Overview of Development of Mahayana


Mahayana arose in the first to second century of our Common Era.  It is called the Second Turning of the Wheel and counts as the next major unfoldment of Buddhist thought.  From a Western scholastic perspective, which is historical/critical, this second turning could be taken to mean either a different religion, a rogue variation or even a heresy.  All these opinions have been espoused at different times, both in the West as well as in the East.

It has also been equated to the Reformation, equivalent to Martin Luther tacking a declaration up on the cathedral doors of Wittenberg.

All these views are incorrect, though it has been politically expedient at times for parts of the Theravadin community to announce that they are the ‘only true Buddhists’ as they work from the earliest texts.  To this argument, some Mahayanists reply that Theravada is a Lesser Vehicle or Hinayana and that Mahayana is The Greater Vehicle.  This kind of sectarian one ‘upmanship’ has little to do with the development of the Buddhist philosophy and much to do with the politics of religion.  A topic not exclusive to Buddhism, for sure!

Let us instead examine the Mahayana philosophy as a further unfoldment of the Buddhist teachings begun by Gautama or Siddhartha Buddha and slowly evolving through time to meet the needs and aptitudes of different and increasingly sophisticated audiences. (Just as, the teachings of Saint John, the Apostle might be viewed as a more sophisticated presentation of the teachings of Jesus than the Gospel According to Saint Matthew or Mark)

The author Mu Soeng (The Diamond Sutra, p. 14 ) calls early Buddhist teaching “Psychological Buddhism” and Mahayana teachings “Visionary Buddhism”.  Early Buddhist training focused on the eradication of the psychological components that prevent an individual from becoming an arahat. Mahayanist philosophy enlarged that vision to include a wider, deeper world, full of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and magical beings.

Over the years since the death of Gautama, Buddhism had changed from bands of wandering ascetics to monastic communities.  As the meditation techniques of the early Buddhist world require much time and energy to perfect, they had become almost the sole purview of the monks (and a few nuns).  In fairness, there was a comfortable exchange going on as monks settled into monasteries in towns and villages.  In return for the support of the laity (food, clothing, housing) the monks became the wise counsellors, healers and teachers for the region in which they lived. This situation continues to the present day in some areas of the world.

During this ‘settling in’ period,  the ‘ third basket of teaching’, called ‘Abhidharma’ developed.  It is a highly codified set of observable ‘rules’ or ‘dharmas’ that were catalogued and hotly debated.  Buddhist teaching became a rather dry, intellectual, rational procession of scholarly debate.

Though lost in the mists of time, it seems clear that many practitioners must have realized that the teaching of the Buddhist philosophy had become too narrow and was not being offered to all people as a way out of suffering. The cracks began as early as the Second Buddhist Council, 100 years after the Buddha’s death.  These cracks were later to become the Mahayana, not as a codified rebellion but rather as a shift of view and a different emphasis on the teachings begun by the historic figure.

Perhaps Mahayana was also a response to a need to move back into a more poetic, heart centred and embracive philosophy. Certainly, texts of a different nature began to arise from all over the Buddhist world.  This transformational approach took place over a creative period of approximately 500 years.  Mahayana tradition says that this was teaching the Buddha had given to a few people who were capable of hearing it and preserved for a time when people were ready. There is a fundamental logic to this, which any parent can recognize.  We teach our children about life in varying degrees, according to their ability to comprehend and assimilate new and increasingly sophisticated information.

Many of the Mahayana texts come under the heading of ‘revealed teachings’. This idea can be hard for many in the West to conceive as legitimate, even though our own traditions have included ‘divine sourcing’ called divine revelation or even channeling to use the present day vernacular.

This developing body of text became part of a fundamental change in the view of the Buddha, from an historic figure to Buddha Nature, omnipresent and imminent.  ‘Buddha’ became transformed into a transcendent figure, a principle of Enlightened Energy, rather than just an historic figure. 

If a mystic could receive teaching through personal revelation, then Buddha Mind was available to all. Through the development of a cosmology of worlds upon worlds, many Buddhas could have appeared throughout time. The idea of the Three Bodies of Buddha came into being: Nirmanakaya, Sambhoghakaya, Dharmakaya. The historic Buddha had spoken of these things but they had largely been ignored in the development of early (Nikaya) Buddhist teaching. Perhaps these ideas also offered ways to explain the validity of the texts, which were now being written down.  The early oral tradition began to recede as written language came to the fore. What is intriguing about this mystery is that so many texts of similar type seem to have sprung up all within the same period of time.

Whatever the source, whether human or divine, the truth probably includes many points of origin, as Buddhism contains within it the ability, even the necessity, to morph its form according to the needs of a particular culture and a particular time.  It is this ability that causes consternation in the West, which wants to refer to Buddhism as a religion, rather than as a set of teachings, always being changed and altered as time, energy, creativity and circumstance require.

The new texts of the rising schools of Mahayana made two other important shifts in Buddhist philosophy, an emphasis on the role of the Bodhisattva and on the teachings of Sunyata. Both had been part of Theravadin oral tradition but not particularly emphasized.  In Theravadin terms, a person was destined to live many, many years as a Bodhisattva before developing enough merit to become a Buddha.  The Jataka Tales are the stories of these different lives of the Buddha, prior to his awakening.  Sunyata (Emptiness, insubstantiality, or transparency) was more closely defined in early Buddhist teaching to relate to the constituents of personhood, and a close examination of the skandhas would be the study that would lead to this understanding.

In Mahayana, these two ideas of the Bodhisattva ideal and Sunyata took on much more importance. The idea that the Buddha spoke of:  that all beings could awaken, began to take on more emphasis.  At their core, every being was seen to have Buddha Nature; that nature is obscured by a fundamental ignorance that we are separate and discrete entities.

The alchemical idea that one cannot know what is completely unknown helps us to understand this concept. As the hindrances drop away, a person comes not only to see him/herself truly as a transitory set of assumptions and molecules (the skandhas) but also to see how deeply things are interpenetrated with other things, thoughts, ideas, etc. By removing greed, hatred and ignorance, the person’s true nature or Buddha nature begins to shine forth.  Love and compassion are seen as intrinsic to this nature.


By discovering how fluid and essentially un-fixed the ‘self’ is, a meditator begins to understand that s/he is continuously interacting with others and with the world.  The chain of cause and effect is continuous and so the truth that we are all interblended with each other and with the world dawns upon us.  In short, we ‘inter-are’ as Thich Nhat Hanh points out.  Not only are we continuously affected by other people and the environment but we are responsible for the on-going effect of all our thoughts, words and actions. Modern scientists who speak about global responsibility and physicists who speak about quantum theory offer their confirming perspective to this theory.

A meditator can, however, have a direct experience of this interaction between themselves and nature’s workings.  Though it involves what we might call ‘magical sight’ it is an experience that fundamentally changes the way a person views herself and her relationship to the world.

By direct perception, then, a person can come to recognize that it is impossible to awaken without working to benefit others and thus the Bodhisattva as the proclaimed ideal is born.  In this important shift, a person takes a vow to continue to return to form (usually taken as human, though not necessarily so) lifetime after lifetime, until all beings have awakened.  As this idea of ‘beings’ includes all animals, birds, reptiles and anything else deemed as sentient, the scope of this vow is nearly overwhelming.

Perhaps to counter this overwhelming task, the teachings of the Paramitas came to prominence with their emphasis on a way of living that teaches this important path of connectedness yet allows a person to commence immediately.  It is interesting to note that within the Mahayana literature, laypeople come more to the fore with offerings of tremendous wisdom, the Vimalakirti Sutra being one of them.



Another major area of ‘difference’ or development in Mahayana is the shift to emphasize Sunyata.  The idea that there is no discrete, permanent self and the vivid, living understanding of that is the goal of the Theravadin view.  The result is a deep letting go of attachment to the things and goals of this world. Non-attachment to all that is human results, in Theravadin teachings  in full extinction at death. “Never again to arise into human form” is a phrase seen in the early Buddhist literature.  

A bodhisattva, by contrast, vows to continue to return until “all of Samsara is emptied.” He/she sees all things as having the same insubstantiality as his/her personhood.  Sunyata can be directly experienced in meditation but, upon return from such exalted states of meditation, a change in the person takes place.  The result is a transparency of view, feeling and presentation of self and other that is fluid, creative and ever evolving. 

By “not attaching to anything whatsoever.” (Atisha) a feeling of freedom from greed, hatred and ignorance arises.  The devotee becomes a renunciate of a different sort, i.e. he/she renounces fixed view and can walk in the world without fear or favour. However, she/he always walks with the understanding of full connectedness to all creation, people, animals, birds, plants, trees, etc. The responsibility to always try to help others out of suffering actually increases.

How this is done is the work of the bodhisattva, under the discipline of right view, right understanding and right effort as well as fully developing the Paramitas.  To operate without self-regard becomes the most important undertaking for such a person. Once he/she lets go of the drive to awaken self, and sees awakening as an interactive event, the world becomes the precious ground on which we walk, hand in hand with others.

In this second turning of the wheel, it matters less whether or not a person is a monk or a lay person but rather whether they have put in the work to experience the way in which reality is seen to actually work. Enlightenment becomes less important than living according to the precepts and the development of sila (wholesome moral conduct) and samadhi (extensive development of meditation, through both tranquillity and insight practices) which lead us to panna. The path of the Paramitas becomes the way of walking and the Lojong training elucidated by Geshe Chekawa (1102-1176) a way of reminding us day by day how to life an awakened life.



A Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life – by Shantideva

The Seven points of Mind Training – by Geshe Chekawa

The Diamond Sutra, “Transforming the Way we Perceive the World” by Mu Soeng

Entering the Stream, “An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings”, ed. Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn

The Vision of Buddhism, Roger J. Corless