Skt., lit., “Great Vehicle”; one of the two great schools of Buddhism, the other being the Hīnayāna, “Small Vehicle.” The Mahāyāna, which arose in the first century CE, is called Great Vehicle because, thanks to its many-sided approach, it opens the way of liberation to a great number of people and expresses the intention to liberate all beings.
Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna are both rooted in the basic teachings of the historical Buddha Shākyamuni, but stress different aspects of those teachings. While Hīnayāna seeks the liberation of the individual, the follower of the Mahāyāna seeks to attain enlightenment for the sake of the welfare of all beings. This attitude is embodied in the Mahāyāna ideal of the bodhisattva, whose outstanding quality is compassion (karunā).
The Mahāyāna developed from the Hīnayāna schools of the Mahāsānghikas and Sarvāstivādins (Sarvāstivāda), which formulated important aspects of its teaching. From the Mahāsānghikas came the teaching, characteristic of the Mahāyāna, of the transcendent nature of a buddha, as well as the bodhisattva ideal and the notion of emptiness (shūnyatā ). Seeds of the trikāya teaching can be recognized in the doctrine of the Sarvāstivādins.
The Mahāyāna divided into a series of further schools, which spread from India to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. In India arose the Mādhyamika school, founded by Nāgārjuna, and the Yogāchāra school, founded by Asanga. Parallel to the development of Tantra in Hinduism, in Buddhism also a magic-oriented school appeared, the Vajrayāna, which today flourishes primarily in Tibetan Buddhism.
The most important Mahāyāna schools in China were Ch’an, Hua-yen, T’ien-t’ai, and the Pure Land school. These schools were further developed in Japan as Zen, Kegon, Tendai, and Amidism, respectively.
The teachings of the Mahāyāna are contained in the Mahāyāna sūtras and shāstras, among which are some of the most profound writings of Buddhism.