us discuss a question often asked by many people: What is
the difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism? To
see things in their proper perspective, let us turn to the
history of Buddhism and trace the emergence and development
of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.
Buddha was born in the 6th Century B.C. After attaining Enlightenment
at the age of 35 until his Mahaparinibbana at the age of 80,
he spent his life preaching and teaching. He was certainly
one of the most energetic man who ever lived: for forty-five
years he taught and preached day and night, sleeping for only
about 2 hours a day.
Buddha spoke to all kinds of people: kings and princes, Brahmins,
farmers, beggars, learned men and ordinary people. His teachings
were tailored to the experiences, levels of understanding
and mental capacity of his audience. What he taught was called
Buddha Vacana, i.e. word of the Buddha. There
was nothing called Theravada or Mahayana at that time.
establishing the Order of monks and nuns, the Buddha laid
down certain disciplinary rules called the Vinaya for
the guidance of the Order. The rest of his teachings were
called the Dhamma which included his discourses, sermons
to monks, nuns and lay people.
months after the Buddha's Mahaparinibbana, his immediate
disciples convened a council at Rajagaha. Maha Kassapa, the
most respected and elderly monk, presided at the Council.
Two very important personalities who specialised in the two
different areas - the Dhamma and the Vinaya - were
present. One was Ananda, the closest constant companion and
disciple of the Buddha for 25 years. Endowed with a remarkable
memory, Ananda was able to recite what was spoken by the Buddha.
The other personality was Upali who remembered all the Vinaya
these two sections - the Dhamma and the Vinaya -
were recited at the First Council. Though there were no
differences of opinion on the Dhamma (no mention of
the Abhidhamma) there was some discussion about the
Vinaya rules. Before the Buddha's Parinibbana,
he had told Ananda that if the Sangha wished to amend
or modify some minor rules, they could do so. But on that
occasion Ananda was so overpowered with grief because the
Buddha was about to die that it did not occur to him to ask
the Master what the minor rules were. As the members of the
Council were unable to agree as to what constituted the minor
rules, Maha Kassapa finally ruled that no disciplinary rule
laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones
should be introduced. No intrinsic reason was given. Maha
Kassapa did say one thing, however: "If we changed the
rules, people will say that Ven. Gotama's disciples changed
the rules even before his funeral fire has ceased burning."
the Council, the Dhamma was divided into various parts
and each part was assigned to an Elder and his pupils to commit
to memory. The Dhamma was then passed on from teacher
to pupil orally. The Dhamma was recited daily by groups
of people who often cross check with each other to ensure
that no omissions or additions were made. Historians agree
that the oral tradition is more reliable than a report written
by one person from his memory several years after the event.
hundred years later, the Second Council was held to discuss
some Vinaya rules. There was no need to change the
rules three months after the Parinibbana of the Buddha
because little or no political, economic or social changes
took place during that short interval. But 100 years later,
some monks saw the need to change certain minor rules. The
orthodox monks said that nothing should be changed while the
others insisted on modifying some rules, Finally, a group
of monks left the Council and formed the Mahasanghika -
the Great Community. Even though it was called the Mahasanghika,
it was not known as Mahayana, And in the Second Council, only
matters pertaining to the Vinaya were discussed and
no controversy about the Dhamma is reported,
the 3rd Century B.C. during the time of Emperor Asoka, the
Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion
among the bhikkhus of different sects. At this Council the
differences were not confined to the Vinaya but were
also connected with the Dhamma. At the end of this
Council, the President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa,
compiled a book called the Kathavatthu refuting the
heretical, false views and theories held by some sects. The
teaching approved and accepted by this Council was known as
Theravada. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included
at this Council.
the Third Council, Asoka's son, Ven. Mahinda, brought the
Tripitaka to Sri Lanka, along with the commentaries
that were recited at the Third Council. The texts brought
to Sri Lanka were preserved until today without losing a page.
The texts were written in Pali which was based on the Magadhi
language spoken by the Buddha. There was nothing known as
Mahayana at that time.
the 1st Century B.C. to the 1st Century A.D., the two terms
Mahayana and Hinayana appeared in the Saddharma Pundarika
Sutra or the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law.
the 2nd Century A.D. Mahayana became clearly defined.
Nagarjuna developed the Mahayana philosophy of Sunyata
and proved that everything is Void in a small text called
Madhyamika-karika. About the 4th Century, there were
Asanga and Vasubandhu who wrote enormous amount of works on
Mahayana. After the 1st Century AD., the Mahayanists
took a definite stand and only then the terms of Mahayana
and Hinayana were introduced.
must not confuse Hinayana with Theravada because
the terms are not synonymous. Theravada Buddhism went
to Sri Lanka during the 3rd Century B.C. when there was no
Mahayana at all. Hinayana sects developed in
India and had an existence independent from the form of Buddhism
existing in Sri Lanka. Today there is no Hinayana sect
in existence anywhere in the world. Therefore, in 1950 the
World Fellowship of Buddhists inaugurated in Colombo unanimously
decided that the term Hinayana should be dropped when
referring to Buddhism existing today in Sri Lanka, Thailand,
Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc. This is the brief history of Theravada,
Mahayana and Hinayana.
what is the difference between Mahayana and Theravada?
have studied Mahayana for many years and the more I study
it, the more I find there is hardly any difference between
Theravada and Mahayana with regard to the fundamental
Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
- The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
- The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
- The Paticca-samuppada or the Dependent Origination
is the same in both schools.
- Both rejected the idea of a supreme being who created
and governed this world.
- Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila,
Samadhi, Panna without any difference.
are the most important teachings of the Buddha and they are
all accepted by both schools without question.
are also some points where they differ. An obvious one is
the Bodhisattva ideal. Many people say that Mahayana
is for the Bodhisattvahood which leads to Buddhahood
while Theravada is for Arahantship. I must point out
that the Buddha was also an Arahant. Pacceka Buddha is also
an Arahant. A disciple can also be an Arahant. The Mahayana
texts never use the term Arahant-yana, Arahant Vehicle. They
used three terms: Bodhisattvayana, Prateka-Buddhayana,
and Sravakayana. In the Theravada tradition these three
are called Bodhis.
people imagine that Theravada is selfish because it teaches
that people should seek their own salvation. But how can a
selfish person gain Enlightenment? Both schools accept the
three Yanas or Bodhis but consider the Bodhisattva
ideal as the highest. The Mahayana has created
many mystical Bodhisattvas while the Theravada considers
a Bodhisattva as a man amongst us who devotes his entire
life for the attainment of perfection, ultimately becoming
a fully Enlightened Buddha for the welfare of the world, for
the happiness of the world.
Types of Buddhahood
are three types of Buddhahood: the Samma Sambuddha who gains
full Enlightenment by his own effort, the Pacceka Buddha who
has lesser qualities than the Samma Sambuddha, and the Savaka
Buddha who is an Arahant disciple. The attainment of Nibbana
between the three types of Buddhahood is exactly the same.
The only difference is that the Samma Sambuddha has many more
qualities and capacities than the other two.
people think that Voidness or Sunyata discussed by
Nagarjuna is purely a Mahayana teaching. It is based
on the idea of Anatta or non-self, on the Paticcasamuppada
or the Dependent Origination, found in the original Theravada
Pali texts. Once Ananda asked the Buddha, "People say
the word Sunya. What is Sunya?" The Buddha
replied, "Ananda, there is no self, nor anything pertaining
to self in this world. Therefore, the world is empty."
This idea was taken by Nagarjuna when he wrote his remarkable
book, "Madhyamika Karika". Besides the idea
of Sunyata is the concept of the store-consciousness in Mahayana
Buddhism which has its seed in the Theravada texts. The Mahayanists
have developed it into a deep psychology and philosophy.
Dr. W. Rahula