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The Origin of Mahayana

Central Asian and East Asian Buddhist monks. From

Editor’s note: This article was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 8, June 2008. 

The Origin of Mahayana

Mahayana cannot be considered apart from what came before it, so let us consider the events prior to the 1st century B.C.E.

The Buddha was born around 600 B.C.E. After 6 years of arduous seeking, he attained enlightenment at the age of 35. He then devoted the rest of his 45 years for the edification of beings. Three months after his parinibb?na (death and final release), 500 enlightened monks convened at R?jagaha, India, to recite the entire body of his teachings in what is now known as the 1st Buddhist Council, during which Up?li recited theVinaya Rules [monastic rules] whilst ?nanda recited the suttas [discourses]. According to ?nanda, before passing into parinibb?na, the Buddha told him the monastic Order could abolish minor rules if it saw fit. However, ?nanda was so distraught at the time it did not occur to him to ask what rules they were. Thus, the leading monk, Ven Mah?k?ssapa, adjudicated the rules should be best left unchanged.

The 2nd Buddhist Council was held at Ves?l? one hundred years later. Then, due to some unresolved controversial Vinaya issues the first schism resulted in that some monks left to form the Mah?sa?ghika (the traditionalist school were known as the Sthavirav?da). By the time of the 3rd Buddhist Council, convened by King A?oka in the third century B.C.E at P??aliputra, there were at least eighteen schools with its own doctrines. The two dominated schools at the Council were the Vibhajyav?dins and the Sarv?stiv?dins, the Council favoured the former. Subsequently King A?oka sent missionaries to Sri Lanka, led by his son, Ven. Mahinda, with the teachings of the Vibhajyav?dins which later became known as Therav?da.

Some historians regard the Mah?sa?ghika as the progenitor of Mahayana. However, modern scholars have shown that Mahayana did not result from schisms. The schisms that did occur were the result ofVinaya [monastic rules] rather than philosophical controversies. Paul Williams examines an early Mahayana text, the Ajitasena-vy?kara?a-nirde?a S?tra, finds that it shows no animosity towards the previous tradition, and points out the very gradual development of Mahayana. Popular support for Mahayana cannot be documented until the 4th or 5th century C.E. Furthermore, it seems that monks who lived in the same monasteries could have different doctrinal biases. Therefore, it seems Mahayana is not so much as a distinct school of Buddhism but a different religious motivation.

Mahayana texts were very open to lay religiosity and women were very much part of the new Mahayana trend. This led some to believe, and it is still a view common in Japan, that it originates from a lay movement. However, modern scholars have shown that although the new texts are more open to lay people they were still composed by monks. For example, although the new texts commend the actions of wise lay Bodhisattvas, they are still being urged to ordain and leave the lay life behind. Furthermore, Paul Harrison comments that ‘although both men and women can ride in the Great Vehicle [Mahayana], only men are allowed to drive it’ (Harrison, 1987: 76). Harrison’s paper in 1995 suggests the origin of Mahayana might have come from forest-dwelling ascetic monks attempting to return to the ideals of original Buddhism.[1]

Characteristics of Mahayana

One distinctive feature of Mahayana is the advocate of the Bodhisattva (one who ascribes to become a Buddha) ideal as opposed to the ?r?vaka (one who aims to become an Arhat, an enlightened disciple) ideal. A Buddha has the capacity to teach and help others to attain enlightenment, but to become a Buddha takes an infinitely long time and perseverance, relative to becoming an Arhat. This is one of the reasons why Mahayanists consider themselves more superior and altruistic than those who follow the ?r?vaka path, seeking enlightenment for themselves.

The rise of Mahayana is evidenced in a series of new texts. Between the 2nd Council and the 1st century C.E. saw the growth of a number of important Mahayana texts beginning with works like the Lalitavistara and Mah?vastu, which describe the career of the Buddha in exalted, supra-mundane terms. However, three very important ‘foundational’ Mahayana texts are: the Lotus S?tra (Saddharma-pu??arika S?tra), the Heart S?tra(Prajñ?p?ramit? H?idaya S?tra), and the La?k?vat?ra S?tra.

Justification for the new texts is the belief in continuing revelation. Many of the important Mahayana texts were believed to have been related by Maitreya the future Buddha and other celestial Bodhisattvas or preserved among the serpent gods of the underworld until their discovery by Mahayana masters such as N?g?rjuna. It would have been likely that these new texts received critical comments from ‘traditional’ Buddhists. Indeed, perhaps as a reaction to accusations by the previous tradition, Mahayana authors adopted the use of the pejorative term ‘H?nay?na’ which refers to the ?r?vaka path, perhaps at the time was directed at the most influential school, the Sarv?stiv?dins, whom are now extinct. The term H?nay?na should not be used nowadays for reasons that it is both a depreciative and historically incorrect term to apply to any existing Buddhist traditions. We shall now turn to important doctrinal tenets found in the ‘foundational’ Mahayana texts.

The Lotus S?tra is an extremely important text in Mahayana Buddhism. It has a wide influence in India, China, Japan and Vietnam. The important themes in this s?tra are compassion and skilful means which are two of the most important concepts in Mahayana Buddhism. By means of various parables the Lotus S?tra tells us that out of compassion the Buddhas appear and pass away on earth when in fact they are eternal and supramundane. Thus, the historical Buddha ?h?kyamuni was just an apparition created by the heavenly transcendental Buddha for the purpose of enlightening sentient beings.

The Heart [Perfection of WisdomS?tra takes up another important concept in Mahayana Buddhism, the ‘perfection of wisdom’, that is to say the transformation of wisdom into the ‘perfection of wisdom’. This reflects the ultimate reality and is characterised by emptiness (??nyat?). ‘Ordinary wisdom’ allows us to realise that reality is made up of individual components but perfection of wisdom allows us to see that even these individual components are ‘empty’ because they have no ultimate existence as they are dependent upon the things that condition them. We can see this in everything around us. The dew drops, stars, bubbles and lighting are the more obvious examples but if we perceive and contemplate correctly, we would find that without exception everything that exists does so because of conditions. Thus, nothing inherently exists, or putting it another way, all that exists is empty (of inherent existence).

The third ‘foundational’ Mahayana text, the La?k?vat?ra S?tra, tells us that what all we can know and experience in Sa?s?ra [Conditioned existence] is the mind. This S?tra forms the canonical foundation of the Cittam?tra [Mind-Only] school. According to the La?k?vat?ra S?tra, our inability to free ourselves from discriminating between object and subject causes us to undergo births and rebirths, and enlightenment is only attained by freeing ourselves from this dualistic discrimination. The La?k?vat?ra S?tra also tells us that the mind is intrinsically pure, but discrimination defiles it. This is similar to impurities found in gold ore, which have to be removed to reveal the brightness and shining nature of gold. This means that the minds of beings are intrinsically pure, and all have the potential for Buddhahood. This appealing concept may partly explain the popularity of Mahayana. To sum up, the main features in Mahayana Buddhism are:

1.    The advocate of the Bodhisattva ideal

2.    Compassion

3.    Skilful means

4.    The supra-mundane nature of the Buddhas

5.    Emptiness (??nyat?)

6.    Sa?s?ra results from false discrimination

7.    The universality appeal – all beings have the potential for Buddhahood.

Mahayana and ‘Early’ Buddhism

What appeared above might seem a far cry from ‘Early’ [what came before Mahayana] Buddhism. As innovative as they seem, yet all the important concepts can be traced back to Early Buddhism.

In Early Buddhism, the J?takas [stories of the Buddha’s former lives] give us inspiring examples of the trials and forbearance of the Bodhisattva. There are over 500 stories of the Buddha’s former lives in the J?takas, each provide a moving and inspiring moral lesson of how the power of good overcomes evil and the importance of integrity over fame and fortune. It is therefore not surprising that the Bodhisattva ideal came to be highly extolled.

Early Buddhism also extols the systemic cultivation of the Brahmavihar? [Divine Abiding] which entails developing loving kindness (mett?), compassion (karu??), sympathetic joy (mudit?), and equanimity (upekkh?). Developing these is seen to cultivate pleasant abiding here and now as well as a stepping stone to attain Deathlessness [Nirv??a]. Since it is compassion that causes the Buddha to appear and teach sentient beings, it is no surprise then that compassion becomes a key value in Mahayana Buddhism.

Again in Early Buddhism, there are examples of the skilful means, including magical feats, in which the Buddha used to help beings attain insight. Similarly, in the J?takas, the Bodhisattva employed many skilful means, often through various stratagems, to help others. In the Therav?da Canon, the Buddha sometimes refers to himself as the Tath?gata, a term also synonymous with Suchness, or reality. This suggests the transcendental and inconceivable nature of the Buddha, an idea which later became very important in Mahayana.

Emptiness (??nyat?), as expounded by the ingenious Mahayana Buddhist sage, N?g?rjuna, is no other than Dependent Arising (Paticca-samuppada, Sanskrit: prat?tya-samutp?da) in Early Buddhism. Also, Early Buddhism holds that ignorance is the cause of suffering and existence in Sa?s?ra, this is resounded in the La?k?vat?ra S?tra’s concept of false (dualistic) discrimination as being the cause of suffering. Finally, the intrinsically pure nature of the mind that the La?k?vat?ra S?tra refers to parallels with that of the subconscious continuity bhava?ga in Therav?da.

We can thus see that most important Mahayana concepts trace back to Early Buddhism. In fact, according toVen. Dr. W. Rahula, ‘there is hardly any difference between Therav?da [a form of Early Buddhism] and Mahayana with regard to the fundamental teachings’[2] . Thus, Therav?da and Mahayana:

  • Both accept Sh?kyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
  • The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
  • The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
  • The Pa?icca-samupp?da [Sanskrit prat?tya-samutp?da] or the Dependent Origination is the same in both schools.
  • Both rejected the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world.
  • Both accept Anicca [impermanence], Dukkha [suffering], Anatt? [not-self] and S?la [morality], Sam?dhi [concentration], Paññ? [wisdom]without any difference (Ibid).


Mahayana is not a school as such but a new movement in Buddhism, arising from earlier Buddhist tenets and the new s?tras. It was probably developed by pious monks though it reinforces the role of lay religiosity. The key emphases are wisdom, compassion, and skilful means.

Fundamental Mahayana concepts can be traced back to Early Buddhism. Thus, Mahayana is not wholly different to ‘Early’ Buddhism, we might perhaps say that is it a more ‘engaged’ form, moved by compassion.


Access to Insight website,
Cousins, L. S. ‘Buddhism’ in A New Handbook of Living Religions, ed. J.R.Hinnells, Blackwell, Oxford, 1997, pp.369-444

Gethin, R. The Foundation of Buddhism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998. 
Harvey, P. An Introduction to Buddhism – Teachings, history and practices, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Harvey, P. Session 18. The Origin and Nature of the Mah?y?na, BudMO1 Buddhist Traditions, 2004, University of Sunderland, MA Buddhist Studies

Paul Harrison ‘Who Gets to Ride in the Great Vehicle: Self-Image and Identity Among the Followers of the Early Mah?y?na’ (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol. 10, no.1, 1987, pp.67-90.

Rahula, W.
Santina, P. D. The Tree of Enlightenment. 1987,
Williams, P. Mah?y?na Buddhism – The Doctrinal Foundations, Suffolk, St Edmundsbury Press Ltd., 1989. 
Williams, P and Tripe, A. Buddhist Thought – A complete introduction to the Indian Tradition, London, Taylor & Francis Group, 2000.

1. Gethin, 1998 citing Paul Harrison, ‘Searching for the Origins of the Mah?y?na’, Eastern Buddhist, 28 (1995), 48-69


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