There are, it seems, very few things that can be said with certainty about Mahāyāna Buddhism. It is certain that the term Mahāyāna (which means "great or large vehicle") was in origin a polemical label used by only one side—and perhaps the least significant side—of a protracted, if uneven, Indian debate about what the real teachings of the Buddha were, that might have begun just before, or just after, the beginning of the common era in India. It is, however, not clear how soon this label was actually used outside of texts to designate a self-conscious, independent religious movement. The term does not occur in Indian inscriptions, for example, until the fifth or sixth century. It is also certain that Buddhist groups and individuals in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan have in the past, as in the very recent present, identified themselves as Mahāyāna Buddhists, even if the polemical or value claim embedded in that term was only dimly felt, if at all.
But apart from the fact that it can be said with some certainty that the Buddhism embedded in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan is Mahāyāna Buddhism, it is no longer clear what else can be said with certainty about Mahāyāna Buddhism itself, and especially about its earlier, and presumably formative, period in India. While it is true that scholars not so long ago made a series of confident claims about the Mahāyāna, it is equally clear that now almost every one of those claims is seriously contested, and probably no one now could, in good faith, confidently present a general characterization of it. In part, of course, this is because it has become increasingly clear that Mahāyāna Buddhism was never one thing, but rather, it seems, a loosely bound bundle of many, and—like Walt Whitman—was large and could contain, in both senses of the term, contradictions, or at least antipodal elements. But in part, too, the crumbling of old confidences is a direct result of the crumbling of old "historical" truisms about Buddhism in general, and about the Mahāyāna in particular. A few examples must suffice.
The old linear model and the date of the "origin" of the Mahāyāna
The historical development of Indian Buddhism used to be presented as simple, straightforward, and suspiciously linear. It started with the historical Buddha whose teaching was organized, transmitted, and more or less developed into what was referred to as early Buddhism. This Early Buddhism was identified as HĪnayĀna (the "small," or even "inferior vehicle"), TheravĀda (the teaching of the elders), or simply "monastic Buddhism" (what to call it remains a problem). A little before or a little after the beginning of the common era this early Buddhism was, according to the model, followed by the Mahāyāna, which was seen as a major break or radical transformation. Both the linear model and the rhetoric used to construct it left the distinct impression that the appearance of the Mahāyāna meant as well the disappearance of Early Buddhism or Hīnayāna, that, in effect, the former replaced the latter. If the development was in fact linear, it could, of course, not have been otherwise. Unfortunately, at least for the model, we now know that this was not true. The emergence of the Mahāyāna was a far more complicated affair than the linear model allowed, and "Early" Buddhism or Hīnayāna or what some now call—perhaps correctly—mainstream Buddhism, not only persisted, but prospered, long after the beginning of the common era.
The most important evidence—in fact the only evidence—for situating the emergence of the Mahāyāna around the beginning of the common era was not Indian evidence at all, but came from China. Already by the last quarter of the second century c.e. there was a small, seemingly idiosyncratic collection of substantial Mahāyāna sūtras translated into what Erik Zürcher calls "broken Chinese" by an Indoscythian, whose Indian name has been reconstructed as Lokakṣema. Although a recent scholar has suggested that these translations may not have been intended for a Chinese audience, but rather for a group of returning Kushan immigrants who were no longer able to read Indian languages, and although there is no Indian evidence that this assortment of texts ever formed a group there, still, the fact that they were available to some sort of Central Asian or Chinese readership by the end of the second century must indicate that they were composed sometime before that. The recent publication of, unfortunately, very small fragments of a Kushan manuscript of one of these texts—the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines)—also points in the same direction. But the difficult question remains how long before they were translated into "broken Chinese" had these texts been composed, and here the only thing that can be said with some conviction is that, to judge by their contents, the texts known to Lokakṣema cannot represent the earliest phase or form of Mahāyāna thought or literature. They seem to presuppose in fact a more or less long development of both style and doctrine, a development that could have easily taken a century or more and, therefore, would throw the earliest phase of this literature back to about the beginning of the common era. The emergence of the Mahāyāna has—mostly as a matter of convention—therefore been placed there. But even apart from the obvious weaknesses inherent in arguments of this kind there is here the tacit equation of a body of literature with a religious movement, an assumption that evidence for the presence of one proves the existence of the other, and this may be a serious misstep.
The evidence for the Mahāyāna outside of texts
Until fairly recently scholars were content to discuss the emergence of the Mahāyāna almost exclusively in terms of literary developments, and as long as they did not look outside of texts the emergence of a Mahāyāna could indeed be placed—at least conventionally—around the beginning of the common era. But when they began to look outside of texts, in art historical or inscriptional or historical sources, for evidence of the Mahāyāna as a religious movement, or for evidence of actual Mahāyāna groups or cults in India, this became much more difficult. A good illustration of the issues involved here might be seen in the Indian evidence for what became first in China, and then in Japan, a major form of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
One of the Mahāyāna texts translated by Lokakṣema is called in Sanskrit the Sukhāvatīvyūha-sūtra, and a Chinese translation of it came to be a central text for East Asian Pure Land Buddhism. According to the line of thought sketched above, since this text was translated already at the end of the second century it must have been composed in India sometime earlier and, by convention, around the beginning of the common era. Thus, if we limited ourselves to textual evidence, this form of Mahāyāna Buddhism must have emerged in India at that time. If, however, we look outside of texts there is simply no evidence for this. There is a large body of archaeological, art historical, and inscriptional evidence for Buddhist cult practice for this period, but absolutely nothing in it would suggest anything like East Asian Pure Land Buddhism, and no trace of the Buddha AmitĀbha, the central figure and presumed object of devotion in this Buddhism. In the hundreds of Buddhist donative inscriptions that we have in India for the whole of the first five centuries of the common era, in fact, there is only a single certain, utterly isolated and atypical, reference to Amitābha, and it is as late as the second half of the second century. Among the hundreds of surviving images from the same period, images that testify to the overwhelming presence of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni as the focus of attention, there is again a single certain isolated image of Amitābha. There is a very small number of images or reliefs from Northwestern India (Gandhāra) that some scholars have taken as representations of Amitābha and his Pure Land, but there is no agreement here, and the images or reliefs in question may date from as late as the fifth century. In other words, once nontextual evidence is taken into account the picture changes dramatically. Rather than being datable to the beginning of the common era, this strand of Mahāyāna Buddhism, at least, appeared to have no visible impact on Indian Buddhist cult practice until the second century, and even then what impact it had was extremely isolated and marginal, and had no lasting or long-term consequences—there were no further references to Amitābha in Indian image inscriptions. Almost exactly the same pattern occurs on an even broader scale when nontextual evidence is considered.
The Mahāyāna and monastic Buddhism in the middle period
Although the history of Buddhism in India is in general not well documented, still, for the period from the beginning of the common era to the fifth to sixth centuries—precisely the period that according to the old scheme should be the "period of the Mahāyāna"—we probably have better sources than for almost any other period. Certainly, we have for this period an extensive body of inscriptions from virtually all parts of India. These records document the religious aspirations and activities of Buddhist communities throughout the period at sites all across the Indian landscape, and they contain scores of references to named Buddhist groups and "schools." But nowhere in this extensive body of material is there any reference, prior to the fifth century, to a named Mahāyāna. There are, on the other hand, scores of references to what used to be called Hīnayāna groups—the Sarvāstivādins, Mahāsāṃghikas, and so on. From this point of view, at least, this was not "the period of the Mahāyāna," but "the period of the Hīnayāna." Moreover, it is the religious aspirations and goals of the Hīnayāna that are expressed in these documents, not those of a Mahāyāna. There is, for example, a kind of general consensus that if there is a single defining characteristic of the Mahāyāna it is that for Mahāyāna the ultimate religious goal is no longer nirvĀṆa, but rather the attainment of full awakening or buddhahood by all. This goal in one form or another and, however nuanced, attenuated, or temporally postponed, characterizes virtually every form of Mahāyāna Buddhism that we know. But, again, there is hardly a trace of this aspiration prior to the fifth century anywhere in the large body of Indian Buddhist inscriptions that have survived. Even more mediate goals associated with the Mahāyāna are nowhere represented. There is, for example, not a single instance anywhere in Indian inscriptions of a donor aspiring to rebirth in a Pure Land, and this is in startling contrast with what occurs in countries or communities—like Longmen in China—where Mahāyāna Buddhism was actually practiced and was important.
What is particularly disconcerting here is the disconnect between expectation and reality: We know from Chinese translations that large numbers of Mahāyāna sūtras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century. These texts were constructing, defining, and debating competing versions of a, or the, Mahāyāna, and articulating Mahāyāna religious ideas and aspirations. But outside of texts, at least in India, at exactly the same period, very different—in fact seemingly older—ideas and aspirations appear to be motivating actual behavior, and old and established Hīnayāna groups appear to be the only ones that are patronized and supported. In India at least, in an age when Mahāyāna Buddhas like Amitābha and AkṢobhya might have been expected to dominate, it is, in fact, the old Buddha Śākyamuni who everywhere remains the focus of attention—it is his image, for example, that is easily and everywhere found.
The Mahāyāna and the role of the laity
What to make of this disconnect remains, of course, a major conundrum for any attempt to characterize the Mahāyāna or to track its history and development—much of which might, in fact, have taken place outside India. But this is by no means the only disconnect that is encountered in trying to get a handle on the Mahāyāna. One of the most frequent assertions about the Mahāyāna—to cite another example—is that it was a lay-influenced, or even lay-inspired and dominated, movement that arose in response to the increasingly closed, cold, and scholastic character of monastic Buddhism. This, however, now appears to be wrong on all counts. While it is true that as it developed outside of India Mahāyāna Buddhism appears to have taken on at least the appearance of a more lay-oriented movement, a good deal of this appearance may be based on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the established monastic Buddhism it was supposed to be reacting to. It is, in fact, becoming increasingly clear that far from being closed or cut off from the lay world, monastic, Hīnayāna Buddhism—especially in its Indian, Sanskritic forms—was, very much like medieval Christian monasticism, deeply embedded in and concerned with the lay world, much of its program being in fact intended and designed to allow laymen and women and donors the opportunity and means to make religious merit. This in many ways remains the function of monastic Buddhism even today in modern Theravāda countries. Ironically, then, if the Mahāyāna was reacting to monastic Buddhism at all, it was probably reacting to what it—or some of its proponents—took to be too great an accommodation to lay needs and values on the part of monastic Buddhism, too pronounced a preoccupation with providing an arena for lay religious practices and all that that involved—acquiring and maintaining property, constructing institutions that would survive over time, and so on. The Mahāyāna criticism of monastic Hīnayāna Buddhisms may have been, in effect, that they had moved too far away from the radically individualistic and ascetic ideals that the proponents of the Mahāyāna favored. This view is finding increasing support in Mahāyāna sūtra literature itself.
The old characterization of the Mahāyāna as a layinspired movement was based on a selective reading of a very tiny sample of extant Mahāyāna sūtra literature, most of which was not particularly early. As scholars have moved away from this limited corpus, and have begun to explore a wider range of such sūtras, they have stumbled on, and have started to open up, a literature that is often stridently ascetic and heavily engaged in reinventing the forest ideal, an individualistic, antisocial, ascetic ideal that is encapsulated in the apparently resurrected image of "wandering alone like a rhinoceros." This, to be sure, is a very different Mahāyāna that is emerging. But its exploration is now still a work in progress. At this point we can only postulate that the Mahāyāna may have had a visible impact in India only when, in the fifth century, it had become what it had originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic institution—the first mention of the Mahāyāna in an Indian inscription occurs, in fact, in the record of a large grant of land to a Mahāyāna monastery. In the meantime the Mahāyāna may well have been either a collection of marginalized ascetic groups living in the forest, or groups of cantankerous and malcontent conservatives embedded in mainstream, socially engaged monasteries, all of whom continued pouring out pamphlets espousing their views and values, pamphlets that we now know as Mahāyāna sūtras. We simply do not know.
The Mahāyāna and the misrepresentation of non-Mahāyāna literature
If, then, the notion of the Mahāyāna as a lay-inspired or oriented movement now seems untenable, the notion that it was a reaction to a narrow scholasticism on the part of monastic, Hīnayāna, Buddhism should have seemed silly from the start. Such a view was only even possible by completely ignoring an enormous collection of what are almost certainly the most culturally vibrant and influential forms of Buddhist literature. The representation of Hīnayāna Buddhism as narrowly scholastic rests almost entirely on a completely disproportionate, and undeserved, emphasis on the abhidharma. The abhidharma was almost certainly important to a narrow circle of monks. But abhidharma texts were by no means the only things that Hīnayāna monks wrote or read. They also wrote—especially it seems in what should have been "the Mahāyāna period"—an enormous number of stories, and they continued writing them apparently long after the early Mahāyāna sūtras were in production. Some of these stories are specifically called jĀtaka and avadĀna and they have come down to us as separate collections—the Pāli jātakas, for example, which in bulk alone equals the abhidhamma, and the Sanskrit AvadĀnaŚataka—or embedded in vinayas or monastic codes, as is the case particularly in the enormous MŪlasarvĀstivĀda-vinaya where such monastic stories predominate. The amount of space given over to these stories in this vinaya alone makes the AbhidharmakoŚabhĀṢya look like a minor work.
Given the great amount of monastic energy that went into the composition, redaction, and transmission of this literature, and given its great impact on Indian Buddhist art, especially in what should have been "the Mahāyāna period," it is particularly surprising that the system or set of religious ideas that it articulates and develops has never really been taken seriously as representative of monastic Buddhism in India from the first to the fifth century. It contains—variously expressed and modulated—an uncomplicated, if not always consistent, doctrine of karma (action) and merit that supports a wide range of religious activities easily available to both monks and laymen. It takes as a given the possibility of both monks and laymen interacting with and assisting the dead. It articulates in almost endless permutations what must have been a highly successful system of exchange and reciprocity between laymen and monks. It presents a very rich and textured conception of the Buddha in which he appears as almost everything from a powerful miracle worker to a compassionate nurse for the sick, but is also always the means to "salvation" or a better rebirth. The religious world of Buddhist story literature in addition offered to both monks and laymen easily available objects of worship—relics, stūpas, and images—and, again contrary to the old model, a fully developed conception and cult of the Buddha-as-Bodhisattva. The fact that all of this, and a great deal more that is religiously significant, is delivered in a simple, straightforward story form that was easily accessible makes it abundantly clear that a very large part of Hīnayāna monastic literature is anything but narrowly scholastic and off-putting. Indeed, in comparison with most Mahāyāna sūtra literature it appears to be positively welcoming, and it seems that the characterization "narrowly scholastic" fits far better with the Mahāyāna texts themselves. It is, for example, hard to imagine anyone but a confirmed scholastic reading the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines for pleasure, and almost impossible to imagine anyone confusing it—or the vast majority of other Mahāyāna sūtras—with real literature. And yet, already long ago the French scholar Sylvain Lévi was able to characterize the enormous repository of monastic tales that is the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya as not only a "master-piece" of Buddhist literature, but of Sanskrit literature as a whole. Many of the issues here, however, involve something more than just literary form or style.
The scholasticism of the Mahāyāna
Both the assertion of the lay orientation of the Mahāyāna and of an increasingly inaccessible, scholastic monastic Buddhism, for example, are clearly linked to another of the early and persistent characterizations of both: Monastic Hīnayāna Buddhism was from very early on said to have been uninvolved in—indeed opposed to—ritual and devotion and focused exclusively on meditative practice and doctrine. The Mahāyāna, on the other hand, was somehow supposed to be the opposite, and to have been particularly marked by devotion. But while it is true that certain strands of the Mahāyāna in their later and largely extra-Indian developments came to be cast in increasingly devotional forms, it is by no means clear that this was so from the beginning, and hard to see how it could ever have been maintained that the Mahāyāna in its earlier Indian forms was particularly devotional. Any such notion should have been easily dispelled by even a quick reading of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of NĀgĀrjuna, the figure who has been taken—whatever his actual date—as the earliest individually named spokesman for the Mahāyāna in India. This is a work that is, in fact, decidedly scholastic, focused exclusively on a narrow band of doctrine, arcane, and very far from easily accessible: Even with long and laborious commentaries, both ancient and modern, much of it remains elusive. If it is, in fact, representative of the early forms of the Mahāyāna in India, then whatever that Mahāyāna was it could hardly have been a broad-based, easily accessible, lay-oriented, devotional movement. What seems to hold for Nāgārjuna's Kārikās, moreover, would seem to hold for much of Mahāyāna sūtra literature. Much of it also cannot be described as easily accessible, and most of it, perhaps, would only have been of interest to a certain type or types of monks.
The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, for example, as well as its ever-lengthening companion pieces in 10,000, 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines, sometimes seem to be little more than unrelenting repetitions of long lists of technical doctrinal categories—that would, presumably, have been known by or of interest to only very learned monks—which are, again unrelentingly, said to be "empty." It is also not just the Perfection of Wisdom that can be so described. The Kāśyapaparivarta (Chapter of Kāśyapa), another Mahāyāna text that might be early, although it differs somewhat in format, is much the same in content: The whole first part of it consists of a long list of doctrinal items arranged in groups of fours. Some Mahāyāna sūtras—the SaṂdhinirmocana-sŪtra (Sūtra of the Explanation of Mysteries), for instance—can hardly be distinguished from technical treatise or śāstras. There are, of course, exceptions. The Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (Teaching of Vimalakīrti), for example, is commonly cited as one, but even then its atypicality is always noted and the contrast with other Mahāyāna sūtras emphasized. In contrast to the authors of other Mahāyāna sūtras its author, says Étienne Lamotte, "does not lose himself in a desert of abstract and impersonal doctrine" (p. v). There are also occasional lively vignettes elsewhere—for instance, the scene in the Drumakinnararājapaṛiprcchā (Questions of the Spirit King Druma) where when the austere monk MahĀkĀŚyapa is so charmed by some heavenly music he cannot help himself and jumps up and dances, or the stories in the Ratnakaraṇḍa-sūtra (Sūtra of the Basket of Jewels) where Mañjuśrī makes MĀra carry his begging bowl, or spends the rains-retreat in the King's harem—but these appear to be rare. What narrative or story elements occur in known Mahāyāna texts appear to be either polemics intended to make fun of other monks, as in the Questions of Druma, the Basket of Jewels, and in the Teaching of Vimalakīrti; or are simply unintegrated add-ons, like the story of Ever-Weeping in the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines; or wholesale borrowings, as in the first part of the Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā (Questions of Rāṣṭrapāla). Even with these possible exceptions, and bearing in mind that only a limited corpus of Mahāyāna sūtra literature has so far been studied, much of what has been studied seems positively dreary and is commonly said to be so in the scholarly backroom. Not only is there little narrative or story, there is also a very great deal of doctrinal, meditative and ascetic minutia—Lamotte's "desert." To learned monks—indeed very learned monks—this might have had great attraction, but how it would have struck anyone else remains imaginable, but unclear. What is clear, however, is that the scholasticism found from the beginning of Mahāyāna literature did not abate or go away, and already in India the Mahāyāna produced some very impressive, even mind-boggling, "philosophical" systems, like those lumped together under the heading Yogācāra. Works ascribed to the monk AsaṄga play a key role in the Yogācāra, and a story preserved in Bu ston's History of Buddhism about the reaction of A saṅga's younger brother—himself a scholastic of the first order—might be instructive. He is supposed to have said:
Alas, Asaṅga, residing in the forest,
has practiced meditation for 12 years.
Without having attained anything by this meditation,
he has founded a system, so difficult and burdensome,
that it can be carried only by an elephant.
The Mahāyāna and the move away from devotion and cult
None of this, of course, squares very well with the notion that the Mahāyāna was in India a popular devotional movement—if even learned monks found its scholasticism off-putting, any laity would almost certainly as well. But this is not the only thing that does not square. There is, for example, surprisingly little apparent interest in devotional or cult practice in the Mahāyāna sūtras that can, at least provisionally, be placed in the early centuries of the common era, and in what little there is there is a curiously anticultic stand.
One of the most visible characteristics of the Mahāyāna as it developed outside of India may well be an emphasis on a multiplicity of "present" Buddhas other than Śākyamuni, on the Buddhas Amitābha and Bhaiṣajyaguru in particular, less so on the Buddha AkṢobhya. But while there are early Mahāyāna sūtras devoted to the first and third of these that were composed, presumably, in India, these early texts contain really very little that would suggest any elaborate system of cult, worship, or ritual. It is, in fact, only in the sūtra devoted to Bhaiṣajyaguru, which cannot be early, that we get clear references to the use of cult images and set, specific ritual forms. There is, moreover, as already mentioned, only the barest certain trace of any devotion to Amitābha in the Indian art historical or inscriptional record, and none at all—or only very late—for Bhaiṣajyaguru or Akṣobhya. Unlike the great bodhisattvas, these buddhas seem never to have captured the Indian religious imagination in an immediate way. Rebirth in Amitābha's Pure Land was, to be sure, in India—as later in Nepal and Tibet—a generalized religious goal, but as such probably differed very little from other generic positive rebirths.
It is, however, not just in the early sūtras dealing with the new buddhas that it is difficult to find references to cult practice, to images—once erroneously thought to have been a Mahāyāna innovation—or even to the stūpa cult. They are surprisingly rare in all Mahāyāna sūtras until the latter begin their elusive transformation into tantra, and this process must start around the fourth century. The comparative rarity of references in this literature to the stūpa cult was particularly damaging to Akira Hirakawa's theory that tied the origin of the Mahāyāna to this cult, but his theory has been largely set aside on other grounds as well (i.e., a serious underestimation of the role of established monastic Buddhism [Hīnayāna] in the construction and development of the cult). It is in the literature of the latter, in fact, particularly in its vinaya and avadāna literatures, that the origin tales, the promotion, and the religious ideology of both the stūpa cult and the cult of images occur, not in Mahāyāna sūtras—if they refer to either it is at least clear that they take both as already established cult forms, and are in fact reacting to them, at first, at least, by attempting to deflect attention away from them and toward something very different. This attempt is most commonly articulated in passages that assert—to paraphrase—that it is good to fill the world with stūpas made of precious substances, and to worship them with all sorts of perfumes, incenses, and so on, but it is far and away, in fact infinitely, better and more meritorious to take up even a four-line verse of the doctrine, preserve it, recite it, teach it and—eventually, it now seems—write or copy it. Virtually the same assertion, using virtually the same language, is made in regard to religious giving—it is good to fill the whole world with jewels and give it as a gift to the Buddha, but it is far and away superior to take up, study and instantiate even a small part of the doctrine, or some practice, or a text. This, for example, is a constant refrain in the Diamond SŪtra (Vajracchedikā).
Passages of this sort—and they are legion—are explicitly devaluing precisely what archaeological and inscriptional evidence indicates large numbers of Buddhist monks, nuns, and laypeople were doing everywhere in India in the early centuries of the common era: engaging in the stūpa cult and making religious gifts. They also appear to be inflating the value of what large numbers of Buddhist monks, nuns, and laypeople might well have not been doing, but what the authors or compilers of Mahāyāna sūtras wanted them to: seriously taking up or engaging with the doctrine. This looks very much like reformist rhetoric—conservative and the opposite of "popular"—and yet it, perhaps more than anything else, seems characteristic of a great deal and a wide range of Mahāyāna literature. Here too it is important to note that Gregory Schopen was almost certainly wrong—and his theory too must go the way of Hirakawa's—in seeing in these passages only an attempt by the "new" movement to substitute one similar cult (the cult of the book) for another similar cult (the cult of relics). That such a substitution occurred—and perhaps rather quickly—is likely, but it now appears that it is very unlikely that this was the original or fundamental intention. That intention—however precarious, unpopular, or successful—was almost certainly to shift the religious focus from cult and giving to doctrine, to send monks, nuns, and even laymen quite literally back to their books. That in this attempt the book itself was—again, it seems, rather early—fetishized may only be a testament to the strong pressures toward cult and ritual that seem to have been in force in Indian Buddhism from the beginning. The success of this attempt might well account for the fact—otherwise so puzzling—that it is very difficult to find clear and uncontested Mahāyāna elements in the Indian art historical and inscriptional record: If adherents of the Mahāyāna had in fact heeded the injunctions in their own texts, and turned away from cult and giving, they would have left few if any traces outside their large "pamphlet" or "tract" literature. But any success within Mahāyāna groups would also have to be set alongside the apparent failure to affect the mainstream Indian Buddhist tradition for a very long time: That tradition not only continued, but increased its construction and promotion of monastic cult sites and objects of devotion, and became increasingly entangled in religious gifts—land, cash endowments, and business enterprises. All our sources for the first five centuries make this clear. So too, it seems, did the Mahāyāna: When in the late fifth and early sixth centuries we finally get the first references to the Mahāyāna by name, it is, again, in association with large grants of land. There are still other possible indications that the Mahāyāna "reform" was not entirely successful even among its own ranks: A Mahāyāna text like, for example, the Samādhirāja-sūtra (King of Concentrations Sūtra) is still spending a great deal of space asserting the primacy of practice over worship, of realization over religious giving, and still fulminating against the accumulation of donations—preaching to the supposedly converted is probably never a good sign. It is also important to note that such assertions are not necessarily unique to the Mahāyāna. They occur sporadically (already?) in some Hīnayāna sources, both sūtra and vinaya, and are found even in works like Āryaśūra's JĀtakamĀlĀ. Such assertions may prove to be only an old Buddhist issue that the Mahāyāna revived.
The Mahāyāna and the new bodhisattvas
There is left, lastly, the one element that is associated with the Mahāyāna and that appears, perhaps more than anything else, to have had a major and lasting impact on Indian religious life and culture. It has already been noted that what evidence we have seems to suggest that the new Mahāyāna buddhas—Amitābha, and even less so Akṣobhya and Bhaiṣajyaguru—may never have really taken root in India, and the same would seem to hold for an almost endless list of Mahāyāna bodhisattvas or "aspirants to awakening." But two of these latter, starting from the fifth century, clearly caught on: the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī and the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, especially the latter. The first of these, the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, is certainly the earlier of the two. He, an exemplification of the new wisdom and emphasis on doctrine, occurs in some of the Mahāyāna sūtras that can be dated early, but never really as anything other than a model or ideal, and certainly not as an object of cult or devotion. It is only much, much later, when his character has changed, that cult images of Mañjuśrī occur, and even then—after the fifth century—they are not particularly numerous. It is quite otherwise with Avalokiteśvara. He comes later—perhaps considerably later—than Mañjuśrī, but already in the earliest textual references to him of any detail (probably in a late chapter of the Lotus SŪtra [SaddharmapuṆḌarĪkasŪtra]), and the earliest undisputed art historical representations of him (probably some Gupta images from Sārnāth and some reliefs from the western cave monasteries), he appears as a "savior" figure, and he continues in this role, sometimes jostling with Tārā, a female competitor, until the "disappearance" of Buddhism from India.
The bodhisattva concept reflected in the late forms of Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara is certainly important, but it remains unclear whether it is best seen as an organic development of specifically Mahāyāna ideas, or, rather, as a part of much larger developments that were occurring in Indian religion as a whole. What seems fairly sure, however, is that there was an earlier and much more prosaic—though none the less heroic—Mahāyāna conception of the bodhisattva as well. Simply put, this amounted to ordinary monks, nuns, and perhaps very committed laypersons taking a vow to replicate the career of Śākyamuni in all its immensity, committing themselves to, in effect, a long, if not endless, series of lifetimes spent in working for the benefit of others, of postponing their release and full enlightenment for the benefit of all. This ideal has had, of course, strong appeal in the modern West, but it also may account, at least in part, for the failure of the early Mahāyāna in India. At the least it asked too much—think what it would cost an individual just to become Saint Francis; at the worst such an ideal might well have appeared to religious women and men in India as counterintuitive, if not positively silly. What we know of such committed men and women would suggest that they were sternly conditioned to flee the very thing, the long cycle of rebirth, that they were being asked to embrace. In the end, however—and that is where we are—this may simply be yet another thing we do not really know about the Mahāyāna.
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Literally, "Great Vehicle," the name adopted by a series of movements in Buddhism between the first centuries b.c. and a.d. that came together to form a new synthesis of buddhism. The movements involved represented revolutions in practice, morality, and philosophy.
In both the liturgical and moral arenas, these movements reacted against earlier ways of thinking about what it meant to be a buddha and to engage in religious practice. Earlier, it was thought that one's religious practice benefitted only oneself beyond teaching others methods of cultivation, there was no way for others to receive the direct results of one's own practice, any more than one could practice a musical instrument so that another might be able to play. They questioned the view that the enlightened one, or buddha, simply vanished from the phenomenal world upon the achievement of final nirvana, passing beyond the realm of conditioned existence in such a way that was completely ungraspable by the conventional mind.
The Mahayana movement developed a comprehensive teaching of compassion that denied both of these premises. They believed that one could express the intention to "transfer the merit" of one's religious practice so that others could indeed enjoy its fruits, and that not to do so showed a miserly spirit. In addition, they reasoned that a buddha, having perfected the virtue of compassion, would surely not simply abandon suffering beings, but would remain in the world and continue offering help and salvation. Thus, early Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra began teaching that buddhas exist in great numbers, and that their lifespan is immeasurable. If they seem to die, it is an illusion deployed in order to spur followers on to greater efforts, but not ultimately real.
This led to the adoption of the "bodhisattva ideal" as the model for the average practitioner. The bodhisattva came to be seen as the one who expressly rejected nirvana as long as other beings remained caught in the cycle of suffering. Instead, the bodhisattva would continue refining and perfecting his practice virtually forever, and would dedicate the merit of his practices to the direct benefit of other beings.
Concomitant with the rise of Mahayana Buddhism was the growth of Buddhist devotional cults. As buddhas and bodhisattvas came to be seen more as direct agents of salvation by their practice of merit-transfer, individuals began devoting themselves to one particular buddha or bodhisattva, calling upon them for assistance both with immediate problems and dangers, and with the larger issue of escape from the world of suffering. The most popular bodhisattva in this regard was Avalokiteshvara, who protected devotees from danger, and the most popular buddha was Amitabha, who dwelt in the "Pure Land" to the west, a place to which he would bring devotees upon their death and in which they would have ideal conditions for practice.
Philosophically, Mahayanists raised objections to the "dharma" theories of the earlier philosophical texts known generically as "Abhidharma." One of the core teachings of Buddhism from the start was the radical impermanence and insubstantiality of things, and one way of accounting for this state was to posit "dharmas," which functioned much like "atoms" in ancient Greek thought. That is to say, they were infinitesimal building blocks of reality. Eternal and permanent in themselves, they combined and recombined with each other to form the phenomena of the world, thus accounting for the arising and decay of things.
However, many philosophers such as Nāgārjuna (2nd century a.d.) objected to even this degree of permanence, and critiqued these theories for not being radical enough. Following his lead, Mahayana came to accept "emptiness" as the ultimate state of things, meaning that they were "empty" of any kind of permanent or independent existence. Thus, all schools of Mahayana came to accept the idea that all phenomena whatsoever are radically impermanent and insubstantial, and exist only by virtue of their dependence upon causal conditions and relations with other phenomena.
In its earliest stages, the movement that grew from the convergence of all these trends called itself the "bodhisattvayana," or vehicle of the bodhisattva. However, later on the term "Mahayana," or "greater vehicle" came into popular use. This term, opposed to "Hinayana" or "lesser vehicle," was intended to depict a form of religious practice that was greater both in the goal toward which it directed individuals and the means of conveyance by which it took them to that goal. Its greater compassion and keener philosophical insights, it claimed, would enable it to carry many to the "farther shore" of liberation, while the small compassion and wisdom of their opponents would carry only the single individual.
This form of Buddhism came to predominate in Northern India, Central Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, and parts of Vietnam, and is currently the dominant form of Buddhism in North and South America and Europe.
See Also: buddhism; hinayana.
Bibliography: b.l. suzuki, Mahayana Buddhism (London-Boston 1981) p. williams, Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations (London-New York 1989).
[c. b. jones]