Mahayana Buddhism

The "Great Vehicle"

A golden bodhisattva in Beijing, China. © Pan Hong / Getty Images

Mahayana is the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, and several other nations. Since its origin about 2,000 years ago, Mahayana Buddhism has divided into many sub-schools and sects with a vast range of doctrines and practices. This includes Vajrayana (Tantra) schools, such as some branches of Tibetan Buddhism, which are often counted as a separate "yana" (vehicle). Because Vajrayana is founded on Mahayana teachings, it is often regarded as part of that school, but Tibetans and many scholars hold that Vajrayana is a separate form.

For example, according to noted scholar and historian Reginald Ray in his seminal book Indestructible Truth (Shambhala, 2000): 

The essence of the Vajrayana tradition consists of making a direct connection with the buddha-nature within....this sets in contrast to the Hinayana [now generally called Theraveda] and Mahayana, which are called causal vehicles beause their practice develops the causes by which the enlightened state may eventually be contacted...

....One first enters the Hinayana [now generally called Theraveda] by taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha, and one then pursues an ethical life and practices meditation. Subsequently, one follows the Mahayana, by taking the bodhisattva vow and working for the welfare of others as well as oneself And then one enters the Vajrayana, fulling one's bodhisattva vow through various forms of intensive meditation practice.

For the sake of this article, though, the discussion Mahayana will include the practice of Vajrayana, since both focus on the bodhisattva vow, which makes them distinct from Theravada.


It is difficult to make any blanket statements about Mahayana that hold true for all of Mahayana. For example, most Mahayana schools offer a devotional path for laypeople, but others are primarily monastic, as is the case with Theravada Buddhism. Some are centered on a meditation practice, while others augment meditation with chanting and prayer.

To define Mahayana, it is useful to understand how it is distinctive from the other major school of Buddhism, Theravada.

The Second Turnin of the Dharma Wheel

Theravada Buddism is philosophically based on the Buddha's First Turning of the Dharma Wheel, in which the truth of egolessness, or emptiness of self, is at the core of practice. Mahayana, on the other hand, is based on the Second Turning of the Wheel, in which all "dharmas" (realities) are seen as emptiness (sunyata) and without inherent reality. Not only ego, but all apparent reality is regarded as illusion.

The Bodhisattva

While Theravada emphasizes individual enlightenment, Mahayana emphasizes the enlightenment of all beings. The Mahayana ideal is to become a bodhisattva who strives to liberate all beings from the cycle of birth and death, bypassing individual enlightenment in order to help others. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion but because our interconnectedness makes it impossible to separate ourselves from on another.

Buddha Nature

Connected to sunyata is the teaching that Buddha Nature is the immutable nature of all beings, a teaching not found in Theravada.

Exactly how Buddha Nature is understood varies somewhat from one Mahayana school to another. Some explain it as a seed or potential; others see it as fully manifested but unrecognized because of our delusions. This teaching is part of the Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel and forms the basis of the Vajrayana branch of Mahayana, and of the esoteric and mystical practices of Dzogchen and Mahamudra. 

Important to Mahayana is the doctrine of the Trikaya, which says that each Buddha has three bodies. These are called the dharmakaya, sambogakaya and nirmanakaya. Very simply, dharmakaya is the body of absolute truth, sambogakaya is the body that experiences the bliss of enlightenment, and nirmanakaya is the body that manifests in the world. Another way to understand the Trikaya is to think of the dharmakaya as the absolute nature of all beings, sambogakaya as the blissful experience of enlightenment, and nirmanakaya as a Buddha in human form.

This doctrine paves the way for belief in a buddha-nature that is inherently present in all beings and which can be realized through the proper practices. 

Mahayana Scriptures

Mahayana practice is based on the Tibetan and Chinese Canons. While Theravada Buddhism follows the Pali Canon, said to include only the actual teachings of the Buddha, the Chinese and Tibetan Mahayana canons have texts that correspond to much of the Pali Canon but also have added a vast number of sutras and commentaries that are strictly Mahayana. These additional sutras are not regarded as legitimate in Theravada. These include highly regarded sutras such as the Lotus and the Prajnaparamita sutras.

Mahayana Buddhism uses the Sanskrit rather than the Pali form of common terms; for example, sutra instead of sutta; dharma instead of dhamma.