Schools In: Comparing Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

Welcome to my “Basics in Buddhism” Series:  This article is part of a series of articles on the basics of Buddhism.  Find all other articles in the series by clicking here.  

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.

Article Summary (TL;DR)

I know you may not have a lot of time to read a long article (“too long; didn’t read”), so this summary can help.  However it is best to read the entire article when you can!

  1. Branches:  There are two major branches of Buddhism:  Theravāda and Mahāyāna.  Vajrayana  (“Tibetan”) is part of Mahāyāna, however has its own unique characteristics due to its many centuries of isolation.
  2. Beliefs:  All Buddhists, regardless of branch or school, believe in The Buddha (the teacher), The Sangha (the community of practitioners), The Dharma (the teachings), and the Threefold Training (precepts, meditation, and wisdom).  This means that all Buddhists believe largely the same things, to include all the fundamental core teachings and scripture.
  3. Scripture:  All Buddhists, regardless of branch or school, believe in the Pali canon (known as the Tripitaka, and is the Buddha’s original teachings as originally recorded hundreds of years after his passing).  Mahāyāna Buddhists believe in the Pali canon and, depending on school, may include additional sutras (scripture) which are not part of the Pali canon.
  4. Goals:  Theravāda and Mahāyāna both believe in Arharts, which are enlightened persons who have escaped the cycle of birth and death and exist in Nirvana.  This is the ultimate goal in Theravāda.  Mahāyāna believes in the “Bodhisattva Path” ideal.  This means that all monastics and laypersons can follow this same path and become Bodhisattva’s, which are enlightened beings that freely choose to stay in the cycle of birth and death (Samsara).  They stay in Samsara out of a great compassion to save all beings despite having to continuously exist in the world of Samsara (a Sanskrit term for the repeating cycle of birth and death).
  5. Meditation:  There are two types of meditation used by Buddhists which are Vipassana and Samatha.  Vipassana, which has become more well known in the West recently, is essentially what is called “insight” meditation.  Samsatha realtes to “calming” the mind and its formations.  Theravāda only emphasizes Vispassna mediation, whereas Mahāyāna practices (depending on the school) both Vipassna and Samatha meditation (a good example of this in Mahāyāna is Zen Buddhism).  It should be noted that some Theravāda teachers may also include Samatha meditation, however Theravāda (overall) only requires and emphasizes Vipassna.  Some Mahāyāna Buddhism schools may simply practice “chanting”, such as in Pure Land.  While this may not seem like traditional meditation, science has demonstrated through MRI scans that chanting and traditional meditation have almost the same affect on the brain and in the same location.
  6. Other Views:  There are many views on how to achieve enlightenment, about rebirth, and more topics, depending on the school.  Theravāda, however, does not have any additional schools like Mahāyāna.  This means there is only one set of views (generally) on all these topics in Theravāda Buddhism, whereas Mahāyāna provides additional “Dharma gates” that people can use towards liberation.  It is believed in Mahāyāna that there are many ways to achieve awakening and Nirvana, and not just one.  Theravāda believes these additional Mahāyāna sutras and teachings are not canonical, and thus not legitimate.

Now that you have this summary, this article will provide you more information (hyperlinks on this page take you to other articles that I wrote which explain a topic further).

School’s In

Let’s start with the basics.  There are over 350 million Buddhists worldwide who are part of one of the 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:

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.

This monastic is working hard through meditation to become an Arhat (Photo via Pixbay)

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 Ven. 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).

I am a bit worried that a cat will come by and knock over the edge this monastics candle (CC0 via Pixbay)

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:
  • 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.

Monastics eating vegetarian food (CC0 via Pixbay)

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.  Nirvana is the goal, not attachments to anything else.

Throughout my life, I flowed between Theravada and Mahayana (to include Zen, Tibetan, 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 read and 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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This article was originally published on 21 Jul 2013, and last updated on 09 Jul 2017.

Copyright © 2013 by Alan Peto, all rights reserved.