Key Problems with Mahāyāna Teachings

Revised September 2, 2019; June 11, 2021

1. The main problem is a conflict with a fundamental tenet of Buddha Dhamma. That a Buddha comes to this world after very long times and DISCOVERS the laws of nature by his efforts, Mahāyānists agree that it takes eons of time to fulfill the “pāramitās” and to become a Buddha.

  • Then they turn around and say that 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 Buddha be “refined” or “revised”? No one has answered this fundamental question.

2. The first thing one is supposed to do in becoming a Mahāyāna Buddhist is to take the “Bodhisattva vow.” They say each being should endeavor to become a Buddha, 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 of just ants on this Earth: Or do they not count other living beings?
  • We know that there have not been a significant number of Arahants for the past 1800 years. Is there any realistic way for trillions of beings to attain Aranhathood, let alone Buddhahood?
  • In this eon (basically the time duration of a universe or about 30 billion years), there have been four Buddhas. One more Buddha is to appear. That is truly an exception. Before this eon, 30 eons (trillion years!) did not have a single Buddha appearing.  So, how long would one wait to become a Buddha, i.e., remain a Bodhisattva? And will all beings (or even the human population today) be able to become Buddhas in the same eon, let alone at the same time? Are they serious?

3. 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.

4. Those who started this revision process did not understand the central idea of Nibbāna.  They never mention concepts like anicca, dukkha, 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  Parinibbana), many Buddhists in India felt that the existing statements of the doctrine had become stale and useless. They were convinced that Dhamma required new re-formulations to meet the needs of new ages, new populations, and new social circumstances. So they set out to produce new literature, which ultimately came to be 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 could 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 the link below.

5. None of the Mahāyānist “philosophers” such as Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Asanga are documented as Arahant or even a Sotāpanna. They were like philosophers of today with their “theories about the world.” Not only that, they had an aversion to the concept of an Arahant.

  • The Mahāyāna sutras have their origin 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 Parinibbana (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 did warn of this outcome: He said: “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, anatta have been hidden for many hundreds of years.

6.  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:

  • As concerns the goal, there is a shift from the Arahant-ideal to the Bodhisattva-ideal.
  • A new way of salvation was worked out, in which compassion ranked equal with wisdom.
  • Faith is given a new range by being provided 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..”

We will point out the critical contradictions of each of these revisions with the Buddha’s original teachings (see i-v below) and go into details later on.

  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 in 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 to the maximum, 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, 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 those 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 has to have faith only 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 much simpler explanations that are consistent with original teachings; see the links below. The Mahāyānists had to re-invent alternate descriptions for these terms. The original meanings came to conflict with their “revisions” discussed in i-iv.

7. Those who follow the Mahāyāna version do that due to a couple of reasons. (1) They are born into Mahāyāna tradition (just like I was born to Theravada.) (2) They have had no exposure to other versions of Buddhism. The problems with Mahāyāna versions are not due to their making. But it is time to start changing those features that are in stark contradiction with the Buddha’s original teachings and modern science.

  • The most visible contradiction is the oath in most Mahāyāna traditions to “not to seek Enlightenment until ALL BEINGS ARE READY for Enlightenment” is the most visible contradiction. As I pointed out in #2 above, we know that this is an outright lie, at least these days. That itself is an apparent break of the precept not to lie knowingly.
  • There needs to be an open discussion about how to weed out the inconsistent material from all sects and recover the pure Buddha Dhamma for the benefit of all.

Before discussing the problems with the wrong interpretations in Theravada, let us discuss the concept of sunyāta; see, “What is Sunyata (Emptiness)?“. Mahāyāna Buddhism tries to make a big deal out of sunyāta because their forefathers  (those who started Mahāyāna tradition) could not understand the concept of Nibbāna. Mahāyāna teachings believe that Nibbāna is an abstract concept. However, it is a simple concept; see, “Nibbāna – Is It Difficult to Understand?

Also, see:

Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra) – A Focused Analysis

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