Major Characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism

  1. New sūtras, written in Sanskrit and/or Chinese
    1. Lotus Sūtra: one of the most popular Buddhist sutras throughout East Asia
      1. upāya ("skillfull means"): the Buddha revealed his teachings in different ways to different people at different times, depending on their capabilities and the conditions of the times - hence the great variation in doctrines among the various sutras and schools
      2. universal Buddha-nature: the Buddha is eternal and omnipresent; hence all sentient beings are, or will become, Buddhas (also developed by philosophical theories, below)
      3. soteriological value of stūpa-worship (reliquaries)

    2. Prajña-paramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) sūtras: emphasizing the concept of emptiness
      1. Heart Sūtra: chanted every day in Chan / Zen monasteries. Includes the line "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form."
      2. Diamond Sūtra

    3. Pure Land Sūtras (3): Amitabha Buddha's vows, basis of Pure Land Buddhism
    4. Avatāmsaka / Huayan / Kegon ("Flower Garland") sūtra: focuses on Vairocana Buddha (see below) - basis of Huayan / Kegon Buddhism
    5. Platform Sūtra: story and teachings of Huineng, the 6th Patriarch of Chan / Zen. The only sūtra that does not claim to be the words of the Buddha. Written in Chinese.
    6. Vimalakirti Sūtra: story of the enlightened layman, Vimalakirti
    7. Lankāvatāra Sūtra: reflects Yogacāra (Consciousness-Only) philosophy

  2. New model of enlightenment: the Bodhisattva
    1. an enlightened being who vows to remain in samsāra (any level) to help all sentient beings achieve enlightenment; characterized by wisdom and compassion
    2. Bodhisattva vow:
      However innumerable the sentient beings, I vow to save them all.
      However inexhaustible the passions (klesas), I vow to extinguish them all.
      However immeasurable the dharmas, I vow to master them all.
      However incomparable the truth of the Buddha, I vow to attain it.
    3. Six Bodhisattva Virtues or Perfections (paramitā)
      1. giving (dāna)
      2. morality (sīla)
      3. patience (ksānti)
      4. energy (virya)
      5. meditation (dhyāna)
      6. wisdom (prajñā)

  3. New devotional / "theistic" dimension (faith, worship, bhakti)
    1. Bodhisattvas
      1. Maitreya / Mi-le / Miroku (Buddha of next age)
      2. Manjūsri / Wenshu / Monju (Wisdom)
      3. Avalokitesvara / Guanyin / Kannon (Compassion)
      4. Ksitigarbha / Dizang / Jizō (Children in underworld)
      5. Samantabhadra / Puxian / Fugen (Universal Virtue)

    2. Buddhas
      1. Sākyamuni / Shijie / Shaka (Historical Buddha)
      2. Amitābha / Amituo / Amida (Infinite Light)
      3. Amitāyus / Wuliangshou / Muryōju (Infinite Life)
      4. (Maha-)Vairocana / Luoshana / Roshana or Dainichi (Sun, Cosmos)
      5. Baisyaja-guru / Yaoshi / Yakushi (Medicine, Healing)

  4. New philosophical developments
    1. Emptiness (sunyatā / kong / : all dharmas (things or elements) are "empty of own-being;" they have no independent, autonomous, existence; their very existence or being depends on other things; they are inherently conditional, not absolute. Hence emptiness = interdependence. Nagarjuna (2nd c. CE): "Emptiness is equivalent to 'dependent origination' (pratītya-samutpāda)."
    2. Universal Buddha-nature

      1. Three Body (trikāya) doctrine: aspects of Buddhahood
        1. Nirmāna-kāya: "Transformation body":  historical Sakyamuni
        2. Sambhōga-kāya: "Reward body":  spiritual being, perceptible only to other spiritual beings (including humans reborn in Pure Land) - hence their "reward"
        3. Dharma-kāya: "Truth body":  abstract principle, ultimate truth

      2. Inherent enlightenment (benjue / hongaku): enlightenment possible in this life; all beings are manifestations of Buddha; "ordinary mind is the Way"

    3. Nirvāna = Samsāra: nirvāna and samsāra both characterized by emptiness; nirvāna is samsāra correctly understood (Nagarjuna)
    4. "Interpenetration" of all things: the ultimate truth of all things is emptiness; every individual thing fully manifests the ultimate truth of everything else. Developed in Huayan school. Indra's Net.

  5. New possibilities of enlightenment for laypeople
    1. Through the virtue of "generosity / giving" (dāna) -- the first of the 6 Bodhisattva Perfections or Virtues -- lay people can gain karmic merit by donating to temples, having scriptures copied, building and maintaining stūpas (reliquaries), etc.
    2. “Transfer of merit”: karmic merit can be dedicated to others
    3. Enlightenment is possible in this life, without becoming a monk or nun
    4. Symbolized by Huineng (6th Patriarch) and Vimalakirti

  6. New Chinese schools and their Japanese counterparts:
    1. Pure Land (Jingtu / Jōdō ). Based on vow of Amitābha Buddha (in the Pure Land Sūtras) to cause anyone who called on his name (faithfully) to be reborn into a Western Paradise or Pure Land, where they would live in the company of Amitābha for a very long time, and then be reborn one final time as a human and achieve nirvāna.
      • Founded in Japan by Hōnen (1133-1212)
      • Jōdō Shinshū (True Sect of Pure Land) founded by Hōnen's former follower, Shinran (1173-1263)

    2. Tiantai / Tendai (Heavenly Terrace, the name of the mountain in southeast China where the temple of the school's founder, Zhiyi [6th century], was located). Based on the Lotus Sūtra and the concept of the "true suchness" (zhenru) of things: the "mean" between the fundamental emptiness of things and their "provisional existence."
      • Brought to Japan by Saichō (Dengyō Daishi, 762-822) in 805, who founded Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei (just outside Kyoto)

    3. Huayan / Kegon (Flower Garland, the Chinese name of the Avatāmsaka Sūtra). Central concept: the mutual "interpenetration" of all things, based on their true nature, the principle of emptiness. Chief Buddha: Vairocana / Dainichi.
      • Dominant school during Nara period; Tōdaiji.

    4. Chan / Zen (from chan-na, the Chinese transliteration of dhyāna, or meditation). Focus on meditation, "sudden enlightenment," and the recorded sayings of Tang dynasty (7th-10th c.) masters more than sutras featuring Buddhas.
      • Linji / Rinzai sect: brought to Japan by Eisai (1141-1215)
      • Caodong / Sōtō sect: brought to Japan by Dōgen (1200-1254)

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Edit date: 2/25/05