Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Posted on April 17th, 2017

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Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism share the same core beliefs and devotion to the life and teaching of Buddha but they do have some differences. Mahayana Buddhists believe that enlightenment can be attained in a single lifetime, and that one can guide and teach the doctrine to others while still on the course for enlightenment. Theravada Buddhists believe that one may take several lifetimes to achieve enlightenment and has to achieve enlightenment first before guiding and teaching others. In a 2010 study, the Mahāyāna tradition was the largest Buddhist tradition with 53.2% practitioners, compared to 35.8% for Theravada and 5.7% for Vajrayana.

Theravada Buddhism is associated with South East Asia and is perhaps closer to the original Indian form of Buddhism. As Mahayana Buddhism spread north through Tibet and China, it took on more local customs.

Location of Buddhist Paths

  • Theravada Buddhism – Southern (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, parts of Southeast Asia)
  • Mahayana Buddhism – Northern (Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, parts of Southeast Asia )

Scriptures

  • Theravada in Pali (Pali Cannon).
  • Mahayana in Sanskrit (Sutras)
  • Both share the common basic Buddhist teachings of Four Noble Truths, Eight-fold path.

Language Difference

Theravada Buddhism is more conservative. It places importance on the original Pali language as the birth language of the Buddha. Pali is used in worship.

Bodhisattvas

  • In Theravada Buddhism the main Bodhisattvas is Maitreya.
  • In Mahayana Buddhism Maitreya plus non-historical figures.
  • Mahayana Buddhism suggests Boddhisatva’s delay their realisation to stay in Samsara and help other struggling humans.
  • Theravada suggests Bodhisattvas seek enlightenment first before they can help others stuck in Samsara. In Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas have greater prominence.
  • In Mahayana Buddhism, Bodhisattvas have greater prominence.

Goal of Buddhism

  • Theravada Buddhists place greater emphasis on arhat – liberation or Nirvana.
  • In Mahayana Buddhism, the role of the Bodhisattva path is given more prominence.

Teachings

Theravāda promotes the concept of vibhajjavāda teaching of analysis”.  This suggests the seeker should gain insights from his own experience, application of knowledge, and critical reasoning, though this should be weighed against scripture and wise monks. This means self-enlightenment before disseminating knowledge to others.

Mahayana promotes the idea that an aspirant should not just seek personal enlightenment but also the enlightenment of all beings. This means teaching others whilst still on the path to self-enlightenment. It explains the mixing of the teachings with pre-existing local beliefs and rituals as Buddhism spread north and east from India.

Type of Meditation

Theravada

Mainly silent-mind, mindfulness meditation. There are two main types of Theravada meditation:

  1. Samatha: Calming meditation
  2. Vipassana: Insight meditation

Mahayana

  • Mahayana Buddhism greater emphasis on mantras, chanting, especially in Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Though Tibetan Buddhism is based on Mahayana, it could be seen as its own strand – Vajrayana. Tibetan Buddhism is based on Tantric disciplines.

Modern expressions

Mahayana Buddhism

  • Pure Land,
  • Zen,
  • Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism

Theravada

  • Thai Forest Tradition
  • Vipassana

Monastic traditions

There is a monastic tradition in both branches of Buddhism. The monastic tradition in Theravada is perhaps considered more important and there is a strong relationship between monks/nuns and lay people.

Mahayana Buddhism also has a strong monastic tradition.

2 Responses to “Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Word of warning to patriots not to write or discuss the two sects of the Buddhist faith as it will be exploited in a future by outsiders to cause divisions, just like dormant division of the two sects are being exploited and they are tearing themselves apart. There is only one Buddhist religion.

  2. Senerath Says:

    A good summary.

    I thought Pure Land is the plane that sect of Mahayana followers seek to be reborn. If one is born ( even if it is Pure Lanad) one cannot be considered enlightenend.

    Buddha said “by protecting oneself one protects otheres and by protecting others one protects onself” which appears in Suttas of both traditions.
    I am not sure whether the statement “has to achieve enlightenment first before guiding and teaching others” is true. In thta case in Sir Lanka , we have thousands of Arahants.

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