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This is a difficult question, and there is unlikely to be one answer. But I suspect, given the visionary nature of many Mahayanist texts, that they often stemmed from meditation experiences; visions of the Buddha, memories of ‘teachings’ received while in samadhi.Perhaps the authors of these texts believed that the Buddha was really present to them in some sense – and this is indeed the theme of many Mahayana sutras.
The oldest sources probably stem from a little before the common era, and it was finalized around 200 CE.Siddhartha Guatama was born the son of an Indian prince in 566 BC.At his birth, a prophet declared he would become either a powerful king or a great spiritual leader.When reading them as historical documents, rather than seeing them as spoken by the Buddha, we should see them as the response and articulation by Buddhists of the past to the conditions that they were in.They were addressing matters of concern for them, asking how the Dhamma is to be applied in these situations.
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It centres on the search for Enlightenment through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom, taking a 'middle way' through life's challenges.