Buddhism: Mahāyāna

Narratives and Myths

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

The Buddha

One primary narrative in Mahāyāna traditions is the life narrative of the person referred to as the ‘Buddha'. The term ‘buddha' is a title which generally means ‘the enlightened one'. According to the legend, the one referred to as ‘Buddha’ was originally Siddhārtha Gautama, son of the king or local chieftain of the Śākya . As such, Mahāyāna traditions typically refer to him as ‘Śākyamuni’ (‘Sage of the Śākya’).

The title of ‘Śākyamuni Buddha' is generally used in Mahāyāna sources to distinguish him from the numerous other buddhas and bodhisattvas. Many of the core teachings in Buddhism are implicit within the Buddha's life story; particular events of his life narrative are also highlighted in Buddhist symbols and events. Moreover, many physical depictions of Śākyamuni are derived from these key events.

The Buddha’s Life Narrative

The mythology of Śākyamuni Buddha may differ depending on which text is emphasised. For example, the standard narrative (found in Theravāda Buddhism) records Śākyamuni’s father shielding him from the harsh realities of life. One day, the young prince ventured outside the palace and encountered various forms of physical and mental suffering. Troubled by these confrontations and the realisation of suffering, Śākyamuni renounced his life as a prince to embark on a spiritual journey. Thereafter, he took instruction from various ascetics and practised extreme austerities. Śākyamuni eventually abandoned these austere practices in favour of a more moderate spiritual path. Eventually, he reached a profound state of realisation (known as ‘enlightenment' or ‘nirvāṇa’) while meditating under a bodhi tree. Henceforth, Śākyamuni became known as ‘Buddha’.

Meanwhile, in the Mahāyāna text known as the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra (Wondrous Dharma Lotus Sutra), Śākyamuni denies achieving enlightenment after leaving his royal palace. Instead, it is understood that he achieved enlightenment innumerable aeons ago and has since been teaching the dharma by ‘skilful’ means, such as pretending to leave his princely life. In turn, the Śākyamuni Buddha is understood as a semi-divine being who possesses extraordinary abilities.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

Alongside the major stories of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha, Mahāyāna traditions have a rich mythology of various other buddhas and bodhisattvas. The mythology is diverse and differs depending on the region and school. Stories tend to follow a similar pattern; ordinary and humble individuals whose greatness as a buddha or bodhisattva is later revealed out of compassion for others. In some cases, a buddha or bodhisattva appears as a saviour figure or as possessing extraordinary powers. The following are some of the major buddhas and bodhisattvas.


Amitābha is the most important buddha in the Pure Land schools. He is said to have undertaken the bodhisattva vow, promising to help all those who have deep faith in him. It is believed that an individual who has faith in him and sincerely invokes his name will enter into his realm of bliss known as ‘Sukhāvatī’. Amitābha is known by other names such as ‘Amituofo’ (China) or ‘Amida’ (Japan).


Avalokiteśvara is believed to be the bodhisattva of infinite ‘compassion’ (karuṇā) and mercy. He is said to be able to appear in any form to help others. This has led to many iconographic representations, including different genders. For example, in Japan he is known as ‘Kannon'. Meanwhile in China, Avalokiteśvara is usually known as ‘Guanyin' and is in the female form. Another common depiction of Avalokiteśvara is a human with a thousand hands and eyes, representing his endless compassion. A common mantra chanted in association with Avalokiteśvara is ‘auṃ maṇi padme hūm’.


According to Buddhist mythology, a new buddha will descend to earth and teach the dharma when the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha have been entirely forgotten. This ‘future buddha' is Maitreya, one of the most venerated bodhisattvas in Buddhism. The future buddha Maitreya is said to be residing in a heavenly realm while he or she awaits their return to earth. In Mahayana traditions, Maitreya is thought to be the embodiment of all-encompassing love. One well-known incarnation of Maitreya is the jolly ‘laughing Buddha' with a large protruding stomach, known as ‘Pu-tai' (China) or ‘Hotei' (Japan).


Mañjuśri is considered to be the bodhisattva embodying wisdom and insight (prajñā). He is also known as ‘Wen-shu Shih-li’ (China) or ‘Monju’ (Japan). Manjushri is commonly depicted in a peaceful form wearing princely ornaments and holding a raised sword (symbolising the power of wisdom) in his right hand and the sacred text ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ (Prajñāpāramitā) in his left. An image or statue of Mañjuśri depicted as a monk seated in meditation is often placed in Zen meditation halls.

Realms of Rebirth

Much of Buddhist mythology occurs in the context of different realms of rebirth. According to the concept of saṃsāra (rebirth), rebirth is said to occur in six realms of existence: the realm of the gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell. According to mythology, the realm of rebirth an individual enters is dependent on their karma. Buddhist mythology frequently features stories of humans, gods and various creatures. For example, in the Jātaka tales, the Buddha is represented as having had previous lives as various animals at some point prior to the life in which he became enlightened and known as the Buddha.

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