Summarise and discuss the origin and development of Mahayana Buddhism.

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Summarise and discuss the origin and development of Mahayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism in the modern era is the largest Buddhist tradition, throughout its development, however, it was very much a minority interest. It distinguishes itself from the more conservative Theraveda school, through its emphasis on the supramundane personality of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva ideal, the philosophy of the Shunyata, and its rejection of religious elitism.

The origins of Mahayana Buddhism, are very obscure as it has no geographical or conceptual origins. Emerging sometime between 150 BCE and 100 CE, Mahayana is probably the culmination and indirect successor of various earlier developments. 

The earlier Mahasanghika school (Universal Assembly), for example, shared many of the Mahayana aspirations. As their name suggests they rejected religious elitism, believing it possible for enlightenment achievable outside the confines of the monastery by the practicing laity.

The teaching of the emptiness of dharmas (dharmasunyata), another characteristic of the of Mahayana, found in the writings of the Purvasailous, a Mahasamghikis school. The Bodhisattva ideal was also held by other earlier schools, such as the Mahasamghikis, and the Sarvastivadius. 

Mahayana Buddhism was not the sudden inspiration of any one individual, neither was it a rival school; the product of sectarian disagreement. Mahayana developed over a long time; inscriptural evidence suggests it originated as a minority spiritual interest within the confines of the monastery.

As a consequence Mahayana emerged as a loose group of movements;  diverse in teaching and practice. The only shared characteristic being  their objection to the practices of the Theraveda, and the acceptance of a developing group of Sacred writings known as the Mahayana Sutras. The growth of Mahayana was also marked and identified with the appearance of this literature.    

The Mahayana Sutras was considered to be the second turning of the `Dharmawheel’, as they were believed to be the inspired expositions of a still existing Buddha.  Mahayanist’s accepted most of the Scripture and ritual of the Theraveda, but believed their texts to be of higher value and truth. Traditional Buddhists, however, denied their canonical authority.   

Mahayana Buddhism at first was known as Bodhisattva - yana, `the (spiritual) vehicle of the Bodhidsattva’, and to stress their superiority, as a higher spiritual path they called themselves the ‘Great Vehicle’ or Mahayana. All the none-Mahayana schools, were referred as ‘Hinayana‘(lesser vehicle), being inferior and small in scope.

Mahayana superiority lies in its emphasis on the superior goal of Buddhahood rather than the lesser Arhatship of the Theraveda school. Buddhahood was gained through the compassionate nature of the Bodhisattva, by refusing to enter Nirvana to help others achieve the same end. This was in direct contrast to the individualism of the Arhat, who entered Nirvana leaving the rest of humanity behind: “Mahayana is held by its adherents to be a higher religious aspiration, the aspiration to full and perfect Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings...”  

A central idea of Mahayana Buddhism expressed in `The Lotus of the True Dharma’(Saddharma-pundarisksa), is the doctrine of `Skilful Means’.  This was based on the reasoning that the highest truth (Dharmasunyata) - all can gain Omniscient Buddhahood, was too difficult for humanity to understand straight away. Therefore, an easier  level was required to  prepare the individual for the higher teaching. This lower level was that of the four noble truths, and Arhatship, which the Theraveda tradition considers to be the pinnacle of enlightenment (Pudgalassunyata). This, however, the Mahayana only considered to be a stepping stone on to the higher path.

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In relation to the doctrine of `skilful means’ Mahayana developed the notion of Buddhology that involved a redefinition of the nature of the Buddha, leading to the notion of the `Heavenly Buddha’(Sarkyamuni). This supramundane nature of the Buddha was beneficial in that it allowed for new and continued inspiration. The traditional understanding of the Buddha, however, was that of the one historical personality.

According to Mahayana belief Buddhas exist everywhere, and in every age. Expressed in the `Duration of the life of the Tathagata’ Lotus sutra, the Buddha is one of many, and has appeared as numerous past Buddhas.

On his ...

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