes favorably from Edkins’ Chinese Buddhism that such a doctrine “is for the Bodhisattvas and advanced pupils, such as Kashiapa [i.e., Kayapa]” and “is not communicated in the form of definite language,” therefore could not be written as a doctrine in the Buddhist scriptures. Edkins maintains, however, that it is “virtually contained” in the Mah€y€na S™tras, citing the SaddharmapuŠar…ka (“Lotus of the Good Law”) S™tra as an example (CW XI:344). Although Blavatsky identifies the Yog€c€ra philosophy as containing that exoteric doctrine (CW XI:347), it would seem more likely that N€g€rjuna’s system — called M€dhy€mika (“The Middle Way”) — contains it. She further says, “There is an oral tradition among the Chinese Buddhists, and a written statement among the secret books of the Lamaists of Tibet, as well as a tradition among the šryans, that Gautama BUDDHA [Blavatsky’s capitals] had two doctrines: one for the masses and His lay disciples, the other for His ‘elect,’ the Arhats. His policy and after Him that of His Arhats was, it appears, to refuse no one admission into the ranks of candidates for Arhatship, but never to divulge the final mysteries except to those who had proved themselves, during long years of probation, to be worthy of Initiation.” She adds that this secret or esoteric doctrine is the basis for “the later dogma of Lamaic reincarnation or the succession of human Buddhas” and claims that “she has been taught the doctrine” (CW XIV:370).

The Mah€y€na classic known in the West as the “Lotus S™tra” (i.e., SaddharmapuŠar…ka S™tra) had a profound effect on all of Northern Buddhism because it is less cryptic than N€g€rjuna and less philosophical than the Prajñ€p€ramit€ texts. Thus, it became a primary vehicle for conveying Mah€y€na Buddhism to China, Korea, and Japan. It also stimulated intellectual and artistic inspiration. It begins with the Buddha seated on Vulture (gdhra) Peak surrounded by innumerable disciples as well as Bodhisattvas and “supernatural” beings. He emits a ray, illuminating other Buddha-lands, causing Sariputra, one of his disciples, to observe that he is about to teach the Lotus S™tra, since whenever he has emitted that ray in the past he has taught that S™tra (a paradoxical statement, since it occurs as part of the S™tra itself!). Because the Buddha is also teaching the same S™tra in other Buddha Lands, it frees the reader from his or her spatial orientation — just as its self-reference frees one from one’s temporal orientation.

Much of the Lotus S™tra is devoted to a series of parables, one of the most famous being that of the burning house. In the parable, the owner’s children are playing inside the house unaware that it is on fire or disinclined to try to escape. In order to lure them outside, the father promises them three vehicles, although, in fact, he will give them only one. The householder’s false promise is justified pragmatically as an expedient device (up€ya) to save the children. The story is to be understood as an explanation of why the Buddha taught the Therav€da concepts, indicating that they may be effective even if not ultimately true. Indeed, in some sense all of Buddha’s teachings — including the Lotus S™tra itself! — are up€ya, because the ultimate truth (param€rtha satya) cannot be conveyed in words, since words exist in the ordinary (vyavah€ra, lit. “marketplace”) world and have only pragmatic value.

Another famous parable in the s™tra is that of the prodigal son, a parable which bears some similarity to the one told by Jesus, but which has, in the final analysis, a very different meaning. In the Buddhist version, a young son leaves home, falls into destitution, and later unknowingly approaches his father’s new residence unaware of its true owner. Although he does not recognize his father, his father recognizes him and, out of compassion, hires him as a servant and puts him to doing menial chores. Only when the boy gradually learns to take over his father’s business and his father is near death does his father reveal that the boy is not a servant at all but an heir to his father’s great fortune. The moral is clear: we are all heirs to enlightenment and salvation, but we do not know it and would not be able to understand such knowledge even if we were informed. Therefore, we are put to doing menial tasks, like observing the rules of the monastic order or sitting for long hours meditating in the lotus posture. Such things cannot make us heirs to enlightenment, since we are already such heirs, but they may prepare us to accept the truth that salvation is already here. This parable, which depicts the Buddha as a loving father, may also serve as an “expedient device” to help people along the way — although in the final analysis it, too, has no ultimate truth value.

Although N€g€rjuna and the Lotus S™tra are stylistically very different and would seem conceptually far apart, they are, in fact, in agreement that ordinary language cannot convey truth — since ultimate truth is beyond language — but only serve as an expedient means. In that sense, Mah€y€na Buddhism is not so much a philosophy as it is an attempt to get us to refocus our eyes. It is like the picture which seen one way looks like an ugly old woman (analogous to dukkha; Sk. duƒkha) but seen another way is a beautiful young woman (analogous to nibb€Ša; Sk. nirv€Ša). In other words, there are not two distinct and separate realms of reality; there is only this world, although it can be perceived differently from our ordinary way of perceiving it when the fires of desire and craving (tanh€) are extinguished.

Another Mah€y€na s™tra which had a profound effect upon East Asia is the Vimalak…rtinirdea (“Pure Luster Instruction”) S™tra named after its protagonist, Vimalak…rti, who is hardly one’s usual religious figure. Vimalak…rti is depicted as a successful merchant, not a Buddhist monk, and is even a frequenter of gambling halls and places of iniquity. Nevertheless, he is also so profoundly enlightened that even Bodhisattvas dare not go to comfort him in his “illness” because when they approach him his message is so paradoxical that none can respond. Indeed, his message is so astounding that it evokes a spirit of comedy throughout the work. Finally, Manjuri visits him — and even he can scarcely keep up with the layman’s pronouncements. In effect, this s™tra undercuts all those distinctions which monastic Buddhism valued, distinctions between layman and monk, between male and female, between a Bodhisattva and an ordinary person; even the distinction between good and evil are shown to be phoney and misleading. Always with a touch of humor, the s™tra reveals that even the most spiritual disciple is no closer to enlightenment than the most worldly layperson. One does not destroy one’s ego in order to “enter” nirv€Ša, since both ego and nirv€Ša are equally empty. As Vimalak…rti says, “They both exist only in names which have no independent nature of their own.” In other words, this s™tra takes N€g€rjuna’s emptiness (™nyat€) doctrine to its logical, if radical, conclusion.

Like the Lotus S™tra, the Vimalak…rti S™tra places considerable emphasis on the figure of the Bodhisattva, a figure not invented by Mah€y€nists, but considerably developed by them. During the course of its history, Mah€y€na identified innumerable Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, both male and female. In the popular mind, they came to replace the gods and goddesses of the older, indigenous culture. A particularly popular Bodhisattva in China, and later in Japan, was Kwan Yin (Jap. Kannon), a female figure whose iconography is remarkably similar to that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Another was Amit€bha (Jap. Amida) who, according to the story about him, created a Western Paradise or “Pure Land” (Chinese Ch’ing t’u; Japanese Saih¯; Sk. Sukh€vat…, lit. “Happy Land”) to which his devotees would go after death, beginning there the efforts to achieve nirv€Ša which, it was said, is extremely difficult to achieve in this sensuous world. The Bodhisattva Amit€bha (or Amit€yus) was once a monk named Dharmak€ra who vowed not only to become a Buddha but to create, by means of the paranormal powers he attained, a Pure Land in order to help suffering humanity. In this Pure Land, beauty, peace, and concord prevail, therefore achieving nirv€Ša is very easy. A principal feature of all these Bodhisattvas is their compassion (karuŠa). Pure Land Buddhism is based on the longer and shorter Sukh€vat… S™tras which were originally written in India but came to have their major impact in China and Japan. It would seem that nirv€Ša has again been conceived as a place rather than a state of consciousness. Pure Land also substitutes a simple faith and mere repetition of the name of “Amida Buddha” (Japanese nembutsu) in place of the meditative rigors of other forms of Buddhism, which may explain its popularity with the masses.

Blavatsky claims that the Pure Land or Western Paradise “is no fiction located in transcendental space. It is a bona-fide locality in the mountains, or, to be more correct, one encircled in a desert within mountains. Hence it is assigned for the residence of those students of Esoteric Wisdom — disciples of Buddha — who have attained the rank of Lohans and An€g€mins (Adepts). It is called ‘Western’ simply from geographical considerations . . .” (CW XIV:448 fn.). There is, however, some questions about the accuracy of her claim since the rest of the passage identifies the Buddhist hell called “avichi” (lit. “waveless,” perhaps indicating an “absolute zero” or motionless state of being) as well as the seven “lokas” (planes of reality) as physical locations, which they clearly cannot be. Perhaps by “physical” she meant “material,” since elsewhere (CW XIV:439) she equates the Pure Land (or “Happy Land,” Sukh€vat…), with Devachan, i.e., Heaven. She also claims that only the Northern Buddhists possess the complete Buddhist scriptures, despite elsewhere (CW I:402; VI:96) disparaging them (cf. CW XIV:443). One must, therefore, treat her statements about Mah€y€na Buddhism with caution although she is unequivocal in her regard for Buddhism in general, writing, “It is true that I regard the philosophy of Gautama Buddha as the most sublime system, the purest, and, above all, the most logical of all.” But that “I much prefer to hold to the mother source [presumably what she terms ‘Esoteric Buddhism’] rather than to depend upon any of the numerous streams that flow from it” (CW I:402). See also articles on EARLY BUDDHISM; ESOTERIC BUDDHISM; CHINESE BUDDHISM; JAPANESE BUDDHISM; KOREAN BUDDHISM; THERAVšDA BUDDHISM; TIBETAN BUDDHISM; ZEN BUDDHISM.


Dutt, Nalinakaha. Mah€y€na Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978.

Hanh, Thich Naht. Finding Our True Home: Living in the Pure Land Here and Now. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1992.

Nagao, Gadjin. The Foundational Standpoint of Madhy€mika Philosophy, trans. John P. Keenan. Albany: SUNY Press, 1989.

Robinson, Richard. Early Madhy€mika Buddhism in India and China. NY: Samuel Weiser, 1978.

Suzuki, D. T. Outlines of Mah€y€na Buddhism. NY: Schocken Books, 1963.

Williams, Paul. Mah€y€na Buddhism. NY: Routledge, 1989.


© Copyright by the Theosophical Publishing House, Manila