The Great Vehicle

There is a collection of stories in the Sutra Pitaka of the Pali scripture about twenty-four Buddhas who lived before Gautama Buddha. The collection entitled the Buddhavarmsa begins with Sariputra asking Gautama Buddha when it was that he first resolved to become the Buddha and what were the virtues of perfection he achieved to attain this goal. The Buddha then relates how eons ago he was a hermit named Sumedha. One day, he heard that there was a Buddha named Dipankara teaching in a nearby town. He went to that town and saw Dipankara Buddha approaching him at the head of a long procession of monks. Sumedha was moved to deep reverence for Dipankara. He realized that while he could follow this Buddha and become an arhat, he could benefit the world more by becoming a Buddha. In that moment, he made a vow to become a Buddha in a future life.
... Over time, he came to understand that he would need to perfect ten virtues to achieve this goal. The Pali text lists these ten virtues, later referred to as the Ten Perfections in early Buddhism: generosity (dana), moral virtue (sila), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (panna), energy (viriya), patience (khanti), truthfulness (sacca), determination (adhitthana), loving kindness (metta), and equanimity (upekkha). Gautama Buddha concludes this story by relating to Sariputra how he perfected these virtues life after life until his full Awakening in his present life. ...
This story expressed an alternative to the path to Arhatship and Nirvana , namely what would become known as the Bodhisattva Path to Buddhahood. Indeed, the early schools of Buddhism that we introduced in the previous chapter all recognized this Bodhisattva Path, but taught that it is a heroic path for only the very few. It is best, they argued, to follow the shorter path leading to Nirvana than the more arduous path over eons of time leading to Buddhahood. However, some Buddhist monastics did eventually resolve to follow the Bodhisattva Path. ... By the first century B.C.E., the experience of this bodhisattva practice was expressed in a new literature. New sutras began to appear that claimed to be discourses of Gautama Buddha that presented the wisdom and the practice of the Bodhisattva Path. These sutras taught that the Bodhisattva Path is superior to that of original Buddhism because it leads to a greater attainment, namely, full Buddhahood. The qualities gained in the process of further growth beyond Arhatship could be used to benefit all living beings in ways not possible for an arhat. The Bodhisattva Path was therefore referred to as the Mahayana, meaning “Great Vehicle,” “Great Course,” or “Great Journey.” Followers of Mahayana also referred to the earlier forms of Buddhism as Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle,” as they do not lead all the way to full Buddhahood. ... While the different sutras contribute a variety of ideas to Mahayana, there are some characteristic ideas that have become associated with Mahayana. Here, we mention four .... (BIBE, 115-6)
Manifestation Body

The Buddha as a human being existing in time and space, like the Historical Buddha Sakyamuni.
Enjoyment Body

A supramundane body that is not limited by time and space, and hence accessible through meditation and visions.
Dharma Body

The inconceivable essence of reality without boundaries or limits. This is the ultimate source of Buddhahood itself.
The first characteristic notion found in developed Mahayana is the view that a Buddha, rather than an arhat, is the person who can be of most help to people who are suffering and in need of liberation. To achieve this condition of Buddhahood, one needs to follow the Bodhisattva Path. This bodhisattva life begins with what is called the “arising of the thought of Awakening,” or bodhicitta. This bodhicitta is really the altruistic desire, or heartfelt aspiration, to attain Buddhahood so that one can help others gain freedom from suffering. (BIBE, 117)
One prominent pan-Buddhist trend during this period was the growth of the cult of Maitreya, the next Buddha to appear in our world. ... The Pali canon (DN.26) contains a brief account of the conditions leading up to Maitreya’s coming: Life will grow shorter as human beings become less virtuous, culminating in a “sword-interval” when people with a life expectancy of ten years will hunt one another like animals. A few of them, however, will hide in the wilderness to escape slaughter, and on emerging from their hideouts will resolve to take up a life of virtue. The revival of virtue, over the generations, will increase the natural human life span until it peaks at 80,000 years. At that point, human beings will know only three diseases: desire, lack of food, and old age. Maitreya will come to Earth, gain Awakening, and lead a Sangha composed of thousands of monks, compared to the mere hundreds in Sakyamuni’s. ...
       Over the centuries, Maitreya’s cult developed four dimensions, corresponding to the way his devotees hoped to tap into this presence. These dimensions can be placed under a fourfold rubric here/now; here/then; there/now; and there/then. In the here/now dimension, devotees hoped to gain visions or dreams of Maitreya here in the present life. In some cases, simply having the vision was considered auspicious, in line with the belief that the mere sight of a holy figure was a blessing. In other cases, devotees would hope to receive dharanis (mnemonic protective spells), to hear Dharma, or to request material boons from the vision. ... In the here/then dimension, people who had difficulties practicing the Dharma under present conditions could dedicate the merit of their current practice to being reborn on Earth in Maitreya’s time to practice under more favorable conditions. In the there/now dimension, devotees would meditate or practice austerities in hopes of being taken up into the Tusita heaven to meet with Maitreya and ask him questions about the Dharma. ... Finally, in the there/then dimension (a variant of the here/then), devotees would make merit in hopes of being reborn in the Tusita heaven as part of Maitreya’s retinue, thus escaping the sword-interval and other horrors of human degeneracy, finally returning to Earth along with Maitreya and attaining arhatship or furthering their bodhisattva careers under his tutelage. Of the four dimensions, this last was and still is the most pervasive, as part of a recurrent motif in many Buddhist countries: the belief that the current age is too degenerate for the practice of the Dharma. (Buddhist Religions, 78-9)
II. The Perfection of Wisdom
A second characteristic of Mahayana teaching is the notion of a “higher wisdom” (prajnaparamita) realizing “emptiness” (sunyata). This notion has to do with the awakened experience of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. For Mahayana, what one experiences with awakened consciousness is that all the “factors of existence” (dharmas), which we have seen were so carefully analyzed in the Abhidharma Pitaka, are “empty” (sunya) of existing independently, or “on their own.” ... This is another way of saying what the Buddha himself taught, namely, that all things arise dependently. To experience this dependently arisen nature of things — their “emptiness” of independence — is the core of wisdom experience according to Mahayana. It is this profound wisdom realizing emptiness that, coupled with a compassionate motivation to save all living beings, furthers one’s Great Journey to the goal of Buddhahood. (BIBE, 117)
Om! Praise to the blessed and noble perfection of wisdom! The noble Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was moving in the deep journey of the perfection of wisdom. When he looked down at the Five Aggregates, he saw that they are empty of own-being.
       Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form. What is form is emptiness, what is emptiness is form. The same is true for sensations, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.
       Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are characterized by emptiness; they are neither produced nor cease, they are neither defiled nor pure, they are neither deficient nor complete. ... Therefore, one should know the great mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the mantra of great knowledge, the unsurpassed and unequaled mantra, the mantra that allays all duhkha — it is true, for there is nothing lacking in it. By the perfection of wisdom is this mantra spoken. It is the following: Gone, gone, gone beyond, utterly gone beyond; Awakening; O joy!
(BIBE, 122)
A third characteristic of Mahayana teaching concerns the nature of consciousness. We have seen that one view of consciousness found in early Buddhist texts teaches that the mind is naturally pure and clear, having been stained by mental defilements. While in Mahayana there are many and sometimes conflicting notions concerning consciousness, we find a similar strand of thought. It claims that consciousness, prior to being affected by defilements, is the luminous clarity nirvanic status of enlightened Buddhahood. This pure luminosity as the true essence of consciousness gives people the potential for Buddhahood. But ordinary conscious life generates conceptualizations and other mental formations that frustrate this potential. In the end, it is the mind that enslaves people in a life that is untrue and unsatisfying (duhkha); and it is also the mind that can set people free. (BIBE, 118)
Nirvana is the storehouse-consciousness where a reversion takes place by self-realization. ... When a reversion takes place in the practitioner of yoga, the [varieties of] consciousness cast off discrimination between [subject and object] in what is realized as the [nature of] mind itself. Here, one enters the Tathagata stage, attaining the realization of noble wisdom; and in this stage, there is no thought of existence or nonexistence. ... When all these [varieties of consciousness] go through a reversion, I and all the other Buddhas declare that there is Nirvana. The mode and nature of this Nirvana is emptiness, which is the status of reality. ...

[This is because the storehouse-consciousness] is like a great ocean in which waves roll on constantly, but the [depths] subsist unaffected, free from the faults of impermanence ... thoroughly pure in its essence. ... The storehouse-consciousness is [thus] known by the name of the Tathagata-garbha. (BIBE, 125-6)

IV. Buddha Realms
Finally, the fourth characteristic notion has to do with the nature of Buddhahood, the goal of the Bodhisattva Path. While the early Buddhist texts claim that the cosmos includes realms of hells, ghosts, gods, and Brahma beings, Mahayana expanded this vision of the cosmos by claiming that it also contains countless Buddhas residing in Buddha realms. In following the Bodhisattva Path, one can be reborn in one of these realms, where one can progress toward Buddhahood under the guidance and with the blessings of the Buddha of that realm. When one attains Buddhahood, one will also create a Buddha realm from where one will help others throughout the cosmos. In the meantime, one can receive guidance and blessings in this world, as well as visualize these “celestial” Buddhas and their realms and the advanced bodhisattvas that abide in them in ways that are spiritually transforming. These Buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas develop special skillful means (upaya) that they use to appear in the many world systems of the cosmos in order to help other beings become free from suffering and progress in the journey to Awakening and Buddhahood. (BIBE, 118)
This Land of Bliss, Ananda, which is the realm of Lord Amitabha, is rich and prosperous, comfortable, fertile, delightful and full of many gods and people. In this realm, Ananda, there are no hells, no animals, no ghosts or asuras — no inauspicious places to be reborn. ... If any beings, Ananda, over and over reverently devote themselves to this Buddha, if they plant a large ... root of goodness, having raised their thoughts to Awakening, if they vow to be born in that realm, then, when the hour of their death approaches, Amitabha Buddha ... will stand before them, surrounded by hosts of monks. Then having seen that Lord, and having died with serene hearts, they will be born in precisely that realm of the Land of Bliss. (BIBE, 131)