Mahayana in India and in China

It seems that we have 2 (two) kind of Mahayana. I saw a distinct difference between The Chinese Mahayana (mostly in East Asia) and The Indian Mahayana. The Chinese Mahayana sort of a cultural mixture between local tradition with their own specific deities.

What do you consider Indian Mahayana? Are you including Tibet in Chinese Mahayana?

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Oh sorry, in that case we have 3 (three) sub-sects of Mahayana … I believe they have their own gods and more mystical isn’t it?

It isn’t quite that simple. Vajrayana (aka Tantric) Buddhism (the predominant form of Buddhism in Tibet) is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. Vajrayana was also transmitted to East and South East Asia. Tantra even made its way to Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia. However, nowadays, outside of Tibet, it really only continues to exist in Japan (where there are two schools called Tendai and Shingon). Neither Mahayana nor Vajrayana worship gods. They are all Buddhists, and share the Theravada beliefs in regards to the differences between worldly gods and enlightened beings. Oh, and all of these various forms of Buddhism came from India.


The concepts are also differentiating because some people are aiming for Sukhavati (a new Heaven created which The Buddha has missed from 31 Realms of His Prediction) and some aiming Heavens by helps of Gods/Goddess. Am I correct?

Sukhavati is technically a Pure Land. So it isn’t exactly the same as the heaven realms described in the Pali suttas. The idea of Pure Lands developed quite early, actually. The earliest Pure Land type of sutra that’s been found is from the first few centuries CE (see this).

Practicing to be reborn in heaven realms isn’t uniquely Mahayana. It’s quite common throughout the Buddhist world.

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indeed because nowaday the Buddhist (all sects either it is Theravadin, Mahayanist and Tantrayanist) peoples also talking about Buddha as a Supreme God that could help them being reborn in a heavenly realms. Mostly, has forgotten about ‘Nibbana’.

The younger generation even told me in a conversation as a millenial generation, they are aiming for A Brahma realms not Nibbana any longer.

Even a Bhikkhu made a statement that he was reborn in this very life because The Buddha had asked him to be reborn this ‘manussa’ realm and learn Buddhism.

To be fair, in the Pali suttas the Buddha spoke about which practices cause one to be reborn in heaven realms. But yes, that isn’t supposed to be the final goal.

Pure Lands are supposed to be the perfect environment to practice Dhamma. So aspiring to be reborn in a Pure Land isn’t quite the same as aspiring to be reborn in a heaven realm. But Theravada folks probably aren’t ever going to accept Pure Lands.

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Is the concept of the Pure Land had flourished when the Buddha still live? Or it was introduced shortly after The Buddha parinibbana? or it was introduced when the schism happen? or even a few hundred years by someone in China?

You could think of Pure Land as the equivalence of the Pure Abodes for Non-Returners of the EBTs.


Basically, all the Mahayana sutras were developed hundreds of years after the time of the Buddha. We don’t know exactly when they first appeared, because most manuscripts from India were lost. However, surviving evidence points to maybe around the 1st century CE.

For belief in pure lands specifically, there is some epigraphic evidence for belief in Amitabha Buddha in northwest India in the 2nd century CE. There are also some Mahayana sutras that were translated into Chinese in that same time period, brought by Indian Buddhist monks.

Those texts were associated with visualization, which is why they have the really colorful and detailed imagery.


@llt … I believe it maybe after the 2nd Buddhist Council where the schism begin?

I think it comes from Central Asia or Western India after Christian and similar salvific religions encountered Buddhism there. Between 100 BC and 300 AD, Central Asia was a crossroads of culture and religion where Greeks, Indians, and Persians all mixed together and shared ideas with each other. It was a very creative time, but also quite heretical. Gnosticism is a similar example of early Christians who seem to have been influenced by Buddhists or other Indian religions.


You could see it that way, but it’s also not a strange or far fetched development from the early Buddhist idea of heaven. If you already accept that there are multiple Buddhas and that they are not inaccessible after paranibbana (i.e. lokuttaravada), then you need somewhere to put them.

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@UttamaSanti … Dear Ven. could you please elaborate more?

I try to chew on the meaning of ‘Pure-Abodes’ for a few day but I failed. :smiley:

This might be true of the Chinese understanding of pure land, but it is contrary to at least the teachings of the current Dalai Lama. He explicitly states that the pure abodes of Theravada belong to samsara while the pure lands are an existence apart from samsara.

I don’t see how that can be squared with either the teachings of early Buddhism or Theravada.

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Being quite ignorant about Mahayana… are there distinct threads within Mahayana that don’t get conceptually mixed up much, e.g. Prajnaparamita, esoteric notions, and sukhavati? Or do they get freely mixed and combined?

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No, it’s different from Pure Abode of Non-Returners in EBTs, which according to Mahayana cosmological concept is still located in this Buddha field (Buddhaksetra) of our Sakyamuni/Gotama Buddha. Pure Land (for example is Amitabha Buddha’s field which is called Sukhavati) is located outside our Buddha field and is thought as a conducive place for practising Dharma in Mahayana:

The notion of a Buddha Field (buddhaksetra)

From the perspective of Buddhist cosmology space, like time, is infinite. Infinite space is full of infinite universes, world systems, stretching to the 10 directions (the four cardinal points, four intermediate directions, up and down). Within these infinite reaches some universes are known as Buddha Fields or Buddha Lands. Generally, this term denotes an area, a cosmos, where a Buddha exerts his spiritual influence.

The concept of a Buddha Field, while of considerable importance in Mahayana thought, is not unique to the Mahayana. The Mahavastu, which is a Lokottaravada text, points out that there are many, many universes or world systems which are devoid of a Buddha, for Buddhas are relatively very rare. Moreover, the Mahavastu notes, there cannot be two Buddhas in the same Buddha Field, for this would imply that one Buddha is not adequate to his task. And even though Buddhas are relatively rare, still, throughout the infinite universes there are innumerable Buddhas, and innumerable tenth-stage Bodhisattvas who are about to become Buddhas. Each leads infinite beings to liberation, and yet there is no chance that eventually all will be liberated and no one will be left. For with infinite sentient beings, even if infinite Buddhas each liberate another infinite being, still there are infinite suffering sentient beings left (Mahavastu 1949–56: I, 96 ff.).

Human beings live in a world sphere called Saha, said to be in the south, for which the current Buddha is Sakyamuni.[15] The notion of a Buddha Field may have arisen from a consideration of Sakyamuni’s knowledge on the one hand, the field of his awareness, and his authority and influence on the other – his field of activity.[16] In addition, one can refer to the actual geographical area where the Buddha was born. Naturally the sizes of these three fields are different. The Buddha’s knowledge (and from a Mahayana perspective, his compassion) is often held in Mahayana to be infinite, although his direct spiritual power is exerted
over a vast but finite area, his Buddha Field in the primary sense, the area in the centre of which the Buddha appeared.

The principal function of a Buddha is to teach sentient beings in his Buddha Field. But the Buddha Field in this primary sense is not simply a place where the Buddha happens to have appeared. Rather, during his career as a Bodhisattva the Buddha-to-be is said to ‘purify’ his Buddha Field, and the Buddha Field is in some sense the result of his great compassion (Fujita 1996a: 34–5). In other words, the very existence of a Buddha Field depends upon the Buddha’s wonderful career as a Bodhisattva. The Buddha’s infinite deeds of wisdom and compassion have created his Buddha Field as an area where he can ‘ripen’ sentient beings. Beings themselves also contribute, for it is a place where they have been reborn through their deeds, as beings potentially able to be ripened. Moreover, a Bodhisattva can himself be reborn in the Buddha Field of a Buddha, in the Buddha’s direct presence, or travel there
in meditation. The Buddha Field is precisely a place where conditions are obviously advantageous to his spiritual progress. Thus a Buddha Field is both a place where a Bodhisattva can see the Buddha and pursue his or her career, and also the goal of the Bodhisattva’s striving, his own Buddha Field purified for sentient beings through his own efforts (Rowell 1935: 385 ff., 406 ff.). And from his place within his realm one text rather poetically informs us that three times a day, and three times a night, the Buddha surveys his Buddha Field in order to see who can be morally and spiritually helped (Lamotte 1962: 396–7).

So the Bodhisattva purifies his Buddha Field, and the realm within which the Buddha exerts his activity is the result of his purifying deeds as a Bodhisattva. This gives rise to a problem. It is agreed on all counts that the Saha world of Sakyamuni is not a very pure place.[17] This world is indeed a thoroughly impure Buddha Field. Some Mahayana texts
speak of three types of Buddha Field: pure, impure, and mixed. For example, in an impure Buddha Field there are non-Buddhists, seriously suffering beings, differences of lineage etc., immoral beings, lower realms such as hells, inferior conduct and Inferior Vehicles (the
Mainstream Buddhist traditions), and so on. Bodhisattvas of excellent conduct, and the actual appearance of a Buddha, are rare.[18] In fact this world of Sakyamuni is pretty grim for the pious follower of Mahayana. A pure Buddha Field, on the other hand, such as Amitayus’ Sukhavatc, will be something like this:

“well adorned, having no filth or evil, no tiles or pebbles, no thorns or thistles, no excrement or other impurities. Its soil shall be flat and even, having no high or low, no hills or crevices. It shall have vairerya [‘beryl’, following Paul Harrison] for earth, and jewelled trees in rows. With cords made of gold shall its highways be bordered. It shall be everywhere clean and pure, with jewelled flowers scattered about.”
(Lotus Sutra, in Hurvitz 1976: 120)

Such a pure Buddha Field – in East Asia it is spoken of as a ‘Pure Land’ – has a Buddha who lives for a very long time (perhaps for all eternity), who does not abandon his flock, as Sakyamuni appears to have done after only 40 years or so. There are many Bodhisattvas in that realm, and the devil, Mara, and his evil host cannot work their vicious ways. Obviously such a Pure Land is an excellent place for developing the path to enlightenment, while our Saha world, particularly since the death of the Master, is not really so very good. Since there are infinite Buddha Fields and therefore also infinite Pure Lands at this very moment throughout the 10 directions, surely the overriding immediate task must be to visit these Pure Lands if at all possible and eventually to be reborn there.

Earlier Buddhism had taught that merit led to a heavenly rebirth after death, but all heavens are samsara, impermanent and pervaded with final frustration and suffering. A Pure Land is emphatically not, in Buddhist terminology, a heaven (svarga).[19] Rather, one should practise the correct meditations (i.e. buddhanusmrti) and skilfully direct the fruit of one’s good deeds, merit, to be reborn not in a heaven but in the chosen Pure Land. While it may certainly not be easy to get to a Pure Land, in a Pure Land because of the presence of a Buddha and his teachings one can relatively easily attain nirvaua, or significantly advance on the path to Buddhahood, as we know from the stories people were able to do in India at the time of Sakyamuni. Indeed, attaining nirvana in a Pure Land is much easier than it was in India at the time of Sakyamuni, since a Pure Land is much more conducive to practising the Dharma than impure India was and is. Thus, unlike a heaven, from a Pure Land there need be no further uncontrolled samsaric rebirth.

This is all quite logical, and perfectly consistent with the development of Buddhist thought. The present world bereft of a Buddha is a difficult place in which to attain enlightenment. Nevertheless, in infinite universes there are still Buddhas, perhaps even Sakyamuni himself. It is possible to see them in meditation, and to hear their wonderful teachings. There is thus nothing to prevent one from being reborn in their presence. Consequently, the quest for nirvana, or even Perfect Buddhahood, requires in most cases the immediate goal of rebirth in a Pure Land in the presence of a Buddha. In ensuring that he or she will be reborn in a Pure Land after death, the practitioner becomes here and now a ‘non-returner’ (anagamin), one who will no longer be reborn in this world, but will attain enlightenment very soon, perhaps in the very next life.[20] This is a very advanced stage of Buddhist practice indeed, much more advanced than most people would normally expect to attain under present conditions in the world as it is now bereft of a Buddha.


  1. For a good introduction to Mainstream Buddhist cosmology, see Gethin 1998: Ch. 5. For some diagrams, see also Gómez 1996: 257–60.

  2. See Rowell, 1935: esp. 379–81; 1937. For a more recent study, see Fujita 1996a. Paul Harrison has drawn my attention to the very plausible suggestion in Davidson 2002: 132–3 that ksetra, ‘field’ may have some connection here with the Indian political notion of a royal ‘domain’. If so, then buddhaksetra would be better translated as ‘Buddha Domain’.

  3. Purity, incidentally, was and is an important cultural notion in India, pervading (Brahmanic) Indian society and underlying, for example, caste divisions. The more pure a person is the higher their religious status. Derivatively, the more pure their environment is the more they preserve their high religious status.

  4. Samdhinirmocana Sutra, in Lamotte 1962: 397. Note, however, that in the early model of Aksobhya’s Pure Land of Abhirati there are also found non-Mahayana practitioners. Indeed, in various ways the early model of Abhirati does not always fit with the developed Mahayana view of a Pure Land.

  5. See Ducor 2004: 380–1. On the similarities and dissimilarities of Sukhavatc with a heaven, in the light of Japanese understandings of Amitabha’s Pure Land as a ‘world of another dimension’, in fact i.e. enlightenment itself, see Fujita 1996a: 44–8, cf. Fujita 1996b: 26.

  6. On these ‘fruits of the Path’ in Mainstream Buddhism, see Gethin 1998: 194. [But here Pure Land is not the same as Pure Abode of Anagami as explained above that Pure Land is Buddha field outside our ‘Impure Land’]

Source: Mahayana Buddhism, The Doctrinal Foundations 2nd edition by Paul Williams

So the notion of Pure Land (Buddha field) although is not found in EBTs, but it based on Early Buddhism concept of range of a Buddha, like one mentioned in AN 3.80 that “the Tathāgata can con­vey his voice as far as he wants in a thousand-to-the-third-power great world system (tisahassi mahāsahassi lokadhātu).” (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation)


Having read through all the answers so far, I wondering whether The Buddha has missed some realms or those realms beyond his achievement? In other words there maybe many other realms outside the 31 Realms that we missed. It seems correlate to the old saying that say “there are always mountains higher” which means there may are other realms that we missed. And, somebody which of higher awareness realize it but not famous enough to be known. Is it correct? :thinking:

Well, at some point later in history, Buddhists accepted the idea that there are other worlds. This is found even in a few Pali suttas. There are the small, medium, and great clusters of worlds that number a thousand, a million, and a billion worlds each. Each of those worlds has all the heavens, the earth, and hells, etc. So, each one is like a single tridhatu.

Once this idea was accepted, it was a short step to assume that in all those infinite worlds outside our own there are other Buddhas that are presently teaching. At that point, the doors are open to creating a pantheon of Buddhas like Amitayus, Akṣobhya, and the rest. Buddhists could then imagine having a connection to these Buddhas who exist elsewhere in the present instead of thinking about a lineage of past and future Buddhas in a single world.

Another piece of the puzzle is the concept of purifying a Buddha field. Bodhisattva literature began imagining increasingly amazing vows for bodhisattvas to make when they decide to embark on the path to becoming Buddhas. The vows to create a pure land or world devoid of any obstructions to spiritual attainment leads to the idea that there are Buddhas in other worlds who have already accomplished such vows.

A kind of mythology developed around this: Our world is incredibly harsh and difficult compared to these other worlds. There’s a number of Mahayana sutras that depict bodhisattvas coming from other worlds when they notice the Buddha emitting light or causing an earthquake. They ask their Buddha if they can come visit our Buddha, and their Buddha typically says, “Okay, you can visit that world, but be prepared for how terrible it is there. It’s amazing what that Buddha and his disciples have to deal with compared to our world.” This happens in the introduction of the Large Prajna Paramita Sutra and many other Mahayana Sutra.

So, once these ideas are all in place, it probably didn’t take long for Buddhists to begin imagining how they could be born in one of this ideal worlds and become disciples of the Buddhas there.