Essentials of Buddhism - Lesson 3

Mahayana Buddhism

Discussion of how Mahayana Buddhism has opened the door to different schools of thought or lineages of Buddhism.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of Buddhism
Lesson 3
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Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism

I. Invocational Buddhism

II. Meditative Buddhism

III. Tendai Buddhism

Class Resources
  • Discussion of the events surrounding the emergence of Siddhartha Gautama as the Buddha.

  • Description of how Buddhism became a religion. It expanded into 3 branches, Therevada, Mahayana, and Vajranyana.

  • Discussion of how Mahayana Buddhism has opened the door to different schools of thought or lineages of Buddhism.

  • Discussion of Vajranyana Buddhism, which is also known as Tibetan Buddhism.

You may access the seminary level course on this subject by Dr. Tennent, by going to Buddhism. 

Recommended Books

Essentials of Buddhism - Student Guide

Essentials of Buddhism - Student Guide

This course serves as a summary of the beliefs and practices of Buddhism by Dr. Timothy Tennent. There are four lessons that will introduce readers to a summary of the...

Essentials of Buddhism - Student Guide

Dr. Timothy Tennent
Essentials of Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism
Lesson Transcript


We will now focus on Buddhism as it has developed in the modern period and see how Mahayana Buddhism has opened the door to a wide range of interpretations and different schools of thought within Buddhism. These are often called “schools or lineages” of Buddhism within Mahayana, within the “great vehicle.” This is part of the reason why it is called “Mahayana” or what is called “the great vehicle.” Rather than being distressed by the fact that we have so much variety within Buddhism, simply acknowledge the fact that this is part of the vision of Buddhism, acknowledge the fact that there are different versions of this human element or sickness known as “desire.” That in order to break the eighth link on the chain, one has to function with different methods.

One time, for example, the story is told that the Buddha was in the forest and his disciples went to ask him about his Dharma, his teaching. The Mahayana version of the story says that the Buddha reached out and picked up a handful of leaves and he said: “This handful of leaves is what I have taught you in the Dharma, but the leaves in the forest represent the whole of the Dharma.” So the idea being that the Buddha only taught a fraction of this greater Dharma that undergirds the whole universe. Therefore, they want to get away from the idea that there is a limited canon, and there are closed baskets, that the teaching of the Buddha is more or less considered to be over with and finalized. Instead, they want to open the door to a wide variety of teaching, which all bring the Buddhists to the ultimate goal of nirvana, but perhaps with different methods.

So you should see these four different lineages or schools which we will review here in this summary lecture, as four lineages or four methods of achieving enlightenment. We will briefly talk about what each of the methods are and then we will give an example of that form of Buddhism that is in the world of Mahayana Buddhism.

Invocational Buddhism

The first basic method of achieving enlightenment within Buddhism is known as “invocational Buddhism,” sometimes known as “devotional Buddhism.” This is classically considered a Buddhism for the lay person. We talked about how in the Therevadan world, one must become a monk. In the Mahayana world, it is open to lay people, and the lay people of course do not get an easy free pass unless they receive the assistance of someone who has gone through the arduous difficulty of the Therevadan worldview. In some ways, you should see Mahayana, not as a contradiction of Therevada, but from their view, a building on Therevada; simply saying that there are people who did go through the Therevadan path, the monastic path, who did achieve enlightenment. They refused their moksha or their nirvana; and they have stayed back on earth to help others, in the case of a once-returner, arhat or in the case of someone who has gone on into enlightenment. They have delayed their final entrance into nirvana by staying on in the wheel of samsara in some transcendent realm to help and to assist other transient beings. That of course is the bohdisattva ideal.

This really develops quite dramatically in this invocational Buddhism. The idea basically is this: That there are certain Buddhists who have achieved enlightenment and they have become bohdisattvas. If you call on their name, if you trust in them, if you believe in them and trust in their efficacy, they can help you to achieve enlightenment. These become more or less functional savior figures. That is why I mentioned early on in this summary course that Mahayana Buddhism is often known as “Messianic Buddhism” because Messianic Buddhism creates this idea that there are many figures out there that can save you. There are Messiahs, there are saviors. This becomes the real basis for all of the invocational schools of Buddhism.

Let me give you one example of this. The most common example is known as “pure land Buddhism.” Pure land Buddhism is a form of Buddhism which emerged based on the Mahayana doctrine that the Buddha left secret teachings. One of these secret teachings, according to the pure land Buddhists – this is the most widely practiced Buddhism in China – is that in the last degenerate period of human history, the Buddha was so concerned that in such corrupt times people would not be able to follow the meditative discipline to achieve nirvana. So he taught that at the end of time, there would be a special dispensation, a special bohdisattva known as “Ajita”or “Amitabha.” Amitabha means “infinite light.” This is the Buddha of Infinite Light. They believe that this refers to a particular person who lives on earth, according to the legend. His name was “Dharmakara.” Dharmakara had lived at a time when there was less darkness in the world. He was able to follow this path of enlightenment; and he did eventually, after many meditations and after of course many lifetimes of work, became Dharmakara; he eventually received enlightenment. But he chose to stay on the wheel of samsara and to help other people. Now when he was making his ascent from earth to this transcendent realm of the wheel of samsara, he traveled through various levels of meditation like the Buddha did; and he took on 48 different vows. The most important vow is the 18th vow. Basically the 18th vow says this: “If I achieve enlightenment, if I escape from the wheel of samsara, then allow me to stay on and help other people who call upon my name, who think favorably upon me.” I will quote you from the actual text where this vow is given. “If when I have attained enlightenment, whatever beings in other worlds, having conceived a desire for right, perfect enlightenment and having heard my name, with favorable intent think upon me; if when the time and the moment of death are upon them, I, surrounded by the head of my community of monks, do not stand before them to keep them from frustration, may I not on that account attain to unexcelled, right, perfect enlightenment.”

Buddhists believe that Dharmakara in fact did become the bodhisattva of infinite light, or Amitabha. Therefore, they believe, his 18th vow must be true, which said: “If I receive enlightenment, it must mean that others who call upon me or think upon me favorably, will also achieve enlightenment.” So in a sense, Dharmakara says, “I am only willing to go into enlightenment if I have been given long coattails, that others can latch onto these.” This is a very strong Messianic kind of conception within Buddhism. The belief is that anyone who calls on the name of Amitabha Buddha and invokes his name will be reborn into this special chamber in the wheel of samsara. This special chamber is known as “the pure land.” That is why it is called “pure land Buddhism.” Once you are reborn into the pure land, they believe that it is impossible for you to be reborn back onto the earth or back into those lower regions of suffering, like hell. Instead, they believe that once you get into this pure land, then essentially there is no other avenue for you, but to go into nirvana. So you can dwell in the pure land, you can have fellowship with your other loved ones who have gone before you. Then you can live in the pure land and be taught directly by this bodhisattva of infinite light, or Amitabha Buddha. This of course is made possible because of the doctrine of “trikaya,” the multiple bodies of Buddha. This is part of this body of bliss that we talked about earlier.

What developed in pure land Buddhism was this special doctrine known as “nembutsu.” Nembutsu means “to call upon the name of.” So this is the doctrine that encourages and develops the conception that someone could call upon the name of Amitabha Buddha. For example, one of their texts says: “He never fails to reach the lotus land of bliss, who calls if only once, the name of Amida. So this is the idea that you can reach the pure land, which in this text is referred to symbolically as “the Lotus Land of Bliss,” if you simply call upon the name of Amitabha Buddha. This comes up actually in a number of the pure land texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Various subschools of thought developed, depending on who the teacher was, of how many times you should recite the name Amitabha Buddha. Could you recite it on behalf of someone else? Kind of a double vicariousness where Amitabha Buddha has done his works for you and you could maybe do this work for someone else. These are all things that developed within the framework of pure land Buddhism.

Let me quote to you from a few of their own texts. One is a well-known text known as “the one-page testament.” It is believed to be a summary and distillation of all of the greatest teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, in particular pure land Buddhism. This teacher says in the one-page testament: “The method of final salvation which I have propounded is not any sort of meditation, but the mere repetition of the “Namu Amida Butsu” that is, the name of Amitabha Buddha, whereby one may be born into the land of perfect breaths. Thus without pedantic errors, one should fervently practice the repetition of the name of Amida and that alone.”

So here is their doctrinal summary. This would be like a creed or a summary, like a form of teaching in Christianity where you summarize Christian doctrine. This is a summary text which basically says: “After all is said and done, the most important thing a Buddhist can do is to recite or invoke the name, Amitabha Buddha.” That is what is called “invocational Buddhism.” One other Buddhist scholar says, I’m quoting another text: “Wicked men are more acceptable to Amitabhathan good men; since the former throw themselves entirely on the mercy of the Buddha, where the latter might be tempted to think they have chances of salvation on their own meritorious conduct.” He says: “If even good people can be reborn in the pure land, how much more the wicked man.” This is a statement of fairly radical grace; the idea being that the most important thing is to throw yourselves entirely on the mercy of the Buddha. This becomes the hallmark of pure land Buddhism; and of course becomes a very popular Buddhism because you can retain your status in life; you can have a family, a job; you can become a monk; you can simply call upon the name of Amitabha Buddha. Some people even will place this invocation into prayer wheels.

A prayer wheel in Buddhism is something that is very prominent around all of the temples of Buddhism. It is a circular cylinder that can be turned round and round. Some prayer wheels in Buddhism are huge. They are big, gigantic wheels. They are like a big, empty colander in a big circle that you can put prayers into. People will turn these gigantic wheels, these containers that contain these prayers. They believe by turning this one time, this prayer goes up to heaven. Other prayer wheels are very, very tiny. They will carry them in their hands on a little stick and they will spin these prayer wheels around. Some people are so determined to make sure that they have properly invoked the name of Amitabha Buddha, they will pay people to spin these prayer wheels thousands and thousands of times each day; or even pay them to recite the name on behalf hundreds of times each day. Because one of the teachings says that you must do it with sincerity, how can you be sure if you have said it enough times, or if you have said it with sincerity? So they actually will do it in this way.

This gives you some idea of the nature of invocational Buddhism that usually focuses on a particular bodhisattva and trusts that person by the nembutsu or the repetition of that name for salvation.

Meditative Buddhism

The second representative school of Buddhism is the meditative schools of Mahayana Buddhism. There are many, many famous schools that focus on meditation. In China, for example, they have “Chan” Buddhism. In India they have “Dhyana” Buddhism. In Japan they have Zen Buddhism. Many of you probably have heard the phrase “Zen Buddhism.”

Zen Buddhism is one of the examples that we will use of this meditative Buddhism. This meditative Buddhism focuses on lineage stories the way pure land traced back to Dharmakara. The meditative strands trace back to a person from China whose name is Bodhidharma. This was actually an Indian missionary who came to China in 470 A.D. Bodhidharma practiced all kinds of meditative techniques he tried to model, sitting awake for many, many hours of meditation. One time he was so committed to his learning and this ideal of meditation that in a fit of anger, when he was trying to stay awake and kept slipping into slumber, he took a knife and cut off his own eyelids, if you can imagine that, and he flung his eyelids to the ground in order to stay awake. That is how committed he was to his meditation. By the way, according to Chinese legend, it is the eyelids of Bodhidharma that sprang up the tea plant, which is how they explain how Indian tea got into China, it was through Bodhidharma.

The point of this is that all of these branches of Mahayana Buddhism have different kinds of focal points and they all have different lineages which trace them back. As an example, to examine meditative Buddhism, I think in this case we will focus on Zen Buddhism, first of all because it is the most familiar to you. You have heard of it and you are probably more likely to encounter it in America because Zen has spread and is quite popular in America. It was brought here by a famous Japanese practitioner of meditative Buddhism. Also because in many ways Zen is the purest form of meditative Buddhism; whereas, for example, Chan Buddhism in China has been influenced a lot by the invocational movement and you have a mixture there. Whereas, Zen Buddhism is more focused on meditative practice.

Zen is a method of enlightenment which does not accept the traditional activities of the religious life. This of course made it very appealing to Americans because it bypassed monastic life. Zen is very individualistic. It believes that a person does not have to live this out in community and it does not emphasize a lot of sacred text the way many Buddhists do. This was a form of Buddhism which was established by a leader named Dogen who lived from 1200 to 1253. He believed that every single person had a Buddha nature. Remember that one of the ideas in Mahayana Buddhism that is vociferously rejected by Therevada, is the belief that there are multiple Buddhas or that the Buddha concept is something that is much broader than Therevada accepted. In the same way, they believe that inside everyone there is a womb, that is the word they use, kind of an empty womb. This represents the emptiness or the shell and enlightenment and this Buddha nature resides in this. The idea is to bring this Buddha nature out of someone. So Zen basically practices various techniques in order to achieve this enlightenment. One of the ways they achieve this is through a form of sitting meditation, which is known as “Zazen.” This is a form of meditation where you sit for a long period of time and you develop focal points in order to transcend your experiences, in order to achieve this higher enlightenment. They also have a kind of a mentoring method where a mentor will help you along the path of enlightenment. This is all leading to the point where you suddenly achieve this “satori,” this flash of insight and you achieve your enlightenment.

One of the ways that Zen Buddhism does this is by trying to find a way to get you to think beyond dualities of this world, to break out of the structures of this world. From listening to so many lectures, you realize that Buddhism in many ways is contradictory to a normal, observable scientific kind of worldview. You see things that we accept, that we see, like a tree or a mountain as a reality. Buddhism says, “No, it is not a reality.” We look at our life and our experience and we see as something that actually happened. Buddha says, “No, this didn’t actually happen, there is no perceiving.” One of the famous lines in Buddhism is, “the eight-fold path exists with no traveler on it. Misery exists, or suffering exists, but no sufferer.” The idea behind that is that even your experience in this life of suffering is all illusory. There is no person, there is no “you.” But they make it a form of Hinduism and Buddhism, “There is no you. There is no god. There is no ultimate reality. There is no first cause. There is no ultimate essence.”

In order to realize this perceived reality that goes beyond things that we experience, you have to look beyond it. They often develop political statements, political “haiku,” beautiful poetry that will cause you to think beyond the normal way of thinking. They create paradoxical statements which seem to transcend reason. These are called “cones.” A cone is used to help you break out of your normal way of thinking and to transcend it.

Let me give you an example of a couple of famous cones. On example is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Not that there is any single answer to this. This is something meant to provoke deeper thought. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is trying to get you to get beyond the dualities and the normal expectations of this world. Another famous cone is this one: “What did your mother’s face look like before you were born?” This again is a paradoxical statement. How would you know what your mother’s face was like before you were born? This creates a sense of pressing you beyond the normal kinds of thinking. If you want to look at some of these cones or read some of these cones, these are now published in various collections. I would recommend one called “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, “ a famous little book which collects a lot of these early stories and cones.

There are even modern cones that are just now being developed. They will have questions like, “Are you dead or are you alive?” Then someone will say in answer to that, “To have AIDS is to be alive.” Again, the subject of AIDS has become a modern day symbol of death. So to say, “I have AIDS and AIDS is a symbol of life” is a way of creating a new paradoxical statement. So these are not all just buried in history. They can be based on modern things.

This represents the second major strand of Mahayana Buddhism. We have seen the emphasis on invocational Buddhism, which is tied particularly to the bodhisattva ideal. We have seen the meditative Buddhism, which is focused not on classical text or on bodhisattva, but on meditation techniques.

Tendai Buddhism

Then you have what is called, “Tendai Buddhism” which is rationalistic Buddhism, which focuses on the philosophical schools of Buddhism. Even though many of the earliest schools of philosophy have died out, there have been a number of philosophical schools in Buddhist philosophy that have merged and have thrived. These philosophical schools have become very, very important for Buddhist thinkers. There are great teachers like Nagarjuna for example, or the School of Yogachara and Mahayana, sometimes called the School of the Cittamatra which is “mind only.” These are very famous schools. Yogachara represents the teachings of Nagarjuna. These philosophies are explored and taught. In this particular school they believe that really, ultimately right thinking, right philosophical thinking is the key to enlightenment. This is part of the Hindi school of thought. They believe that enlightenment comes through the study of scriptures, so there is a great emphasis on studying famous texts. The lineage theory is found through a young monk named “Kukai” who lived 757 to 822 and lived in a famous placed call Mount Hiei in Japan, where over 30 thousand monks studied. It was a very, very remarkable place and became very, very popular.

This becomes another strand. I won’t get into the Buddhist philosophy, except to say that if you look at the two major schools, which are Madhyamaka and the school at Yogachara; both of these do not accept any ultimate reality. So there is no school of Buddhist philosophy that is going to find a way back into a Christian worldview. Madhyamaka that is propounded by Nagarjuna, I believe said everything can be proven ultimately to be void or nothingness; and they accept the ultimate emptiness of all reality. Yogachara, on the other hand, does accept a form of reality, but only reality in your mind, or in your consciousness, what is called “cittamatra” the “mind only” school of philosophy.

There are some real clear realities in Buddhist philosophy in terms of how to respond to it because in either case, Buddhism does not embrace a personal, absolute being who transcends the universe, like God. So we have a place there to speak with Buddhists and try to help them see the need for faith in the Living God.

We will not go into the details of Buddhist philosophy at this point. We are trying to simply overview the kinds of emphases we find in Mahayana. We have seen the invocational, the meditative, the philosophical and now finally, we have “Nichiren” which is another monk who studied on Mt. Hiei who developed a system which involves meditation; but he tried to unite it with invocation. Eventually Nichiren Buddhism believed that the key was to bring together the invocational strands, the textual strands of Tendai, the meditative strand of Zen; and brought it all together into one coherent system. They believe in the meditation of a particular text known as the lotus sutra. Rather than calling on a particular bodhisattva, they actually essentially personify the lotus sutra text and they would do invocation and call upon the lotus sutra. They believe that by following this, they could bring together all the forces of Buddhism into one and create a blend, a Nichiren blend that would bring all these together. This again, goes back to this Nichiren monk, the Nichiren who taught this, who lived from 1222 to 1282.

This gives us the basic framework for Mahayana Buddhism. We can see clearly there is a big difference between Therevada Buddhism, which is a monastic Buddhism with a relatively small kind of text and a closed canon; the three jewels: The Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha; and Mahayana, this great vehicle, which is open to laity, which creates multiple paths to salvation, the secret teachings of the Buddha, of the deified Buddha, the multiplied Buddha. All of this that goes on is expanded in this lay Buddhism with all of these different schools of Buddhist thought that developed there in that system.

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