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Buddhism: Mahayana: Main

Last Updated: Nov 16, 2022 11:07 AM

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Mahāyāna Buddhism: Main

Knot logo: Source: Wikimedia Commons | Author: Dontpanic | License: Public domain.
Mahayana (Sanskrit: "Great Vehicle") is one of the three main existing branches of Buddhism (the others being Theravāda and Vajrayāna) and a term of classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice. This movement added a further set of discourses to the original canon, and although it was initially small in India, it had long-term historical significance. The Buddhist tradition of Vajrayana is sometimes classified as a part of Mahāyāna Buddhism, but some scholars consider it to be a different branch altogether. The term Mahāyāna also refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, also called Bodhisattvayāna, or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle." A bodhisattva who has accomplished this goal is called a samyaksaṃbuddha or "fully enlightened Buddha". A samyaksaṃbuddha can establish the Dharma and lead disciples to enlightenment. Mahāyāna Buddhists teach that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and this can be accomplished even by a layperson. The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, with 53% of practitioners, compared to 36% for Theravāda and 6% for Vajrayāna in 2010. In the course of its history, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread from India to various other South, East and Southeast Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It also spread to Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Iran and other Central Asian countries before being supplanted by Theravāda Buddhism, Islam, or other religions. Large Mahāyāna scholastic centers such as Nalanda thrived during the latter period of Buddhism in India, between the 7th and 12th centuries. Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism and Vietnamese Buddhism. It may also be thought to include the Vajrayāna traditions of Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, which add esoteric teachings to the Mahāyāna tradition.*
 
On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on Mahāyāna Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.
 
*Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Lotus Sutra gold image

Above: A Japanese handscroll, dated 1257 (Kamakura period), presenting "Universal Gateway", Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, with text inscribed by Sugawara Mitsushige.
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image license: Public domain.
 

General Works

This volume offers a solution to a problem that some have called the holy grail of Buddhist studies: the problem of the “origins” of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In a work that contributes both to a general theory of religion and power for religious studies as well as to the problem of the origin of a Buddhist movement, Walser argues that that it is the neglect of political and social power in the scholarly imagination of the history of Buddhism that has made the origins of Mahāyāna an intractable problem. Walser challenges commonly-held assumptions about Mahāyāna Buddhism, offering a fascinating new take on its genealogy that traces its doctrines of emptiness and mind-only from the present day back to the time before Mahāyāna was "Mahāyāna." In situating such concepts in their political and social contexts across diverse regimes of power in Tibet, China and India, the book shows that what was at stake in the Mahāyāna championing of the doctrine of emptiness was the articulation and dissemination of court authority across the rural landscapes of Asia. This text will be will be of interest to undergraduate and postgraduate students and scholars of Buddhism, religious studies, history and philosophy.

Blofeld Bodhisattva Kuan Yin cover artBodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin by John Blofeld. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2009.

She is the embodiment of selfless love, the supreme symbol of radical compassion, and, for more than a millennium throughout Asia, she has been revered as "The One Who Hearkens to the Cries of the World." Kuan Yin is both a Buddhist symbol and a beloved deity of Chinese folk religion. John Blofeld’s classic study traces the history of this most famous of all the bodhisattvas from her origins in India (as the male figure Avalokiteshvara) to Tibet, China, and beyond, along the way highlighting her close connection to other figures such as Tara and Amitabha. The account is full of charming stories of Blofeld’s encounters with Kuan Yin’s devotees during his journeys in China. The book also contains meditation and visualization techniques associated with the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and translations of poems and yogic texts devoted to her.

Williams Mahayana cover artMahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations by Paul Williams. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Originating in India, Mahayana Buddhism spread across Asia, becoming the prevalent form of Buddhism in Tibet and East Asia. Over the last twenty-five years Western interest in Mahayana has increased considerably, reflected both in the quantity of scholarly material produced and in the attraction of Westerners towards Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism is widely regarded as the standard introduction to the field, used internationally for teaching and research and has been translated into several European and Asian languages. This new edition has been fully revised throughout in the light of the wealth of new studies and focuses on the religion’s diversity and richness. It includes much more material on China and Japan, with appropriate reference to Nepal, and for students who wish to carry their study further there is a much-expanded bibliography and extensive footnotes and cross-referencing. Everyone studying this important tradition will find Williams’ book the ideal companion to their studies.

Cole Text as Father cover artText as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahayana Buddhist Literature by Alan Cole. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

This beautifully written work sheds new light on the origins and nature of Mahayana Buddhism with close readings of four well-known texts―the Lotus Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Tathagatagarbha Sutra, and Vimalakirtinirdesa. Treating these sutras as literary works rather than as straightforward philosophic or doctrinal treatises, Alan Cole argues that these writings were carefully sculpted to undermine traditional monastic Buddhism and to gain legitimacy and authority for Mahayana Buddhism as it was veering away from Buddhism’s older oral and institutional forms. His sophisticated and sustained analysis of the narrative structures and seductive literary strategies used in these sutras suggests that they were specifically written to encourage devotion to the written word instead of other forms of authority, be they human, institutional, or iconic.


Acarya Bhavaviveka Converts a Nonbeliever to Buddhism

Madhyamaka (Skt. "Middle Way" or "Centrism") also known as Śūnyavāda (the emptiness doctrine) and Niḥsvabhāvavāda (the no-svabhāva doctrine) refers to a tradition of Buddhist philosophy and practice founded by the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150-250 CE). The foundational text of the Mādhyamaka tradition is Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way). More broadly, Madhyamaka also refers to the ultimate nature of phenomena and the realization of this in meditative equipoise. Madhyamaka thought had a major influence on the subsequent development of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is the dominant interpretation of Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan Buddhism and has also been influential in East Asian Buddhist thought. According to the classical Madhyamaka thinkers, all phenomena (dharmas) are empty (śūnya) of "nature," "substance," or "essence" (svabhāva) which gives them "solid and independent existence," because they are dependently co-arisen. But this "emptiness" itself is also "empty": it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality. Central to Madhyamaka philosophy is śūnyatā, "emptiness", and this refers to the central idea that dharmas are empty of svabhāva. This term has been translated variously as essence, intrinsic nature, inherent existence, own being and substance. Furthermore, according to Richard P. Hayes, svabhāva can be interpreted as either "identity" or as "causal independence". Likewise, Westerhoff notes that svabhāva is a complex concept that has ontological and cognitive aspects. The ontological aspects include svabhāva as essence, as a property which makes an object what it is, as well as svabhāva as substance, meaning, as the Madhyamaka thinker Candrakirti defines it, something that does "not depend on anything else". It is substance-svabhāva, the objective and independent existence of any object or concept, which Madhyamaka arguments mostly focus on refuting. Some of the major topics discussed by classical Madhyamaka include causality, change, and personal identity.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: A Tibetan thangka depicting Acharya Bhavaviveka, founder of the Svātantrika tradition of Madhyamaka thought. He reaches out his hand to a nonbeliever who is having his long hair shaved to enter monastic life. On the roof sits Bhavaviveka's teacher, Nagarjuna, a famous Indian scholar identifiable by the snakes around his head. The fierce deities Vajrapani and Mahakala dance in flame-halos on the right. The inscription perfectly describes the action in the painting: "After studying under Nagarjuna, Bhavaviveka converted nonbelievers in the south, envisioned Vajrapani, and served Mahakala." Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image license: Public domain.

Madhyamaka

The great Buddhist scholars Santaraksita (725-788 CE) and his disciple Kamalasila were among the most influential thinkers in classical India. They debated ideas not only within the Buddhist tradition but also with exegetes of other Indian religions, and they both traveled to Tibet during Buddhism's infancy there. Their views, however, have been notoriously hard to classify. The present volume examines Santaraksita's Tattvasamgraha and Kamalasila's extensive commentary on it, works that cover all conceivable problems in Buddhist thought and portray Buddhism as a supremely rational faith. One hotly debated topic of their time was omniscience - whether it is possible and whether a rational person may justifiably claim it as a quality of the Buddha. Santaraksita and Kamalasila affirm both claims, but in their argumentation they employ divergent rhetorical strategies in different passages, advancing what appear to be contradictory positions.

Blumenthal Ornament cover artThe Ornament of the Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Santaraksita by James Blumenthal. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.

Shantarakshita's The Ornament of the Middle Way is among the most important Mahayana Buddhist philosophical treatises to emerge on the Indian subcontinent. In many respects, it represents the culmination of more than 1300 years of philosophical dialogue and inquiry since the time of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Shantarakshita set forth the foundation of a syncretic approach to contemporary ideas by synthesizing the three major trends in Indian Buddhist thought at the time into one consistent and coherent system. Shantarakshita's text is considered to be the quintessential exposition or root text of the school of Buddhist philosophical thought known in Tibet as Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka. In addition to examining his ideas in their Indian context, this study examines the way Shantarakshita's ideas have been understood by and have been an influence on Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Specifically, Blumenthal examines the way scholars from the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism have interpreted, represented, and incorporated Santaraksita's ideas into their own philosophical project.

 

Brunnhölzl Center Sunlit cover artThe Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyü Tradition by Karl Brunnhölzl. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.

Madhyamaka is a potent and universally accessible means of calming our suffering and awakening to our innate wisdom. The Center of the Sunlit Sky artfully rescues this brilliant teaching from its unwarranted reputation for intellectual opacity and reinstates it as a supremely practical tool kit for everyday living. The aim of this book is to take Madhyamaka out of the purely intellectual corner into which it unjustly gets boxed. It is an attempt to show how Madhayamaka actually addresses and works with all of our experiences in life. The book follows the original Indian sources as well as the standard commentaries on Madhyamaka in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. At the same time, these materials are adapted for a contemporary audience, combining the familiar sharpness of Madhyamaka reasonings (launching a massive assault on our cherished belief systems) with exploring the practical relevance of the Madhyamaka way of mind training.

Huntington and Wangchen cover artThe Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika by C.W. Huntington & Geshe N. Wangchen. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1989.

This work presents the first English translation of the complete text of the Madhyamakāvatāra (Entry into the Middle Way), a sixth century Sanskrit Buddhist composition that was widely studied in Tibet and, presumably, in its native India as well. In his lengthy introduction to the translation, Huntington offers a judiciously crafted, highly original discussion of the central philosophy of Mahāyāna Buddhism. He lays out the principal ideas of emptiness and dependent origination not as abstract philosophical concepts, but rather as powerful tools for restructuring the nature of human experience at the most fundamental level. Drawing on a variety of Indian and Western sources, both ancient and modern, Huntington gradually leads the reader toward an understanding of how it is that sophisticated philosophical thinking can serve as a means for breaking down attachment to any idea, opinion or belief. All of this on the Buddhist premise that habitual, unreflective identification with ideas, opinions, or beliefs compromises our appreciation of the ungraspable miracle that lies at the heart of everyday, conventional reality. The author shows how the spiritual path of the bodhisattva works to transform the individual personality from a knot of clinging into a vehicle for the expression of profound wisdom (prajñā) and unconditional love (karuṇā).


The priest Jion Daishi, 11th c.

Yogācāra (Skt., literally "yoga practice" or "one whose practice is yoga") is an influential tradition of Buddhist philosophy and psychology emphasizing the study of cognition, perception, and consciousness through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices. It is also variously termed Vijñānavāda (Skt. the doctrine of consciousness), Vijñaptivāda (Skt. the doctrine of ideas or percepts) or Vijñaptimātratā-vāda (the doctrine of "mere vijñapti"), which is also the name given to its major epistemic theory. There are several interpretations of this main theory, some scholars see it as a kind of Idealism while others argue that it is closer to a kind of phenomenology or representationalism. The 4th-century Indian brothers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, are considered the classic philosophers and systematizers of this school, along with its other founder, Maitreya. It was associated with Indian Mahayana Buddhism in about the fourth century, but also included non-Mahayana practitioners of the Dārṣṭāntika school. Yogācāra continues to be influential in Tibetan Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism. However, the uniformity of a single assumed "Yogācāra school" has been put into question. Yogācāra philosophy is primarily meant to aid in the practice of yoga and meditation, and thus it also sets forth a systematic analysis of the Mahayana spiritual path. Yogācārins made use of ideas from previous traditions, such as Prajñāpāramitā and the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, to develop a new schema for spiritual practice. In its analysis, Yogācāra works such as the Saṅdhinirmocana Sūtra developed various core concepts such as vijñapti-mātra, the store consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), the turning of the basis (āśraya-parāvṛtti), the three natures (trisvabhāva), and emptiness. They form a complex system, and each can be taken as a point of departure for understanding Yogācāra.
 
Text source: Wikipedia (edited). This version of Wikipedia content is published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Left: Portrait of the priest Jion Daishi (Kuiji), a prominent Chinese exponent of Yogācāra thought, by an anonymous scroll painter from the 11th century CE. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unknown. Image license: Public domain.

Yogacara

Buddhist philosophy is fundamentally ambivalent toward language. Language is paradoxically seen as both obstructive and necessary for liberation. In this book, Roy Tzohar delves into the ingenious response to this tension from the Yogacara school of Indian Buddhism: that all language-use is metaphorical. Exploring the profound implications of this claim, Tzohar makes the case for viewing the Yogacara account as a full-fledged theory of meaning, one that is not merely linguistic, but also applicable both in the world as well as in texts. Despite the overwhelming visibility of figurative language in Buddhist philosophical texts, this is the first sustained and systematic attempt to present an indigenous Buddhist theory of metaphor. By grounding the Yogacara pan-metaphorical claim in a broader intellectual context, of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools, the book uncovers an intense philosophical conversation about metaphor and language that reaches across sectarian lines. Tzohar's analysis radically reframes the Yogacara controversy with the Madhyamaka school of philosophy, sheds light on the Yogacara application of particular metaphors, and explicates the school's unique understanding of experience.

Makeham Transforming cover artTransforming Consciousness: Yogacara Thought in Modern China, edited by John Makeham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Yogacara is one of the most influential philosophical systems of Indian Buddhism. Competing traditions of Yogacara thought were first introduced into China during the sixth century. By the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), however, key commentaries of this school had ceased being transmitted in China, and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that a number of them were re-introduced from Japan where their transmission had been uninterrupted. Within a few short years Yogacara was being touted as a rival to the New Learning from the West, boasting not only organized, systematized thought and concepts, but also a superior means to establish verification. This book accomplishes three goals. The first is to explain why this Indian philosophical system proved to be so attractive to influential Chinese intellectuals at a particular moment in history. The second is to demonstrate how the revival of Yogacara thought informed Chinese responses to the challenges of modernity, in particular modern science and logic. The third goal is to highlight how Yogacara thought shaped a major current in modern Chinese philosophy: New Confucianism. Transforming Consciousness illustrates that an adequate understanding of New Confucian philosophy must include a proper grasp of Yogacara thought.

 

Shun'ei Living Yogacara cover artLiving Yogacara: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism by Tagawa Shun'ei, translated by Charles Muller. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

Yogacara is an influential school of Buddhist philosophy and psychology that stems from the early Indian Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The Yogacara view is based on the fundamental truth that there is nothing in the realm of human experience that is not interpreted by and dependent upon the mind. Yogacara Buddhism was unable to sustain the same level of popularity as other Buddhist schools in India, Tibet, and East Asia, but its teachings on the nature of consciousness profoundly impacted the successive developments of Buddhism. Yogacara served as the basis for the development of the doctrines of karma and liberation in many other schools. In this refreshingly accessible study, Tagawa Shun'ei makes sense of Yogacara's subtleties and complexities with insight and clarity. He shows us that Yogacara masters comprehend and express everyday experiences that we all take for granted, yet struggle to explain. Eloquent and approachable, this book deepens the reader's understanding of the development of Buddhism's interpretation of the human psyche.

Jiang Contexts cover artContexts and Dialogue: Yogacara Buddhism and Modern Psychology on the Subliminal Mind by Tao Jiang. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006.

Are there Buddhist conceptions of the unconscious? If so, are they more Freudian, Jungian, or something else? If not, can Buddhist conceptions be reconciled with the Freudian, Jungian, or other models? These are some of the questions that have motivated modern scholarship to approach ālayavijñāna, the storehouse consciousness, formulated in Yogācāra Buddhism as a subliminal reservoir of tendencies, habits, and future possibilities. Tao Jiang argues convincingly that such questions are inherently problematic because they frame their interpretations of the Buddhist notion largely in terms of responses to modern psychology. He proposes that, if we are to understand ālayavijñāna properly and compare it with the unconscious responsibly, we need to change the way the questions are posed so that ālayavijñāna and the unconscious can first be understood within their own contexts and then recontextualized within a dialogical setting. In so doing, certain paradigmatic assumptions embedded in the original frameworks of Buddhist and modern psychological theories are exposed. Jiang brings together Xuan Zang’s ālayavijñāna and Freud’s and Jung’s unconscious to focus on what the differences are in the thematic concerns of the three theories.

Illustrated Korean manuscript of the Lotus Sutra

Above: An illustrated Korean manuscript of the Lotus Sutra from the Koryô (Goryeo) Dynasty, ca. 1340.
 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Image author: Unidentified artist. Image license: Public domain.