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Mahayana Buddhism
(a.k.a. Northern Tradition)

Buddhist statute in Thailand 8

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"Wishing: In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease." The Metta Sutta

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Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called Northern Buddhism. It is mainly followed by monks and nuns, and is mainly found throughout China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Tibet, and Vietnam.

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Buddhism Continues to Grow:

The original tradition within Buddhism, Theravadan, continues to flourish even today, but around the First Century BCE, a split began to develop. The Theravadans held fast to the ideas of monastic discipline, scholarly attainment, and strict adherence to the scriptures of the Buddha, while others saw this as being inflexible and difficult for anyone besides a monk to come to terms with. As a result, a movement to bring Buddhism to the "common people" began to gain popularity. This movement would eventually lead to the development of Mayahana Buddhism.

"Theravada Buddhism focused primarily on meditation and concentration, the eighth of the Eightfold Noble Path; as a result, it centered on a monastic life a an extreme expenditure of time in meditating. This left little room for the bulk of humanity to join in, so a new schism erupted within the ranks of Buddhism in the first century CE, one that would attempt to reformulate the teachings of Buddha to accommodate a greater number of people. They called their new Buddhism, the "Greater Vehicle" (literally, "The Greater Ox-Cart") or Mahayana, since it could accommodate more people and more believers from all walks of life. They distinguished themselves from mainstream Theravada Buddhism by contemptuously referring to Theravada as Hinayana, or 'The Lesser Vehicle.' " 1

The story goes that at first, the abilities of Buddha’s followers to comprehend what he had attained was limited, thus his teachings had to focus on the most important concepts of enlightenment and Nirvana. It is often said that The Buddha foresaw a time when his disciples would be ready for more than these basic teachings. This slow evolution of Buddhist thought beyond the original teachings of the Buddha demonstrated the great flexibility and openness that was possible in Buddhism, thus as it moved out of India to other countries, it was rapidly integrated into the cultures it encountered.

Graeme Lyall wrote on "The Rise of Mahayana:

"Many Buddhists, especially Westerners, tend to see both the Theravada and Mahayana approaches as not being contradictory or in opposition but rather as complimentary to each other. The Mahayana is often seen as an expansion of or commentary on Theravadan teachings." 2

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Bohdisattva Warriors:

Theravada or Hinayana Buddhism embraced the concept of the Bodhisattva, or "one who achieves perfect attainment." Theravadan Buddhists saw this as merely a guide or a model to the journey of individual enlightenment. Thus any adherent of the Theravadan Tradition who through strict discipline and devotion to scripture became enlightened had lived up to the ideal of the Bodhisattva. But Bodhisattva was seen merely as a teaching tool, only as a part of the individual’s path in reaching Nirvana. It would not reach beyond this until the formation of the Mahayana Tradition.

The Mahayana determined that Bodhisattva was a mandate not for individual perfection, but to save all sentient beings from suffering. Mahayana Buddhists take a vow NOT to enter Nirvana, even though they too strive to reach enlightenment. Instead their vow is to return to the world of suffering after their death and assist all others in reaching Nirvana first, thus casting the role of Buddhists as compassionate protectors and saviors.

Molly C. King wrote:

"The bodhisattva is translated literally as 'one whose essence is perfect wisdom' or 'one destined for enlightenment.' The essential characteristics of the bodhisattva in both sects are compassion, selflessness, wisdom, and servitude. The bodhisattva takes a vow: 'I must lead all beings to liberation, I will stay here until the end, even for the sake of one living mortal'." 3

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The spread of Mahayana in Asia:

Theravada Buddhism continued to be dominant in Southern India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and spread South and East through the Indo-Chinese Peninsula while Mahayana Buddhism grew and spread to the North and East.

Mahayana broke into several sub-types:

bullet In China: Cha’an, (more popularly known by its Japanese name, Zen), and Pure Land. Both would later be transmitted to Japan. Zen migrated to Korea.

bullet Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism which moved North and West, finally taking root in Tibet.

Over time, several schools of the Mahayana Buddhist philosophy evolved, but the main ones today are Pure Land and the Zen, both of which originally developed in China. A third school, the Nirchiren group developed in most recent times and is based on the White Lotus Sutra teaching of the Buddha. 4

Mary Hendriks commented:

"The dominant group today is the Mahayana following, and this is in part due to a Royal supporter. In the third century BC, Buddhism was boosted by the patronage of a powerful king, the Emperor Ashoka who converted after a particularly vicious victory in battle. He became a major supporter of the Mahayana Buddhism and funded its growth around many parts of India. In conjunction with the council, he also sent missionaries to regions outside India, beginning the spread of Buddhism around the world." 5

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Common Roots Run Deep:

While the various sects and followers of the Buddha’s teachings may vary, the core values established by The Buddha are still shared by all Buddhists. Their methods may differ. The ultimate goal of enlightenment through patient discipline, meditation, right living, and compassion for all life is a common thread that runs deep through all Buddhist thought and tradition. It is proper to say that Mahayana Buddhism is an extension or continuation of Theravada Buddhism, because without there first being Theravada, there could be no Mahayana.

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Comparison of the Theravadan & Mahayanan traditions:

Intense, dedicated and time-consuming effort required to attain enlightenment.

Theravada Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism

Enlightenment is achieved through a normal life with varying degrees of spiritual involvement. Enlightenment is achieved through a normal life with varying degrees of spiritual involvement.
Reaching Nirvana is the ultimate goal of the Theravada Buddhist. Vow to be reborn in order to help all other sentient beings reach Nirvana first.
Strives for wisdom first . Compassion is the highest virtue.
Centers on meditation, and requires major personal dedication such as being a monk or nun. Encourages practice in the world and among the general community.
Followed as a teaching or Philosophy. Followed with reference to higher beings, more like a religion.
Moved primarily South and West covering Indochina and Ceylon (Sri-Lanka). Moved Primarily North and West, covering China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet.
Early work written in Pali (e.g. kamma, dhamma). Early texts are in Sanskrit (e.g. karma, dharma)
Emphasizes rules and education Emphasizes intuition and practice
Politically conservative Politically liberal

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Mahayana Buddhism," at:
  2. Graeme Lyall "The Rise of Mahayana," at:
  3. Molly C. King, "Bodhisattva," at:
  4. Mary Hendriks, "The History, Philosophy and Practice of Buddhism -Buddhism in Japan" at:
  5. Mary Hendriks, "The History, Philosophy and Practice of Buddhism -Mahayana Buddhism and Theravadan Buddhism," at:
  6. Stephen Evans, "Basic Points Unifying The Theravada and the Mahayana," at:
  7. Mary Hendriks, "The History, Philosophy and Practice of Buddhism," at:
  8. Image of a Buddhist statue at Temple Phayao in Thailand, courtesy of Custo609, downloaded from

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Resources for further study:

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Books on Mahayana Buddhism:

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Essay copyright © 2002 by the main author
Latest update: 2017-JUL-20
Author: J.S. Brown with a little input from B.A. Robinson

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