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Mahayana Buddhism: Basic Terms and Concepts

Mahayana Buddhism: Basic Terms and Concepts

Mahayana Buddhism is the branch of Buddhism prominent in North Asia, such as in China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. It arose out of schisms, basically about both doctrine and monastic rules, within Indian Buddhism in the first century C.E.

1. Mahayana Buddhism is the branch of Buddhism that is also known as the Great Vehicle. This Great Vehicle Buddhism considers itself a more genuine version of the Buddhism.

2. Revered by most Buddhists , the Lotus Sutra is probably the most weighty of these sutras. It is said to describe a sermon delivered by the Buddha to a gathering of buddhas, boddhisatvas, and other celestial beings. This sermon accentuates Mahayana concepts such as the significance of becoming a boddhisatva and attaining one’s buddha-nature.
 
3. The Heart Sutra, which is very short, is another vital Mahayana text. Presented as the teachings the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, this sutra describes the five ‘skandhas’ (elements of human nature), as well as the Mahayana views of ‘emptiness,’ nirvana, and ultimate reality.
 
4. The Land of Bliss Sutra is specifically significant in Pure Land Buddhism. It conveys the story of Amitabha (Amida) Buddha's vow to help people attain nirvana, describes the Pure Land, and tells what a person must do to be reborn in the Pure Land.
 
5.The Six Perfections, or ‘paramitas,’ are virtues to be refined to strengthen practice and bring a person to enlightenment. Collectively, they are the path of the Bodhisattva, that is, one who is devoted to serving the highest welfare of all living beings with the aroused heart of unconditional love, skillful wisdom, and all-encompassing compassion.

 6.  The Dana Paramita (Perfection of Generosity) is a genuine generosity of spirit. It is giving from honest desire to benefit others, without anticipation of reward or acknowledgment. There ought to be no selfishness involved. Every charity work done to feel good about oneself is not true ‘dana paramita.’

7.  Sila Paramita (Perfection of Morality) is not about unhesitating obedience to a number of rules. Indeed, there are precepts in Mahayana Buddhism, but the precepts are somewhat like training wheels. They guide people until they find their own balance. A bodhisattva or enlightened being is said to react correctly to every situation without having to refer to a list of rules. In the practice of sila paramita, people are said to develop selfless compassion. Along the way, individuals are said to practice renunciation and achieve an appreciation for karma.

8. Ksanti Paramita (Perfection of Patience) literally means ‘able to withstand.” “Ksanti’ is patience, tolerance, forbearance, endurance, or composure. It is said there are three dimensions to ksanti: “the ability to endure personal hardship; patience with others; and acceptance of truth” (“The Six Perfections,” n.d.). The perfection of ksanti starts with acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, including the truth of suffering (dukkha). Accepting truth involves admitting negative truths about ourselves (e.g. being greedy and mortal) and also accepting the truth of the supposed illusory nature of our existence.

9. Virya Paramita (Perfection of Energy) is about making a brave, heroic effort to attain enlightenment. ‘Virya’ is energy or zeal, as it comes from an ancient Indian-Iranian word that means ‘hero.’ It is said that to practice virya paramita, we first develop our own character and courage; we involve ourselves in spiritual training; and then we offer our fearless efforts to the benefit of others.

10. Dhyana Paramita (Perfection of Meditation) relates to Buddhist meditation, a discipline aimed at cultivating the mind. ‘Dhyana’ also means ‘concentration,’ and in this context, great concentration is applied to achieve clarity and insight. Dhyana is said to be the grounds of wisdom, which is the next perfection.

11. Prajna Paramta (Perfection of Wisdom) is the direct and intimate understanding of ‘sunyata’ or emptiness. ‘Sunyata’ (also spelled ‘shunyata’) teaches that there is existence, but that phenomena are empty of ‘svabhava,’ a Sanskrit word that means self-nature, intrinsic nature, essence, or ‘own being.’ Very simply thus, ‘sunyata’ is the teaching that all phenomena are without self-essence.

12. Some later Mahayana schools which prospered outside India attributed some degree of divinity to a transcendent Buddha. In the Mahayana doctrine of The Three Bodies (forms) of Buddha, one of the forms is the so-called ‘Body of Bliss or Enjoyment,’ in which Buddha is considered somewhat like divine, deity, formless, celestial spirit with saving power of grace, omnipotence, and omniscience. Nonetheless, even here, it cannot be claimed that the Buddha was transformed into a Divinity comparable to the God of the monotheistic religions.
 
13. Mahayana holds that anyone can potentially attain Buddhahood, transcending personality and becoming one with the impersonal Ultimate Reality, which is Infinite Bliss (Nirvana). It is believed that there are countless Buddhas presiding over countless universes. The so-called ‘bodhisattvas’ or those humans and celestial spirits who sacrifice their imminent liberation (Buddhahood) to assist others to become liberated as well are revered or worshipped as gods by some. Their being considered as ‘gods’ nonetheless is more like being ‘saints’ and never as ‘the God’ in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
 
14. The Dalai Lama, a person seen as an incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, had been both the political and spiritual leader of Tibet. The present Dalai Lama (the 14th) was just 24 years old when this all came to an end in 1959.
 
15.In the context of Mahayana Buddhism, ‘engaged activism’ refers to ‘Engaged Buddhism’ which is also called ‘Socially Engaged Buddhism.’ It is not a Buddhist branch or sect, but a particular movement within the Buddhist religion. “Founded by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the 20th century, Engaged Buddhism seeks to apply Buddhist teachings in a more activist and social manner than has been traditional” (“Engaged Buddhism,” n.d.).

16. Zen Buddhism is a blend of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. It started in China, spread to Korea and Japan, and became very prevalent in the West from the mid-20th century.
Zen Buddhism started to emerge as a distinct school of Mahayana Buddhism “when the Indian sage Bodhidharma (ca. 470-543) taught at the Shaolin Monastery of China. (Yes, it's a real place, and yes, there is a historic connection between kung fu and Zen.) To this day Bodhidharma is called the First Patriarch of Zen” (“Chan and Zen Buddhism,” n.d.).

17. Brought to China by Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE, this brand of Mahayana Buddhism with Taoist pigment was called ‘Ch'an’ in China. ‘Ch'an’ is the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana,’ which approximately means meditation. When the religion reached Japan, it has become known as Zen Buddhism because ‘Zen’ is the way the Chinese word Ch'an is pronounced in Japan.

18. Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pāli) is usually translated into English as "virtuous behaviour", "morality", "ethics" or "precept". It is an action committed through the body, speech, or mind, and involves an intentional effort. It is one of the three practices (sila, samadhi, and panya) and the second pāramitā. It refers to moral purity of thought, word, and deed. The four conditions of śīla are chastity, calmness, quiet, and extinguishment.

19. “Tzu Chi Foundation -- Buddhist Compassionate Relief. Established in 1966 by Dharma Master Cheng Yen, a Taiwanese nun, Tzu Chi today has more than 500 offices in 50 countries and regions. Its millions of volunteers around the globe have built schools, offered medical care, and responded to disasters in 87 different countries, including the United States.’

20. “Buddhist Global Relief. Founded by the American Theravadin monk Bikkhu Bodhi, BGR provides food aid to the hungry and malnourished, promotes ecologically sustainable agriculture, and supports education and other opportunities for girls and women.’

Part II
1. Heart: Prajnaparamita-Hrdaya Sutra: One of the smallest sutras, and with the Diamond Sutra, one of the most popular of the 40 sutras, in the vast Prajnaparamita literature. Its emphasis is on emptiness.

2. The Six Perfections, or ‘paramitas,’ are virtues to be refined to strengthen practice and bring a person to enlightenment. Collectively, they are the path of the Bodhisattva, that is, one who is devoted to serving the highest welfare of all living beings with the aroused heart of unconditional love, skillful wisdom, and all-encompassing compassion.

3. Sila Paramita (Perfection of Morality) is not about unhesitating obedience to a number of rules. Indeed, there are precepts in Mahayana Buddhism, but the precepts are somewhat like training wheels. They guide people until they find their own balance. A bodhisattva or enlightened being is said to react correctly to every situation without having to refer to a list of rules. In the practice of sila paramita, people are said to develop selfless compassion. Along the way, individuals are said to practice renunciation and achieve an appreciation for karma.

4. Mahayana holds that anyone can potentially attain Buddhahood, transcending personality and becoming one with the impersonal Ultimate Reality, which is Infinite Bliss (Nirvana).
 
5. The Chinese have thus decided not to permit adherence to and practice of Buddhism in Tibet and they have systematically set out to eradicate this Buddhism in Tibet.
 
6.“Founded by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the 20th century, Engaged Buddhism seeks to apply Buddhist teachings in a more activist and social manner than has been traditional” (“Engaged Buddhism,” n.d.).

7.Also known as the Great Vehicle, Mahayana Buddhism is the branch of Buddhism prominent in North Asia, such as in China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.

8. Brahma Net: Brahmajala Sutra. This contains the Ten Major Precepts of Mahayana followers, and the Bodhisattva Precepts.

9.‘Sunyata’ (also spelled ‘shunyata’) teaches that there is existence, but that phenomena are empty of ‘svabhava,’ a Sanskrit word that means self-nature, intrinsic nature, essence, or ‘own being.’ Very simply thus, ‘sunyata’ is the teaching that all phenomena are without self-essence.

10.The so-called ‘bodhisattvas’ or those humans and celestial spirits who sacrifice their imminent liberation (Buddhahood) to assist others to become liberated as well are revered or worshipped as gods by some.

11. It is said that Taoism so intensely influenced early Zen that some philosophers and texts are claimed by both religions.

12. ‘Ch'an’ is the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana,’ which approximately means meditation. When the religion reached Japan, it has become known as Zen Buddhism because ‘Zen’ is the way the Chinese word Ch'an is pronounced in Japan.

13. Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pāli) is usually translated into English as "virtuous behaviour", "morality", "ethics" or "precept". It is an action committed through the body, speech, or mind, and involves an intentional effort.

14. Therefore, while Theravada gives emphasis to individual enlightenment, Mahayana underscores the enlightenment of all beings.

15. The Land of Bliss Sutra is specifically significant in Pure Land Buddhism. It conveys the story of Amitabha (Amida) Buddha's vow to help people attain nirvana, describes the Pure Land, and tells what a person must do to be reborn in the Pure Land.
 
16. Thus, the four truths are less prominent in the Mahayana traditions, which underline insight into the Bodhisattva-path as a chief element in their teachings.Even though Mahayana Buddhism agrees that the four noble truths are basic teachings of the Buddha, they are not normally a key topic of Mahayana teaching, nor are they characteristically the emphasis of Mahayana meditative practices.

17. Virya Paramita (Perfection of Energy) is about making a brave, heroic effort to attain enlightenment. ‘Virya’ is energy or zeal, as it comes from an ancient Indian-Iranian word that means ‘hero.’

18. Vimalakirti: This is a philosophic dramatic discourse, in which basic Mahayana principles are presented in the form of a conversation between famous Buddhist figures, and the householder, Vimalakirti.

19.The Mahayana tradition reveres the Tripitaka as a sacred text, but adds to it the ‘Sutras,’ which distinctly reflect Mahayana beliefs and are used more often by Mahayana Buddhists.
 
20.Revered by most Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra is probably the most weighty of these sutras. It is said to describe a sermon delivered by the Buddha to a gathering of buddhas, boddhisatvas, and other celestial beings.

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