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Mahayana is one of the three chief branches of Buddhism, the others being Theravada and Vajrayana, although the latter is sometimes classified as part of Mahayana Buddhism.

Mahayana developed about five hundred years after the death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, although adherents of Mahayana Buddhism claim that its teachings are true to the guiding principles of the Buddha.

Mahayana is Sanskrit for "great vehicle," the implication being that it has a broader vision than Theravada and that it can accommodate all Buddhists, not just the monks.

While the ideal of Theravada is wisdom, the chief virtue of Mahayana is compassion. Mahayana Buddhists view all sentient things as a family, connected through empathy and compassion. Compassion, kindness, and faith are seen as the keys to salvation, and no one will attain salvation until everyone does.

Mahayana Buddhists assert that there is no difference between Nirvana and the world of appearances (samsara), both representing emptiness (sunyata). This represents a difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists, as Theravada holds that the world is real but transitory and that the appearance of stability is achieved through cause and effect (dharmas), while Mahayana Buddhists hold that even the dharmas are without self, and are empty and unreal. Enlightenment comes from understanding this, and being free from the laws of cause and effect.

In Buddhism, emptiness (sunyata) does not have a negative connotation. Rather, it poses an opportunity to achieve fulfillment and liberation. Because reality is empty, it can be made into anything.

Nagarjuna, a philosopher who wrote stanzas on the Middle Path (Madhyamika Karika), a dominant interpretation of Buddhist philosophy in Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, has had an influence on Mahayana traditions. For Nagarjuna, nothing is eternal, but neither does anything have an end. Nothing is different, yet nothing is identical.

Very little can be said with certainty in Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana philosophy has been described as a loosely bound collection of teachings with expansive doctrines that exist simultaneously.

Another important concept in Mahayana Buddhism is bodhisattva, a word with several meanings. Literally, it means "enlightenment being," and is a reference to those who are destined for full enlightenment, particularly those who have postponed their entry into Nirvana in order to help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment. The word was first used to describe the Buddha in his previous lives, before his enlightenment but, in the Mahayana view, its meaning is expanded to refer to all Buddhists. The defining characteristic of a bodhisattva is the intention to achieve perfection as quickly as possible. There are six perfections that must be achieved: wisdom (upaya), morality (shila), patience (kshanti), strength (bala), meditation (dhyana), and generosity (dana).

The Lotus Sutra, an early sutra, is accepted in all Mahayana traditions, and is used as a means of aiding awakening.

Buddha is generally viewed as divine in Mahayana traditions, sometimes manifesting as a savior. Buddha has not postponed Nirvana enlightenment but is sharing it with others. Within the various Mahayana schools, there are different views of the Buddha. Some believe that Buddha was born an ordinary human being, who gradually achieved enlightenment, while others hold that Buddha has always existed on an absolute plane and that earthly Buddhas are manifestations of this reality.

As the idea of infinite Buddhas, some divine, some not, got to be confusing, modern Mahayana traditions developed a doctrine known as trikaya which argues that Buddha has three bodies. The first is the historical Buddha, whose qualities are uncontaminated. The second is a spiritual Buddha, while the third is the Buddha as an earthly being.

Mahayana scriptures are vast and present in several languages, primarily Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Mahayana Buddhists do not reject the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhists; they add to it.

Today, the Mahayana tradition is the largest, claiming more than fifty percent of all Buddhists.

Mahayana Buddhism spread from its origins in India to other Asian countries in the South, East, and Southeast, and then to Central Asia

There are several Mahayana traditions, the largest being Chan Buddhism, Korean Seon, Japanese Zen, Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, and Vietnamese Buddhism. Others include Madhyamaka, Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, and Tiantai, as well as other sects and sub-sects.

Topics related to Mahayana Buddhism or to any of its traditions, movements, sects, or sub-sects are appropriate for this category or any of its subcategories, as are those discussing Mahayana Buddhism in general.



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