The historical timeline of the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism is discussed.
Revised September 8, 2021; June 28, 2023
Edward Conze was a Mahāyāna scholar and translated the Mahāyāna Prajnapāramitā or Perfection of Wisdom sutrās from original Sanskrit to English. See “Edward Conze.”
(Note that Sanskrit sutrās — sutra is the Sanskrit word for sutta — were composed by Mahāyāna philosophers like Nagarjuna and are NOT original Pāli suttās delivered by the Buddha).
Conze was impressed with the Mahāyāna sutrās, and in the book, “On Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism” (1968), he analyzed the works of the Mahāyāna/Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki. Even though his bias towards Mahāyāna sutrās is clear, I selected his timeline, which clearly shows how Mahāyāna scholars wrote their sutrās and tried later to attribute those to the Buddha.
This historical timeline is discussed in detail by Edward Conze in his book, “A Short History of Buddhism” (1980; last edition 2008). According to Conze, the history of Buddhism can be conveniently divided into four periods:
- The old Buddhism largely coincided with what later came to be known as Theravāda.
- Rise of Mahāyāna,
- Rise of the Tantra (Vajrayāna) and Ch’an (Zen),
- No further divisions.
The first period is roughly 500 years; the second and third periods together cover approximately the first thousand years of the current era (CE); the last thousand years can be considered the fourth period. In the following description, the differences between the original teachings and the Mahāyāna ideology are also evident.
In the following, I will present this story verbatim as told by Conze (starting at p. 31 of his book, the 2008 edition):
“The Mahayana developed in two stages: first in an unsystematic form, which went on between 100 BC and AD 500, and then, after AD 150, in a systematized philosophical form, which led to two distinct schools, the Madhyamaikas and the Yogacarins.
We must first of all explain the main features of the early Mahayana. About 100 BC (roughly 400 years after the Buddha’s Parinibbana), a number of Buddhists (in India) felt that the existing statements of the doctrine had become stale and useless. In the conviction that Dhamma requires ever new re-formulations so as to meet the needs of new ages, new populations, and new social circumstances, they set out to produce new literature (which ultimately came to be known as Mahāyāna Buddhism.) The creation of this literature is one of the most significant outbursts of creative energy known to human history and it was sustained for about four to five centuries (bolding mine.) Repetition alone, they believed, cannot sustain a living religion. Unless counterbalanced by constant innovation, it will become fossilized and lose its life-giving qualities.
So far the Mahayaṃistic attitude seems quite logical. What is more difficult to understand is that they insisted in presenting the new writings, manifestly composed centuries after the Buddha’s death, as the very words of the Buddha himself. In order to make room for the new dispensation, they followed the Mahasanghikas in minimizing the importance of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni, whom they replaced by the Buddha who is the embodiment of Dhamma (dharmakāya). In the “Lotus of the Good Law,” we are told that the Buddha, far from having reached his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, about 500 BC or whenever the date may have been, abides for eons and eons, from eternity to eternity, and that He preaches the Law at all times in countless places and innumerable disguises.”
Excerpts from p. 32-34:
“The conception of the Buddha as the timeless embodiment of all Truth allowed for a successive revelation that truth by Him at different times. Not content with this, the Mahayaṃists tried to link their own writings with the historical Buddha by a number of mythological fictions. They asserted that they had been preached by the Buddha in the course of his life on Earth, that parallel to the (First Buddhist) Council at Rajagrha, which codified the Suttas of the Hinayana, the Mahāyāna suttras had been codified by an assembly of Bodhisattvas on the mythical mountain of Vimalasvabhava; that the texts had been miraculously preserved for five centuries and stored away in the subterranean palaces of the Nagas, or with the king of the Gandharvas, or the king of the Gods. Then, as Nagarjuna puts it, “five hundred years after the Buddha’s Nirvana, when the Good Law, after having gradually declined, was in great danger”, these treasures from the past were unearthed, revealed and made known, so as to revivify the doctrine.
What then were the main doctrinal innovations of the Mahāyāna? They can be summarized under five headings:
1. As concerns the goal there is a shift from the Arhat-ideal to the Bodhisattva-ideal;
2. A new way of salvation is worked out, in which compassion ranks equal with wisdom, and which is marked by the gradual advance through six “perfections” (pāramitā);
3. Faith is given a new range by being provided with a new pantheon of deities, or rather of persons more than divine;
4. “Skill in means” (upayakausalya), an entirely new virtue, becomes essential to the saint, and is placed even above wisdom, the highest virtue so far;
5. A coherent ontological doctrine is worked out, dealing with such items as “Emptiness,” “Suchness,” etc.”
We will now consider them one by one.
1. The goal of Arhantship, which had motivated Buddhism in the first period, is now relegated to second place. The Mahayaṃistic saint strives to be a “Bodhisattva.”. A Bodhisattva is distinguished by three features: (a) In his essential being he is actuated by the desire to win the full enlightenment of a Buddha, (b) He is dominated by two forces, in equal proportion, i.e., by compassion and wisdom. From compassion, he selflessly postpones his entrance into the bliss of Nirvana to help suffering creatures,…….. (c) Although intent on ultimate purity, a Bodhisattva remains in touch with ordinary people by having the same passions they have. His passions, however, do not either affect or pollute his mind.
2. A Bodhisattva’s compassion is called “great” because it is boundless and makes no distinctions….. This enlightenment does not automatically entail the desire to assist others. Among the enlightened, they distinguish three types, two of them “selfish”, one “unselfish”. The “selfish” types are Arahats and Pratyekabuddhas, who are said to represent the idea of the Hinayana, of the “inferior vehicle.”.. The “unselfish” ones are the Buddhas, and the pursuit of the unselfish quest for enlightenment on the part of a Bodhisattva is called the “Buddha-vehicle”, of the “Great Vehicle” (mahā-yana).
A Bodhisattva must be a patient man. He wants to become a Buddha, but his distance from the transcendental perfection of a supreme Buddha, who both knows and is everything, will obviously be infinite. In one life it could not possibly be traversed. Countless lives would be needed, and a Bodhisattva must be prepared to wait for eons and eons before reaching his goal. Yet, he is separated from Buddhahood only by one single obstacle, i.e., his belief in a personal self. To get rid of himself is the Bodhisattva’s supreme task. By two kinds of measures, he tries to remove himself – actively by self-sacrifice and selfless service, cognitively by insight into the objective non-existence of a self. The first is due to compassion, the second to wisdom., ..
The unity of compassion and wisdom is acted out by the six “perfections,” or “pāramitā,” the six “methods by which we go to the Beyond.” A person turns into a Bodhisattva when he first resolves to win full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings…The six are the perfections of giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom”.
This ends the quotation from Edward Conze’s book. (I have skipped some text to make it concise).
Criticism of Conze’s Analysis
I agree with Conze’s analysis except for the statement in bold in the very first paragraph: “The creation of this literature is one of the most significant outbursts of creative energy known to human history and it was sustained for about four to five centuries.” This literature, even though voluminous, only made a simple theory much more seemingly confusing and contradictory. See “Key Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings,” “Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis,” and “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
- The only fortunate thing about it is that Mahayana sutras are written entirely in Sanskrit and thus are easily distinguished from the original suttās in the Pāli Tipiṭaka.
- In addition to the “improvements” that were added in India, further material associated with national customs was added when Mahāyāna Buddhism spread to China, Japan, and Tibet (and came to be known by different names such as Zen, Vajrayaṃa, etc.). See “Background on the Current Revival of Buddha Dhamma.”
So, the premise of the Mahāyāna re-formulation of the Buddha Dhamma was to “refine and improve” the Dhamma of the Buddha. This is in sharp contradiction with one of the most fundamental concepts in Dhamma that only a Buddha can discover these laws of nature, and BY DEFINITION, it is impossible to improve upon them. They admit that a Buddha appears in the world after a long time, and thus their attempt to change Buddha Dhamma is one of the fundamental contradictions in Mahāyāna.
- We need to understand the essential difference between Buddha Dhamma and any other human accomplishment: All other human accomplishments involve the cumulative effort of many, whether it is science, philosophy, engineering, etc.; see “Dhamma and Science – Introduction.” In contrast, Buddha Dhamma was the product of a single human who transcended the “human-ness” and became a Buddha.
Furthermore, all those mundane human efforts are made within the system, using the knowledge acquired by the experience within the system; see “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.” A Buddha transcends the human realm and discovers the “whole existence” of the 31 realms; see “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.” The Mahāyānists took a “watered-down” version of the Buddha’s worldview (which is not accessible to normal human beings but only to a Buddha) and then added their made-up theories.
- This is why there are so many apparent contradictions in various versions of “Buddhism” today. Adding more “pluff,” which is wrong anyway by definition, only distorts the correct picture.
- I attempt to provide a self-consistent picture of the genuine teachings in the Tipiṭaka throughout this website. See “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”