Buddhism: Mahāyāna

Doctrines and Philosophy

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Religious Texts

The Buddhist corpus is expansive and not contained within one single book. The Mahāyāna tradition accepts a wide range of texts from a variety of genres and styles. Different schools have different collections of texts considered to be sacred or canonical. The Mahāyāna Buddhist canon is often translated into the local vernacular (such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese).


  • Tripiṭaka: The term ‘Tripiṭaka’ (‘Three Baskets’) is traditionally used to refer to Buddhist scripture containing collections on monastic discipline, discourses often in the form of sūtras (known in Pāli as sūttas) and philosophical analysis on the Buddhist teachings (often referred to as dharma or dhamma). Just like the Theravāda tradition, the Tripiṭaka is considered authoritative. However, unlike Theravāda Buddhism, the Tripiṭaka is understood to be open to additions and thus continues to have new literature incorporated.
  • Jaṭaka Tales: Contained within the Tripiṭaka, the Jaṭaka Tales are a set of stories that detail the previous rebirths of the Buddha. The Mahāyāna canon has many additional tales not found in the Theravāda Tripiṭaka.
  • Regional Versions: The Mahāyāna Buddhist collection of literature differs depending on the region in East Asia. The Chinese Tripiṭaka refers to any edition of Buddhist literature in Chinese. Its latest edition has 100 volumes and 3,360 works. Meanwhile, the Tripiṭaka Koreana is the Korean version of the Chinese Buddhist canon and contains 1,500 works. The Taisho Tripiṭaka is the Japanese compilation of 85 volumes and 2,920 works of the Chinese Buddhist canon and Japanese commentaries.
  • Sūtra: There is a large collection of sūtras accepted by different schools that are treated as sacred and authoritative. Major collections of sutras include the Prajñāpāramitā (‘Perfection of Wisdom’, which contains the regularly chanted ‘Heart Sūtra’), the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (‘Great Passing into Nirvāṇa’), the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra (‘Wondrous Dharma Lotus Sūtra’), and the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (‘Flower Ornament Sūtra'). These texts represent a reinterpretation of the earlier Buddhist teachings found in the Tripiṭaka.
  • Tantra: Tantras are sacred texts or manuals containing esoteric teachings and practices, such as mantras and instructions for drawing maṇḍalas. These texts are primarily used by Vajrayāna Buddhists. These teachings are often ascribed to buddhas and bodhisattvas. Some of the major tantric texts include the Guhyasamāja Tantra and the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra. 

General Beliefs

Dharma

The term ‘dharma’ (‘dhamma’ in Pāli) is a core concept in Buddhism that has various meanings. Generally, the term refers to the natural order or universal law that underpins all existence at all times. Śākyamuni Buddha discovered (not invented) this reality when he became enlightened. The term dharma also refers to the totality of Buddhist teachings regarding this truth and particularly the way of practice to realise this truth. These teachings contain descriptions and explanations of the underlying universal law.


Cycle of Rebirth (Saṃsāra)

Saṃsāra (literally “wandering”) is a broad concept that refers to the beginningless and endless cycle of rebirth that underpins all beings. Individuals are thought to transmigrate from one existence to the next depending on their karma (i.e. moral conduct). Ignorance (avidyā), which refers to ignorance of reality as represented in the insights of the Four Noble Truths, is said to be the root cause of rebirth. Ignorance is co-existent with the three roots of unwholesomeness known as delusion (moha), greed (rāga or lobha) and anger (deveṣa or dosa). In Buddhism, it is thought that being reborn as a human is a special birth as one has the ability to progress in their spiritual goals.


Bodhisattva

A central concept in Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions is the ‘bodhisattva’, the spiritual ideal of a person who seeks enlightenment for the sake of all beings. A bodhisattva is said to take a vow of compassion (karuṇā) to forgo their own salvation until all beings caught in the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) and suffering (duḥkha) are liberated. A key characteristic of bodhisattvas is possessing perfect wisdom (prajñā) and perfect compassion (karuṇā). Especially great bodhisattvas are said to select their rebirths in such a way as to best benefit beings across many generations. There is a diverse pantheon of bodhisattvas and celestial beings, any of which a Mahāyāna Buddhist might request personal aid or support from. Some bodhisattvas are male, female or androgynous. Many are also associated with landscapes (such as mountains) and other sacred sites.


Buddha Nature (Tathāgatagarbha)

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the concept of ‘buddha nature’ (Sanskrit: tathāgatagarbha) refers to the inherent potential of beings to attain buddhahood. In turn, the task of a Buddhist is not to ‘achieve’ buddhahood or become a buddha, but to realise or uncover one’s inherent nature. One’s buddha nature becomes manifest when impurities and defilements (such as greed, anger and delusion) have been removed. Some Mahāyāna schools differ as to whether buddha nature is inherent in all beings or only sentient beings.


Absence of Self (Anātman)

In Buddhist thought, existence is seen as an interrelated flux of material and psychical events that have no permanent or independent existence on their own. As such, there is no permanent or fixed individual, self or ‘soul’, but rather, a ‘being’ is in a continuous process of change. Accordingly, it is due to the illusion of having a permanent unchanging self that fuels perpetual rebirth.


Emptiness (Śūnyatā)

The Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination refers to a twelvefold chain of causation. The doctrine states that nothing comes into existence through an external power or its own volition (such as God or an individual soul). Instead, all phenomena arise because they are dependent on some other cause or condition. Within one life, a being is said to experience numerous stages within the chain such as ignorance, craving, birth and suffering (duḥkha).


Mahayana Buddhist traditions extend the doctrine of Dependent Origination with the concept of emptiness (śūnyatā). This concept applies the doctrine of the absence of self (anātman) to all elements of existence. Consequently, nothing can be said to exist or not exist. Instead,  everything is ‘empty', and things exist only in relation to the causes and conditions around them.


Karma

The concept of ‘karma' (‘kamma’ in Pāli) is broadly understood as a theory of ‘cause and effect', whereby an individual’s freely chosen and intentional actions lead to some sort of effect or consequence. An individual cannot escape the consequences or repercussions of their actions. As such, each person is responsible for their own moral well-being. 


It is thought that karmic repercussions can develop in a number of ways. For example, one may experience immediate misfortune from an unwholesome action. In other instances, an enormous amount of time may pass (e.g. multiple lifetimes) between one’s action and the consequence. It is also said that with the development of the mind through wisdom and compassion, the effects of previous unwholesome actions may be alleviated somewhat. According to Buddhist thought, an individual’s current life is determined to some extent by the actions of their previous lives. For many Buddhists, the doctrine of karma also provides an explanation as to why they may have positive or negative experiences in their life, such as sickness or good fortune.


The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths refers to four foundational and interrelated propositions of Buddhist thought that the Buddha taught in his first sermon. Interpretations of the doctrine may differ somewhat among the branches and schools of Buddhism.


  1. The First Noble Truth: “There is ‘duḥkha’”. The term 'duḥkha' is often translated into English as ‘suffering’, but the concept also refers to a sense of dissatisfaction or uneasiness. It points to the experience of ordinary existence as being unsatisfactory due to the inherent instability in the changing flux of conditions.
  2. The Second Noble Truth: “There is an origin of duḥkha”, is the implicit or explicit craving for and attachment to experiences and sensations. For example, craving for a particular object only to experience a sense of dissatisfaction when the object breaks, or craving a pleasurable experience only to feel dissatisfied when the pleasurable experience ends. Moreover, craving is caused by ignorance about the universal laws that govern reality (i.e. dharma). Thus, duḥkha is ultimately a result of failing to realise that everything is in a constant state of flux.
  3. The Third Noble Truth: “There is the cessation of duḥkha”, which is through realising the true nature of reality, and attaining nirvāṇa (literally translated as ‘extinguishing’ or ‘blowing out’, but often taken to mean ‘enlightenment’). When an individual attains enlightenment, the cause of duḥkha has been identified and destroyed, which in turn also destroys any future effects (such as rebirth).
  4. The Fourth Noble Truth: “There is the path leading to the cessation of duḥkha”. In the Theravāda tradition, this is the Noble Eightfold Path, which contains eight important interrelated factors that collectively lead to individual enlightenment. In addition, the Mahāyāna tradition also emphasises the bodhisattva ideal and the six perfections (pāramitā).

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is the last of the Four Noble Truths that provides a set of practical guidelines which leads an individual out of the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) towards enlightenment (nirvāṇa). The eight components of the path provide a normative structure on how to live in the world in a skilful and spiritually aware way, as well as how to cultivate the mind and develop wisdom and compassion. Though the English translation of the term “right” within the path implies ‘correct’, a more accurate translation is ‘skilful’ as the guidelines seek to highlight what constitutes skilful and unskilful practices, both in terms of ethical qualities and qualities that provide insight into the nature of reality.


  • Right View: This refers to having a correct understanding or perspective on the laws that govern nature and existence as explained in the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination and the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra).
  • Right Intention: Sometimes referred to as ‘right thought’ or ‘right resolve’, this refers to cultivating the intentions to give up selfish or lustful desires, ill-will, and harmful intentions in favour of cultivating emotional qualities such as kindness and compassion.
  • Right Speech: This refers to using speech in a truthful, positive, productive and kind way instead of harmful, divisive or irreverent speech, gossiping or lying.
  • Right Action: This refers to refraining from actions that cause harm, and supplementing such behaviour with acts that seek to help and protect others. This includes refraining from harming living beings (also see ‘ahiṃsā’), stealing and sexual misconduct.
  • Right Livelihood: This refers to pursuing a career or livelihood that does not involve causing harm, deception or selfish pursuits, such as exploiting others for personal gain.
  • Right Effort: This refers to directing one’s effort towards their spiritual practice, fostering wholesome states of mind and letting go of unwholesome states.
  • Right Mindfulness: This refers to paying close attention to the present, and being aware of what one is feeling, doing and thinking. It is usually cultivated in meditative practices.
  • Right Concentration: This refers to the focus of the mind that is free of distraction and results in stillness and clarity of mind. Practising right concentration that places an individual’s full attention on various aspects of their experience enables one to gain deep insight into the nature of things.

The Six Perfections (Pāramitā)

The Six Perfections refer to six virtuous qualities a bodhisattva practises during their spiritual development. The six virtues are generosity (dāna), morality (sīla), patience (kṣānti), courage (vīrya), meditation (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā). The first three are considered virtuous practices for anyone, while the latter three are specifically related to spiritual practice.

The virtue of wisdom (prajñā) is considerably important in Mahāyāna traditions. Deep wisdom or insight is to understand the doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā). It is said that by possessing an awareness of emptiness, one can develop a deep sense of compassion (karuṇā).

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