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Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism Compared


Gold Image Of Tsongkhap, Founder Buddhist Mahayana Yellow Hat Sect


Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism: A Comparison 

History: 

  • Theravada began in the 3rd century BCE as one of the original schools developed after the Buddha’s death. Theravada eventually left India and thrived in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia countries like Myanmar and Thailand. 
  • Mahayana began in the 1st century CE as a semi-rebellious branch emphasizing redefined teachings such as compassion and skill-in-means. At first, Mahayana monks and nuns were on the outskirts of Buddhist society but thrived in the north such as the Himalayan regions and East Asia. 

 

Salvation: 

  • Theravada believes that there is only one Buddha at a time and that not all beings can become a Buddha. Nevertheless, all beings can become Arhats which are beings that do not reincarnate and are liberated from the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth.  
  • Mahayana believes that there are many Buddhas in many worlds and that all beings are capable of becoming Buddhas. The historical Buddha, Siddartha, was a special cosmic Buddha who began a teaching lineage that continues until today. All beings must help others achieve liberation before they themselves attain enlightenment. 
  • Both traditions believe in alleviating suffering through the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. 

 

Monasticism: 

  • Theravada teaches that becoming a monk or nun is necessary in order to become an Arhat. Lay people must donate food, money, and other goods to the monastic order in order to earn enough merit to be reborn in a family that will allow them to become a monk or nun. 
  • Mahayana teaches that becoming a monk or nun is not necessary but could be beneficial for some. Donation is important for it cultivates merit and compassion. Monks and nuns can devote more time to cultivating their own bodhisattva nature but can easily become preoccupied with rigid monastic rules and administration. Therefore, some Mahayana lineages teach without formal monastic rules. 
  • Both traditions trace their monastic traditions and rules back to the Buddha but in Mahayana the boundaries between monastic and non-monastic Buddhism are looser. 



Theravada Style Buddha Image Bagan Myanmar