Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Similarities And Differences Between Theravada And Mahayana Buddhism

Similarities And Differences Between Theravada And Mahayana Buddhism


The Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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Similarities And Differences Between Theravada And Mahayana Buddhism


The Theravada School of Buddhism was formally established at the Third Buddhist Council during the time of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd Century B.C. In the later period, the Mahayanists took a firm stand and the terms of Mahayana and Hinayana were introduced after the 1st Century A.D. However, during the 2nd Century A.D. Mahayana became clearly defined. There is hardly any difference between Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism with regard to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. Though there are many similarities, but there are some important aspects in which both schools of Buddhist thoughts differ from each other. The major aspects of these are – the Bodhisattva concept, the deification of the Buddha, emphasis on meditational aspect and the concept of emptiness or sunyata.

Key Words: Bodhicitta, Bodhisattva, Deification, Meditation, Emptiness

Similarities And Differences Between Theravada And Mahayana Buddhism


Many people often fail to understand the basic similarities and differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Though the Theravada tradition follows the ancient teaching of the Buddha and remains close in form to early forms of Buddhism, but to understand things in their proper perspective, we need to review the history and trace the emergence and development of these two schools of Buddhism.1

The Theravada school admits the human nature of the Buddha, and is characterized by a psychological understanding of human nature; and emphasizes a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness.2 The philosophy of this school is that all worldly phenomena are impermanent and transient; unsatisfactory and that there is nothing in them which can be regarded as one's own, substantial or permanent. The life of an Arahant is considered to be ideal and the perfect state of insight is called Nibanna, where all kamma and (future) births ends and there is no more returning to the worldly life.1,2,3

It is generally accepted that Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghika sect, who adapted the existing monastic rules and also made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. They rejected certain portions of the canon, which had been accepted in the First Council. Thus, the Mahayana tradition was more innovative with Indian writers continually adding to the canon of sacred scripture for some centuries.1,2 The Mahayana has three main distinguishing elements. Firstly, it emphasized the savior status and completely adopted the Bodhisattva path from the earlier traditions. Secondly, the Buddha was glorified as a transcendent being and this led to a new cosmology. Thirdly, a new understanding of meditation led to a new philosophical outlook and new interpretation of traditions. Though the Mahayana considered other forms of Buddhism as lesser vehicles, but it acted as an umbrella for a great variety of schools such as the Tantra school, the Pure Land, Ch'an and Zen Buddhist meditation schools.2,4

History of emergence of Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism

(1) Origin of Mahasanghika School of Buddhism
One hundred years after the first Buddhist Council, the Second Council was held to discuss some Vinaya rules. The orthodox monks declared that nothing should be changed while the others insisted on modifying some rules. Finally, a group of monks left the Council and formed the Mahasanghika - the Great Community.2,4
(2) Origin of Theravada School of Buddhism
In the 3rd Century B.C. during the time of Emperor Asoka, the Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion among the bhikkhus of different sects. At the end of this Council, the President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu refuting the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included at this Council. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council was known as Theravada and Asoka's son, Ven. Mahinda, brought the Tripitaka and the commentaries to Sri Lanka.2,3

(3) Origin of Mahayana School of Buddhism
During 1st Century B.C. to 1st Century A.D., the two terms Mahayana and Hinayana appeared in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra or the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law. After the 1st Century AD., the Mahayanists took a firm stand and the terms of Mahayana and Hinayana were introduced. Hinayana sects developed in India and had an existence independent from the form of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka (Theravada Buddhism). However, during the 2nd Century A.D. Mahayana became clearly defined. Nagarjuna developed the Mahayana philosophy of Sunyata and proved that everything is Void in a small text called Madhyamika-karika. About the 4th Century, there were Asanga and Vasubandhu who wrote enormous amount of works on Mahayana.2,4,5

Similarities between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism: 1,2
There is hardly any difference between Theravada and Mahayana with regard to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. The following are the most important teachings of the Buddha which are all accepted by both schools:
(a) Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
(b) The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
(c) The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
(d) The Paticca-samuppada or the Dependent Origination is the same in both schools.
(e) Both rejected the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world.
(f) Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any difference.

Basic Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism:
Though there are many similarities, but there are some important aspects in which both schools of Buddhist thoughts differ from each other. The major aspects of these are –

(a) Bodhisattva Concept
Many people believe that Mahayana is for the Bodhisattvahood which leads to Buddhahood while Theravada is for Arahantship. It should be noted here that the Gautoma Buddha himself was also an Arahant. The ideal of the Mahayana school is that of the Bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her own enlightenment in order to compassionately assist all other beings and ultimately attains to the highest Bodhi.

Some people imagine that Theravada is selfish because it teaches that people should seek their own salvation. But the question is, how can a selfish person gain Enlightenment? Both schools accept the three Yanas or Bodhis but consider the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest. The Mahayana has created many mystical Bodhisattvas while the Theravada considers a Bodhisattva as a man amongst us who devotes his entire life for the attainment of perfection, ultimately becoming a fully Enlightened Buddha for the welfare of the world, for the happiness of the world.4,6

(b) Glorification and subsequent Deification of the Buddha
The buddhas are considered to be lokottara (supramundane) and are connected only externally with the worldly life. This conception of the deification of the Buddha contributed much to the growth of the Mahayana philosophy.1,4

(c) Emphasis on Meditational Aspect
The Mahayana school gave more emphasis on meditation especially the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha and the followers should be longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace.1,7

(d) Sunyata
Some people think that Voidness or Sunyata discussed by Nagarjuna in his remarkable book; Madhyamika Karika is purely a Mahayana teaching. But it is actually based on the idea of Anatta or non-self, non-attachment and also on the Paticcasamuppada or the Dependent Origination, found in the original Theravada Pali texts. Besides the idea of Sunyata, there is the concept of store-consciousness in Mahayana Buddhism which has its seed in the Theravada texts. The Mahayanists have developed it into a deep psychology and philosophy.1,5

Tabular Representation of Differences between Theravada and
Mahayana Buddhism1,2,3,4,6,7

1 The Buddha Only the historical Gautama (Sakyamuni) Buddha and past buddhas are accepted. Besides Sakyamuni Buddha and past buddhas, other contemporary and cosmic buddhas like Vairochana, Amitabha and Medicine Buddha are also very popular.
2 Bodhisattvas Only Maitreya bodhisattva is accepted. Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra are four very well known bodhisattvas besides Maitreya.
3 Objective of training Arahant or Pacceka-buddha. Buddhahood (via bodhisattva path).
4 Organization of Buddhist scriptures
The Pali Canon is divided into 3 baskets (Tipitaka): Vinaya Pitaka of 5 books, Sutta Pitaka of 5 collections (many suttas) and Abhidhamma Pitaka of 7 books.
The Mahayana Buddhist Canon also consists of Tripitaka of disciplines, discourses (sutras) and dharma analysis. It is usually organized in 12 divisions of topics like Cause and Conditions and Verses. It contains virtually all the Theravada Tipikata and many sutras that the latter does not have.
5 Concept of Bodhicitta Main emphasis is self liberation.
There is total reliance on one-self to eradicate all defilements. Besides self liberation, it is important for Mahayana followers to help other sentient beings.
6 Trikaya concept Very limited emphasis on the 3 bodies of a buddha. References are mainly on nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya. Very well mentioned in Mahayana buddhism. Samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment body completes the Trikaya concept.
7 Language of dharma teaching Tipitaka is strictly in Pali. Dhamma teaching in Pali supplemented by local language. Buddhist canon is translated into the local language (except for the 5 untranslatables), e.g. Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese. Original language of transmission is Sanskrit.
8 Language of Transmission Tripitaka is only in Pali. Teaching in Pali supplemented by local language. Scriptures translated into local language.
9 Transmission route Southern transmission: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia. Northern transmission: Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and parts of Southeast Asia.
10 Nibbana No distinction is made between nibbana attained by a buddha and that of an Arahant or Pacceka-buddha. Also known as 'liberation from Samsara,' there are subtle distinctions in the level of attainment for the three situations.
11 Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples Basically historical disciples, whether arahants or commoners. A lot of bodhisattvas are introduced by Sakyamuni Buddha. Most of these are not historical figures.
12 Rituals and liturgy There are some rituals but not heavily emphasized as in Mahayana schools. Owing to local cultural influences, there is much more emphasis on the use of rituals; e.g. Rituals for the deceased, feeding of Pretas, tantric formalities (in Vajrayana).
13 Use of Mantras and Mudras Some equivalent in the use of Parittas. Heavily practiced in the Vajrayana school of Mahayana Buddhism. Other schools also have included some mantras in their daily liturgy.
14 Dying and death aspects Very little research and knowledge on the process of dying and death. Usually, the dying persons are advised to meditate on impermanence, suffering and emptiness. The Vajrayana school is particularly meticulous in these areas. There are many inner and external signs manifested by people before they die. There is heavy stress in doing transference of merit practices in the immediate few weeks following death to assist in the deceased's next rebirth.
15 Bardo This in-between stage after death and before rebirth is ignored in Theravada school. All Mahayana schools teach this after death aspect.
16 One meal a day practice This is the norm among Theravada sanghas. This is a highly respected practice but it is left to the disposition of each individual in the various sanghas.
17 Vegetarianism This aspect is not necessary. In places like Thailand where daily morning rounds are still practiced, it is very difficult to insist on the type of food to be donated. Very well observed in all Mahayana schools (except the Tibetans due to the geographical circumstances). However, this aspect is not compulsory.
18 Focus of worship in the temple Simple layout with the image of Sakyamuni Buddha the focus of worship. Can be quite elaborate; with a chamber/hall for Sakyamuni Buddha and two disciples, one hall for the 3 buddhas (including Amitabha and Medicine Buddha) and one hall for the 3 key bodhisattvas; besides the protectors, etc.
19 Schools/Sects of the tradition One surviving major school.
(this follows years of attrition, reducing the number from as high as 18) 8 major (Chinese) schools based on the partial doctrines (sutras, sastras or vinaya) of the teachings. The four schools inclined towards practices like Pure Land/Amitabha, Ch'an, Vajrayana and Vinaya (not for lay people) are more popular than the philosophy based schools like Tien Tai, Avatamsaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika.
20 Non-Buddhist influences Mainly pre-Buddhism Indian/Brahmin influences. Many terms like karma, sangha, etc were prevailing terms during Sakyamuni Buddha's life time. References were made from the Vedas and Upanishads. In the course of integration and adoption by the people in other civilizations, there were heavy mutual influences. In China, both Confucianism and Taoism exerted some influence on Buddhism which in turn had an impact on the indigenous beliefs. This scenario was repeated in Japan and Tibet.
21 Buddha nature
Absent from the teachings of Theravada tradition.
Heavily stressed, particularly by schools inclined practices.
22 Absolute Truth The Doctrine of the Buddha and the Concept of Nibbana The Concept of emptiness of emptiness, the concept of Bodhicitta and Nibbana

The main goal of Theravada Buddhism is personal liberation from suffering and that of Mahayana Buddhism is liberation of all living beings from suffering. There is considerable variation in ritual, texts, culture, etc. between the two traditions, but also within each tradition. However, the primary differences are mainly cultural and not spiritual.


1. Keown, D. 2000. Theravāda and Mahayana Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. London: OUP, Oxford Press: 56-69.
2. W. Rahula. 1996. Theravāda - Mahayana Buddhism. Gems of Buddhist Wisdom. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Buddhist Missionary Society.
3. Gombrich, Richard F. 1988. Theravāda Buddhism: a social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo. Library of religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
4. Williams, Paul. 1989. Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations. The Library of religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.
5. Nāgārjuna, Garfield, J.L. 1995. The fundamental wisdom of the middle way: Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. New York: Oxford University Press.
6. Brown, Brian Edward. 1991. The Buddha nature: a study of the Tathāgatagarbha and ālayavijñāna. Buddhist traditions, 11. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
7. Chihmann, U. The Four Buddhist Books in Mahayana. Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation.

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