Differences Between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Theravada and Mahayana are two of the main schools of Buddhism. Although there are many different types of Buddhism, most traditions fall into one of these two schools. Although many of the teachings are the same between Mahayana and Theravada, there are a few major differences. We can understand these two schools more clearly if we first take a look at how and why they split from one another.
The Split of Buddhist Schools
The exact split between these two schools is not known. There are many theories, but we do know a few things. First, it seems that there was a schism around the time of the Second Buddhist Council in 334 BCE. This was a split between the reformist Sthaviras and conservative Mahāsāṃghikas. Although this isn’t directly tied to the split between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists, it is suspected by many scholars to be the origin of these two schools.
Another view on the split comes from understanding how Buddhism spread in its earlier years. As the Buddhist teachings traveled to different countries, the dharma was influenced by local culture, people, and religions. When the practices arrive in a new culture and are geographically separated, they are subject to local customs. This causes the tradition to develop differently.
Theravada is relatively unified, while Mahayana traditions are generally more autonomous. It’s important to understand that this split is not necessarily a bad thing. Although there has historically been some disagreement between schools, the different traditions coexist relatively peacefully today. The claims of one being superior than the other are pervasive in some Asian countries, but the two schools of Buddhism largely accept one another.
The Buddhist teachings differ slightly between Theravada and Mahayana traditions. There are some major differences and some more minor ones.
First, there is a clear difference between the two when it comes to location. Theravada is more common in Southeast Asia, in countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma). Mahayana, on the other hand, is more common in Tibet, China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Mongolia.
The Buddha’s teachings are contained in suttas, or discourses. In Theravada Buddhism, the discourses used are known as the Pali Canon. These are the oldest known teachings of the Buddha, written in the Pali language.
Mahayana uses teachings which are more recent than the Pali Canon. Because the language of Mahayana is Sanskrit, these discourses are known as sutras instead of suttas. These sutras are teachings written down later than the Pali Canon, and often serve to elaborate on Mahayana ideas. Some of the more well-known of these later sutras include the Diamond Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra.
Both schools of Buddhism have teachings on liberation, but they differ in a pretty major way. In Theravada Buddhism, the focus is on becoming an arhat, or fully-enlightened being. This is done through the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path, insight, and concentration. The heart practices are incorporated, and the attention is given to developing insight and awakening to the nature of reality.
In Mahayana Buddhism, there is a greater focus on compassion as the vehicle to awakening. True liberation is achieved when all beings are liberated. In the Mahayana traditions, emphasis is placed on the greater liberation rather than individual liberation.
In relation to the nature of nirvana, the concept of bodhisattvas is different between the two schools of Buddhism. Theravada does not focus very much on bodhisattvas, or beings who vow to return to the human realm in order to help other beings achieve liberation. There are some traditions which hold the bodhisattva maitreya with veneration, but the concept of bodhisattvas is largely absent.
In many prominent Mahayana traditions, the concept of the bodhisattva is important. It may even be the goal of practice. People take bodhisattva vows, work toward the liberation of all beings, and may pray or make offerings to non-historical bodhisattvas.
Meditation is a common practice in both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, but the practices often differ. Theravada schools put varying focus on samatha, insight, the brahma-viharas, and the practice of mindfulness. Different lineages have different focuses, but the practices often work to help understand experience.
In Mahayana Buddhist traditions, mindfulness, concentration, and compassion practice are common. However, many traditions incorporate different practices that involve the use of mantras and ritual. Meditation focuses less on understanding experience and the three marks of existence, and more on cultivating present-time awareness and alignment with the bodhisattva path.
Both of the schools have some form of ritual. However, Mahayana generally contains much more ritual and iconography. Most Buddhist art we see in the West comes from Mahayana schools, Mahayana temples often are more ornate, and Mahayana traditions incorporate ritualistic practices much more often. Both schools incorporate chanting and prostrations, but Theravada is much less ritualistic in practice.
The monastic code differs between Mahayana and Theravada, although the monastic tradition is considered important in both. Theravada monks generally eat one meal a day, take only what is offered to them, and spend most of their time meditating. Mahayana monks may eat more than one meal a day, often keep a vegetarian (or vegan) diet, and are generally more involved in their communities.
There are many other differences between Theravada and Mahayana. For one, Mahayana schools often teach of bardo, an in-between stage between death and rebirth. Theravada, or the “way of the elders” may be understood as the more conservative form of Buddhism, with relatively little influence from its transmission to new lands. Mahayana is more flexible in general, with many influences from various cultures with which it has come into contact.
Similarities Between the Two
Although there are many ways in which the two differ, there are also many similarities. We don’t even have room to go into this fully here, but suffice it to say that these two schools are both forms of the same teachings. Both Mahayana and Theravada teachings contain important practices like the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, and freedom from the cycle of samsara.
Here are a few things both schools teach, just to give you an idea of how many similarities there are between the two:
- Four Noble Truths
- Noble Eightfold Path
- The historical Buddha as the teacher
- Dependent Origination
- The Three Marks of Existence
- The Precepts
- Emphasis on meditation practice
- Classification of teachings into three categories
- The emphasis on the training of the mind and heart
Investigating the Schools
We’ve been asked which school is “right” or “better,” and the truth is that we cannot come close to answering that question. We practice in the tradition of Insight Meditation, or vipassana. A branch off Theravada Buddhism, we have found it useful in our own lives as it is pragmatic. However, many people benefit from the ritual, compassion, and other teachings of Mahayana schools.
My personal recommendation is to check out both schools if you’re new to Buddhism. You can find groups and centers in both traditions, and see which one you click with better. Furthermore, you don’t have to pick just one. Although we practice mainly in one tradition, we incorporate many practices from other traditions in Theravada and from Mahayana traditions as well. This is not necessarily an either/or situation!