The Mahayana is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools, from the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) well represented in Tibet and Nepal to the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha, longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace, which are found in China, Korea and Japan. Ch'an and Zen Buddhism, of China and Japan, are meditation schools.
It is generally accepted, that what we know today as the Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghikas sect who were the earliest seceders, and the forerunners of the Mahayana. They took up the cause of their new sect with zeal and enthusiasm and in a few decades grew remarkably in power and popularity. They adapted the existing monastic rules and thus revolutionised the Buddhist Order of Monks. Moreover, they made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. And they rejected certain portions of the canon, which had been accepted in the First Council.
According to it, the Buddhas are lokottara (supramundane) and are connected only externally with the worldly life. This conception of the Buddha contributed much to the growth of the Mahayana philosophy. The ideal of the Mahayana school is that of the Bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her own enlightenment in order to compassionately assist all other beings and ultimately attains to the highest Bodhi.
Mahayana Lineages Imported from India
• Madhyamika (San Lun, Ch.) Based on the Chinese translation of Nagarjuna's (second century) Madhyamika Karika and two other works of uncertain authorship, this lineage emphasized the notion of shunyata (emptiness) and wu (nonbeing). So rigorous was the teaching of this lineage, that it declared that the elements constituting perceived objects, when examined, are really no more than mental phenonena and have no true existence.
• Yogacara Founded in the third century by Maitreyanatha and made famous by Asanga and Vasubandhu in the fourth or fifth century, this school held that the source of all ideas is vijñana ("consciousness"), which is seen as the fundamental basis of existence. Ultimate Reality is therefore only perceived but has not real existence.
Indigenous Mahayana Lineages
• T'ien T'ai Named after the mountains on which the founder Zhi Yi (d. 597 C.E.) resided, this lineage is based on a scheme of classification intended to integrate and harmonize the vast array of Buddhist scriptures and doctrines. This scheme of classification is based on the Buddhist doctrine of upaya ("skilful means"). The most important form of Buddhism for this lineage is the Mahayana devotionalism found in the Lotus Sutra.
• Avatamsaka (Hua Yen, Ch.) This lineage takes its name from the Avatamsaka Sutra, its central sacred text, and like the T'ien T'ai school is oriented towards a classification of sutras. Basic to this lineage is the assertion that all particulars are merely manifestations of the absolute mind and are therefore fundamentally the same.
• Pure Land (Amitabha) Based on the Sukhavati Vyuha ("Pure Land Sutra"), this lineage was founded in 402 C.E. by Hui Yuan. The Pure Land lineage held that the spiritual quality of the world has been in decline since its height during the lifetime of the Buddha and taught followers to cultivate through prayer and devotion a sincere intent to be reborn in the heavenly paradise of the Buddha Amitabha.
• Ch'an Its name is derived from the Sanskrit term dhyana (meditation), this lineage emphasises meditation as the only means to a spiritual awakening beyond words or thought, dispensing almost entirely with the teachings and practices of traditional Buddhism. Ch'an is thought to have been brought to China by the enigmatic South Indian monk Bodhidharma in about the year 500 C.E.
• Bodhidharma: the father of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism