The critical difference between Early Buddhism, Theravada and other Buddhist Schools
Posted on July 24th, 2018

Prof. N.A. de S. Amaratunga   

Sri Lankans and people in other Buddhist countries may be interested in understanding the essential difference between Early Buddhism, Theravada and other Buddhist schools. The best way to compare these Buddhist schools is to see how far they tally with  Buddha’s preaching and also how they originated. Soon after Buddha’s Parinirvana” there were voices of dissent and to sort out matters and iron out the differences of opinion the First Dhamma Sangayanava was held and the oral tradition of preserving the Buddha word was started by the senior monks. The oral tradition was created, organized and maintained in the most rigorous and methodical  manner by these monks. What was thus preserved by word of mouth was known as Elders’ Views.  These Views collectively are known as Early Buddhism and were written down three centuries after the Buddha’s demise. Early Buddhism therefore is to be found in the Pali Thripitaka and Chinese Agama texts. These texts have included within their cannon later additions such as the Ven Moggaliputta-tissa’s Kathavattu, Thera and Theri gatha etc. However, strictly speaking Buddha’s words are believed to be found in the Vinaya-pitakaya and the four major Nikayas in the Sutta-pitakaya: Dighanikaya, Majjhimanikaaya, Samyuttanikaya and Anguttaranikaya. These were the Nikayas originally assigned to the groups of Bhanakas, the reciters of the Buddha’s preaching, who  at the First Dhamma Sangayanawa, were given the responsibility of learning and remembering the preaching and carrying it down to the next generation of Bhanakas by word of mouth.

Though it is said that the  common feature among the different Buddhist Schools is that they all have the doctrine of the Four Nobel Truths this is only partly correct because the fourth truth which describes the method to achieve Nirvana may be different in the different schools. The main features in which the Buddhist schools differ are the nature of Nirvana, Buddha-hood, Arahath-hood and the method of achieving Nirvana. There may be other minor differences.  It is necessary therefore, to first find out the description of these aspects  in Early Buddhism. The nature of Nirvana in Early Buddhism is described in the Samannaphala-sutta in the Dighanikaya. A careful scrutiny of the description shows that there is no transcendentalism or mysticism in the phenomenon of Nirvana. In the final stage in the Arya Astanghika Marga the total elimination of the three defilement Loba, Dvesha, Moha is achieved and there is no suffering thereafter which was the goal Buddha was looking for. Buddha’s main interest was finding a solution to the human predicament which for him was suffering. He was not looking for a  transcendental existence. Therefore the person who achieves Nirvana such as Buddha and Arahath is not a transcendental metaphysical being. This is borne out by the fact that in the Aggivacchagotta-sutta  Buddha categorically says that Thathagatha is not eternal. In contrast transcendental beings such as gods are eternal.

Regarding the nature of Buddha and Arahath, in Early Buddhism there is no qualitative difference between the two. Buddha found the path to Nirvana by his own effort while Arahath follows that path to achieve Nirvana. The method of achieving Nirvana in Early Buddhism is the Gnana-marga” (Path of Wisdom) as elaborated in the Arya Astanghika Marga comprising Dana, Seela, Bhavana”. There is nothing metaphysical or mystic in the eight steps of the path and it is aimed at getting rid of the three main defilement Loba, Dvesha, Moha” which are entrenched in the mind and which cause suffering. Intense training of the mind and concentration are the key requirements. There is no reference to any other method in the four major suttas mentioned above. There is no alternative to this method involving any mystic practices or faith and rituals.  Early Buddhism very clearly rejects mysticism and transcendentalism. Buddha in Brahmmajala Sutta methodically refutes all metaphysical theories that were prevalent at that time. The path to Nirvana as  described in Ariyapariyesana Sutta is devoid of mysticism. In fact it describes Buddha’s own method of attaining Nirvana and rejects the methods practiced by the two Indian yogis Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. Here it may be necessary to briefly explain what is meant by transcendental. The word transcendental means beyond the realm of this world and there could be an element of ineffability (unexplainable) in transcendental phenomena.

It must be said that soon after Buddha’s demise there were attempts to introduce transcendental features into Buddha-hood by younger monks. Saddened by his death the younger monks started a campaign to make Buddha a larger than life being who is eternal. This may have been the beginnings of Mahayana thought and the creation of the  line of separation of Buddhism into two main sects, one which believed in the historical Buddha who was born, lived and died naturally and the other which created a super natural being from birth to death and ever afterwards. The older monks objected to this trend but could not prevent a permanent rupture. The main differences that could be seen in the different schools of Buddhism today could be traced back to this early breach caused more by an emotional reaction of immature monks rather than a difference in the interpretation of Buddha’s words. The various Buddhist schools  have adopted to a varying degree these transcendental metaphysical features. Some have been forced to adopt features from other religions like Hinduism as well.

The Pali word Theravada means the school of the elder monks” which could mean that it is traceable to the Elders” who were the authors of Early Buddhism. However, subsequently there had been several additions and modifications though may not be in the main doctrines. The Buddhism that was brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda Thera 236 years after Buddha’s Parinirvana”  was cleansed of all metaphysical and transcendental elements in the Third Dhamma Sangayana conducted by Ven Moggaliputta-tissa who preached Kathavatthu” on that occasion which removed all those impurities. Kathavatthu” was considered important enough to be included in the Tripitaka. This is believed to be the version of Buddhism that was written down at Aluvihare. In the 5th Century AD however Ven Buddhagosa who came to Sri Lanka  and wrote Visuddimagga” had tried and succeeded in introducing mystical elements to Buddhism. Ven Buddhagosa had lived in South India and may have been influenced by Mahayana. Advent of rituals which are not mentioned in Early Buddhism could largely be attributed to Ven Buddhagosa. Mystic elements, yanthra, manthra, yaga, exorcism etc arrived in the wake of rituals. Mahayana which was the main religion in Sri Lanka during the period 5th to the 10th Century also contributed to the development of transcendentalism and mystic elements in Theravada Buddhism some of which  have remained to the present times.

Thus the main difference between Theravada, Mahayana and Tanthrayana is that Theravada, though it has some elements of Mahayana introduced in the 5th Century AD which happened mainly in Sri Lanka, is largely free of the mysticism and metaphysical concepts that pervade the main doctrines of the other two schools. Nature of Buddha, Buddha-hood, and Nirvana are categorically considered as transcendental phenomena in Mahayana and Tanthrayana whereas it is not so in Theravada.

Mahayana came into being in the 1st Century BC with the publication of Mahayana ideas and concepts. The first important suthra that spelt out Mahayana tenets, particularly those pertaining to the nature of Buddha-hood and Arahath-hood was Saddharmapundarika-suthra”. This suthra makes the historical Buddha a transcendental eternal being who cannot be understood even by an Arahath but only by another Buddha. On the contrary Buddha had said in the Vimamsaka Sutta that he could be  thoroughly examined by his disciples to find out his nature. In order to elevate Buddha to a transcendental state Mahayanists devalued  the nature of the  Arahath who in Early Buddhism and also Theravada is qualitatively equal to Buddha. Further all texts of Theravada were condemned as fodder for the foolish. In Theravada the Arahath is a person who has attained Nirvana and there is no qualitative difference between Arahath and Buddha.  In Mahayana however  Arahath is not the final status and there is a further distance to travel to attain Buddha-hood which is the final goal.  The Bodhisattva in  Mahayana is a status between Arahath-hood  and Buddha-hood and is a concept borrowed from Hinduism.

Later several Hindu concepts were introduced into Mahayana due to pressure from the politically powerful Brahamans. One such concept that had far reaching effect was the introduction of Bhakthi Marga” as an alternate to Gnana Marga” as the path to Nirvana. Buddha had discovered the latter and had never spoken about a Bhakthi Marga” which is derived from the Bhagavath Geetha” a foremost Hindu text. It was Bhakthi Marga” that introduced rituals into Buddhism which were followed by  yaga, puja, yanthra, manthra, etc. Rituals are not mentioned in Early Buddhist Texts which carry Buddha’s word. These yanthra, manthra found its way into Vajrayana and were further developed and incorporated into its doctrines.

Vajrayana advocates the practice of these manthra etc. as a means of attaining enlightenment. Further even sense pleasures like sexual act are to be practiced by Bodisattva in the path to enlightenment which may be considered as an insult to Buddha. Tibetan Buddhism which is a mixture of Mahayana and Vajrayana claims to teach methods for achieving Buddha-hood more quickly perhaps by engaging in sexual act . Further the version of Mahayana that spread in the East including Sri Lanka has several concepts and tenets such as Bodhisattva, Thrikaya” etc. which were derived from Hinduism. These were forced into Mahayana by the politically powerful Brahmans. These developments finally almost made Buddha an avatar of Vishnu. Further it was Mahayana and Vajrayana that has destroyed the uniqueness of Buddhism, its empiricism, and made it into a religion with mysticism and transcendental features, making it not different from any other religion.

Buddha in Mahayana and Tanthrayana is an eternal, omniscient, supernatural being. In contrast Early Buddhism clearly rejects eternalism, omniscience and transcendentalism as shown in Cula-Malunkya-sutta,  Aggivacchagotta-sutta and Tevijja-Vacchagotta-sutta. Theravada which has retained certain features of Mahayana nevertheless doesn’t make Buddha eternal or supernatural. Theravada may have allowed the depiction of Buddha as supernatural in size as in the temple statues and also borrowed from Mahayana the rituals, the Bodhisathva concept to some degree, and even some aspects of Bhakthi Marga” but the nature of Nirvana, Buddha and Arahath and the Arya Astangika Marga which constitutes the essence of Buddhism has remained largely faithful to the doctrine as found in Early Buddhism.

Prof. N.A. de S. Amaratunga

One Response to “The critical difference between Early Buddhism, Theravada and other Buddhist Schools”

  1. Ratanapala Says:

    Thank you Professor for making us knowledgeable. I guess even after 2600 years we still have sufficient Dhamma left that can direct the wayfarer on to the Path, to self discovery and final Nibbana!

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