A question asked by many people is ” What is the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?” To find the answer let us look at the history of Buddhism and compare and contrast the beliefs and philosophies of the two.
The Buddah, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the 6th century B.C.E. in Northwestern India. The Buddah was the son of an aristocrat and grew up in a world of affluence and privilege. His father, Suddhodana took every precaution to make sure Siddhartha didn’t experience anything that would hurt his happiness.
The Buddah attained enlightenment at the age of 35 and spent his life teaching. He taught for 45 years and only slept for about two hours a day. What he taught was called Buddha Vacana, i.e. the word of the Buddha.
Three months after the Buddha’s death five hundred of his disciples convened the First Council at Rajagaha. Maha Kassapa, the most respected and elderly monk, presided the council. Since members of the council were not able to agree on any changes, Maha Kassapa ruled that no rules laid down by the Buddha should be changed and no new ones should be introduced. Maha Kassapa also said “If we changed the rules, people would say that Ven. Gotama’s disciples changed the rules even before his funeral fire ceased burning.”
On hundred years later a Second Council was held and they made some changes to certain minor rules. In the 3rd Century B.C.E., the Third Council was held to discuss the difference between different sects. At the end of this Council, the President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, wrote a book called the Kathavatthu refuting the heretical, false views and theories of some sects. The teaching approved by this council was known as Theravada. There was nothing known as Mahayana at this time.
Between the 1st Century B.C.E. and the 1st Century A.D., the term Mahayana appeared in the Saddharma Pundarike Sutra or Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law. About the 2nd Century A.D., Mahayana became clearly defined.
Theravada and Mahayana have a lot of similarities:
n Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
n The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
n The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
n The Paticca-samuppada or the Dependent Organization is the same in both schools.
n Both rejected the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world.
n Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any difference.
There are also some differences. The Mahayanists did not see themselves as creating a new start for Buddhism. They claimed that their canon of scriptures represented the final teachings of Buddha. They accounted for the non-presence of these teachings in over 500 years by claiming that these were secret teachings entrusted only to the most faithful followers.
“Like the Protestant Reformation, the overall goal of Mahayana was to extend religious authority to a greater number of people, rather than concentrating it in the hands of the few.” World Civilizations, Richard Hooker, 1996.
The goal of Theravada Buddhism is very hard to accomplish. In order to make Buddhism a more esoteric religion, the Mahayanists invented two grades of Buddhist attainment below becoming a Buddha. The Buddha was the highest goal, the level before that is to become a Pratyeka-Buddha which is one who is awakened to the truth but keeps it secret. Below the Pratyeka-Buddha is the Arhant or “worthy”; who has learned the truth from others and has come to realize it as the truth. Mahayana Buddhism establishes Arhant as the goal for all believers. The believer hears the truth, comes to realize it as the truth, then passes into Nirvana. This doctrine of Arhanthood is the basis for calling Mahayan the “Greater Vehicle” because it is meant to include everyone.
The Mahayanists completed the conversion of Buddhism from a philosophy to a religion. Theravada Buddhism says that Buddha was a person who ceased to exist after his death. However Buddhists tended to worship him as a god of some sort, even when he was alive. The Mahayanists developed a theology of Buddha called the doctrine of “The Three Bodies,” or Trikaya. The Buddha was not a human being, as the Theravada Buddhists believed, but a manifestation of a universal, spiritual being. This being had three bodies. When it occupied the Earth as Siddhartha Gautama, it took on the Body of Magical Transformation. This body comes out from the Body of Bliss, which occupies the heavens in the form of a ruling god of the universe. There are many forms of the Body of Bliss, but the one that rules over our world is Amithaba who lives in a paradise in the western heavens called Sukhavati or “Land of Pure Bliss”. Finally, the Body of Bliss comes out from the Body of Essence, which is the principle underlying of the whole universe. This Body of Essence became synonymous with Nirvana. It was a kind of universal soul, and Nirvana became the wonderful joining with this universal soul .