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Posted on August 16th, 2012, by

One of the most urgent questions concerning Buddhism is about the difference between Theravada and Mahayana.

In my work I try to analyze these two notions. To find the answer let us remember the history of Buddhism and its main doctrines.

The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama lived approximately from 563 B.C till 483 B.C. He was born in the royal family and he should be a king. Once, after 13 years of marriage Gautama with his charioteer Channa went for a walk outside a palace. There he saw four signs: old cripple, sick man, decomposing dead body, and hermit. Gautama realized the severe truth of life, that death, illness, senescence and torment are inevitable, and that all pleasures of the rich in final turn to dust. It induced Gautama in age 29 years to leave the house, family, and property to become a monk. Giving up an inheritance, he devoted his life to the study of how to overcome sufferings.

Buddhism doctrine is based upon the Four Noble Truths: about suffering, the cause of this suffering, about the authentic stopping of misery and removal of its sources, about veritable ways of stopping suffering. The Middle or

The Noble Eightfold Path of achievement of Nirvana was offered. This way is directly related to three varieties of virtues development: morality (Śīla), concentration (Samadhi), and wisdom (Prajñā). The spiritual practice of overcoming of these ways results in the veritable stopping of suffering and finds the highest point in nirvana.

Traditionally, Buddhism is divided into Mahayana and Theravada, so-called the Great Vehicle and Studies of The Elders.

Theravada and Mahayana have a lot of similarities:

\    Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.

\    Both schools accept the Four Noble Truths.

\    The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.

\    The Paticca-samuppada or the Dependent Organization is the same in both schools.

\    Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any difference.

\    Both rejected the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world.

\    Both accent the individual search for liberation from the cycle of Samsara (birth, death, rebirth).

Concept of Bodhicitta.

The distinguishing feature of Mahayana is doctrine about Bodhicitta, the aspiration for the rescue of all living creatures, implying a boundless compassion and love to them and resulting from it the concept of Bodhisattva (the enlightenment being’), creatures, who are ready to give up the individual achievement of Nirvana with the purpose of rescue of all living creatures. The Tibet Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism and a few separate buddhistic schools belong to Mahayana.

The followers of Mahayana subdivide Buddhism into Great Vehicle (actually Mahayana) and Small Vehicle (Hīnayāna) which is named also Vehicle of sravaka and Paccekabuddha. Name Hīnayāna was created methodically for denotation of buddhists, who are limited only aspiring to the individual enlightenment (unlike the buddhists of Mahayana, who decide to attain enlightenment for the welfare of all living creatures) and used in a historical polemic with other, now not existing, schools of early Buddhism and with the purpose of explaining of Bodhicitta notion.

Theravada is the unique extant Nikaya School (early Buddhism). The use of the term Hīnayāna in relation to it is impolitely and incorrectly. Theravada actively uses the concept of mettabhavana, which is analogical to the concept of Bodhicitta in Mahayana, and does not fall under determination of Hīnayāna.

Bodhisattvas. In Theravada Maitreya is the single accepted Bodhisattva, in Mahayana Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra are also well-known.

The Buddha. The conception of Buddha in Theravada fundamentally differs from the Mahayanists’ point of view: in real Shakyamuni Mahayana saw foremost his divine nature; he is already the embodiment and instrument of supernatural eternal world principle. There is a theory of space body of Buddha in Mahayana, the divine creative substance, which have the ability to take different earthly forms for the sake of rescue of living creatures from sufferings. Number of Buddhas is infinitely, but there is their internal unity.

Trikaya is the three bodies of Buddha. The Mahayanists consider that there are three aspects of Buddhahood:

\    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. (Squidoo, 2007)

To have a faith and conduct virtuous life is enough for the achievement of a rescue, and it is accessible not only for the monks but also for wider circle of followers – the laity (from here the name Great Vehicle). Motion to nirvana already did not require an obligatory coming into the sangha. It generated more critical attitude of the Mahayanists toward arhats, who were accused by them for care only of their own rescue, remaining indifferent to sufferings of others. That’s why the Mahayanists call to imitate not the arhants but the Bodhisattvas.

In Theravada only historical Buddha and past buddhas are accepted. Their doctrine has quite limited emphasis on the 3 bodies of Buddha. The main sources are: nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya.

Arhat and Bodisattva. Tradition of Theravada and Mahayana differentiates in the idea of nature of ideal man. The ideal of Theravada is Arhat, a man, fully breaking off with limitations of attachment to the family, property, and comforts to become free from this world. Arhat is ascetic and indifferent to mundane: he won a victory over an enemy – his passions – due to intensive spiritual discipline.

The idea of Mahayana is being enlightened. Bodhisattva is a deeply compassionating creature, determining on staying in this world, while others will not be delivered from sufferings.

In the veritable understanding of principles of Skandha Bodhisattva understands that he is part of all other feeling creatures, and that while all creatures are not exempt from sufferings, he can not find complete satisfaction.

Bodhisattva gives a vow not included in Nirvana, while all feelings creatures, every stem of grass, there will not be enlightened.

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 (Squidoo, 2007))

Objective of training. The Arahant is the primary objective of Theravada, but it is considered that it is accessible only to the monks, in contrast to Mahayana, where being of arhat and buddha is available for the laity. If the person wants to be an arhat, he at first must become the Srotapanna, entering the stream, leading to nirvana; after that he never degrades to the state of «the ordinary man». Next level is Sakridagamin («receiving birth only once»); becoming the Sakridagamin will be born only once. Then Anagamin (once-returner); he will not go back into the world of desires Kamaloka, but he can be born in the higher divine worlds Rupaloka and Arupaloka. After becoming an arhat from Anagamin, a man gets nirvana only for himself and does not aspire to anything else. From the Mahayanists’ point of view, buddhas induce arhats to go out from egoistical nirvana for myself and follow the path of Bodhisattvas.

Organisation of Buddhist scriptures. The Pali Canon according to Theravada is a doctrine collection of Buddha Gautama in the Pali language. It was written on the palm leaves in Sri-Lanka. It consists of 3 baskets (Tipitaka): Vinaya Pitaka of 5 books, Sutta Pitaka of 5 collections (many suttas) and Abhidhamma Pitaka of 7 books.

The Mahayana Buddhist Canon also consists of Tripitaka of disciplines, discourses (sutras) and dharma analysis. It is usually divided into 12 divisions of topics like Cause and Conditions and Verses. It contains virtually all the Theravada Tipikata and many sutras that the latter does not have. (Buddhist Studies, 2006)

Language of dharma teaching. The original language of Mahayana texts is Sanskrit. Buddhist canon was translated into the local languages (except for the 5 untranslatables), e.g. Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese.

The original language of Tipitaka is Pali. Dharma teaching in Pali was supplemented by local language.

Geography. Another name of Mahayana is Northern Buddhism. From India Mahayana covered the northern countries: China, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Northern Siberia, and parts of Southeast Asia.

Theravada is traditionally practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia.

Comparatively recently Theravada becomes very popular in Australia and Singapore.

The notion of Nirvana. In general sense nirvana is the state without sufferings and passions; state of pacification, supreme happiness. In general nirvana is the transcendent state of eternal peace and satisfaction. Nirvana is a break of the regeneration chains, stopping of reincarnations, complete, inviolable Peace. In accordance with the doctrines of Mahayana nirvana was firstly examined as a counter-aspect of Samsara, making the single reality with the last. Later, from times of Nāgārjuna, studies, which declared nirvana identical to Samsara, appeared.

Theravada has made the opposition of nirvana and Samsara as the basic problem of finding liberation. This contrasting is considered as determining the ultimate goal of existence, which consists in avoidance of sufferings of Samsara and achievement of liberation with the help of Nirvana. However Theravada, unlike Mahayana, does not consider duality of Nirvana and Samsara surmountable, these two counter-aspects are effective always and for everyone, including Buddha and arhats.

Use of Mantras and Mudras. Mantra is a sacred hymn in Hinduism and Buddhism, which demands the exact reproduction of definite sounds. In Theravada there are some equivalents in the use of Parittas. Mantras and Mudras are common in the Vajrayana school of Mahayana Buddhism.  Other schools also use them in their liturgies.

Vegetarianism. In Theravada vegetarianism is not necessary. In places like Thailand where daily morning rounds are still practiced, it is very difficult to insist on the type of food to be donated (Buddhist Studies, 2006).  Actually in Mahayana schools this aspect is not compulsory, but it is well observed in many buddhistic schools, except the Tibetans.

Dying and death aspects. In Theravada there is very little knowledge about death and the dying person. The single advice for dying person is: to meditate on impermanence, suffering and emptiness (Buddhist Studies, 2006).

In Mahayana the Vajrayana school emphasizes this aspect. There is heavy stress in doing transference of merit practices in the immediate few weeks following death to assist in the deceased’s next rebirth (Buddhist Studies, 2006).

Initially the Theravada Buddhism was concentrated on meditation and concentration, and the Eightfold Path; as a result a central moment was a monastic life and, meditations take a lot of time. Such position gives little possibilities for the most people who want to join to it, therefore in the first century A.D. among Buddhists a split happened: the attempt of reforming studies of Buddha with the purpose to adapt it for the other people. They named the new Buddhism the Great Vehicle, or Mahayana, because a lot of new people were able to join to Buddhism. They made distinction between themselves and the basic stream of Theravada, depreciatingly naming them the Small Vehicle.

The sources of Mahayana doctrines show a considerable deviation in philosophy. The general purpose of Mahayana was come to give the religious powers to the greater number of people, but not concentrate them in hands of a few.

The Mahayanists succeeded to convert Buddhism in more esoteric religion, developing the theory of the Buddhahood stages.

As we can see Theravada and Mahayana have a lot of similarities, but they also have a lot of sharp distinctions. They are two parts of a single whole, which is called Buddhism. I think every person who calls himself A Buddhist should determine his position concerning his belonging to Mahayana or Theravada.

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