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Denominations in Mahayana Buddhism

21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Mahayana, as one of the main denominations in Buddhism, is based on two main categories: the highest intuitive wisdom (Prajna) and compassion (Karuna).

Adherents of the movements that arose based on the Mahayana tradition, seek to gain an understanding of these categories to achieve inner freedom. To do this, each of them uses their various methods of achieving enlightenment, awareness and peace.

Such areas include Yogachara, Chan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Son Buddhism and Vajrayana.



Yogachara translates as “the one practicing yoga”. It is a philosophical system of Mahayana Buddhism (together with Madhyamaka), which was formed in the 4th-5th centuries. There are also other names of this school:

  • Vijnanavada (the “Way of Knowledge”)
  • Chittamatra (“Knowledge Only”)
  • Vijnyaptimatra (“Awareness Only”)

The Yogachara philosophy is most prevalent in Tibet, China, Japan and Mongolia. It is called subjective realism and focuses on the fact that each person has his/her karmic factors that determine the perception of reality.

Yogachara’s views are based on the exceptional truth of Vijnana (cognition, consciousness), and all phenomena (Dharmas). The external world beyond this is considered false and unreal. Only the knowing subject is true.

There are several levels of consciousness, where Alaya-vijnana is an absolute, incessant consciousness that triggers and coordinates all other levels. This is the “stream of consciousness” that must be awakened.

With the help of logic, Yogachara establishes how consciousness becomes entangled in illusions and how it can consequently free itself from them.

Three natures and eight levels of consciousness

In Yogachara, there are three natures of consciousness corresponding to different levels:

  • Imaginary Nature (Paricalpita)—incorrect perception of phenomena, which is based on false ideas
  • Dependent Nature (Paratantra)—a state when the relationship of phenomena becomes clear
  • Absolute Nature (Parinishpanna)—the vision of phenomena as they are, regardless of concepts and views

Therefore, Yogachara adherents follow the idea that our perception of external objects can be distorted. For an objective assessment of reality, both the senses and consciousness are necessary.

Vijnana consists of eight levels. There is the consciousness of:

  • vision
  • hearing
  • smell
  • taste
  • touch
  • mind for mental recognition
  • ego
  • “storage”, which contains memories of previous experiments

Yogachara, which included the theory of Tathagatagarbha, became most popular in China and the Far East. This is the teaching about the nature of the Buddha, which is the basis of the entire universe and is present in all living beings.

The ideas of Yogachara have formed the basis of the theory and practice of Buddhist tantrism—Vajrayana.

Chan, zen and son as denominations in mahayana buddhism

In China, Buddhism of the Mahayana tradition developed in its own way, which was influenced by the ideas of Chinese traditional philosophy, Taoism, as well as the mentality of local society. Chan Buddhism is the main movement from which other schools later developed.

Chan buddhism

Chan Buddhism (“concentration, contemplation”) was formed in the 5th-6th centuries as a result of a combination of Mahayana Buddhism with the traditional teachings of China. Initially, the teachings of Chan Buddhism came to China from India in the 2nd century BC.  Gradually, the school spread to other states, where separate denominations were formed:

  • Thien—in Vietnam
  • Son—in Korea
  • Zen—in Japan

Followers of the Chan Buddhism school practiced the methods of contemplation and meditation mentioned in the canons of Hinayana and Mahayana. Also, their daily activities included travelling around the country, practicing calligraphy, martial arts, cultivation of the land and teaching literature.

The basic principles of Chan Buddhism are:

  • not to rely on any scriptures
  • to use wordless transmission
  • to make direct contact with the spiritual essence of man
  • to attain Buddha perfection through contemplation of one’s own nature

The teachings of Chan Buddhism are famous for several movements in Art. Calligraphy was one of the first achievements of the Chan tradition. It was created by monks through the experience of meditation. Monochrome painting, which is related to Chinese ink wash painting, also achieved deserved recognition. Many Chinese Buddhist teachers expressed the truths of the Chan Buddhist philosophy through poetry.

Zen buddhism

Zen Buddhism was finally formed in China in the 5th-6th centuries under the great influence of Taoism. It is the dominant monastic form of Mahayana Buddhism in China as well as Vietnam, and Korea.

In a broad sense, Zen means a school of mystical contemplation or the doctrine of enlightenment, which arose from the ideas of Buddhist mysticism. Also, the term “Zen” refers to the practice of Zen schools—a most important element of Buddhist practice.

In Zen Buddhism, as in Chan Buddhism, the same principles are practiced. Its followers believe that the most important and valuable knowledge is transmitted not through texts, but from mentor to student—”from heart to heart”. In the future, the student will consolidate the acquired knowledge with the help of meditative practices of Zen Buddhism and then reach the necessary level of enlightenment, which is taught by the mentor.

Zen buddhism

The philosophy of Zen Buddhism insists that truth cannot be expressed in words, nor does it seek to associate itself with scriptures, philosophical systems, or any other dogma. For its followers, philosophical reasoning is useless.

The principle of Zen Buddhism, according to which potentially any person is a Buddha, means that to achieve this state it is necessary only to practice meditation. Through it, Buddha-like nature awakens inside.

The basic ideas of Zen Buddhism are characterized as anti-philosophical, anti-discursive and anti-rational. The teaching emphasizes the importance of one’s own experience. According to its ideas, logic is not able to help to see reality as a whole. The essence of Zen Buddhism is that it differs from other ways in qualities that are inextricably linked with ordinary life:

  • directness
  • simplicity
  • practicality
  • spontaneity

Adherents of the teachings of Zen Buddhism tend to constantly maintain the immediacy and accuracy of thoughts, feelings and actions thus avoiding philosophizing and vague opinions. At the same time, the doctrine is also characterized by suddenness and intransigence (relative to internal experience), paradox, intuitionism, disregard for the rules and anti-dogmatism.

Son buddhism

Son Buddhism refers to the Korean version of the Chan Buddhist school. The Japanese version of the term is known in the West as “Zen”. Son Buddhism incorporates the basic ideas of its progenitor, Chan Buddhism, and is distinguished by the emphasis on meditation, monasticism, and asceticism. Many Korean monks give up most of their possessions and sometimes sever all ties with the outside world. A hermit lifestyle is common among these monks, for whom meditation practice comes first and foremost.

The fusion of practice and learning, as well as the use of the practice of Huatou (test of enlightenment) as the main Koan practice of Zen Buddhism, are the main features of Korean Son.


Vajrayana (Diamond Chariot, Vajra Way, Tantra, etc.) is a tantric trend that arose within the Mahayana tradition in the 5th century BC. It then spread to Russia, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia and Japan. In different periods of history, it also developed in many other Asian countries.

The teachings of Vajrayana encompasses an esoteric system that correlates with late Buddhism. The main difference is expressed by the phrase “samsara and nirvana are one”, the meaning of which is the idea of achieving freedom, not after death, but as a result of entering a special psychological state in which a person feels free.

For this reason, teaching is considered one of the most psychologized esoteric systems. In many practices, there are analogues of shamanic rituals of absorbing spirits and shaman travelling. Vajrayana especially developed in the countries of the Himalayan region, and most of all in Tibet (Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism).

Vajrayana Buddhism refers to the path of transformation of the samsaric mind, based on the motivation and philosophy of the Great Chariot (Mahayana), but with a special approach to behavior and meditation.

The essence of Vajrayana is as follows:

  • visualization of images of meditative deities
  • pronunciation of mantras
  • practicing mudras
  • veneration of the Guru
  • receiving initiation only from teacher to student
  • using a set of special “quick methods” to awaken in this life (or during seven lives).

In Tibet and other Himalayan countries, Vajrayana is considered the crown of the Buddha’s teachings, as well as the fourth turn of the wheel of Dharma.

Mantra in Vajrayana is the main means of achieving enlightenment. It is believed that the path of the secret mantra can lead to the attainment of the Buddha in just one lifetime. The Vajrayana school repeats the postulate of classical Tantric Buddhism in that philosophical ideas are considered ineffective without practice. The theory and practice of Vajrayana tantra vary depending on the specific Buddhist school.

Attaining Buddhahood in Vajrayana practice is possible through:

  • yogic practice
  • meditation
  • recitation of mantras
  • veneration of a spiritual mentor (guru-yoga), etc.

It is believed that no practice can be carried out without a teacher and it is impossible to practice safely without the participation of a guru (lama).

Mahayana, representing the basic school of Buddhism, is considered one of the world’s most humane religions. It promotes simple and understandable categories for all, including sacrifice and awakening, rejection of violence, religious tolerance, self-improvement and accessibility of this path for all people. Throughout history, there have never been religious wars in Buddhism, and all issues of rivalry between the two main schools (Mahayana and Theravada) have been resolved through scholarly debates. For these reasons, Mahayana schools remain attractive to a wide range of people.