The origins of Mahayana are particularly obscure. Even the names of its founders are unknown, and scholars disagree about whether it originated in southern or in northwestern India. Its formative years were between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD.
Speculation about the eternal Buddha continued well after the beginning of the Christian era and culminated in the Mahayana doctrine of his threefold nature, or triple “body” (trikaya). These aspects are the body of essence, the body of communal bliss, and the body of transformation. The body of essence represents the ultimate nature of the Buddha. Beyond form, it is the unchanging absolute and is spoken of as consciousness or the void. This essential Buddha nature manifests itself, taking on heavenly form as the body of communal bliss. In this form the Buddha sits in godlike splendor, preaching in the heavens. Lastly, the Buddha nature appears on earth in human form to convert humankind. Such an appearance is known as a body of transformation. The Buddha has taken on such an appearance countless times. Mahayana considers the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, only one example of the body of transformation.
The new Mahayana concept of the Buddha made possible concepts of divine grace and ongoing revelation that are lacking in Theravada. Belief in the Buddha’s heavenly manifestations led to the development of a significant devotional strand in Mahayana. Some scholars have therefore described the early development of Mahayana in terms of the “Hinduization” of Buddhism.
Another important new concept in Mahayana is that of the bodhisattva or enlightenment being, as the ideal toward which the good Buddhist should aspire. A bodhisattva is an individual who has attained perfect enlightenment but delays entry into final nirvana in order to make possible the salvation of all other sentient beings. The bodhisattvatransfers merit built up over many lifetimes to less fortunate creatures. The key attributes of this social saint are compassion and loving-kindness. For this reason Mahayana considers the bodhisattva superior to the arhats who represent the ideal of Theravada. Certain bodhisattvas, such as Maitreya, who represents the Buddha’s loving-kindness, and Avalokitesvara or Guanyin, who represents his compassion, have become the focus of popular devotional worship in Mahayana.
By the 7th century AD a new form of Buddhism known as Tantrism (see Tantra) had developed through the blend of Mahayana with popular folk belief and magic in northern India. Similar to Hindu Tantrism, which arose about the same time, Buddhist Tantrism differs from Mahayana in its strong emphasis on sacramental action. Also known as Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, Tantrism is an esoteric tradition. Its initiation ceremonies involve entry into a mandala, a mystic circle or symbolic map of the spiritual universe. Also important in Tantrism is the use of mudras, or ritual gestures, and mantras, or sacred syllables, which are repeatedly chanted and used as a focus for meditation. Vajrayana became the dominant form of Buddhism in Tibet and was also transmitted through China to Japan, where it continues to be practiced by the Shingon sect.