The term ‘Mahayana’ does not denote a movement made by a particular person or group. Over time, the words of the Buddha were recited from devotee to devotee, usually without the control or guidance of a central Buddhist authority. Hundreds of years later, the words were committed to writing. As the writings, teachings, recitations, and monastic habits took hold, geography proved to be no barrier. What was once a specific movement informed by Astika and Nastika strains of thought moved to other lands and took on new meanings.1

Adherents of the Buddha’s original teachings masterfully memorized, recited, and transcribed the Dharma.  The precise point when a “Mahayana” emerged from a “non-Mahayana” has not been, and might not be, determined.  Perhaps the Mahasanghika-Lokottaravada school, which embraced the teaching beyond language2, beyond culture, and beyond tradition planted the seed of the Mahayana by embracing the notion of the supramundane over the mundane.  Regardless of when, how, and by whom, the Mahayana schools of Buddhism began to embrace teachings that might not have been at the center of the Buddha’s cultural milieu.  Perhaps the most important shift of emphasis was on the relative nature of Nirvana.  In the Original Wisdom schools, Nirvana was mostly considered a solitary effort.  However, the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana thought favors forestalling (or, better yet, transcending) one’s own Nirvana in favor of helping all other being achieve Nirvana, by developing a mind of pure altruism on the way to embodying the Paramitas.  

The origins of the Mahayana are obscure in the extreme, and it is difficult to give a satisfactory explanation of why this widening happened. But from a doctrinal point of view the key lies in the changing status of the Buddha, and the growth of an idea that the Buddha’s death was a mere appearance – out of compassion he remains to help suffering, sentient beings.”3

Following the line of thought of the mundane juxtaposed to the supramundane, the Lotus Sutra introduces the concept of Skillful Means, by which the Buddha was said to have employed to explain universal principle underlying the nature of becoming and the emptiness of all things to hearers that required teachings in the Brahmanical lexicon.  

Mahayanists enthusiastically embrace the innate ability of all beings to achieve Nirvana.  This “seed” of Buddha-hood, present in all beings, underlies all mental processes.  Regardless, mental processes take time and effort to change, and some Zen practitioners even expound five progressive degrees of enlightenment, while others favor a more expedient approach.  The Rinzai school of Zen favors Kanna Zen, the practice of internalizing koans to expedite the experience of enlightenment.

The Mahayana movement also systematized the Three Bodies doctrine.  Like the Two Truths doctrine which distinguishes mundane teachings from supramundane teachings, the Three Bodies doctrine casts the historical Buddha in a sublime light.   

1Williams, 1989, 3-4.
2Williams, 1989, 18.
3Williams, 1989, 25.