Mahayana is known as 'the Great Vehicle' because of its great motivation of cultivating love and compassion equally for all living beings. It is often associated with Zen Buddhism and the Pure Lands tradition but is also the inner heart of Tibetan Buddhism. Mahayana is the path of the Bodhisattva, who sees the emptiness of all phenomena and who aspires to free all living beings from suffering and lead them to complete enlightenment. The Bodhisattva does this by cultivating great compassion.
While the Hinayana path focuses on freeing oneself from the cycle of conditioned existence called 'samsara', the Mahayana path goes much further. It is not enough to free oneself from suffering and attain the peace of nirvana (the cessation of suffering). We are connected to all of life and dependent on everything else that lives, just as a tree is rooted in the soil and depends on rain and sunshine to grow. Just like us, other living beings want to be happy and avoid suffering, yet just like us they suffer in innumerable ways. So when we travel the Mahayana path, we open our heart to the suffering of all living beings and make the commitment to help lead them all to enlightenment. This is the meaning of 'great compassion'.
Before we can do this, we need to find stability and clarity within ourselves. We need to establish a solid foundation of discipline and ethics in our lives and practice calm abiding meditation in order to settle our minds. In other words we first need to lay the foundation by adhering to the basic practices of the Hinayana vehicle. Once we have done this we are ready to begin treading the path of the Bodhisattva.
Accomplished Bodhisattvas are those who have come to understand the essence of suffering, perceiving that it is neither solid nor real. They are free from all negative emotions and have awakened the power of wisdom and compassion within themselves. An example of a high Bodhisattva is Chenrezig, who embodies the ideal of universal compassion. He vowed to delay his own full enlightenment and to remain in the world to work for the benefit of all beings. In contrast to the Hinayana practitioner who withdraws himself from the world and its confusion to find solace and peace, the Bodhisattva fully embraces the world and its confusion, acting in a variety of skilful ways to help others but is not seduced into believing in the reality of worldly experiences. Bodhisattvas are able to do this because they have realised the empty nature of all phenomena.
In ordinary life we take our 'self' to be something fixed and permanent - the thinker behind our thoughts. It is the central point of reference around which our life revolves. We then identify with our changing thoughts and feelings and call them 'mine'. The Hinayana view of no-self however, shows us that 'self' is an illusion - it does not exist. Instead of it being an entity in its own right - the one who experiences our life - our 'self ' is simply a label that we apply to our constantly changing experiences. The problem is we get fervently attached to the label. But, in truth, there is nobody behind our thoughts and feelings; there are just the experiences themselves, which are the moment by moment interplay of different mental and physical processes.
The Mahayana view deepens this understanding. The 'Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma', which is the second main phase of the Buddha's teaching, looks at the nature of reality itself. According to the Heart Sutra, everything lacks true and independent existence, not only our sense of self, but also the mental and physical processes that make up 'me' and 'my world'. This is the meaning of 'emptiness' in Buddhism. 'Emptiness' does not mean that things are blank and non-existent. It means that all things are interconnected and depend upon one another for their existence. Consequently, everything that exists is made up of many other things. So when we look for the essence of something, its unique characteristic, we cannot find it. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller parts. In other words, things are 'empty of their own existence'.
For example, if we are looking from afar, a mountain seems to be one thing indeed, a very permanent and solid thing. But when we look closer we see it is made up of trees, soil and rocks. When we look closer still, we see the rocks and soil are made up minerals and biodegradable matter. When we examine these more closely, we see they are made up of various elements, which themselves can be broken down into infinitely smaller parts. And, of course, the existence of the mountain is also dependent upon the mind that perceives it - without our faculties of sight and perception the mountain does not exist for us. Consequently, in Buddhism we say that the mountain is empty of 'its own existence' because it depends on many other things - the elements, the soil, the rocks, the trees and our own perception of it - in order to appear in our mind as a 'mountain'.
Not only do things not have any reality in themselves, but everything is an experience within our mind and our mind also lacks tangible reality. This can best be illustrated if we compare our experiences to a dream. When we are dreaming, our dream world feels very real to us while we are immersed in it. Once we have woken up, however, we can tell it did not actually exist and regardless of how real and even frightening the things that occurred in it might have felt at the time, we realize these were only things that happened in our mind - like a lighting flash in an empty sky - and are now completely gone without trace.
Consequently, neither reality 'out there' nor our mind 'in here' has any reality. We then drop the notion of emptiness, which is itself a concept, thereby abandoning all the ideas we have plastered over reality. What remains is the vivid experience of things just as they are, appearing and disappearing in the moment.
Relative and Ultimate Truth
This is the ultimate truth. Everything that exists is an expression of everything else. All of life is interconnected and nothing exists on its own as a separate entity. But things still appear and whatever we do still produces a result. If we throw a pebble in a stream is causes a ripple. If we do something bad, it comes back on us. If we do something good, that comes back on us too. This is the law of karma which functions according to immutable principles of cause and effect. This is the relative truth. It is the way things work in everyday life.
The ultimate truth is the way things really are and the relative truth is the way things appear to our everyday perception. These two truths work together and do not contradict each other. When we practice the Dharma we need to keep them both in mind. When we live our lives we are mindful of how we act since consequences flow from our actions (relative truth), but at the same time we maintain the awareness that whatever is happening and whatever we are experiencing is not solid and real, but is open and spacious like a dream (ultimate truth). These two truths are expressed in the notion of Bodhicitta, which is the main practice of the Bodhisattva.
Bodhicitta means 'the awakened heart of enlightenment'. It is made up of two aspects:
- Ultimate Bodhicitta - this expresses ultimate truth and is the innate wisdom of the mind which reveals all phenomena to be empty and without self essence.
- Relative Bodhicitta - this expresses relative truth and is the compassion that flows from this wisdom in skilful response to the suffering of living beings.
Both the wisdom of emptiness and the activity of compassion need to be present for genuine awakening to occur. Like the two wings of a bird, they must balance each other and work in tandem to reach enlightenment. At the outset it is usually more difficult to awaken the wisdom of emptiness, so we start by cultivating compassion (or relative Bodhicitta) while maintaining the view of emptiness (or ultimate Bodhicitta).
We formally commence the practice of Bodhicitta by taking the Bodhisattva vow. This normally happens after Taking Refuge. It is conferred in a ceremony that is held in the presence of an experienced teacher who carries an unbroken lineage within the Mahayana tradition. The Bodhisattva vow is as follows: "Just as the Buddhas of the past first resolved to reach enlightenment and then progressed stage by stage through the different levels of bodhisattva training, so in the same way we also develop a mind intent upon enlightenment for the good of all beings and we will also progressively practise in that training."
There are two aspects to relative Bodhicitta. The first is aspiration Bodhicitta. This is when we form the sincere intention to lead all living beings to enlightenment. Aspiration bodhicitta is very important because what we intend to do determines how we act in the world. So it is necessary to clarify our intentions before we take any action.
This aspiration to lead all beings to enlightenment is not an abstract wish, nor is it a vague 'do-gooder' concept. It starts from our own experience of suffering and the hard task of facing our own confusion and pain and seeing how our lives are dominated by it. The blessing of the Buddhist path is that we eventually come to understand that all this suffering is not substantial or real, but rather something we are creating moment by moment. As a consequence, it is possible to let go of suffering, we do not need to experience it any longer. Since it is natural to feel empathy towards others who are struggling in a similar way, when we gain insight into the nature of suffering it is equally natural to wish that they will also arrive at the same insight and be free of suffering too. So we commit to helping them in any way we can.
Application Bodhicitta and the Six Paramitas
Having started the process of developing Bodhicitta by aspiring to do so, the next step is to practice the path that will lead to awakening. This is called application Bodhicitta. There are six paramitas or 'perfections' that will lead us to full awakening. Indeed, the word 'paramita' literally means 'gone to the other shore' and is used because mastering these virtues will take us from the ordinary world of conditioned existence to the 'other shore' of enlightenment.
The Six Paramitas are:
- Ethics and discipline
- Patience and forbearance
- Joyful enthusiasm and diligence
- Prajna or "primordial wisdom"
There is a natural order to the paramitas. The first one helps give rise to the next one and so on. For example, by practising generosity we become less concerned for our own material well being and develop more interest in behaving ethically. In practising ethics in a disciplined manner, we become more patient and forbearing. In practising patience, a natural enthusiasm arises for acting in a positive way. The diligence that arises from enthusiasm lays the ground for settling our mind into meditation in an undistracted way. And in practising meditation the true nature of phenomena, which is called prajna, reveals itself to us.
The first five paramitas are connected with the accumulation of merit, which means to gather within one's mind the positive conditions that make awakening possible, and the last paramita is connected with the accumulation of wisdom, which is lasting insight into the true nature of mind. Merit fuels the fire of wisdom that leads to enlightenment.
In order for these practices to transcend our everyday experience of 'I' and the sense of separation between ourselves and others, prajna needs to accompany each one of the paramitas. For example, when we practice being generous, we need to keep awareness that the giver, the receiver and the gift are all illusory and without true existence.
The Four Limitless Contemplations
Through practising in this way we break free of the limitations of a small, separate self and start devoting our life to the well-being of everyone. This is expressed in the four limitless contemplations, so called because they inspire us to expand the boundaries of our awareness and compassion so that they become unlimited.
The Four Limitless Contemplations are:
- May all beings be happy and create the causes of happiness.This aspect cultivates limitless love.
- May they all be free from suffering and from creating the causes of suffering. This aspect cultivates limitless compassion.
- May they attain that sacred happiness which can never be tainted by suffering. This aspect cultivates sympathetic joy.
- May they experience universal, impartial compassion free of attachment to loved ones and aversion to others. This aspect cultivates equanimity.
Through completely opening our hearts and minds to all beings in this way, the jewel of enlightenment gradually reveals itself to us and manifests in our lives.
'Enlightenment' has different meanings. The goal of the Hinayana is 'nirvana', a state of deep and lasting peace without any mental activity or belief in a separate self. According to the Mahayana this is an incomplete goal because the qualities of enlightened mind have not yet been fully developed. These qualities are wisdom and compassion and they become fully developed in the mind of the bodhisattva through the practice of relative and ultimate Bodhicitta.
Therefore, according to the Mahayana, enlightenment has two aspects: firstly, the complete purification of ignorance and the disturbing emotions and secondly, the complete blossoming of our innate wisdom and compassion.
Furthermore, enlightenment arises in a three-fold way:
- Dharmakaya is the true nature of the mind, which is unlimited and formless.
- Samboghakaya is the way this true nature manifests to Bodhisattvas as pure form - for example, as the limitless love and compassion of enlightenment manifest in the form Chenrezig.
- Nirmanakaya is the way this true nature manifests to ordinary beings in the world - for example, as it does in the form of an enlightened teacher like His Holiness the Dalai Lama.