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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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). Theravāda also believes in the compassion to save all beings, however they do not promote the Bodhisattva path ideal to achieve it.
- Meditation: There are two types of meditation used by Buddhists which are Vipassanā and Samatha. Vipassanā, which has become more well known in the West recently, is essentially what is called “insight” meditation. However there is no such thing as “Vipassanā” meditation in the Pali canon, and is instead the result of Satipaṭṭhāna practice. Samatha relates to “calming” the mind and its formations. Theravāda generally empahsizes Vipassanā mediation, whereas Mahāyāna practices (depending on the school) both Vipassana 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 emphasizes Vipassanā. There is debate about this in Theravāda where monastics, such as those in Sri Lanka, state that Vipassanā is not all that is required (especially the Burmese meditation movement style). 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.
- 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).
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 sects¹ of Buddhism 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’an², 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.
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.
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).
Me, Myself, and I
A Theravada Buddhist generally believes in ‘individual enlightenment’ due to misconceptions about the teachings (more on this later). Their 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), which is popular in Mahayana Buddhism. They believe that enlightenment is done through ones own effort, without the help of any outside influences or forces, following in the same path as how the Buddha became enlightened. 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. However, is that even really necessary? There are many “levels” a monastic achieves (even in the Buddha’s day, not everyone “escaped” the cycle of birth and death), so we must not take this as any sort of negative connotation.
All Hands on Deck
A Mahayana Buddhist believes, like Theravada, that ones own effort is crucial, however they believe in a sort of ‘enlightenment for all’, because we are all in this together and cannot be separate from others. They focus heavily on “Buddha nature” (which is not taught in Theravada), and enlightenment through the Bodhisattva path. The Bodhisattva path is something that anyone can follow, layperson or monastic, and achieve the same result. While that may seen to be a reason not to become a monastic (after all, if anyone can be enlightened why give up this life?), it is actually the opposite. Just like in Theravada, anyone can become enlightened, however to truly devote yourself to that goal becoming a monastic and putting your full effort into that goal is the ultimate path.
According to Barbara O’Brien, individual enlightenment is not possible due to the concept of “emptiness”:
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. Ven. Ajah Chah who was a famous Theravada Buddhist monk of the Thai Forrest Tradition, had an interesting disclosure with Ven. Ajahn Sumedho. According to Ven. Ajahn Amaro, Ven. Ajahn Sumedho said to Ven. Ajahn Chah:
I’m totally committed to the practice. I’m determined to fully realize nibbana in this lifetime; I’m deeply weary of the human condition and determined not to be born again.
Instead of giving what is the “assumed” response in Theravada, where Ven. Ajahn Chah would have said supported this [individualistic] approach, he instead said:
What about us, Sumedho? Don’t you care about those who’ll be left behind?
To give a Zen/Ch’an² response to that above response by Ven. Ajahn Chah we could say “Aha!”. This is yet another example where Buddhism, regardless of school, is still the same Buddhism at its core. While it is true that we (unfortunately) do not see this promoted as much as we do in Mahayana, it is nevertheless (refreshingly) there in Theravada.
If we could sum up the two schools by using a “drowning swimmer” analogy: Theravada believes you need to know how to swim and rescue the person first, thus one who leads the spiritual life (a monastic) is more skillful in saving others. Mahayana believes that, yes, knowing how to swim would be great, but sometimes you just got to do something! Letting someone drown is not a good thing either. Therefore, a group effort, such as a “human chain” going out into the ocean to rescue someone is what they promote (swimming is a nice to have, but not necessary when everyone works for the common goal). And sometimes we have to take things in perspective such as the water is only knee high 😉 The important thing to remember is that neither school is wrong, or right.
Both school’s “reasoning” on achieving enlightenment is correct, but the circumstances must also be taken in. There is no escaping our interconnectedness and the compassion to save all living beings, and at their core, both schools do this but just in different ways (paths).
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 path 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:
- The historical Buddha, was an Arhart
- The historical Buddha, was also a Bodhisattva (many times)
- 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
- 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 commonly referred to as ‘Vipassanā’ meditation. However this did not become popular with laypersons until the 19th and 20th century (there is a resurgence of this type of meditation thanks to those in Burma who preserved and promoted it). Before that, Vipassanā meditation was predominately a monastic practice, especially in Burma. This doesn’t mean that all teachers teach “Vipassana only”, as many do consider Samatha part of meditation practice. However there are deep divisions between those who consider both necessary, and those who believe Vipassanā is all that is needed (such as in Burma). But is “Vipassanā” actually a “meditation” practice? According to Venerable Bhante Sanathavihari there is no such thing as “Vipassanā” meditation found in the Pali Canon, and that other monastics (such as those in Sri Lanka) have countered the argument that Vipassanā is all that is needed. Vipassanā is something you develop as the result of the practice of Satipaṭṭhāna. Satipaṭṭhāna refers to the establishment of attention, and Vipassanā (the result) is the insight or direct vision into reality. For common terminology, however, we will continue to use “Vipassanā” in this article.
- Mahayana has different schools with focus on mental cultivation in different ways. Generally, however, Mahayana focuses on a mixture of both Vipassanā and Samatha meditation. Mahayana believes that both Vipassanā and Samatha are necessary to achieve enlightenment because in order to be analytical (Vipassanā), your mind must first be calm and still (Samatha). 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?
- Vipassanā: This is also known as “insight” meditation. 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. Remember that Satipaṭṭhāna is actually the practice, and Vipassanā is the result.
- 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). Samatha is actually a form of meditation compared to Vipassanā which is a result of practice.
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.
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.
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. Often, and unfortunately, I think this gets missed by deeply devoted Buddhists regardless of what school they are in.
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, and also follow the teachings of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh), 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. I also have no concerns about visiting and practicing in a Theravada temple one day, and practicing Zen/Ch’an² on another day, and then Chinese Buddhism on another. What I have learned is that you can “get” more out of Buddhism by dropping the “Theravada vs Mahayana” debate, and start listening to teachers and practicing! That being said, it is important to have one central school, teacher, and practice to follow (which is what I do). It is fine, and recommended, to widen your horizons, but there are fundamental “path” differences between Theravada and Mahayana which will make practicing both confusing. Both paths lead to the same goal, but you should pick one path. The beauty is you have choices in which path you wish to walk on!
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!):
- Thank you to Ven. Bhante Sanathavihari for his review and feedback of this article.
- Recommended Books: What the Buddha Taught by Ven. Walpola Rahula, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Complete Idiots Guide to Buddhism by Gary Gach
- Further Reading: Between Arhat and Bodhisattva by Ven. Ajahn Amaro, About Mahayana by Barbara O’Brien, Origins of Theravada Buddhism by Barbara O’Brien, Are there differences in the roles teachers play in different Buddhist schools? by Lions Roar, What is Vipassana? on Dhammadana.org
- ¹ Hinayana It is commonly referenced as the original “school” of Buddhism. However according to Ven. Analayo Bikkhu, that is more of a general term and that is not the right term to use.
- ² Ch’an is the Chinese, and original, version of what is known as “Zen” in the West. Zen is the Japanese version of Ch’an, Thiền in Vietnam, and Seon in Korea.