statue of Buddha

Mahayana Buddhism is founded in the concept of the Bodhisattva, one who is less interested in attaining enlightenment for oneself and motivated to bring enlightenment to others instead.


By Daniel Scharpenburg

The original basic teaching of the Buddha was a way of liberation, enlightenment and freedom from suffering.

The Buddha didn’t try to answer fundamental questions of the universe. Buddhism isn’t a religion that tries to answer questions like “Where did the world come from?” and when the Buddha was asked questions about such things he was said to maintain a noble silence. It was said that metaphysical speculations weren’t relevant to the quest for enlightenment.

It’s been suggested that Mahayana Buddhism arose because people were curious about some of the questions that the Buddha declined to answer. I find that to be an oversimplification of things.

In my opinion the Mahayana teachings arose as a way to deal with some of the problems that were coming up among followers of the Buddhist path. How and why it arose isn’t all that important to us. On the Zen path we are only really concerned with spiritual transformation now, but it’s good to know a little something.

Mahayana Buddhism was founded by some very sensitive and wise individuals who followed the path set forth by the Buddha and engaged deep study of the inner workings of their minds, whereas the older Buddhist sects usually were only followed by a few individuals.

The goal of the Mahayana is to make Buddhism available to everyone, to teach in different ways so that individuals of any temperament can have a chance to engage the dharma.

It’s said that the Mahayana sutras came from the Buddha and his immediate followers, but they are very different in tone and style from the original texts—the Pali Canon. They are almost certainly later writings, but that’s okay. Buddhism is an evolving system of awakening and teachings don’t have to come directly from the Buddha to be valid.

The Mahayana is called the great vehicle because it is full of different methods and practices. The different skillful practices that comprise the Mahayana are numerous. Different methods range from philosophical speculation to faith in being reborn in a pure land, to repetition of sacred words. The earliest Buddhist teachings implied that enlightenment is only to be realized through extreme self control and incredibly diligent effort, that a Buddhist should set aside all worldly concerns in the quest for enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhism is founded in the concept of the Bodhisattva, one who is less interested in attaining enlightenment for oneself and motivated to bring enlightenment to others instead. The Bodhisattva is not content to save him or herself. The Bodhisattva wants to save everyone. The idea of the Bodhisattva fits in with Buddhist philosophy easily. It comes naturally out of the principle of not grasping and from the doctrine of no self.

Compassion naturally arises when we let go of the I-me-mine way of looking at the world. It’s by not clinging that we cultivate the mind of the Bodhisattva.

Mahayana philosophy proposes in the Prajnaparamita Sutras that clinging—even to Buddhism and enlightenment—is futile. Enlightenment is not something for us to grasp. This is the doctrine of emptiness that was popularized by the great philosopher poet Nagarjuna, who is often considered second only to the Buddha. Nagarjuna famously took Buddhism into the realm of philosophy, using logic to break through the circle of clinging that we are caught in.

Nagarjuna described the nature of reality, or at least our conception of reality, as empty. His philosophy is sometimes called Sunyavada, the doctrine of the void. It used to break through our preconceptions and emotional baggage, not only the views that we consciously adopt, but the ones we’re carrying that we aren’t aware of as well.

When we really analyze the nature of things, as Nagarjuna did, we see that everything is relative. All things are dependent on other things in numerous ways, including ourselves. Nothing in the universe exists on it’s own, separate from other things. Because of this it doesn’t make sense to grasp at things in the way that we do.

The things we try to single out only really can be described in terms of their opposites. Pleasure is defined by pain. Movement is defined by stillness. Boredom is defined by excitement. Existence is defined by lack of existence.

This is where a confusing idea comes from.

This doctrine of the void can even take us to the point of seeing that even suffering and enlightenment—samsara and nirvana—are not separate. Even these are not things to be grasped. Samsara is Nirvana and Nirvana is Samsara because nothing is really separate. It’s also where the concept that we are already enlightened comes from—that our true nature is enlightened already and it’s just some confusion we are carrying that stops us from realizing it.

The concept of a journey to enlightenment implies that we aren’t enlightened, and that there is something we are trying to attain. It’s at the core of this paradox that the Zen tradition rests. We want to come to understanding that there’s really nothing to hold onto. And, even if there was, there’s no one to do the holding.

We are trying to develop the vision of prajna, intuitive wisdom. Prajna sees into the interconnection and emptiness of everything. We want to come to understand that our existence depends entirely on our relation to the things we interact with.

We can come to a moment where our awareness of the world of suffering, the one who suffers, and the causes of suffering all reach a point of realization. Then we can have what the Lankavatara Sutra refers to as a “turning in the deepest seat of consciousness.” In this moment our preconceptions and emotional baggage fall away and we live as we really are. When the self falls away we realize there never was any self that we were trying to bring under control.

This is where the philosophy expounded by Nagaruna leads us—true and complete emptiness. Enlightenment. The philosophy of emptiness was a kind of challenge to the other philosophies that existed in India at the time. The important thing about the philosophy of Emptiness isn’t the philosophy itself, but the new vision of reality that it allows us to engage.

Apart from emptiness, there is another term in Mahayana Buddhism for the nature of reality. This is Tathata, or thusness. This describes just the world as it is, without coloring it with our perceptions. This is the world undivided by all the labels we put on things. It points to the real as separate from our perception of it. An Enlightened One is a Tathagata, a thus goer, because they are awakened to seeing things as they really are, without those labels that we put on everything, ideas like good and bad, real and imaginary, past and future.

Because Tathata is the true state of the enlightenment in all beings, it’s sometimes referred to as Buddha Nature. One of the core teachings of Mahayana Buddhism is that we all have this Buddha Nature, and we all have enlightenment within us.

It’s from these concepts that many many branches of Buddhism formed. Not only Zen, but also Tendai, Huayan, Nichiren, Pure Land, Vajrayana, and many many others.

It is important to remember that Zen is just one branch of a much bigger tree that is the Mahayana.


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Editor: Dana Gornall