The Mahayana Transformation

The Buddha ‘Sees-Through’ All Reality!

The Mahayana (महायान) school of Buddhist philosophy represents a great transformation of Buddhist thinking and practice.  In this regard it is also referred to as ‘developed’ and ‘later’ Buddhism so as to distinguish it from the early Buddhism conveyed within the Pali Canon and the Sanskrit Agamas.  A further distinct often encountered is the referral to the Mahayana as ‘northern’ Buddhism, and the Theravada (the conservative descendent of early Buddhism), the ‘southern’ school.  This geographical categorisation denotes the eventual dominance of the Mahayana in northern India, and the spread of Theravada Buddhism to southern India and beyond.   However, as a body of distinct spiritual work it is not entirely disconnected from its early Buddhistic foundations.  Although the Mahayanic manifestation may appear at odds with the more austere Theravada counter-part at times, in fact the Mahayana system accepts fully the Pali Canon and makes no distinction, despite itself developing what might be described as a more elaborate and involved interpretation of fundamental Buddhist philosophy.  The premise of the Mahayana school is that the Buddha taught people of differing spiritual potentialities, by using a variety of expedient means (upaya), and that as a consequence, no single interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings represent the entirety of the his method.  The Theravada, when assessed through this perspective, becomes a valid school embodying a specific interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching, but that in this interpretation a certain boundary of limitation exists, which results in the conveyance of Buddhist philosophy through a particular orientation and expression.  Of course, from the Theravada perspective, the religion its preserves and teaches is complete in itself and an accurate recording of the Buddha’s actual words and doctrine.  There is no conflict present unless a certain attitude of (mistaken) comparison is adopted and used.  The Theravada is not the antithesis of the Mahayana and should not, therefore be viewed as its ‘hinayana’ counter-part.  The Mahayana represents what might be interpreted as the ‘great path’ that accepts every single sentient being and pursues a universal ideal of enlightenment based upon self-less self-sacrifice.  Those drawn to a more narrow path, that is those who pursue only their own enlightenment free of the encumbrances of a ‘universalist’ perspective, are often referred to as being upon a ‘hinayanic’, or ‘narrow path’ of Buddhist practice.  Hinayanic practice, however, need not necessarily represent a particular or specific school of Buddhist philosophy; it does convey a certain attitude toward the use of the Buddha’s teachings themselves.  Whereas the term ‘Mahayana’ does represent a distinct, but albeit vast school of Buddhist thought, the term ‘hinayana’ represents only a limited view toward the scope that the Buddha’s teachings can be applied.  This is an important distinction as a Mahayana practitioner might utilise a ‘hinayanic’ mind-set, and a Theravada practitioner may well exhibit a ‘universalism’ that is common in the Mahayana school.  As a purely descriptive term, ‘mahayana’ might well be applied to relatively conservative schools of Buddhism – such as those Theravada Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka – that recognise the importance of Hindu deities, not because their Buddhism has become polluted by outside philosophical influences, but rather becomes a great many local lay people living around the temple are of the Hindu religion.  Using the temple for both Hindu and Buddhist activities (which are facilitated by Buddhist monks), is actually a living expression of ‘expedient means’ (upaya) and a deep act of pragmatic ‘compassion’ (karuna).  There are many other examples of mahayana-type activities existing within Theravada schools.  Whatever the Mahayana school represents it is historically incorrect to assume that it is the opposite of the Theravada school of Buddhism.  Having established this fact it is important not to unnecessarily negate the many differences that exist between the two modes of Buddhist expression, but these differences need not be fatal and used as a means to permanently separate the two schools in a philosophical manner that would appear unbridgeable.  Both schools have emerged from exactly the same Buddha who lived in ancientIndia, regardless of the specific interpretations assigned to those teachings.

Collectively, the schools of early Buddhism are often historically referred to as ‘Hinayana’ so as to distinguish them from the emergence of the Mahayana.  Whereas the Mahayana becomes historically recognisable around the 1st century CE in India, the Hinayana schools are seen to decline around four centuries later – in the 5th century CE.  This demonstrates that both types of Buddhism coexisted for hundreds of years (inIndia) and there are records of monasteries containing monks who adhered to either tradition – living and practicing side by side.  The emergence of the Mahayana created the conditions for earlier Buddhism to be viewed as ‘narrow’ and in some way ‘incomplete’.  As the Mahayana interpretation represents a substantial expansion and elaboration of the teachings contained within earlier Buddhism, this sets the agenda for the historical interpretation of history with regard to what may be described as the ‘perceived’ developmental history of Buddhism as a distinct academic entity.  In other words, what seems to have developed later serves as the prism through which the earlier Buddhist tradition is viewed.  It is only through the reflection of Mahayanic thinking that the earlier schools appear to be ‘narrow’, and ‘lacking’ in creativity.  These are certainly not conditions and attributes that would have been recognised within these earlier schools themselves.  On the other hand it is also true that those schools which adhered to the earlier teachings, such as those found in the Pali Canon, would have no scriptural guidance that mentions a ‘Mahayanic’ presence contained within the Buddha’s original teachings, if these early teachings do indeed represent an accurate picture of the Buddha’s thought.  That is to say that as the early teachings contain no reference to a Mahayanic teaching – the Mahayana, from the early scriptural viewpoint – does not actually ‘exist’ as an authentic utterance of the Lord Buddha himself.  This situation is exactly the same with regards to the modern Theravada school – with its preserved Pali Canon – as it was for the early Buddhist schools.  For these representations of early Buddhism no other manifestation of Buddhism is recognised.  These schools, following the Buddha’s advice that self-sufficiency is the way, practice a self-contained Buddhism that is not dependent upon the ever changing outer circumstance of the world.  This introverted perspective prepares the mind for detachment from the outer world and secures an inner strength which can be used in the spiritual practice itself.  Furthermore, such a detached inner strength ensures that the teachings as they exist in tradition are preserved in the present time, for the use of future generations.  As a complete school, early Buddhism (or the Theravada) has no reason to acknowledge or recognise the presence of the Mahayana; as such an act could be construed as being based upon a movement of mind that may be interpreted as ‘egotistical’ in nature.  Such recognition is philosophically unnecessary if the point of the Buddha’s teachings is to bring enlightenment as an antidote to the condition of human suffering.  A certain essential ‘sameness’ unites the early and later Buddhisms.  They only exist as ‘early’ and ‘later’ when an objective over-view looks back through history and picks out certain key, observable events.  A singular and complete Buddhism is divided into historical epochs by the unenlightened intellectual mind because it is rational to do so.  This allows Buddhism to be viewed as a distinct academic subject that has ascribed to it the usual observational categories, markers, assessments, interpretations and understandings, etc.  Therefore, in the present time Buddhism is rationally presented as ‘early’ and ‘late’, ‘primitive’ and ‘developed’, ‘Hinayana’ and ‘Mahayana’, amongst other dichotomies.  It is not necessarily incorrect to view Buddhism in this way, as long as the ‘assessing’ process is understood and not just accepted on face value.  All things are comprised of conditions, as is the historical academic presentation of Buddhism.  It is objectively useful but within its effective application its limitations must be understood.  The view from within Buddhism might not be exactly the same as the objective view ascribed to it by an outside discipline.

Buddhism has historically developed primarily through the filter of inner experience and outer circumstance.  Even if the world is forsaken for this or that practice, the outer circumstances themselves create the conditions that shape the ordinary minds of the people.  It is the contemporary situation that the mind is withdrawn and detached from.  The essential message of the Buddha is one of gaining master over outer circumstance by disciplining the human mind so that through concentration the mind becomes stronger than the circumstance that surround it.  Perhaps the differences in the manifestation of early and later Buddhism is to do more with the changing outer circumstance, rather than due to any perceived doctrinal dispute or re-interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings.  This ‘centre out’ view, although different from the premise of observational history, can nevertheless be useful when coupled with the external record of historical events.  From this position it is clear that the Mahayana existed within the mind of the Buddha himself, as the enlightened mind exists outside of time and space.  In this pristine mind all things exist in a state of emptiness (sunyata).  The teachings of the Buddha, once verbally uttered enter into ‘time’, and their effects unravel as time progresses.  This gives the external, observable impression that ‘early’ Buddhism came before ‘later’ Buddhism.  This is logical and rational but misses the other crucial element; namely that of the effect of the enlightened mind upon the world itself.  It is this effect that is by far the most important, but that is hardly ever acknowledged within the historical process itself as it can not be readily perceived with the unenlightened mind.  That which can not be seen is believed not to exist.  The Buddha’s enlightened mind contained the essence of all Buddhist expressions, be it Hinayana, Mahayana or Vajrayana – it still does.  The ripples of Dharma extend outward through conventional time, but do not in essence exist in time (or space).  Indeed, so powerful has been this effect of transformed being that it is still being discussed, even by those who do not necessarily subscribe to its views.  The ‘great path’ is of course the ‘broad’ path.  It is not ‘great’ in any hierarchical sense.  The description is not intended to be a statement of status, or indicative of an altogether ‘superior’ ideology or dogma.  The Mahayana is ‘great’ because of its recognition of that which represents the truly ‘universal’ amongst human beings.  It is a ‘path’ or ‘vehicle’ because it offers a coherent framework (or structure) for the traversing mind.  Its commentaries (and understanding) based upon the early teachings, and its unique sutras (not obviously found within the literature of the early collections), offer an intricate map of the inner terrain of the mind as encountered and experienced by the yogi or spiritual practitioner.  Its broad path allows for a variety of access points that lead the seeker from the world of multitudinous phenomenal toward the apparent ‘oneness’ of the noumenal.  This is achieved through the elevation of the concept of ‘emptiness’ or ‘sunyata’ to that of the prime factor of existence and non-existence.  Early Buddhism presents emptiness as an open physical space, and a certain experience within the mind itself, particularly in relation to the uprooting and removal of the taints of greed, hatred and delusion, as well as any notions of a permanent self.  An enlightened being becomes quite literally ‘empty’ of these things and as a result attains to a state of complete freedom from suffering.  However the implication of early Buddhist philosophy is that this emptiness only applies to the mind itself and is not a statement about the real nature of the physical, material world.  Although this world is comprised of material elements (dharmas) that are subject to continuous change, the elements themselves are ‘existent’ and therefore considered real.  Enlightenment within this model comprises of a mental freedom from the effects of a continuously changing (real) outer world, whilst living out the natural remaining life-span of the physical body the enlightened practitioner happens to occupy. Nirvana is the great extinction of the mentally created (delusive) attributes that tie a human being to a physical existence within a physical world, and the apparent karmic habit of re-birth within a physical world following the death of each occupied body.  Delusion is abandoned and freedom from re-birth attained, but the ‘real’ physical world continues to exist, even when enlightenment is achieved.  In early Buddhism the enlightened being is considered an ‘arahant’, or ‘noble one’.  Presumably upon the death of the arahant’s body, the final link with the gross physical world ends and the conditions for re-birth, that is the creation of a body within a new set of physical circumstance, do not arise again.  This is an elaborate and very logical set of teachings that result in a very definite end.  The Mahayana philosophers (and their predecessors) examined the notion of ‘emptiness’ within the Buddha’s teachings and saw that it contained certain logical extensions that when thoroughly examined, altered this notion to a position of new prominence within Buddhist thinking.  Sunyata is the distinguishing Mahayana concept that defines the school and distinguishes it from the teachings and interpretations associated with early Buddhism.

The movement known as Mahayana, although distinctive in many ways from its Theravada counter-part is not a new form of Buddhism.  Its existence is the product of a snap-shot of history in relation to the development and maturity of Buddhist interpretive thought.  The Mahayana development does not invalidate the teachings of early Buddhism, but rather confirms them.  The teachings regarding emptiness are as much present in the early suttas as they are in the later sutras.  The difference lies in emphasis and interpretation.  The Mahayana thinkers grant a certain enhanced ‘weight’ to the concept, but this must be compared to the Buddha’s own use of the term in early Buddhism.  At the time of the Buddha’s existence, his teachings were questioned, examined adopted and abandoned.  If a practitioner suffered from doubt, or did not understand the Buddha’s teaching, the Buddha could be approached and the question asked.  In this way, the practitioner could clarify the teachings and expel doubt.  The Buddha continuously advised that all teachings – including his own – should be scrutinised and not taken on face value.  All should be thoroughly examined before being declared useful or effective.  Indeed, it is precisely through this procedure that the original eighteen schools of Buddhism developed and it may be assumed that the Mahayana’s treatment of the concept of ‘emptiness’ developed through exactly the same process.  The procedure of wise assessment is a distinctly Buddhist practice – and through its recommendation – the Buddha risked the lose of his students and the knowledge that his system was unique and effective.  However, despite the risk contained within this process the Buddha’s teachings thrived and their influence spread far and ride.  Assessment and examination have always been part of the Buddhist path and is probably the single most important factor that has contributed toward the development of distinctive Buddhist schools.  Whenviewed is this way, even early Buddhism and its assumed hinayanic perspective was designed to evolve and grow through the very methods the Buddha put into place at the very beginning of his teaching mission.  Buddhism is an organic philosophy created to grow and adapt and it seems very unlikely that it was ever the intention of its founder that it should stay a static and dogmatic body of work.  As Buddhism is not a static process, it is true to say that the so-called hinayanic, mahayanic and vajrayanic tendencies considered by objective history to have existed and dominated Buddhism at certain time periods in its history, have also ebbed and flowed at other different times in its history and should not be limited to the usual static historical dates.  Although these influences have arisen at certain points in time, it is also correct to say that these influences have not remained static but have continued to direct Buddhism in unique and crucial ways.  Each particular path has not existed in isolation, but has always contained the influences – either directly or indirectly – of the other paths.  As soon as the Buddha turned the Dharma Wheel these paths were existent.

Sunyata offers a ‘universalism’ free of qualifying characteristics.  A practitioner does not necessarily have to ordain as a monastic – as laity in the Mahayana sutras is considered as able to realise enlightenment – nor does a practitioner have to consider himself limited to the role of a lay-person.  The truly free-state is beyond exact categorisation.  The elevation of the early Buddhist notion of ‘sunnata’, to that of the later Buddhist ‘sunyata’ effectively altered the way that Buddhism is applied to the individual and to society.  The early Buddhist model is not free from contradictions, but exists today within the Theravada school itself.  The laity is generally considered to be at a disadvantage to that of the cloistered monastic, and therefore unlikely to achieve enlightenment in this life-time.  Although this is not necessarily the ‘strict’ interpretation of the Pali suttas – (within which stories abound of lay men and women achieving enlightenment during the Buddha’s life-time) – nevertheless this attitude has solidified over time.  The laity is given a more or less simplistic practice to generate good karmic fruits for future incarnations where they may be re-born in conditions that allow them to ordain as a monastic.  Included in this attitude is the notion that a man is more likely to achieve enlightenment than woman.  This belief stems from a statement that is supposed to have originated from the Buddha, but the scripture containing it has been academically proven to be a much later ‘insertion’, and therefore a falsity.  The Theravada school as an ideology has risen the status of the monastic above that of the lay-person, this is a distinction that is unlikely to have existed during the time of the Buddha, and contradicts the Pali Canon which clearly records the Buddha as stating that there is ‘no difference’ between a monk and a lay-person:

‘I proclaim there is absolutely no difference between a layperson with a mind (citta) which is liberated and a bhikkhu which has been liberated for a century.”   SN5.410 

‘The layperson Tapassa, because of hearing the Tathagata, has gone to supreme transcendence…and has his being in the enlightenment of the immortal itself.’  AN3.451

This may indicate that even within the realm of early Buddhist interpretation, schools diverted away from the letter of the Buddha’s teachings and created commentaries that represented these diversions as ‘insight’.  It is an interesting speculation to consider that perhaps the Mahayana development, itself a culmination of many aspects of Buddhist historical and philosophical development, might well, in certain aspects, be nearer in essence to the Buddha’s original teachings, than those early schools which claim a lineage that is apparently ‘less altered’ than that of the Mahayanic movement.  The teaching of emptiness has always existed within Buddhism, but the physical world, although insubstantial and fleeting, is viewed as real within early Buddhism, but unreal within the Mahayana.  The development of later Buddhism is unlikely to have occurred without reference to meditational experience, which in-turn has been used to shed light upon the scriptural Buddhist sources.  The development of a wise insight through meditation has served as the basis for a subtle transformation of Buddhist philosophy from the pluralism of early Buddhism to the monism of the Mahayana.  Within the Mahayana, the concept of ‘sunyata’ has been expanded from representing an empty mind within a head and body, to incorporating the entire physical universe.  To realise emptiness in the Mahayana, is to realise the dissolving of greed, hatred and delusion, and the mistaken belief in a ‘permanent self’, as well as the fundamental ‘empty’ nature of all phenomena.  Sunyata is an empty state that contains all things.  Phenomena arise and pass away within an all-embracing emptiness that is ‘empty’ of emptiness itself.  It is a state of realisation that is neither nihilistic nor eternalistic, and which realised ‘through’ a mind that has been developed through yogic technique.  The empty essence of the mind is exactly the same empty essence as that underlying the universe – with no distinction between the two.  As time and space lose their distinctiveness and meaning in the enlightened state, the mind and the universe can be described as becoming one, without an attachment to the state of one-ness itself.  This realisation is nothing other than the development through practice of the early Buddhist concept of ‘sunnata’, a realisation that eventually paved the way for the establishment of both the Mahayana and the Tantrayana.

The question remains; what exactly is the Mahayana school?  Within early Buddhism, enlightenment signified the ending of consciousness through meditation with the arahant simply occupying a living body and patiently waiting for that body to naturally cease the biological process of living.  By way of contrast, the Mahayana bodhisattva (enlightened being), also utilising the yogic method of meditation, puts an end to a certain stream (of deluded) consciousness – by establishing a pure conscious flow.  Whereas the arahant enters and remains in a quietest state of withdrawal from the world, the bodhisattva – or ‘enlightened being’ – realises the ‘stilling’ of the mind and the breaking of the cycle of greed, hatred and delusion, as well as the abandoning of the false perception of a permanent self, but does not view this state as the highest attainment and does not remain within it.  The bodhisattva undergoes a further development whereby the delusive ‘form’ aspect of the world is fully integrated with the enlightened ‘empty’ aspect, resulting in a re-engagement of the ordinary world of the senses, only this time with no accompanying delusive activity of the mind.  The mind does not remain in a ‘still’ state but develops beyond this required attainment.  The mind, in its enlightened, integrated manifestation ceases being a representation of a mere individual (locked within a single brain), and expands to embrace and reflect the entirety of existence, a state that is both individualistic and universal, but which is never ‘static’ or unnecessary retained in a ‘still’ state.  The differences between early and later Buddhism stem from the differing conceptions of what it is to be ‘enlightened’, and the minutiae of the resultant theories that have coalesced around the experience of enlightenment itself.  Indeed, as these system draw authority from the Buddha’s enlightenment, and from those holy beings who have followed in his footsteps, it is important to consider how the actual experience of this state (of enlightenment) has altered and transformed the understanding of the earliest of Buddhist teachings, which were compiled within a background of disagreement about the actual ‘meaning’ contained within the words.  Buddhism appears to be a practical philosophy that is designed to give the practitioner a means to train the mind so that its ‘essence’ is realised.  Enlightenment from the suffering contained within the world is the entire edifice upon which the Buddha builds his explanatory system.  Buddhism, therefore, can not be a religion of dogma that encourages attachment to ‘meaningless’ words.  For it to be relevant it must be dynamic and successful in its purpose.  As the generations went by, (following the Buddha’s physical passing) presumably many human beings attained to the state of enlightenment.  This experience, no doubt, facilitated the expression of wisdom with relation to the suttas themselves and the commentaries traditionally associated with them.  This process, which is fully in accordance with the Buddha’s instruction not to accept statements on face value, eventually led to a clarification of the teachings as they existed.  In this regard, this process can not be truly viewed as a radical departure from a dogmatic Buddhist tradition, but rather the continuation of the Buddha’s mission upon earth, through the existences of those who followed in his footsteps.  The Mahayana is the product of the accumulation of generations of enlightened wisdom applied to scripture and its interpretation.  This wisdom has been gathered by male and female practitioners, both monastic and lay.  As Buddhism spread to the outer fringes ofIndia, it came into contact with Greeks, Persians and other peoples.  These differences also had their positive effects upon Buddhism, as it started to ‘outgrow’ its regional identity and develop into a ‘broad path’ – the definition of the Mahayana.  Within this school the monastic path is still viewed as valid and useful.  However, within this recognition it is made clear that complete enlightenment can not, and must not be limited to a particular set of physical circumstance.  To limit the access of enlightenment to a narrow set of physical requirements is the antithesis of the Mahayanic school.  Entry into the enlightened state is by definition, extensive and inclusive in the Mahayana.  The lay path is as valid as the monastic path in this model.  Circumstance is not allowed to be used as a barrier to the entry of the enlightenment state.  In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa sutra, the enlightened layman Vimalakirti criticises certain disciples of the Buddha for their one-sided attachment to the state of monasticism, and the arrogance associated with such an attachment, particularly when these disciples had not yet reached the state of complete ‘Mahayana’ enlightenment, but instead continued to cling to an empty mind (of hinayana inspiration) as if it where the ultimate spiritual achievement, and that nothing realisable lay beyond it.

The Mahayana practical expands the access point through which the enlightened state can be realised, and concomitantly also expands the theoretical definition of that state.  Indeed, the former is entirely dependent upon the later and vice versa.  Everything else within the Mahayana tradition has developed around (and conformed to) this new understanding.  The Mahayana is a distinctive movement within Buddhism that is the consequence of the pulling together of a doctrine around a decisive spiritual experience.  The doctrine already existed, but was open to interpretation – as the development of the eighteen schools demonstrates.  Of course, from the perspective of linear history, the Mahayana is the product of a shift in doctrinal interpretation due primarily to the influences of non-Buddhist religions and their quite different (and distinct) theologies and philosophies.  Early Buddhism is depicted as morphing into intermediary schools such as the Sautrantika – and from there into the Mahayana.  Curiously, despite these observable changes in history, there has always remained a representative of the early Buddhist tradition – namely the Theravada.  This seems to have survived by successfully transplanting itself outside of geographicalIndia, at a time when the Mahayana began to flourish withinIndia.  The philological study of the early Pali Canon shows that over-time layers of interpretation built up even within the Theravada tradition itself that developed certain aspects of early Buddhism away from the original recorded teaching.  For instance, the Buddha is not omniscient in the earliest layers, but omniscient in the later layers and a definite and recognisable personality is ascribed to the Buddha in his previous incarnations, despite the fact that no such entity is observable in the Buddha’s own explanation of the re-birth process.  Of course, it is also clear that the Buddhist suttas were not all collected together at the same time, but rather accrued over-time, developing eventually into a coherent body of philosophical literature.  In this time, understanding and interpretation changed, and these developments were integrated into the system itself.  The Theravada’s great commentary work – the Abbidhamma – is comprised of many commentaries on the Buddhist teachings written by cloistered monastics.  Furthermore, as a distinct body of work, it is also designed to define and justify the Theravada view itself, a view which ascribes to itself the singular accolade of being the ‘Teachings of the Elders’, and assigning to itself the label of Buddhist ‘orthodoxy’.  The truth of the matter is that there is no objective evidence for validity of either claim.  However, sectarian rhetoric aside, the Theravada school is a sound construct that carries out the great service of preserving the Pali Canon (for humanity) within the confines of an ancient early Buddhist school.  Indeed, this school records a dispute between the followers of the Buddha during the years following his death.  This dispute – the details of which are preserved in the Theravada teachings (see the Kathavatthu), appear to be an attempt to present a certain sect’s viewpoint amongst the Buddha’s followers, as solely representing the ‘true’ interpretation of the Dharma itself, and in so doing establishing the historical narrative of doctrinal primacy.  The Theravada, or the ‘Teaching of the Elders’ is portrayed (within its own history), as originating directly from the Buddha’s key monastic disciples.  The Theravada’s propagated premise is that it alone has correctly remembered the Buddha’s teachings and in so doing has faithfully preserved and interpreted those teachings down through the ages.  There is no objective evidence to substantiate this claim, as the Theravada creates its own history.  Indeed, even at the first so-called council – an entirely local affair, attended only by a relatively small group of monks – held by the Theravada at Rajagaha, (believed to have been convened shortly after the Buddha’s passing) where the Buddhist teachings were apparently gathered and structured into a recognisable doctrine (Dharma and Vinaya), there was not an agreement regarding the Buddha’s teachings.  When asked by the elderly Bhikkhus whether he would submit to and accept the interpretation of the teachings as remembered and conveyed by them, the venerable Purana – who had been a disciple of the living Buddha – replied that although the elderly Bhikkhus (i.e. the Theravada) had indeed rehearsed the Dharma very well, he – Purana – preferred to follow the teachings as he had received them directly from the mouth of the Buddha himself.  Although this incident does not seem to have resulted in a schism between the Buddha’s followers at this time, it does, however, demonstrate that there were other interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings – even at the first council.  A hundred years later a second council was called (at Paṭaliputra) to decide issues of monastic discipline.   At this council, it is reported that the Theravada (also known as the ‘Sthaviras’) attempted to add various rules to the vinaya and that the majority of those present at this council refused to accept them.  Other disputes arose concerning the nature of an arahant as compared to that of a bodhisattva, and the place of the laity in the scheme of enlightenment attainment.  The majority of those who rejected the Theravada perspective became known as the Mahasangika, or the ‘Great Community’.  This movement represented a form of Buddhism believed to be nearer the ‘original’ intention of the Buddha, and exercised a tolerance that granted a certain equality to monastic and lay practitioners.  Certainly the teachings as preserved within the Mahasangika are believed to represent a version older than that preserved within the Theravada tradition.  The Mahasangika – as a school that looks back to the Buddha himself for inspiration is considered to be the doctrinal foundation for the development of the Mahayana school itself.  The majority of the Mahasangikas accepted the Mahayana sutras as being the word of the Buddha and in so doing enabled the Mahayana tradition to survive and flourish.  It is very probable that the Mahasangika is the forerunner to the Mahayana movement itself, and as such proves that although the Mahayana may appear to be a movement developed in the first century CE, it is in reality a representation of the authentic teachings of the Buddha as remembered and conveyed, originating within the enlightened utterances of the Lord Buddha himself.  It is not a later development that represents a movement away from the conservative Theravada tradition, but rather a complete and reliable method that predates the Theravada, designed to transform all those who come into contact with it, such is the Dharmic power of its teachings on ‘emptiness’.

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