Origin of Mahayana

Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism: Its Origin and Development

Peace in a Park SettingIn examining the origin and development of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, the attached essay addresses five aspects: plausible origins of the Mahāyāna; ideas in earlier forms of Buddhism; how Mahāyāna built on these ideas; how Mahāyāna went beyond them; and whether later disparate expressions of Mahāyāna are united.

In exploring ways in which Indian Mahāyāna was a continuation of trends in earlier Buddhism, and in what ways it was innovative, five specific themes are traced: the Bodhisattva ideal, cosmology, Abhidhamma thought, skilful means and compassion, as well as level of antagonism toward the new vision of Buddhism.


The conclusions drawn are as follows:

In exploring the origins of Indian Mahāyāna, three views have been presented. Sectarian origins raised questions about understanding Buddhist sect formation, initial acceptance of emerging Indian Mahāyāna literature, origins of Indian Mahāyāna as a separate tradition, and the new vision of Buddhism. Lay origins exposed difficulties concerning lack of evidence for lay origins of Indian Mahāyāna, religious innovation not made by laity, preservation of innovative texts, and lack of evidence from earliest extant Mahāyāna literature. Finally, the role of forest-dwelling monks presented a plausible origin for Indian Mahāyāna due to evidence from Mahāyāna Sūtras, including the Maitreyamahāsimhanāda Sūtra (‘Lion’s Roar of Maitreya’).

Indian Mahāyāna was a continuation of trends in earlier Buddhism as follows:

First, early Buddhism had placed high value on the motivation of concern for others. The Arahat was seen as one who went forth for the welfare of the world. While the superiority of altruistic action was recognized, in Mahāyāna the compassionate aspiration of the Arahat is brought to a higher, sublime level in the Bodhisattva.

Second, in earlier Buddhism, the Indian deities Brahmā and Indra (known as Sakka) played an important role according to the Pali suttas. Their names and much of their nature originated from devotional responses to the Buddha. Notwithstanding, the Mahāyāna combined earlier meditation and cosmology elements in a new way and developed a cosmology emphasizing faith. The Buddha was now seen as a glorified, transcendent being. Earlier Indian deities were eclipsed by new figures – Buddhas and spiritually advanced Bodhisattvas.

Third, in earlier Buddhism, there was insight meditation and related Abhidhamma thought. In the Mahāyāna, on the other hand, a fresh philosophical understanding of emptiness developed – the emptiness of phenomena and supreme wisdom were now emphasized.

Fourth, in early Buddhism, the idea of “one way” existed. For example, in the Mahāsatipatthāna Sutta, the Buddha is said to have stated, “There is, monks, this one way” (Walshe, 2012, p.335 [626]). Nevertheless, it is certainly evident that the Mahāyāna revealed that the Buddha has ‘one vehicle’ (eka-yāna), the Buddha-vehicle, but has used the skilful means of three: the vehicles of the Disciple, Solitary Buddha, and Bodhisattva.

Finally, some of the earliest extant Mahāyāna literature (Chinese translations of Mahāyāna sūtras by Lokaksema in the late second century C.E.), does not show any antagonism towards monasticism, the Sangha, in early Buddhism.

However, Indian Mahāyāna was also innovative.

First, in Mahāyāna, the Bodhisattva strives to bring all beings throughout time and space to final liberation (nevertheless, it should be stated that in the Pali Buddhavamsa (II A), there is also an account of such a vow made by Sumedha). Bodhicitta becomes a continuous activity (not only an aspiration). The Bodhisattva does not retreat from the world, but remains compassionately involved. In his wisdom, he recognizes the true nature of reality; in his compassion, he has a tenderness of heart and empathy.

Second, in Mahāyāna, the idea of the Buddha and his Dharma evolved into a more elaborate system called the Trikāya, or the three bodies (kāyas) of the Buddha. It explained how the Buddha manifests in the world of form to work for the liberation of all beings.

Third, with a new perspective on scriptural legitimacy, the Mahāyāna adopted open, on-going revelation. As a result, a large number of new sūtras were produced in India up to around 650 C.E. Often composed by several authors elaborating a basic text, these works frequently comprised hundreds of pages.

Fourth, in relation to skill in means, the Mahāyāna was viewed as superior in three ways: its motivation (compassion directed toward the salvation of countless beings); its goal (omniscient Buddhahood); and its profundity (supreme wisdom). Teachings on these subjects represented a far deeper stage of elucidation of the Buddha’s message.

Finally, the new texts advocated a vision termed Mahāyāna – the ‘Great Way’, the ‘Way to the Great’, or the ‘Greatest Way’. In time, this Great Way was increasingly contrasted with an Inferior Way (Hināyāna) – and sometimes the contrast was highlighted with unkind and even harsh language.

In concluding, while later disparate expressions of Mahāyāna occurred, a unity remains amidst its diversity – a unity seen in the underlying Dharma that has been breathtakingly reinterpreted through the sensibilities of both continuity and change.