Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism (often called northern Buddhism) are forms of Buddhism, a spiritual religion and philosophy created by Gautama Buddha (b. c. 566 b.c.e.) and followed by more than 700 million people worldwide.

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Developed over thousands of years, Buddhist tradition ultimately leads to what is called enlightenment, becoming a Buddha, and breaking the cycle of reincarnation. Mahayana, derived from Theravada Buddhism, dominates in India, China, Taiwan, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Theravada is often called southern Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is more conservative and is popular in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma).

After his enlightenment the Buddha delivered his first sermon and set the framework for his teachings, consisting of the Four Noble Truths. Buddha laid out the fundamental principles of nature that ruled the human condition. He taught that these Four Noble Truths were the way people should frame their experiences. The Four Noble Truths are Dukkha, the suffering of people, stress, and discontent of ignorance; Samudaya, the cause of this dissatisfaction is desire; Nirodha, the cessation of desire and the achievement of nirvana (extinguishing or liberation); and Magga, the path of practice that leads out of suffering and into nirvana, Noble Eightfold Path. Buddha wandered the Indian plains for 45 more years. Along his travels he taught what he had learned in the moment of his awakening. Around him a community of monks, and later nuns, developed from every tribe and caste. These followers believed in his path, or dharma, and devoted themselves to his teachings. Buddha did not call himself a deity, nor did he wish to be worshipped.


The Four Noble Truths And The Eightfold Path

Buddhist tradition teaches that living in ignorance of the Four Noble Truths is due to inexperience and desire to frame the world on one’s own terms and thus, one remains bound to the cycle of birth, life, aging, illness, death, and rebirth in another life. Craving and desire propel this cycle over the course of countless lifetimes in accordance with karmic actions. The Buddha taught that gaining release from this cycle requires adherence to each of the Four Noble Truths and to assign a task to each one. The first is to comprehend, the second to abandon, the third to realize, and the fourth to develop. The full realization of the third is the path to enlightenment and the achievement of nirvana.

The Noble Eightfold Path is a set of personal qualities that must be developed. It is not a sequence of steps along a linear path. The Noble Eightfold Path is the right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The development of the right view and right resolve, wisdom, and discernment facilitate the movement of right speech, right action, and right livelihood, the three factors associated with virtue. As virtue develops, it is thought that the factors associated with awareness, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration are further developed. Buddha taught that the practitioner is then lifted in an upward spiral of spiritual maturity that eventually leads to enlightenment.

As the practitioner begins the Noble Eightfold Path, an individual’s well-being is not predestined by fate, nor is it left to the whims of a divine being or by random chance. Responsibility for happiness is only dependent on the individual. With this realization it is taught that habitual ignorance is replaced with awareness. The practitioner is then mindful of his or her actions and chooses them with care. At this point some followers make the personal commitment to become enlightened and become a Buddha.


Buddhism is sometimes criticized as a negative, or pessimistic, religion and philosophy in its assertion that life is suffering and disappointment. The Buddha based his teaching on what is considered a frank assessment of the plight of human life. Practitioners believe that the Buddha offered hope for an end to suffering. His teachings were thought to offer the reward of true happiness and the cycle of rebirth. Although release from the cycle of rebirth means to become extinct after death, this extinguishing is considered the ultimate freedom from suffering.

Assimilating Hindu, Persian, and Greco-Roman influences, Buddhism grew across India, Central Asia, and Eastern Asia into the first century b.c.e. In the third century c.e. the emperor Ashoka of India converted to Buddhism, sponsored several monasteries, and sent missionaries into neighboring countries. During this period the practice spread across India and into Sri Lanka. As Buddhism spread, differing interpretations of the Buddha’s original teachings emerged, which led to the differing schools of Buddhism. One of these gave birth to a sect called Mahayana (the Greater Vehicle), and from it emerged Theravada (the Lesser Vehicle, also the Teaching of the Elders). Due to the pejorative nature of the terms and the historical regions in which the two branches became popular, the two sects are often called northern Buddhism and southern Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhists believe that they practice the original form of Buddhism as it was handed down by the teachings of Buddha. The doctrine of Theravada Buddhism corresponds with the recorded teachings of Buddha and is based on the Four Noble Truths. Through the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path, an individual can eventually achieve nirvana. However, Theravada Buddhism primarily focused on meditation, the eighth of the Eightfold Noble Path, and emphasized a monastic life removed from society. In addition, Theravada Buddhism required an extremely large amount of time to meditate. These strict ideas were not practical for the majority of people. The Theravada texts are written in a language called Pali, which literally means “text” and is based on a Middle Indo-Aryan dialect probably spoken in central India during Buddha’s lifetime. Pali was originally a spoken language with no alphabet. It is thought that Ananda, Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, committed the Buddha’s teachings to memory. After the Buddha’s death, Ananda and 500 senior monks recited and verified the sermons they heard. Because the teachings were committed to memory, the teachings begin with the words “Thus I have heard . . .”


Teachings were passed down orally within the monastic community. The body of classical Theravada literature consists of Buddha’s teachings arranged and compiled into three divisions. The Vinaya Pitaka, “basket of discipline,” concerns rules and customs. The Sutta Pitaka, “basket of discourses,” is a collection of sermons and utterances by the Buddha and his disciples. The Abhidharma Pitaka, “basket of higher doctrine,” is a detailed psychological and philosophical analysis of the dharma. Together, these are known as the Tripitaka, “three baskets.” By the third century c.e. monks in Sri Lanka created a series of commentaries on the Tripitaka, and by the fifth century they were translated into Pali as the Tipitaka. Since then the Tripitaka has been translated into many different languages. However, many Theravada students commit to learning Pali in order to deepen their understanding of the Tripitaka and related commentaries.

The Tripitaka and related commentaries are not considered statements of divine truth to be accepted by pure faith. The teachings of Buddha are to be experienced and assessed through personal experience. It is the finding of truth in the teachings of Buddha that matter, not the words of the teaching themselves. In this way the Tripitaka’s passages serve as a guide for followers to use in their own path to enlightenment. Until the late 19th century the teachings of Theravada were unknown outside of southern Asia, where it had grown for more than 2,000 years.

Mahayana Buddhism

While Theravada was constructed for serious followers who could devote a large bulk of their time to mediations, Mahayana Buddhism could accommodate a greater number of people. Calling their path the Greater Vehicle, Mahayana Buddhists distinguished themselves from Theravada by calling Theravada the Lesser Vehicle. Instead of following a direct line of teachings from the Buddha, the Mahayana Buddhists believed they were recovering the original teachings of the Buddha. Their canon of scriptures represented the final teachings and accounted for the loss of their presence for hundreds of years by claiming that these secret teachings were only given to the most faithful. Regardless of its origins, Mahayana Buddhism is a departure from Theravada philosophy in that the overall goal was to extend religious authority over a greater number of people.

In this quest Mahayana Buddhists developed a theory of progressions for attaining enlightenment. At the top level was becoming a Buddha. Preceding enlightenment was a series of lives, called the bodhisattvas, or beings of wisdom. The bodhisattva was a major contribution to Mahayana Buddhism in that it was a concept created to explain Buddha’s lives before his last. In this tradition the lives of Siddhartha Gautama before his last were spent working toward becoming a Buddha. In those lives he was a bodhisattva, a Buddha-to-be, that could achieve wonderful acts of joy and compassion for others. Literature surrounding those lives is collectively called the Jataka, or the Birth Stories.

Although much is unknown about the earliest traditions in Buddhism, some evidence exists that followers thought there would only be one Buddha. Within a short amount of time, it was believed that another Buddha would soon follow. This concept of the Maitreya Buddha, or Future Buddha, grew to include the belief that if a Future Buddha was coming then a Buddha or bodhisattva was already on earth passing through life. This meant that someone alive at any given moment was the Maitreya. In addition, the numbers of Maitreya Buddhas were uncertain. The person serving food or cleaning the floors may be the Maitreya.

Instead of the goal of attaining full enlightenment, as in Theravada Buddhism, a practitioners’ goal is to be the arhant, or the “worthy.” The worthy is one who has learned the truth from others and has realized it as truth. Mahayana Buddhists believe that in this way, the follower hears the truth, realizes it as truth, and then passes into nirvana.

Mahayana Buddhists adhere to seven particular features of Mahayanism. The first is Its Comprehensiveness. Mahayana Buddhists do not confine their beliefs to one Buddha but strive to see truth wherever it may be found. The second is Universal Love for All Sentient Beings. This belief differs from Theravada Buddhism in that it strives for general salvation of all people. Third is Its Greatness in Intellectual Comprehension, meaning that all things in general are not directed by a metaphysical deity. The fourth is Its Marvelous Spiritual Energy. The bodhisattvas are thought never to tire of working for universal salvation, and they do not worry about how much time it takes to achieve this. The fifth feature is Its Greatness in the Exercise of the Upaya. Upaya translates as “expediency,” or acting as appropriate to achieve a goal. The sixth feature is Its Higher Spiritual Attainment, meaning that followers strive to achieve their highest spiritual level. Seventh is Its Greater Activity. When a bodhisattva becomes a Buddha, it is then able to manifest everywhere to minister to the spiritual needs of all beings.

Mahayana Buddhism disappeared from India during the 11th century. In Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhism replaced Mahayana Buddhism. However, Mahayana Buddhism is the most popular of branch of Buddhism in the world today.

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