Mahayana Buddhism

Eva Neumaier. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


Mahayana (Grand Method) Buddhism began in India as a movement to address issues that had arisen in the existing traditions, which the Mahayana followers subsequently referred to derogatorily as Hinayana (Lower, or Inferior, Method). These questions concerned the status and nature of the arhat (fully enlightened being), the nature of the Buddha (that is, whether or not the Buddha should be considered a historical figure or an a historical and transcendental being), and the nature of reality. They began to emerge around the beginning of the Common Era among numerous sects of pre-Mahayana Buddhists. Each sect addressed only some of the questions, and each defined its own answers. By the second century C.E., however, the various ideas began to consolidate. They found their primary expression in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, which are traditionally attributed to the Buddha, and in the works of the Indian monk and philosopher Nagarjuna (born in 150 C.E.). During the following centuries the Mahayana set itself in opposition to the Hinayana. Over time most of the pre-Mahayana sects disappeared, with Theravada being the only one to survive in Southeast Asia.

The Mahayana, like Buddhism in general, is marked by a plurality of doctrinal positions. No attempt to unify or harmonize them has ever been made; on the contrary, Buddhists see this plurality as one of the strengths of their creed. In the words of the scholar Paul Williams, “Mahayana is not, and never was, a single unitary phenomenon. It is not a sect or school, but rather, perhaps, a spiritual movement which initially gained its identity not by a definition but by distinguishing itself from alternative spiritual movements or tendencies.”

The elements that provide Mahayana Buddhism with a distinct and coherent face are the monastic institution, the behavior of monks and nuns, and the ethics adopted by the laity, as well as some of its beliefs. The latter include the belief that, besides the historical Buddha, innumerable transcendental Buddhas and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings on the way to Buddhahood) act as guides and teachers on the path to enlightenment; that the worship of these bodhisattvas and Buddhas is important to the practice of the Mahayana; that the ideal of the bodhisattva who delays the realization of nirvana until all sentient beings can join him or her replaces the ideal of the arhat; that the path to enlightenment extends over many lifetimes; and, finally, that the “word of the Buddha,” as Buddhist scripture is defined, is not restricted to the utterances of the historical Buddha but flows from a numinous source called Buddha-mind.

The Mahayana originated in India but spread all over Asia from the early centuries of the Common Era onward. Its main contemporary footholds are in China (including Tibet), Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and Mongolia, and its adherents in the Western world have become increasingly numerous.


Nagarjuna is credited with formulating the main philosophical concepts of the Mahayana in the first century C.E. in his Mulamadhyamaka-karika (Stanzas on the Middle Way). At the same time, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras began to appear in India. As a broad stream of Buddhist ideas and practices, the Mahayana proliferated throughout India and Southeast, East, and Central Asia, branching out into many schools. In India Madhyamaka and Yogachara flourished as the main philosophical camps from about the second to the eleventh century. During this time Mahayana Buddhism also spread into Southeast Asia, where it thrived until about the thirteenth century in such places as Sumatra and Bali. The Mahayana entered China in the second century, though it remained largely the religion of foreigners there until the fourth century, when native Chinese began to enter the monastic order. Chinese Buddhist schools formed around individual scriptures. The most important of these schools were T’ien-t’ai (based on the Lotus Sutra), Hua-yen (based on the Avatamsaka, or Garland, Sutra), Fa-hsiang (based on the writings of the fifth-century philosophers Asanga and Vasubandhu), the Pure Land School (based on the Sukhavativyuha, or Pure Land, Sutra), and the Ch’an School (based on the teachings of its patriarchs).

The rulers of Tibet introduced Mahayana Buddhism to their court and to some noble families in the eighth century, but the country’s general population did not embrace Buddhism until centuries later. In Tibet Mahayana Buddhism organized itself according to spiritual lineages—that is, the transmission of specific teachings from master to disciple. Four schools gained prominence: the Nyingma-pa, or Old School, founded by the eighth-century Indian mystic Padmasambhava; Kagyu-pa, founded by Marpa (1012-96); Sakya-pa, founded by Drogmi (992-1072); and Geluk-pa, which had absorbed the earlier Kadampa school, founded by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419).

From Korea and China, Mahayana Buddhism spread to Japan in the sixth century. In the sixteenth century it spread from Tibet to Mongolia, and from there to Siberia and parts of Russia. By the sixteenth century all of Buddhist Asia—with the exception of Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Laos—had accepted the Mahayana in one form or another. From India, however, the Mahayana, together with all other Buddhist traditions, disappeared by the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries because of several causes, among them persecution by hostile invaders, decreased royal patronage, and internal strife.

Philosophical reasoning became the domain of the intellectual elite in the monasteries, and contemplative practices were embraced by meditation masters and mystics, while numerous stories and rituals addressed the spiritual needs of ordinary people. Under the umbrella of the Mahayana, large monastic centers of learning evolved that were similar to the medieval universities of Europe—Nalanda and Takshashila in India, for example, and Drepung and Sera in Tibet. Rulers and the political elite embraced Mahayana rituals to enhance their glory. Monarchs of some Buddhist countries presented themselves to their subject as embodiments of specific Buddhas or bodhisattvas.

A rich literature evolved that supplied the Mahayana laity with narratives of exemplary spiritual lives. Numerous rituals came to address mundane as well as spiritual needs. For instance, the female bodhisattva Tara is invoked to help with such problems as female infertility, the crossing of dangerous rivers, and escapes from robbers. Mahayana traditions also gave rise to exquisite forms of art and architecture and were a major force in civilizing nomads and illiterate tribes who inhabited the steppes of Inner Asia.

Asian monarchs and aristocracies were the main financial supporters of Mahayana Buddhism until Western colonial powers overwhelmed them. A period of decline followed that lasted from roughly the sixteenth to the late nineteenth century. The Buddhist laity, less dependent on royal donations and support, provided many leaders in the effort to rejuvenate and modernize Buddhism in the late colonial and early postcolonial periods. Mahayana communities in various Asian countries have regained their vitality and established branch institutions around the world. Thus, Mahayana Buddhism is no longer a religion confined to Asia but a true world religion.

Central Doctrines

The main doctrines of the Mahayana are contained in the Prajnaparamita-sutra (Perfection of Wisdom Sutras). Scholars view the Astasahasrika prajnaparamita-sutra (Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines) as the oldest version. The central doctrines of the sutras are: (1) prajna (wisdom), or insight into the true nature of things, will result in the understanding that all existence lacks inherent being and is for this reason empty, a doctrine that was expounded by Nagarjuna; (2) compassion as a fundamental approach toward all that exists is a necessary balance to wisdom and leads to bodhicitta, the Awakened Mind or Mind of Enlightenment; (3) wisdom and the Awakened Mind together provide the road map to enlightenment and constitute the path of the bodhisattva; and (4) the ideal of the bodhisattva should be pursued as the goal of Buddhist practice.

Two philosophical schools became paramount within the Mahayana: Madhyamaka and Cittamatra. Nagarjuna argued that the nature of the world as we perceive it is essentially ineffable because the basic questions of causality lead either to a logical conundrum (same begets not-same) or to the assumption that the true nature of reality is static, which contradicts the fact of apparent constant change. Thus, he concluded, reality is beyond comprehension and articulation, and the true nature of reality is empty of inherent being. (The term “emptiness” [in Sanskrit, shunyata] has to be understood as total potentiality and not as an expression of nihilism.) The teaching of the doctrine of emptiness became the hallmark of the Mahayana. Thinkers following in Nagarjuna’s footsteps—such as Aryadeva (early third century), Buddhapalita (fifth century), Bhavaviveka (sixth century), and Candrakirti (seventh century)—developed the Mahayana philosophical school of Madhyamaka, which flourished in Tibet and, to a lesser degree, in China.

By the fourth century there had emerged several texts—variously attributed to Asanga, Vasubandhu, or Maitreya—promoting the idea that in emptiness the subject-object dichotomy collapses. These texts argued that the perceived world is colored by the mind of the perceiver; therefore, reality beyond perception remains unknown to human beings. Furthermore, these texts proposed that, separate from normal mental activity, there exists a Mind that is inherently existing and non-dual. This Mind is fundamental to all existence; it is the matrix of Buddhahood (tathagata-garbha), or Buddha-mind, which is the ineffable source of existence. These ideas flourished mainly within the Cittamatra, or Mind-only, School as well as within Zen (Chinese Ch’an) Buddhism.

Moral Code of Conduct

The moral precepts of pre-Mahayana Buddhism remain a valid code of ethics for Mahayana practitioners. Mahayana laypersons are expected to honor the pancha sila, or the “five precepts”—abstinence from taking life, taking what is not given, sensuous misconduct, false speech, and taking intoxicants—though the last one is often disregarded. On certain days—the new moon, for example—laypersons observe an additional three or five rules. In theory Mahayana monks and nuns are expected to observe the ten precepts along with hundreds of rules governing the monastic lifestyle. In practice, however, the precepts of eating only one meal per day and refraining from taking gold and silver (that is, handling money) are often disregarded.

For the laity as well as members of the monastic orders, the moral code of conduct inherited from pre-Mahayana Buddhism has expanded with the ideals of the bodhisattva—wisdom and the Awakened Mind that is based on universal compassion. A serious follower of the Mahayana will strive to assist all sentient beings in their pursuit of enlightenment. Thus, to avoid harming any living thing is essential to the Mahayana practitioner. Throughout the world Mahayanists have protested against war and violence, particularly against the use of nuclear weapons in Japan and against the Vietnam War. Followers of Engaged Buddhism practice social activism in Asia as well as in the West.

Sacred Books

The foremost scriptures of the Mahayana are the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, which enjoy universal recognition. The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras are often ascribed iconic status and are revered not so much for their teachings but for their protective potency. Other scriptural texts—such as the Ratnagotravibhaga, Avatamsaka-sutra (Garland Sutra), Saddharmapundarika-sutra (Lotus Sutra), or Sukhavativyuha-sutra (Pure Land Sutra)—have a more circumscribed (and, one may say, more sectarian) following. All of these texts are in the form of a dialogue between an allegoric Buddha and one or more bodhisattvas, who request instruction in the typical Mahayana topics.

Sacred Symbols

There are two types of symbols in the Mahayana: anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic. Among the anthropomorphic symbols the traditional Buddha image commands a reverence equaled only by that conveyed upon the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita), which is represented as a beautiful young noblewoman sitting cross-legged on a lotus throne. Many abstract concepts, such as generosity or compassion, are represented in the anthropomorphic forms of deities. The concept of wisdom, for example, is embodied by the bodhisattva Manjushri, who wields a sword as a symbol of the wisdom that cuts through ignorance. Besides these allegoric deities, who originated in Buddhist texts, many local deities have been adopted into the Buddhist pantheon, including figures from Chinese folklore as well as Tibetan gods of mountains and other geographic landmarks.

The most common non-anthropomorphic symbols in the Mahayana are the eight-spoked wheel, which symbolizes the eight-fold path to Buddhahood; the stupa or pagoda, representing the Buddha-mind as well as the eternal knot, which itself symbolizes the interdependency of reality; and the bell and vajra (diamond, or thunderbolt), symbols of wisdom and compassion.

Early and Modern Leaders

The leading thinkers and meditation masters of the Mahayana are mainly known through the works attributed to them. Little or no historical information about them is available. Nagarjuna was born into a Brahmanical family in southern India sometime in the second century C.E., but beyond that, not much else is known about his life. Santaraksita and Kamalashila introduced Indian Buddhism to the Tibetan nobility in the eighth century. Bodhidharma founded Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in the sixth century. The Chinese monks Fa-hsien and Hsuan-tsang traveled to India in the fourth and seventh centuries, respectively, and left behind invaluable historical accounts of their journeys. A gifted organizer and translator, Hsuan-tsang, with the financial support of the Chinese emperor, also oversaw the translation into Chinese of numerous Buddhist texts.

In modern times Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), India’s law minister from 1947 to 1951 and a leader of the untouchables, interpreted Buddhism to be mainly a social theory of revolution, which led to the conversion of many untouchables in India. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993) and Thich Nhat Hanh (born in 1926), as well as Tenzin Gyatso (born in 1935), the 14th Dalai Lama, have approached social and political problems from a Buddhist perspective.

Major Theologians and Authors

The 14th Dalai Lama has written extensively on Mahayana topics. In his works he speaks from the vantage point of Buddhist philosophy as taught in the Tibetan monasteries, expounding the Madhyamaka view in particular. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has published more than 30 books explaining Buddhism to Western audiences, including The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (1998), as well as books that focus on how to live a Buddhist life in the modern world, such as Present Moment, Wonderful Moment (1990). The Chinese Ch’an master Sheng-yen (born in 1930) has expounded key Ch’an texts (Complete Enlightenment [1997]) and addressed the concerns of Western practitioners (Zen Wisdom [1993]). Chogyam Trungpa (1939-87) reinterpreted Tibetan Buddhism for a Western audience and authored many books, among them Cutting through Spiritual Materialism (1973).

Organizational Structure

Mahayana Buddhism has no unified organizational structure. Individual masters have created movements or schools that adhere to their teachings and disseminate them. Leadership within a movement passes from master to disciple, thereby creating something like a spiritual dynasty. Throughout history disputes have sometimes arisen as to the legitimacy of claims of succession within the movements. These disputes have resulted in divisions and the founding of new branches.

The leadership of the individual schools and traditions lies solidly in the hands of learned and influential monks. No woman has ever become master of a whole school or tradition. In recent times laypeople have often been involved in innovative Buddhist movements, but once such movements became established, the leadership was then handed over to a revered monk. The leader of a Mahayana school exercises his power by means of the monastic institution and its often significant economic resources. What unites the various traditions and schools of the Mahayana is their shared philosophical, ethical, and religious beliefs and acknowledgment of diversity.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

The Buddhist temple is primarily a place where monks—and, to a lesser degree, nuns—recite the scriptures or sutras and receive instruction. The Mahayana temple is a rectangular hall supported by several rows of pillars. The wall opposite the entrance is lined with statues of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas or similar saintly figures. The remaining walls either are decorated with murals depicting the lives of Buddhas and bodhisattvas or contain a library of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries. Such a temple, called an assembly hall, is always part of a monastery. Relics are often housed in shrines attached to the temple and form a major attraction for pilgrims. Besides the assembly halls, smaller shrines are often used for personal initiation rites or exist as places of special sanctity. In Tibet many such shrines house images of protective deities and their entourages in the form of stuffed animal hides.

Laypersons rarely visit temples, except on such occasions as a local festival or the death of a close relative. In China Buddhist temples, with their affiliated tea-houses and vegetarian restaurants, often serve as focal points for community gatherings. Famous Mahayana temples in China include the so-called Lama Temple, or Yonghegong, in Beijing; Labrang Tashikyil (also known as Labuling) in Gansu; and Samye in the Tibet Autonomous Region. In China as well as Inner Asia, temples were often carved into cliffs and steep riverbanks, like the cave temples at Longmen, Dunhuang, and Yungang.

The stupa, initially used as a burial mound in India, underwent significant changes during its spread throughout Mahayana countries. In China the stupa is a multitiered tower, like the Big Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, while in Tibet it is often a solid, domelike building that rests on a square platform and is crowned with a pyramid of discs and emblems of the sun and moon. These monuments symbolize the Buddha-mind.

What is Sacred?

To the Mahayana Buddhist all that exists—humans, animals, and inanimate objects—is surrounded with an aura of sanctity, though none of these things is sacred per se. The worship of relics, however, has played an important role in all Buddhist traditions, with the Mahayana being no exception. Many of the relics stored in prominent Mahayana temples and shrines are the remains of Buddhist masters or—in some rare cases, such as the Baoguang-si near Chengdu, China—of the Buddha himself. These remains may be ashes from cremation or mummified bodies, which are common in Tibetan shrines.

Holidays and Festivals

Mahayana Buddhists do not have a unified calendar of religious festivals, but they do celebrate the Buddha’s birthday, day of enlightenment, and passage into nirvana—all on one day, which usually falls on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Because of their use of different lunar calendars, Mahayana communities in different countries do not necessarily celebrate this occasion on the same day. Festivals in general have strong local and cultural connotations. Commemoration of the dead occurs in most East Asian and Central Asian Mahayana communities in the midst of summer. People visit graveyards or cremation sites and offer a meal, flowers, and alcohol to deceased family members.

Mode of Dress

The robes of fully ordained monks and nuns consist of three garments that represent the simple dress of ascetics in ancient India. The Mahayana has maintained these robes to a certain degree; however, local adjustments and adaptations to climate and social habits have occurred. In general the robes consist of yellow or reddish-brown loose garments. Chinese monks and nuns wear grey robes outside the temple. There are no prescriptions for laypeople’s dress.

Dietary Practices

According to the monastic rules monks and nuns are supposed to eat only one meal per day, which they ought to collect as alms from laypeople, but this restriction is often disregarded. Abstention from eating meat or animal products is not required, but a Mahayana practitioner should not participate in the killing of an animal or order it. Many Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Western Mahayana Buddhists have become vegetarians, though Tibetan, Mongolian, and Nepalese followers of the Mahayana usually eat meat.


The oldest written evidence, from the second century B.C.E., indicates that the worship of stupas (as the resting places of the remains of saintly Buddhists) was part of the earliest ritual practices, and it continues to be performed in Mahayana communities. The recitation of sutras is a daily practice for monks and nuns. Meditation, carried out either individually or communally, is a standard of Mahayana practice. Laypeople occasionally join in these practices of their own will. As local folk beliefs were adopted by Mahayana Buddhism, rich systems of rituals evolved in each country. Mahayana monks from East and Central Asia often went on pilgrimages to the sacred sites of India. Members of the laity occasionally undertake pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya, India, the village where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhists, like Buddhists in general, consider weddings secular events, for they affirm the desires for economic security, progeny, and sexual pleasure; thus, no rituals “bless” such an event. In the West, however, Mahayana monks are often asked to create a wedding ceremony ad hoc in order to meet laypeople’s expectations.

Mahayana Buddhists cremate their dead in most cases but refrain from elaborate funeral rites, except in China. After a person dies, a monk addresses the mind of the deceased, which is assumed to linger around the body, and gives instructions as to how to achieve enlightenment or at least a good rebirth. Cremation or, in Tibet, sky burial, in which the body is left for vultures to devour, follows on an astrologically determined day but never before three days have passed. The ashes are often deposited in a stupa. In Tibet the bodies of important personages are often either mummified or cremated, while ordinary people’s bodies are given sky burials, after which nothing is preserved of the remains.

Rites of Passage

As a religion that, in its core, is contemplative and that focuses on mystical transmutation of the self, Buddhism has no interest in addressing any of the life events often marked by rites of passage. This is also true with regard to Mahayana Buddhism. The sole exception is death. For instance, the Tibetan Book of the Dead provides specific guidance intended to lead the mind of a dying person into an enlightened state.


Mahayana Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion, nor is it a closed community. Conversions occur when a person has informed himself or herself about the religion and when he or she feels a need to convert. Thus, monks and nuns respond to questions and give advice but never seek to convert people. On the contrary, Mahayana Buddhists see such attempts to convert as acts of violence.

As there are no specific requirements for being a Mahayana Buddhist and no identifiable markers separating the Mahayana Buddhist from other Buddhist traditions, no statistics describing the worldwide Mahayana population are available. Furthermore, in many East Asian countries people see themselves as followers of several religious practices at the same time. A Chinese may say that he or she follows Confucian ethics and ancestor worship, applies Taoist ideas to matters of diet and health, but adopts Buddhist philosophy and opts for a Buddhist cremation. Based on general population statistics, however, the number of followers of Mahayana Buddhism worldwide may be roughly estimated to be between 200 and 250 million.

Religious Tolerance

In general Mahayana Buddhism is tolerant vis-à-vis other Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions and agnosticism, but insists on its own spiritual and philosophical superiority. In more recent times interest in Christian-Buddhist dialogue has increased, and some Benedictine and Buddhist monks—mainly Tibetan and Ch’an—have celebrated services of both faiths together. Some Catholic monks, like Thomas Merton, have lived in Zen or other Mahayana monasteries. Meditation and contemplative practices have formed additional bridges between certain strands of Christianity and the Mahayana. In most cases only Mahayana monks (no nuns) participate in these activities.

Social Justice

The Indian emperor Asoka has always been lauded for his civilizing actions—such as building a road system, water wells, and homes for old people and retired farm animals—and later Mahayana rulers followed in his footsteps. In modern times many lay and monastic Buddhists have fought for equal rights on behalf of India’s outcastes and have founded a social work movement, Engaged Buddhism, based on Buddhist concepts. While some of these activities have taken place in non-Mahayana communities, such leading figures of Mahayana Buddhism as the Dalai Lama, the Ch’an master Sheng-yen, and Thich Nhat Hanh have emphasized Buddhist concerns regarding poverty, education, and human rights. Increasingly, socially engaged Buddhists of all traditions, including Mahayana followers, have promoted social justice. For example, Fo kuan shan, a Mahayana movement that originated in Taiwan, not only maintains schools, mobile health centers, and orphanages but also provides homes for seniors and home care for the sick and frail in many countries. Samye Ling, a Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist center based in Scotland, operates soup kitchens and cares for street children in Great Britain, Tibet, and several African countries.

Social Aspects

Like Buddhism in general, Mahayana Buddhism views marriage and family as secular issues that, in most cases, impede spiritual progress, because they entail too many duties and distractions. The ideal Buddhist way of life is to live as a celibate monk or nun.

Controversial Issues

Because of the lack of a central authority in Mahayana Buddhism, no general binding opinions are offered with regard to such issues as birth control, divorce, abortion, women and religion, and sexual orientation. Birth control, as well as divorce, is seen as a secular issue to be dealt with according to society’s standards. Most Mahayanists assume that the mind of a dead person enters a new being at the moment of conception; therefore, abortion is seen as harming or killing a living creature. But in Japan, where abortion is widespread, Mahayana Buddhism has developed rituals to guide the mind of the aborted fetus into a better rebirth and to heal the trauma experienced by the parents.

In Asian countries Mahayana Buddhist women have been secondary to men and have played no significant role in the hierarchy of the religion or in its decision-making process. Modernity has changed this situation; nevertheless, recent studies have shown that Tibetan Buddhist nuns in India could not imagine that the next Dalai Lama could be born as a woman. While Buddhists are quite tolerant of a variety of sexual behaviors, homosexual acts, according to the Dalai Lama, are inappropriate sexual conduct. Nevertheless, it is well known that male homosexuality was widespread in some Mahayana monasteries in Tibet and was even seen as a way to enlightenment by the Shingon sect in Japan.

Cultural Impact

Mahayana Buddhism shaped the great civilizations of Asia and gave them a distinct flavor and unique aesthetics. A rich literature narrating the lives of ancient holy men and women and their exploits stimulated dance theaters, literature, and paintings, particularly in the form of murals on temple walls. Buddhists, including Mahayanists, love grand architecture, whether it is that of the recently destroyed Buddha relief that was cut into rock faces in Afghanistan, a gigantic Buddha statue in Hong Kong, or magnificent temples. In recent times the Mahayana has exercised an increasing influence on Western culture, including music, Beat poetry and other literature, and environmentalism.