The Rise of the Mahayana

The earliest traces of Mahayana ideas arose with the division of the Buddhist sangha into two vadas or schools of thought around 410 b c., some 110 years after the Buddha’s death, at the Second Council of Vaishali. This Council was called to condemn certain practices of some monks which were contrary to the Vinaya or Monk’s Code of conduct. Although the majority of monks succeeded in excommunicating the erring monks, the remaining monks disputed the rules and certain aspects of the Dharma. One group, opposed to any change whatever, came to be known as the Sthaviravadins (Theravadins) who followed what was believed to be the original teaching as agreed at the first Council following the passing of the Buddha. These Sthaviravadins followed a realist line, stating that all phenomena exist and are unstable compounds of elements. They taught that it is necessary for all humans to strive for Arahantship or release from the constant round of rebirth (Samsara). They taught that Buddhas are men – pure and simple, rejecting any notion of their being transcendental. The other group, which were in the majority, were known as the Mahasanghikas, which means followers of the great or major group of clergy. Like the Sthaviravadins, they accepted the fundamental doctrines as taught by the Buddha, such as: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the doctrine of Anatta or no soul, the law of karma or causation, Paticca Samupada or dependent arising and the stages of spiritual advancement or sainthood. They differed in believing that Buddhas are supramundane and transcendental, they have no defiling elements, their lives and powers are unlimited. They also believed that the original nature of the mind is pure and that it is contaminated when it is stained by passions and defilements. It was from the Mahasanghikas that the Mahayana was to evolve.

The fathers of the Mahayana were considered to be Nagarjuna, who lived between the first and second ceturies of our era, and founded what is known as the Madhamika philosophy or philosophy of the Middle Way and Maitreyanatha who lived in the third century of our era. Maiteyanatha’s philosophy was developed in the fourth century by two brothers, Asangha and Vasubandhu and was known as Yogacara or Vijnavada philosophy. Yoga means meditation and Vijna means consciousness or mind. This also became known as the “Mind Only” school as it emphasised subjective idealism – that consciousness is the ultimate reality. Legend has it that Nagarjuna recieved instruction from the Nagas (Serpent Kings) when he visited their Dragon’s Palace under the sea.

Nagarjuna taught that there is neither reality nor non-reality but only relativity. Madhyamika attacked the Sthaviravada belief that everything, even component parts are in perpetual flux or state of becoming. Madhyamika introduced the concept of Sunyata or emptiness. It taught that all elements (Dharmas) are impermanent and have no independent existence in themselves. They may be broken down into parts, the parts into sub-parts and so on infinitely. Therefore, taught Nagarjuna, all phenomena have a relative as opposed to an absolute existence. All of life is reduced to a single, underlying flux, a stream of existence with an everlasting becoming. However, madhyamika tells us nothing of the nature of this stream of life. Nagarjuna used the dialectic method to ruthlessly negate all pairs of opposites. He taught that Sunyata is the absolute realityand that there is no difference between Samsara (the phenomenal world) and Sunyata (the indescribable absolute).

Another important concept attributed to Nagarjuna is his teaching of Samvrti or relative truth and Paramartha or ultimate truth. Relative truth is conventional or empirical truth – that experienced by the senses, whereas, the ultimate truth is Sunyata which can only be realised by transcending concepts through intuitive insight.

The Idealism of the Yogacara school teaches not only non existence of the self but also of things in the world. It says that all elements are derived from the mind. It talks of Alaya Vijnana or repository consciousness. This is neither matter nor mind itself but a basic energy that is the root of both. It is the imperceptible and unknowable noumenon behind all phenomena.Alaya Vijnana is a kind of collective unconscious in which seeds of all potential phenomena are stored and from which they occasionally pour into manifestation. Alaya Vijnana has been likened to the Elan Vital of Bergson, the Energy of Leibnitz, and the Unconsciousness of Von Hartman. It is, in effect, what many might understand as and call “God”.

The Yogacara school emphasised that the ultimate truth can only be known through meditation. The study of scriptures or Dharmas are only in the realm of relative truth and are subject to change and constant improvement. Scriptures are likened to a finger pointing at the moon. W hen we recognise the moon and its brightness and beauty, the finger is of no more use. As the finger itself has no brightness whatever, so the scriptures have no holiness. The scripture is to be thought of as religious currency representing spiritual wealth. What it stands for is of paramount importance, not whether it is made of gold or sea shells

Whereas Madhyamika teaches about two truths – relative and absolute, Yogacara divides truth into three – Illusory truth which is a false attribution to an object because of causes and conditions – Empirical truth which is knowledge produced by causes and conditions which is relative and practical and finally Absolute truth which is the highest truth. An example may be seen in a coil of rope lying on a road. At first glance it may be seen as a snake – this is Illusory truth. On closer examination it is seen as a coil of rope – this is Empirical truth but on further examination it may be seen to be a collection of chemical elements which may further be seen as electrons, protons and neutrons in a certain combination and ultimately as mere energy appearing as form.

Both the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools were the roots of what is known as Mahayana Buddhism. Some special doctrines emphasised by the Mahayana are:

The Bodhisattva Ideal

Buddhism teaches that there are three alternatives for attaining the final goal of Nirvana. Firstly there is the Arahant Ideal which is emphasised by the Sthaviravada or as it is currently known – the Theravada. This is release from the Samsara by following the teachings of an enlightened Buddha by the cultivation of Sila (Good Conduct), Samadhi (Mental cultivation or meditation) and Prajna (Trancendental Wisdom of seeing things as they really are).

The Mahayana, on the other hand emphasises the Bodhisattva Ideal of postponing one’s liberation so that one may bring all sentient beings with you to that state of Nirvana by becoming a fully enlightened Buddha. The Mahayanists, perhaps, wrongly claim that the Arahant Ideal of the Theravadins is selfish because it limits the release to oneself. Arahants, although lacking the higher wisdom of a Buddha, also teach and also must transcend the idea of self and greed, so such a charge seems unjustified. The Theravadins also suggest that attaining Buddhahood is the highest ideal but it is difficult and beyond most people’s capabilities.

The final method of liberation is that of a Pratyeka Buddha. One who usually arises during a world period when the Buddha Dharma is extinct and attains Buddhahood through self realisation but is incapable of teaching others.

Six Perfections (Paramita)

One who is following the bodhisattva path must cultivate the six perfections of giving or generousity, morality or good conduct, patience, vigour, meditation and wisdom.

Compassion and Skill in Means

Karuna or Compassion is considered by the Mahayana to be as important as Wisdom. They are the Supreme Combination. Compassion may be considered as feeling the sorrows of others as one’s own with the wish that one could take them on to oneself to relieve that suffering in others. Skill in Means is the ability to use the appropriate means to help each individual case. It is a case of the end result justifying the means employed.

Buddha – the Transcendental Principle

Not the Theravadin Concept of Buddha the man who was born Prince Siddhartha at Lumbini but Buddha as a transcendental Principle which manifests at innumerable times.
Trikaya or Three Body Doctrine
This is a purely Mahayana concept of the Buddha having three bodies:
Nirmanakaya – or appearance body, the way the Transcendental Principle appears in the world, such as the material body of Sakyamuni Buddha.

Dharmakaya Body

The Dharma body – the eternal Dharma which lies beyond all dualities and conceptions.

Sambhogakaya Body

The Enjoyment or Bliss Body which appears to Bodhisattvas in the celestial realm.

The Devotional Aspect

This has been likened to the bhakti or devotional cults in Hinduism. It is the worship of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, especially Amitabha Buddha by the Pure Land sect of the Mahayana where constant repetition of the name “Amitaba” is believed to result in rebirth in the Western Paradise of Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. Another popular Bodhisattva is Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of compassion, known in China as Kwan Yin. She is worshipped and called upon for help when a crisis occurs. More sophisticated Buddhists see these deities as aspects of Buddha and fix their minds on them in the hope of assimilating their qualities.

Role for Laity

Theravada Buddhism places great emphasis on the clergy (Sangha) as the only ones capable of attaining Nirvana. The laity support them in the hope of a more favorable rebirth. In the Mahayana Teachings, the laity as well as the clergy are encouraged to become Bodhisattvas. They are also capable of attaining Enlightenment as householders. The Vimalakirti Nidesa Sutra is centred on concept of the enlightened householder.


The final important Mahayana concept is that of Shunyata or the emptiness of inherent existence. The absence of any kind of enduring or self sustaining essence. This is much the same as the theravadin concept of anatta or non-self.

Many Buddhists, especially Westerners, tend to see both the Theravada and Mahayana approaches as not being contradictory or in opposition but rather as complimentary to each other. The Mahayana is often seen as an expansion of or commentary on Theravadin teachings.

– Graeme Lyall