Buddhism, one of the most popular religions around the world, evolved in the 3rd Century BC. The teachings of Buddha form the basis of the faith. These philosophies spread across lands and people widely accepted it. With time, it got divided into two major branches Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.  Here, we will be discussing Mahayana Buddhism and learn about its traditions and philosophies.

Mahayana Buddhism: An Overview

In Sanskrit, Mahayana means “Greater Vehicle”. Like its name, Mahayana Buddhism was a major movement that arose in Northern India, shifting Buddhists from orthodox beliefs to a practical way of life.

Mahayana Buddhism is a major branch of Buddhism, practiced widely all over the world. Scholars refer to it as a major movement in the history of Buddhism proving to be a vehicle of transition from the ancient philosophy. This form of Buddhism comprises many schools, interpretations, fundamental human beliefs, values, and ideals. Mahayana Buddhism is quite different from orthodox Buddhism but has strong roots in Buddha’s teachings. It is one of the many ways to understand the Buddha and attain nirvana (enlightenment).

To understand Mahayana Buddhism, we must first discuss its ideology and philosophies.

Image of Borobudur Temple in Indonesia: Mahayana Buddhism
Borobudur Temple in Indonesia

Origin of Mahayana Buddhism & Its Spread

Before understanding the ideology behind Mahayana Buddhism, it is necessary to understand its origin and its spread to the world. While the exact reason behind the origin of the movement is unclear, researchers believe that movement took shape overtime at different places. Mahayana movement dates between 150 BCE and 100 BCE in North India, thereafter, it quickly spread throughout Asia.

To understand the concept of Mahayana Buddhism, it is important to know about an incident from Buddhism history. Before attaining Parinirvana (death), Buddha said that supreme knowledge does not only limit to monastic devotees but anyone of all beings, including a common man living a normal life, a woman who wishes can become enlightened. From thereon, enlightenment took on a new meaning. Almost after four centuries of Buddha’s Parinirvana, a new class of texts known as the Mahayana sutras and scriptures emerged, which presented innovative ideas to the movement. These texts are the literature of the sermons, that as per scholars, Buddha delivered himself. These reinterpreted texts brought forward the idea of the Bodhisattva, a practical philosophy that led to the spread of Buddhism to the common people all over the world.

The ideology of the Mahayana Sect

Mahayana Buddhism is different from traditional Buddhism owing to its ideology. Mahayana Buddhists believe in bodhisattva, a person who seeks to become a Buddha. Here the word “Buddha” does not talk about a single person, it is a title that means the “awakened one”. According to traditional Buddhism, the bodhisattva is the one who shall become the Buddha after his awakening (bodhi) or enlightenment. But, Mahayana’s beliefs are that anyone can become a bodhisattva and be awakened.

The Mahayana understanding of Bodhisattva is also quite different from other types of Buddhism. The traditional Buddhist doctrine of enlightenment means the absence of self, but the Mahayana views believe that it is the absence to all things. This belief also extends to another principle. It is believed as no individual has a self, there is no real difference between themselves and others. Therefore one’s own liberation is not different from the liberation of all beings. As such, a Bodhisattva is “self-less”, both philosophically and also in the understanding that one’s own enlightenment is not for own but an act for all beings without discrimination.

For Mahayana Buddhism, the awakening comes after the understanding of reality. The bodhisattvas seek wisdom (prajna) to understand reality. For the wisdom of enlightenment, Mahayana Buddhists believe that the way is of compassion (Karuna).

Mahayana Buddhism offers a practical Buddhist way of life. Unlike the Buddha who renounced his life to attain enlightenment, Mahayana Buddhists believe that real renunciation is not complete, but depends on non-attachment to the world. This means that practitioners or householders have better chances than monks or nuns to fulfill the vow of a Bodhisattva. Mahayana Buddhism was widely accepted all over the world for its belief that Enlightenment was accessible to every being in everyday life rather than behind the closed doors of monasteries.

The Holy Shrines of Mahayana Sect

Mahayana Buddhism believes in idol worship. This type of Buddhism marks the presence of numerous religious architecture like the stupas, towers, or domes. As such, countries of South and South-east Asia practicing Mahayana Buddhism like Bhutan, Nepal, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Korea, etc., have Buddhist structures known as the stupas. These stupas have a distinct architectural style which is the tall spires known as pagodas.

Image of Toda-Ji Temple in Japan: Mahayana Buddhism
Toda-Ji Temple in Japan

According to legends, Gautam Buddha had instructed that upon his death, his relics should be preserved in the stupas. Thus, from the first stupa at Kushinagar, the structures became holy shrines for Mahayana Buddhists. Thus, arising as popular Buddhist worship places among the masses. The stupas’ interiors represent the life of Buddha and are revered as lessons and inspiration for the people.

Mahayana Buddhism in Singapore

Image of Buddha Tooth Relic Temple: Mahayana Buddhism
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple: the Best Mahayana Temple in South-East Asia

Mahayana Buddhism is one of the major forms of Buddhism in Singapore. While one-third of Singapore’s population is Buddhist; two-thirds of the Buddhist population practice Mahayana Buddhism. However, all types of Buddhism are equally respected in Singapore, as the cultural diversity of the country accepts all forms of Buddhism, combining the teachings and philosophies with their local practices. The beautiful monasteries in Singapore tell a lot about the popularity of Buddhism in Singapore. The holy shrines are an important legacy to the history and culture of Singapore.