Mahayana (Sanskrit for “Great Vehicle”) is one of two (or three, under some classifications) main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. The Buddhist tradition of Vajrayana is sometimes classified as a part of Mahayana Buddhism, but some scholars may consider it as a different branch altogether.
According to the teachings of Mahāyāna traditions, “Mahāyāna” also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called “Bodhisattvayāna”, or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle”. A bodhisattva who has accomplished this goal is called a samyaksaṃbuddha, or “fully enlightened Buddha”. A samyaksaṃbuddha can establish the Dharma and lead disciples to enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson.
The earliest stone inscription containing a recognizably Mahāyāna formulation and a mention of the Buddha Amitābha was found in the Indian subcontinent in Mathura, and dated to around 180 CE. Remains of a statue of a Buddha bear the Brāhmī inscription: “Made in the year 28 of the reign of King Huviṣka, … for the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitābha.” There is also some evidence that Emperor Huviṣka himself was a follower of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and a Sanskrit manuscript fragment in the Schøyen Collection describes Huviṣka as having “set forth in the Mahāyāna.” Evidence of the name “Mahāyāna” in Indian inscriptions in the period before the 5th century is very limited in comparison to the multiplicity of Mahāyāna writings transmitted from Central Asia to China at that time.
Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahāyāna comes from early Chinese translations of Mahāyāna texts. These Mahāyāna teachings were first propagated into China by Lokakṣema, the first translator of Mahāyāna sūtras into Chinese during the 2nd century CE.
Mahāyāna constitutes an inclusive tradition characterized by plurality and the adoption of new Mahāyāna sūtras in addition to the earlier Āgama texts. Mahāyāna sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha’s Dharma.
Mahāyāna Buddhists in East Asia have traditionally studied these teachings in the Āgamas preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon. “Āgama” is the term used by those traditional Buddhist schools in India who employed Sanskrit for their basic canon. These correspond to the Nikāyas used by the Theravāda school. The surviving Āgamas in Chinese translation belong to at least two schools, while most of the Āgamas teachings were never translated into Tibetan.
The fundamental principles of Mahāyāna doctrine were based on the possibility of universal liberation from suffering for all beings (hence the “Great Vehicle”) and the existence of buddhas and bodhisattvas embodying Buddha Nature.
Most Mahāyāna schools believe in supernatural bodhisattvas who devote themselves to the perfections (Skt. pāramitā), ultimate knowledge (Skt. sarvajñāna), and the liberation of all sentient beings.
The Mahāyāna tradition holds that pursuing only the release from suffering and attainment of Nirvāṇa is too narrow an aspiration, because it lacks the motivation of actively resolving to liberate all other sentient beings from Saṃsāra. One who engages in this path is called a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas could reach nirvana, but they believed it was more important to help others on their path of finding nirvana rather than committing fully to nirvana themselves.
Dating back at least to the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra is a classification of the corpus of Buddhism into three categories, based on ways of understanding the nature of reality, known as the “Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel”. According to this view, there were three such “turnings”:
- In the first turning, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi for those in the śravaka vehicle. It is described as marvelous and wonderful, but requiring interpretation and occasioning controversy. The doctrines of the first turning are exemplified in the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra. This turning represents the earliest phase of the Buddhist teachings and the earliest period in the history of Buddhism.
- In the second turning, the Buddha taught the Mahāyāna teachings to the bodhisattvas, teaching that all phenomena have no-essence, no arising, no passing away, are originally quiescent, and essentially in cessation. This turning is also described as marvelous and wonderful, but requiring interpretation and occasioning controversy. Doctrine of the second turning is established in the Prajñāpāramitā teachings, first put into writing around 100 BCE. In Indian philosophical schools, it is exemplified by the Mādhyamaka school of Nāgārjuna.
- In the third turning, the Buddha taught similar teachings to the second turning, but for everyone in the three vehicles, including all the śravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. These were meant to be completely explicit teachings in their entire detail, for which interpretations would not be necessary, and controversy would not occur. These teachings were established by the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra as early as the 1st or 2nd century CE. In the Indian philosophical schools, the third turning is exemplified by the Yogācāra school of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu.
In the 7th century, the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang describes the concurrent existence of the Mahāvihara and the Abhayagiri Vihara in Sri Lanka. He refers to the monks of the Mahāvihara as the “Hīnayāna Sthaviras” (Theras), and the monks of the Abhayagiri Vihara as the “Mahāyāna Sthaviras”. Xuanzang further writes:
The Mahāvihāravāsins reject the Mahāyāna and practice the Hīnayāna, while the Abhayagirivihāravāsins study both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings and propagate the Tripiṭaka.
The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, with 53.2% of practitioners, compared to 35.8% for Theravada and 5.7% for Vajrayana in 2010.
In the course of its history, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread from India to various other South, East and Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, and Nichiren Buddhism. It may also include the Vajrayana traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahāyāna tradition.
Edited from Wikipdedia