From Theravada to Mahayana
Tradition of the Elders & the Great Vehicle

The Mahayana Canon
& the “Bodhisattva” Ideal

Additional Buddhist practices and teachings began to appear in a wide range of scriptures from the early centuries CE. These further developments in thought and practice gradually evolved into what is called Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. ... An early Mahayana scripture, the Lotus Sutra, defended its seemingly innovative ideas by claiming that earlier teachings were skillful means for those with lower capacities. The idea is that the Buddha geared his teaching to his audience, and that his teachings were presented in different ways and at different levels of completeness in accordance with the readiness of his audience to understand them. ... The Lotus Sutra and other new Mahayana scriptures also taught that there was a higher goal than the arhant’s achievement of liberation, namely, to aspire to become a bodhisattva. Theravada Buddhists use the term bodhisattva to refer to the Buddha in his past lives and up to the time he attained enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists speak of the bodhisattva as a being who has taken a vow to become fully enlightened in the future — a fully awakened Buddha — and who will assist others in their liberature as they work to complete their vow. The Lotus Sutra says that all beings have the capacity for Buddhahood and are destined to attain it eventually. Both monastics and laity are urged to take the bodhisattva vow and work to become fully enlightened. ...
The concept of the selfless bodhisattva is not just an ideal for earthly conduct; numerous bodhisattvas are believed to be present and available to hear the devotees’ petitions. ... The most popular bodhisattva in East Asia is Avalokiteshvara (known as Guanyin in China, Kannon in Japan), who symbolizes compassion and extends blessings to all. Although he is depicted as male in India, the Lotus Sutra says that this bodhisattva takes whatever form is needed to help others, and lists thirty-two examples. In East Asia, Avalokiteshvara is typically depicted as female, often as the bestower or protector of young children. (Living Religions, 155-7)

Two Approaches to Mahayana
Self Power & Other Power

The Chan/Zen Tradition
Buddhism was transmitted from India to China beginning around the first century CE and thence to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The major schools of East Asian Buddhism are part of the Mahayana branch. Many of these schools have also absorbed elements from other East Asian religions, such as Daoism, Korean shamanic practices, and Shinto. ... Around the fifth century CE, according to tradition, a South Indian monk named Bodhidharma traveled to a monastery in northern China, where he reportedly spent nine years in silent meditation, “facing the wall.” He became recognized as the first patriarch of the radical path that came to be called Chan Buddhism, from the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning meditation. Although traditional accounts of Bodhidharma’s life and contributions may not be completely factual, they illustrate the emphasis on meditation and direct insight that characterize the Mahayana school of Chan Buddhism, which became the most successful form of Buddhism in China. (Living Religions, 160)

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Shunryu Suzuki
For Zen students the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 21)

The Koan
The word Koan or Ko-an comes from the Chinese term kung-an, literally “public notice,” or “public announcement.” ... Basically a Koan is a paradoxical utterance used in Zen as a center of concentration in meditation. The paradoxical nature of Koans is essential to their function: The attempt to break down conceptual thought. Koans are constructed so that they do not succumb to conceptual analysis and thereby require a more direct response from the meditator. (

A monk asked Joshu:
“Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”

Joshu replied, “Mu!”

... concentrate your whole self, with its 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores, into Mu making your whole body a solid lump of doubt. Day and night, without ceasing, keep digging into it, but don’t take it as “nothingness” or as “being” or “non-being.” It must be like a red-hot iron ball which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit up, but cannot. You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and feelings which you have cherished up to the present. After a certain period of such efforts, Mu will come to fruition, and inside and out will become one naturally. You will then be like a dumb man who has had a dream. You will know yourself and for yourself only.
       Then all of a sudden, Mu will break open and astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be just as if you had snatched the great sword of General Kan. If you meet a Buddha, you will kill him. If you meet an ancient Zen master, you will kill him. Though you may stand on the brink of life and death, you will enjoy the great freedom. In the six realms and the four modes of birth, you will live in the samadhi of innocent play.”

Mumon’s Final Verse
Dog! Buddha nature!
The perfect manifestation, the absolute command;
A little “has” or “has not,”
And body is lost! Life is lost!
So ... what did the Enlightened Cat
say to the Buddha Nature Dog?