This research traces the origins of Indian Mahāyāna (1), a new orientation rooted in early Buddhism. The essay draws from the earliest sūtras and argues that the new development was not antagonistic towards the previous tradition but built on it.

The following three themes structure the argument: (i) visualisation (buddhānusmṛti), (ii) skilful means (upāya) and (iii) the Bodhisattva vehicle (bodhisattvayāna), as well as their interaction with śūnyatā, samādhis, karuṇā and buddhakṣetras. Although the mainstream terminology retained familiarity, practices and aims gained new urgency.

Overview of the origins

After the Buddha’s death around the fourth century BCE, his followers were preserving his teachings orally for several centuries. In due course, they standardised and fixed these transmissions in a closed textual canon of Mainstream Buddhism. However, the Buddhist literature continued to expand. Around the turn of the era, the most significant innovation were ‘mystically authorised’ Mahāyāna Sūtras. They claimed the status of ‘the word of the Buddha’ while their production continued over a number of centuries (Gethin 1998: 46, 57). This creative textual innovation aimed at the earlier body of literature and was considered inauthentic from the traditional mainstream standpoint (Williams 2008[1989]: 47).

According to modern scholarship, the new and mainstream doctrines do not exhibit radical rupture (Stuart 2015: 132). Instead, they maintain subtle continuities. Moreover, the new material often requires supplementation with the earlier tradition for correct interpretation2 (Samuel 2011: 219). Alongside, scholars recognised that the production of the new sūtras was a textual movement led by diverse communities (Skilton 2002: 88), individuals (Harrison 2003: 146), or preachers (Drewes 2010: 67-70) within monasteries. These assertions contrast an earlier claim about the role of the laity, attempting to secure new status (Williams 2008[1989]: 24-26). The lack of a clear separate identity of the early Mahāyāna figures strengthened that view. The monks and authors of Sūtras originated from established Buddhist sects and were subject to their Vinayas. However, driven by new ideological aspirations and response to the Buddhist philosophy as a whole, they initiated a decentralised forum of discussions. Their sūtras combined familiar textual models with new ideals and meditative experiences, pushing the boundaries of monastic thought and practice. Scholars proposed a few explanations in search of the origins of these revelations. Drewes refutes the long-established decline-and-revival forest-dwelling hypothesis evidencing it with the limited and selective scholarship it is based on (Drewes 2018; Wallace 2011: 335). Its often-quoted sūtras, albeit on point: “Far from them [well-established monasteries] do the [true] ascetics stay!” (Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā Sūtra in Delenau 2000: 85) are not old enough nor conclusive at large to unveil the origins. However, the scholarship continues to point to ascetic tendencies (dhūtaguṇas) as a factor inspiring the monks into seclusion and philosophical reflection (Osto 2018: 182-188; Williams 2008[1989] 10-15). Their self-awareness took several centuries to develop before infiltrating the established Buddhist thought (Williams 2008[1989]: 30; Stuart 2015: 135). They considered their refined vision of the Buddha’s teachings superior to Śrāvakayāna, or Mainstream Buddhism, pejoratively labelling their ideology ‘Hīnayāna’ (Gethin 1998: 224; Bronkhorst 2009: 104; Silk 2002: 356). Meanwhile, a systematic refutation of Mahāyāna, other than implications of its inauthenticity, has not yet been discovered (Williams-Tribe 2000: 96-97).

Despite the late transmission and alleged inauthenticity, Mahāyāna Sūtras assert that the Buddha approves the multiple doctrinal innovations. Further, he delivered them himself. First, the techniques of dhyāna, combined with entries into new distinct samādhi states and complex visionary formulas, summoned Buddha forms and initiated visionary communication (Samuel 2008: 340). These advanced visions abounded in new transmissions directly from the Buddha in his heavenly realm. The claim was taken seriously; the category of buddhānusmṛtis gave the means to an ‘ongoing revelation’ (Williams-Tribe 2000: 103-109). The practice featured in old discourses, but visualisation was not critical to it. Second, the early canon rendered syncretism an important Buddhist virtue. Mahāyānists further developed this concept as ‘skilful means’ (upāya). Emulating the Buddha, they adapted his teachings to hearers. Following the sūtras’ combined notion of buddhānusmṛti and upāya, the Buddha delivered the new content through visions when the time was ripe.

Central to the new revelations were Bodhisattvas, mentioned in early mainstream texts as 'heroic strivers’, with little elaboration. Drewes suggests that Mahāyāna Sūtras used this oversight as an opportunity to introduce a new range of ideas and practices aiming at the full Buddhahood (2010: 67). The new formula required of disciples the non-abiding liberation (apratiṣṭhitanirvāṇa) amid skilful engagement with the world (upāya). The outreach in saṃsāra served to promote the delivery of Dharma and liberate sentient beings. This supreme path was that of the Buddha, the mahā-yāna – the ‘great vehicle’ or mahā-jñāna the ‘great knowing’ (Karashima in Delenau 2000: 88). The alternative was traditional Arhatship, concerned only with inward-looking personal freedom from suffering. Meanwhile, the lifestyle of a Bodhisattva called for an individual perfection practice and outward-looking activity – meditation as a gateway to teach Dharma. Consequently, the new ideology propelled significant hermeneutical changes to the mode of meditation, including ‘practice without practice’ (Deleanu 2000: 69, 88).

The role of visualisation

The notable departure from the old tradition was the imaginal space. Visions were widespread in Mahāyāna Buddhism and often exalted to samādhis. Those of the sūtras that mentioned them elaborated on a variety of aims and results: from (i) the patient acceptance of the non-arising phenomena to (ii) lacking essence mental products of concentrations to (iii) idealisation of the perceptual forms for the attainment of the ultimate goal. Therefore, the notion of visualisation—exposed in the Amitāyurbuddhadhyāna, Pratyutpannasamādhi and Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, respectively (Delenau 2000: 69-70)—ranged from absolute to relativist. Visualisations were either concerned with the non-production of dharmas (ānimitta) or with the development of psychological signs (nimitta). In Pāli, animitta was associated with nirvāṇa, whereas nimitta stood for objects of meditation. In Mahāyāna, the deliberate use of meditative signs gained greater importance, and so did the cognitive practice, instrumental for understanding the ‘production’ of the saṃsāric experience.

The most prominent meditation utilising nimitta was ‘meditation on Buddhas’ (buddhānusmṛti) of the Prajñāpāramitā literature. This devotional recollection of Buddhas’ great qualities had its precursor in Mainstream Buddhism for both laypeople and monastics: “night and day, I see him with my mind as if with my eyes (...) hence I do not think I am apart from him” (Piṅgiyamāṇavapucchā in Sutta Nipāta in Bodhi 2017: v. 1142). Buddhaghosa observes that these early manifestations served to conquer fear and feelings of the Buddha’s absence (Williams-Tribe 2000: 183), while Harrison further identifies their role in attaining magical powers and nirvāṇa (Williams 2008[1989]: 211). In Mahāyāna, on the other hand, buddhānusmṛti served Bodhisattvas as a means of spiritual progression to realise the Buddha’s ideal. Identifying with his presence was their mode of obtaining insight (Samuel 2008: 259). Further, the literature proposed a pioneering reception of teachings from not one but all Buddhas, presupposing a new cosmology. If meditators “can maintain mindfulness of the Buddha without interruption (...), then they will be able to see all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future right in each moment” (Saptaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Williams 2008[1989]: 211).

As well as accessing multiple Buddhas as living sources of teachings, sūtras such as Pratyutpannasamādhi expounded the gateway to their Pure Lands (buddhakṣetra). These realms characterised ‘kaleidoscopic’ landscapes, such as notable “seven-jewelled trees (...) in parallel rows”3 (Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra in Inagaki 2007; Harrison 2003: 122). In the earlier literature, buddhakṣetras figured in Lokottaravāda (Williams 2008[1989]: 215). However, Mahāyāna put forward a rare direct engagement (Bronkhorst 2009: 114-115; Delenau 2000: 69-70). A prolonged visualisation and set formula of the Concentration of Direct Encounter with Present Buddhas transported Bodhisattvas into their vision—while waking, dreaming or after death (Harrison 2003: 120). The encounter with the Buddha preaching the authentic Dharma (buddhavacana) required memorisation and preachment upon emergence from the concentration:

[T]hose bodhisattvas (...) hear the Dharma. And they retain, master, and preserve those dharmas after hearing them expounded. (...) And on emerging from that samādhi the bodhisattvas also expound at length to others those dharmas

(Pratyutpannasamādhi Sūtra in Williams 2008[1989]: 40)

An additional source of teachings and novelty in the Buddhist framework were dreams. Sūtras addressing them listed spiritual dream signs (lakṣaṇa) for diagnostics: “hearing the Dharma being taught (...) seeing the Buddha teaching the Dharma (...) gaining the inspiration (pratibhāna) to produce sūtras (...) teaching the Dharma to a large crowd” (Āryasvapnanirdeśa Sūtra in Harrison 2003: 136-137). Such spiritual content was significant in bodhisattvayāna as “dream and waking are indiscriminate” (Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Conze 1973: 215).

A related point to consider is the dream-like quality of Mahāyāna visions. Gaṇḍavyūha and Pratyutpannasamādhi sūtras emphasise their unreal and empty nature4 (Osto 2018: 185). However, such expositions were not as direct as those of nirodhasamāpatti. Bronkhorst suggests that the new ideas about meditational experiences could have inspired doctrinal positions, whereas the lack thereof played a role in the old discourses (2009: 115). These texts seemed to perceive imagination as a problem to overcome, but Mahāyāna Sūtras ascribed it an additional value (Osto 2018: 185). Further, the new sūtras could be considered a written account of the visionary experiences in samādhi and the procedures for their reception (Samuel 2008: 220-228; Skilton 2002: 51; Osto 2018: 182; Harrison 2003: 124). Such exposition, albeit speculative, shows the centrality of visualisation-oriented meditation in bringing new revelations.

The juxtaposition of skilful means

The notion of buddhānusmṛti and upāya are closely linked. Both sustain the claim of revelatory origins of Mahāyāna Sūtras. Initially, those who wished to feel the Buddha’s presence took him as an object of anusmṛti. In contrast, Mahāhāyana’s new cosmology of accessible parallel worlds established a direct link between the past and present. Consequently, Bodhisattvas could access the Buddha and hear his Dharma. They rejoiced “seeing the Buddha” and “[h]earing the Dharma adapted [to their capacities]” (Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā Sūtra in Boucher 2008: 122). This ongoing adjustment of teachings by skilful means (upāya) was relevant to Bodhisattvas in learning and preaching. Past the inferior Arhat stage5, they used skilful means in their soteriological efforts.

A similar idea figured already in the Pāli Canon: “as one who has embarked on a strong boat, equipped with an oar and a rudder, skillful, thoughtful, knowing the method there, might thereby convey many others across” (Nāvā Sutta in Sutta Nipāta in Bodhi 2017: v. 321). This illustrative passage is characteristic of Bodhisattvas’ skill in bringing sentient beings into nirvāṇa. However, old texts mention upāya without elaboration. For instance, they list it as a technical term among others: “three kinds of skill: skill in progress, skill in regress, and skill in means” (Sangīti Suttanta in Dīgha Nikāya in Pye 2005[1978]: 118). Thus, upāya was not central to the early tradition.

In both doctrines, Buddhist teachings were declared provisional. In the Pāli Canon, the Buddha prescribed the abandonment of his Dharma once it fulfils its role: “the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping (...) you should abandon even the teachings” (Alagaddūpama Sutta in Majjhima Nikāya in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]: i135-136). A reference to the raft metaphor appeared later in the Diamond Sūtra of Mahāyāna canon. Innovatively, however, this sūtra included an additional insertion prescribing non-clinging to both existent and non-existent teachings: “discard dharmas indeed, but still more so non-dharmas” (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Pye 2005[1978]: 132). Therefore, the progression on the path involved an additional middle step: (i) the use of teachings precisely as spelt out, (ii) their dismantlement upon identification as provisional and (iii) final discardment. Skilled Bodhisattvas preached the doctrine by adapting it without their attachment to formulas as universal. Teachings, though indispensable, were context-dependent, then evaporated (Williams 2008[1989]: 151). This ‘inner method’ was an educational and ethical equivalent of emptiness, tending Buddhism towards its dissolution (Williams-Tribe 2000: 170; Pye 2005[1978]: 3).

Another parallel between the traditions was the Buddha’s hesitation to communicate the Dharma. Both Mahāvagga and Ariyapariyesanā Sutta of the old canon and the new Lotus Sūtra narrated this story. The latter clearly articulated the adoption of upāya. The Buddha’s teaching concerns were limitations of his audience (Pye 2005[1978]: 120-121). He assessed the individual limitations through higher knowledges (abhijñā):

What they entertain in their minds, (...)
All their many different desires,
And their former karma, good and evil,
The Buddha knows all these perfectly. (...)
Self-sufficient and self-inflated (...)
Men such as these are hard to save. (...)
For this reason, Śāriputra,
I set up a skilful means for them,
Expounding the way to end all sufferings

(Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra in Pye 2005[1978]: 25-26)

Thus, the Buddha employed the device of upāya to expose the Dharma. It led sentient beings from the level of their ignorant entanglement with saṃsāra. Furthermore, he tricked them into three vehicles towards liberation: Arhatship, Pratyekabuddhahood and supreme Buddhahood: “people take delight in lesser teachings, [a]nd quail before the greater insight” but “[e]ven the unambitious and lazy ones [a]re gradually brought to become buddhas” (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra in Pye 2005[1978]: 76). There was only one vehicle. The inferior two served as a preliminary or a toy to entice with towards the ultimate goal—as expounded in parables of the Lotus Sūtra (Williams 2008[1989]: 154; Bronkhorst 2009: 158). Similarly, the sequenced nature of progression featured in the earlier Pāli literature: “when there is a great tree standing possessed of heartwood, it is not possible that anyone shall cut out its heartwood without cutting through its bark and sapwood” (Mahāmālunkyaputta Sutta in Majjhima Nikāya in Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 2005[1995]: i435). 

Overall, the two discourses show a subtle continuity. Upāya robustly builds upon earlier underdeveloped ideas. Its skilful construction arguments the heterogeneity and apparent intra-contradictions of the doctrine. Moreover, upāya exemplified meditation as action. The Buddha’s life story was a skill in means – a carefully crafted lesson that pushed many out of the contemplative practice of the early tradition into an active lifestyle.

The supremacy of Bodhisattva

The above sections elaborated on two themes in Buddhist developments: (i) the role of visualisation in generating new ideas and (ii) the means for effective teaching and liberation of sentient beings. Bodhisattvas dealt with both out of compassion (karuṇā) and, thus, sought active engagement instead of traditional seclusion. This outward lifestyle was a soteriological meditative practice manifesting a new Buddhist vision of the world. The innovation came from a revised insight into the notion of emptiness (śūnyatā). The following paragraphs provide a brief overview of (i) karuṇā, (ii) arhatyāna and (iii) bodhisattvayāna in the light of śūnyatā.

Karuṇā, one of the four immeasurables (brahmavihārās), was a prevalent theme in Indic traditions. It figured in Brahmanical texts, Pāli nikāyas and ultimately in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Along with benevolence (maitrī), empathetic joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekṣa), it took a minor position in Mainstream Buddhism. All four were meditation objects prescribed to those with a disposition to hatred. Karuṇā specifically promoted wishes of freedom from suffering for all sentient beings (Williams-Tribe 2000: 83). In Mahāyāna, karuṇā was a core meditation practice. Although developed in solitude, it was an outward-looking activity concerned with great compassion and devotion to others’ welfare:

Great compassion (...) takes hold of him. He surveys countless beings with his heavenly eye, and what he sees fills him with great agitation (...) ‘I shall become a saviour to all those beings’

(Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Conze 1973: 237-238)

To obtain this supreme accomplishment, Bodhisattvas conveyed lessons in novel ways. They combined subordinate upāya with karuṇā, which entailed infinite flexibility in adapting the teachings. Drawing from Upāyakauśalya Sūtra, the Buddha deliberately returned empty-handed from a daily alms round out of compassion for those who may return unprovided for, too (Williams 2008[1989]: 151).

Before Mahāyāna, an ‘accomplished one’ was exclusively Arhat. This aspiration was concerned with freedom from suffering. The path was set on nirvāṇa—the highest fulfilment—upon death in the last life. It called for relative isolation and individual practice. The liberation concerned the Four Noble Truths and the development of samādhi corresponding to the last stage of dhyānas (Bronkhorst 2009: 116; Samuel 2008: 219). Caring for others was not central in monastic life. Thus, a being destined for enlightenment, a ‘heroic Bodhisattva’, was a trajectory for a few (Gethin 1998: 228).

With Mahāyāna, Arhatship ceased to be a significant aspiration, while the ideal of Bodhisattva came to the foreground. From this shifted perspective, the Arhat’s drive towards personal liberation signified ‘residual selfishness’ marked by the lack of great compassion (mahākaruṇā) (Gethin 1998: 228). Bodhisattvas working towards perfect Buddhahood surpassed Arhatship. Their prolonged path allowed the development of superior qualities. Early sūtra Daśabhūmika lists these practices and acquisitions in ten stages. However, the change caused confusion among followers of the old tradition attaining lower goals: “The Dharma which the Buddha has gained is very hard to understand (...) and which no voice-hearer [śrāvaka] or pratyekabuddha can attain (...) we do not know where this doctrine tends” (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra in Williams 2008[1989]: 152-153). Meanwhile, Bodhisattvas equipped with karuṇā and upāya sought the liberation of all beings. It was a heroic activity pursued day and night – an example which ought to be emulated by non-Mahāyānists (Stuart 2015: 135).

Such innovation extended from the development of the doctrine of no-self. The critical theoretical tool to practically apply the concept of emptiness were samādhis. Next, having entered meditative concentrations on śūnyatā, ānimitta and apraṇihita, Bodhisattvas adopted brahmavihāras. Thus, instead of falling into Arhatship of ultimate reality, they remained in the operational world. Nirvāṇa faded into the background along with the Four Noble Truths. In effect, Mādhyamika says: “If all of this is empty, [n]either arising nor ceasing, [t]hen (...) [t]he Four Noble Truths do not exist” (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā in Nāgārjuna 1995: v. 3). The new non-abiding nirvāṇa (apratiṣṭhitanirvāṇa) removed the need to abandon the world or seek peace. From the absolute point, Bodhisattvas perceived no difference between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, other than ignorance (Cousins 1998). This saṃsāra-nirvāṇa collapse removed the concept of progression and the Buddhist path. However, “the ultimate cannot be taught” (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā in Nāgārjuna 1995: v. 11). Therefore, Mahāyāna Buddhism employed conventional constructs without undermining the teachings.

On account of the awareness of no duality, Bodhisattvas taught through practising generosity with an unattached mind. They opened up omniscience and performed miraculous acts. Their vocation called for reaching sentient beings trapped in saṃsāra according to their faculties and dispositions. Meanwhile, Bodhisattvas’ nirvāṇa was postponed until every being was awake:

[‘O]ne single self we shall lead to final Nirvana.’ A Bodhisattva should certainly not in such a way train himself. On the contrary (...): ‘My own self I will place in Suchness [the true way of things], and (...) I will place all beings into Suchness, and I will lead to Nirvana the whole immeasurable world of beings.

(Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Conze 1973: 163)

The release of all sentient beings was “guaranteed in the nirvana of any one bodhisattva” (Pye 2005[1978]: 2). Thus, the path ought to be adopted by all6.

In conclusion

To be a Mahāyānist was to be a Bodhisattva and adopt the most demanding form of Buddhism. The main differences between Mahāyāna and ‘Hīnayāna’ revolved around the aims, although conceptually both were concerned with freeing from suffering. The practice fostered development on different stages of the same path and cultivated similar spiritual qualities. Further, a Mahāyānist motivation to embark on the path was optional. The new tradition welcomed innovations, though consistent with the core intentions of the Buddha. Thus, Mahāyāna was a form of reformation. Meditation (i) likely marked revelatory origins, (ii) became a platform for cosmic outreach, (iii) facilitated training for new skilful activity in saṃsāra, and (iv) revolved around the ideal of Bodhisattva.

Mahāyāna, as a tradition, branched out from mainstream thought. The old tradition resisted the changes; thus, both continued into modernity. Several countries outside of India adopted Mahāyāna exclusively. The study of its accommodation without preconceptions nor references to the old discourse is a subject for another essay.


1) Broadly, ‘Mahāyānas’ is more accurate and avoids the ‘essentialist fallacy’ – see Williams 2008[1989] or Silk 2002

2) As an illustration, the literature of Prajñāpāramitā requires multiple references to the doctrines of Śrāvakayāna with whom they share a fundamental common heritage – see Deleanu 2000

3) While Mahāyāna Sūtras emphasised the cultivation of visionary modes of meditation, the detailed descriptions did not always serve as templates for visualisation – see Drewes 2018: 12

4) The lack of intrinsic existence was central to Yogācāra

5) The Arhat’s and Bodhisattva’s trajectories overlap. However, Bodhisattva, upon seeing the true nature of emptiness, returns to saṃsāra. His path extends with additional perfections, contrary to Arhat’s

6) Lay figures and actions gained importance in Sūtras. The inspiration was the Buddha – previously, as a layperson, he took the Bodhisattva vow out of altruism. See Williams 2008[1989]: 24 or Williams-Tribe 2000: 137


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