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Ethics and Community

Community Organization

As with other schools of Buddhism, there is a symbiotic relationship between lay people and monks in the Mahayana; lay people materially support the monks, while the monks provide teaching and guidance to the laity. Monasteries are hierarchially structured based on seniority.


Although each individual Buddhist is fully responsible for his or her own progress, monks provide a moral and ethical model for the laity, as well as guidance and teaching. Mahayana monks have typically been celibate men, although in some countries monks are married, and the monastic path is open to women.

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Karma is at the center of all discussions of morality and ethics in the Mahayana, along with the idea of selfless compassion (karuna). It is the bodhisattvas' selfless compassion, coupled with wisdom (prajna) and skillful means (upaya), that compels them to remain in the world to aid other beings.

Vision for Society

The Mahayana, literally the "great vehicle," holds that all beings can and will eventually become perfectly enlightened beings. The goal of all people is to act ethically and compassionately, and thereby ideally to affect a perfectly harmonious society.

Gender and Sexuality

Images of spiritually powerful and advanced female figures are common in the Mahayana—Tara, who guides and protects her devotees; Prajnaparamita, who embodies wisdom. Some Mahayana schools employ sexual imagery to symbolize the union of wisdom and skillful means, and the overcoming of oppositions.