Mahāyāna (Sanskrit for “Great Vehicle”) is one of two (or three, under some classifications) main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. The Buddhist tradition of Vajrayana is sometimes classified as a part of Mahayana Buddhism, but some scholars may consider it as a different branch altogether.[1]

According to the teachings of Mahāyāna traditions, “Mahāyāna” also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called “Bodhisattvayāna”, or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle”. A bodhisattva who has accomplished this goal is called a samyaksaṃbuddha, or “fully enlightened Buddha”. A samyaksaṃbuddha can establish the Dharma and lead disciples to enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson.[3]

The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, with 53.2% of practitioners, compared to 35.8% forTheravada and 5.7% for Vajrayana in 2010.[4]

In the course of its history, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread from India to various other South, East and Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, and Nichiren Buddhism. It may also include the Vajrayana traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahāyāna tradition.

According to Jan Nattier, the term Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”) was originally an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna (“Bodhisattva Vehicle”)[5] — the vehicle of a bodhisattva seeking buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.[2] The term Mahāyāna was therefore formed independently at an early date as a synonym for the path and the teachings of the bodhisattvas. Since it was simply an honorary term for Bodhisattvayāna, the creation of the term Mahāyāna and its application to Bodhisattvayāna did not represent a significant turning point in the development of a Mahāyāna tradition.[5]

The earliest Mahāyāna texts often use the term Mahāyāna as a synonym for Bodhisattvayāna, but the term Hīnayāna is comparatively rare in the earliest sources. The presumed dichotomy between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna can be deceptive, as the two terms were not actually formed in relation to one another in the same era.[6]

Among the earliest and most important references to the term Mahāyāna are those that occur in the Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) dating between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.[7] Seishi Karashima has suggested that the term first used in an earlier Gandhāri Prakrit version of the Lotus Sūtra was not the termmahāyāna but the Prakrit word mahājāna in the sense of mahājñāna (great knowing).[8][9] At a later stage when the early Prakrit word was converted into Sanskrit, this mahājāna, being phonetically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into mahāyāna, possibly because of what may have been a double meaning in the famous Parable of the Burning House, which talks of three vehicles or carts (Skt: yāna).[note 2][8][10]

The origins of Mahāyāna are still not completely understood.[11] The earliest Western views of Mahāyāna assumed that it existed as a separate school in competition with the so-called “Hīnayāna” schools. The earliest Mahāyāna texts often depict strict adherence to the path of a bodhisattva, and engagement in the ascetic ideal of a monastic life in the wilderness, akin to the ideas expressed in theRhinoceros Sūtra.[note 3]

The earliest textual evidence of “Mahāyāna” comes from sūtras originating around the beginning of the common era. Jan Nattier has noted that in some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra use the term “Mahāyāna”, yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mahāyāna in this context and the early schools, and that “Mahāyāna” referred rather to the rigorous emulation ofGautama Buddha in the path of a bodhisattva seeking to become a fully enlightened buddha.[12]

There is also no evidence that Mahāyāna ever referred to a separate formal school or sect of Buddhism, but rather that it existed as a certain set of ideals, and later doctrines, for bodhisattvas.[12] Paul Williams has also noted that the Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early schools of Buddhism, and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to an early school. Membership in these nikāyas, or monastic sects, continues today with the Dharmaguptaka nikāya in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore, Mahāyāna was never a separate rival sect of the early schools.[13]Paul Harrison clarifies that while monastic Mahāyānists belonged to a nikāya, not all members of a nikāya were Mahāyānists.[14] From Chinese monks visiting India, we now know that both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna monks in India often lived in the same monasteries side by side.[15]

The Chinese monk Yijing who visited India in the 7th century CE, distinguishes Mahāyāna from Hīnayāna as follows:[16]

Both adopt one and the same Vinaya, and they have in common the prohibitions of the five offences, and also the practice of theFour Noble Truths. Those who venerate the bodhisattvas and read the Mahayana sūtras are called the Mahāyānists, while those who do not perform these are called the Hīnayānists.

Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahāyāna comes from early Chinese translations of Mahāyāna texts. These Mahāyāna teachings were first propagated into China by Lokakṣema, the first translator of Mahāyāna sūtras into Chinese during the 2nd century CE.[note 4]

A statue of Prajñāpāramitā personified, from Singhasari,East Java, Indonesia.

Earliest Mahāyāna sūtras

Several scholars have suggested that the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, which are among the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras,[17][18] developed among theMahāsāṃghika along the Kṛṣṇa River in the Āndhra region of southern India.[19]

The earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to include the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā genre, along with texts concerning Akṣobhya Buddha, which were probably written down in the 1st century BCE in the south of India.[20][21] Guang Xing states, “Several scholars have suggested that the Prajñāpāramitā probably developed among the Mahāsāṃghikas in southern India, in the Āndhra country, on the Kṛṣṇa River.”[19] A.K. Warderbelieves that “the Mahāyāna originated in the south of India and almost certainly in the Āndhra country.”[22]

Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that “historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra.”[23] They note that the ancient Buddhist sites in the lower Kṛṣṇa Valley, including Amaravati,Nāgārjunakoṇḍā and Jaggayyapeṭa “can be traced to at least the third century BCE, if not earlier.”[24] Akira Hirakawa notes the “evidence suggests that many Early Mahayana scriptures originated in South India.”[25]

Some scholars think that the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras were mainly composed in the south of India, and later the activity of writing additional scriptures was continued in the north.[note 5] However, the assumption that the presence of an evolving body of Mahāyāna scriptures implies the contemporaneous existence of distinct religious movement called “Mahāyāna”, may be a serious misstep.[note 6] Some scholars further speculate that the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras were written in response to the ultrarealism of abhidharma.[26]

Some early Mahāyāna sūtras were translated by the Kuṣāṇa monk Lokakṣema, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandhāra. His first translations to Chinese were made in the Chinese capital of Luoyang between 178 and 189 CE.[27] Some Mahāyāna sūtras translated during the 2nd century CE include the following:[28]

  1. Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra
  2. Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra
  3. Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra
  4. Akṣobhyatathāgatasyavyūha Sūtra
  5. Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra
  6. Mañjuśrīparipṛcchā Sūtra
  7. Drumakinnararājaparipṛcchā Sūtra
  8. Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra
  9. Bhadrapāla Sūtra
  10. Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana Sūtra
  11. Kāśyapaparivarta Sūtra
  12. Lokānuvartana Sūtra
  13. An early sūtra connected to the Avataṃsaka Sūtra

This corpus of texts often emphasizes ascetic practices and forest dwelling, absorbed in states of meditative concentration.[29]

Harrison points to the enthusiasm in the Lokakṣema sūtra corpus for the extra ascetic practices, for dwelling in the forest, and above all for states of meditative absorption (samādhi). Meditation and meditative states seem to have occupied a central place in early Mahāyāna, certainly because of their spiritual efficacy but also because they may have given access to fresh revelations and inspiration.


The Mahāyāna tradition holds that pursuing only the release from suffering and attainment of Nirvāṇa is too narrow an aspiration, because it lacks the motivation of actively resolving to liberate all other sentient beings from Saṃsāra. One who engages in this path is called a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas could reach nirvana, but they believed it was more important to help others on their path of finding nirvana rather than committing fully to nirvana themselves.[42]

The defining characteristic of a bodhisattva is bodhicitta, the intention to achieve omniscient Buddhahood (Trikaya) as fast as possible, so that one may benefit infinite sentient beings. Sometimes the term bodhisattva is used more restrictively to refer to those sentient beings on the grounds. As Ananda Coomaraswamy notes, “The most essential part of the Mahayana is its emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal, which replaces that of thearhat, or ranks before it.”[43] According to Mahāyāna teachings, being a high-level bodhisattva involves possessing a mind of great compassion and transcendent wisdom (Skt. prajñā) to realize the reality of inherent emptiness and dependent origination. Mahāyāna teaches that the practitioner will finally realize the attainment of Buddhahood.[citation needed]

Six perfections (Skt. pāramitā) are traditionally required for bodhisattvas:[citation needed]

  1. dāna-pāramitā: the perfection of giving
  2. śīla-pāramitā: the perfection on behavior and discipline
  3. kṣānti-pāramitā: the perfection of forbearance
  4. vīrya-pāramitā: the perfection of vigor and diligence
  5. dhyāna-pāramitā: the perfection of meditation
  6. prajñā-pāramitā: the perfection of transcendent wisdom

Expedient means

Main article: Upaya

Expedient means[44] (Skt. upāya) is found in the Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest dated Mahāyāna sūtras, and is accepted in all Mahāyāna schools of thought. It is any effective method that aids awakening. It does not necessarily mean that some particular method is “untrue” but is simply any means or stratagem that is conducive to spiritual growth and leads beings to awakening and nirvana. Expedient means could thus be certain motivational words for a particular listener or even the noble eightfold path itself. Basic Buddhism (what Mahāyāna would term śravakayāna or pratyekabuddhayāna) is an expedient method for helping people begin the noble Buddhist path and advance quite far. But the path is not wholly traversed, according to some Mahāyāna schools, until the practitioner has striven for and attained Buddhahood for the liberation of all other sentient beings from suffering.

Some scholars have stated that the exercise of expedient means, “the ability to adapt one’s message to the audience, is also of enormous importance in the Pāli canon.”[note 13] In fact the Pāli term upāya-kosalla does occur in the Pāli Canon, in the Sangiti Sutta of the Digha Nikāya.[45]