Mahāyāna – “the Great Vehicle” – is a term for a broad group of Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices accepting the main scriptures and teachings of early Buddhism, but also adding various new doctrines and texts such as the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Mahāyāna Buddhism developed in India around the 1st century BCE onwards.
“Mahāyāna” also refers to the path of the bodhisattva striving to become a fully awakened Buddha (samyaksaṃbuddha) for the benefit of all sentient beings, and is thus also called the “Bodhisattva Vehicle” (Bodhisattvayāna). Mahāyāna Buddhism generally sees the goal of becoming a Buddha through the bodhisattva path as being available to all and sees the state of the arhat as incomplete. Mahāyāna also includes numerous Buddhas and bodhisattvas that are not found in Theravada (such as Amitabha). Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy also promotes unique theories, such as the Madhyamaka theory of emptiness (śūnyatā), the Vijñānavāda doctrine and the Buddha-nature teaching. The Vajrayāna traditions are a subset of Mahāyāna which makes use of numerous tantric methods that they consider to be faster and more powerful at achieving Buddhahood.
Although it was initially a small movement in India, Mahāyāna eventually grew to become an influential force in Indian Buddhism. Large scholastic centers associated with Mahāyāna such as Nalanda and Vikramashila thrived between the seventh and twelfth centuries. In the course of its history, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread throughout South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. It remains influential today in China, Taiwan, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Nepal, Malaysia, and Bhutan.
The Mahāyāna tradition is the largest major tradition of Buddhism existing today, (with 53% of Buddhists belonging to East Asian Mahāyāna and 6% to Vajrayāna), compared to 36% for Theravada (survey from 2010).
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