The Origins of Mahayana Buddhism

Katinka Hesselink 2006

In my article on Mahayana Buddhism I started as follows:

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. 

The following aspects are associated with Mahayana: 

Of these four elements the second and third are present in the oldest dateable Mahayana texts we have: the texts translated into Chinese at the end of the second century A.D. by Lokaksema. (Vetter 2001) Interestingly enough it seems that these two elements were brought together from separate sources. The Prajna Paramita, or the insight into the illusory nature of everything (that's how these texts describe Sunnyata), was given by Sravaka-monks to the Bodhisattvas. In other words: monks from a non-Mahayana tradition (there were  several at the time) gave this insight to people who were actively seeking to emulate Buddha to the extent that they wanted to become Buddhas themselves (as opposed to merely Arhats) and had vowed to help all sentient beings in the process. It is not clear from the texts studied whether these Bodhisattvas were monastics or not. From another text though (Schopen1999) it appears that in the early Mahayana monks did play an important part. 

The scenario I paint here traces Mahayana texts back to the end of the second century A.D. This obviously doesn't mean that what might be called the 'bodhisattva-movement' didn't actually start earlier. It is also known from non-Mahayana texts that the prajna-paramita insight wasn't new. What's new in these texts is the combination of these two. The Mahayana didn't become popular enough to have an impact on the archaeological evidence until the fourth century A.D.  

The term Mahayana has usually been defined in opposition to Hinayana. The term Hinayana is very misleading. Looking at the origins of the Mahayana movement, it looks as though Mahayana and non-mahayana were not as separate as we may have grown accustomed to think. The early Mahayana texts were in fact written by people, probably monks, who knew the teachings of the Nikayas (1) very well. This means that these monks were probably not only trained in early Buddhism, but also likely to have lived in Nikaya-monestaries. From one Chinese pilgrimage account we get a view of Mahayana monks living with Nikaya-monks in the same monestary. 

These two things together do make it very likely that at least in those first centuries there wasn't a big divide between 'Hinayana' and 'Mahayana'. Scholars are starting to think that the term Hinayana may not originally have been meant for specific organized groups of people, but merely for 'those we do not agree with'. How that might work is clear from contemporary usage of the term Hinayana in Tibetan Buddhism. There it is often emphasized that they do not mean to disparage Theravada Buddhists, when Hinayana-attitudes are critized.


The term Mahayana as used in early texts means: people who follow the path of the Bodhisattva. Somewhere in the second century CE these bodhisattvas were taught the prajna paramita by a group of sravaka monks: monks from what we would now call a Hinayana tradition (though not likely Theravada).


1) The term Nikaya is usually translated as 'early Buddhist schools'. The implication of the term 'early buddhism' is that these schools were non-mahayana, though as discussed above: the early Mahayana scholars knew their early Buddhist literature very well. In other words: Mahayana Buddhism was developed at least to a certain extent within normal Buddhist monestaries by learned scholars in what we might call orthodox Buddhism - though there were several such orthodox schools.