What The Heck is Mahayana Buddhism?

My daughter, now in high school,1 asked me last week about Buddhism since she is learning about world religions in her history class, and we got to have a great conversation about it. I haven’t actively raised her Buddhist, but she has been exposed to it through my wife and I (a story in of itself), and now she is old enough to start to appreciate some things and ask questions.

While talking with her, I realized that the “textbook” understanding of Buddhism as we know it, and how I originally learned it as a curious teenager myself, is often based on a Western-“orientalist” view that often borrowed from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. This isn’t necessarily wrong, and it still helps bridge the gap for people new to Buddhism, but there are considerable gaps about Mahayana Buddhism, the other tradition.

For example, the Four Noble Truths technically exist in both traditions, but are not prominent in the Mahayana tradition, whereas the Three (sometimes Four) Dharma Seals are. Bodhisattvas exist in both traditions (sorry purists), but the scope greatly increased in Mahayana Buddhism. The number of buddhas revered in Mahayana Buddhism is certainly larger than Theravada.

On the other hand, both traditions have the same basic set of monastic principles, even if they might quibble about particular rules. Both revere Shakyamuni Buddha as a revered teacher, who lived countless lives before culminating his last life as the historical founder of Buddhism. Both acknowledge, but don’t revere, the devas: deities of the ancient “Vedic religion”, precursor to Hinduism.2

Truth is, you’ve almost certainly seen Mahayana Buddhism or maybe even raised in it, but may not be aware. This is, in my opinion, due to its sheer complexity. Due to its development, and interaction with so many diverse cultures, it exploded into many different schools and sects, so that there isn’t a “Mahayana school” of Buddhism anymore. It kind of atomized into things like Zen, Pure Land tradition, Tiantai, esoteric Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, etc.

But all of these sects still have the same foundation in Mahayana Buddhism, and that’s what we’re looking at today.

A Brief History

First, let’s dispel one misconceptions: neither Mahayana nor Theravada Buddhism are considered “original” Buddhism: the kind of “pristine Buddhism” that people imagine today was practiced when Shakyamuni Buddha was still alive. Both arose from earlier schools of Buddhism in India, both arose from different geographic areas of India3 from one another and probably never really interacted with one another very much. They both inherited the same common pool of sutras: Buddhist texts orally taught from teacher to student since the time of the Buddha. Finally, they both inherited the same basic monastic code. Where Theravada developed primarily southern India and spread to places like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc., Mahayana spread to the northwest along the Silk Road to China and beyond, in part due to the Bactrian Greeks, Parthians, and among many other people.

In the case of Mahayana Buddhism, it also absorbed local deities as it spread, “Buddhified” them, and made them part of the tradition. These include deities that are well-known as Avalokitesvara (a.k.a. Guan-yin, Kannon) and Amitabha (a.k.a. Amida) Buddha.

You see, in addition to the original corpus of sutras that the early Mahayana Buddhists in north-west India inherited they started writing new texts. Some texts took pot-shots at the older schools they felt were stodgy, or moribund, others tried to reboot the Buddhist teachings in newer, more hip (relative to 1st century BC) format. Thus, many Mahayana sutras often have verse sections, probably adapted from older texts, but with lots of narrative texts wrapped around them as well for improved readability. Some of these new Mahayana sutras covered specific topics, others were meant to be pretty comprehensive. It was these early Mahayana Buddhists that also started carving new Buddhist images, partly due to influence from the Greeks living in Bactria as well.

Fragments of a Buddhist text made of birch-bark, from the Gandhara region (modern Afghanistan/ Pakistan), British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

All of this might sound like “cultural accretions” to purists, but as we’ll soon see, the Mahayana approach, particularly in the influential Lotus Sutra, emphasized the expediency of all teachings and all practices, it meant that revering one buddha is just as good as another. If it works, and keeps you on the path, that’s what mattered.

By the time that Mahayana Buddhism reached China, this vast amount of sutra literature from India, both the original sutras, and generations of newer Mahayana-only sutras, plus various deities had grown exponentially. Chinese Buddhists imported these as best as they could, with help from translators from Silk Road cultures, and from India. Further, some Chinese monks such as Xuan-zang even went back to India to bring back even more material. But the information was immense, and the task of translating not just the words, but concepts accurately was monumental.

Enter Zhi-Yi, the founder of Tiantai Buddhism, who was the first to try and systematize all these teachings into a cohesive structure. This school, based on Mount Tiantai, was very successful in this regard, and is still the basis for much of the Buddhism you see today in places like China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

From there, many other schools arose, either in opposition to Tiantai (such as Zen or Hua-yan), or branched off from it to focus on specific teachings or practices (e.g. Pure Land, Nichiren). All of these schools, regardless of whether they opposed Tiantai or derived from it, all drew from the same pool of Mahayana teachings such as those espoused in the aforementioned Lotus Sutra. This dynamic growth of Buddhist schools, all based in Mahayana teachings, is what we see today in east Asian Buddhism.

Mahayana and the Lotus Sutra

What makes Mahayana what it is is probably none other than a Buddhist text called the Lotus Sutra. You cannot have Mahayana without the Lotus Sutra. I won’t cover everything the Lotus Sutra teaches (more on that here), but among its influential ideas:

  • In spite of the various competing schools and sects, all of them ultimately converged into “One-Vehicle” Buddhism.
  • Women were just as capable of becoming fully-awakened buddhas as men.
  • No one has to settle for less, all beings have the capacity to become fully-awakened buddhas. This is also where terms like “buddha-nature” come into play.
  • All Buddhist practices, big and small, help one on the path. Similarly, all Buddhist deities help guide beings according to their background, capacity and inclination.
  • Buddhism isn’t tied to the past, the historical Buddha is always here with us so long as we see the Dharma (the teachings). This has some precedence in earlier Buddhist texts as well.

Thus, what the Lotus Sutra really did was provide an expanded, all-inclusive vision of Buddhism based on a solid foundation of goodwill toward all beings, and a faith in all sentient beings to eventually awaken. It even coined the term Mahayana, or “great vehicle”, to describe this in the second chapter.

So, What Is Mahayana Then?

With all this background information in mind, let’s get to brass tacks and talk about what makes a Buddhist sect Mahayana or not.

The Bodhisattva Jizō (Kshitigarbha in Sanskrit), taken near Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan

There is a somewhat obscure text in China from the 6th century, known in English as the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana attributed to Indian-Buddhist monk Ashvaghosa that was meant to kind of encapsulate Mahayana Buddhism. For example, the following verse:

After reflecting in this way [the suffering of all beings], he should pluck up his courage and make a great vow to this effect: may my mind be free from discriminations so that I may practice all of the various meritorious acts everywhere in the ten directions; may I, to the end of the future, by applying limitless expedient means, help all suffering sentient beings so that they may obtain the bliss of nirvana, the ultimate goal.

Page 101, section 4 of The Awakening of Faith, translated by Yoshito S Hakeda

Every school that we call Mahayana Buddhism, Zen, Pure Land, Tiantai, Nichiren and so on has this basic principle in mind: one vows to develop one’s mind according to the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, not just to help liberate oneself, but also to help awaken and liberate others. We are all in this together, afterall. These different schools may quibble about how best to go about it, but they all agree with the basic principle. You also see these in Mahayana liturgy such as the Four Bodhisattva Vows.

Another is the importance of the mind, again encapsulated in the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana:

The principle [of Mahayana] is “the Mind of the sentient being.” This Mind includes in itself all states of being of the phenomenal world and the transcendental world. (pg. 28, section 2)

The triple world [past, present, and future], therefore, is unreal and is of mind only. Apart from it there are no objects of the five senses and of the mind. (pg. 48, section 3)

The Awakening of Faith, translated by Yoshito S Hakeda

This, like the previous quote, is nothing new to Buddhism, but Mahayana shifts the emphasis even more so, or expanded and deepened earlier teachings to a wider audience. One might call it Buddhism++ if you are a computer nerd. 😋


Mahayana Buddhism is a broad tradition that arose in northwest India that, from my perspective, tried to reboot earlier Indian Buddhism by synthesizing older teachings in new texts, absorbing and Buddhifying various deities, and broadening the vision of Buddhism to be as inclusive as possible and challenging some of the cultural assumptions at the time with respect to gender, livelihood, etc.

P.S. Featured image is from the ending credits of Final Fantasy I, Pixel Remaster. If you played the original like I did, I highly recommend. This is the best remake of the game I’ve played thus far.

1 When I first started blogging ages ago, several blogs ago, she was little a tiny baby. I even called her “baby”, then later “princess”. Amazing how much time has passed. 😭

2 Another correction I had to make with my daughter’s homework material: Buddhism did not come from Hinduism, but they both drew from the same cultural and religious well.

3 Imagine a country the size of Europe, but with maybe 3 times the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Europe, and an older history. That’s India.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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