Mahayana is Sanskrit for Great Vehicle or Big Boat. Just as the protestants split from the original Catholic faith, so too did the Buddhist world split into two major schools. And the largest of those two also split many times.
Original Indian Buddhism had multiple schools but the only one that survived into the modern world is known as the Theravada school, the Way of the Elders.
Most of the other schools of Buddhism that survived to the modern world are grouped together under the heading Mahayana. Zen is one of the Mahayana schools. There are two major Zen schools, Soto and Rinzai, and a smaller school found mostly in Japan, Obako.
Tibetan Buddhism has its own category: Vajrayana. Just as Zen is a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism (Wade-Giles), the indigenous “religion” of China, Vajrayana is a mixture of Mahayana and Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet.
Zen is the second largest of the Mahayana schools. The largest Mahayana school is The Pure Land school and its practitioners in China and Japan greatly outnumber Zen practitioners.
Many Chinese Ch’an/Zen masters encourage Pure Land practices.
Zen was created by the merger of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism (pinyin). None of the famous Zen sutras were spoken by the Buddha; they were written by enlightened Chinese masters who understood what the Buddha had said (and more importantly, experienced what the Buddha experienced) and placed the Buddha’s teachings into their own words.
Many of the Chinese sutras begin with: “Thus I have heard…” and what follows is the Chinese Master’s version of what the Buddha said. Scholars strongly suspect this to be the case because the Chinese Ch’an/Zen sutras are drastically different in style from the original Pali texts as preserved through the centuries by the Theravada school. (Pali is a dialect of Sanskrit: Sanskrit “nirvana” is “nibbana” in Pali; Sanskrit “dharma” is “dhamma” in Pali, and so on).
We even find, in one Chinese sutra, that the Buddha said: “How lucky it is to be re-born in human form. Luckier still to be re-born Chinese!”
Since the Buddha most likely never heard of China, and since the Buddha taught non-discrimination, it is a pretty safe bet that those words came from a Chinese master, no doubt giggling as he wrote with tongue-in-cheek.
Or the “Luckier still to be re-born Chinese” was simply a humorous commentary. The Chinese are very fond of commenting on every phrase of a sutra.
As practiced in the modern world, there are few differences between Theravada and the several schools of the Mahayana. Both Theravada and Mahayana schools meditate and Zen simply means “meditation” so what is the difference?
The meditation techniques are different and the two schools follow different rituals, but they both are essentially the same. The Zen sect simply emphasizes meditation more than the other sects. That’s why most Americans are attracted to the Zen sect. We are more interested in meditation than we are in rites and rituals.
I have attended multiple Sunday morning Chinese Buddhist services, and I am no longer amazed that they do everything except meditation.
Some Asian teachers tell the story of two people who come to a wall. They climb atop it, and both shout with joy at the sight they behold. Apparently, they see the land of milk and honey. (Perhaps considered hell by vegans!)
Delighted, the first person leaps from the wall and disappears into the promised land, never to be heard from again. The second person practices restraint and resolves not to pass over the wall until all sentient beings have crossed over. Only then will the selfless one enter into that happy land.
The first person is the Arhat, the selfish Theravadan who only wants to save himself. The second person is the Bodhisattva, the ideal of the Mahayana.
That is a mean-minded, unenlightened story! Sadly, in Asia the Mahayana followers really do look down on the Theravadans, who they dismissively call the Hinayana (Small Vehicle or Little Boat), implying that the Hinayana people are small-minded and somewhat selfish. After all, they do kill animals for food and think nothing of it.
This Asian problem has cultural roots. The Mahayana countries are China (including Tibet), Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam, i.e., China and the countries that historically find themselves in the cultural orbit of China.
The Theravada countries are Sri Lanka (Holy Island), Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and the Cambodian border area of Vietnam. Malaysia is primarily Muslim with a minority Buddhist population.
The story of a self-centered Arhat is ludicrous because an Arhat has attained perfect enlightenment. That of course cannot happen until the practitioner has developed the Bodhisattva spirit, vowing not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings have done so.
The Arhat does not pass into Nirvana, never to be heard from again. Both people went back from that wall, compelled by compassion, to help others enter into the promised land. One of them, however, spread a rumor that the other had selfishly disappeared over the wall.
That, in a nutshell, is how Buddhism divided into a Northern or Mahayana school and a Southern or Theravada school.
In the United States, the two schools mix freely, each attending the other’s sittings, chanting services, and retreats. Very little mixing occurs in Asia, primarily due to the geographical distances, cultural differences and language problems involved, none of which prevails in the States.
Although the Mahayana appears a little haughty if not arrogant in its attitude toward the Hinayana (actually considered to be a dirty word!), scholars say that the Theravada school preserved the Buddha’s original teachings but that Buddhism would not have become a world “religion” if the Mahayana had not transformed it from a “monkish” religion. As the Mahayana spread, Buddhism became a religion for lay people as well as monks and nuns.
Most scholars also agree that the split between Mahayana and Theravada occurred vey early, perhaps as little as one hundred years after the parinirvana of the Buddha.
Master Hsuan Hua, a modern day Ch’an master from China, was well aware of the prejudices held by many Mahayana practitioners against the Theravada practitioners so he worked hard during his lifetime to dispel such prejudices. He befriended Theravada practitioners and even gave them land to build a Theravada monastery near his own property (The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas) in northern California.
So even though we are speaking of starting and maintaining an authentic Zen practice, we mean no prejudice against other forms of practice. If we are lucky enough to live near a Pure Land or a Theravada practice center, by all means we should go there and practice. But we can skip the animal-killing that defiles the Theravada temples.
And when we practice Zen, we include selected Theravada and Pure Land practices.
If you ever make it to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, drive another eighteen miles and visit the Abhayagiri monastery, the Thai forest tradition monastery that received the gift of land from Master Hua.
When visiting Abhayagiri, I saw an alabaster Buddha on the hillside, overlooking the monastery, so I climbed a path to get closer to it for a photo. After taking the photo, I saw that the path continued around the side of the mountain so I started following it. After just a few steps, I encountered a sign that said something like:
Do not walk alone.
No jogging, no bike riding.
Beware of mountain lions.
I still regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to photograph that sign. I just descended from the hillside without delay.