chapter  2
Maha¯ya¯na in retrospect
From my house to the Dalai Lama (looking back from 2017 to 1930)
ByJoseph Walser
Pages 29

I would like to begin this particular journey of a thousand miles about two blocks from my doorstep. Wanting to find out about Mahāyāna Buddhism, I head off to my nearest Barnes & Noble. Being a bit mystified as to where exactly I am going to start my search for the origins of Mahāyāna, I go downstairs to the “Eastern Religions” section to look for a book commensurate with my intellectual capacities. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism and Buddhism for Dummies seem well suited for the purpose, and I flip through them to find out what Mahāyāna is. Gary Gach’s Complete Idiot’s Guide tells me that Buddhism is divided into Theravāda Buddhism and a Mahāyāna that consists of Pure Land, Zen and the “Lotus Schools” of Nichiren, Sokka Gakkai, etc. It also explains that Tibetan Buddhists divide Buddhism into “Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, though the latter might be considered Mahayana with a tantric twist.” 1 More generally, he states that Mahāyāna has five characteristics: “1) innovation, 2) devotion, 3) emptiness-based wisdom, 4) populism and 5) skillful means.” 2 Landaw and Bodian’s Buddhism for Dummies also lists five characteristics of Mahāyāna: 1) the compassionate bodhisattva replaces the arhat as the ideal, 2) all beings (monastic and non-monastic) can achieve Buddhahood, 3) “Buddhahood is an enduring principle that exists throughout the universe,” 4) “the nature of all existence is essentially non-dualistic,” and 5) “progress along the spiritual path involves recognizing the innate perfection of the present moment just as it is.” 3 In both books we find these somewhat ahistorical characteristics of Mahāyāna embedded in a larger historical narrative of the development of Mahāyāna.