Mahayana Buddhist Thought and Practice

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Even a brief survey of Mahayana Buddhism, which arose less than 500 years after the historical Buddha's lifetime, strongly suggests that "Buddhist bioethics" cannot be approached in singular terms. Mahayana refashions Theravada perspectives through the concept of sunyata (emptiness), while adding a new soteriological possibility based on faith: birth in a Buddhist paradise as the goal of religious praxis. Thus, Mahayana Buddhism incorporates the ideal of enlightenment achieved through individual self-effort—Zen Buddhism is the most well-known exemplar of this—as well as potential for salvation through birth in a Buddhist paradise. Particularly noteworthy is the Western Paradise, or Pure Land, of Amitabha Buddha who vows to save all sentient beings that call on him for assistance. Further, anyone— monastic or layperson—could practice devotion to the "other power of Amitabha," emphasizing for the first time nonmonastic practice leading to salvation.

In contrast to Theravada emphasis on the arhat, Mahayana focuses on the figure of the bodhisattva, a concept that has two primary significances. First, meditation-based Mahayana centers on the bodhisattva vow, a pledge to follow the Buddha's Dharma in order to achieve enlightenment and to compassionately assist others in the same quest. Through meditation, the bodhisattva aims to perceive the reality of the universe—that all dharmas are empty of self-nature. The concept of emptiness (sunyata) asserts that all dualistic perceptions are misperceptions, and that nirvana and samsara are the same thing. Otherwise, a duality or opposition between the enlightened and the unenlightened is being expressed. The Mahayana goal is not to transcend samsara, but rather to understand—experientially—that dualities result from a mistaken view of nirvana as permanent and eternal, existing outside of samsara.

Second, in faith-based Mahayana, the term bodhisattva describes compassionate figures, like Avalokitesvara (Known in China as Guanyin and in Japan as Kannon), who have advanced along the path to enlightenment and gained great spiritual powers. They are called upon for assistance with both spiritual and material difficulties. Faith-based Mahayana recognizes that, for most lay Buddhists, following the Dharma is too difficult. In a degenerate age far removed from the teachings of the historical Buddha, the only hope for release from samsara is by calling—single-mindedly and with devotion—on those whose spiritual progress far exceeds our own. Devotions may be made to Amitabha Buddha for spiritual and material assistance in addition to the intervention of bodhisattvas.

Mahayana conceptions of the bodhisattva critique the Theravada arhat ideal, arguing that in an interdependent world individuals must assume responsibility not only for personal enlightenment, but also for assisting others in the quest. Thus, spiritual compassion becomes significant in Mahayana ethics in general, and in bioethics in particular.

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