Mahayana Basics: An Overview of the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition

Tendai Buddhism is a Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Therefore, before covering the basics of the Tendai tradition, it may be useful to gain an understanding of Mahayana Buddhism itself.

At present, the Buddhist world is divided into two main branches: Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and so on). Theravada Buddhists revere one Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, and recognize the Pali Canon as authoritative. Theravada Buddhists believe that the texts preserved in the Pali Canon represent the true original teachings of the historical Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhism is represented by two major geographical regions: the Tibetan-Himalayan sphere and the East Asian cultural sphere.

Tibetan Buddhism was highly influential in areas linked with the former-Tibetan Empire (now the Tibetan Autonomous Region of western China): Mongolia, parts of Central Asia, Nepal, Bhutan, and so on. In some cases, Chinese emperors also studied under Tibetan lamas (teachers). Classical Tibetan is the canonical language of Tibetan-Himalayan Buddhism. The Tibetan Canon contains within it Tibetan translations of Indian Buddhist texts, including the whole range of Mahayana and non-Mahayana sutra literature and tantric ritual manuals, as well as later Indian Buddhist commentarial literature as well.  

In the East Asian sphere, China was the dominant center of the Buddhist world. Buddhists in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan all developed their own Buddhist traditions in dialogue with the great thinkers of the Chinese Buddhist tradition. Classical Chinese is the canonical language of the East Asian cultural sphere. The Chinese canon contains the earliest datable Buddhist texts in existence, as the Indian originals were often lost due to harsh climate and war. Tendai Buddhism developed in the East Asian context, in part, as a system for coming to terms with the diversity of the Indian Buddhist literary and ritual texts that were making their way into East Asia.

Mahayana Buddhists revere the same texts as their Theravada cousins and engage in many of the same practices. However, the Mahayana tradition contains a broad range of practices, teachings, and texts generally not found in Theravada Buddhism. There are hundreds of scriptures and commentaries, and a vast pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods, and so on, that might seem a little intimidating at first. But really, Mahayana Buddhism is quite simple. Mahayana means “Great Vehicle.” The Great Vehicle is “great” because all beings have a place in the Great Vehicle, just as all beings have a place in this vast universe. We are all in this together.



The Buddha was a great teacher who taught many different things to many different people. As a result, from very early on, Buddhism became very diverse very quickly. Buddha used Upaya, or “skillful means,” to teach people in a way that was appropriate for them. Buddha meets you where you are. Upaya is the cornerstone of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The sutras, therefore, contain within them a variety of different approaches used by various people, in various place, at various times. The Buddha is often compared to a doctor who dispensed remedies based on the affliction of specific people at specific times. In this way, each teaching is true in a given context, but not necessarily true in a different context.

Buddhist priests are trained in a wide variety of teachings and techniques, and spend a long time training under the supervision of a teacher who has experience in dispensing Buddha’s medicine. By developing a relationship with a teacher, and participating in the life of a Sangha, or Buddhist community, your teacher will be better able to give you a prescription specifically designed for you. This is one reason why it is so important to practice with an experienced and authentic teacher.



One of the other fundamental Mahayana concepts is the idea that all things (mental and physical) are characterized by “Shunyata.” The term Shunyata is often translated as “emptiness” in English, but this can be misleading as the term emptiness has a distinctly negative connotation. Sunyata has also recently been translated as “openness,” which corresponds nicely with the Chinese character used to translate the term in East Asian Buddhist texts: “kong 空 (pronounced “kū” in Japanese).” The character “空” can mean open, expansive, empty, or like the clear blue sky. Shunyata signifies the idea that things in the world, including the self, do not have a fixed nature, or essential core.

Shunyata may be seen as an extension, or perhaps clarification, of the term Dependent Origination (pratītya-samutpāda), regarded by many Buddhists as the fundamental truth of the Buddha’s awakening, that every “thing” arises in the world dependent upon other things. Nothing is independent or self-created. There is no First Cause or Creator.  

The great Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna (2nd-3rd cent.), once said, “for whom Sunyata is possible, all things are possible.” In other words, what keeps us stuck in cyclical suffering is our attachment to fixed ideas about our selves and the world. When we correctly perceive that the world is Shunyata, lacking any fixed or predetermined nature, we see that it is “open” to infinite possibilities, even the transformation of ignorant beings into Buddhas. This “openness” extends as well to all aspects of the Buddhist tradition as well. In other words, even the Buddha and the truths of the Buddhist tradition are subject to critique, interrogation, and reinterpretation.

Shunyata and Upaya work together to produce within Mahayana Buddhism a critical and self-reflective perspective on all assertions. All truths are relative to a particular context. They are therefore subject to change, and “open.” Each teaching is a tool designed with a specific purpose in mind.


Three Bodies of Buddha

The concept of “Buddha” is expansive in Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists conceive of the Buddha as functioning on three levels, the Tri-kaya, or “triple body.”

On the one hand, in practice Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and the gods may be conceived at first as entities outside of oneself. However, that is not the whole picture for Mahayana Buddhists. Emanations of Buddha Reality are also understood to be aspects of one’s very own mind. The highest truth of the universe, “Buddha,” or Awakening, is an aspect of who you are, right here, right now. In some sense, then, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and gods are also tools, or Upaya, employed to help you understand the true nature of reality. They are therefore also, Shunyata, or “open.”  

First is the Dharma-kaya, the “body of the Dharma.” This is basically all of reality in its true form: Shunyata. The world and everything in it, including every Buddha, Bodhisattva, or god, and so on, are all aspects of this ultimate reality. All things are contained within it. There is nothing that is left out. We ignorant beings mistakenly come to believe that we are somehow separate from this reality, we project onto this reality all sorts of mistaken views, and so, we must engage in Buddhist practices to remind ourselves of our true nature, and that nature is Buddha. Seeing this Truth is to achieve Buddhahood, Nirvana, enlightenment, highest awakening, perfect peace.

Second is the Sambhoga-kaya, or the form of the Buddha one might encounter in deep states of meditation. The Buddha Amitābha is sometimes conceived of as a Sambhoga-kaya because Buddhist scriptures tell us that when one meditates upon this Buddha and his Land of Bliss (see Pure Land section below) one may gain a vision of this Buddha. Sambhoga-kaya forms are manifestations of ultimate reality, the Dharma-kaya.

Third is the Nirmana-kaya, or the form an enlightened being might take on in order to teach others. The Buddha Shakyamuni is sometimes conceived as a Nirmana-kaya, a manifestation that ultimate reality employed to teach ordinary beings in a way that would be understandable. In other cases, gods may be understood as compassionate Nirmana-kaya manifestation of a Buddha or Bodhisattva.


“Pure Lands”

Mahayana Buddhist practice is premised on the notion that there are infinite Buddhas striving to help liberate ordinary beings, infinite Bodhisattvas pursuing the Buddhist path, and infinite worlds full of beings in need of assistance. Instead of a “uni-verse,” we abide within a “multi-verse.” Buddhas and Bodhisattvas “purify” their sphere of influence, and so, these worlds are sometimes referred to as “Pure Lands.” This expansive cosmology is also sometimes condensed. Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, or gods, and the many worlds described in Buddhist sutras, may be understood as aspects of this very mind. That which appears “out there” is also “in here.” In the context of Buddhist practice, the “out there” and the “in here” may be collapsed, as ultimately they are one and the same!

The most popular “Pure Land” is without a doubt the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha. The mythic cosmic narrative of the Buddha Amitābha is contained within the Pure Land Sutras. Therein the Buddha tells the story of a Bodhisattva named Dharmakara who aspired to create a world beyond Samsara. Under the tutelage of the Buddha Lokeshvara-raja, Dharmakara achieved his goal and became a Buddha. According to the Pure Land sutras, beings who think upon or chant Amitābha’s name even ten times may be reborn in his Pure Land after death.

This practice is referred to as nenbutsu in Japanese (buddhānusmṛti in Sanskrit, and nianfo in Chinese), which means “Buddha Mindfulness,” or recollection of the Buddha. There are two kinds of Buddha Mindfulness: mental and vocal. One may recollect the Buddha and engage in visualization meditation practices. One may also chant the name of a Buddha as a form of meditation. These two forms of Buddha Mindfulness may be combined as well. One can practice Buddha Mindfulness of any Buddha, but mindfulness of the Buddha Amitābha is likely the most common. Because of the ubiquity of Amitābha devotion across Mahayana culture, the chanting of his name, is one of the most common forms of Buddhist practice in the world:

Sanskrit: Namo Amitābhaya नमोऽमिताभाय

Chinese: Namo Amituo Fo 南無阿彌陀佛

Korean: Namu Amita Bul나무아미타불

Japanese: Namu Amida butsu 南無阿弥陀仏

Vietnamese: Nam mô A di đà phật

On one level, the sutras presents a narrative about Amitābha helping beings to be reborn in a pleasant locale after death, the “Land of Bliss.” Embedded in this narrative structure, Mahayana tradition also suggests that by thinking upon a Buddha one manifests the qualities of that Buddha, and recognizes that the Buddha “out there” is no different from the Buddha “in here.”

Amitābha Buddha is also known by another name, Amitāyus. The name Amitābha means “Infinite Light,” and the name Amitāyus means “Infinite Life.” Amitābha (Infinite Light) signifies the Wisdom of the Buddhas. Amitāyus (Infinite Life) signifies the Compassion of the Buddhas. Wisdom and Compassion are unified in Buddhism, and so, this Buddha’s name contains within it the entire Buddhist path. This is why it has become such a popular object of contemplation, recitation, and devotion, especially within the Tendai Buddhist tradition.


Tantric Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, and the Vajrayāna

Mahayana sutras have sometimes been described as “spiritual sci-fi.” They can be extremely complex and mystical, bordering on psychedelic. This grand cosmic vision of an interconnected multi-verse is not just a bunch of stories, but a road map for discovering “infinity in the palm of your hand.” In other words, sutras are not just to be read, but to be performed as well. The world of the sutras may be brought to life through deep study and contemplation, or ritual enactment. In some Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist traditions, this ritual enactment is accomplished through practices outlined in texts known as Tantras.

Tantras are ritual manuals detailing complex visualization practices to be performed along with the recitation of Mantras and the performance of coded hand movements and meditative postures called Mudras. Through the practice of coordinated mental, vocal, and physical meditative practices, one is said to directly experience Ultimate Reality right here and now. Scholars do not really know when the composition of the Tantras began, but many of the basic elements like Mudra, Mantra, and so on, seem to go back to the very earliest layers of Indian religious history, and the Tantras eventually proliferated across South Asian religions.

Tantric texts often promise the rapid attainment of Awakening, even within a single lifetime. Therefore, sometimes the path of the Tantras has been referred to as “Vajra-yana,” which can mean “Diamond Vehicle” or “Lightning Bolt Vehicle!” The practice of the Tantras has been compared to traveling in a rocket ship. Point the rocket at the moon, blast off and you will quickly reach your destination. But if it is pointed even slightly off target, or if there are design flaws or manufacturing errors there is no telling where you might end up, or if you’ll explode! Traditionally the practice of the Tantras has also often been kept secret, or limited to those who have received initiation and the permission of an authorized teacher. Tantric practice has therefore sometimes been referred to as “Esoteric Buddhism.”

Without a firm grasp of the basics, crystal clear intentions, and a strong student-teacher relationship, Esoteric Buddhist practice is inappropriate, and will lead one astray or worse. Modern Buddhists sometimes have a tendency to seek bigger, better, faster, and more improved methods, and we often over-look the importance of the basic fundamentals.

Ritual practice involving body, speech, and mind opens additional channels for spiritual development. The chants and recitations contain, express, and convey the Dharma. Most importantly, the practices are consciously performed for the benefit of others and not for one’s own well-being. Ritual practices like Mudra and Mantra contain the essence of a particular Buddha, Bodhisattva, or dharma practice. By performing these gestures and reciting these phrases, one is imbuing one’s being with those qualities, thus acting as a conduit for them so they may be experienced by other sentient beings. Again, the underlying intention of the practice is benefit to others.

Since His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and other Tibetan lamas escaped Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s, Tantric practice has been closely associated with Tibetan Buddhism. In the Tibetan-Himalayan cultural sphere, the study and practice of the Tantras is front and center. So prominent are the Tantras in Tibetan Buddhism that Tibetan Buddhism as a whole has often been referred to as “Vajra-yana.” This can be misleading as Tibetan Buddhism also has all of the other Mahayana and non-Mahayana sutras and other texts as well. Tibetan Buddhism is a Mahayana Buddhist culture within which the Tantras, and the idea of “the Vajra-yana” are very prominent. Therefore, Tibetan Buddhism has generally been the default perspective in popular Western literature on the practice of the Tantras.

While the Tantras played a much less prominent role in East Asian history more broadly, they played a major role in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China, when many early Japanese Buddhist traditions first developed. In the Japanese Buddhist tradition as a whole, especially within Tendai Buddhism, Tantric practice has been absolutely fundamental, though instead of using the term “Vajrayāna,” the term Esoteric Buddhism became more popular.

While the study of the Tantras is generally restricted to ordained practitioners, those working toward the Tendai priesthood, in some cases, some Esoteric practices like mantras and visualization practices may be taught to dedicated students at the discretion of an authorized teacher.