How does Mahayana differ from early Buddhism? Essay


Religion is one of the world’s phenomena that have undergone significant evolutions which have resulted into intriguing transformation of beliefs and traditions. Cutting across the plane, these religions have rich histories and carry elements which make them unique. They have also played a major role in shaping the norms, behavior and culture of millions of people globally. In this regard, it is important to understand existing differences and similarities among religions of the world (Molloy 3).

This is so crucial in appreciating the beliefs and traditions of others as they relate to who they are. In this regard, this essays explores how Mahayana differs from early Buddhism in terms of practices, believes and overall doctrine. To achieve this objective, relevant information has been gathered from both the college library and online sources like journals, books and websites.

Mahayana analysis

According to theological and historic findings, Mahayana began in India between 100 B.C.E and 100 C.E. This was as a result of a debate which was going on explaining the appropriate Buddhist teachings and rituals, monastic discipline and discussions about the continued existence of Buddha even after his death. Additionally, it is has been argued that the nature of enlightenment which engulfed people further contributed to this emergence (Molloy 149).

Importantly, Mahayana was formerly impacted by several Buddhist schools of thought that were common in India during that time. As these practices spread within and outside India, aspects of the indigenous religious practices were also absorbed and assimilated. Some of these indigenous religious traditions included but not limited to Bon, Taoism and Confucianism. Hinduism also played a major role in influencing Mahayana.

Even though there has been no consensus on the founder of Mahayana, credit has been given to Nagarjuna, a philosopher along with other prominent people like Asanga and Vasubandhu. The controversy behind this is that each of the figures mentioned in the foundation of the tradition went ahead to establish their own sub-schools within Mahayana (Molloy 150).

It therefore follows that there is no particular person who can be identified as the core founder of Mahayana. Earliest Mahayana texts were mainly composed of several texts referred to as “Prajnaparamita” or translated as “Perfection of Wisdom”.

Although this aspect of the school may not be remembered by many, it forms the basic foundation of countless Mahayana schools which exist today. Other early texts which were considered important were “Sadharmapundarika” and “Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra” (Patheos 1). As a general observation, Mahayana thoughts have become quite recognizable and influential in several parts of the world and in Western philosophy where it has been manifested through religious teachings and numerous ethical teachings.

Although Mahayana emphasized several things, the book received extraordinary recognition and respect. Hundreds of books were written by experts and distributed to people all over as they were of great significance and sometimes worshipped. Other theological analysts argue that this move was mainly aimed at suppressing and countering the supremacy of stupa veneration in several Buddhists schools (Religion Tolerance 1).

Notably, Mahayana is commonly known by many as the schismatic movement. After its emergence, there were several sub-schools which were formed in India and China that later became quite important. These included Ch’an, Madhyamaka, Pure Land Schools and Yogacara. In addition, Mahayana was highly supported by the leadership of the time including influential kings. Among them were Tang and Han in China, Palas in India and the Kushanas (Patheos 1).

This recognition and abundance support enabled Mahayana to spread to several parts of India via missionary activities, led supporters of the kings and monks. This expansion spread to regions outside India like China and Asia by the onset of the second century C.E (Patheos 1).

By understanding the analysis of Mahayana, it is possible to see that is has undergone a series of transformations that have led to its revolution in the 21 century, with continuous evolution into the modern world. Besides, Mahayana has been integrated into several religions of today’s world (Molloy 151). Mahayana has also thrived as a result of integrating its practices into political and social welfare of other regions like Asia, North America and Europe.

With regard to sacred times, Mahayana does not observe consistent sacred time. This is mainly attributed to the fact that bodhisattvas are always present and working around the world regardless of the season or time of the year. It therefore attempts to have a holistic sense of sacred time where every moment is considered sacred unlike in several religions where certain seasons and times of the year are perceived to be more sacred than others, depending on a religion’s activity season (Patheos 1).

However, it has to be mentioned that Mahayana highly values and recognizes the temple as its most holy and sacred space. Diagrams which are used in the temple during mediation are always elaborated in Mandalas. Nevertheless, practitioners can always occupy space of representation through mediation practices.

Like in other religions, Mahayana recognizes rituals and ceremonies as part of its traditional norm to be observed. These include mantra recitation, ritual devotion, mediation practices and pilgrimages among others. According to Mahayana believers, the rituals and ceremonies are important in affirming their faith and in teaching vital traditions and rules that have to be followed by those who accept to be members of the religion (Patheos 1). They also give worship guidance as it considered as one of their fundamentals.

How is worship conducted? Mahayana Buddhists worship an array of objects in the name of gods, serving different functions as defined by their traditions and beliefs. Common purposes of these gods include protection, guidance and devotion to people. They therefore believe that they thrive in everything they do by the power of gods. Examples of Mahayana gods are Tara, the Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Amitabha and the bodhisattvas among others (Patheos 1).

There are also symbols which are commonly used in Mahayana during rituals, worship and devotion services. It is important for people to learn these symbols in order to understand when used by those conducting services and ceremonies. The lotus and the eight-spoke wheel are highly regarded and ever-present in Mahayana practices and rituals (Patheos 1).

The role of lotus is to represent purity, a core component among its believers while the eight-spoke wheel usually denotes the main teachings of Buddha, also known as dharma. Seating, standing, the book and the sword are among other commonly used symbols during important functions.

Early Buddhism

The two main schools of Buddhism are Mahayana and Hinayana which originated from India. However, the former has dominated in other countries like Nepal, China and Japan. This religion and the philosophy were founded by Siddhartha Gautama known as Buddha in c.525 B.C (Molloy 126). In terms of statistics, there are at least three million Buddhists in the world with Asia leading in numbers.

Apart from the two mentioned schools above, the Vajrayana has its roots in Japan and Tibet even though is not as common as the other main classes in China and India. Due to continuous globalization and other factors, Buddhism disappeared from India, its country of origin although the presence of refugees from Tibet and people who get converted from Hinduism has maintained the religion (McGovern 1). Like other religions, early Buddhism has beliefs and practices which makes it unique or similar with other world regions.

The spread of Buddhism to other countries resulted into the splitting of the main religion to form smaller sects in various geographical regions. As a result, each sect adopted certain beliefs, customs, rituals and practices which were to be the pillar of their practical faith as Buddhists (Molloy 132).

Nevertheless, all the sects had a backbone of these doctrines and beliefs with shared similarities regardless of their location. A common belief among Buddhists is that every person is in a position to have happiness regardless of their background, race and age (Patheos 1). By such, Buddhists believe that all forms of delusions and negativism among people can only be overcome by mediation. With this understanding, it follows that men and women can easily restore their happiness through a simple mediation process.

Additionally, reincarnation is a core belief as Buddhists believe in rebirths and continuity of the human race. Their doctrines strongly believe in the existence of certain life cycles which ensure that life remains a continuation process. These cycles revolve around birth, life, death and the ultimate rebirth. Besides these cycles, the doctrine further emphasizes that Nirvana can only be achieved by shedding off personal desires and ego (Pillai 1).

There are four truths which are strongly contained in Buddhism doctrine and beliefs. These truths are Dukkha, Samudaya, Marga and Nirodha. The fisrt truth is Dukkha which refers to suffering. According to this belief, suffering is inevitable in the life of any individual (Molloy 134).

Therefore, every Buddhist has to expect some from of suffering in life and need not to be received negatively as it is viewed as part of a normal life. Suffering which is categorized in this doctrine include anger, loneliness, fear, embarrassment and frustrations. This belief also explains workable ways of achieving happiness in life (Patheos 1).

According to Samudaya, suffering among Buddhists is mainly caused by their constant aversions and craving which they go through in their daily lives. Furthermore, craving together with greed have the potential of depriving individuals off their happiness and their contentment. Importantly, an individual can only achieve Nirvana if he or she curbs existing luxurious cravings in life (Pillai 1).

Similarly, Norodha gives an explanation on how suffering can be overcome in order to realize happiness in life. Based on this belief, incidents which occurred in the past should not be allowed to cause fear or worry. Accordingly, uncertainties of the future should not take away happiness, as it emphasizes the need to live each day at a time. According to the fourth truth, Marga, total happiness can only be achieved by adhering to “eight-fold path”.

This model encourages the need to have a stable mind and being conscious of thoughts and ones actions. Additionally, morality and a good livelihood it is highly encouraged under this doctrine. Those who adhere to the four truths are believed to have wisdom and compassion. Buddhist teachings are always taught to everybody as people are encouraged to solve their problems since it is believed that problems are caused by individuals (Pillai 1).

Early Buddhism also observes sacred narratives whose main component is the story of Buddha which is considered holy. Other stories are narrated by teachers with reference to the sutras. On the other hand, the notion of salvation in Buddhism does not have a consensus, with variations being seen from country to country or era to era.

Unlike Mahayana, Buddhism does not have sacred time but rather emphasizes the need for Nirvana as with reference to a Nirvana dichotomy (FPMT 1). However, their sacred space includes stupas, which contains Buddha relics and other monks. Additionally, some mountains are highly regarded as the most high place. Accordingly, there are variations in the calendar of events.

On the other hand, Buddha’s birthday and the New Year day celebrations are quite significant. Other rituals include pilgrimages and death-related ceremonies. Notably, Buddhist monks demonstrate different life with lay people as this relationship is defined by merit. Early Buddhism symbols include the stupa, the dharma wheel and what was considered as Buddha’s footprint. Others are monks’ robes, Mandalas and mudras. It is important to note that some symbols vary from country to country (Patheos 1).


From the above analysis of Mahayana and early Buddhism, it is clear that the two religions have several elements which make them different. Although they share a number of similarities, Mahayana and Buddhism have different beliefs and practices. Their sacred time, spaces, and the understanding of suffering are also different. However, their similarities can be attributed to the fact that Mahayana is one of the schools of Buddhism.

Works Cited

FPMT. Buddhism FAQ, 2011. Web.

McGovern, William. Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2003. Print.

Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the world’s religious. New York City: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009. Print.

Patheos. Mahayana Buddhism, 2011. Web.

Pillai, Maya. Basic Beliefs of Buddhism. Buzzle, 2011. Web.

Religion Tolerance. Mahayana Buddhism, 2011. Web.

How does Mahayana differ from early Buddhism?

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