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Harrison points to the enthusiasm in the Lokakṣema sūtra corpus for the extra ascetic practices, for dwelling in the forest, and above all for states of meditative absorption (samādhi).
Meditation and meditative states seem to have occupied a central place in early Mahāyāna, certainly because of their spiritual efficacy but also because they may have given access to fresh revelations and inspiration.
Paul Williams has also noted that the Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early schools of Buddhism, and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to an early school.
Membership in these nikāyas, or monastic sects, continues today with the Dharmaguptaka nikāya in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya in Tibetan Buddhism.
The earliest textual evidence of "Mahāyāna" comes from sūtras originating around the beginning of the common era.
Jan Nattier has noted that some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra use the term "Mahāyāna", yet there is no doctrinal difference between Mahāyāna in this context and the early schools, and that "Mahāyāna" referred rather to the rigorous emulation of Gautama Buddha in the path of a bodhisattva seeking to become a fully enlightened buddha.
Seishi Karashima has suggested that the term first used in an earlier Gandhāri Prakrit version of the Lotus Sūtra was not the term mahāyāna but the Prakrit word mahājāna in the sense of mahājñāna (great knowing).
Earlier stage forms of Mahāyāna such as the doctrines of Prajñāpāramitā, Yogācāra, Buddha Nature, and the Pure Land teachings are still popular in East Asia.The Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyatantra, states that mantras taught in the Shaiva, Garuda and Vaishnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri.Mahāyāna constitutes an inclusive tradition characterized by plurality and the adoption of new Mahayana sutras in addition to the earlier āgamas.In some cases these have spawned new developments, while in others they are treated in the more traditional syncretic manner.Paul Williams has noted that in this tradition in the Far East, primacy has always been given to study of the sūtras.
Those who venerate the bodhisattvas and read the Mahayana sūtras are called the Mahāyānists, while those who do not perform these are called the Hīnayānists.