From its source in India, the Mahayana version of Buddhism spread to Central Asia, China, Japan, mainland Southeast Asia, Java, Sumatra, and even Sri Lanka (Abhayagiri monastery). Also known as the Northern School, it was considered more liberal and progressive than the Southern School (Theravada). Early Theravadins branded Northern Buddhism Acariya-vada, or “Teaching of the Patriarchs.”
Another term accepted by Mahayanists themselves to describe the Northern School is “Bodhisattva-yana,” or the “Bodhisattva Vehicle.” The bodhisattva (enlightenment delayed) is the Mahayana ideal, rather than the Theravadin arhat (immediate enlightenment) ideal.
Nature and Characteristics
Mahayana adherents adopt the method of non-dualism (advaya). That is, it does not accept that there exist such opposites as nirvana and samsara, or noumena and phenomena, and so on. Mahayana is more inclined towards a mystical approach. Like Hinduism, it believes in the spiritual apprehension of Truth beyond understanding: The conscious self can transcend bodily limitations and commune with, or become immersed in, some higher form of being. (This differs from the Buddha's gradual teaching of the Middle Way and the methodical Theravadin approach to reaching enlightenment and nirvana).
The convergence of meditative exercises leads to an emptying of thought to reach a point where one proceeds from voidness to voidness and finally to the ultimate where even the minutest thought vanishes. (This corresponds to the goal of Raja yoga and Hinduism where samadhi, or the stilling of all thought-waves or vrittis, is the goal). Rational activity is exercised until it becomes quiescent: prajna (supreme wisdom) itself by successive emptying becomes nullified. Only in doing so does it identify with the unutterable ultimate reality.
Divinization and Multiplicity
In the Mahayana tradition, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni is viewed not merely as a human master and model but also as a supramundane being. Mahayana tends to be devotional and mystical, taking the Buddha almost in a theistic sense. With echoes of the Hindu idea of avatars, it is as if the Supreme Reality (Brahman) descended on earth in human form for the good of mankind.
He does this by multiplying himself and is reflected in a pentad of buddhas: Amitabha, Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, and Amoghasiddhi. Some of these, usurping the place of Shakyamuni, are revealers of elaborate doctrines and complicated liturgies. The Mahayana concept of this Reality is never as a theistic creator but as Divine Love that out of compassion embodied itself in human form to uplift suffering humanity.
The Buddha is no longer simply the historical sage (muni) of the Shakyas (his clan name) but is now supramundane (lokottara). Even the Sangha is of two types, that of this world and that beyond it. The devotion of the Mahayanists gave great impetus to Buddhist art in various forms.
The Bodhisattva Ideal
The Bodhisattva Gwan Shih Yin ("One who hears the cries of the innumerable suffering") is esteemed as the ideal in Mahayana is the Bodhisattva, a saintly figure who has vowed not to enter final nirvana (parinirvana) until the whole human race has achieved salvation with him. The essential premise of the bodhisattva ideal is to generate the thought of enlightenment to fulfill the vow to become a buddha, foregoing entrance into nirvana in order to remain in the world as long as there are creatures to be saved from suffering (which the historical Buddha did not do).
With that vow the aspirant begins the career of a bodhisattva, which traverses 10 stages or spiritual levels and achieves purification through the practice of the Ten Perfections (paramitas). These levels, which become progressively higher, elevate the bodhisattva to the condition of a buddha. The first six levels are preliminary, representing the true practice of the six perfections:
The difference between this and the preceding six stages is that now the activity is explained as an innate and spontaneous impulse manifested unconstrainedly and therefore not subjected to doubts. Everything is now uncreated, ungenerated; thus, the body of the bodhisattva becomes identified more and more completely with the essential body (dharma-kaya), with buddhahood, and with omniscience.
The Three Buddha Bodies (tri-kaya)