Mahayana is one of the two main traditions of Buddhism, the other being Theravada. From Sanskrit, maha means “great” and yana means “vehicle.” Mahayana is sometimes called Northern Buddhism because it is the primary tradition of Buddhism practiced in northern Asia. It is also the largest branch of Buddhism and the one that includes the philosophy of yoga practice (Yogachara).
Mahayana consists of four practice-focused schools – Zen, Pure Land, Vajrayana and Vinaya – and four philosophy-based schools – Yogachara, Tendai, Avamtasaka and Madhyamika. Some scholars classify Vajrayana as a separate tradition and the third main branch of Buddhism.
Unlike Theravada Buddhists whose goal is to become enlightened saints who have attained nirvana, Mahayana Buddhists hope to become bodhisattvas, altruistic enlightened saints who delay nirvana so they can help others attain it. The Mahayana tradition also teaches that even a layperson can attain enlightenment. The schools within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition differ in how to achieve this goal, but believe that enlightenment is attainable in a single lifetime.