Membership, Community, Diversity

Who are Mahayana Buddhists?

By contrast, Mahayana Buddhists belong to a wide variety of sub-communities for whom the historical Buddha called Siddhartha Gautama was one of many manifestations of enlightenment capable of saving those who ask for help. Mahayana scriptures evolved in some half-dozen languages over many centuries as the tradition moved through Asia. Mahayana teaching universalized a number of classical Buddhist concepts, broadening their popular appeal and expanding the religious options available to ordinary folk. For example, Mahayana teaching regarded the historical Buddha of this age, Siddhartha Gautama, as only one of many embodiments of enlightenment. Not merely an ethical model, the Buddha was actually a world-filling spiritual presence and power. The compassionate Bodhisattva supplanted the more self-contained arhat as a religious ideal. Bodhisattvas represented saving grace as well as a lofty goal to which any person might aspire. Mahayana teachings expanded still further by personifying wisdom as a feminine principle, attractive and accessible.

At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, Mahayana tradition was also a great deal more open to the sort of speculative thinking most Theravadins considered fruitless. Mahayana philosophers developed the concept of “emptiness” (shunyata), for example, as a way of emphasizing the futility of clinging to anything at all, even to neat doctrinal distinctions. Of the dozen or so Mahayana schools and denominations that arose in India, China, and Japan, two deserve mention here. First and most popular are the Pure Land communities. Amitabha (Amida in Japan), one of the five transcendent or “meditational” Buddhas, rules the western paradise called the Pure Land. Devotees seek rebirth in that heavenly realm through various spiritual means, including the simple repetition of phrases such as “Glory to Amida Buddha.” In addition, several major Chan (Zen in Japan, Son in Korea) lineages have been extraordinarily influential in eastern Asia. The Soto school emphasizes quiet, methodical meditation, while the Rinzai school uses, in addition, the mind-stopping device called the koan—questions, puzzles, or parables with no clear answer or meaning—to hasten the seeker’s experience of enlightenment.

Different Emphases in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Theravada Mahayana
Person: individual seeking enlightenment individual involved in society
Key virtue: wisdom compassion, skill-in-means
Buddha: human ethical model suprahuman savior
Shakyamuni: historical Buddha one of innumerable Buddhas
Bodhisattva: Buddha-to-be (prior lives of Shakyamuni/Jatakas) intermediary saving figure
Spiritual ideal: Arhat, seeks own enlightenment Bodhisattva, seeks to save others
Goal of Life: Nirvana rebirth in Buddha-land
Means to Goal: meditation, self-discipline grace of Buddhas/Bodhisattvas


emphasis on meditation

includes petition/supplication


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