Buddhism was divided into two schools because of a schism that gained increasing momentum between the 1st century BCE and 2nd century CE. The new school of Buddhism called itself “the greater vehicle,” or Mahayana, as it had reinterpreted the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) to accommodate a greater number of people. The Mahayanists distinguished themselves from the old mainstream Buddhism by referring to it as “the lesser vehicle,” or Hinayana. Because there is a derogatory connotation to the epithet Hinayana, contemporary scholars tend to shun the term in favor of Theravada or Theravada Buddhism. Among the philosophical differences between the two schools is a new conceptualization of temporality that defies the traditional division of past, present, and future and bridges the conceptualization of time in the realms of relative and absolute order.
Both schools of Buddhism subscribe to a common set of basic teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha (also known as Shakyamuni or Sakyamuni). Among these teachings are the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the theory of karma, and the cosmology of impermanence, or dukkha. Differences arose from the way that the two schools made sense of the teachings. Whereas the Theravadins insisted on a rigorous adherence to the Buddha’s original teachings, the Mahayanists championed a more liberal, dynamic, and esoteric interpretation. As a result, Mahayana Buddhism developed a number of innovative shifts in emphasis.
The Bodhisattva Ideal
The most important Mahayana innovation was perhaps the bodhisattva ideal. Literally “awakened being,” the bodhisattva is a Buddha-in-waiting, who vows to postpone entry into nirvana (freedom from desire or attachment) until all living beings are saved. This voluntary sacrifice for the sake of others presents a sharp contrast to the Theravada ideal of the arahant, or “worthy one.” The latter is also enlightened, but attends to his or her own pursuit of sainthood and seeks nirvana just for him- or herself. What the bodhisattva wants is universal salvation. Much as the bodhisattva merits nirvana, he or she chooses to remain in the realm of samsara (endless cycle of birth and rebirth) to help people awaken to the impermanence of human existence, transcend the temptation of desires and wants, and be relieved of sufferings.
Central to the bodhisattva ideal are wisdom and compassion. In addition, the bodhisattva vow involves a pledge of commitment to the perfections of morality, patience, vigor, and meditation. The bodhisattva is the name for a group of celestial beings who perform acts of incredible generosity, bring hope to lay as well as monastic Buddhists, and are worshipped alongside the Buddha.
Trikaya, or Threefold Nature
Another Mahayana innovation was the notion that the Buddha had trikaya, or three bodies: a Manifest Body (Nirmanakaya), a Body of Bliss (Sambhogakaya), and a Body of Dharma (Dharmakaya). According to this doctrine, the historical Siddhartha Gautama was only the Manifest Body of a universal, spiritual being known as the Buddha. Underneath his external manifestation, the Buddha is at once eternal with his Body of Bliss and absolute with his Body of Dharma.
Out of the three-body doctrine grew the notion of a deity: The Buddha is divine and has transcendent power. His Body of Dharma is that which provides the universal ground of being and, therefore, constitutes the Absolute. His Body of Bliss is capable of assuming various transformations, including Maitreya (Buddha of Future) and the five cosmic Buddhas: Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi. Indeed, Mahayana Buddhism embraces a pantheon of Buddhas, whereas Theravada Buddhism professes faith in the teachings of Gautama Buddha solely.
Sunyata, or Void
The Mahayana doctrine of sunyata (emptiness) stresses the void nature of all things, including their components. The whole external world is no more than an illusion projected by thought. All phenomena in the world are ultimately unreal, as are the sufferings of endless birth and rebirth. Furthermore, the ultimate void is true of the Absolute as well, which is empty in the sense that it is totally devoid of the distinctions, limitations, and delusion imposed by thought.
The concept of sunyata has its philosophical roots in the Madhyamaka, or Middle Path tradition founded by Acharya Nagarjuna during the 2nd century. It employs dialectic oppositions to account for the relationship between the realms of samsara and nirvana. Ignorance of the ultimate void condemns one to the realm of samsara, whereas knowledge of the ultimate void elevates one into the realm of nirvana. The Mahayana goal, however, is to transcend these opposites in enlightenment. This is possible because nirvana can be found in the transience of ordinary life. Samsara is nirvana, and one does not have to follow a path of monastic withdrawal from the world in order to realize the bliss of nirvana. Ultimately, nirvana is samsara correctly understood.
Universalism of Buddha Nature
Mahayana Buddhism universalizes Buddha nature. Within the Theravada, there is a divide between samsara and nirvana. One can attain nirvana only through the dissolution of one’s individuality, hence the doctrine of anatman or “no-self.” In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism posits a connection between the two realms. All sentient beings are reflections of the Buddha, and Buddha nature is inherent in all living beings. Humans and animals alike have the seeds of Buddha nature within them, so any sentient being can gain Buddhahood.
In its spiritual quest, the Mahayana school advocates the transformation of one’s relationship with the world rather than severing oneself from ordinary life. By stressing that spiritual assistance is possible from the Buddha, bodhisattva, and one’s own Buddha nature, this school offers more hope of enlightenment in a single lifetime for both lay people and monastic Buddhists. Proceeding from a broader interpretation of the Buddhist tenets, Mahayana Buddhism not only incorporates the monastic principles and practices of the old school but also calls attention to the importance of faith, prayer, chanting, offering, and revelation through meditation in attaining enlightenment.
The Mahayanists did not see themselves as creating a new start for Buddhism. They claimed rather to have recovered the true spirit and message of the Buddha’s teachings. In modern times, new research has led some scholars to suggest that Mahayana Buddhism does not hold closely to the teachings of Gautama because it may have evolved from a religious system that was ignored or opposed by the early Buddhists.
Under the broad umbrella of Mahayana Buddhism, a number of different traditions came to flourish, including such schools or sects as Pure Land, Tiantai, Vijnanavada, Chan (Zen, in Japanese), and Tantric Buddhism.
Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism was introduced into China as a devotional society during the 4th century by a Chinese scholar, Huiyuan. Based on the first- century Sukhavativyuha Sutra (Pure Land Sutra), this school provided devotees with a simplified way to obtain salvation—repeating the name of the Buddha Amitabha (Buddha of Infinite Light) faithfully in order to be reborn in his heavenly Pure Land in the west. It was a paradise where everyone was enlightened and headed for the bliss of nirvana. Deliverance to this paradise depended on devoting oneself in chanting to Amitabha and reading the Pure Land Sutra. Not only did Amitabha (Amida in Japanese) hearken to prayers and respond to invocations, but the Buddha delighted in offerings. This Mahayana sect had a great appeal to the laity and spread far and wide in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Tiantai Buddhism represented the first Chinese attempt to found an eclectic school of Buddhism. It had a place for all the Buddhist scriptures, which were seen as the true words of the Buddha speaking to an audience who understood his message better and better over time. Founded in the 6th century CE by its first patriarch Zhiyi, the Tiantai (Tendai in Japanese) school assigned central importance to the Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra). Its basic position is very much in the Madhyamika (Middle Path) tradition. Tiantai Buddhism teaches that because there is no noumenon besides phenomenon and phenomenon itself is noumenon, all things have no reality and, therefore, are void. Furthermore, all beings are of the same Buddha nature, and all are to attain Buddhahood eventually. Tiantai Buddhism became very influential in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Parallel to the Madhyamika (Middle Path) tradition is the Vijnanavada (Consciousness Only) tradition, which arose in India during the 4th century CE. According to this tradition, nothing exists outside of the mind, and only consciousness is real. Its works were taken to China two centuries later by Xuanzang, a Chinese monk who rendered the Vijnanavada compendium into Chinese and is remembered as the greatest of all pilgrim-scholars. His disciple Dosho introduced Vijnanavada Buddhism into Japan. The 7th century saw an indigenous Chinese school grow out of the Vijnanavada tradition in general and the Avatamsaka Sutra (Garland Sutra) in particular. Established by a master monk, Dushun, in the late 6th century CE, this Mahayana sect was known as Huayan (Flower Garland), and it primarily worshipped the Buddha Vairocana (Primordial Buddha; Rulai in Chinese and Dainichi in Japanese). Huayan Buddhism quickly found its way into Korea and Japan in the 7th century.
Chan Buddhism was a form of Mahayana that underwent extensive cross-breeding with Daoism after it was brought to China in 520 CE by an Indian monk, Bodhidharma. Chan (Zen in Japanese) is the Chinese transliteration of dhyana, which is the Sanskrit word for “meditation.” Indeed, meditation is a centerpiece of Chan Buddhism. It features an individual quest for spiritual insight, which is also typical of the approach of Theravada Buddhism. For Chan adepts, however, enlightenment is an awakening to the sunyata, or emptiness of reality. Chan apprenticeship is primarily informed by “wordless teaching,” which is characteristically Daoist. This Mahayana school also has a rather “this-worldly” character. In addition to meditation, Chan adepts can be engaged in manual work (gardening, wood-chopping, etc.) as much as in cultural pursuits (e.g., calligraphy, painting, poetry writing). It is important that they look within ordinary life for inspirations, which, integrated into spiritual insights from meditation, can culminate in sudden enlightenment. Chan Buddhism spread to Vietnam in the 6th century CE, became dominant in Korea during the 10th century, and led to the rise of the Rinzai and Soto sects in Japan between the 12th and 13th centuries.
The earliest texts of Tantric Buddhism date back to the 4th century. Often known as Vajrayana Buddhism, this school teaches attainment of enlightenment by the bodhisattva path. Sutras important in Mahayana Buddhism are generally important in Tantric Buddhism as well. What makes Tantric Buddhism distinctive is its adoption of esoteric tantra techniques to expedite enlightenment. Such techniques usually employ mantras, mandalas, and even sexual activities as aids to meditation. Mantras are sacred words with mystic power, whereas mandalas are artworks of religious symbolism that depict deities, holy landscape, and other-worldly vision. Following a reformed Madhyamika tradition, Tantric Buddhism identifies knowledge on three levels of consciousness: the commonsense level that is illusory, the relative level that recognizes the temporary existence of components, and the true level that brings about an awareness of the ultimate void. Enlightenment comes with the realization of wisdom on the true level, and Tantric Buddhism claims to provide an accelerated path toward that goal. Tantra techniques are synonymous with Vajrayana practices or the Vajrayana. Sometimes called “the diamond vehicle,” the Vajrayana constitutes a dominant part of Buddhism in Tibet and Shingon Buddhism in Japan.
Today Buddhism is a thing of the past in its country of origin, and the most complete Mahayana canon exists in classical Chinese. Unlike the Pali canon, which was compiled by the Theravadins, the Mahayana scriptures were written in Sanskrit and, in some cases, classical Chinese. Because many of the Sanskrit texts are lost, they have to be recovered from the Chinese translations that have survived the vicissitudes of time.
Reality, Time, and Temporality
The Buddhist cosmology identifies samsara with the relative order of reality and nirvana with the absolute order of reality. The former is conditioned, whereas the latter is unconditioned. The Nirvana Sutra says, “Buddha (Tathagata) is permanent with no change at all.” In contrast, time is “becoming,” namely, change. To stress the everchanging nature of time, Mahayana Buddhism sees time as a flow of events and a process.
A process has an “arising,” a “duration,” and a “dissolution.” Nothing lasts forever, but the process is due to happen all over again. In line with this view, emphasis is on time as “becoming” rather than “being.” Moreover, time is cyclic in the sense that the process of birth and rebirth recurs endlessly. It sends one into the misery of an afterlife based on one’s karma that is carried over from this life. The doctrine of karma dictates that whatever one does has an impact on one’s reincarnation. The uninitiated, however, are ignorant of the karmic effects of time. Rather than redeeming themselves from false desire and attachment, they choose to seek moments of pleasure and live in momentariness, thus the cyclic return of samsara.
The absolute reality is timeless. Not only is it immutable and eternal, but, according to the Lotus Sutra, it comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere. Time as becoming belongs in the realm of samsara. Nonetheless, that time is ever-changing is unchanged, so there is room for an enlightened mental process that parallels the perception of temporality in its true nature.
The Mahayana sense of temporality is based on an awareness of relational organization, not the ontological past, present, and future. A case in point is the factors and conditions that shape the process when salt is poured into water. At the moment of pouring, saline water is a thing of the future but has its making in the present. Once the ingredient is being dissolved, both salt and water are becoming things of the past. What happens is an interlocking of stages (“arising,” “duration,” and “dissolution”). As the past and future are very much in the present, the tripartite ontology of time is of little use. Attention to relational organization will reveal how a coming-together of causative factors and conditions leads to their formation of a special relationship and interaction to produce a result. An understanding of the relational organization of processes is possible in the realms of samsara and nirvana.
See also Theravada Buddhism; Zen Buddhism
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