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Themes in Mahayana Buddhism

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Andre Maintenay

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World Religions February 7th-February 14th, 2011.
Themes in Mahayana Buddhism
Reading: Ch. 8 “The Buddhist Tradition,” pp. 404-439
Mahayana – Mahaya meaning greater, yana meaning vehicles, the greater way/vehicle in
ever connotation
Saw themselves as being the greater in every aspect
Refers to bulk of Buddhism in East Asian and Northern stream of Buddhism, e.g.
China, Japan Tibet, Himalayan cultural region
Evolved certain characteristic features
Very early on, became very popular and its ritual side developed
By 250 BCE we see Buddhist practice has evolved to include traditions of
pilgrimage, venerating shrines and these practices continued in one form or a
another still today in various parts of Mahayana world
Developed certain characteristic doctrinal features: 1st major point to note is that it
placed tremendous importance on concept of Upaya is very important technical
term for Mahayana tradition, meaning skill or skillful means
Upaya – truly skillful teacher, teacher who has knowledge is able to adapt his/her
teachings to the level of the student, can identify the aptitudes the talents and the
proclivities of each student and can target her/his message to suit that student in
order to more skillfully instruct that student and bring him/her up to the level of
Why is this important? Buddha employed his skill as a master in various ways and
therefore evolved many different methods for teaching his disciples
Concept of Upaya important because it covers great deal of what happens in the
tradition, e.g. hugely influences Mahayana view of scripture
Whereas Theravada school held specific canon (collection of teachings that re
understood as being authoritative in the tradition) of scripture and follows that,
whereas Mahayana because has belief in Buddha as being tremendously skillful
teacher holds opinion that canon of scripture is never closed because Buddha
could adapt his teachings tomorrow to suit the intellectual climate of tomorrows
Therefore Buddha never completely gone and his teachings completely transform
itself in various ways to whatever is appropriate to the group being instructed, and
so Mahayana canon much larger than Theravada canon
Places much greater emphasis on role of the laity who do not join monastic
community, unlike Theravada who view much join monastic community in order
to reach enlightenment
Mahayana re-conceptualizes the ideal of Buddhist practice e.g. dumps idea of the
Arhant says its too narrow, too selfish, as an Arhant you are only working to
achieve enlightenment for yourself however Mahayana rejects this and replaces it
with Bodhisattua ideal
Bodhisattua – highly evolved spiritual being who has perfected him/her self
through same level of insight as Buddha and Arhant with one significant
difference, after having achieving highest level of insight, instead of passing out of
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the world, they rather choose to remain in the world and to work in the world in
order to help other suffering beings understand same truths as they themselves
have experienced
Bodhisattua vow key to the Mahayana is that having achieved even the greatest
level of insight, complete mastery, I still will not take on nirvana for myself until I
work to bring all other people to the same level of insight
Bodhisattua ideal is characteristic to Mahayana tradition
Mahayana re-conceptualizes concept of the Buddha and understands whole idea of
the Buddha in very different way than Theravada understands the Buddha (he is a
human being)
Mahayana re-conceptualizes Buddha as much more complex entity as operating
on multiple levels of meanings
One of understandings of concept the of Buddha in Mahayana tradition is that he
takes there are 3 different forms of which the Buddha takes:
1.Phenomenal/appearance body – refers to physical understanding that he was a
historical figure but was still exceptional in the fact that he was never
2.Body of bliss Buddha once again because of his Upaya he takes on various
forms and creates various realms of existence into which we can be reborn and
from where it is easier to practice and achieve enlightenment. Buddha
manifests in these various ways, as these heavenly realms in which you can
reborn for an optimal experience of living and where its easier to focus on
achieving meditative insights and easier to devote ones self to life of
3.Dharma body – Refers to idea that all beings share common potential for
achieving the same level of insight as the Buddha, this potentiality is referred
to as our innate Buddhanature
Tripitaka, meaning 3 baskets, composed of 3 strands of literature:
1.Sutrapitaka, Sutra meaning thread on which you have knowledge strung. Refers
to Buddhist teachings, major doctrinal insights of Buddhism
2.Vinaya Pitaka, Vinaya refers to rules of Monastic life
3.Abhidharma, treatises that develop analytically major teachings of Buddhism
Basic canon of Buddhist scripture, talk about 3 Tripitakas, also referred to as Pali
Pail put together at turn of millennium
Systemization of Buddhist doctrine doesnt happen 200 years after death of
Real comprehensive scripture doesnt take form until couple hundred years after
death of Buddha and happens under the auspicious of various royalty, e.g. King
Asoka was crucial in development of Buddhism
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