greggorious wrote:Could someone tell me the exact reason why the mahayana was invented and why it decided to split from theravada? Or is this too open to debate? Was Zen the first Mahayana tradition?
It's a HUGE topic, Gregorious -- one which could fill up hundreds of pages. And the bottom line is no one is really certain how it got started. The current thinking, as I understand it, is that Mahayana probably
first developed as a sort of specialized focus among monastics during the centuries after the Buddha's parinibbana. Some of these monastics had deep samadhi (meditation) experiences which may have provided the basis for parts of the Mahayana scriptures.
Mahayana may also have a particuarly close connection with one of the early Buddhist schools, the Mahasamghika. A major schism took place at the Second Buddhist Council between these Buddhists and another group known as the Sthavirans. Theravadins traditionally have seen themselves as heirs to the latter group, and Mahayana has often been associated with the former (although the actual story may be more complex). It is not known for sure who precipitated the split, as the accounts conflict.
Here's a quick-and-dirty overview (i.e. Wikipedia) of the Mahasamghikas and their doctrines
The Mahāsāṃghikas advocated the transcendental and supramundane nature of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the fallibility of arhats. They held that the teachings of the Buddha were to be understood as having two principle levels of truth: a relative or conventional (Skt. saṃvṛti) truth, and the absolute or ultimate (Skt. paramārtha) truth. For the Mahāsaṃghika branch of Buddhism, the final and ultimate meaning of the Buddha's teachings was "beyond words", and words were merely the conventional exposition of the Dharma.
A doctrine ascribed to the Mahāsāṃghikas is, "The power of the tathāgatas is unlimited, and the life of the buddhas is unlimited." According to Guang Xing, two main aspects of the Buddha can be seen in Mahāsāṃghika teachings: the true Buddha who is omniscient and omnipotent, and the manifested forms through which he liberates sentient beings through skillful means. For the Mahāsaṃghikas, the historical Gautama Buddha was one of these transformation bodies (Skt. nirmāṇakāya), while the essential real Buddha is equated with the Dharmakāya.
It may also be worth asking "how was Theravada invented"? My understanding is that as a distinct school it originated around the time of King Asoka, who not only sponsored and promoted Buddhism but sought to reform it -- in some cases, expelling monks who held what he deemed to be unorthodox teachings.
Zen was definitely not the first Mahayana school -- the "Way of the Bodhisattva" had already been going strong in parts of India and Central Asia for a long time before Bodhidharma arrived in China.
I'm sure every single assertion I made above (except for the one about Zen) is open to fierce debate!