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Bodhisattva seated in meditation. Afghanistan, 2nd century CE

Mahayana (S. mahāyāna; T. theg pa chen po; C. dasheng; J. daijō; K. taesŭng 大乘).[1] Literally "Great Vehicle". A movement within the Sanskrit tradition that developed around 100 CE, approximately four hundred years after the passing of the Buddha. The movement was based on a set of sutras now known as the Mahayana sutras.

The Mahayana sutras cover a wide range of content, but a key difference between the Mahayana sutras and the earlier sutras is the Mahayana emphasis on the distinction between buddhahood and arhathood. According to the Mahayana:

  • Buddhahood represents the enlightened state of the Buddha, which is superior to that of his diciples, who reached the level of arhathood. The path to buddhahood is the path of the bodhisattva which is superior to the path of the arhats.
  • Arhathood represents the level of enlightenment reached by the buddha's disciples (arhats). This represents a high level of attainment, that is free from suffering, but it lacks the infinite wisdom and compassion of the state of buddhahood. Thus the path of the arhat that is emphasized in the earlier sutras is a more limited path.

Thus, the Mahayana places great emphasis on the path of the bodhisattva, which includes training methods such as the six paramitas, that are intended to develop the highest possible level of wisdom and compassion.

When the Mahayana sutras first appeared in India around 100 CE, they were not accepted as the "word of the Buddha" (buddhavacana) by all the Buddhist practitioners in India. Some Buddhist groups rejected the Mahayana sutras and asserted that only the earlier sutras were the authentic word of the Buddha. However, many Mahayana sutras were translated into Chinese and later into Tibetan, and the Mahayana view became the dominant view in East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. In some cases in East Asia, certain Mahayana sutras were revered as the highest possible expression of the Buddha's teaching.

The Theravadan Pali Canon does not include the Mahayana sutras that developed in India during this period. Hence, the Theravada tradition of Southest Asia does not accept the Mahayana sutras of this period as the "word of the Buddha."


Early statue of the Buddha from Gandhāra, 1st–2nd century CE.

Origins of the Mahayana texts

"The orgins of the Mahayana remain a subject of scholarly debate."[1]

Most scholars agree that "around the beginning of the Christian era there began to emerge scriptures that challenged certain established Buddhist teachings and ways of understanding, and which advocated what is represented as a superior path of practice leading to a superior understanding."[2]

The defining characteristics of these new texts was the "superiority of Guatama's awakening to that of his disciples".[2]

Origin of the term "Mahayana"

According to contemporary scholar Jan Nattier, the term Mahāyāna ("Great Vehicle") was originally an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna ("Bodhisattva Vehicle")[3] — the vehicle of a bodhisattva seeking buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. The term Mahāyāna was therefore formed independently 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 creation of the term Mahāyāna and its application to Bodhisattvayāna did not represent a significant turning point in the development of a Mahāyāna tradition.[3]

The earliest Mahāyāna texts 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.[4]

Earliest inscriptions

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."[5]

Mahayana sutras

The Mahayana sutras are key texts of the Mahayana tradition. These texts appeared in Northern India sometime after the death of the Buddha. They are considered to be the word of the Buddha within the Mahayana tradition, but they are generally not considered as authentic teachings of the Buddha within the Theravada tradition.

The Mahayana sutras are largely preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and in extant Sanskrit manuscripts. Around six hundred Mahayana sutras survive in Sanskrit, or in Chinese and Tibetan translations.[6]


The key doctrines of the Mahayana include:[1]

The major philosophical schools that assert the Mahayana view are:

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Mahāyāna.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gethin 1998, Chapter 9.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Nattier 2003, p. 174.
  4. Nattier 2003, p. 172.
  5. Neelis, Jason. Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks. 2010. p. 141
  6. Skilton 1997, p. 101.


Further reading

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