What is Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?

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In the period following the historical Buddha’s life (mid-sixth or mid-fourth centuries BCE) divisions arose leading to the development of two main schools of Buddhist thought: the Mahayana and Theravada traditions.

It is estimated that today Mahayana Buddhism is the largest branch given its prevalence in several countries with large Buddhist populations, such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam (1). Theravada Buddhism is the second-largest branch found in countries such as Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism

Having originated in Northern India during the sixth century BCE, Mahayana Buddhism (‘the Way of the Elders’) is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism perceived by many to be closest to the original teachings (dharma) of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Theravada Buddhism is often viewed as a philosophical system rather than a religion because it does not explicitly involve a God or gods. Its origin also does not involve mystical visions or appearances of supernatural beings but instead bases its origin upon the teachings of the Buddha. Although the Buddha did not deny that God or gods existed he viewed them as irrelevant to his teachings, some schools and branches of Buddhism have become more religious, even if gods are not central to their practices.

Theravada Buddhists believe that the Buddha was the perfect model to imitate but that he was only human. Central to Theravada Buddhism is the monastic community, known as the sangha, within which monks and nuns (whom usually have a lesser status than monks) live in basic accommodations with few possessions, and often, because of their ascetic lifestyle, require the support of lay Buddhists to provide them with food in return for blessings and teachings. Theravada Buddhists follow the eightfold path and the Five Precepts, travel through villages, and teach the dharma and the scriptures of the Pali canon. The Pali canon, also called the Tripitaka, is the oldest text of Buddhism, dating to the first century BCE, and stands in as Theravada tradition’s canonical literature. Theravada Buddhists do not ascribe to later Mahayana writings and believe that one must follow the teachings of the Tipitaka in order to enter into nirvana. Meditation is also crucial as it assists one to empty his or her mind in order to move closer to attaining enlightenment (nirvana).

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana (‘the Great Vehicle’), which often appears the more religious looking branch of Buddhism, is the other main form that spread from India to other areas of Asia including China, Korea, and Japan. Mahayana Buddhists do not hold the historical Buddha to have been the only Buddha because they believe that others had come before him and that more will come in the future. The Mahayana claim that there is no purpose to enlightenment unless it is used to assist others on their own spiritual paths, and therefore believe that the historical Buddha has remained eternally present in the world to guide others to enlightenment. The Mahayana also believe that people can become buddhas (enlightened beings) and revere those, known as bodhisattvas, who have come close to attaining enlightenment (enlightened beings). Bodhisattvas possess the ‘six perfections’ of wisdom, meditation, generosity, morality, patience, and vigor. They are people capable of attaining enlightenment but who decide to remain in the world where they will continue to be reborn in order to assist other human beings.

Mahayana recognizes many such bodhisattvas while the Theravada tradition only holds to two: the historical Buddha himself and a future Bodhisattvas, the Maitreya, yet to come to teach the dhamma. Mahayana temples, particularly in China or Tibet, have elaborate images and symbols dedicated to bodhisattvas depicting the six perfections. Although bodhisattvas are not gods, the most venerated of them is Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, believed to be the good father who looks down upon his children to whom he offers assistance. Avalokiteshvara is depicted both elaborately and diversely, sometimes having undergone a process of feminization. In China, he has displayed male and female attributes and is today worshipped as a beautiful young woman in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam and in areas where there are sizable Chinese communities. Avalokiteshvara is commonly depicted with four arms, two of which are crossed over his heart (symbolizing his compassion for human beings), one holding a rosary (symbolizing his desire to liberate human beings from their cyclical existence), and another holding a lotus flower (symbolizing enlightenment and pure wisdom). Another popular bodhisattva is Amitabha Buddha typically depicted wearing a robe, and sitting cross-legged with his eyes closed in meditation.

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Sculpture of Avalokiteshvara. Image:  The MET

All these images of bodhisattvas are taken to represent aspects of enlightenment and are objects of devotion and tributes paid in temples and at shrines. Unlike the Theravada, the Mahayana do not limit themselves to the Tipitaka and include additional and more recent writings called sutras, such as the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. Mahayana Buddhism has undergone evolutionary change as it has adapted to cultures where distinct branches have emerged. These include Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism.

References and Recommended Readings

1. Pew Research Center. Buddhists. Available.

Ambalu, Shulamit. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 128-163.

Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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