An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana means ‘the great way’, that aims to benefit all people, and all forms of life. This word comes from one of the ways a person can practice Buddhism. The motivation for their meditation, prayers, ritual and mantra can be not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all their precious family, and for the sake of all beings


The heart of the mahayana motivation

To make it plain, if we first look just at this quality of a path being maha-yana alone – of it having this beautiful, loving, and all embracing, universal nature – we can see a Mahayana Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, or Indigenous spirituality.Every tradition then has methods we can use to accomplish our aims. A person who is living for others can even be without any tradition at all and, to my mind, still be a mahayanist. This is not the usual way of speaking, I know, but it can help us know the nature of a supremely life affirming path.

Sometimes we can get lost in the struggles of our own personal life, or our culture and times. We can become a prisoner of the moment. The Great Way – the mahayana motivation – then can help us to make our way through life’s difficulties. It holds whatever is happening in a larger context. Little things don’t bother us as much because we have a large view, one that is not just for ourselves alone, and we are also thinking for the long term.

The oh-so common ‘eight worldly motivations’ that people have- around material gain and loss, pain and pleasure, fame and obscurity, praise and criticism – don’t move us any longer, and this comes as a great relief. Our lives become so much easier. As I hope we will all find out for ourselves, the mahayana view also brings us maturity, and to genuine fulfillment as human beings.

The history and resources of Mahayana Buddhism

Once we see this much of the universal motivation people can have, it helps to approach the history of Mahayana Buddhism. About 500 years after the Buddha’s physical passing from this world, collections of teachings such as the Perfection of Wisdom, Avatamsaka and Lotus Sutras were written down that described the practices and praised the great qualities of this path of universal benefit. Over the centuries, noble teachers such as Nagarjuna, Atisha, Asanga, Shantideva and others then taught methods to develop the loving, compassionate and liberating mahayana mind. Those of us who have a connection can draw from this extensive body of inspired teachings.

When we study Buddhism, we receive teachings on developing our inherent good qualities, and we also receive the blessings of our teachers and spiritual ancestors. Although it is not often talked about, there is an esoteric aspect to traditions as well. On the subtle planes, a tradition is a reservoir of blessing power, insight and inspiration built up over many generations. This sacred energy is a resource we can draw from. This is true of all the different Buddhist traditions and lineages. They each have unique and precious qualities we can know and benefit from. Every true religious tradition has produced also saints, and the influence of their realization surely outlasts their physical body. They are a blessing to this whole world, and especially to their lineage.

The development of the awakened heart

The nature of the awakened heart, everywhere it is found, is to help others as much as possible. In it, two aspects are always present, those of loving compassion, and understanding. Compassion is vitally important here. Without it, there will be no urgency to put an end to suffering. If we have the capacity to hold in our heart the awareness of what is difficult or tragic, even for a short while, it can be a powerful force for good in our lives, in the lives of all those we love, and in our world.

The core of the Mahayana Buddhist motivation is called bodhicitta, the awakening mind. The view in this Tradition is that the best thing we can do for others is to help them to become free from all their suffering and its causes. To do this we need to awaken and liberate ourselves, then we can help others to reach that same state.Bodhicitta is called the sole thought on everybody’s side.

A bodhisattva, literally an ‘awakening being’ is someone who is dedicated to the temporal and ultimate benefit of all beings, providing them with all they need and wish for.The bodhisattva vow is traditionally phrased as May I become a Buddha in order to lead all others to that very same state. This is the heart of the Mahayana. With this, they say, we ‘enter the family of the Buddhas’. Its motivation is expressed in this way

May I cause the pacification
Of all sentient beings afflictions

And in the poetic language of Shantideva

As long as diseases afflict living beings,
may I be the doctor, the medicine,
and also the nurse who restores them to health

May I fall as rain to increase the harvests that must feed living beings
and in times of dire famine,
may I myself be food and drink

For as long as space exists,
and for as long as living beings remain,
may I too abide,
to dispel the misery of the world

As one teacher said, Strive to give the taste of bliss to others!

The Chinese Mahayana Buddhist teachings speak of something they call ‘vow power’. This is the deep motivation that all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have to help others, guided by wisdom and compassion. This is also something that can become a very real force in our own life. It has the potential to open us up, and to help us awaken our inner resources, of great strength, patience, courage, clarity, peace and joy.

We should realize at this point, as Lama Yeshe said, that we don’t have to have completed the path before we can begin to act. He taught us that we should just help others as much as we can, always working to deepen our wisdom, and the effectiveness of our work.

Em Ah Ho! How wondrous!

May all beings benefit.
May we all learn about and awaken the motivation to be of universal benefit,
find a path that suits us best,
and then practice diligently to actualize all of our noble aims

May all beings everywhere be free from suffering and the causes of suffering
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness flourishing

From Mahayana Buddhism