Mahayana: The Great Vehicle

It is time for us to look at a reform movement that made a radical change in the way people enacted the Buddhist ideal. It changes the style, the tone and the content of Buddhist practice in profound ways, only a few centuries after the lifetime of the Buddha. We call this movement the “Mahayana”, or the “Great Vehicle”.

A Reform Movement

Theravada Buddhism
in South East Asia is in some ways very different from Buddhist practice at the time of the Buddha, but still represents, quite deliberately, a conservative option. It looks back at the example of the early community. We saw that in King Mongkut’s reform movement, that deliberately attempted to reapply the ideal of the Pali Canon.

The Mahayana movement emerged in the Indian Buddhist community around the beginning of the Common Era. Eventually, the Mahayana spread to China, Tibet, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Of course there are many varieties of Mahayana Buddhism.

The name Mahayana comes from the literature of the movement itself. It is a name that is used to distinguish itself from what it saw as the Buddhism that came before. Mahayana texts refer to themselves as a great vehicle, in contrast to what they call the Hinayana, or lesser vehicle, that preceded it.

The Meaning of The Mahayana

The best place for us to look in an scriptural source for an account of the contrast between the Mahayana and the Hinayana is the Lotus Sutra. This is a text we will refer to quite often in our study of Buddhism in China and Japan. The key passage in the Lotus Sutra that talks about the Mahayana is a passage that is known as the “Parable of the Burning House”. I will tell you the story and then comment on the distinctive features of it, so we can get a sense of the shape not just of the Mahayana itself, but also how it distinguished itself from the earlier tradition.

The story goes something like this. There is a father who lives in a large house with a large number of children. When the father was outside, the house catches on fire. He looks up at the house, the children are playing and are not aware of the fact that the house is on fire. The father looks up at the children and says: “Kids, come out of the house! All is burning!” The kids say: “Why? We are having such a great time here. Why should we come out?” The fathers says: “I’ve got cards here for you to play with. If you come out of the house, you can play with these.” The children, excited by this, come running out of the house. They go to look for the cards the father offered them and then he says: “Well, it’s great that you’re outside, but I don’t have those cards. I’ve got an even greater card: a vehicle. So, hop on and take it for a ride”.

The text begins to offer some commentary about the story. It obviously makes the connection that you expected it would make. It says that the Buddha is like this father. The little cards that he first promised were those lesser vehicles that were preached before the coming of the Mahayana. They were meant to lure the people who were caught in the burning house of Samsara out, in order to receive the real teaching the Buddha has to offer them.

What’s that real teaching? It’s the Mahayana. This is the great and beautiful card the Buddha finally offers the children once they escaped the burning house.

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