What is Mahayana Buddhism?

Katinka Hesselink 2006

Mahayana is usually translated as 'great vehicle', in opposition to Hinayana 'small vehicle'. This translation is obviously derogatory and offensive to the only early Buddhist school still in existence: Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana can actually also be translated as 'great path', that is: a path for every being. Hinayana would then mean: small path, or path only for monks actively striving to become arhats. 

[see also: the origin of Mahayana Buddhism]

The following aspects are associated with Mahayana: 

Universalism - everybody will become a Buddha

The main idea that sets apart Theravada from Mahayana is this idea that everybody can and will become a Buddha at some point. Theravada Buddhism sets a limit to the amount of Buddhas that can exist: only one in each global time-period. According to Mahayana Buddhism each of us has inherent Buddha Nature. This is a sort of divine consciousness. For instance in Zen Buddhism the idea is that one need only realize this as a fact, to become a Buddha. The difference between you and a Buddha is that you don't know that you are a Buddha and a Buddha does know he is a Buddha. 

Enlightened Wisdom or Prajna-Paramita

The central insight in Mahayana philosophy is the insight of sunyata or emptiness. This can by definition not be put into words, but it does seem to boil down to the following: Everything is illusory, everything is temporary. Your personality has no inherent stable core and knowing this is wisdom.

Compassion, Bodhicitta and Bodhisattva-ideal

On one level Mahayana means a more active role for non-monks, or the laity. The ideal of the Bodhisattva means that everybody, regardless of family-situation, can become enlightened and help humanity. The bodhisattva-vow means that an individual vows to gain enlightenment and simultaneously to avoid final Nirvana until every sentient being has been saved. Helping humanity can start right now, by practicing the six virtues of perfection, the paramitas. Bodhicitta is the Sanskrit term for the sincere wish to become a Buddha for the salvation of all sentient beings. In the Lam Rim working on Bodhicitta is the third stage on the path

Salvation through devotion

This aspect of some Mahayana-schools is controversial. Mahayana philosophers ignore or disagree with it. 

On the other hand in Mahayana countries devotion to divine Bodhisattvas in ritual and prayer is central to the Buddhism of most people. The feeling is that people in this age cannot reach enlightenment. What they can do is ask a Bodhisattva for help, and they will, in return for devotion, make you reincarnate into a heavenly world (the pure land), after which enlightenment is a simple step. 

Salvation through devotion is a controversial belief, because a main Buddhist doctrine is that one can only reach enlightenment through one's own effort. Devotion as a means to salvation also contradicts the idea of karma.

Where is Mahayana Buddhism?

Since Hinayana Buddhism is only represented by Theravada Buddhism, every other type you may have heard of is Mahayana Buddhism. For instance: