The Origin of Mahayana Buddhism

Now we are asking a pretty good and natural question. Where this rare tradition comes from? Where such a radical reform movement arises in the community of the early Sangha?

The Second Turning of the Wheel

One place to go for an answer to this question is to the Mahayana texts themselves. The texts trace the origin of the Mahayana to what is called the Second Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma during the life of the Buddha himself. In other words, the Mahayana texts claim to be the teaching of the Buddha himself delivered to a special assembly of boddhisattvas.

The Mahayana texts then go on to say that the Mahayana was concealed during several centuries until the world was ready to receive it. Then the Sutras, the texts of the Mahayana, were brought forth and spread across India.

There is an awareness in the Mahayana itself that the tradition is new. It’s not something that was known in the traditional community.

A Revelated Tradition

All of this is very nice, but scholars are quite uncertain what the actual origin of the Mahayana is. There are suggestions in the Mahayana tradition that practitioners perhaps fasted and meditated in order to receive visions and revelations from great Buddhists of the past. It is conceivable that the early texts of the Mahayana came to people in this way, as visions interpreted as revelations from past Buddhas. This can’t be true of the most elaborate literary Sutras of the Mahayana. Many of them don’t have the quality of visionary experiences but of literary texts.

Some scholars have suggested that the Mahayana arose among circles of lay people, who were worshipers at particular Shrines where the relics of the Buddha were the focus of devotion. This view has now been discredited by scholars. It seems clear that the Mahayana had a strong monastic component right from the beginning. It’s not accurate to say that the Mahayana was a lay movement. It included components of both lay and monastic life.

So, a scholarly consensus about the origin of the Mahayana has not yet been reached, but most believe that Mahayana scriptures are rooted in the earliest teachings of Buddhism.

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