Mahayana (Sanskrit: महायान, mahāyāna literally the "Great Vehicle") is one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism, the other being the Śrāvakayāna (formerly known as Hīnayāna). It originated in India and spread to various other Asian countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bhutan, Malaysia, and Mongolia.
According to the teachings of Mahāyāna traditions, "Mahāyāna" refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Early Mahāyāna Buddhism in India was divided into two systems of thought: Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. An important sub-school from a Theosophical perspective is the one known as Great Madhyamaka or Yogacara-Madhyamaka. These schools, as such, do not exist today, but their teachings continued in a great variety of more modern schools, including the Vajrayāna (Tantra) school of Tibet and Nepal, the meditation schools of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism in China and Japan, the Pure Land sect found in China, Korea and Japan, and others.
Mme. Blavatsky wrote:
The Hînayâna System, or School of the “Little Vehicle,” is of very ancient growth; while the Mahâyânâ is of a later period, having originated after the death of Buddha. Yet the tenets of the latter are as old as the hills that have contained such schools from time immemorial, and the Hînayâna and Mahâyânâ Schools (the latter, that of the “Great Vehicle”) both teach the same doctrine in reality. Yana, or Vehicle (in Sanskrit, Vahan) is a mystic expression, both “vehicles” inculcating that man may escape the sufferings of rebirths and even the false bliss of Devachan, by obtaining Wisdom and Knowledge, which alone can dispel the Fruits of Illusion and Ignorance.
- Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 39.