The Mahayana ("Great vehicle") or Northern branch is one of the two major divisions of Buddhism, the other being Theravada. (This latter kind of Buddhism is also referred to derogatively as "Hinayana" - "small vehicle"). Mahayana Buddhism is based on sophisticated metaphysical speculations regarding the nature of Reality (shunyata), or Enlightenment (sambodhi, prajna) and of the Buddha (Trikaya). Soteriologically of the idea not of escape into a quiescent nirvana, but rather, having achieved Enlightenment, one returns as a Bodhisattva to the world for the sake of other beings. Mayahana therefore emphasises that the duty of enlightenment to work compassionately to relieve the suffering of others (upaya - "skillfull means"), and argues that all sentient creatures will ultimately achieve Buddhahood. Mahayana Buddhism spread northeast from India into China (1st century A.D.), and from there into Tibet and Korea, and from Korea into Japan.
By convention, Mahayana is divided into two philosophical schools, both of which had a strong influence on the various Mahayana Buddhist sects, but also the Advaita Vedanta of Gaudapada and Shankara as well.
The first is the anti-metaphysical Madhyamika or dialectic school, which emphasises the negation of all possible phenomenal reality through a kind of logical reducto-ad-absurdum, in order to arrive at the ineffable absolute or Void (shunyata) that is the only Reality.
The second Mahayanist school is the Vijnanavada or "Consciousness-doctrine" which uses the experience of meditation in order to prove that all reality is ultimately Consciousness (hence their alternative names of Yogachara - "Yoga doctrine" - and Chittamatra - "mind-only"). Unlike the Madhyamikas, they developed a number of metaphysical and occult conceptions, including an emanationist ontology quite similiar to that of Samkhya, but psychologically rather than cosmologically orientated.
At the heart of Mahayana Buddhism is the noble Bodhisattva Ideal
|However innumerable sentient beings are,
The Bodhisattva Vow
A bodhisattva is a being who searches for the attainment of the Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. This conception, central to Mahayana school, developed from the original idea of one who defers the "ultimate goal" of nirvana (extinction) in order to return to the world of suffering again & again for the sake of sentient beings.
Master Shantideva - 695-743 AD,
the great proponent of the Bodhisattva Ideal and the Middle Way of Buddhism
(Tibetan block print) Buddhist Artwork - mirror (Australia)
Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition we must differentiate two types of the reincarnations:
Thus, Dalai-lama is a sprul-sku of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Panchen-lama the sprul-sku of Buddha Amitabha, Bogdo-gegen of Mongolia the spruls-sku of the saint Taranatha, etc. And only such special incarnations can be realised on the levels of mind, speach and body.
Moreover, each bodhisattva by his/her supernatural powers can produce unlimited number of such "magical bodies" and therefore, to be incarnated in several persons (we had seen such a collision in the Bertolucci's "Little Buddha"). In common speach such incarnations are called "incarnated lamas", or even "living buddhas". But ordinary beings move in the wheel of the cyclic existence by the force of their karma keeping the unity of their "santana" -- individual continuality of their psyco-phisical experience.
The Vijnanvada Conception Of "Consciousness-Only"