“Great Vehicle”; one of the two great schools of Buddhism, the other being the Theravadin, “Teaching of the Elders.” The Mahayana, which arose in the first century C.C. is called Great Vehicle because, thanks to its many-sided approach, it open the way of liberation to a great number of people and, indeed, expresses the intention to liberate all beings.
Theravadin and Mahayana are both rooted in the basic teachings of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, but stress different aspects of those teachings. While Theravadin seeks the liberation of the individual, the follower of the Mahayana seeks to attain enlightenment for the sake of the welfare of all beings. This attitude is embodied in the Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva, whose outstanding quality is compassion.
The Mahayana developed from the Theravadin schools and formulated important aspects of its teaching such as the transcendent nature of a Buddha, as well as the bodhisattva ideal and the notion of emptiness.
The Mahayana places less value on monasticism than the Theravadin; by contrast to early Buddhism, here the layperson can also attain nirvana, in which endeavor he can rely on the active help of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. In this approach to Buddhism, nirvana does not mean only liberation from samsaric duress but beyond that also the realization that one one’s very nature one is liberated and inseparable from the absolute. The buddha principle buddha-nature, that is immanent in all beings becomes more important the the person of the historical Buddha.
The Mahayana divided into a series of further schools, which spread from India to Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan.
The teachings of the Mahayana are contained in the Mahayana sutras and shastras, among which are some of the most profound writings of Buddhism.