To enter the room of the Tathāgata [the Buddha] means
to have great compassion.
To wear his robe means to be gentle and patient.
To sit on his seat means to see the voidness [a.k.a. “emptiness”] of all things.
–The Lotus Sutra, Chapter 10, Murano Translation
Mahayana Buddhism descended from earlier Buddhist traditions so it inherits foundational teachings such as the impermanence and contingent-existence of all phenomena (see “Emptiness” below), Nirvana as the only true state of lasting peace, the endless cycle of rebirth, the importance of personal conduct and goodwill toward all beings. It also inherited the earlier collections of sutras.
What distinguishes Mahayana Buddhism though is that it further elaborated or expanded on teachings only hinted at in earlier texts:
- The emptiness and interdependence of all phenomena – emptiness here means that all phenomena, both physical and abstract, arise from external conditions and their continued existence is contingent on them. Thus they are “empty” of a static self. This also leads to a greater emphasis on the interdependence of all phenomena as well.
- The universal potential for Buddhahood or “full awakening” – in early Buddhism it was thought that the Buddha was a “first among equals” with other monks in that the quality of enlightenment was the same, but that the Buddha was above and beyond them. Mahayana taught that all beings could eventually become Buddhas too. This consequently led to a greater emphasis on the Bodhisattva who devotes themselves to becoming a fully-enlightened Buddha. This further led to the frequent appearance of bodhisattvas in Mahayana literature.
- The existence of other Buddhas – this notion was only touched briefly in earlier Buddhist teachings, the idea of Buddhas existing in the past, present and future was greatly expanded. Further, these Buddhas are actively working to lead all beings to liberation (i.e. “nirvana”).
- Expedient Means – Just as the historical Buddha taught different people in his lifetime according to their background, understanding or inclination, the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and other figures strive to liberate all beings using a variety of means. This helped to facilitate the wide variety of schools and practices in Mahayana Buddhism in later generations.
- The decline of Buddhism – due to the cyclical nature of the Dharma, it was thought that after the appearance of a Buddha, the Dharma would eventually decline and be forgotten until the next Buddha. The Buddhist institutions would similarly decline and fade until they were a shadow of their former selves.