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Origins of Mahayana Buddhism

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For nearly two millennia, Buddhism has been divided into two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana. Scholars have viewed Theravada Buddhism as "original" and Mahayana as a divergent school that split away, but modern scholarship questions this perspective.

The precise origins of Mahayana Buddhism are something of a mystery. The historical record shows it emerging as a distinctive school during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. However, it had been developing gradually for a long time before that.

Historian Heinrich Dumoulin wrote that "Traces of Mahayana teachings appear already in the oldest Buddhist scriptures. Contemporary scholarship is inclined to view the transition of Mahayana as a gradual process hardly noticed by people at the time." [Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History, Vol. 1, India and China (Macmillan, 1994), p. 28]

The Great Schism

About a century after the life of the Buddha the sangha split into two major factions, called Mahasanghika ("of the great sangha") and Sthavira ("the elders"). The reasons for this split, called the Great Schism, are not entirely clear but most likely concerned a dispute over the Vinaya-Pitaka, rules for the monastic orders. Sthavira and Mahasanghika then split into several other factions. Theravada Buddhism developed from a Sthavira sub-school that was established in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE. 

For some time it was thought Mahayana evolved from Mahasanghika, but more recent scholarship reveals a more complex picture. Today's Mahayana carries a bit of Mahasanghika DNA, so to speak, but it carries traces of long-ago Sthavira sects as well. It appears that Mahayana has roots in several early schools of Buddhism, and somehow the roots converged. The historical Great Schism may have had little to do with the eventual division between Theravada and Mahayana.

For example, Mahayana monastic orders do not follow a Mahasanghika version of the Vinaya. Tibetan Buddhism inherited its Vinaya from a Sthavira school called Mulasarvastivada. Monastic orders in China and elsewhere follow a Vinaya preserved by the Dharmaguptaka, a school from the same branch of Sthavira as Theravada. These schools developed after the Great Schism.

The Great Vehicle

Sometime in the 1st century BCE, the name Mahayana, or "great vehicle," began to be used to draw a distinction with "Hinayana," or the "lesser vehicle." The names point to an emerging emphasis on the enlightenment of all beings, as opposed to individual enlightenment. However, Mahayana Buddhism didn't yet exist as a separate school.

The goal of individual enlightenment seemed to some to be self-contradictory. The Buddha taught there is no permanent self or soul inhabiting our bodies. If that's the case, who is it that is enlightened?

Turnings of the Dharma Wheel

Mahayana Buddhists speak of the Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel. The first turning was the teaching of the Four Noble Truths by Shakyamuni Buddha, which was the beginning of Buddhism.

The Second Turning was the doctrine of sunyata, or emptiness, which is a cornerstone of Mahayana. This doctrine was expounded in the Prajnaparamita sutras, the earliest of which may date to the 1st century BCE. Nagarjuna (ca. 2nd century CE) fully developed this doctrine in his philosophy of Madhyamika.

The Third Turning was the Tathagatagarbha doctrine of Buddha Nature, which emerged in about the 3rd century CE. This is another cornerstone of Mahayana.

Yogacara, a philosophy that originally developed in a Sthavira school called Sarvastivada, was another milestone in Mahayana history. The founders of Yogacara originally were Sarvastivada scholars who lived in the 4th century CE and who came to embrace Mahayana. 

Sunyata, Buddha Nature and Yogacara are the chief doctrines that set Mahayana apart from Theravada. Other important milestones in the development of Mahayana include Shantideva's "Way of the Bodhisattva" (ca. 700 CE), which placed the bodhisattva vow at the center of Mahayana practice.

Over the years, Mahayana subdivided into more schools with divergent practices and doctrines. These spread from India to China and Tibet, then to Korea and Japan. Today Mahayana is the dominant form of Buddhism in those countries.

By Barbara O'Brien
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