Mahayana Buddhism
& the Transmission from India to China

Mahavairocana (the Cosmic Buddha) at the Longmen Grottoes
Enso (Empty Circle)
Essay 2: Realizing Harmony with the Toatlity of Space-Time (click for link to essay question)
Temple Visit Paper (click for link to Introduction)
Turning Dharma Wheel
Future Buddha Meets Current Buddha
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. ...
Japanese copy of the Lotus Sutra with gold and silver ink on indigo paper, 1636
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. (BIBE, 115-116)
Although the Theravada tradition maintains that there is no difference between the enlightenment of an arhat and that of a buddha, Mahayana Buddhism maintains that arhats only eliminate emotional obscurations (i.e. attachment to the self), whereas buddhas eliminate both emotional and cognitive obscurations. To put it another way, arhats eliminate the attachments that lead to rebirth, but buddhas harmonize with the totality of time and space! (cf. The Five Paths to Liberation and Enlightenment)
Trikaya: The Three Bodies of a Buddha
The Three Bodies (Trikaya) of the Buddha
BIBE, 131-132

Nirmanakaya: Siddhartha Buddha
Sambhogakaya: Enjoyment Body
Dharmakaya: Cosmic Body
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.
Buddha: Infinite Reflections
Turning Dharma Wheel
Four Characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism
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, 116)
Bodhisattva Vows
I. The Bodhisattva Path
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)
1000-Armed Guanyin (Bodhisattva of Compassion)
At that time the Bodhisattva Infinite Thought rose up from his seat, and baring his right shoulder and folding his hands toward the Buddha, spoke thus: “World-honored One! For what reason is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara named Regarder of the Cries of the World?”
       The Buddha answered the Bodhisattva Infinite Thought: “Good son! If there be countless hundred thousand myriad kotis of living beings suffering from pain and distress, who hear of this Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, and with all their mind call upon his name, the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World will instantly regard their cries, and all of them will be delivered. ...
Guanyin as the Goddess of Mercy
Listen to the deeds of the Cry Regarder,
Who well responds to every quarter;
His vast vow is deep as the sea,
Inconceivable in its eons.
Seeing many thousands of kotis of buddhas,
He has vowed a great pure vow.
Let me briefly tell you.
[He who] hears his name, and sees him,
And bears him unremittingly in mind,
Will be able to end the sorrows of existence.
Though [others] with harmful intent
Throw him into a burning pit,
Let him think of the Cry Regarder’s power
And the pit will become a pool.
Or driven along a great ocean,
In peril of dragons, fishes, and demons,
Let him think of the Cry Regarder’s power,
And waves cannot submerge him. ...

1000 images of Guanyin (Kanon) at Sanjusangendo in Kyoto, Japan
Regarder of the World’s Cries, pure and holy,
In pain, distress, death, calamity,
Able to be a sure reliance,
Perfect in all merit,
With compassionate eyes beholding all,
Boundless ocean of blessings!
Prostrate let us revere him.

Turning Dharma Wheel
Enso (Zen painting of an empty circle)
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)
Painting of Nagarjuna
On the Four Noble Truths
Chapter 24
Figure carrying the word "Truth"8. In teaching the Dharma, Buddhas resort to two truths: worldly conventional truth and ultimate truth.
9. Those who do not know the distinction between these two truths do not understand the deep reality in the Buddha’s Teaching.
10. The ultimate cannot be taught without resorting to conventions; and without recourse to the ultimate, one cannot reach nirvana.
 Tree above and below ground
18. Interdependent origination — that is what we call emptiness. That is a conventional designation. It is also the Middle Way.
19. There can be found no element of reality [dharma] that is not interdependently originated; therefore, there can be found no element of reality whatsoever that is not empty. (The Experience of Buddhism, 148)
image of a parasite
Image of a generic man image of the earth
...who’s the parasite?
image of the universe visualized from a transcendent perspective
Enso (Empty Circle)
Image of meditator experiencing the world from the perspective of nirvana
On Nirvana
Chapter 25
19. There is no distinction whatsoever between samsara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.
Image of the famous Las Vegas sign saying "Welcome to Fabulous Nirvana"
20. The limit of nirvana and the limit of samsara: one cannot find even the slightest difference between them. (The Experience of Buddhism, 150)
Enso (Empty Circle)
The Heart Sutra
Guanyin at the Nelson Atkins MuseumOm! 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! [Sanskrit: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
](BIBE, 122; cf. Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 135)
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)
Tiantai Zhiyi's Nine Levels of Consciousness
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. ...
Yogacara: Surface Mind and Deep Mind
[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)
Turning Dharma Wheel
Pure Land
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)
Amitabha BuddhaThis 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)
Turning Dharma Wheel
Map showing the spread of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
The BuddhistTransformation of China ...
... or a Chinese Transformation of Buddhism?
Budai (Japanese: Hotei): incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, in Zen Buddhism
In the course of their mutual encounters and multifarious interactions, which were not without occasional tensions and conflicts, Buddhism and Chinese traditions were each challenged and transformed. Buddhism added new features to Chinese civilization and contributed to the ongoing evolution of native cultural norms and expressions. On the other hand, in the process of its Sinification, which entailed adaptation to China’s social ethos and cultural milieu, Buddhism underwent significant changes that reflected distinctly Chinese worldviews and spiritual predilections. That made it into a multifaceted tradition that was perceived as both foreign and domestic, incorporating complext mixtures of alien and native elements and practices, which over the last two millennia has been a prominent and integral part of China’s multifaceted religious landscape. (ICR, 114)
Budai as the "Laughing/Lucky Buddha"