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A comparison of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Updated on March 21, 2008

Welcome to the Theravada/Mahayana comparison lens

The purpose of this lens is not to promote either Theravada or Mahayana over the other. It's simply designed to help you explore the historical and practical differences between the two traditions, as well as celebrate the similarities in practicing the Dharma.

What is Mahayana Buddhism?

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism is strongest in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia.

Mahayana Buddhism is not a single group but a collection of Buddhist traditions: Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism are all forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

Theravada and Mahayana are both rooted in the basic teachings of the historical Buddha, and both emphasise the individual search for liberation from the cycle of samsara (birth, death, rebirth...). The methods or practices for doing that, however, can be very different.

The Bodhisattva

Mahayana talks a great deal about the bodhisattva (the 'enlightenment being') as being the ideal way for a Buddhist to live.

Anyone can embark on the bodhisattva path. This is a way of life, a way of selflessness; it is a deep wish for all beings, no matter who they are, to be liberated from suffering.

The Boddhisattva Vow

However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the defilements are, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the dharmas are, I vow to master them.

However incomparable enlightenment is, I vow to attain it.

Bodhisattva vow

The Trikaya - the three bodies of Buddha

Mahayana Buddhism says that there are three aspects of Buddhahood, which it describes by regarding Buddha as having three bodies (trikaya):

* Dharmakaya: Buddha is transcendent - he is the same thing as the ultimate truth.

* Sambhogakaya: Buddha's body of bliss, or enjoyment body.

* Nirmanakaya: Buddha's earthly body - just like any other human being's body.

Source

What is Theravada Buddhism?

Southern Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar). It is sometimes called 'Southern Buddhism'.

The name means 'the doctrine of the elders' - the elders being the senior Buddhist monks.

This school of Buddhism believes that it has remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. However, it does not over-emphasise the status of these teachings in a fundamentalist way - they are seen as tools to help people understand the truth, and not as having merit of their own.

Theravada beliefs

* The Supernatural: Many faiths offer supernatural solutions to the spiritual problems of human beings. Buddhism does not. The basis of all forms of Buddhism is to use meditation for awakening (or enlightenment), not outside powers.

o Supernatural powers are not disregarded but they are incidental and the Buddha warned against them as fetters on the path.

* The Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama was a man who became Buddha, the Awakened One - much in the same way as Jesus became Christ. Since his death the only contact with him is through his teachings which point to the awakened state.

* God: There is no omnipotent creator God of the sort found in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Gods exist as various types of spiritual being but with limited powers.

* The Path to Enlightenment: Each being has to make their own way to enlightenment without the help of God or gods. Buddha's teachings show the way, but making the journey is up to us.

Theravada life

Theravada Buddhism emphasises attaining self-liberation through one's own efforts. Meditation and concentration are vital elements of the way to enlightenment. The ideal road is to dedicate oneself to full-time monastic life.

The follower is expected to "abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify their mind".

Meditation is one of the main tools by which a Theravada Buddhist transforms themselves, and so a monk spends a great deal of time in meditation.

When a person achieves liberation they are called a 'worthy person' - an Arhat or Arahat.

Despite the monastic emphasis, Theravada Buddhism has a substantial role and place for lay followers.

Monastic life

Most Theravada monks live as part of monastic communities. Some join as young as seven, but one can join at any age. A novice is called a samanera and a full monk is called a bikkhu.

The monastic community as a whole is called the sangha.

Monks (and nuns) undertake the training of the monastic order (the Vinaya) which consist of 227 rules (more for nuns). Within these rules or precepts are five which are undertaken by all those trying to adhere to a Buddhist way of life. The Five Precepts are to undertake the rule of training to:

* Refrain from harming living beings

* Refrain from taking that which is not freely given

* Refrain from sexual misconduct

* Refrain from wrong speech; such as lying, idle chatter, malicious gossip or harsh speech

* Refrain from intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to carelessness

Of particular interest is the fact that Theravadan monks and nuns are not permitted to eat after midday or handle money.

Source

Theravada/Mahayana links

These links will provide you with further clarity on the differences (and similarities!) between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      awesome lens. thank your for sharing

    • profile image

      wattyan 4 years ago

      Very interesting information!

    • waldenthreenet profile image

      waldenthreenet 4 years ago

      A Wonderful Lense. Add historic Buddhism photos of spiritual places in India, Nepal, Tibet and India to add clartiy. I may be able to help with a few archeology photos if you need. Thanks.

    • leafspirit lm profile image

      leafspirit lm 5 years ago

      Very informative lens! Thanks for writing it.

    • earthybirthymum profile image

      earthybirthymum 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Nice Lense, the precepts for both are very similar.

    • jbhumbug profile image

      jbhumbug 6 years ago

      thank you for sharing. informative

    • profile image

      chocolatelove_45 6 years ago

      Its good to read this lense.Thanks for sharing it.

      Bonus

    • profile image

      chocolatelove_45 6 years ago

      Its good to read this lense.Thanks for sharing it.

      Jay Discount

      Review JK

    • jackieb99 profile image

      jackieb99 6 years ago

      I learned a lot! Thank you.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Great lens!

    • profile image

      pomme99 6 years ago

      The informaion is very clear and get to the point.

    • profile image

      scar4 6 years ago

      Great lens. It's not fancy like many others', but it's very informative. Thumbs up!