Mahāyāna (English: ; for "Great Vehicle") is one of two main existing branches of Buddhism (the other being Theravada) and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. This movement added a further set of discourses, and although it was initially small in India, it had long-term historical significance. The Buddhist tradition of Vajrayana is sometimes classified as a part of Mahāyāna Buddhism, but some scholars consider it to be a different branch altogether.
"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".[note 1] 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. Mahāyāna Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson.
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. Mahayana Buddhism also spread to other South and Southeast Asian countries, such as Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Iran and other Central Asian countries before being replaced by Theravada Buddhism, Islam, or other religions.
Large Mahāyāna scholastic centers such as Nalanda thrived during the latter period of Buddhism in India, between the seventh and twelfth centuries. Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism and Vietnamese Buddhism. It may also include the Vajrayana traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahāyāna tradition.
According to Jan Nattier, the term Mahāyāna ("Great Vehicle") was originally an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna ("Bodhisattva Vehicle"), the vehicle of a bodhisattva seeking buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. The term Mahāyāna (which had earlier been used simply as an epithet for Buddhism itself) was therefore adopted at an early date as a synonym for the path and the teachings of the bodhisattvas. Since it was simply an honorary term for Bodhisattvayāna, the adoption of the term Mahāyāna and its application to Bodhisattvayāna did not represent a significant turning point in the development of a Mahāyāna tradition.
The earliest Mahāyāna texts, such as the Lotus Sutra, often use the term Mahāyāna as a synonym for Bodhisattvayāna, but the term Hīnayāna is comparatively rare in the earliest sources. The presumed dichotomy between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna can be deceptive, as the two terms were not actually formed in relation to one another in the same era.
Among the earliest and most important references to Mahāyāna are those that occur in the Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) dating between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. Seishi Karashima has suggested that the term first used in an earlier Gandhāri Prakrit version of the Lotus Sūtra was not the term mahāyāna but the Prakrit word mahājāna in the sense of mahājñāna (great knowing). At a later stage when the early Prakrit word was converted into Sanskrit, this mahājāna, being phonetically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into mahāyāna, possibly because of what may have been a double meaning in the famous Parable of the Burning House, which talks of three vehicles or carts (Skt: yāna).[note 2]
The term appeared in some of the earliest Mahayana texts, including Emperor Ling of Han's translation of the Lotus Sutra. It has also appeared in Āgama. The terms 大乘 or even 小乘 do not appear in the Pāli Canon of the Theravada school.
Some scholars think the definition is different from the common explanations of later generations. When Buddhist scriptures were being translated into Chinese, Mahayana Buddhism already coexisted with other schools in India. Mahayana started to become popular with the rise of Han Buddhism. According to comparisons with the Pali sutras, some scholars such as Yin Shun argue that the word 大乘 was added during translation into Chinese.
The origins of Mahāyāna are still not completely understood and there are numerous competing theories. The earliest Western views of Mahāyāna assumed that it existed as a separate school in competition with the so-called "Hīnayāna" schools. According to David Drewes, for most of the 20th century, the leading theories about the origins of Mahāyāna were that it was either a lay movement (first argued by Jean Przyluski and supported by Etienne Lamotte and Akira Hirakawa) or that it developed among the Mahāsāṃghika Nikaya. These theories have recently been mostly overturned or shown to be problematic.
The earliest textual evidence of "Mahāyāna" comes from sūtras originating around the beginning of the common era. Jan Nattier has noted that some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra use the term "Mahāyāna", yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mahāyāna in this context and the early schools, and that "Mahāyāna" referred rather to the rigorous emulation of Gautama Buddha in the path of a bodhisattva seeking to become a fully enlightened buddha. Nattier writes that in the Ugra, Mahāyāna is not a school, but a rigorous and demanding "spiritual vocation, to be pursued within the existing Buddhist community."
Several scholars such as Hendrik Kern and A.K. Warder suggested that Mahāyāna and its sutras (such as the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā genre) developed among the Mahāsāṃghika Nikaya (from the 1st century BCE onwards), some pointing to the area along the Kṛṣṇa River in the Āndhra region of southern India as a geographical origin. Paul Williams thinks that "there can be no doubt that at least some early Mahāyāna sutras originated in Mahāsāṃghika circles", pointing to the Mahāsāṃghika doctrine of the supramundane (lokuttara) nature of the Buddha, which is very close to the Mahāyāna view of the Buddha.
Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that "historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra." However, more recently Seishi Karashima has argued for their origin in the Gandhara region. Some scholars such as Warder think that after a period of composition in the south, later the activity of writing additional scriptures moved to the north.[note 3] Joseph Walser also notes that certain other sutras "betray a northwestern origin" and mention products of trade with China (or obtained outside of India, such as silk or coral).
Important pieces of evidence for the early Mahāyāna include the texts translated by the monk Lokakṣema in the 2nd century CE, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandhāra. These are some of the earliest known Mahāyāna texts.[note 4] Study of these texts by Paul Harrison and others show that they strongly promote monasticism (contra the lay origin theory), acknowledge the legitimacy of arhatship, do not recommend devotion towards 'celestial' bodhisattvas and do not show any attempt to establish a new sect or order. Some of these texts often emphasize ascetic practices, forest dwelling, and deep states of meditative concentration (samadhi). Some scholars further speculate that the prajñāpāramitā sūtras were written in response to certain theories of the abhidharma schools.
Evidence from sutras which depict a close connection of Mahāyāna with monasticism eventually revealed the problems with the lay origins theory. The Mahāsāṃghika origins theory has also slowly been shown to be problematic by scholarship that revealed how certain Mahāyāna sutras show traces of having developed among other nikāyas or monastic orders (such as the Dharmaguptaka). Because of such evidence, scholars like Paul Harrison and Paul Williams argue that the movement was not sectarian and possibly pan-buddhist. There is no evidence that Mahāyāna ever referred to a separate formal school or sect of Buddhism, but rather that it existed as a certain set of ideals, and later doctrines, for aspiring bodhisattvas. Paul Williams has also noted that Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early schools of Buddhism, and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to an early school. Membership in these nikāyas, or monastic sects, continues today with the Dharmaguptaka nikāya in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore, Mahāyāna was never a separate rival sect of the early schools. Paul Harrison clarifies that while monastic Mahāyānists belonged to a nikāya, not all members of a nikāya were Mahāyānists. From Chinese monks visiting India, we now know that both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna monks in India often lived in the same monasteries side by side. It is also possible that, formally, Mahāyāna would have been understood as a group of monks or nuns within a larger monastery taking a vow together (known as a "kriyākarma") to memorize and study a Mahāyāna text or texts.
Gregory Schopen meanwhile has argued that a series of loosely connected movements developed during the 2nd century around cult shrines where Mahāyāna sutras were kept, and the "cult of the book" theory is also popular among other current scholars.
After examining the epigraphic evidence, Schopen also argues that Mahāyāna remained "an extremely limited minority movement – if it remained at all – that attracted absolutely no documented public or popular support for at least two more centuries." Schopen also sees this movement as being in tension with other Buddhists, "struggling for recognition and acceptance". Their "embattled mentality" may have led to certain elements found in Mahāyāna texts such as the Lotus sutra.
Likewise, Joseph Walser speaks of Mahāyāna's "virtual invisibility in the archaeological record until the fifth century." Schopen, Harrison and Nattier also argue that these communities were probably not a single unified movement, but scattered groups based on different practices and sutras. One reason for this view is that Mahāyāna sources are extremely diverse, advocating many different, often conflicting doctrines and positions, as Jan Nattier writes:
Thus we find one scripture (the Aksobhyavyuha) that advocates both srávaka and bodhisattva practices, propounds the possibility of rebirth in a pure land, and enthusiastically recommends the cult of the book, yet seems to know nothing of emptiness theory, the ten bhumis, or the trikaya, while another (the P’u-sa pen-yeh ching) propounds the ten bhumis and focuses exclusively on the path of the bodhisattva, but never discusses the paramitas. A Madhyamika treatise (Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamika-karikas) may enthusiastically deploy the rhetoric of emptiness without ever mentioning the bodhisattva path, while a Yogacara treatise (Vasubandhu’s Madhyanta-vibhaga-bhasya) may delve into the particulars of the trikaya doctrine while eschewing the doctrine of ekayana. We must be prepared, in other words, to encounter a multiplicity of Mahayanas flourishing even in India, not to mention those that developed in East Asia and Tibet.
One of the current leading theories is what Paul Harrison calls "the forest hypothesis" and defines as:
Some scholars point to how some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts often depict strict adherence to the path of a bodhisattva, and engagement in the ascetic ideal of a monastic life in the wilderness, akin to the ideas expressed in the Rhinoceros Sūtra.[note 5] Reginald Ray has also defended this view in his Buddhist Saints in India (1994). Likewise, Jan Nattier's study of the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra, A few good men (2003) argues that this sutra represents the earliest form of Mahāyāna, which presents the bodhisattva path as a ‘supremely difﬁcult enterprise’ of elite monastic forest asceticism. Boucher's study on the Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā-sūtra (2008) is another recent work on this subject.
David Drewes argues against both the book cult hypothesis and the forest hypothesis. He points out that there is no actual evidence for existence of book shrines, that the practice of sutra veneration was pan-buddhist and not distinctly Mahāyāna, and that "Mahāyāna sutras advocate mnemic ⁄ oral ⁄ aural practices more frequently than they do written ones." Regarding the forest hypothesis, he points out that only two of the 12 or so texts of the Lokakṣema corpus directly advocate forest dwelling, while the others either do not mention it or see it as unhelpful, promoting easier practices such as "merely listening to the sutra, or thinking of particular Buddhas, that they claim can enable one to be reborn in special, luxurious ‘pure lands’ where one will be able to make easy and rapid progress on the bodhisattva path and attain Buddhahood after as little as one lifetime." Drewes states that the evidence merely shows that "Mahāyāna was primarily a textual movement, focused on the revelation, preaching, and dissemination of Mahāyāna sutras, that developed within, and never really departed from, traditional Buddhist social and institutional structures." Drewes points out the importance of dharmabhanakas (preachers, reciters of these sutras) in the early Mahāyāna sutras. This figure is widely praised as someone who should be respected, obeyed ('as a slave serves his lord'), and donated to, and it is thus possible these people were the primary agents of the Mahāyāna movement.
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.[note 6][note 7][note 8]
The Mahāyāna movement (or movements) remained quite small until it became established in the fifth century, with very few manuscripts having been found before then (the exceptions are from Bamiyan). According to Walser, "the fifth and sixth centuries appear to have been a watershed for the production of Mahāyāna manuscripts." Likewise it is only in the 4th and 5th centuries CE that epigraphic evidence shows some kind of popular support for Mahāyāna, including some possible royal support at the kingdom of Shan shan as well as in Bamiyan and Mathura. Still, even after the 5th century, the epigraphic evidence which use the term Mahāyāna is still quite small and is notably mainly monastic, not lay. By this time, Chinese pilgrims, such as Faxian, Yijing, and Xuanzang were traveling to India, and their writings do describe monasteries which they label 'Mahāyāna' as well as monasteries where both Mahāyāna monks and non-Mahāyāna monks lived together.
After the fifth century, Mahāyāna Buddhism and its institutions slowly grew in influence. Some of the most influential institutions became massive monastic university complexes such as Nalanda (established by the 5th-century CE Gupta emperor, Kumaragupta I) and Vikramashila (established under Dharmapala c. 783 to 820) which were centers of various branches of scholarship, including Mahāyāna philosophy. The Nalanda complex eventually became the largest and most influential Buddhist center in India for centuries. Even so, as noted by Paul Williams, "it seems that fewer than 50 per cent of the monks encountered by Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang; c. 600–664) on his visit to India actually were Mahāyānists."
Indian Mahāyāna developed various schools of thought, some groupings include: Mādhyamaka, Yogācāra, Buddha-nature (Tathāgatagarbha), and Buddhist logic as the last and most recent. Over time Indian Mahāyāna texts and philosophy reached Central Asia and China through trade routes, afterwards spreading throughout East Asia. In some cases Indian philosophical traditions were directly transplanted, as with the case of the East Asian Madhymaka and East Asian Yogacara schools. Later, new developments in Chinese Mahāyāna led to new Chinese schools like Tiantai, Huayen and Chan Buddhism (Zen).
Forms of Mahāyāna based on the doctrines of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, Buddha Nature sutras, Lotus sutra and the Pure Land teachings are still popular in East Asian Buddhism, which is completely dominated by branches of Mahāyāna. Paul Williams has noted that in this tradition in the Far East, primacy has always been given to study of the Mahāyāna sūtras.
Under the Gupta and Pala empires, a new movement began to develop which drew on previous Mahāyāna doctrine as well as new ideas and which came to be known by various names such as Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, and Tantric Buddhism. Possibly led by groups of wandering tantric yogis named mahasiddhas, this movement developed new tantric spiritual practices and also promoted new texts called the Buddhist Tantras. This new form of Buddhism eventually also spread north to Tibet and east to China.
Various classes of Vajrayana literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Saivism. The Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyatantra, states that mantras taught in the Shaiva, Garuda and Vaishnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri. The Guhyasiddhi of Padmavajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamaja tradition, prescribes acting as a Shaiva guru and initiating members into Saiva Siddhanta scriptures and mandalas. The Samvara tantra texts adopted the pitha list from the Shaiva text Tantrasadbhava, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.
Few things can be said with certainty about Mahāyāna Buddhism,[note 9] especially its early Indian form, other than that the Buddhism practiced in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahāyāna Buddhism.[note 10] Mahāyāna can be described as a loosely bound collection of many teachings with large and expansive doctrines that are able to exist simultaneously.[note 11]
Mahāyāna constitutes an inclusive set of traditions characterized by plurality and the adoption of new Mahāyāna sutras in addition to the earlier āgamas. Mahāyāna sees itself as penetrating further and more profoundly into the Buddha's Dharma. An Indian commentary on the Mahāyānasaṃgraha, entitled Vivṛtaguhyārthapiṇḍavyākhyā, gives a classification of teachings according to the capabilities of the audience:
[A]ccording to disciples' grades, the Dharma is [classified as] inferior and superior. For example, the inferior was taught to the merchants Trapuṣa and Ballika because they were ordinary men; the middle was taught to the group of five because they were at the stage of saints; the eightfold Prajñāpāramitās were taught to bodhisattvas, and [the Prajñāpāramitās] are superior in eliminating conceptually imagined forms.
There is also a tendency in Mahāyāna sūtras to regard adherence to these sūtras as generating spiritual benefits greater than those that arise from being a follower of the non-Mahāyāna approaches to Dharma. Thus the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra claims that the Buddha said that devotion to Mahāyāna is inherently superior in its virtues to following the śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha paths.
Buddhas and bodhisattvas are central elements of Mahāyāna. Mahāyāna has a vastly expanded cosmology, with various Buddhas and bodhisattvas residing in different worlds and buddha-fields (buddha ksetra). An important feature of Mahāyāna is the way that it understands the nature of a Buddha, which differs from non-Mahāyāna understandings. Mahāyāna texts not only often depict numerous Buddhas besides Sakyamuni, but see them as transcendental or supramundane (lokuttara) beings. According to Paul Williams, for the Mahāyāna, a Buddha is often seen as "a spiritual king, relating to and caring for the world", rather than simply a teacher who after his death "has completely ‘gone beyond’ the world and its cares". Buddha Sakyamuni's life and death on earth is then usually understood as a "mere appearance", his death is a show, while in actuality he remains out of compassion to help all sentient beings.
Dr. Guang Xing describes the Mahāyāna Buddha as "an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities ...[He] is described almost as an omnipotent and almighty godhead." The concept of the three bodies (trikāya) of the Buddha was developed to make sense of these ideas, with nirmanakaya Buddhas (like Sakyamuni) being seen as an emanation from the Dharmakaya. Through the use of various practices, a Mahāyāna devotee can aspire to be reborn in a Buddha's pure land or buddhafield, where they can strive towards buddhahood in the best possible conditions. Depending on the sect, liberation into a buddha-field can be obtained by faith, meditation, or sometimes even by the repetition of Buddha's name. Faith based devotional practices focused on rebirth in pure lands are common in East Asian Pure Land Buddhism.
Mahāyāna generally holds that pursuing only the personal release from suffering i.e. nirvāṇa is a narrow or inferior aspiration, because it lacks the resolve to liberate all other sentient beings from saṃsāra (the round of rebirth) by becoming a Buddha. One who engages in this path to complete buddhahood is called a bodhisattva. High level bodhisattvas are also seen as extremely powerful supramundane beings. Popular bodhisattvas include Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Maitreya. Bodhisattvas could reach the personal nirvana of the arhats, but they believe it is more important to remain in saṃsāra and help others. There are two models for this which are seen in the various Mahāyāna texts, one is the idea that a bodhisattva must postpone their awakening until Buddhahood is attained. This could take aeons and in the meantime they will be helping countless beings. After reaching Buddhahood, they do pass on to cessation (nirvāṇa) just like an arhat. The second model is the idea that there are two kinds of nirvāṇa, the nirvāṇa of an arhat and a superior type of nirvāṇa called apratiṣṭhita (non-abiding) that allows a Buddha to remain forever engaged in the world. As noted by Paul Williams, the idea of apratiṣṭhita nirvāṇa may have taken some time to develop and is not obvious in some of the early Mahāyāna literature.
The Mahāyāna bodhisattva path (mārga) or vehicle (yāna) is seen as being the superior spiritual path by Mahāyānists, over and above the paths of those who seek arhatship or "solitary buddhahood" for their own sake (Śrāvakayāna and Pratyekabuddhayāna). According to eight century Mahāyāna philosopher Haribhadra, the term "bodhisattva" can refer to those who follow any of the three vehicles, since all are working towards bodhi (awakening) and hence the technical term for a Mahāyāna bodhisattva is a mahāsattva (great being) bodhisattva. According to Paul Williams, a Mahāyāna bodhisattva is best defined as:
that being who has taken the vow to be reborn, no matter how many times this may be necessary, in order to attain the highest possible goal, that of Complete and Perfect Buddhahood. This is for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Taking the bodhisattva vow to "lead to Nirvana the whole immeasurable world of beings" as the prajñaparamita sutras state, is the central characteristic of the bodhisattva. According to the Bodhipathapradīpa (A Lamp for the Path to Awakening) by the Indian master Atiśa, the central defining feature of a bodhisattva's path is the universal aspiration to end suffering for themselves and all other beings. The spiritual motivation is termed bodhicitta ("the mind of awakening").
Another key virtue of a bodhisattva is their "great compassion" (maha-karuṇā) which leads one to work tirelessly for the ultimate good of all beings. This universal compassion is foundational for a bodhisattva and leads to bodhicitta. According to the Indian philosopher Shantideva, when great compassion and bodhicitta arises in a person's heart, they cease to be an ordinary person and become a "son or daughter of the Buddhas". Another foundational bodhisattva virtue is prajñā (transcendent knowledge or wisdom) which is an understanding of the emptiness of things arising from study, deep consideration and meditation.
Various texts associate the beginning of the bodhisattva practice with what is called the path of accumulation or equipment (saṃbhāra-mārga), which is the first path of the five paths schema which possibly developed from Sarvastivada sources. The Daśabhūmika Sūtra as well as other texts also outline a series bodhisattva levels or spiritual stages (bhūmis ) on the path. The various texts disagree on the number of stages however, the Daśabhūmika giving ten for example (and mapping each one to the ten paramitas), the Bodhisattvabhūmi giving seven and thirteen and the Avatamsaka outlining 40 stages. In later Mahāyāna scholasticism, such as in the work of Kamalashila and Atiśa, the five paths and ten bhūmi systems are merged and this is the progressive path model that is used in Tibetan Buddhism. According Paul Williams, in these systems, the first bhūmi is reached once one attains "direct, nonconceptual and nondual insight into emptiness in meditative absorption", which is associated with the path of seeing (darśana-mārga).
Expedient means (Skt. upāya) is another important skill of the Mahāyāna bodhisattva. The idea is most famously expounded in the Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest-dated sutras, and is accepted in all Mahāyāna schools of thought. It is any effective method or technique that aids awakening. It does not necessarily mean that some particular method is "untrue" but is simply any means or stratagem that is conducive to spiritual growth and leads beings to awakening and nirvana. Expedient means could thus be certain motivational words for a particular listener or even the Noble Eightfold Path itself. Basic Buddhism (what Mahāyāna would term śrāvakayāna or pratyekabuddhayāna) is an expedient method for helping people begin the noble Buddhist path and advance quite far. But the path is not wholly traversed, according to some schools, until the practitioner has striven for and attained Buddhahood for the liberation of all other sentient beings from suffering.
Some scholars have stated that the exercise of expedient means, "the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is also of enormous importance in the Pāli canon."[note 12] In fact the Pāli term upāya-kosalla does occur in the Pāli Canon, in the Sangiti Sutta of the Digha Nikāya.
A central doctrine discussed by numerous Mahāyāna texts is the theory of emptiness or voidness (śūnyatā). It is considered to be an essential doctrine of the prajñāpāramitā genre of sutras as well as the core teaching of the Madhyamaka philosophy. This theory amounts to the idea that all phenomena (dharmas) without exception have "no essential unchanging core", and therefore have "no fundamentally real existence." Because of this, all things, even the Dharma, the Buddha and all beings, are like “illusions” (māyā) and “dreams” (svapna). Obtaining a deep understanding of this is said to be the prajñāpāramitā, the perfection of wisdom.
The Mahāyāna philosophical school termed Madhyamaka (Middle theory or Centrism, also known as śūnyavāda, 'the emptiness theory'), which was founded by the second century figure of Nagarjuna focuses on refuting all theories which posit any kind of substance, inherent existence or intrinsic nature (svabhāva). Nagarjuna attempts to show in his works that any theory of intrinsic nature is contradicted by the Buddha's theory of dependent origination, since anything that has an independent existence cannot be dependently originated. The śūnyavāda philosophers were adamant that their denial of svabhāva is not a kind of nihilism (against protestations to the contrary by their opponents). Using the two truths theory they claimed that while one can speak of things existing in a conventional, relative sense, they do not exist inherently in an ultimate sense. They also argued that emptiness itself is also "empty", it does not have an absolute inherent existence nor does it mean a transcendental absolute reality, but is merely a useful concept or abstraction. In fact, since everything is empty of true existence, all things are just conceptualizations (prajñapti-matra), including the theory of emptiness, and all concepts must ultimately be abandoned in order to truly understand the nature of things.
Vijñānavāda ("the doctrine of consciousness", a.k.a. vijñapti-mātra, "perceptions only" and citta-mātra "mind only") is another important doctrine promoted by some Mahāyāna sutras and later became the central theory of a major philosophical movement which arose during the Gupta period called Yogācāra. The primary sutra associated with this school of thought is the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, which claims that śūnyavāda is not the final definitive teaching (nītārtha) of the Buddha. Instead, the ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya) is said to be the view that all things (dharmas) are only mind (citta), consciousness (vijñāna) or perceptions (vijñapti) and that seemingly "external" objects (or "internal" subjects) do not really exist apart from the dependently originated flow of mental experiences. When this flow of mentality is seen as being empty of the subject-object duality we impose upon it, one reaches the non-dual cognition of "Thusness" (tathatā), which is nirvana. This doctrine is developed through various theories, the most important being the eight consciousnesses and the three natures. The Saṃdhinirmocana calls its doctrine the 'third turning of the dharma wheel'. The Pratyutpanna sutra also mentions this doctrine, stating: "whatever belongs to this triple world is nothing but thought [citta-mātra]. Why is that? It is because however I imagine things, that is how they appear".
The most influential thinkers in this tradition were the Indian brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, along with an obscure figure termed Maitreyanātha. Yogācāra philosophers developed their own interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness which also criticized Madhyamaka for falling into nihilism.
The doctrine of Tathāgata store or Tathāgata womb (Tathāgatagarbha), also known as Buddha-nature or Buddha Principle (Skt: Buddha-dhātu) is important in all modern Mahāyāna traditions, though interpreted in different ways. Broadly speaking Buddha-nature is concerned with ascertaining what allows sentient beings to become Buddhas. The term may have first appeared in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, where it refers to "a sacred nature that is the basis for [beings'] becoming buddhas", and where it is also spoken of as the 'Self' (atman). The doctrine of a "really existing permanent element" within all sentient beings is a source of much debate and disagreement among Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophers as well as modern academics. Some scholars have seen this as an influence from Brahmanic Hinduism, while some of these sutras admit that the use of the term 'Self' is partly done in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics.
According to some scholars, the Buddha nature discussed in some Mahāyāna sūtras does not represent a substantial self (ātman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of emptiness (śūnyatā) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. Other Mahāyāna philosophies like Madhyamaka were mainly dominated by a discourse of emptiness, which used primarily negative or apophatic language. The Buddha nature genre of sūtras can be seen as an attempt to state Buddhist teachings using positive language while also maintaining the middle way, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. A different view is propounded by Tathāgatagarbha specialist, Michael Zimmermann, who sees key Buddha-nature sutras such as the Nirvana Sutra and the Tathagatagarbha Sutra as teaching an affirmative vision of an eternal, indestructible Buddhic Self.
The Uttaratantra (an exegetical treatise on Buddha nature) sees Buddha nature as eternal, uncaused, unconditioned, and incapable of being destroyed, although temporarily concealed within worldly beings by adventitious defilements. According to C. D. Sebastian, the Uttaratantra's reference to a transcendental self (ātma-pāramitā) should be understood as "the unique essence of the universe", thus the universal and immanent essence of Buddha nature is the same throughout time and space.
Mahāyāna Buddhism takes the basic teachings of the Buddha as recorded in early scriptures as the starting point of its teachings, such as those concerning karma and rebirth, anātman, emptiness, dependent origination, and the Four Noble Truths. 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. Most of the Āgamas were never translated into the Tibetan canon, which according to Hirakawa, only contains a few translations of early sutras corresponding to the Nikāyas or Āgamas. However, these basic doctrines are contained in Tibetan translations of later works such as the Abhidharmakośa and the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra.
In addition to accepting the essential scriptures of the early Buddhist schools as valid, Mahāyāna Buddhism maintains large collections of sūtras that are not recognized as authentic by the modern Theravāda school. The earliest of these sutras do not call themselves ‘Mahāyāna,’ but use the terms vaipulya (extensive) sutras, or gambhira (profound) sutras. These were also not recognized by some individuals in the early Buddhist schools. In other cases, Buddhist communities such as the Mahāsāṃghika school were divided along these doctrinal lines. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Mahāyāna sūtras are often given greater authority than the Āgamas. The first of these Mahāyāna-specific writings were written probably around the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE. Some influential Mahāyāna sutras are the Prajñaparamita sutras, the Lotus Sutra, the Pure Land sutras, the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Golden Light Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Sandhinirmocana Sutra and the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras.
According to David Drewes, Mahāyāna sutras contain several elements besides the promotion of the bodhisattva ideal, including "expanded cosmologies and mythical histories, ideas of purelands and great, ‘celestial’ Buddhas and bodhisattvas, descriptions of powerful new religious practices, new ideas on the nature of the Buddha, and a range of new philosophical perspectives." These texts present stories of revelation in which the Buddha teaches Mahāyāna sutras to certain bodhisattvas who vow to teach and spread these sutras after the Buddha's death. Regarding religious praxis, David Drewes outlines the most commonly promoted practices in Mahāyāna sutras were seen as means to achieve Buddhahood quickly and easily and included "hearing the names of certain Buddhas or bodhisattvas, maintaining Buddhist precepts, and listening to, memorizing, and copying sutras, that they claim can enable rebirth in the pure lands Abhirati and Sukhavati, where it is said to be possible to easily acquire the merit and knowledge necessary to become a Buddha in as little as one lifetime." Another widely recommended practice is anumodana, or rejoicing in the good deeds of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
The practice of meditation and visualization of Buddhas has been seen by some scholars as a possible explanation for the source of certain Mahāyāna sutras which are seen traditionally as direct visionary revelations from the Buddhas in their pure lands. Paul Harrison has also noted the importance of dream revelations in certain Mahāyāna sutras such as the Arya-svapna-nirdesa which lists and interprets 108 dream signs.
As noted by Paul Williams, one feature of Mahāyāna sutras (especially earlier ones) is "the phenomenon of laudatory self reference – the lengthy praise of the sutra itself, the immense merits to be obtained from treating even a verse of it with reverence, and the nasty penalties which will accrue in accordance with karma to those who denigrate the scripture." Some Mahāyāna sutras also warn against the accusation that they are not the word of the Buddha (buddhavacana), such as the Astasāhasrikā (8,000 verse) Prajñāpāramitā, which states that such claims come from Mara (the evil tempter). Some of these Mahāyāna sutras also warn those who would denigrate Mahāyāna sutras or those who preach it (i.e. the dharmabhanaka) that this action can lead to rebirth in hell.
Another feature of some Mahāyāna sutras, especially later ones, is increasing sectarianism and animosity towards non-Mahāyāna practitioners (sometimes called sravakas, "hearers") which are sometimes depicted as being part of the 'hīnayāna' (the 'inferior way') who refuse to accept the 'superior way' of the Mahāyāna. As noted by Paul Williams, earlier Mahāyāna sutras like the Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra and the Ajitasena sutra do not present any antagonism towards the hearers or the ideal of arhatship like later sutras do. Regarding the bodhisattva path, some Mahāyāna sutras promote it as a universal path for everyone, while others like the Ugraparipṛcchā see it as something for a small elite of hardcore ascetics.
In the 4th century Mahāyāna abhidharma work Abhidharmasamuccaya, Asaṅga refers to the collection which contains the āgamas as the Śrāvakapiṭaka and associates it with the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas. Asaṅga classifies the Mahāyāna sūtras as belonging to the Bodhisattvapiṭaka, which is designated as the collection of teachings for bodhisattvas.
Mahāyāna Buddhism also developed a massive commentarial and exegetical literature, many of which are called śāstra (treatises) or vrittis (commentaries). Philosophical texts were also written in verse form (karikās), such as in the case of the famous Mūlamadhyamika-karikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way) by Nagarjuna, the foundational text of Madhyamika philosophy. Numerous later Madhyamika philosophers like Candrakirti wrote commentaries on this work as well as their own verse works.
Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition also relies on numerous non-Mahayana commentaries (śāstra), a very influential one being the Abhidharmakosha of Vasubandhu, which is written from a non-Mahayana Sarvastivada–Sautrantika perspective.
Vasubandhu is also the author of various Mahāyāna Yogacara texts on the philosophical theory known as vijñapti-matra (conscious construction only). The Yogacara school philosopher Asanga is also credited with numerous highly influential commentaries. In East Asia, the Satyasiddhi śāstra was also influential.
Another influential tradition is that of Dignāga's Buddhist logic whose work focused on epistemology. He produced the Pramānasamuccaya, and later Dharmakirti wrote the Pramānavārttikā, which was a commentary and reworking of the Dignaga text.
Later Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists continued the tradition of writing commentaries.
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":
Some traditions of Tibetan Buddhism consider the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism and Vajrayāna to be the third turning of the Dharma Wheel. Tibetan teachers, particularly of the Gelugpa school, regard the second turning as the highest teaching, because of their particular interpretation of Yogācāra doctrine. The Buddha Nature teachings are normally included in the third turning of the wheel.
Scholars have noted that many key Mahāyāna ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism. The seminal work of Mahāyāna philosophy, Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, mentions the canon's Katyāyana Sūtra (SA 301) by name, and may be an extended commentary on that work. Nāgārjuna systematized the Mādhyamaka school of Mahāyāna philosophy. He may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the canon. In his eyes the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Mādhyamaka system. Nāgārjuna also referred to a passage in the canon regarding "nirvanic consciousness" in two different works.
Yogācāra, the other prominent Mahāyāna school in dialectic with the Mādhyamaka school, gave a special significance to the canon's Lesser Discourse on Emptiness (MA 190). A passage there (which the discourse itself emphasizes) is often quoted in later Yogācāra texts as a true definition of emptiness. According to Walpola Rahula, the thought presented in the Yogācāra school's Abhidharma-samuccaya is undeniably closer to that of the Pali Nikayas than is that of the Theravadin Abhidhamma.
Both the Mādhyamikas and the Yogācārins saw themselves as preserving the Buddhist Middle Way between the extremes of nihilism (everything as unreal) and substantialism (substantial entities existing). The Yogācārins criticized the Mādhyamikas for tending towards nihilism, while the Mādhyamikas criticized the Yogācārins for tending towards substantialism.
Key Mahāyāna texts introducing the concepts of bodhicitta and Buddha nature also use language parallel to passages in the canon containing the Buddha's description of "luminous mind" and appear to have evolved from this idea.
In the early Buddhist texts, and as taught by the modern Theravada school, the goal of becoming a teaching Buddha in a future life is viewed as the aim of a small group of individuals striving to benefit future generations after the current Buddha's teachings have been lost, but in the current age there is no need for most practitioners to aspire to this goal. Theravada texts do, however, hold that this is a more perfectly virtuous goal.
Cholvijarn observes that prominent figures associated with the Self perspective in Thailand have often been famous outside scholarly circles as well, among the wider populace, as Buddhist meditation masters and sources of miracles and sacred amulets. Like perhaps some of the early Mahāyāna forest hermit monks, or the later Buddhist Tantrics, they have become people of power through their meditative achievements. They are widely revered, worshipped, and held to be arhats or (note!) bodhisattvas.
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 modern Theravāda school is usually described as belonging to Hīnayāna. Some authors have argued that it should not be considered such from the Mahāyāna perspective. Their view is based on a different understanding of the concept of Hīnayāna. Rather than regarding the term as referring to any school of Buddhism that has not accepted the Mahāyāna canon and doctrines, such as those pertaining to the role of the bodhisattva, these authors argue that the classification of a school as "Hīnayāna" should be crucially dependent on the adherence to a specific phenomenological position. They point out that unlike the now-extinct Sarvāstivāda school, which was the primary object of Mahāyāna criticism, the Theravāda does not claim the existence of independent entities (dharmas); in this it maintains the attitude of early Buddhism. Adherents of Mahāyāna Buddhism disagreed with the substantialist thought of the Sarvāstivādins and Sautrāntikas, and in emphasizing the doctrine of emptiness, Kalupahana holds that they endeavored to preserve the early teaching. The Theravādins too refuted the Sarvāstivādins and Sautrāntikas (and other schools) on the grounds that their theories were in conflict with the non-substantialism of the canon. The Theravāda arguments are preserved in the Kathāvatthu.
Some contemporary Theravādin figures have indicated a sympathetic stance toward the Mahāyāna philosophy found in texts such as the Heart Sūtra (Skt. Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya) and Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way (Skt. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā).