Mahayana Buddhism, again, originating in India, is spread throughout the world. It is practised mainly in modern day countries such as Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, China and Japan.

It is one of the two major schools of Buddhism.

The precise origins of Mahayana Buddhism are something of a mystery. The historical record shows it emerging as a separate school from Theravada during the 1st century BCE. However, it most likely had been developing gradually for a long time before that.

Some scholars have suggested that Mahayana is an offspring of Mahasanghika, a now-extinct Buddhist sect formed about 320 BCE. Mahasanghika developed the idea of the transcendent nature of a Buddha, the ideal of the bodhisattva, and the doctrine of shunyata, or "emptiness."

There are 8 major schools to include Pure Land, Zen, Ch’an, and others. It is believed by some scholars that Mahāyāna can trace its initial origins to one of the original and oldest branches of Buddhism, Mahāsāṃghika.

The ideal of Mahayana practice is the bodhisattva, "enlightenment being," who works for the enlightenment of all beings.

Some time in the 1st century BCE, the name Mahayana, or "great vehicle," in Sanskrit, was established to distinguish this divergent school from Theravada. Theravada was derided as "Hinayana," or the "lesser vehicle."

The names point to the distinction between Theravada's emphasis on individual enlightenment and the Mahayana ideal of the enlightenment of all beings. The name "Hinayana" is generally considered to be a pejorative.

Over the years, Mahayana subdivided into more schools with divergent practices and doctrines.


A schism is the term given to a theological division, a splitting of groups, a divide in the beliefs, thoughts, attitude and practice of followers of a particular religion. Protestants "protesting" about Catholic policies on torture and inhumane practices towards fellow humans broke away, forming their own school. This is an example of a schism.

In a similar way, Buddhism had a schism, and this led to the division in schools of thought. However, there is much in common with Mahayana and Theravada, and they are not mutually exclusive. Mahayana teaches that beings and phenomena have no intrinsic existence of their own and take identity only in relation to other beings and phenomena.

The major difference as it relates to these two branches was bound to happen due to how humans think. Theravada was more conservative which took a literal and traditional view of the teachings of the Buddha as central. Mahayana, however, took an interpretative and populist view of the teachings in order for them to adapt and build up on them to reach a wider audience and help explain complex teachings for laypersons (while still retaining the original teachings of the Buddha).

Calling one branch or school of Buddhism better than the other misses the point of Buddhism entirely. We should all be open with our minds and hearts to all teachings. Our entire purpose in Buddhism is not to debate which branch or school is better, but to understand that the diversity of these schools allows many people to discover and understand the teachings that resonate with them.

All forms of Buddhism essentially teach the path to transcending the ego-self, and that path is through stilling the mind and opening the heart. For more information, check out Buddhanet's interpretation of the schism here


One of the most well-known schools of Mahayana Buddhism is Zen.

This form of Buddhism offers a different form of teaching from Vipassana, or focusing on the breath as a basis for a Mindfulness-based practice.

Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. It began in China, spread to Korea and Japan, and became very popular in the West from the mid 20th century. The essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language. Something I guess we can all relate to!

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Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, a poet, a scholar, and a peace activist. His life long efforts to generate peace and reconciliation moved Martin Luther King, Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. He founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon and the School for Youths of Social Services in Vietnam.

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