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What is Mahayana Buddhism?

Updated: May 11, 2022

Mahayana is one of the main existing branches of Buddhism and the Sanskrit word “Mahayana” means great vehicle.

In Mahayana Buddhism, often the goal is liberation for all sentient beings, rather than liberation for individuals.


Mahayana Buddhism is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia.


Mahayana Buddhism is not a single group but a collection of Buddhist traditions: Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism are all forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Bodhisattva

Mahayana talks a great deal about the bodhisattva (the 'enlightenment being') as being the ideal way for a Buddhist to live.

Anyone can embark on the bodhisattva path. This is a way of life, a way of selflessness; it is a deep wish for all beings, no matter who they are, to be liberated from suffering.

The Trikaya - the three bodies of Buddha

Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya):

  • Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent - he is the same thing as the ultimate truth.

  • Sambhogakaya: Buddha's body of bliss, or enjoyment body.

  • Nirmanakaya: Buddha's earthly body - just like any other human being's body.

Mahayana practice is based on Tibetan and Chinese Canons. While Theravada Buddhism follows the Pali Canon, said to include only the actual teachings of the Buddha, the Chinese and Tibetan Mahayana canons have texts that correspond to much of the Pali Canon, but also have added a vast number of sutras and commentaries that are strictly Mahayana.

Mahayana Buddhism uses the Sanskrit rather than the Pali form of common terms; for example, sutra instead of sutta; dharma instead of dhamma.


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