Mahayana Buddhism


In the 1st c. A.D., we see major changes in the religions and worships of India. One of the major religious developments is the Mahayana sect of Buddhism. Today this is the dominant division of Buddhism and is best seen in China and Japan. The original form of Buddhism is called Hinayana or Theravada and this is followed in Ceylon, Burma, and Siam.

An important development in Mahayana Buddhism was the belief in a Bodhisattva, or divine savior. Bodhisattva (Sanskrit), Pali BODHISATTA ("one whose essence is bodhi [enlightenment]"), in Buddhism, the historical Buddha, Gautama, prior to his Enlightenment; also, other individuals who are destined to become buddhas in this or in another life.

In Mahayana Buddhism the decision of the bodhisattva to postpone his own final entrance into Nirvana in order to alleviate the suffering of others is given special valuation. The ideal of the bodhisattva supplants the earlier, Theravada goal of the arhat, or disciple, who perfects himself by following the Buddha's teachings, and of the pratyeka buddha, or self-enlightened Buddha, both of whom are criticized by Mahayana as concerned solely with their own personal salvation. The bodhisattva concept elevates the virtue of compassion (karuna) to equality with wisdom (prajna). The bodhisattva exercises his compassion by transferring his own merit to his devotees.

Once the bodhisattva declares his intention, he enters the first of 10 spiritual stages (bhumi) and henceforward is reborn only in the world of men or of gods. The aspirant bodhisattva must be a male but (according to Japanese schools) may live the life of a householder and need not be a monk.

Just as the number of buddhas in the world is theoretically limitless, so also the number of possible bodhisattvas is infinite. The title has been frequently applied to great scholars and teachers and, in Southeast Asia, was a conventional title honoring Buddhist kings.

Miroku (Maitreya) in meditation, Japanese, Asuka period, 7th c ADMaitreya in Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha, presently a bodhisattva residing in the Tusita heaven, who will descend to earth to preach anew the dharma ("law") when the teachings of Gautama Buddha have completely decayed. Maitreya is the earliest bodhisattva around whom a cult developed and is mentioned in scriptures from the 3rd century AD. All schools of Buddhism accepted him and is still the only bodhisattva generally honored by the Theravada tradition.

The name Maitreya is derived from the Sanskrit maitri ("friendliness"). In Pali the name becomes Metteyya, in Chinese Mi-lo-fo, in Japanese Miroku, and in Mongolian Maidari; in Tibetan the bodhisattva is known as Byams-pa ("kind," or "loving"). His worship was especially popular during the 4th to 7th century, and his images are found throughout the Buddhist world; many of them beautifully convey his characteristic air of expectancy and promise. He is represented in painting and sculpture both as a bodhisattva and as a buddha, and he is frequently depicted seated in European fashion or with his ankles loosely crossed.

A.L. Basham in his book 'The Wonder That Was India' writes,

The Bodhisattva was thought of as a spirit not only of compassion but also of suffering. In more than one source we read the vow or resolve of the Bodhisattva, which is sometimes expressed in almost Christian terms:

"I take upon myself... the deeds of all beings, even of those in the hells, in other worlds, in the realms of punishment... I take their suffering upon me,... I bear it, I do not draw back from it, I do not tremble at it ... I have no fear of it,... I do not lose heart... I must bear the burden of all beings, for I have vowed to save all things living, to bring them safe through the forest of birth, age, disease, death and rebirth. I think not of my own salvation, but strive to bestow on all beings the royalty of supreme wisdom. So I take upon myself all the sorrows of all beings. I resolve to bear every torment in every purgatory of the universe. For it is better that I alone suffer than the multitude of living beings. I give myself in exchange. I redeem the universe from the forest of purgatory, from the womb of flesh, from the realm of death. I agree to suffer as a ransom for all beings, for the sake of all beings. Truly I will not abandon them. For I have resolved to gain supreme wisdom for the sake of all that lives, to save the world."

The idea of the Suffering Savior might have existed in some form in the Middle East before Christianity, but features like this are not attested in Buddhism until after the beginning of the Christian era. The Suffering Bodhisattva so closely resembles the Christian conception of the God who gives his life as a ransom for many that we cannot dismiss the possibility that the doctrine was borrowed by Buddhism from Christianity.

Romila Thapar in her book "A History of India," (Volume 1, pages 131-134) writes,

There were other aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, which appear to have had their origin outside India. Among these is the idea of the coming of the Maitreya Buddha to save the world, with which was connected the concept of ‘the suffering savior’ - the bodhisattva who redeems humanity through his own suffering: evidently the new beliefs current in Palestine were known to the Buddhists by this time.

"Vishnu assumes various forms or incarnations and enters the world of men in order to save them from evil. The tenth and final incarnation has yet to come, and on this occasion he will come in the form of Kalkin riding a white horse, which suggests a connection with the idea of the Messiah and the coming of the Maitreya Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism."

The Hinayana scriptures (in Pali) are the main source for our knowledge of the historic Sakyamuni, while the early Mahayana writings are in Sanskrit. Since Sanskrit existed only from 2nd c. A.D., the concept of a divine savior seen in Mahayana Buddhism is clearly from Christianity. Shin Buddhism, a predominant sect in Japan teaches justification by faith alone.

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