Schools In: Comparing Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

You yourself must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.
~ Shakyamuni Buddha

It is not important which school of Buddhism we follow, as long as we practice.
~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun

 

If you are exploring Buddhism, or a beginner, you are probably utterly confused about why there are different branches of Buddhism and which one you should pick (or if it really matters).

For someone just starting out on the path (exploring or practicing Buddhism), this is by far your most difficult decision as you don’t want to feel like you wasted your time.

Rest assured, there cannot be a wrong ‘choice’ for you in picking a branch or school, but each one has its own advantages and disadvantages based on what path you wish to follow.  Before I get any further, it’s worth mentioning that when I describe both branches they  are ‘broad’ strokes, because schools within each branch can practice differently.

School’s In

Let’s start with the basics.  There are two main ‘branches’ (sometimes referred to as ‘schools’) of Buddhism:

  • Theravāda:  Comprising 38% of all Buddhists, Theravāda is typically found in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.  Theravada came about in the 3rd century (B.C.E) due to 18 different sects of Buddhism (referred to as Hinayana) with their different (and often conflicting) views of the Dhamra.  This required the “Third Council” to create what is now known as Theravada, and King Asoka’s son brought this teaching to Sri Lanka.
  • Mahāyāna:  This is the largest of the branches which comprises 56% to 62% of all Buddhists.  Mahāyāna is typically found in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia.  There are 8 major schools to include Pure Land, Zen, Ch’an, and others.  It is believed by some scholars that Mahāyāna can trace its initial origins to one of the original and oldest branches of Buddhism, Mahāsāṃghika.

What about Tibetan?  Vajrayana or “Tibetan” is sometimes called its own branch but incorporates the Mahāyāna tradition, and forms 6% of all Buddhists.

What’s the Same?

At its core, all Buddhism is exactly the same, but have some fundamental differences on how it is practiced and what the laity (that’s you and me) can hope to get out of it.

All branches of Buddhism believe in:

  • The Buddha (Prince Siddhartha / Shakyamuni Buddha as the historical and original founder of Buddhism)
  • The Sangha (having a monastic community)
  • The Dharma (literally means “truth” which are the teachings) which includes: The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, The Triple Gem, The Three Universal Seals, The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, The Tripitika (collection of Buddhist scripture which includes the Dhammapada which is the sayings of the Buddha)
  • Threefold Training (Precepts, Meditation, and Wisdom)

As you can already tell, both branches of Buddhism pretty much believe in the same things!  So you are probably scratching your head right about now because you believe (or were told) that they are wildly different.  So let’s get right into the differences.

Buddha teaching the four noble truths

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, teaching the four noble truths.

Time to Hit the Books

Despite both branches agreeing upon the Dharma mentioned above, there are differences when it comes down to the different scriptures both use.

Each branch or school may focus more on certain texts.  For example in Mahāyāna, the Eight Realizations of a Bodhisattva Sutra is one of the primary sutras that defines Mahāyāna.

  • Theravada accepts the Pali Canon as the only true Buddhist texts
  • Mahayana accepts the Pali Canon as well, but also include hundreds of other teachings known as sutras (not found in the Pali Canon) as central texts (varies by school)

The major difference as it relates to these two branches was bound to happen due to how humans think.  Theravada was more conservative which took a literal and traditional view of the teachings of the Buddha as central.  Mahayana, however, took an interpretative and populist view of the teachings in order for them to adapt and build up on them to reach a wider audience and help explain complex teachings for laypersons (while still retaining the original teachings of the Buddha).

Who’s On First?

You are bound to hear that Theravada has the ‘original’ scripture (thus the ‘pure’ version of Buddhism), and that Mahayana is a more ‘modern’ scripture and not the true words of the Buddha.  While both sides go back and forth on this, some have said that the Pali Canon sustras and Mahayana sutras were written within a hundred years of each other or that Mahayana were actually written at the time of the Buddha.  Unfortunately, this is something that will be forever in controversy and lost to history.

According to David Kalupahana, (2006, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna. Motilal Banarsidass: p. 5.):

Scholars have noted that many key Mahāyāna ideas are closely connected to the earliest texts of Buddhism.

However, as Justin Whitaker explained, there is no ‘pure’ form of Buddhism (and that’s quite ok!):

The Buddha himself was syncretic, the Abhidhammists/Abhidharmists were syncretic (see Noa Ronkin’s recent great work, Early Buddhist Metaphysics), early Mahayana, as far as we can tell, was syncretic, and so on and so forth. So when scholars or others point at Tantric Buddhism and say, “that’s not Buddhism, but a syncretic blend of…” they’re simply missing out on the history of Buddhism.

Gary Gach explained (“traditionalists” is Theravada and “innovators” is Mahayana):

Today, there’s a tendency to think of the traditionalists as existing first, and the innovators as coming later.  However, scholarship suggests that the two tendencies were present from the beginning.

In addition to the scripture shown above, Buddhism is a growing religion that takes in new scripture and teachings all the time.  It is not restricted to just the teachings of the Buddha 2,600 years ago (but those are the core and primary teachings).  These teachings must conform to what is known as the “Three Dharma Seals” to be considered a genuine Buddhist teaching (even as it applies to a specific teaching of the Buddha).  However, only Mahāyāna typically accepts new scripture, while Theravāda sticks to the Tripitika only.

The bottom line is, does it really matter?  If you are a purest and don’t want to accept any new or different teachings that aren’t in the Tripitika, than Theravada is your branch.  If you are open to other teachings that help you grow and learn Buddhist concepts, as long as it meets the requirements of the three Dharma seals, then Mahayana will be acceptable for you.

There is lots of Buddhist scripture. Photo by Mixtribe Photo on Flickr

There are lots of Buddhist scripture. Photo by Mixtribe Photo on Flickr

I See The Light

Another aspect that is different is how a practitioner wants to achieve enlightenment, and progress, in Buddhism.  For example in Mahāyāna, all practitioners can follow something known as the “Bodhisattva path”.  Whereas in Theravāda, practitioners (non-monastics) are considered less likely to attain any true growth or enlightenment (Theravāda is a primarily monastic tradition, compared to Mahāyāna which encompasses laity and monastic).

Learn more about enlightenment in my article devoted to it.

Me, Myself, and I

A Theravada Buddhist believes in ‘individual enlightenment’ with the goal of becoming an arhat, which is someone who as attained enlightenment and escaped the cycle of birth and death (the Buddha was an arhat).  They do not teach the concept of ‘Buddha nature’ (a topic onto itself).  They believe this is done with your own effort, without the help of any outside influences or forces.  Essentially: only you can achieve enlightenment, so get going!  And by get going, I mean you should really become a monastic if you’re serious about this.

Laypersons (while not completely rejected, so yes you can become enlightened also) are considered unlikely to become an Arhat in Theravada, and should become a monastic to truly pursue that goal.  For example, if you wanted to become a medical Doctor, you would need to devote your full time at school, residency, and constant learning to perfect your skills.  The same applies to Theravada where becoming a monastic allows you the full time to learn, meditate, teach, and progress which would be difficult to do as a layperson.  You can find more information about being a Theravada layperson on Access to Insight’s article about it:  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel294.html

I found it very interesting when author Gary Gach explained that due to the Mongol Empire‘s occupation, Southeast Asian nationals adopted a “new Theravada” which not only had no nuns, but also not arhats.  According to Gary, this new Theravada (which exists today) hasn’t produced any arhats for a thousand years.

All Hands on Deck

A Mahayana Buddhist believes ‘individual enlightenment’ as well, but also promotes ‘enlightenment for all’, because we are all in this together.  They focus heavily on Buddha nature (which is not taught in Theravada), and enlightenment via the Bodhisattva path.

According to Barbara O’Brien,

Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic self  (a teaching called shunyata, which means “emptiness”) and individual autonomy to be a delusion. Therefore, according to Mahayana, individual enlightenment is not possible. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion, but because we cannot separate ourselves from each other.

This is not to say that Theravada doesn’t look favorably on this ideal either, as is reflected by this great blog post I found which had a quote by Ajah Chah who was a famous Theravada Buddhist monk of the Thai Forrest Tradition.

So in a nutshell Theravada promotes personal (individual) liberation from suffering, and Mahayana promotes liberating all sentient beings from suffering.

Photo by Hartwig on Flickr

He’s probably thinking “this really puts things in a new light!”. Photo by Hartwig on Flickr

Getting Promoted is Tough, But Worth It

Ultimately, both branches will concede that becoming a full-blown ‘Buddha’ is unlikely for the vast majority of people (including the most devoted monastic).  Theravada has Arharts, and Mahayana has Bodhisattvas…but what the heck is the difference?

Basically, the ‘goal’ of these enlightened beings makes the crucial difference:

  • Theravada:  Become a Arhart (the Buddha in his last life was also known as an Arhart).  
    • Without getting too confusing on this, there are different types of Arharts (literally means “worthy one”), for example the ‘Buddha’ was an Arhart who achieved enlightenment by himself, whereas a ‘regular’ Arhart receives guidance to Buddhahood from a Buddha.  The Arhart is done with this life, and moves on to Nirvada leaving the cycle of rebirth.  
    • Theravadins do believe in Bodhisattva’s as well, however it differs from Mahyana as they interpret it as any unenlightened human can become a Bodhisattva when they strive towards enlightenment (i.e., arahantship).  This is because Theravadins focus on the Buddha always saying that he “was once an unenlightened Bodhisattva” in scripture.  Mahayanists believe this is a bit “self-centered”, because it focuses on the individual who desires nirvana (and since the individual is illusionary, this is actually an illusionary liberation as well).  Theravadins would counter that how can anyone else be liberated, if you can’t liberate yourself first?
    • When it comes to recognizing Bodhisattvas in scripture, only Maitreya (the future Bodhisattva and Buddha) is recognized.
  • Mahayana:  Become a Bodhisattva (the Buddha was a Bodhisattva in his many prior lives), as Mahayana is heavily focused on the Bodhisattva ideal.
    • Compared to an Arhart (remember, both are enlightened beings), the Bodhisattva sticks around willingly (does not enter Nirvana) in the cycle of rebirth to help others become enlightened.  Their common cry is (the first vow of a Bodhisattva): “Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to liberate them”.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t wanting to become a Buddha, they are just working towards helping everyone become awakened first.
    • Here is where it gets tricky when comparing Theravada and Mahayana:  both believe in Arharts (in-fact, some Mahayana schools promote it), however Mahayana believes that becoming an Arhart is just one stage, and all Arharts must eventually move on to becoming Bodhisattvas.  Otherwise, those who seek nirvana just for themselves and become Arhats only are considered shravakas, meaning “listeners”, because they are following the “letter” of the scripture, rather than the “spirit” of it (an analogy would be a police officer or judge that follows the “letter” of the law, rather than the “spirit” of it, when making a decision).   Theravadins do believe that anyone can be a Bodhisattva (only a term) when they are on their way towards enlightenment, specifically, those who want to become an Arhart..  Thus, both have similar terminology, however the interpretation and direction are different.
    • When it comes to recognizing Bodhisattvas in scripture, Maitreya, as well as several other Bodhisattva’s, are recognized.

But why does Mahayana have this separation from Theravada and the Arhart ideal?   Gary Gach gives one explanation:

Let’s call the trend emphasizing the Bodhisattva the Great Vehicle (“great” as in large or wide).  It evolved out of various needs.  The lay people, for example, who’d often donated quite a share, deservedly wanted more representation.  Fewer people aspired to arhatship.  Plus, matters in the traditional teachings seemed to call for further explanations-and so new texts (called sutras) arose, for a period lasting four centuries.  After all, the traditional texts usually began, “Thus did I hear the Buddha say…” so long as they carried on the spirt and the letter of the law.

Is there a correct one to choose (Arhart in the Theravada ideal, or Bodhisattva in the Mahayana ideal)?  Not necessarily, and both have a purpose for someone on different stages of their path (remember, the path is the same leading to the same result).   Simply put, it’s hard work on either side to become an enlightened Arhart of Bodhisattva (remember, it was hard work for the Buddha as well!).  The Bodhisattva path in Mahayana can be followed by any layperson (where even if you don’t become a Bodhisattva, you learn and help along the way), whereas in Theravada pursuing a monastic route to become an Arhart is highly recommended (where you devote your entire life to that goal, and thus are considered a Bodhisattva because you are “unenlightened”).

One way I like to explain this is to use analogies:  Theravadins believe you need to learn how to swim (enlightenment), before you can jump in the water and save someone from drowning (suffering).  Mahayanists would counter that if you are spending all your time learning how to swim, how many people have you let drown in the meantime?  As you can imagine, this debate can go around and around!  While the Theravadin explanation makes complete logical sense, I do need to flesh out the Mahayanist explanation a bit more:  yes, it is true you need to learn how to swim to save someone from drowning…but what if that someone is only in a few feet of water and you can stand in it (and not actually have to swim) to save them?  Or can’t you throw them a rope or life preserver?  Then the dynamics truly change (there are many ways to help and be on the “Bodhisattva Path”).   In Mahayana, it doesn’t matter your enlightenment level (or lack thereof), any layperson can follow the Bodhisattva path, meaning they can directly impact sentient beings (and since everything is interconnected, that’s important).  Yes (to all the Theravadin’s going “but! but!”) someone who is not enlightened will not be as effective as someone who is in helping others, but even a layperson can throw water to extinguish a small fire (not everyone needs to be a professional firefighter)!

Here are some important things to note to help break any pre-conceived notions that a specific branch or school of Buddhism is the “only” way to go:

  1. The historical Buddha, was an Arhart
  2. The historical Buddha, was also a Bodhisattva (many times)
  3. Both Theravada and Mahayana believe in a future Bodhisattva, known as Maitreya (“the Future Buddha”) as explained in the Wheel-Turning Emperor (Cakkavatti) sutta/sutra.  However Mahayana also recognizes several others Bodhisattva’s that Theravada does not acknowledge
  4. If you want to read a counter argument to the status quo, I found this interesting article by Yogesh Lokhande who argues that neither Arhart or Bodhisattva will actually make you a Buddha (but he gives his view on how you can still achieve that goal).

Sitting on the Cushion

Meditation in Buddhism is part of what is known as “bhavana” (although there is some disagreement about using that term for meditation) which is the mental cultivation and discipline of the mind.  You may consider Mahayana to focus only on chanting, and Theravada to be the only one who meditates, but this is far from the case.

  • Theravada focuses on what is known as ‘Vipassana’ meditation (there is a resurgence of this type of meditation thanks to those in Burma who preserved it), however this did not become popular with laypersons until the 19th and 20th century.  Before that, Vipassana meditation was predominately a monastic practice.  This doesn’t mean that all teachers teach “Vipassana only”, as many do consider Samatha part of meditation practice.  However there is deep divisions between those who consider both necessary, and those who believe Vipassana is all that is needed.
  • Mahayana has different schools with focus on mental cultivation in different ways.  Generally, however, Mahayana focuses on a mixture of both Vipassana and Samatha meditation.  Mahayana believes that both Vipassana and Samatha are necessary to achieve enlightenment because in order to be analytical (Vipassana), your mind must first be calm and still (Samtha).  Since there are many schools in Mahayana (compared to only one remaining in Theravada), these schools practice meditation in different ways and to varying degrees.  Some schools, such as Pure Land, perform chanting or recitation instead of meditation.  This was introduced mainly because laypersons did not have time to partake in the monastic practice of meditation due to busy work and home life.  Interestingly, chanting and recitation has shown to be effective like meditation when imaging scans of the mind were taken.

What’s the difference between the two types of meditation?

  • Vipassana:  This is also known as “insight” meditation, and is what the Buddha taught.  Essentially, it helps you see the true nature of reality (which the Dalai Lama calls “analytical meditation”).  There is already a wealth of information about it online, and a great place to get an overview is here:  http://www.vipassanadhura.com/whatis.htm
  • Samatha (also known as shamatha):  This is also known as “mental concentration”.  Specifically, it’s about ‘calming’ the mind (“citta”) and its formations (“sankhara”).   Because it’s not a purely Buddhist practice, Theravada Buddhism doesn’t consider it necessary (although they do recognize it exists, and some teachers do consider it necessary), however Mahayana considers it essential to enlightenment (as explained above).
Photo by Peter Thoeny on Flickr

Not the most comfortable way to meditate, but to each their own 😉 Photo by Peter Thoeny on Flickr

I’m Hungry

OK, you’ve been reading this article and are getting a little hungry…but…what does a Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist eat?!

  • Theravada:  They are not vegetarian, however eating in the morning before noon (especially for monastics) is emphasized.
  • Mahayana:  This is a mixture where Vegetarianism is observed, but not always practical.  For example, Tibetans eat meat due to the landscape they live in, and some Mahayana schools don’t reject eating meat.  Also eating at different times is allowed based on the school.

The Mahayana view on vegetarianism primarily comes from the Nirvana Sutra, following the Bodhisattva path, and that all sentient beings (which include more than just Humans) have Buddha-nature.

The following was Chapter 7 of the Nirvana Sutra (translated by Kosho Yamamoto and edited by Dr. Tony Page) which states:

One who eats meat kills the seed of great compassion… O Kasyapa! I, from now on, tell my disciples to refrain from eating any kind of meat. O Kasyapa! When one eats meat, this gives out the smell of meat while one is walking, standing, sitting or reclining. People smell this and become fearful. This is as when one comes near a lion. One sees and smells the lion, and fear arises. O good man! When one eats garlic, the dirty smell is unbearable. Other people notice it. They smell the bad smell. They leave that person and go away. Even from far off, people hate to see such a person. They will not come near him. It is the same with one who eats meat. It is a similar situation with all people who, on smelling the meat, become afraid and entertain the thought of death. All living things in the water, on land and in the sky desert such a person and run away. They say that this person is their enemy. Hence the Bodhisattva does not eat meat.

For those who still can’t give up meat, a question and answer essay on why eating meat is acceptable for Buddhists can be found over on Buddhanet.  Ultimately, the decision to eat, or not eat, meat lies with your path in Buddhism and belief that animals are sentient beings and suffer as much as humans.

My Decision

Because there are so many ways (or “paths”) to practice Buddhism, there is a literally a path for everyone.  So let me make it clear before I talk about my decision:  the end of the path, however, is the same for everyone…just everyone enjoys different ‘scenery’ and teachers to get there.

Throughout my life, I flowed between Theravada and Mahayana (and even secular) and learned a great deal about both.  It was this ability to explore, sometimes with preconceptions and sometimes without, that I learned a great deal and progressed in Buddhism that I could not have done if I was closed to other viewpoints and stayed in one branch/school.

I am firmly in the Mahayana camp nowadays (in the Humanistic Buddhism school of Ven. Master Hsing Yun), as it best fits my morals, views, and the path I wish to take.  Thankfully, Buddhism doesn’t care if you are Mahayana or Theravada as we all get along just fine, can go to each others temples, ceremonies, and teachers.  I still listen to Theravada teachers as much as I do Mahayana, as everyone (and everything) can give us something new to learn.

A word of caution, however, is that calling one branch or school of Buddhism better than the other misses the point of Buddhism entirely.  We should all be open with our minds and hearts to all teachings.  Our entire purpose in Buddhism is not to debate which branch or school is better, but to understand that the diversity of these schools allows many people to discover and understand the teachings that resonate with them.  Find the best fit in the Buddhist world that works for you, and pursue it!

Author Timonthy Freke explained that all forms of Buddhism essentially teaches the path to transcending the ego-self, and that path is through stilling the mind and opening the heart.  I think that’s something we can all agree on.

Ven. Master Hsing Yun had this great story to share which reinforces that starting on the path is the most important, not which school or branch is “better” or “easier”:

When the great master Cihang was alive, he had one disciple whose Dharma name was  Luhang. He was a retired military man and liked the simplicity of Pure Land practice. He repeatedly pleaded with his teacher to recite Amitabha’s name with him so that he might be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land. One day when he again approached his teacher on this matter, the master said, “You really want to be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land? Good, let’s go.” He then sat down and passed away. When the other students realized their teacher was not breathing, they all blamed Luhang for causing their teacher’s death. After half an hour of commotion, the venerable began to breathe again. He then remarked, “We are free to choose which school we want to practice.” It is not important which school of Buddhism we follow, as long as we practice. This story shows that what is important is not how many of the Buddha’s teachings we understand, but how well we put into practice in our daily lives those teachings that we do understand.

I will leave you with the following video by Alan Watts (who was a great teacher and explainer of Buddhism to the Western world).  I found this video about him explaining Mahayana Buddhism which is very fascinating:

And here is a video about Theravada Buddhism (if you have a better video you think should be here, please let me know!):



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Have a question, insight, or additional information? The comments section is where you can discuss this article. Comments are moderated. Please no off-topic, rude, abusive, or offensive comments.

  • Chelsea

    This was so great to read! I’ve been considering becoming Buddhist for a long time! This was so helpful! Thank you!

    • Thanks fantastic Chelsea! :Glad you enjoyed the article and it helped you with deciding to become a Buddhist 🙂

  • Chloe

    This is amazing, spread the word!

  • Shadoe

    Very well written and thought provoking. Glad you mentioned that early on in your pursuits, it doesn’t really matter too much. I’m leaving feeling that I can learn so much from both branches and plan to. Thank you.

    • Thanks Shadoe and glad to hear it! 🙂 We all get along in Buddhism, and you’ll find friends in all the branches! I’m Mahayana, but still listen to Theravada teachers as well. As long as teachings are correct and good, they can help you.

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  • Ben

    Fantastic article and great writing skills.

  • The Jay™

    You have been incredibly insightful. Yet, I am more lost than ever. Once again, I find myself in the middle of crossroads. Do you have any thoughts on Westerners taking temporary monastic vows in Asia?

    • Hi Jay! Temporary monastic vows and retreats are a great way to experience the monastic lifestyle, which is difficult for laypersons like ourselves to experience. Often, temples where you live offer temporary monastic retreats for laity. It can be three days, a week, or more depending on the commitment you’d like to take. In my refuge temple I’ve seen a mixture of all ethnicities and nationalities take part in these. For any teachings given in that temples native language (for example, my temple and group comes from Taiwan), they have someone translating as well. Hope that answers your question, if not please let me know!

  • Alok

    Haven’t Mahayanists reformulated the eight fold path into six paramitas? I ask this cause you have shown the eightfold path as something common in between the two sects.

    • Hi Alok, thank you for your question. The Noble Eightfold Path is the same in all branches and schools of Buddhism. It is an original teaching of the historical Buddha. To your question about the paramitas,Theravada also has the 10 paramita’s (dasa pāramiyo) as does Mahayana have 10 paramita’s, but as you mentioned Mahayana also has the six paramitas. These do no negate the eightfold path at all, but are used in the context of the Bodhisattva path.

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  • It seems to me, that you might mistake Theravada for Hinayana when you write: “There is only one surviving school within this branch (from as high as 18 originally)”. Usually it is said, that Theravada is the only surviving school of the 18 original Hinayana schools. Although there is also the view, that Theravada is seperate from the Hinayana schools.

    • Hi Florian and thank you for your question. Not at all, as Hinayana no longer exists is in our modern world (and no modern schools are recognized to be Hinayana as agreed upon by the World Fellowship of Buddhists). I can see and understand your question and concern, however. While the Mahayana branch has many schools within it, Theravada branch only has one school which isn’t really referenced separately anymore (since there is only one), so Theravada ‘school’ is often used and is acceptable.

    • Hi Florian and thank you for your question and feedback. I have always agreed that Hinayana no longer exists is in our modern world (and no modern schools are recognized to be Hinayana as agreed upon by the World Fellowship of Buddhists). I will make the article clearer in that regard.

  • manujith

    Good article. But i am strongly theravada. Totally disagree with the mahayana concept of deity worship!

    • Thanks manujith! I was Theravada for a very long time and understand your concern as this is what I thought as well. Actually, there is no teaching for deity worship in any school of Buddhism that I know about…Theravada or Mahayana. However, in both Theravada and Mahayana you will actually see laity worshiping deities. Is this out of misunderstanding or cultural influences? Perhaps. But more to your concern, take a look at Chan/Zen (both from Mahayana)…that will provide a good contrast to show that it’s not common in all Mahayana 🙂

  • NaphiSoc

    very erudite – loved it.
    I sort of mix and match myself.

    I live away from a physical Sangha but am reading Gunaratana, and Thich Hahn, and others and the suttas directly and am still able to learn. I will work my way back to Tantric with a more firm foundation this time.

  • MaryLee

    I don’t understand your statement that samatha is considered unnecessary in Theravada practice. In fact, the teachers in that tradition I’ve studied with emphasized it! Look at Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Henepola Gunaratana, or Shaila Catherine, all of whom have written a lot about the value of concentration (samatha) practice as a foundation for insight practice. I never learned any of these techniques from Zen teachers. So I’m thinking I must be misunderstanding your distinction here – can you clarify it? Many thanks for the very well thought out and clear presentation of a complex topic.

    • Hi Mary Lee. Thanks for your comments! Samatha is common to both Mahayana and Theravada. However, within Theravada there are polarizing views on those who do believe it should also be taught and practiced, and those who believe Vipassana is the only thing you need (because Samatha is not a purely Buddhist practice, it is not always considered necessary to be included with Vipassana). All schools within Theravada and Mahayana will practice various teachings differently, and within them you’ll have teachers who teach what they want to…which is why you’ve experienced plenty who consider both of them necessary. Mahayana considers Samatha and Vipassana essential for enlightenment (mentioned many times in various sutras), so it’s not up for debate in that branch like it is in Theravada. Mahayana and Theravada also have different views of Samatha as well, but that’s a topic for another day. Zen does indeed teach Samatha and Vipassana, but in a way that is perhaps not apparent or specified as such (they don’t like labels in that regard): Koan study is associated with vipassana, while “just sitting” is a samatha practice. Then again, who can ever figure out those Zen folk?! ;-D

  • Erica

    Alan, thank you so much for helping me pass my Buddhist project on these two different schools, it turned out beautifully! I do think I will get an A for sure!

    • Thanks Erica! Please let me know how your school project turns out 🙂

  • Su

    Even before I finshed reading your article, I already knew that you liked Mahayana more than Theravada. There is nothing wrong with that. I just find it interesting that I could tell the tone in the article. I don’t know if you did on purpose or unconsciously that happened. I just want to let you know the tone is not very objective. I think it is hard to do as a writer sometimes to describe something objectively when you already picked something. I am not disagreeing or agreeing with any of the points you mentioned. Just wanted pointed out what I got out of the article. Thanks.

    • Hi Su, thanks for your feedback. Actually, I was in Theravada for a very long time, and to this day I follow teachers and writings from the Theravada school. Mahayana encompasses all of the Theravada writings (Pali canon). In the article, there are some good reasons to choose Theravada over Mahayana…and vice versa. Just depends on the individual, and goal of practice. So, no agenda was intended with the article. There may be some more Mahayana in there…simply to dispel misconceptions (to include misconceptions by those in Mahayana also!)

  • david simmons

    Just a quick question…What happens if you die before reaching enlightenment?

    • Hi David, great question! In summary, you just continue in the normal cycle of birth and death (“rebirth” in Buddhism). Buddhism’s ultimate goal, for a practitioner, is to end that cycle. But not to worry, it’s something that even devout Buddhist’s like the Dalai Lama may not even be able to achieve! That doesn’t mean that practice isn’t beneficial…it all helps. I have two articles I think can provide a little more explanation than just a reply to your question: 1) Enlightenment: http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/understanding-enlightenment/ and 2) Rebirth: http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/understanding-reincarnation-rebirth/

      Hope that helps, please let me know if you have any questions!

  • Shawn Muench

    Wow. I believe I have found something that will be a great resource for me as I discover what attitude I want to have toward Buddhism! I have been struggling very much with trying to reconcile my music education career (which values strong speaking skills and skill in a sensual commodity) with my belief that meditation and the Dhamma are very important things for me to make a central part of my life.

    Lately I’ve been feeling that I can stop trying to do one or the other and simply do both–I may not always fulfill the “full” requirements of the practice (staying away from sensual activities), but can explore my mind, reduce suffering, and cultivate compassion. That’s really important! Lots of Christian interpretations out there and personal styles of adherence. Why not be the same with Buddhism? I’m doing something that makes sense for me and puts the Dhamma in a very central place in my life.

    • Great to hear from you Shawn! Sounds like you are on the right path, and hope to hear how you are doing later on!

  • William Nusa Wijaya

    Great article however there is one criticism I have for Mahayana Buddhism. It has too much ceremonies/rituals while the amount of rituals in Theravada are just fine for me and they focuses on lectures and meditation which I really like. Were the things I just said true? If not please correct me. Thank you.

    • Hi William, thank you for your feedback. It is often a misconception that Mahayana is filled with ceremonies/rituals (in-fact, when I was in Theravada I believed the same thing). We can look at countries that practice Theravada to find a range of non-Buddhist ceremonies and rituals that became “Buddhist”. Everything from “blessing” a new car, to water gun fights, to ever popular “burial” ceremonies which are often the only thing the laity look to Buddhism for (which is also becoming the same thing in Mahayana countries such as Japan). If you look at some in Mahayana, it is riddled will ceremonies and rituals (e.g., Tibetan), or you can have some in Mahayana that would look at Theravada as also having too many rituals and ceremonies (e.g., Zen / Ch’an). Buddhism readily accepts cultural and societal beliefs to merge in with it for adoption…this has been the way even in the Buddha’s time. There is nothing inherently wrong with it. In-fact, to go back to your original concern, Mahayana was specifically for the laity in mind as a way to practice Buddhism in a way that Theravada couldn’t provide (don’t think of modern “Western” Buddhists who have free time…think agricultural societies that didn’t even have a day off). “Chanting” and “Ceremonies”, for instance, actually produce the same chemical reaction and benefits in the mind as traditional meditation that we may practice in Theravada. The lectures and meditation you discussed that you like in Theravada are heavily presented in Mahayana as well (often, more so than Theravada, depending on which school you choose). One that has a nice mixture, which I am part of, is Humanistic Buddhism which is basically a blend of Zen/Ch’an and Pure Land Buddhism. Let me leave you with one of my articles you might find helpful as it relates to rituals, superstitions, and ceremonies: http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/buddhist-superstition/

  • Catherine

    Thank you so much for your time writing this article. Tonight, I visited a Zen priory for the first time for orientation and will attend my first service Sunday. I do not know much about Buddhism; however your article helped me understand that Mahayana is more practical for my life (though I am very open to learning and will learn more about both).

    Now that I know I prefer Mahayana, how do you know which practice is best? Meaning, the Zen, Forest, Tibetan, etc. (I do not know about any of them).

    Thank you once again.

  • TazKidNoah

    Im still confused about the differences? can anyone give more examples?

  • Cuco Smuco

    Buddha was a layperson

    Namaste