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Avalokiteshvara surrounded by numerous bodhisattvas ( Huzhou , China)

Mahayana ( Sanskrit महायान mahāyāna , "mahā" means "great", "yāna" means "vehicle" or "way", so great vehicle or great way ) is one of the main directions of Buddhism . The Mahayana divides Buddhism into Hinayana and Mahayana. The Vajrayana is part of the Mahayana. Hinayana, however, is a pejorative term for Theravada .

For differentiation

Hinayana and Mahayana

Hinayana literally means “small vehicle” or “small road”. “Hina” - meaning “small” - refers to the motivation for the journey. From the knowledge of suffering (First Noble Truth) the practitioner wishes to gain release from suffering. Those who develop this motivation for themselves (also known as "renunciation") are counted as Hinayana according to Mahayana. This is because the wish only relates to one living being and is therefore a small motivation compared to the suffering of many living beings. Someone who wishes that all beings achieve sadness solution and who takes personal responsibility for it, has a greater motivation and is part of Mahayana. In Mahayana, the desire for a solution to the sadness relates to all living beings, including oneself. The wellbeing of one's own person is, however, subordinated to the wellbeing of all others.

Unfortunately solution and enlightenment

Wooden sculpture of an arhat (18th century, Hōon-ji temple, Morioka , Japan)

According to the “First Turning of the Wheel of Teaching” by the Buddha - summarized in the Four Noble Truths , the first of which says that to live means to suffer fundamentally ( life is suffering ) - finds redemption or liberation from suffering through the extinction of the kleshas (Skt., Eng. mental plagues or mental poisons ) Greed, hatred and ignorance take place as a general psychological basis, so to speak, of all personal suffering and suffering. With the extinction of these root poisons as the causes of suffering (second noble truth) by practicing the eightfold path of salvation (fourth noble truth), the practitioner attains nirvana , the ultimate liberation from suffering, the possibility of which is claimed in the Buddha's third noble truth. Those who have attained and can maintain the state of mind of nirvana or enlightenment have overcome the “obstacles to liberation from suffering” and experience constant inner peace of liberation according to Buddhism. People at this stage of development are called arhats . According to the Mahayana, this liberation or enlightenment does not also remove the “obstacles to omniscience” which only a Buddha has overcome. This omniscience enables the Buddha to be able to help all living beings much better. According to Mahayana, a Buddha knows the dispositions, the karma and the past, present and future of living beings and can thus help them much better than an arhat who has not achieved omniscience.

A distinction is made between the enlightenment of the Shravaka (listener), the Pratyekabuddha (attains enlightenment without relying on a teaching, i.e. out of oneself) and a Buddha. Only in the latter enlightenment are the "obstacles to omniscience" removed. The enlightenment of a Buddha is therefore called "full enlightenment" in Mahayana. There are paths to all three types of enlightenment. The path to “full enlightenment” is presented in the Mahayana and includes the path of Shravaka ( i.e. the eightfold path of salvation ). A person who follows the Mahayana must also attain nirvana. She attains this on the first level of a bodhisattva , or the third of the five paths, the "path of seeing".

Origin of the Mahayana teachings

Bodhisattva Maitreya (bronze sculpture, 7th century, Tokyo National Museum )

The name means big vehicle or big way and stands for the goal to free all sentient beings from samsara . The teachings of the second turning of the Dharma wheel by Buddha Shakyamuni were revealed by Nagarjuna and Asanga and taught extensively from around the second century CE, around 500 years after the Buddha's death. The Mahayana Way has two lines: the Profound Way line via Nagarjuna and the Long Way line via Asanga. The former emphasizes emptiness ( Shunyata ), the latter the development of the altruistic motivation bodhicitta and the behavior of a bodhisattva. Mahayana followers say that until then these teachings had only been passed on in secret, since the time for their dissemination had not yet come. The late production of the teachings is also described mystically: Nagarjuna recovered the teachings on emptiness from the Nagas by means of his tantric powers and Asanga, after twelve years of withdrawal and developing real compassion, received the teachings directly from Buddha Maitreya .

Wheel of Dharma ( Guimet Museum , Paris)

According to the view that the Buddha gave direct teachings to higher capacity disciples even during their lifetime that remained hidden from others, it is described that these teachings of the Second Turning the Wheel of Doctrine later came to be known as the Mahayana Tradition and the Bodhisattva Path. The teachings of turning the Dharma wheel for the first time, from which the Hinayana tradition ( Little Way ) developed, are also part of Mahayana and serve to resolve the individual's sadness and are also practiced by a follower of Mahayana. The teachings of the third turning of the wheel of the Dharma (there are a total of three teaching cycles, which are referred to as wheels) include the Vajrayana ( diamond vehicle or diamond way ) and the explanations of Buddha-nature, presented e.g. B. in Uttara Tantra Shastra.


Based on the realization of one's own suffering emerging from the practice of the Four Noble Truths (First Dharma Wheel), a Mahayana person develops compassion for the suffering of other beings and wishes to be completely redeemed from their suffering. The focus of the Mahayana is to impartially extend this compassion to all living beings - without a single exception - and to increase it steadily until it reaches the depth of a love that a mother feels for her only, dearest child.

In order to really help all beings to achieve freedom from suffering (enlightenment), the Mahayana practitioner strives for the perfect state of a fully awakened Buddha. This motivation is referred to in Mahayana Buddhism as bodhicitta , "spirit of enlightenment". This mind has two desires:

  • primary: helping others
  • secondary: to achieve the full enlightenment of a Buddha.

In order to fulfill these desires, the aspirant develops active bodhicitta and takes the bodhisattva vows in a ritual. From this point on he practices the six perfections (giving, ethics, patience, zeal, spiritual calm, wisdom) over immeasurable ages (eons), as the Buddha did. It is said that the Buddha Shakyamuni practiced this path as a bodhisattva for three world ages (cycles). This path of the Buddha as a Bodhisattva is not only set out in the Mahayana sutras , but also in the Pali canon, in the Jataka stories - so it is also accepted by Theravada followers.


Thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara ( Huzhou , China)

Those who develop the aspirant bodhicitta and have taken on the bodhisattva vows (through a ritual) are called bodhisattva as long as they do not break the ethics of the bodhisattva. There are 22 types of bodhicitta. In general, there is a difference between the king-like (the Bodhisattva tries to achieve enlightenment first and then helps all living beings), the boatman-like (the Bodhisattva tries to achieve enlightenment together with all living beings) and the shepherd-like (the Bodhisattva puts his enlightenment back until all other beings are present having attained enlightenment) differentiated bodhicitta.

The bodhisattva path is represented in five paths or ten levels. A bodhisattva enters the first of the ten planes after realizing emptiness (shunyata) and becoming an arhat . This 1st level corresponds to the 3rd path, which is called the “path of seeing”. More information can be found in the Madhyamakavatara by Chandrakirti.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara ( Sanskrit : "the Lord who hears the cry of the world"), who is often depicted in a thousand-armed figure, and the Bodhisattva Manjushri are particularly venerated . Both, it is said, have developed the shepherd-like bodhicitta and remain on the 10th level of a bodhisattva. The thousand arms of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara symbolize his / her ability to act compassionately in incredible abundance. The eight great Bodhisattvas are emphasized in Mahayana: Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Vajrapani , Ksitigarbha , Samantabhadra, Akhashagharba, Sarvanivaranaviskambini and Maitreya . Ksitigharbha plays e.g. B. in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism a big role. Avalokiteshvara is found in the female form in Chinese and Japanese Mahayana Buddhism.


It says in the Lamrim Chen Mo of Tsongkhapa : “Bodhisattvas experience happiness proportional to the effort to strive for the welfare of other living beings.” And Bhavaviveka : “Since bodhisattvas see the faults of cyclical existence, they do not stay here. Since they care for others, they do not stay in nirvana . In order to meet the needs of others, they choose to stay in the cycle of being. "


The bodhisattva's determination to deepen and realize bodhicitta and to dedicate themselves to the salvation of sentient beings and their liberation is affirmed in the bodhisattva's vows.

Eating meat

Meat consumption is rejected in many, but by no means all, Mahayana schools. This goes back to Chapter 8 of the Lankavatara Sutra , which explains in detail why bodhisattvas should not eat meat. It says, among other things: "For fear of causing horror in living beings, the Bodhisattva who practices to gain compassion should refrain from eating meat." In the Tibetan Mahayana schools in particular, however, meat consumption is handled more openly due to climatic reasons .

Teacher-student system

A consequence of the Mahayana orientation towards external help is an orientation of students towards their teacher or master (Vajrayana and Zen) or the trusting orientation towards Buddha Amida in pure land Buddhism . It is, the inner guru is one's own compassion, the outer teacher, the (Sanskrit "Teacher.") Prajnaparamita understands and teaches - at best a Bodhisattva. However, it is important to recognize that the Mahayana teacher accompanies his students on their way to enlightenment without leading them into dependencies. Ultimately, the path to enlightenment has to be treaded on by one's own strength and motivation. The Mahayana teacher should embody the bodhisattva activity and possess ten qualities. It is he who helps his students to attain enlightenment by instructing them in the teachings of the Buddha and by giving them guidance in practice; therefore one sees him in Mahayana "like a Buddha". The student must also be capable and develop a really pure motivation.

Qualities of the student

According to the Indian Buddhist master Aryadeva , a disciple must have the following qualities: “It is said that one who is impartial, intelligent, and zealous is a vessel for teaching. Otherwise, neither the good qualities of the instructor nor those of the listeners appear. ”The student must not be sectarian (taken in / attached to one side or tradition or religion and averse to another). He must also have the ability to distinguish between correct paths of good explanations and contradicting paths of bad explanations. After all, he must have a really altruistic motivation.

Qualities of the teacher

According to the Indian Buddhist master Asanga, whose explanation goes back to Maitreya (Mahayanasutralamkara), a teacher must have the following qualities: “ Rely on a Mahayana teacher who is disciplined, clear [calm] , thoroughly pacified [result of the training in ethics , Concentration and Wisdom], who has good qualities that exceed those of the student, is energetic [constant enjoyment of the welfare of others] , has a wealth of scriptural knowledge, has loving care [teaches only out of love and compassion, not self-interest] , has a pervasive knowledge of Reality [voidness or shunyata] and is able to teach [guide and understand] students ; and who has overcome discouragement [teaching without getting tired of giving again and again]. "


The scriptures translated into Sanskrit are more important than the Pali canon for the various Mahayana schools. In addition to the Tripitaka, these also contain various Mahayana sutras . Mahayana followers attribute these to Buddha-Shakyamuni himself. Theravada followers see them as later and only accept the scriptures of the Pali canon as the basis of the teaching. The rejection of the Theravadins towards the Mahayana scriptures is discussed in detail in the 9th chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara [1] by Shantideva (from verse 49). He meets this rejection u. a. with the fact that the Pali scriptures were also created later (about 500 years after the Buddha's death) and one would consequently have to reject the Pali scriptures.


Today Mahayana directions are particularly widespread in Vietnam , Japan , Tibet , Bhutan , Taiwan , the People's Republic of China and Korea , partly also in Mongolia and the Asian East of Russia .

Chinese tradition

Japanese tradition

Statue of the Buddha Amitabha in the Kōtoku-in temple in Kamakura

Schools of Mahayana that are still effective today in Japan are:

Yūzū Nembutsu-shū
Nipponzan Myohoji
Risshō Kōseikai
Sōka Gakkai

Zen and Tendai have historically developed from Chinese Chan Buddhism ( Shaolin ) and Tiantai zong .

Korean tradition

Buddhism in Korea was and is fundamentally shaped by the teachings of the Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhism spread across the country from the Silla to the Goryo period (from the 7th century to the end of the 14th century) and experienced its heyday during the rule of the united Silla dynasty. The Joseon Dynasty (from the 15th to the end of the 19th century) did not take over the Buddhist tradition from Goryeo, but increasingly promoted Confucianism , so that Buddhism withered. Today the well-known Mahayana Buddhism is still represented most frequently in Korea, the central institution of which is Jogyejong (조계종 [cogjeʝoŋ] ).

Tibetan and other tradition

Vajra and bell

A further development of the means of Mahayana can be found in Vajrayana (cf. Tibetan Buddhism ), which supplements the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana with tantric methods. Four schools that still exist today have developed in Tibet :

In China , this form of Buddhism can be found under the name Mizong . In Japan it is transmitted as a Mikkyō .

Mantra of Compassion ( Vajrayana ):

Om Mani Peme Hung in Tibetan script

Om mani padme hum (Sanskrit), in Tibetan pronunciation Om Mani Peme Hung , is the mantra of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and has been associated with him since the 5th century. Tradition has it that it has the power to remove suffering in all areas of samsara and to develop all-encompassing compassion and love for all beings in the practitioner.

According to the teaching of Vajrayana, Om - composed of A, U and M - represents the body, speech and mind of the Buddha that are invoked with it.
The entire Buddhist path includes the path of method and the path of wisdom, which must be developed together.
Mani symbolizes the path of the method. Mani means something like “gem”, you can think of it as a wish-fulfilling “jewel”. It represents the so-called white path, which includes virtues such as compassion and the spirit of enlightenment.
Padma means “lotus” and stands for the wisdom aspect of the path. This consists mainly in the knowledge of ultimate reality, emptiness.
Hum means that something is undivided and indicates the union of Mani and Padma - method and wisdom - because these two should never be practiced separately.

According to its original meaning, Manipadma was a name ("gem lotus") of the Bodhisattva (here as Manipadme in the vocative ). The often found translation “jewel in the lotus flower” is incorrect.

Mutual influence with European cultures

A mutual influence of the Asiatic Mahayana and Gnosis as well as Neoplatonism , which flourished around the same time in the Greco-Roman cultural area and noticeably influenced Christianity, is discussed in the literature. One possible connection route here is the Silk Road ; many of today's Islamic countries in this region were once Greek and / or Buddhist, with Nestorianism playing a role as a link. However, there is little reliable knowledge in this area; the tendency towards fictional history in Mahayana makes such research difficult. See also Graeco Buddhism .

See also


Original literature

Further literature

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Heinz Bechert : Der Buddhismus: Geschichte und Gegenwart , Beck, Munich 2000, ISBN 3-406-42138-5 , p. 37 f., 59