Mahāyāna Buddhism

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Mahāyāna Buddhism (theg pa chen po)

  • When the Buddhist teachings are classified according to their power, they are described as a vehicle (Skt. yāna) or a series of hierarchical vehicles, arranged in the manner of the rungs of a ladder. A basic distinction is made between the teachings of the Lesser Vehicle (Hīnayāna) and those of the Greater Vehicle (Mahāyāna). Philosophically, the Greater Vehicle is the system of Buddhism conducive to complete liberation from the various dissonant mental states and misconceptions concerning phenomenal existence, while the Lesser Vehicle is not conducive to a full appreciation of emptiness. In terms of motivation, the practitioner of the Greater Vehicle emphasizes altruism and has the liberation of all others as the principal objective, while the practitioner of the Lesser Vehicle emphasises the individual's own freedom from cyclic existence as the primary motivation and goal. As the term "Greater Vehicle" implies, the path followed by bodhisattvas is analogous to a large carriage, which can transport a vast number of people to liberation, as compared to a smaller vehicle for the individual practitioner. Asaṅga, in his commentary to the Ornament of the Sūtras of the Greater Vehicle (Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra) suggests that the Greater Vehicle possesses the following seven features of greatness: great objective, great attainment, great pristine cognition, great perseverence, great skilful means, great genuine accomplishment, and great activities. Other sources define its greatness in terms of renunciation, realisation and mental cultivation.
  • According to the Greater Vehicle, the entire path towards the attainment of buddhahood is presented within the framework of two main systems or vehicles (yāna), those of the sūtras (sūtrayāna) and the tantras (tantrayāna). The former, also known as the vehicle of bodhisattvas (bodhisattvayāna), entails a causal progression from fundamental ignorance to enlightenment which takes place over an immeasurable number of lifetimes and which comes about through a rational, intellectual and systematic approach to mind training, based on the stable foundation of moral discipline and the fully developed single-pointedness of calm abiding. The latter, also known as the vehicle of indestructible reality (vajrayāna) or the vehicle of secret mantras (guhyamantrayāna), maintains the three continua of ground, path, and result, through which fundamental ignorance is seen to be atemporally pure and removed by specific practices which then reveal the fully manifest fruitional aspects of buddhahood. The tantras are held to surpass the sūtras for many reasons, including their efficacy, swiftness, and complete purity with regard to environment, body, resources and deeds. Above all, in tantra the meditator does not disavow impulsive negative emotions but instead may encourage their arisal in order that the energy they create can be positively channelled. Here, the emotions themselves are transformed into the blissful experiences of tantra, within the context of meditation on emptiness. For a detailed exposition of the Greater Vehicle, see Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism, and bDud-'joms Rin-po-che, NSTB, pp. 160ff. See also under vehicle, sūtras, and tantras. GD (from the Glossary to Tibetan Elemental Divination Paintings)