There are those who believe that Hinayana was the first form of Buddhism that Siddharta taught. That he was easing people into Buddhism; to prepare peoples' minds for his great view. So he taught them that life is a big, fat, disappointment and that it is ignorance, desire and suffering that made it so. That you must understand that the world is impermanent and attain insight into impurity and non-self. He taught that you can attain Nirvana ($8.99 for a used CD). If you do actions and avoid bad, you can get happiness. All you have to do is follow the precepts! Pure mind, stillness and bliss? Sign me up!
So what is Mahayana Buddhism? Well, as the story goes, Siddharta started to expand on Buddhism as his students matured. The emphasis moved away from suffering, impurity or the concepts of "good" and "bad." Instead, Mahayana focuses on what we can do with this suffering to take away others' suffering. There's a greater focus here on "function" as in, "What is your proper function?"
It begins with showing that the world is empty (what with all this changing going on). The funny thing is that once you realize that the world is empty and you realize that suffering is of the world, you figure out that... well... suffering is empty. Yep. There is no suffering (okay, okay... so something being "empty" is NOT the same as in not existing, but you get my point). So where Hinyana ends with emptiness, Mahayana uses it as a starting point. To boot, Mahayana teaches that practicing isn't something that one does for oneself but rather it's something one does for all ya'll! It is vowing to not enter into Nirvana until the last sentient being is saved from suffering (which didn't Nirvana help end the suffering that was late 80's pop music?).
Mahayana has six main teaching points.
1. Insight into the existence and nonexistence of the Dharmas. All substance is empty and without self-nature. Since everything is empty, it is all the same.
2. Insight into the fact that there are no external tangible characteristics, and that all is emptiness. This is names and forms which are created by your mind. Wait? How? "You" and "mind" are empty? Exactly! Emptiness begets emptiness, yo! Believing otherwise makes you a not-so-happy camper.
3. Insight into existence, emptiness and the Middle Way (not Milky Way which is a far inferior candy bar compared to Snickers). Emptiness already IS the Middle Way: no good, no bad; no here, no there; no birth, no death; no I, no you. Since nothing ever comes or goes, everything is already complete, lacking nothing (since there's nothing to lack).
4. Insight into the true aspect of all phenomena. Emptiness is absolute. And my Absolute is empty. Too many vodka martinis. Since everything is empty, everthing is complete. Therefore, everything is the truth just as they are: sun, moon, cat, poop, all truth! Dog is barking: truth. Sky is blue: truth. Hinayana says that nothing is truth since it's always changing. This is a major difference!
5. Insight into the mutual interpenetration (bow chicka bow bow) of all phenomena. Everything is truth so everything exists with no hindrance. Clouds move through the sky but they do not hinder the sky. Just as, eventually, thoughts or feelings cannot hinder you. You can use happiness or suffering to help others!
6. Insight which sees that phenomena themselves are the Absolute. Now this isn't just book learning type of understanding. This is more along the lines of experiencing that all things are absolute just as they are. There's a level of attainment involved. Once that happens, all of your actions are for others since there is no "I."
So with an empty mind, we become like a mirror. A mirror is empty. But when a kitten is held in front of it, it reflects kitten. When a gray hair appears, it reflects a gray hair. It doesn't like or dislike. It just reflects.
Four Great Vows
Mahayana is known as the Bodhisattva Way. There are four vows which are spoken, stating the practitioner's commitment to this path. I have listed here the vows as we say them with the Kwan Um school. I also listed alternate versions for the fun of it.
1. Sentient beings are numberless. We vow to save them all.
to save innumerable living beings,2. Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.
I vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings
Sentient Beings Are Numberless, I Vow to Liberate Them
to help all sentient beings
to eradicate countless earthly desires,3. The teachings are infinite. We vow to learn them all.
I vow to eliminate all vexations.
Desires are Inexhaustible, I Vow to Put an End to Them
to terminate all vexations
to master immeasurable Buddhist teachings4. The Buddha Way is inconceivable. We vow to attain it.
I vow to master limitless approaches to Dharma.
The Dharmas Are Boundless, I Vow to Master Them
to learn all the Buddha Dharma (Buddha's teachings)
to attain supreme enlightenmentNormally we say the vows after chanting whenever we get together. I'm supposed to memorize them. I guess rote is the only way to go, huh? Unless I can come up with a mnemonic device: SDTB... Sleeping Dogs Try Biting? Southern Dames Tame Boys? Sloppy Dressers Tie Bows?
I vow to attain supreme buddhahood.
The Buddha's Way is Unsurpassable, I Vow to Become It
to attain the highest enlightenment or Buddhahood
I'll think about it.