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
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.
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).
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.
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".
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
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
and Skill in Means
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.
- 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
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.
body - the eternal Dharma which lies beyond all dualities and
or Bliss Body which appears to Bodhisattvas in the celestial realm.
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.
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
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.
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.