Buddhism has two major branches: Theravada and Mahayana. The latter, known as "The Greater Vehicle," dominates Buddhist practices in China, Tibet and Japan, and is further subdivided into forms such as Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Although Theravada and Mahayana are both rooted in the original teachings of the Buddha, and share the objective of breaking the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, they have different approaches to it.
Mahayana is the Buddhism of the people. It has more flexibility than the Theravada form, which emphasizes an approach to practices more suited to a monastic life. Mahayana emphasizes the importance of each follower living as a bodhisattva, or enlightened being. The ideas of selflessness and compassion, and the desire to free all living beings from suffering are central to this life. This includes taking a vow to be reborn and helping others reach nirvana, or enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is achievable during the course of an ordinary life and that you don't need to be a spiritual recluse to reach this state.
Mahayana refers to "awakening" as the key to being a bodhisattva. Meditation is the method used to achieve this knowledge. Essentially, this is the realization that dualities, such as good and evil or existence and non-existence are false. It also teaches that reality is made up of everything seen and unseen, and that our notion of reality is purely a convention of daily life. In Mahayana, the universe has no beginning in time, and there are infinite worlds that are all part of true reality. It also teaches that there is an infinite number of buddhas. This particular teaching is significant because it means that believers are not dependent only on devotion to Shakyamuni Buddha --the original Buddha --for liberation from suffering. As a result, followers venerated other buddhas and bodhisattvas, such as Amitabha, in the regions where Mahayana is dominant.
Upaya is the Mahayana "doctrine of skillful means." This approach to salvation --which for Buddhists is liberation from suffering and the cycle of reincarnation called samsara -- allows individuals to use means that are appropriate for them but which may not appear to be right to other buddhists. The teachings explain that since the actions of a buddha, or bodhisattva, come from wisdom and compassion, whatever actions he takes to help another person, are justified by his superior insight. The parables of the Lotus Sutra, central text of Nichiren Buddhism, provides examples of the way "upaya" is used. In one of its parables -- sometimes referred to as the "white lie" parable -- a rich man needs to save his children from a house fire. To prevent panic and chaos he tells them their toys are outside. The children run out quickly, and are saved from the fire. The Buddha cited this as an example of lying as a skillful means of saving another person from suffering or death.
The concept of karma is important to Mahayana Buddhists. In the more classical idea of karma, only an individual's actions during his life could influence his future. However, Mahayana teachings suggest that the good karma accrued from good deeds might be transferable to others in need of liberation, such as a person's deceased parents. This could prevent them from having to experience the pain of rebirth. Mahayana also teaches that karma affects believers' acquisition of wisdom and enlightenment. Essentially this means that the more good karma, or merit, you create from your actions and thoughts, the more likely you are to achieve enlightenment.
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