Mahayana Buddhism: Definition, Origins & Practices

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  • 0:04 Mahayana Buddhism Definition
  • 1:46 Mahayana Buddhism Origins
  • 2:21 Mahayana Buddhism Practice
  • 2:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson defines Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two major Buddhist traditions. This lesson also describes Mahayana Buddhism origins and development, and offers a profile of some of its practices.

Mahayana Buddhism Definition

Mahayana Buddhism is one of two major Buddhist traditions, both of which base their philosophies on the teachings of Siddartha Guatama, more commonly referred to as the Buddha. Like Theraveda Buddhism, Mahayana is both a philosophy and a way of life that aspires to nirvana. Nirvana is a state of enlightenment that comes with the recognition that the ego, or the thing we think of as our self, is an illusion that causes us pain and suffering.

Mahayana differs from the Theraveda tradition in three basic ways:

Mahayana emphasizes sunyata, or the emptiness that comes with enlightenment. While Theravada Buddhism suggests that sunyata is the ultimate basis of all things, Mahayana holds that no such basis exists, that nothing is anything until compared to something else. Put briefly - and perhaps confusingly - everything is nothing! Mahayana embraces the letting go of all phenomena as aspects of illusion.

Mahayana also differs in its preferred path to enlightenment. The Mahayana tradition privileges the Bodhisattva-path. A bodhisattva is one who has achieved enlightenment but postpones full nirvana to help others on their paths to do the same. Unlike the Theravada tradition, which held that enlightenment required years of careful study by trained monks and sometimes required multiple reincarnated lifetimes to achieve, Mahayana tradition holds that any individual can take up the bodhisattva-path and that enlightenment can occur suddenly and within one lifetime.

Mahayana Buddhism celebrates the Buddha as transcendent being and encourages the use of his image, as a meditative tool or object of devotion. Depictions of heroic bodhisattvas are also associated with Mahayana Buddhism.

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