Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
Volume I, 28 April 1950

Volume I Table of Contents

Transcriptions are intended to reproduce the source document accurately, adhering to the exact wording and punctuation of the original. In general, errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar have been neither corrected nor indicated by [sic].

"The Chief Characteristics and Doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism"

[28 April 1950]
[Chester, Pa.]

In this paper for Davis's course History of Living Religions, King explores the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism and implicitly associates that religion's morality and popular appeal with the ideals of Christianity. King drew chiefly on S. Radhakrishnan's Indian Philosophy and J. B. Pratt's The Pilgrimage of Buddhism. (King later met Radhakrishnan during his 1959 trip to India). Davis gave King an A for the paper, calling it "a clear statement," and a B+ for the course.

Immediately after the death of Buddha schismatic tendencies began to develop within the religion which he had founded. Even in Buddha's lifetime there were tendencies to schism among his followers, but his magnetic personality was able to prevent their development. The first great doctrinal controversy in Buddhism was about the nature of Buddha. The school of the great council (Mahasanghikas) maintained that Buddha's nature was transcendent, and free from all earthly limitations. The conservatives, while exalting Buddha, above common humanity, would not admit that he was exempt from all the limitations of mankind.

These were but the first steps in a path which led to a radical transformation of Buddhism. The progressive group gave itself the name Mahayana, "the great vehicle," that is, the comprehensive scheme of salvation; with a deragatory comparison they called the old fashioned religion Hinayana, "the little vehicle," a scheme of individual salvation.

Hinayana Buddhism was called Southern Buddhism, since it prevailed in southern countries like Burma and Ceylon. On the other hand Mahayana Buddhism was called Northern Buddhism, since it flourished in northern countries like China and Japan. However this dividion seems to be an artificial one. Says Rhys Davids: "There is not now, and never has been, any unity either of opinion or of language in what is called Northern or in what is called Southern Buddhism."[Footnote: R. Davids, Buddhist India, p. 173.] Although the division is artificail from a geographical point of view it is all important on higher grounds: the "southern" school insists that it has preserved the original teachings of Buddha with no accresions; the "northern" school is manifestly a broader interpretation. The northern school has never been essentially dependent upon the historical Buddha. Dates and documents have never mattered much to this Idealism.

As time passed on Hinayana Buddhism became the "incarnation of dead thought and the imprisonment of spirit." It could give neither a warm faith for which to work {live, nor a real ideal for which to work.} It set forth a sort of world hatred as its inspiring motive. It preferred negative philosophical speculation, rather than a warm and positive religious expression. But this negative philosophy of the Hinayana could never become a popular religion. Its cold, passionless metaphysics could never inspire a real emotional uplifting. "The Hinayana ignored the groping of the spirit of man after something higher and wronged the spiritual side of man. The philosophical atheism of the Hinayana is the skeleton in the box, the diseased worm in the beautiful box."[Footnote: S. Radhakrishman, Indian Philosophy, p. 589] Thus the Hinayana Buddhism had to give way to a more positive and religious mode of expression. As Buddhism became more catholic, the Hinayana became less useful. As Buddhism spread throughout India and even beyond it, it had to adjust itself to new modes of thought. It had to present its message in language understandable to the masses. This challenge was met by Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayanism was able to capture the minds of the masses by giving up the icy coldness of some forms of early Buddhism and framing a relgion that could appeal to the inner emotions.[Footnote: Ibid, p. 591.]

The Mahayana Buddhism gives us positive ideas of the ultimate issues of life. The Mahayana, or Great Vessel, offers to all beings salvation, by faith and love as well as by knowledge, while the Hinayana only seeks those few strong souls who require no external aid nor the consolation of worship. The Hinayana is exceedingly hard; whereas the burden of the Mahayana is light, and does not require one to totally renounce the world and his affections for humanity. "The Hinayana emphasises the necessity of saving knowledge, and aims at the salvation of the individual, and refuses to develop the mystery of nibbana in a positive sense; the Mahayana lays as much or greater stress on love, and aims at the salvation of every sentient being, and finds in nirvana the One Reality, which is void only in the sense that it is free from the limitations of every phase of the limited or contingent experience of which we have emperical knowledge."[Footnote: A. Coomaraswamy, Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, p. 227.] The Hinayanist would protest that the Mahayanist too easily capitulated the pure teachings of Buddha to the necessities of human nature. But such capitulation was inevitable if Buddhism was to win converts. The Hinayana Buddhism was a religion for the thinking and the strong in spirit. Its lack of any supernatural power, its morbid way of solving the central problems of life, its reduction of nirvana to ultimate extinction, and its relegation of the ethical life to a streneous asceticism, could never satisfy the masses. A new development had to arise for the emotional and the worshipful. Such was found in Mahayana Buddhism. At this point we may turn to a more detailed study of the chief characteristics and doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Mahayana Methaphysics

The metaphysics of Mahayana is monistic in character. All that exist in the world is of one reality. The nature of this reality is beyond description. "Things in their fundamental nature cannot be named or explained. They cannot be adequately expressed in any form or language. They are beyond the range of perception, and have no distinctive features. They possess absolute sameness, and are subject neither to transformation nor to destruction. They are nothing else but one soul, for which tathata is another designation."[Footnote: Suzuki's translation of, The Awakening of Faith, p. 56.] No relativity whatsoever can be attributed to the absolute. However it is the self-existent and the source of all. It is "the effulgence of great wisdom; the universal illumination of the dharmadhatu (universe), the true and adequate knowledge, the mind pure and clean in its nature; the eternal, the blessed, the self-regulating and the pure, the immutable and the free."[Footnote: Ibid, p. 96.]

The Mahayana Buddhists see the world of experience as phenomenal and not real. They liken it to a maya, mirage, flash of lightning or froth.[Footnote: Radhakrishnan, op. cit., p. 593.] All existent things have three aspects: (1) quintessence, (2) attributes, and (3) activities. This may be illustrated by a simple jar. Its quintessence is the earth, its attribute is the form of the jar, and its activity is to keep water. The attribute and activity are by nature mutable, subject to the law of birth and death. On the other hand the quintessence is indestructible. The whole universe has its unchanged aspect as well as its changeable one. The term most frequently used to name the ultimate cosmic principle or the unchangable aspect of the universe is Bhutatathata. This universal absolute is above all predicates. It can best be expressed in terms of the mystic, i.e., by negatives: "Bhutatathata is neither that which is existence nor that which is plurality, nor that which is at once unity and plurality."[Footnote: Suzuki, op. cit., p. 59.] It is quite significant to note the similarity of this conception with the Brahman of the Upanishads. However it seemed that the Mahayanists were quite aware of the similarity of their position with the Upanishadic view. In fact there was a steady influence of the spiritualistic monism of the Upanishads upon the thought of Mahayana Buddhism. The acceptance of the cosmic and monistic Bhutatathata on the part of the Mahayanists was quite significant for later Buddhism, for it meant the transformation of Buddhism from an individualistic and either pluralistic or nihilistic philosophy into a monistic and spiritualistic view, strikingly similar to neo-Hegelian absolute idealism.[Footnote: J. B. Pratt, The Pilgrimage of Buddhism, p. 248.]

The rise of the world of multiplicity is accounted for by a metaphysics of metaphors. Ignorance or avidya is said to be the cause of the world. As stated previously Bhutatathata is pure spirit or pure awareness without multiplicity or character; but it is infected with multiplicity through the action of ignorance, a process which the author of the Awakening seeks to make plainer by the simile of "perfuming." Just as clothes when new have no odor but are scented by the perfumes which one puts upon them, so the pure, undifferentiated mind is "perfumed" by ignorance. From this perfuming there results the mind of man, and from the mind of man results the dream or vision of an external world. However this illusion of an external world is a defect of true vision; it is "a cataract on the spiritual eye." This world of multiplicity is indeed ultimately attributable to, it flows from, the One Reality. At this point, as Pratt reminds us,[Footnote: Ibid, p. 253.] we find the Mahayana asserting the same general thesis as Spinoza. Like Spinoza again, the Mahayana does not pretend to be able to follow out the details of derivation. They are quite aware of the impossibility of ascertaining where the many appear and where they disappear; for that we must look to the Supreme Nature. However we can know that the many are illusory, like the "flower-shaped apparition" which a man would get, "who with perfect sight, beheld the pure void of space, but fixed his eyes on one particular spot, beyond which he did not look or move his eyes, staring until his sight was fatigued."

We are immediately led to ask the question, whence arises in our finite minds the illusion of the many? This question is never completely and satisfactorily answered. The Mahayana struggles with it, but its attempts at explanation seldom satisfy the western reader. It seems that their explanation boils down to this point: since an illusion is really a negation of reality, consisting of non-being, no explanation is required. In other words, since it is a form of nothing, it is not necessary to attribute a cause to it.

This then is the explanation of the phenomenal world; this expresses the way in which the many evolve from the one through the intervention of ignorance. Obviously this is not wholly clear. But it need not perplex us to much, for even the author of the Awakening does not claim to have full understanding of the matter himself. In fact, he tells us that "the mind which starts from the perfuming influence of ignorance which has no beginning cannot be comprehended by common people nor even by Sravakas and Pratyekalriddhas. It is partly comprehended by some Bodhisattvas; but even those who bave reached the highest stage of Bodhisattvahood cannot thoroughly comprehend it. The only one who can have a clear and consummate knowledge of it is the Tathagata."[Footnote: Suzuki, op. cit., p. 78.]

The Mahayana Religion

From a doctrinal point there is no unity in the Mahayana religion. It is characterized by a great degree of diversity. This lack of doctrinal unity in Mahayana Buddhism may be attributed to its amazing amount of tolerance, something quite conspicuously missing in Hinayana Buddhism. Wherever Mahayana Buddhism prevailed the indigeneous religions were tolerated, while it took care to teach them a new respect for life, kindness to animals and resignation. So long as they followed certain ethical rules, the new converts were not forced to give up their numerous superstitions. Any god could be believed in so long as one was ethical. This protean character of Mahayana Buddhism is another example of that universal historical law, viz., that that culture which conquers is in turn conquered. This universal law is especially true of religion. It was true when Christianity proved victorious in the Roman empire and it was true when Mahayana Buddhism won converts from the regions of China, Korea, Siam, Burma and Japan. "The more crusading a religion is, the more it absorbs."

The amazing amount of tolerence of Mahayana Buddhism is in consonance with its metaphysical views. It is asserted that all religions are revelation of the same Dharmakaya and bring out some aspects of truth.[Footnote: Radhakrishnan, op. cit., p. 597.] Dharma is the all-pervading spiritual force, the ultimate and the supreme principle of life. It is interesting to note that there is an attempt to personify dharma in the conception of Buddha. He is considered the first cause, the eternal God, superior to all things the supreme and first of all Buddhas. He is the devatideva, the paramount God of gods. He is the creator of all bodhisattvas. All beings are his children. "The tathagata, having left the conflagration of the three worlds, is dwelllng in peace in the tranquillity of his forest abode, saying to himself all three worlds are my possession, all living beings are my children, the world is full of intense tribulation, but I myself will work out their salvation." "To all who believe me I do good, while friends are they to me who seek refuge in me."[Footnote: Quoted in Radakrishnan, op. cit., p. 600.] However there is more than one Buddha. There are a number of Buddhas endowed with the highest intelligence and love. They too are working constantly to save the world. There have been an infinite number of these Buddhas in the past, and there will be an infinite number in the future. All of these Buddhas are transitory manifestations of the one eternal being.

Many of the Vedic gods are brought over into Mahayanism, and thus become aspects of the One Supreme Reality. Nagarjuna who, with Asvaghosha is commonly considered the founder of Mahayana Buddhism, by his precept and practice taught that the Hindu gods of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Kali had the attributes assigned to them in Brahmanical scriptures, and were proper objects of worship. The traditional Hindu gods were easily adjusted to this new system, and their function and assignments were readily given.[Footnote: Indra becomes Satamanyu and Vajrapani, with his own kingdom of heaven. Brahma had his chief characters transferred to Manjusri, the lamp of wisdom. Vishnu passes his attributes to Avalokitesvara or Padmapani. Virupaksa is one of the names of Shiva, though in Buddhistic legend he is one of the four kings. Ganesa is taken over both as Vinayaka and demon Vinatakn. Ajita formed with Sakyamuni and Avolokitesvara a triad.] A close analysis of Mahayanism will reveal that a vast number of its bodhisattvas, archangels and saints are only Vedic Aryans "thinly disguised by Buddhistic symbolism."[Footnote: Radhakrishnon, op. cit., p. 598.]

On the surface Mahayana religion seems to be polytheistic, in contrast to its monistic metaphysics. But a more scrutinizing study would reveal that the several gods are subordinate to a single head. It is the Dharmakaya which is the ultimate foundation of existence. This metaphysical conception of Dharmakaya as the ground of all existence makes Mahayana religion essentially compatible with its metaphysics.

The Ethics of Mahayana

The ethical ideal of the Mahayana is the Bodhisattva. Etymologically the term Bodhisattva means simply one whose being consists of insight. But historically it means "one who is on the way to the attainment of perfect knowledge, a future Buddha." The term was first applied to Gotoma during his previous births and throughout the earlier years of his historical life up to the time of his enlightenment. It therefore came to mean a man destined to become a Buddha in this or in some future life.[Footnote: Pratt, op. cit., pl 217.] To understand this ideal it is necessary to go back to the teaching and life of the founder. His own example was quite free from selfishness and narrowness. He taught that each man should avoid giving pledges to Fortune and should seek the desireless and sorrow-free life. But beyond this his own heart was so full of love for every form of suffering creature that he long postponed Parinivana for their sake. It was this point of the Buddha's teaching and example that the Mahayanist seized upon and it was upon this that they based their moral ideal. The Arat of the Hinayana, busy about his own salvation, was considered too narrow and selfish by the Mahayana, and they erected in his stead the ideal of the earnest seeker after the welfare of others, who in unselfish devotion to his fellow creatures accumulates great stores of merit and dedicates it not to his own salvation but to that of all suffering beings. Merit is thought by the Mahayana as being transferable. There is also the element of vicarious suffering in Mahayana religion. The Bodhisattva is able to present his merit to a needy world, and for its sake he is willing to be a meritless sinner.[Footnote: Ibid, 218.] It is interesting at this point to note the similarities of this conception of vicarious suffering and the transference of merit to many of the theories of atonement that have appeared in the history of Christian thought.

The Mahavastu, a late Hinayana work, gives a list of ten stages in the progress of the Bodhisattva, and the same number is retained, with modifications in detail, by the Mahayana authorities. The first stage is the joyful (pramudita) one characterised by the rise of the thought of bodhi. It is here that the Bodhisattva makes sincere resolutions which determine the future course. One such vow is the resolution of Avalokitesvara not to accept salvation until the last particle of dust shall have attained to Buddhahood. The recognition of the impermanence of things brings the stage of Vimala or purity into being. In it came the practice of morality and the exercise of wisdom (adhicitta). In the next stage the Bodhisattva goes through the process of blotting out anger, hatred, and error, and promoting faith, compassion, charity, and disinterestedness. This is the third stage (prabhakari), where the seeker shines with patience and forbearance. In the fourth stage the Bodhisattva surrenders all traces of egoism by training himself in good work and applying himself specially to the cultivation of virtues connected with bodhi. In the fifth stage the seeker begins a course of study and meditation to understand the four noble truths in their true light. In the next stage the seeker turns to the basic principles of "dependent origination and non-substantiality." This stage is called the abhimukhi, or "turned towards." The seeker now devotes himself to the attainment of that knowledge which would enable him to effect his aim of universal salvation. He is now in the seventh stage, called duramjama. Next the seeker comes to the eithth stage in which the supreme virtue of (anutpattiladharmacaksuh) seeing all things such as they are dominates. In the ninth stage the seeker reaches the point when all his acts are unselfish, done without desire. Finally the Bodhisattva reaches the tenth stage in which he becomes a tathagata, a cloud of dharma.[Footnote: Radhakrishnan, op. cit., pp. 601, 602.]

In this upward pathway from the phenomenal world to the Real world we see something of the Mahayana view of salvation. Just before his death, Buddha had said to his followers, "Work out your own salvation with diligence." The Mahayana accepts this command and urges the necessity of individual effort in the salvation process. But they do not stop here. The help of a saviour is necessary. The Mahayana would reword the Buddha's sentence and cry with St. Paul: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure."[Footnote: Philippians 2:12.] It is the Buddha nature within us that unites itself with our wills in the struggle for salvation. Without this more than human aid, salvation from ignorance and desire would be impossible.

The principles of the moral life for the Mahayana are five in number, viz., dana (charity), virya (fortitude) sila (morality), ksanti (patience), and dhyana (meditation). The severity of monasticism is relaxed. It is possible for one to reach the goal and remain married. Asceticism and poverty are not emphasized as they are in Hinayana ethics. The doctrine of karma is tempered with mercy. Emphasis is placed on faith as a way of salvation. The Mahayana insists on the turning over of ethical merit to the advantage of others. They insist that no man lives to himself alone. The good or evil of one affects the whole. Whether the metaphysical truth that nothing on earth is real, can be reconciled with the ethical law that we should work and suffer for our neighbor, is apparently a problem which the Mahayanist never solved. He would still insist that he must save the world. When the question of nirvana is brought forth the Mahayanists are anxious to make out that it is not annihilation. It is real freedom where ignorance is overcome. It is the union with the great soul of the universe. To become a Buddha is to become one in essence with the infinite.


Now we may see why Mahayana Buddhism gradually won out over Hinayana Buddhism. The Hinayana was for the Buddhist elect chiefly: the Mahayana is for everybody. It has its obstruse philosophical appeal for the thinker, as was noticed in its metaphysical system; and at the same time it provides something for the most naive mind, as was noticed in the amazing degree of tolerance in its religion. "Its thinkers were well aware of Hegel's distinction between religion and philosophy at least sixteen hundred years before Hegel was born. The truths of philosophy need not be studied in their obstruse form by the beginner; for him the simpler and symbolic figures that speak to the imagination may well suffice."[Footnote: Pratt, op. cit. p. 231.]

Thus Buddhism became a religion for the laymen as well as for the monk. The emphasis on fleeing from the world was replaced by a desire to live in the world, while yet being not of the world. In the words of Coomaraswamy, "the development of the Mahayana is the overflowing of Buddhism over the limits of Order into the life of the world."[Footnote: op. cit. p. 228]


1. Ashvaghosha, Awakening of Faith, trans. by D. T. Suzuki, Chicago, 1900.
2. Coomaraswamy, A. Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, New York, 1916.
3. Davids, R., Buddhist India, New York, 1903.
4. Pratt, J. B., The Pilgrimage of Buddhism, New York, 1928.
5. Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, New York, 1923.

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