Saturday, July 21, 2007

Since we, unfortunately, don't have a time allocated to Mahayana Buddhism in this course, below is a short article on the subject and some of the most important differences between Mahayana and Theravada. If you have any questions pertaining to this material or generally an understanding of Mahayana, feel free to post them on here under the title "Questions for Thursday" and we will try to answer them for you then.


Mahayana Buddhism
Related Resources
BodhisattvaBodhicittaKarunaThree Body DoctrineSchools and Traditions
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The Greater VehicleAbout 2000 years ago, approximately 500 years after the Buddha's parinibbana, a form of Buddhism arose known as Mahayana or 'the Greater Vehicle'. Although it had much in common with the kind of Buddhism that had preceded it, there were some distinctive shifts in emphasis which, in time, gave it a unique character. The new impulses that lay behind Mahayana Buddhism were not the result of a single figure or school of thought, but more a change in perspective common to a number of different groups.
The Bodhisattva Ideal
Perhaps the most significant shift was in the role given to the Bodhisattva, a Buddha-to-be whose sole purpose in winning enlightenment is for the benefit of all other beings. The Mahayanists felt that the Theravada emphasis on arahantship or sainthood - winning nibbana for oneself - was a narrow, even 'selfish' goal. The earlier form of Buddhism was referred to, therefore, as Hinayana, the Lesser Vehicle. The arahant ideal seemingly espoused by Hinayana was replaced with the Bodhisattva ideal - an individual, sets out to win enlightenment not for himself or herself but so that others may be relieved of their suffering. To achieve this the individual must attain to six perfections (paramita) - the perfections of giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation and wisdom. This focus on the Bodhisattva led to the foregrounding of a range of particular celestial such as Avalokiteshvara (Bodhisattva of Compassion) and Manjushri (Bodhisattva of Wisdom) who were to become objects of faith and devotion. What Mahayana Buddhism did was to highlight the importance of compassion as a motivating force and a major factor in spiritual development. This should be the root from which all actions spring.
The Three-Body Doctrine
The Mahayanist also developed a new, more complex interpretation of the Buddha figure. Whereas Theravada Buddhism saw the Buddha as a supremely special flesh-and-blood individual, the Mahayanists conceived the Buddha as having three bodies - the Appearance Body, the Dharma Body and the Enjoyment Body. The Appearance Body was the body that appeared to the world, manifesting itself for the benefit of all beings. The Dharma Body was the Buddha as the embodiment of truth. The Enjoyment Body was the Buddha as he appears in celestial realms to the Bodhisattvas. There were also philosophical developments too with the concept of emptiness or sunyata. Whereas earlier Buddhism had emphasized anatta - the absence of a permanent self - the Mahayanists went further, stating that all phenomena were lacking permanence and an essential identity. To realize this - experientially - was to realize 'emptiness' which is synonymous with realizing nibbana. Along with these developments, new scriptures emerged which, though written much later than the Pali Canon were perceived as capturing the true spirit of the Buddha's message.
Development of the Mahayana
It is within the broad umbrella of Mahayana Buddhism that a number of different schools and traditions came to flourish, including Pure Land, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Certain specific practices also developed, especially the use of visualization of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas in their specific realms. Chanting the names of particular Buddhas such as Amitabha were seen to be a means of earning merit and a means to a higher rebirth. There is no doubt that what the Tibetans call nying-je or compassion is a quality that is highly valued in Mahayana Buddhism. In the words of the Dalai Lama: 'The essence of the Mahayana compassion. In Mahayana Buddhism you sacrifice yourself in order to attain salvation for the sake of other beings' (from 'The Dalai Lama's Book of Wisdom').

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