Summarise and discuss the origin and development of Mahayana Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism in the modern era is the largest Buddhist tradition, throughout its development, however, it was very much a minority interest. It distinguishes itself from the more conservative Theraveda school,1 through its emphasis on the supramundane personality of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva ideal, the philosophy of the Shunyata, and its rejection of religious elitism.2
The origins of Mahayana Buddhism, are very obscure as it has no geographical or conceptual origins.3 Emerging sometime between 150 BCE and 100 CE, Mahayana is probably the culmination and indirect successor of various earlier developments.4
The earlier Mahasanghika school (Universal Assembly), for example, shared many of the Mahayana aspirations. As their name suggests they rejected religious elitism, believing it possible for enlightenment achievable outside the confines of the monastery by the practicing laity.
The teaching of the emptiness of dharmas (dharmasunyata), another characteristic of the of Mahayana, found in the writings of the Purvasailous, a Mahasamghikis school.5 The Bodhisattva ideal was also held by other earlier schools, such as the Mahasamghikis, and the Sarvastivadius.6
Mahayana Buddhism was not the sudden inspiration of any one individual, neither was it a rival school; the product of sectarian disagreement. Mahayana developed over a long time; inscriptural evidence suggests it originated as a minority spiritual interest within the confines of the monastery.7
As a consequence Mahayana emerged as a loose group of movements; diverse in teaching and practice. The only shared characteristic being their objection to the practices of the Theraveda, and the acceptance of a developing group of Sacred writings known as the Mahayana Sutras.8 The growth of Mahayana was also marked and identified with the appearance of this literature. 9
The Mahayana Sutras was considered to be the second turning of the `Dharmawheel’, as they were believed to be the inspired expositions of a still existing Buddha. Mahayanist’s accepted most of the Scripture and ritual of the Theraveda, but believed their texts to be of higher value and truth. Traditional Buddhists, however, denied their canonical authority.10
Mahayana Buddhism at first was known as Bodhisattva – yana, `the (spiritual) vehicle of the Bodhidsattva’,11 and to stress their superiority, as a higher spiritual path they called themselves the ‘Great Vehicle’ or Mahayana. All the none-Mahayana schools, were referred as ‘Hinayana'(lesser vehicle), being inferior and small in scope.
Mahayana superiority lies in its emphasis on the superior goal of Buddhahood rather than the lesser Arhatship of the Theraveda school. Buddhahood was gained through the compassionate nature of the Bodhisattva, by refusing to enter Nirvana to help others achieve the same end. This was in direct contrast to the individualism of the Arhat, who entered Nirvana leaving the rest of humanity behind:12 “Mahayana is held by its adherents to be a higher religious aspiration, the aspiration to full and perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings…” 13
A central idea of Mahayana Buddhism expressed in `The Lotus of the True Dharma'(Saddharma-pundarisksa), is the doctrine of `Skilful Means’. This was based on the reasoning that the highest truth (Dharmasunyata) – all can gain Omniscient Buddhahood,14 was too difficult for humanity to understand straight away. Therefore, an easier level was required to prepare the individual for the higher teaching. This lower level was that of the four noble truths, and Arhatship, which the Theraveda tradition considers to be the pinnacle of enlightenment (Pudgalassunyata). This, however, the Mahayana only considered to be a stepping stone on to the higher path.
In relation to the doctrine of `skilful means’ Mahayana developed the notion of Buddhology that involved a redefinition of the nature of the Buddha, leading to the notion of the `Heavenly Buddha'(Sarkyamuni). This supramundane nature of the Buddha was beneficial in that it allowed for new and continued inspiration. The traditional understanding of the Buddha, however, was that of the one historical personality.
According to Mahayana belief Buddhas exist everywhere, and in every age. Expressed in the `Duration of the life of the Tathagata’ Lotus sutra,15 the Buddha is one of many,16 and has appeared as numerous past Buddhas.
On his death the historical Buddha is said not to have entered Nirvana, and although it appeared he did, he remains with humanity, and chooses out of his compassion to be reborn and aid the salvation of others.
Stories in the traditional canon speak of the Buddhas former lives (Jataka), but traditional Buddhism plays down there implications.
These early Mahayana notions on the nature of the Buddhas were systematised by the Yogacarins, into a separation of the historical Buddha from an Omnipresent Buddha. This is known as the three body doctrine (Tri-kaya).
Here Buddhahood is seen in three aspects: The first is that of Rupa-Kaya or `form body’, and this is the historical Buddha. This is also extended into Nirmana-Kaya or `transformation body’; which is more than just the one historical Buddha, but all earthly Buddhas.17 The next intermediary level is that of Sambhoga-Kaya or `enjoyment body’. These Buddhas are the product of Bodhisattva training; beyond the world, but still retaining personality. These Buddhas live in their Akanistha heaven, overseeing the world system in which they were enlightened.
The highest level is that of Dharma-Kaya or the Omnipresent Buddha. This is believed to be the absolute nature of the Buddha and reality combined. This has two aspects: The first is that of Jnuna-Kaya or `knowledge-body’, and this is the quality shared by all Buddhas (buddhata). The second aspect is that of the Svabhavika or `self-existent-body’, and this is the ultimate nature of reality, that is, emptiness, which is known, and realised on attaining Buddhahood, and this is what is referred to as Nirvana.
18 This self existent body, or emptiness in reality is all that exists. All the other levels of the Buddhas nature are used as aids to assistance humanity gain this awareness of emptiness. Therefore, they are nothing but conventional reality, and do not ultimately exist: 19 “From the conventional perspective, the Great Beings and heavenly Buddhas are those who have heroically striven to be close to, or attained to, Buddhahood. From the ultimate perspective, they are the symbolic forms in which the `minds’ of empty `beings’ perceive the Dharma-body, the all-compassing totality…” 20
The three-fold nature of the Buddha emphasises the Mahayana belief that through the practice of the Bodhisattva path, all beings are potential Buddhas. 21
Before entering on the Bodhisattva (enlightened being or future Buddha) path, the individual has to develop the Bodhicitta (the thought of enlightenment), obtained through the knowledge gained and merit of past lives. The Bodhicitta wish can be so powerful that it can erode any past bad karma. On entering the Bodhisattva path vows are taken, for example: “I shall not enter into final nirvana before all things have been liberated.” 22 These vows are made less egotistical through the belief that all beings possess a Bodhicitta, and that essentially there is no difference between them and all other beings, as all are equally empty.23
The Bodhisattva path, however, is very demanding as it can take many rebirths and world-cycles to attain.24 The path itself requires the practice and development of perfection’s (paramita’s), and progression through ten Bodhisattva stages (bhumi’s).25 26
Enlightenment itself is a circular process, so even when the Bodhisattva achieves this end, paradoxically it is still there to achieve. In the early Buddhist teaching the last requirement of the `Eight Fold Path’ was that of `Right concentration’ that encompasses compassion, and it is this quality that enlightened beings are said to exhibit. Mahayana interpreted this compassion as the enlightened Bodhisattvas choose not to cross into Nirvana, but remaining to help others in their enlightenment. This compassion is not the Bodhisattvas purpose, as the Bodhisattva does not ideally have one, but enlightenment.
The Bodhisattva, desire’s enlightenment not for themselves but for the sake of others.27 In their compassion the Bodhisattva can also transfer the karma of their past meritorious acts to help others. Also if helping others requires the engaging in sin, or spending time in hell the Bodhisattva is encouraged to do this. Here, however, lies a problem as there is no strict moral code to restrain or guide to Bodhisattva in these situations.28 Ideally the compassion, purifying meditation and the belief in the results of karma, is believed to guard against licence The wisdom the Bodhisattva accumulates also tempers any self-seeking actions.29 In reality, however, the path of the Bodhisattva can be abused, which yields a loose sense of trust and morals.
Developing along side the Mahayana’s notion of Buddhology and the ideal of the Bodhisattva was an accompany philosophy, which among other subjects of concern speculated on the nature of the Bodhisattva’s goal, that is, knowledge of dharma-kaya or emptiness in the form of the ultimate Omnipresent Buddha.
This thought can broadly be separated into two/three traditions of thought: the Madhyamaka, the Yogacara, and the Tathagat-garbha.
The Madhyamaka, also known as the sunyata-yada or `emptiness teaching’ encapsulates the work of Nagajuna (c.150 – 250 CE) a south Indian philosopher and mystic.30 The thought of which was very important for the Mahayana school, as all subsequent ideas were from or in response to him. His work `Verses on the (Fundamentals of) the middle way’ was the foundation document for Madhyamaka philosophy.31
According to Nagarjuna, the true middle way taught by the Buddha,32 and interpreted wrongly by the other schools saw everything ultimately as empty.33 All things are relative, and that existence is perceived only as the result of causation, that is, phenomenon only exists because of its dependence on something else. In this emptiness there is no real origination of phenomena,34 and therefore nothing has an inherent nature.35
Ultimate reality or Nirvana according to Nagarjuna is impossible and nonsensical to define using positive language, you can only describe what Nirvana is not.
Nagarjuna objected to the Theraveda use of `illusion’, he believed that everything has always been extinct and empty from the outset, therefore, even illusion does not exist.36 The Omniscient Buddha is equated with emptiness, and on obtaining Buddhahood the Bodhisattva is aware of this truth.
Nagarjuna held this `emptiness’ to be the end of the story, but others such as the Yogacara denied this.
The Yogacara school has its origins in a number of Sutras that appeared during the third century CE. Associated with the monk Asanga,37 it is considered to be the third turning of the `Dharmawheel’.
Yogacara follows up Nagarjuna’s notion of `emptiness’. The emphasis here, however, lies with the belief in the `Store-consciousness’ (alaya-vijnana), that nothing exists but thought, and belief in `the self’ or the external world was nothing more than the imagination.38 The only reality is that of the unchanging mind that lies behind all illusion. This mind, however, is made up of differing layers, the deepest or `Base Consciousness’ (Alayn-vijnana) being identified with emptiness. All the others with the experience of samsara. To achieve enlightenment, these layers have to peeled away until there is nothing but the emptiness.
According to the Yogacara world experience is divided into three natures, in constant to the Madhyamaka two. The first is that of ordinary world, that is, the product and content of the mind (parikalpita). The second intermediary level is a mix of both reality and unreality, that is, the realisation of conditioned arising and co-dependence. The third is Yogacara’s attempt to differentiate between samsara and Nirvana, as once illusion is accepted as illusion, the empty mind can detach itself from its contents, and Knowledge is gained of the very empty `nature’ of all phenomena (parinispanna).39
The climax of Mahayana philosophy is the thought of the Tathagata-garbha. It’s earliest known text being the Tathagata-garbha Sutra c.200-150 CE.40 Considered to be a development of the Yogacara argument of the empty mind, the Chinese, however, consider it to be a school on its own. Tathagata-garbha is not associated with any one individual. 41
The term `Tathagata’ meaning `Perfect One’, Buddha or Dharma-kaya, and `garbha’, means container or womb, is seen as the basis of all phenomenon, existing in all beings, pure and empty, at the bottom of every mind. It is this quality that responds to spiritual teaching, and aspires for Nirvana42: “…the Tathagata-garbha (is)43 hidden in the body of every being like a gem of great value…it is eternal, permanent.”44 Through ignorance, and immaturity, however, the Tathagata-garbha is not comprehended.
Once the mind is liberated potential Buddhahood is achieved, in the form of a blazing light: “It is brightly shining with lucid clarity.”45 The Tathagata-garbha, however, is not a permanent self (atman), as this is something Buddhism has always refuted; in reality `this self’ is not real, but empty.46
Mahayana Buddhism developed over a long time, within the framework of the Theraveda tradition. Its main concerns can be summarised in to a number of key concerns, that is, the supramundane nature of Buddha, the Bodhisattva ideal, and the philosophy of the shunyata or ultimate emptiness.
1 Theraveda Buddhists (`The Way of the Elder’), practice the strict precepts of Buddhism, and it probably the descendent of the earliest Buddhist traditions. Theraveda believe in contrast to the Mahayana, that the path of enlightenment is only attainable within the context of the religious community (Sangha). (Monroe C.R, World Religions An Introduction, pg. 117
2 Hinnels R.H, The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, pg. 197
3 Williams.P, Mahayana Buddhism, pg. 4
4 Harvey.H, An Introduction to Buddhism, pg. 89
5 Ibid., 3, pg. 17
6 Ward C.H.S, Buddhism Volume II Mahayana, pg. 40
7 Ibid., 3, pg. 5
8 Ibid., 4, pg. 90
9 Ibid., 3, pg. 4
10 Ibid., 4, pg. 90
11 The predecessors of the Theraveda were known as the `The Vehicle of the Disciple’ (Sravaka-yana), that is those who sought Arhatship. There was also `The Vehicle of the Solitary Buddha’ (Praryeka-buddha-yana), that is, those who attained Buddhahood on their own, and as such can not teach others. Ibid., 4, pg. 92
12 Ibid., 4, pg. 92
13 Ibid., 6, pg. 35
14 Ibid., 4, pg. 92
15 Ibid., 4, pg. 125
16 Ibid., 6, pg. 142
17 Ibid., 4, pg. 126
18 Ibid., 4, pg. 127
19 Ibid., pg. 127
20 Ibid., pg. 128
21 Ibid., 3, pg. 19
22 Ibid., 6, pg. 166
23 Ibid., 4, pg. 122
24 Ibid., 6, pg. 164
25 Ibid., 4, pg. 122
26 The ten stages of the Bodhisattva path are as follows: 1) The developing the perfection of generosity (dana). 2) The perfection of moral virtue (sila). 3) The perfection of patience (ksanti).
4) The perfection of vigour (virya), due to increased aspiration and compassion. 5) The perfection of meditation (dhyana). 6)The perfection of wisdom is, and full insight into the emptiness of dharmas. The same level as an Arhat. 7)Beyond samsara, the Bodhisattva becomes a `Great Being’ (Maha-sattva). 8)The Bodhisattva is now certain of Buddhahood. 9) The Bodhisattva perfects his powers, and teaches others. 10) The Bodhisattva dwells in Tusita heaven, then he enters perfect Buddhahood to reside in the Akanistha heaven. (Ibid., 4, pg. 123-124).
27 Ibid., 6, pg. 170
28 Ibid., 3, pg. 172
29 Ibid., 4, pg. 121
30 Ibid., pg. 95
31 Ibid., pg. 96.
32 The `Middle Path’ according to the Theraveda tradition was to follow the `Four Noble Truths’.
33 Ibid., 4, pg. 96
34 Ibid., 6, pg. 190
35 Ibid., 4, pg. 97
36 Ibid., 6, pg 193
37 Ibid., 4, pg. 105
38 Ibid., 6, pg. 197
39 Ibid., 4, pg. 111
40 Ibid., pg. 114
41 Ibid., pg. 113
42 Ibid., pg. 115
43 In context, `is’ is actually`as’ (Ibid., pg. 118)
44 From the Lankavatara Sutra. Ibid., 4, pg. 118
45 From the Ratnagotra-vibhaga. Ibid., pg. 114.