What is the difference between “Mahayana” and “Theravada” Buddhism?
If you are exploring Buddhism or a beginner, you are probably utterly confused about why there are different branches or schools of Buddhism, and which one you should pick (or if it really matters).
For someone just starting out on the path (exploring or practicing Buddhism), this is by far your most difficult decision as you don’t want to feel like you wasted your time.
Rest assured, there cannot be a wrong ‘choice’ for you in picking a branch or school, but each one has its own advantages and disadvantages based on what path you wish to follow. Before I get any further, it’s worth mentioning that when I describe both branches, they are ‘broad’ strokes, because schools within each branch can practice differently.
My hope is that you will walk away from this article with a better appreciation for the rich world of Buddhist thought and beliefs that bring us together, rather than what is different. As a former Theravāda Buddhist, who is now a Mahāyāna Buddhist, I appreciate and respect the teachers from all traditions and their wonderful teachings of the Dharma (Dhamma).
Article Summary (TL;DR)
It is not important which school of Buddhism we follow, as long as we practice. ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun
I know you may not have a lot of time to read a lengthy article (“too long; didn’t read”), so this summary can help. However, it is best to read the entire article when you can!
There are two major “branches” of the Buddhism tree in our modern world: Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism.
More specifically, Buddhism is grouped geographically into South-Asian Buddhism (which only practices “Theravāda”), and East-Asian and Central-Asian Buddhism (predominantly practicing “Mahāyāna” since they include Mahāyāna scriptures) which have many different “schools”.
- As a layperson, there is no wrong “path” to take. All schools, sects, and traditions of Buddhism believe in and follow the core teachings of the Buddha. This includes the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s Sermons (Sūtras), and teachings such as Rebirth, and Karma.
- The major difference is the “path” one takes: Theravāda (Arhat Path) and Mahāyāna (Bodhisattva Path). This is categorized as the “Three Vehicles” (Yānas)
- Śrāvakayāna: Arhat/Arhant (Listeners/Disciples) – Achieves individual enlightenment & Nirvāṇa through the teachings of a Buddha (may rarely be called Sāvakabuddha). Only the Theravāda school follows this path.
- Pratyekabuddhayāna: Solitary Buddhas – Discovers the Dharma but is unable to teach others (this is not a current path since we have teachings to follow).
- Bodhisattvayāna: Bodhisattva Path – The path towards becoming a fully awakened Buddha to fulfill the aspiration to save all sentient beings. All of the Buddhist schools (except Theravāda) follow this path (Mahāyāna) which includes Zen (Ch’an, Thien, Seon), Pure Land, Tibetan, Nichiren, etc.
- The other major difference is different views on “Buddhavacana”, which is the “Word of the Buddha”. This refers to scripture that is in accord with the teachings of the Buddha leading towards enlightenment and Nirvāṇa.
- Theravāda: The Pāli Canon contains the Buddhavacana for Theravāda. They do not accept the Mahāyāna sūtras as Buddhavacana.
- Mahāyāna: A more progressive view that the Buddha’s teachings, and his disciples, are Buddhavacana. This includes Buddhas, disciples of the Buddha, Rishi (enlightened persons), and Devas. Scripture is found in the Chinese Canon and Tibetan Canon.
- Doctrinal Differences
- Buddha: Considered supermundane in Mahāyāna; Buddhas have a different realization than other enlightened persons. Theravāda says the same human body and realization as Arhats but have taken a longer path. Mahāyāna also has numerous Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and “Buddha Fields” (Pure Lands) that one can have rebirth in to be under the guidance of a living Buddha.
- Buddhanature: In Mahāyāna, all sentient beings have the innate capability to become a Buddha. In Theravāda, one can only become a Buddha [of an era] if predicted by a Buddha eons ago.
- Bodhisattva: In Mahāyāna anyone can be on the Bodhisattva path either as unenlightened or at different stages of enlightenment. Theravāda says only for exceptional beings and as unenlightened.
Now that you have this summary, this article will provide you with more information (hyperlinks on this page take you to other articles that I wrote which explain a topic further).
You yourself must strive. The Buddhas only point the way. ~ Shakyamuni Buddha
Let’s start with the basics. What is Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism and their schools?
There are over 350 million Buddhists worldwide who are part of one of the two main ‘branches’ (sometimes referred to as ‘schools’) of Buddhism:
- Theravāda: Comprising 38% of all Buddhists, Theravāda is typically found in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Theravāda came about in the 3rd century (B.C.E) due to 18 different sects¹ of Buddhism with their different (and often conflicting) views of the Dhamra. This required the “Third Council” to create what is now known as Theravāda, and King Asoka’s son brought this teaching to Sri Lanka.
- Mahāyāna: This is the largest of the branches which comprises 56% to 62% of all Buddhists. Mahāyāna is typically found in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia. There are 8 major schools including Pure Land, Zen / Ch’an², and others. It is believed by some scholars that Mahāyāna can trace its initial origins to one of the original and oldest branches of Buddhism, Mahāsāṃghika.
What about Tibetan? Tibetan is sometimes called its own branch but incorporates the Mahāyāna teachings, and other teachings, which form about 6% of all Buddhists.
What’s the Same in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism?
At its core, all Buddhism is the same, but has some fundamental differences in how it is practiced and what the laity (that’s you and me) can hope to get out of it.
Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism believe in:
- The Buddha (Prince Siddhartha / Shakyamuni Buddha as the historical and original founder of Buddhism)
- The Sangha (having a monastic community)
- The Dharma (literally means “truth” which are the teachings) which includes: The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, The Triple Gem, The Three Universal Seals, The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, a Scriptural Canon (such as the Tipitaka) which is a collection of the Buddhist scripture which includes the sayings/teachings of the Buddha. Although Theravāda and Mahāyāna have different ‘canons’ of recorded scripture based on their collection, interpretation, and translations.
- Threefold Training (Precepts, Meditation, and Wisdom)
As you can already tell, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism pretty much believe in the same things! So, you are probably scratching your head right about now because you believe (or were told) that they are wildly different.
Let’s get right into the differences.
Time to Hit the Books
Despite Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism agreeing upon the Dharma mentioned above, there are differences when it comes down to the different scriptures both uses.
Each branch or school may focus more on certain texts. For example, in Mahāyāna, the Eight Realizations of a Bodhisattva Sutra is one of the primary sutras that defines Mahāyāna.
- Theravāda accepts the Pali Canon as the only true Buddhist texts/scripture. This was the Canon that was created in Sri Lanka and the first effort to write down the Buddhist teachings, rules, and commentary/analysis. The original Pali Canon (written on palm leaves) has been lost to history, so we are unable to see what was originally written down in the first century (BCE).
- Mahāyāna forms their Canon from many of the same sources as the Pali canon, but also from various schools which existed at the time the Pali Canon was being created and afterward (including schools that existed in India until the decline of Buddhism there, which the Pali Canon does not include). It also includes hundreds of other teachings known as sutras (not found in the Pali Canon) as central texts (varies by school/country in Mahāyāna). The Chinese Canon is the main canon of Mahāyāna Buddhism (with the other being Tibetan Buddhism’s canon), and is actually what remains of the different Sanskrit Canons, along with other scripture. The reason it is called the “Chinese Canon” is that it was the result of monastics from India and China who helped to bring the teachings to China, which developed into this canon. This Chinese Canon is also used throughout East Asia in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The Taishō edition of the Chinese Canon, which was created in Japan in the 20th century is the most used standard edition of Chinese Canon and the one you can find electronically and otherwise currently in use with Buddhists.
The major difference as it relates to Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism was bound to happen due to how humans think.
- Theravāda was more conservative and took a literal and traditional view of the teachings of the Buddha as central.
- Mahāyāna, however, took an interpretative and populist view of the teachings in order for them to adapt and build upon them to reach a wider audience and help explain complex teachings to laypersons (while still retaining the original teachings of the Buddha).
Regardless, both derive the core of their Canon from India, which is why there are many similarities, although Mahāyāna continued to expand its Canon whereas Theravada did not.
So, which one has the “best” Canon?
I enjoyed reading from Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh (one of the most popular Buddhist masters and scholars in our world) who enjoys both. He stated that the Southern (Theravāda /Pali Canon) and Northern (Mahāyāna/Chinese Canon) transmission of Buddhism both preserved different parts of the teachings better than the other:
By comparing the two extant sutra recensions, we can see which teachings must have preceded Buddhism’s dividing into schools. When the sutras of both transmissions are the same, we can conclude that what they say must have been there before the division. When the recensions are different, we can surmise that one or both might be incorrect. The Northern transmission preserved some discourses better, and the Southern transmission preserved others better. That is the advantage of having two transmissions to compare.
Honestly, that is a wonderful view of it because if we only had one canon (such as Pali), we would be missing what the other schools remembered and orally transmitted for centuries.
Do not think either canon is better than the other, but what you can learn from both. However, depending on what branch/school you are in, you will be following one canon only (and certain scripture).
Because the Buddha’s teachings are (largely) the same among all of them, you are still reading and learning the Buddha’s Dharma. Yet, you should focus on the Canon from whatever branch/school you choose to follow to practice in for the sake of simplicity and benefit of your practice.
Unless you are a theologian or monastic, you won’t have time to read ALL the texts in these Canons!
Who’s on First?
You are bound to hear that Theravāda has the ‘original’ scripture (thus the ‘pure’ version of Buddhism), and that Mahāyāna is a more ‘modern’ scripture and not the true words of the Buddha.
While both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism go back and forth on this, some have said that the Pali Canon suttas and Mahāyāna sutras were written within a hundred years of each other or that Mahāyāna was actually written at the time of the Buddha. Unfortunately, this is something that will be forever controversial and lost to history.
As explained in my article devoted to the Buddhist scriptures, the two main canons (Pali and Chinese) have nearly the exact same scripture as it relates to the teachings/sermons of the Buddha (factoring in translation, etc.), and teach the same core things.
The major difference relates to the analysis/commentary on the scripture (Abhidharma/Abidhamma) where the two schools agree, and disagree, on certain things, and the regulatory framework of the monastics (Vinaya). Analysis/commentary on the scripture has been a longstanding feature of Buddhism, that only now shows two major schools (however there were many more throughout history).
When it comes to the Vinaya, the monastics between the schools largely believe and follow the same rules. The major difference comes into being with some rules the [what came to be known as the] Mahāyāna school felt were outdated and no longer practical. Even then Mahāyāna monastics never felt they were a different “school” of Buddhism because they followed the Vinaya.
According to David Kalupahana, (2006, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass: p. 5.):
Scholars have noted that many key Mahāyāna ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism.
However, as Justin Whitaker explained, there is no ‘pure’ form of Buddhism (and that’s quite ok!):
The Buddha himself was syncretic, the Abhidhammists/Abhidharmists were syncretic (see Noa Ronkin’s recent great work, Early Buddhist Metaphysics), early Mahayana, as far as we can tell, was syncretic, and so on and so forth. So when scholars or others point at Tantric Buddhism and say, “that’s not Buddhism, but a syncretic blend of…” they’re simply missing out on the history of Buddhism.
Gary Gach explained (“traditionalists” is Theravāda and “innovators” is Mahāyāna):
Today, there’s a tendency to think of the traditionalists as existing first, and the innovators as coming later. However, scholarship suggests that the two tendencies were present from the beginning.
In addition to the scripture shown above, Buddhism is a growing religion that takes in new scripture and teachings all the time. It is not restricted to just the teachings of the Buddha 2,600 years ago (but those are the core and primary teachings).
These teachings must conform to what is known as the “Three Dharma Seals” (my article linked here refers to the Mahāyāna version) to be considered genuine Buddhist teaching (even as it applies to specific teaching of the Buddha).
However, only Mahāyāna accepted additional scripture (such as the remaining schools of Buddhism that were in India before the decline there), while Theravāda stuck to the Pali (Canon) Tripitika only.
The bottom line is, does it really matter? If you are a “purest” and don’t want to accept any new or different teachings that aren’t in the Pali Tripitika, then Theravāda is your branch (note that the Chinese Canon in Mahāyāna has the same sermons of the Buddha since all the early schools of Buddhism also had them, not just the school that became Theravāda). If you are open to other teachings that help you grow and learn Buddhist concepts, as long as it meets the requirements of the three Dharma seals, then Mahāyāna (and the Chinese Tripitaka/Canon) will be acceptable for you.
As I explained before, we are in a wonderful time where we can have both canons of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism to learn from. While that is too much for any person to truly read and understand, we can get wonderful teachings from both. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh authored a wonderful book called “Awakening the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries” which would essentially be the core foundation for any Buddhist. Even though he is in Mahāyāna, he included several Suttas from the Pali Canon! His commentary on them, and Mahāyāna Sutras, is worth getting this book and shows how both branches of Buddhism aid us in our understanding of Buddhism and progressing in the path.
Which ‘scripture’ is ‘better’ is irrelevant. What matters to most laypersons (non-monastics) is which ‘path’ you want to take in Buddhism. The next part of this article talks about what the ‘end’ goal is for each branch of Buddhism.
This makes the ultimate difference in which Canon you follow and should be all that matters. Remember, the Buddha provided his teachings to help get us to the end result (Nirvana). The scripture is just the ‘boat’ that gets you to that other shore.
I See the Light
Another aspect that is different is how a practitioner wants to achieve enlightenment, and progress, in Buddhism. Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism have different ways they see for the end result, and how to get there.
For example, in Mahāyāna, all practitioners can follow something known as the “Bodhisattva path”. Whereas in Theravāda, practitioners (non-monastics) are considered less likely to attain any true growth or enlightenment (Theravāda is a primarily monastic tradition, compared to Mahāyāna which encompasses laity and monastic).
Learn more about enlightenment in my article devoted to it.
Me, Myself, and I
A Theravāda Buddhist generally believes in ‘individual enlightenment’ through self-effort. Their goal of becoming an Arhat (Arahant), which is someone who has attained enlightenment and escaped the cycle of birth and death (the Buddha was an Arhat).
They do not teach the concept of ‘Buddha-nature’ (a topic in itself), which is popular in Mahayana Buddhism. They believe that enlightenment is done through one’s own effort, without the help of any outside influences or forces, following the same path as how the Buddha became enlightened.
Essentially only you can achieve enlightenment, so get going! And by get going, I mean you should really become a monastic if you’re serious about this.
Laypersons (while not completely rejected, so yes you can become enlightened also) are considered unlikely to become an Arhat in Theravāda and should become a monastic to truly pursue that goal. The trappings of everyday life as a layperson are not very conducive to achieving awakening (sometimes it can be hard just to get through a regular day!).
For example, if you wanted to become a Medical Doctor, you would need to devote your full time at school, residency, and constant learning to perfect your skills. The same applies to Theravada where becoming a monastic allows you the full time to learn, meditate, teach, and progress which would be difficult to do as a layperson. You can find more information about being a Theravada layperson on Access to Insight’s article about it: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel294.html
I found it remarkably interesting when author Gary Gach explained that due to the Mongol Empire‘s occupation, Southeast Asian nationals adopted a “new Theravāda” which not only had no nuns but also not Arhats. According to Gary, this new Theravāda (which exists today) hasn’t produced any Arhats for a thousand years. However, is that even necessary? There are many “levels” a monastic achieves (even in the Buddha’s day, not everyone “escaped” the cycle of birth and death), so we must not take this as any negative connotation.
It should be noted that monastics that do achieve enlightenment don’t go around telling everyone that and is discouraged. The only ones that truly know are going to be their teachers (who should also be enlightened and can verify), or another enlightened person. Only through living with a person and seeing how they act and respond to different situations can be a way an enlightened person can verify someone else is enlightened. So, knowing if Theravāda (or Mahāyāna) is creating any Arhats is difficult, to say the least.
All Hands-on Deck
A Mahāyāna Buddhist believes, like Theravāda, that one’s own effort is crucial, however, they believe in a sort of ‘enlightenment for all’, because we are all in this together and cannot be separate from others.
They focus heavily on “Buddha nature” (which is not taught in Theravāda), and enlightenment through the Bodhisattva path. The Bodhisattva path is something that anyone can follow, layperson or monastic, and achieve the same result. While that may be a reason not to become a monastic (after all, if anyone can be enlightened why give up this life?), it is the opposite. Just like in Theravāda, anyone can become enlightened, however, to truly devote yourself to that goal becoming a monastic and putting your full effort into that goal is the ultimate path.
According to Barbara O’Brien, individual enlightenment is not possible due to the concept of “emptiness”:
Very basically, Theravada considers anatman to mean that an individual’s ego or personality is a fetter and delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana.
Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic self (a teaching called shunyata, which means “emptiness”). The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion, but because we are not really separate, autonomous beings.
Note: What about the Buddha? Didn’t he attain individual enlightenment? Yes, he did…but here is why: The Buddha our era, Shakyamuni, is known as a Samma-sam-buddha. There is only one of these kinds of Buddhas during a particular era, where they bring their teachings to the world. In Mahāyāna, we can also become Buddhas, but it is not the same as a Samma-sam-buddha. So, a Samma-sam-buddha doesn’t necessarily fit into the ‘no individual enlightenment’ statement. They are bringing their teachings to the world for the benefit of ALL, and in essence, are not doing it for themselves (and, in fact, is perhaps the ultimate expression of shunyata and his compassion towards all living beings). While Shakyamuni set out to understand the truth through his own efforts, his presence in this world was not by accident. It was a culmination of countless eons where he was an unenlightened Bodhisattva setting the conditions for the birth where he would become the Samma-sam-buddha of our era.
This is not to say that Theravāda doesn’t look favorably on this ideal either. Ven. Ajah Chah who was a famous Theravāda Buddhist monk of the Thai Forrest Tradition had an interesting disclosure with Ven. Ajahn Sumedho. According to Ven. Ajahn Amaro, Ven. Ajahn Sumedho said to Ven. Ajahn Chah:
I’m totally committed to the practice. I’m determined to fully realize nibbana in this lifetime; I’m deeply weary of the human condition and determined not to be born again.
Instead of giving what is the “assumed” response in Theravāda, where Ven. Ajahn Chah would have said supported this [individualistic] approach, he instead said:
What about us, Sumedho? Don’t you care about those who’ll be left behind?
To give a Zen/Ch’an² response to the above response by Ven. Ajahn Chah we could say “Aha!”. This is yet another example where Buddhism, regardless of school, is still the same Buddhism at its core. While it is true that we (unfortunately) do not see this promoted as much as we do in Mahāyāna, it is nevertheless (refreshingly) there in Theravāda.
If we could sum up Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism by using a “drowning swimmer” analogy: Theravāda believes you need to know how to swim and rescue the person first, thus one who leads the spiritual life (a monastic) is more skillful in saving others. Mahāyāna believes that, yes, knowing how to swim would be great, but sometimes you just got to do something! Letting someone drown is not a good thing either.
Therefore, a group effort, such as a “human chain” going out into the ocean to rescue someone is what they promote (swimming is a nice to have, but not necessary when everyone works for the common goal). And sometimes we must take things in perspective such as the water is only knee-high 😉 The important thing to remember is that neither school is wrong, nor right.
Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism’s “reasoning” on achieving enlightenment is correct, but the circumstances must also be taken in. There is no escaping our interconnectedness and the compassion to save all living beings, and at their core, both schools do this but just in separate ways (paths).
Getting Promoted is Tough, But Worth It
Ultimately, both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism will concede that becoming a full-blown ‘Buddha’ is unlikely for the vast majority of people (including the most devoted monastic). Theravāda has Arhats, and Mahāyāna has Bodhisattvas…but what is the difference?
The ‘goal’ of these enlightened beings makes the crucial difference:
- Theravāda: Become an Arhat [Arahant] (the Buddha in his last life was also known as an Arhat).
- Without getting too confusing on this, there are different types of Arhats (literally means “worthy one”), for example, the ‘Buddha’ was an Arhat who achieved enlightenment by himself, whereas a ‘regular’ Arhat receives guidance to Buddhahood from a Buddha. The Arhat is done with this life and moves on to Nirvana leaving the cycle of rebirth.
- Theravadins do believe in Bodhisattvas as well, however, it differs from Mahayana as they interpret it as any unenlightened human can become a Bodhisattva when they strive towards enlightenment (i.e., arahantship). This is because Theravadins focus on the Buddha always saying that he “was once an unenlightened Bodhisattva” in scripture. Mahayanists believe this is a bit “self-centered” because it focuses on the individual who desires nirvana (and since the individual is illusionary, this is an illusionary liberation as well). Theravadins would counter that how can anyone else be liberated if you can’t liberate yourself first?
- When it comes to recognizing Bodhisattvas in scripture, only Maitreya (the future Bodhisattva and Buddha) is recognized.
- Mahāyāna: Become a Bodhisattva (the Buddha was a Bodhisattva in his many prior lives), as Mahāyāna is heavily focused on the Bodhisattva path ideal.
- Compared to an Arhat (remember, both are enlightened beings), the Bodhisattva sticks around willingly (does not enter Nirvana) in the cycle of rebirth to help others become enlightened. Their common cry is (the first vow of a Bodhisattva): “Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to liberate them”. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t wanting to become a Buddha; they are just working towards helping everyone become awakened first.
- Here is where it gets tricky when comparing Theravada and Mahāyāna: both believe in Arhats (in-fact, Mahāyāna schools revere the Arhats from the Buddha’s time), however, Mahāyāna believes that becoming an Arhat is just one stage, and all Arhats must eventually move on to become Bodhisattvas. Otherwise, those who seek nirvana just for themselves and become Arhats only are considered shravakas, meaning “listeners”, because they are following the “letter” of the scripture, rather than the “spirit” of it (an analogy would be a police officer or judge that follows the “letter” of the law, rather than the “spirit” of it when making a decision). Theravadins do believe that anyone can be a Bodhisattva (only a term) when they are on their way towards enlightenment, specifically, those who want to become an Arhat. Thus, both have similar terminology, however, the interpretation and direction are different.
- When it comes to recognizing Bodhisattvas in scripture, Maitreya, as well as several other Bodhisattvas, are recognized.
But why does Mahāyāna have this separation from Theravāda and the Arhat ideal? Gary Gach gives one explanation:
Let’s call the trend emphasizing the Bodhisattva the Great Vehicle (“great” as in large or wide). It evolved out of various needs. The lay people, for example, who’d often donated quite a share, deservedly wanted more representation. Fewer people aspired to arhatship. Plus, matters in the traditional teachings seemed to call for further explanations-and so new texts (called sutras) arose, for a period lasting four centuries. After all, the traditional texts usually began, “Thus did I hear the Buddha say…” so long as they carried on the spirt and the letter of the law.
Is there a correct one to choose (Arhat in the Theravāda ideal, or Bodhisattva in the Mahāyāna ideal)? Not necessarily, and both have a purpose for someone on different stages of their path (remember, the path is the same leading to the same result).
Simply put, it’s challenging work on either side to become an enlightened Arhat of Bodhisattva (remember, it was demanding work for the Buddha as well!). The Bodhisattva path in Mahāyāna can be followed by any layperson (where even if you don’t become a Bodhisattva, you learn and help along the way), whereas in Theravāda pursuing a monastic route to become an Arhat is highly recommended (where you devote your entire life to that goal and thus are considered a Bodhisattva because you are “unenlightened”).
One way I like to explain this is to use analogies:
Theravadins believe you need to learn how to swim (enlightenment) before you can jump in the water and save someone from drowning (suffering). Mahayanists would counter that if you are spending all your time learning how to swim, how many people have you let drown in the meantime? As you can imagine, this debate can go around and around!
While the Theravadin explanation makes complete logical sense, I do need to flesh out the Mahayanist explanation a bit more: yes, it is true you need to learn how to swim to save someone from drowning…but what if that someone is only in a few feet of water and you can stand in it (and not actually have to swim) to save them? Or can’t you throw them a rope or life preserver? Then the dynamics profoundly change (there are many ways to help and be on the “Bodhisattva Path”).
In Mahāyāna, it doesn’t matter your enlightenment level (or lack thereof), any layperson can follow the Bodhisattva path, meaning they can directly impact sentient beings (and since everything is interconnected, that’s important). Yes (to all the Theravadin’s going “but! but!”) someone who is not enlightened will not be as effective as someone who is in helping others, but even a layperson can throw water to extinguish a small fire (not everyone needs to be a professional firefighter)!
Here are some important things to note to help break any preconceived notions that a specific branch or school of Buddhism is the “only” way to go:
- The historical Buddha, was an Arhat (at least initially, he achieved enlightenment)
- The historical Buddha, was also a Bodhisattva (many times in the past, and that is what spurred him to not just stay an Arhat upon his enlightenment, but instead take the next step and become a Buddha and teach others)
- Both Theravāda and Mahāyāna believe in a future Bodhisattva, known as Maitreya (“the Future Buddha”) as explained in the Wheel-Turning Emperor (Cakkavatti) sutta/sutra. However, Mahāyāna also recognizes several other Bodhisattvas that Theravāda does not acknowledge
- If you want to read a counter-argument to the status quo, I found this interesting article by Yogesh Lokhande who argues that neither Arhat nor Bodhisattva will actually make you a Buddha (but he gives his view on how you can still achieve that goal).
Sitting on the Cushion
How do practitioners in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism practice meditation?
Meditation in Buddhism is part of what is known as “bhavana” (although there is some disagreement about using that term for meditation) which is the mental cultivation and discipline of the mind.
You may consider Mahāyāna to focus only on chanting, and Theravāda to be the only one who meditates, but this is far from the case.
- Theravāda focuses on what is commonly referred to as ‘Vipassanā’ meditation. However, this did not become popular with laypersons until the 19th and 20th centuries (there is a resurgence of this type of meditation thanks to those in Burma who preserved and promoted it). Before that, Vipassanā meditation was predominately a monastic practice, especially in Burma. This doesn’t mean that all teachers teach “Vipassana only”, as many do consider Samatha part of meditation practice. However, there are deep divisions between those who consider both necessary and those who believe Vipassanā is all that is needed (such as in Burma). But is “Vipassanā” actually a “meditation” practice? According to Venerable Bhante Sanathavihari there is no such thing as “Vipassanā” meditation found in the Pali Canon, and other monastics (such as those in Sri Lanka) have countered the argument that Vipassanā is all that is needed. Vipassanā is something you develop as the result of the practice of Satipaṭṭhāna. Satipaṭṭhāna refers to the establishment of attention, and Vipassanā (the result) is the insight or direct vision into reality. For common terminology, however, we will continue to use “Vipassanā” in this article.
- Mahāyāna has different schools (sects) with a focus on mental cultivation in different ways. Generally, however, Mahayana focuses on a mixture of both Vipassanā and Samatha meditation. Mahāyāna believes that both Vipassanā and Samatha are necessary to achieve enlightenment because in order to be analytical (Vipassanā), your mind must first be calm and still (Samatha). Since there are many schools in Mahāyāna (compared to only one remaining in Theravāda), these schools practice meditation in different ways and to varying degrees. Some schools, such as Pure Land, perform chanting or recitation instead of meditation. This was introduced mainly because laypersons did not have time to partake in the monastic practice of meditation due to busy work and home life. Interestingly, chanting and recitation have shown to be effective like meditation when imaging scans of the mind were taken. In fact, the vast majority of Buddhist laypersons are Mahāyāna “Pure Land” Buddhists who practice chanting the Nembutsu. While this may not seem like the quiet meditation we associate with Buddhism, it in-fact has the same effect on the brain, and when understood deeply and correctly, is working for the same goal.
What’s the difference between the two types of meditation?
- Vipassanā: This is also known as “insight” meditation. Essentially, it helps you see the true nature of reality (which the Dalai Lama calls “analytical meditation”). There is already a wealth of information about it online, and a great place to get an overview is here: http://www.vipassanadhura.com/whatis.htm. Remember that Satipaṭṭhāna is actually the practice, and Vipassanā is the result.
- Samatha (also known as shamatha): This is also known as “mental concentration”. Specifically, it’s about ‘calming’ the mind (“citta”) and its formations (“sankhara”). Because it’s not a purely Buddhist practice, Theravāda Buddhism doesn’t consider it necessary (although they do recognize it exists, and some teachers do consider it necessary), however, Mahāyāna considers it essential to enlightenment (as explained above). Samatha is actually a form of meditation compared to Vipassanā which is a result of practice.
OK, you’ve been reading this article and are getting a little hungry…but…what does a Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist eat?!
- Theravāda: They are not vegetarian, however eating in the morning before noon (especially for monastics) is emphasized.
- Mahāyāna: This is a mixture where Vegetarianism is observed, but not always practical. For example, Tibetans eat meat due to the landscape they live in, and some Mahāyāna schools don’t reject eating meat. Also eating at different times is allowed based on the school.
The Mahayana view on vegetarianism primarily comes from the Nirvana Sutra, following the Bodhisattva path, and that all sentient beings (which include more than just Humans) have Buddha-nature.
The following was Chapter 7 of the Nirvana Sutra (translated by Kosho Yamamoto and edited by Dr. Tony Page) which states:
One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion… O Kasyapa! I, from now on, tell my disciples to refrain from eating any kind of meat. O Kasyapa! When one eats meat, this gives out the smell of meat while one is walking, standing, sitting or reclining. People smell this and become fearful. This is as when one comes near a lion. One sees and smells the lion, and fear arises. O good man! When one eats garlic, the dirty smell is unbearable. Other people notice it. They smell the bad smell. They leave that person and go away. Even from far off, people hate to see such a person. They will not come near him. It is the same with one who eats meat. It is a similar situation with all people who, on smelling the meat, become afraid and entertain the thought of death. All living things in the water, on land and in the sky desert such a person and run away. They say that this person is their enemy. Hence the Bodhisattva does not eat meat.
For those who still can’t give up meat, a question and answer essay on why eating meat are acceptable for Buddhists can be found over on Buddhanet.
Ultimately, the decision to eat, or not eat, meat lies with your path in Buddhism and belief that animals are sentient beings and suffer as much as humans.
Based upon the two branches of Buddhism, there are several different “schools” that exist. These schools teach and practice their branch (and path) of Buddhism in a way that is unique to them while staying true to the heart of Buddhism as the Buddha taught it.
While Theravāda is the only school within it’s branch, there are several country-specific variations of it. These variations (which contain “Nikāya” in their names) are mainly related to the Vinaya (monastic rules). In Mahāyāna there are numerous schools that all practice the Bodhisattva path, but in ways that are unique to them.
This list is not meant to be all encompassing and covers a select number of schools.
South-Asian Buddhism (Theravāda)
Also known as the “southern transmission”, South-Asian Buddhism started largely with the patronage of King Ashoka who sponsored monastics to spread the Buddha’s teachings to neighboring countries. Theravāda is the only branch, and school, of Buddhism that does teach the Mahāyāna path or contain Mahāyāna scriptures.
The countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Bangladesh practice Theravāda.
India contains two movements not related to Theravāda. The Dalit Buddhist movement (founded by B.R. Ambedkar) was a neo-Buddhist movement for the Dalits in India. Tibetan Buddhism can be found in India due to refugees that came from Tibet.
- Burma contains several traditions, however, the Vipassana Meditation movement has caught worldwide attention. It was created in Burma by the monk Ledi Sayadaw
- Thailand has Mahasati Meditation which is a form of mindfulness meditation that was created in Thailand by the monk Luangpor Teean Cittasubho that focuses on bodily movement and self-awareness. There is also the Thai Forest Tradition is where the monks follow the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment while he was in the forest. This ascetic and disciplined tradition are most well known in the West due to Westerners who became monks and introduced the tradition to others.
East-Asian Buddhism (Mahāyāna)
Also known as the “northern transmission”, East-Asian Buddhism started with China which was the first to receive scriptures, monks, and exchange of information from ancient India. Buddhism spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan often by Chinese Buddhist monks and dialog between countries. Mahāyāna can also be found in Malaysia and Singapore largely due to the migration of Chinese Buddhists.
Of interest is that there is a now-extinct school of Buddhism, Yogācāra, which lives on in the traditions that developed in East-Asian and Central-Asian Buddhism (Mahāyāna). Yogācāra delved into the nature of consciousness through meditative and yogic practices to include wisdom, morality, and concentration, and how it allows one to attain enlightenment. Traditions such as the meditation school (Zen / Ch’an) and others use elements of the Yogācāra school to practice and for the explanation and understanding of our world and mind.
There are largely two main schools: The meditation (dhyāna) school, which is called Ch’an in China, Zen in Japan, Thiền in Vietnam, and Seon in Korea, and the Pure Land school (which is perhaps the most widely practiced). There are also other traditions, such as the Nichiren school in Japan.
East-Asian Buddhism largely follows the Vinaya (monastic rules, ordination, and lineage) of the Dharmaguptaka school from ancient India.
- Chinese Buddhism today is largely defined by two dominant traditions: Ch’an (Chinese for dhyāna or “meditation”) and Pure Land. However, the fluidity between temples and traditions means that both can often be found intermingled and practiced together. There is also the growing Humanistic Buddhism movement which is focused on practicing Buddhism in the human world, rather than focusing on after death.
- Japanese Buddhism features Buddhist schools that are structured differently than most of the Buddhist world. The Vinaya (monastic code) may be less emphasized with the schools meaning monastics can marry, eat meat, and live a householder life. Laypersons may become “priests”, which is not found elsewhere. And the schools are distinctly separated (such as Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren) and do not intermingle, whereas you can find that occur without concern in countries such as China and Vietnam.
- Vietnamese Buddhism was largely shaped by China (and thus Mahāyāna) to include Thiền (Meditation “Ch’an”), Tịnh độ (Pure Land), and Thiên Thai (Tiantai). While Mahāyāna plays the central role in Vietnam (largely with Pure Land), the intermingling of Theravāda elements can be found.
- Korean Buddhism is largely of the Seon (mediation) school, but also includes elements found in Pure Land such as reciting the name of Amitābha Buddha. This dual approach is similar to what can be found in China and Vietnam but was developed to be specific to meet the interpretation of Korea. There are also modern Buddhist movements that focus on “Buddhism for the masses” known as Minjung Buddhism.
Central-Asian Buddhism (Mahāyāna)
Part of the “northern transmission” is Central-Asian Buddhism. This is practiced in the countries of Tibet, Bhutan, regions of the Himalayas, Mongolia, and Russia (Siberia). India can also be found to practice Central-Asian Buddhism due to refugees from Tibet.
While it developed independently of East-Asian Buddhism, it would eventually take some elements from the Chinese Buddhist Canon and follows the Bodhisattva Path (Mahāyāna) in a unique way. Some elements found practiced in Central-Asian Buddhism can be found in East-Asian Buddhism since both found inspiration and teachings from the many schools of ancient India.
Sometimes referred to as Vajrayāna Buddhism, it contains esoteric and yoga practices (among others) to attain Buddhahood in the fastest way possible. Because this method can be dangerous, only specific teachers called Lamas can teach students.
Several schools exist; however, most Westerners may be familiar with the Gelug school (Yellow Hat) since the 14th Dalai Lama is the leader of that tradition.
Because there are so many ways (or “paths”) to practice Buddhism, there is a path for everyone. So, let me make it clear before I talk about my decision: the end of the path, however, is the same for everyone…just everyone enjoys different ‘scenery’ and teachers to get there. Nirvana is the goal, not attachments to anything else. Often, and unfortunately, this gets missed by deeply devoted Buddhists regardless of what school they are in.
Throughout my life, I flowed between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism (to include Zen, Tibetan, and even secular) and learned a great deal about both. It was this ability to explore, sometimes with preconceptions and sometimes without, that I learned a great deal and progressed in Buddhism that I could not have done if I was closed to other viewpoints and stayed in one branch/school.
I am a Mahayana Buddhist nowadays (in the Humanistic Buddhism school of Ven. Master Hsing Yun, and also follow the teachings of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh), as it best fits my morals, views, and the path I wish to take.
Thankfully, Buddhism doesn’t care if you are Mahayana or Theravada Buddhist as we all get along simply fine, and can go to each other’s temples, ceremonies, and teachers. I still read and listen to Theravada teachers as much as I do Mahayana, as everyone (and everything) can give us something new to learn. I also have no concerns about visiting and practicing in a Theravada temple one day and practicing Zen/Ch’an² on another day, and then Chinese Buddhism on another. What I have learned is that you can “get” more out of Buddhism by dropping the “Theravada vs Mahayana” debate and start listening to teachers and practicing!
That being said, it is important to have one central school, teacher, and practice to follow (which is what I do). It is fine, and recommended, to widen your horizons, but there are fundamental “path” differences between Theravada and Mahayana which will make practicing both confusing. Both paths lead to the same goal, but you should pick one path. The beauty is you have choices in which path you wish to walk on!
A word of caution, however, is that calling one branch or school of Buddhism “better” than the other misses the point of Buddhism entirely.
We should all be open with our minds and hearts to all teachings. Our entire purpose in Buddhism is not to debate which branch or school is better, but to understand that the diversity of these schools allows many people to discover and understand the teachings that resonate with them. Find the best fit in the Buddhist world that works for you and pursue it!
Author Timothy Freke explained that all forms of Buddhism teach the path to transcend the ego-self, and that path is through stilling the mind and opening the heart. I think that’s something we can all agree on.
Ven. Master Hsing Yun had this exceptional story to share which reinforces that starting on the path is the most important, not which school or branch is “better” or “easier”:
When the great master Cihang was alive, he had one disciple whose Dharma name was Luhang. He was a retired military man and liked the simplicity of Pure Land practice. He repeatedly pleaded with his teacher to recite Amitabha’s name with him so that he might be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. One day when he again approached his teacher on this matter, the master said, “You really want to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land? Good, let’s go.” He then sat down and passed away. When the other students realized their teacher was not breathing, they all blamed Luhang for causing their teacher’s death. After half an hour of commotion, the venerable began to breathe again. He then remarked, “We are free to choose which school we want to practice.” It is not important which school of Buddhism we follow, as long as we practice. This story shows that what is important is not how many of the Buddha’s teachings we understand, but how well we put into practice in our daily lives those teachings that we do understand.
- Article’s Main Featured Photo: Leshan Giant Buddha. CC0 Photo by Chi King on Flickr
- Thank you to Ven. Bhante Sanathavihari for his review and feedback of this article.
- Recommended Books: What the Buddha Taught by Ven. Walpola Rahula, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Complete Idiots Guide to Buddhism by Gary Gach
- Further Reading: Between Arhat and Bodhisattva by Ven. Ajahn Amaro, About Mahayana by Barbara O’Brien, Origins of Theravada Buddhism by Barbara O’Brien, Are there differences in the roles teachers play in different Buddhist schools? by Lions Roar, What is Vipassana? on Dhammadana.org
- ¹ Hinayana It is commonly referenced as the original “school” of Buddhism. However according to Ven. Analayo Bikkhu, that is more of a general term and that is not the right term to use.
- ² Ch’an is the Chinese, and original, version of what is known as “Zen” in the West. Zen is the Japanese version of Ch’an, Thiền in Vietnam, and Seon in Korea.
The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only. Alan Peto assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site. The information contained is provided on an as-is basis with no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness, and without any warranties of any kind whatsoever, express or implied. Read full disclaimer here.
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