7 answers about key terms in Mahayana Buddhism

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The Mahayana Buddhism (Great Vehicle) and Hinayana (Smaller Vehicle)  are the important Buddhism sects. And Mahayana Buddhism is the main subject today.

Mahayana Buddhism was originated in Northwest India and South India from 150 years BCE to the year 100 AD. Until now, it has been developed in China, North – Korea, Japan, Taipei, Mongolia. Because of its popularity in Northern Asian countries, it is also called “Northern Buddhism”. And, the Mahayana Buddhism is divided into the smaller sects such as Pure Land Buddhism sect, Dhyana Buddhism (Zen Buddhism, or Meditation Buddhism), and T’ien –T’ai –zong…


1. Where does Mahayana Buddhism come from?

The Second Buddhist council took place about one hundred years after Buddha’s Parinirvati. In this council, there was an argument about Buddhism’s Vinaya (the commandments) between the elder Bhikkus and younger Bhikkus. For more details, the elder Bhiksus would not like to change the original rules of law. Meanwhile, the younger Bhiksus made a request for changing the moral restraint so as to adjust to the new social situation. However, they could not result in the same mindset. As a result, the younger Bhiksus left the council, giving rise to the Mahasanghika. The Mahayana Buddhism was originated from the Mahasanghika and Sarvastivadin. From the Mahasanghika’s point of view, the Mahayana Buddhism consider Buddha as a manifestation of a transcendental being, and the symbol of Bodhisattvas as well as the theory of Sunya (emptiness). From Sarvastivadin’s approach, it accepts the doctrines of Trikaya.

Then, the terms “Mahayana” and “Hinayana” appeared in the “Saddharmapundarikasutra” of Mahayana Buddhism for the first time between the 1st  BC and 1st AD.

Then, “Mahayana” was explained more clearly in the second century AD. Nagarjuna had developed the Mahayana Buddhism’s philosophy about “emptiness”. In the Madyamikakarika, it is evidenced that all Dharma is empty.

Later, Asanga and Vasubandhu wrote some works about Mahayana’ Sutras in the IV century. It can be said that the standpoint of Mahayana Buddhism is clearer after the 1st  century AD.


2. What are the core beliefs of Mahayana Buddhism?

There are three main philosophies in Mahayana Buddhism: Tathata, Jnana, and Vijnaptimatrata.

  • Tathata

Tathata” or “Bhutatathata” is a key term in Mahayana Buddhism.

According to “A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms”, it is the eternal and unchangeable reality behind all phenomena. In other words, “Tathata” or “Bhutatathata” is the ultimate source and character of all phenomena. It is also called “Pure Mind”, “Buddha-nature”, “Buddha-treasury”, “Dharma-nature”, or “The complete and perfect real nature of reality”.

It can be said that “Tathata” or “Bhutatathata” goes beyond all assumption of humanity’ words. Therefore, if we look forward to understanding “Tathata”, we will need some examples. Although all of the explanations just look like a finger pointing to the Moon. Thus, your goal is to touch the Moon, not looking at the finger.

the finger pointing at the Moon
All of the Scriptures, Sutras, or terms are just the finger pointing at the Moon. The Moon is your goal.

As usual, people are tending to lean on the terms to decide what is what, or how things are. Have you ever wondered why your left hand is determined by the word “left”? Why not it is the word “right”? Or, have you ever looked at the beach and thought the terms “ocean, beach, tide, water” are really just the same thing – water. And they share the same nature – it is wet. Both left hand and right hand are based on humanity’s distinction. And they are just “Hand”. Likewise, all terms “ocean, beach, tide, water” just are “water”, and its character is “wet”.

Because of the binary mindset,  we think that all Dharma is real. As a result, we decide whether something is right or wrong, happy or unhappy, beautiful or ugly based on things that we call “Dharma”. And, the harder people make effort to determine the definition, or the real nature of things, the more easily people fall in the ignorance’s trap.

The ignorance’s trap is Greed, Hatred, and Illusion.

Every day, we think about everything by the binary mindset. In other words, we imagine everything and label the name and character of all things like the way we want. And the problem is here: We think that all of the things we think is Dharma. In fact, what we call “Dharma” is not “Dharma”. In contrast, “Tathata” is so far the eternal and unchangeable reality behind all phenomena – it is “Dharma-nature”. And the real “Dharma-nature” is empty.

In the story about Avalokitesvara’s enlightenment, Avalokitesvara realizes that all Dharma is empty. Similarly, we must understand that even our body, the things, the atmosphere are unreal dependent originations. Nothing lasts forever. When you inhale, it means you borrow the universe one breath. Then, you exhale, it also means you have to lend the universe that breath. When you come to your death, your body is coming back to nature. And your soul keeps on its project in the cycle of samsara in 31 planes of existence. Nothing in this life belongs to you, even your breath. When you realize this fact, you may understand “Tathata” partly.

In Buddhism, if the cultivators can practice Buddhism meditation, and achieve the state of realizing “The complete and perfect real nature of reality”, they can attain “Enlightenment”. It can be said that, in the moment of enlightenment, Buddha had witnessed the sunlight of the eternal ultimate truth. This is “Tathata”.


Buddhahood is within yourself
Buddhahood is within yourself, thus, you can find the ultimate truth of everything from inside your mind. It is “emptiness”.
  • Jnana

Jnana ” is also the key term in Mahayana Buddhism. It is a kind of wisdom. However, it does not come from normal knowledge or logical thinking. “Jnana” can be understood as “the perfect transcendental awareness”. In “Jnana”, people can come to the absolute liberation.

Here is the reason: Buddha is not a god whom people can rely on for liberation. In fact, Buddha just delivers the methods, and people have to deliver themselves to the land of enlightenment by these methods. In this situation, the given method is “Jnana ”. First, Buddha had told the name of the method to liberation. Then, the duty of human beings is to awake, to cultivate this method. Finally, it will lead people to get free from all trammels of life, and the bondage of the passion and reincarnation.

There is a mantra in Sanskrit: “Gate, gate, para gate, para samgate, Bodhi, svaha.” In English, this sentence means: “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go further, let’s win yourself to attain enlightenment.”

let’s win yourself to attain enlightenment
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go further, let’s win yourself to attain enlightenment.”

According to the Vijnanavada sect in Mahayana Buddhism, Mahayanasutralankara, Buddhabhumisastra, there are four types of Jnana.

  • Adarsa-jnana: The wisdom looks like a mirror.

This wisdom reflects the nature of all phenomena exactly as they are. In this wisdom, people can understand both the relative nature and the absolute nature of all phenomena. For more detail, the relative nature of things is dependent, and impermanent. And the absolute nature is “empty”.

  • Samata-jnana: The wisdom of equality

Lord Buddha has an equal attitude towards all beings. This ability allows Buddha behave to all of the sentient beings in the world with great-loving compassion (Mahakaruna). In the wisdom of equality, no more close friends or strangers, no more good or bad beings. No matter whoever is standing in front of us, we all treat them with the great-loving compassion because they share the same nature. This is Buddha-nature.

Buddha knows how to awake its Buddhahood.Lord Buddha can connect to dangerous being because Buddha knows how to awake its Buddhahood.

The sentence: “The seed of Buddhahood is available in all of the sentient beings” reflects this wisdom.

  • Pratyaveksana-jnana: The wisdom of judgment

There are two types of Pratyaveksana-jnana. The first type is to contemplate the selflessness of each one. And the second type is the selflessness of all things. In the Pratyaveksana-jnana, people realize the impermanence of all things in the whole universe. In short, nothing lasts forever in this world.

A young cultivator reads book.
Buddha knows how to awake its Buddhahood.
  • Krtyanusthana-jnana: The wisdom of carrying

This is a type of wisdom that aims at bringing joy and peace for all sentient beings. It represents the Buddha’s Nirmanakaya. Depending on specific dependent origination, Buddha will be in one of three manifestations. In fact, Buddha has a three-fold body: Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya.

For more details, the wisdom in the Nirmanakaya is also called “Perfect transcendental wisdom”.

  • Vijnaptimatrata

In short, Vijnaptimatrata means “consciousness only”. In other words, all of Dharma in the whole universe come only from consciousness.

For examples, one day you can see nothing but the dim light because you suffer from the diseases of the eye. What you can see, others can’t. Because you are the victim of the diseases of the eye, only you can feel it.

Likewise, Dharma is only consciousness. This is one of the most complex theories of Mahayana Buddhism. Thus, it will look like “teaching fish to swim” to mention Vijnaptimatrata in one paragraph.


3. Which is the basic doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism? Emptiness

In overall, the theory of “Emptiness” plays an important role in Mahayana Buddhism. By understanding the “Emptiness” of all Dharma, the Buddhism cultivators can take a step further in the long journey of enlightenment.

Understanding "emptiness" from within your mind, and of all Dharma
Understanding “emptiness” from within your mind, and the “emptiness” of all Dharma, as well as phenomena in the world, leads you to “enlightenment”.


 4. Which is the most important Mahayana Buddhism characteristic? Generosity

And the highest level of enlightenment is the great compassion without distinctions, the savior of all. In the Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattvas is the symbol of the great loving compassion for all of the sentient beings in all of the planes of existences. Practicing the theory of Mahayana Buddhism, first of all, is to be generous. It is the first step in the progress of cultivating the great loving compassion.



 5. How about the difference between Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism?

This is one of the main subjects while discovering Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is also called “Great Vehicle”, and “Smaller Vehicle” for Hinayana Buddhism. The difference between the two sects is the number of sentient beings that each enlightened ones will save. According to Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are ready to save all of the sentient beings. However, Arahants in Hinayana Buddhism just enlighten and save themselves. This mindset can lead to the distinction in Buddhism. Thus, the Buddhism community use the terms “Northern Buddhism” and “Southern Buddhism” for Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism instead.


 6. Where are Mahayana Buddhism countries now?

As time goes by, the Great Vehicle had really traveled a great distance to Nepal, Tibet, China, North-Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. Especially, Mahayana Buddhism has a strong influence in Vietnam.


7. To what extent is Mahayana Buddhism important?

It is nonsense to compare one Buddhism sect to others. Each sect in Buddhism aims at explaining the specific methods for liberation. However, all of Buddhism sects share the same spirit. This is: Buddha is the wonderful becomings, the transcendental being. And all of the sutras, scriptures are just the methods for the cultivators to attain enlightenment. As the cultivators, we should not lean on any terms.

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