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The Difference Between Mahayana and Theravada

the difference between mahayana and theravada

Mahazedi Paya in Bago, Myanmar

Buddhism is one of the primary world religions. It has a huge global following, though it is particularly concentrated in Asia. As with most world religions, there are several different groups or sects within Buddhism that have a few differences. The two primary branches of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana,i and several key differences between the two are listed below.

  1. Origin and History

The origins of both the Mahayana and Theravada branches are still not completely known. Much more is known about Theravada, despite the fact that its origins appear to extend much farther back in history than Mahayana. The earliest documented evidence of Mahayana is dated from the beginning of the Common Era. Mahayana was actually never referred to as a separate sect of Buddhism, but it referred instead to a set of ideals that later became doctrines. Thus, there existed no separate education for adherents who belonged to the early schools of Buddhism, and monks of both philosophies frequently resided together in the same monasteries. Due to its integration with the early schools, Mahayana is now the largest major branch of Buddhism representing 53.2% of Buddhist practitioners, while Theravada claims only 35.8% (a third branch, Vajrayana has approximately 5.7%).ii

The early beginnings of Theravada extend back furthest in history, descending from an elder group that broke away during the Second Buddhist Council, in the 3rd century B.C. This group of elders was called the Sthavira. This split became more formalized about a hundred years later with the Indian Emperor, Ashoka’s, decision to expel monks who failed to agree to the terms of the Third Council.iii

  1. Primary Geographical Regions

Both types of Buddhism originated in India and then spread throughout Asia. Both branches currently have a wide diaspora of members globally. However, there are certain areas that have a higher concentration of each. Theravada is typically associated with southern Asia, and the countries where it is primarily found are Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. There are smaller populations of Theravada Buddhists in countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and China. Theravada Buddhism has begun to spread to the West, and there are currently 150 million members worldwide.iv

Mahayana is practiced more heavily in northern Asian regions like China, Korea, and Japan, but is also practiced in south Asia in countries like Vietnam. Other countries that have a Mahayana population include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Tibet, and Mongolia.v

  1. Orientation to Tradition and Language

Theravada is considered to be a more traditional form of Buddhism because it relates more closely to the Indian form of Buddhism, while Mahayana Buddhism tended to adopt local customs as it spread north. One topic where this is especially notable is in the language used for practicing each. Theravada sought to preserve the scriptures, first orally, then written. The language chosen was Pali, literally meaning “school of the elder monks.” It is a Prankit language native to the Indian subcontinent and is still widely studied as the sacred literature of Theravada; the Tipitaka, or the book of Buddhist scriptures for Theravada, is written in Pali.vi Theravada tends to be more conservative about matters of doctrine and monastic discipline.vii

The original writings for Mahayana Buddhism can be traced back to the 2nd century AD and are written in Sanskrit, a much more popular and widespread Indian language. As this form of Buddhism spread, it was common to translate it into local languages, which is never done for the Theravada Tipitaka. The only parts not translated were the five untranslatable types of words.viii

  1. Goal of Practicing

The goal or objective of Theravada Buddhism is to become the arhat or the aharant, which literally means the “one who is worth” or the “perfected person.” This is only used to describe someone who has attained nirvana; however other Buddhist traditions will use this term to sometimes describe a person who is far along the path of enlightenment, but has not yet attained nirvana. All rituals and traditions emphasize this path.ix

The goal of Mahayana Buddhism it to reach Buddahood or to become an “Enlightened One.” This is achieved by taking the Bodhisattva path, in which one promises to work for complete enlightenment for all sentient beings by practicing the six perfections. There are 3 different bodhisattva paths (as opposed to only one recognized in Theravada): the king-like bodhisattva who aspires to become a Buddha as soon as possible in order to help other sentient beings achieve this goal; the boatman-like bodhisattva who aspires to achieve Buddhahood with other sentient beings; and the shepherd-like bodhisattva who aspires to delay Buddhahood until all other beings achieve Buddhahood.x

  1. Method and Duties

Despite being the older of the two branches of Buddhism, there are fewer rituals associated with the practice of Theravada than Mahayana. As is true with language adoption, Mahayana has adapted more local elements such as rituals for the deceased and tantric formalities. Theravada temples tend to be very simple, featuring only the image of Sakyamuni Buddha as the focus of worship, whereas Mahayana temples can be quite elaborate, with many halls dedicated to Sakyamuni Buddha, his disciples, the three Buddhas (including Amitabha and Medicine Buddha), and a hall for the 3 key bodhisattvas. Theravada only has one surviving school where vegetarianism is optional, but Mahayana has eight major schools where vegetarianism is heavily practiced.xi


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1 Comment

  1. Burma and Myanmar is the same country. Should write as Myanmar (Burma).

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References :


[0]i Mahayana. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahayana

[1]ii Mahayana. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahayana

[2]iii Theravada. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theravada

[3]iv Theravada. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theravada

[4]v Mahayana. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahayana

[5]vi Pali. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pali

[6]vii Theravada. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theravada

[7]viii Eng. T.S. (n.d.). Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Retrieved December 21, 2016 from http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/snapshot02.htm

[8]ix Eng. T.S. (n.d.). Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Retrieved December 21, 2016 from http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/snapshot02.htm

[9]x Bodhisattva. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhisattva

[10]xi Eng. T.S. (n.d.). Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Retrieved December 21, 2016 from http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/snapshot02.htm

[11]xi Eng. T.S. (n.d.). Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Retrieved December 21, 2016 from http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/snapshot02.htm

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