Given the established Asian religions and/or philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism, and Shintoism, why did Mahayana Buddhism gain such popularity?
The Force, Nature, Master Kong, the Sun Goddess, and Buddha – each of these play their respective roles in the Eastern religions of Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Mahayana Buddhism. However, Mahayana Buddhism has surpassed all in its ability to weave its way into Western [Judeo-Christian] culture, in particular. Why is this true?
Mahayana vs. Hinayana Buddhism
All forms of Buddhism, including Mahayana, believe in meditation and concentration, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Noble Path, the impermanence of all phenomena [anicca], dependent causation, and the nonexistence of an essential self [anatta]. Yet, Buddhism has two major branches.
“From Mahayana sources, it seems that the major point of difference was that the now defunct Lesser Vehicle [Hinayana or Sarvastivada now mistakenly equated with the ancient Theravada tradition] sought salvation through individual effort, whereas Mahayana advocated salvation for all beings through the worship and grace of the Buddha or buddhas (“enlightened ones”) and bodhisattvas ([beings who vow to become buddhas) Buddhist-saviors, whose ‘essence is enlightenment’),” Royal W. Weiler stated.
However, in practical terms, even the historical Buddha is overshadowed by the bodhisattvas, who are people who vow that they will forgo or delay their final enlightenment until all creatures are “saved” (Ref. 1, Ref. 2 “Mahayana” Encyclopedia Americana, “Buddha and Buddhism” Encyclopedia Americana).
Another split between Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism is the Hinayana belief that Buddha was just human. They believe that when he died [parinirvana is the opposite of death since "death" is almost inseparably involved with rebirth] he ceased to exist. [This is, of course, a great distortion since that which does not exist cannot then cease to exist; what is true to say is that he broke the cycle of rebirth and escaped Samsara].
Mahayana, however, believes that Buddha did not die, but merely transformed himself into another body. [This would seem to say that the Buddha did not attain nirvana or that, as is more commonly suggested, "Nirvana is Samsara."] That’s where Mahayana developed [or invented] the idea of the Trikaya or “The Three Bodies” which Buddha uses.
Another difference is that the standards to achieve nirvana (a lack of desire and feelings) [nirvana -- the "end of all suffering" --is in fact marked by the absence of craving and the presence of an exquisite, ineffable feeling of bliss] was lowered in Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana lowered the standard two notches from the previous Hinayana standard so that more people could be “saved” by achieving nirvana.
By reducing the standard, it increased the possibility of the masses achieving the goal(Ref. 3, Ref. 4)... and so on with many common distortions being repeated and given new life.
NOTE: Who is Rit Nosotro [pseudonym "writ by us"?], and how does one cite "his" essays? All material on this site (hyperhistory.net) is under constant revision. Essays continue to be donated by students and other authors which become property of hyperhistory.net. Emails to the servant at hyperhistory.net often contain constructive comments about the published material. These are used to supplement, clarify, and delete as evidence demands. Hyperhistory.net is a global community effort. Thus, essays do not use the first person nor are they written from a uniquely American perspective. In order to reflect the collective authorship of the dynamic content contained on Hyperhistory.net, the pseudonym of "Rit Nosotro" has been devised. (Writ is an archaic past tense of "written" and Nosotros is the plural pronoun for "us" in Spanish.) The authorship is "written by us." [So the WQ deduction was correct.] This does not mean "public domain." Unless otherwise stated, these are anonymous contributions over which hyperhistory.net controls all copyright. For example, this page might be cited in a bibliography in the following manner: Nosotro, Rit. How to cite material from hyperhistory.net. 27 Oct. 2003.