Key Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings

Revised September 2, 2019; June 11, 2021; re-written October 1, 2022

Main Contradictions

1. The following are just a few significant contradictions of “Mahāyāna Buddhism” with the teachings of the Buddha.

  1. Mahāyānists say that each person needs to attain Buddhahood. By “Buddhahood,” they mean a “Sammā Sambuddha” like Buddha Gotama. They say even Arahants like Ven. Sariputta need to attain the Buddhahood!
  2. Bodhisatta vow” is even worse. Not only each person needs to become a Sammā Sambuddha, but they need to wait until “everyone” is ready to become a Sammā Sambuddha. They have no idea how hard it is to become a Sammā Sambuddha.
  3.  Those who initiated the Mahāyāna version (a mere 500 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha Gotama) declared that the teachings had become “outdated” and needed to be “updated.”
  4.  Any sentient being can attain the state of a Sammā Sambuddha (all have the “Buddha nature.”) 
Summary of the First Two Contradictions

2. The main problem with (i) and (ii) above is a conflict with a fundamental tenet of Buddha Dhamma. A Sammā Sambuddha is born after a very long time and DISCOVERS the laws of nature; Mahāyānists agree that it takes eons (billions of years) to fulfill the “pāramitās” and to become a Sammā Sambuddha.

  • Then they say that EVERYONE (meaning all sentient beings) must SIMULTANEOUSLY attain the Sammā Sambuddha status. That is utterly foolish, given that there are an uncountable number of sentient beings.
  • Furthermore, the Buddha Gotama has clearly described the uniqueness of a Sammā Sambuddha (“Ekapuggalavagga (AN 170-187)“) and the difference between a Sammā Sambuddha and an Arahant: “Sammāsambuddha Sutta (SN 22.58).”
  • Thus, the “gap” between a Sammā Sambuddha and an Arahant is enormous. Similarly, a vast difference exists between an Arahant and an average human (pothujjanika.)

3. The first thing one should do to become a Mahāyāna Buddhist is to take the “Bodhisattva vow.” They say each being should endeavor to become a Sammā Sambuddha, i.e., each person should be a Bodhisattva.

  • Those who initiated this idea a long time ago probably did not know that there is an infinite number of sentient beings in this world. Each human body has a vast number of microscopic beings. See, “There are as many creatures on your body as there are people on Earth!“.
  • There are 1000 trillion ants on this Earth: “How Many Ants Are There in the World?.” Or do they not count other living beings?
  • In this eon (basically the lifetime of the Solar system of about 4.5 billion years), there have been four Sammā Sambuddhas. One more Sammā Sambuddha is to appear. That is truly an exception. Before this eon, 30 eons (trillion years!) did not have a single Sammā Sambuddha appearing. So, how long would one wait to become a Sammā Sambuddha, i.e., remain a Bodhisattva? And will all beings (or even the human population today) be able to become Sammā Sambuddhas in the same eon, let alone at the same time? Utterly foolish!
Teachings of a Sammā Sambuddha Can Be Outdated?

4. Getting to the issue (iii), Mahāyānist forefathers stated Buddha Dhamma needed to be “refined” for the changing times. See “Background on the Current Revival of Buddha Dhamma.” How can the ultimate laws of nature discovered by a Sammā Sambuddha be “refined” or “revised”? I hope someone can answer this fundamental question.

  • Within 500 years of the passing away of the Buddha, the Indian Mahāyānists started not only refining but incorporating concepts that were alien to Buddha Dhamma.
  • If it needed refining after 500 years, how come they have not kept up with the updating process? One would think they would be doing a significant revision these days with so many changes in science and technology. 
  • What has happened is the opposite: Science and technology are consistent with the original Dhamma. People will gradually realize that those alien concepts in Mahāyāna do not make sense. Furthermore, Mahāyāna itself has disappeared in India, where it was born.
Treating Buddha’s Teachings as Philosophy

5. Those who started this revision did not understand the central idea of Nibbāna. They never mention concepts like anicca, dukkha, or anatta. So, they defined those in their terms and then got into a slippery slope in explaining those terms by inventing more concepts. It snowballed, and in the words of Edward Conze, who translated many Mahāyāna texts to English:

  • “……About 100 BCE (roughly 400 years after the Buddha’s Parinibbāna), many Buddhists in India felt that the existing statements of the doctrine had become stale and useless. They were convinced that Dhamma required new reformulations to meet the needs of new ages, new populations, and new social circumstances. So they set out to produce new literature, which ultimately became known as Mahāyāna Buddhism. The creation of this literature was one of the most significant outbursts of creative energy known to human history and sustained for about four to five centuries. Repetition alone, they believed, cannot sustain a living religion. Unless counterbalanced by constant innovation, it will become fossilized and lose its life-giving qualities, they believed”.
  • (See “Historical Timeline of Edward Conze“).
  • For someone who is not familiar with the Buddha’s original teachings, those philosophical arguments may look impressive, as they did for Edward Conze. We will examine those concepts in detail in upcoming posts. I have discussed the concept of “emptiness”; see below.
Forefathers of Mahāyāna Were Philosophers, Not Ariyas

6. None of the Mahāyānist “philosophers,” such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Asanga are documented as Arahant or even a Sotāpanna. They were like the philosophers of today with their “theories about the world.” They also had an aversion to the concept of an Arahant.

  • The Mahāyāna sutras originated with Nagarjuna, who lived 150-250 CE in India. Thus, the Buddha’s original teachings went underground somewhere before 200 CE, within about 700 years of the Buddha’s Parinibbāna (passing away).
  • Thus, those Indian intellectuals like Nagarjuna were just like the philosophers from the time of Socrates. They make all kinds of speculations consistent with the “knowledge” about the “world” at any given time.
  • The Buddha warned of this outcome: “there will be other versions that look like Dhamma and feel like Dhamma. Just like when there are imitations of gold coming to the market, the real gold goes underground” (Saddhamma Patirupaka Sutta (SN 16.13).) That has been the case for over 1800 years.
  • But the truth comes out eventually. That time could well be now. The correct interpretations of anicca, dukkha, and anatta have been hidden for hundreds of years.
The “Updates” Violate the Core Teachings of the Buddha

7. So, what are these revisions that the Mahāyāna forefathers made?

Edward Conze has listed five doctrinal “innovations” of the Mahāyānists; see “Historical Timeline of Edward Conze.” They are:

  • Concerning the goal, there is a shift from the “Arahant-ideal” to the “Bodhisatta-ideal.”
  • A new way of salvation was worked: compassion ranked equal with wisdom.
  • Faith is given a new range with a new pantheon of deities.
  • “Skill in means” (upāyakausalya), an entirely new virtue, becomes essential to the practitioner. That is placed even above wisdom, the highest virtue in Buddha Dhamma.
  • A coherent ontological doctrine was worked out, dealing with such items as “Emptiness,” “Suchness,” etc..” But it is philosophy; see, “What is Sunyata (Emptiness)?“. 

8. We will discuss the critical contradictions of these revisions with the Buddha’s original teachings (see i-v below.) 

  1. The basic idea of Buddha Dhamma is that each human being has a unique mind. But greed, hate, and ignorance defile a mind. Because of that, each person commits immoral acts and subsequently “pays for those actions,” suffering is the net result of the cycle of rebirths. One gets out of this cycle of rebirth by purifying one’s mind; one who has accomplished this task is an Arahant. No person can purify another person’s mind. Nibbāna is not an abstract concept. See the subsection “Nibbāna.”
  2. One attains Nibbāna when one purifies the mind of ALL defilements. That is when one has ultimate wisdom or paññā. There is no way to equate compassion with paññā. One can be compassionate, but that does not mean one has gotten rid of ignorance. Those beings in the Brahma world do not generate any hateful thoughts; they have perfected the four Brahmavihara: mettā, karunā, muditā, and upekkhā. They don’t have a trace of hateful thoughts. Yet, they have ignorance (of the Four Noble Truths) and will one day be reborn in the four lower realms. Therefore, this is also a significant contradiction. See, “Sotāpanna Stage of Nibbāna.”
  3. Buddha said life in the human realm is better than any other (except for the Brahma realms reserved for the Anāgāmis.) That is because the easiest to attain Nibbāna is from the human realm. Some beings in higher realms can be helpful to us, and we should share our merits with them. However, a human is not supposed to worship any other being. One must only have faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. No other living being can help with our goal of attaining Nibbāna.
  4. “Skill in Means,” or whatever other term anyone comes up with, runs into the same problem as compassion above in (ii). Such ideas run against the core teachings of the Buddha. Even if one gets rid of greed and hate but still has ignorance, one will get back the greed and hate DUE TO ignorance. One attains Nibbāna by cultivating wisdom.
  5. Mahāyāna‘s descriptions of all these philosophical concepts like emptiness or sunyāta are just a lot of empty words. They have simpler explanations consistent with original teachings; see the links below. The Mahāyānists had to re-invent alternate descriptions for these terms. The original meanings conflicted with their “revisions” discussed in i-iv.

Now, to address the issue (iv) in #1 above.

Buddha Versus Sammā Sambuddha

9. Buddha means “to stop bhava” (bhava + uddha.) Only a Sammā Sambuddha can figure out how to stop grasping various types of bhava (kammic energies) that we have accumulated, thus stopping future suffering. 

  • In principle, it is possible to call an Arahant a Buddha since an Arahant has stopped grasping new bhava. However, no Arahant could have gotten to the “bhava uddha” status without learning/comprehending the teachings of a Sammā Sambuddha.
  • But it has become customary to reserve the term “Buddha” as a shortened version of “Sammā Sambuddha.” It is better not to use the term “Buddha” for an Arahant to avoid conflicts.
  • The term “Buddha nature” is discussed without the above understanding. See “Buddha-nature.” 
Buddhaghosa Introduced Mahāyāna Concepts to Theravāda

10. Buddhaghosa lived in India during the peaking of Mahāyāna; see “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline.” He was a Vedic Brahmin too. His Visuddhimagga shows influence from both Vedic teachings and Mahāyāna.

  • Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga has heavily influenced current Theravāda. Some aspects of the current Theravāda are not compatible with the teachings of the Buddha. See “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background.”
  • Mahāyāna‘s influences likely led to the misinterpretation of anicca and anatta as impermanence and “no-self.” Mahāyānists focused on the doctrinal aspects. Buddhaghosa’s interpretation of Ānāpānasati as “breath mediation” was likely influenced by his Vedic background.  
  • Thus, we can see that Mahāyāna and Vedic influences have taken root in Theravāda over the years. See “Historical Background.”

11. Those who follow Mahāyāna Buddhism do that for several reasons. (i) They are born into the Mahāyāna tradition (just like I was born to Theravāda.) (ii) They have had minimal exposure to the actual teachings of the Buddha. The problems with Mahāyāna versions are not due to their making. But it is time to start changing those features that contradict Buddha’s original teachings.

  • Teachings of a Sammā Sambuddha like Buddha Gotama cannot be “updated.” Buddha Dhamma is “timeless” (akāliko.) Of course, the teachings of a Sammā Sambuddha only last a relatively short time (in the Saṃsaric scale.) Those “timeless truths” about nature are re-discovered by the next Buddha. All Sammā Sambuddhas re-discover and teach the same Paṭicca Samuppāda.
  • There needs to be an open discussion about weeding out the inconsistent material from all sects and recovering the pure Buddha Dhamma for all to benefit.
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