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Mahayana

Mahayana (lit. Great Vehicle) is one of two major schools of Buddhism. Followers originate in China, Japan, Korea, and a decent portion of adherents in Vietnam and Taiwan. From Mahayana developed the Vajrayana which combines all previous schools.

The way of the Mahayana, developed from the earlier and more austere Theravada school of Buddhism, tends to be characterized by a greater emphasis of the supernatural. These include from celestial realms and powers, to a spectrum of Bodhisattvas, both human and seemingly godlike, who can assist believers.

The large number of Bodhisattvas and the combined inviting nature within Mahayana doctrine allows the religion to be extremely syncretic. For example, Taoism existed within China before the arrival of Buddhism, and metaphysically, there are important distinctions between the two. However, the structure of Mahayana Buddhism allows it to simply absorb Taoists deities as other bodhisattvas. Similarly, it is common for practictioners of Mahayana Buddhism to regard Confucius, Jesus Christ and Muhammed as simply other bodhisattvas allowing those religions to fit within the context of Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism, at its core, regards such ideas as artful means of bringing people closer to enlightenment. Bodhisattvas are the ultimate practioners of this approach. Although unenlightened by refusing Nirvana, they remain in the physical plane - the realm of illusion (Maya). Their purpose is to guide other beings on their path to enlightenment.

As an example, it is unlikely that a drunkard will, without assistance, achieve enlightenment. A Bodhisattva may appear to such a person as a fellow drunkard. Over time, the Bodhisattva will guide that person to a path that will lead them closer to Nirvana - often without the beneficiary ever realizing what has happened or why.

Mahayana Buddhism is characterized by a tradition of statue representations of Buddhas. This tradition as an offshoot of the Greek statues which was carried into central Asia by Alexander the Great. Early representions of Buddhas are known as Greco-Buddhist statues[?] and are clearly modelled after Greek statues. This tradition was later carried east from Afghanistan into India, China and Japan.

See also: Shunyata, Reincarnation, Zen

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