The Two Main Schools of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana
How did the two main schools of Buddhism emerge?
Within a few hundred years after the Buddha’s death, there were over eighteen different schools or sects of Buddhism that evolved from an original, single teaching.
The differences between the schools of Buddhism naturally developed due to differing interpretations of Buddha’s teachings, different cultures and values, etc.
Over time, these numerous schools of thought gradually merged into two: Theravada and Mahayana. T
oday, most Buddhists in the world subscribe to one of these two schools.
What beliefs do the two schools have in common?
The two main sects of Buddhism shared all the fundamental doctrines of Buddha’s teachings.
In fact, Theravada and Mahayana only diverge on a few beliefs that many would consider not core to Buddhism.
First, both sects firmly believe that Buddha’s teachings are the only method to attain the ultimate goal of Nirvana. Furthermore, both believe in the following fundamental principals of Buddhism:
- Both accept Buddha as the master teacher and founder of Buddhism
- Both accept the Four Noble Truths
- Both accept the Eightfold Path
- Both accept the idea of Karma
- Both accept the idea of Dependent Origination
- Both accept Nirvana as the final goal
- Both reject the idea of a supreme creator god
- Both reject the belief in an eternal soul
Although both schools of Buddhism believe in the same core beliefs, each school has developed its own focus discussed below.
What is the main difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?
In general, Theravada is a more traditional, rationale and scientific form of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is also the oldest surviving school of Buddhism.
Compared to other sects of Buddhism, Theravada is relatively conservative and closest to the earliest teachings of Buddhism.
On the other hand, Mahayana covers a greater number of traditions and is generally allows for more rituals and mysticism. The more specific differences are discussed below.
Theravada views of Bodhisatvas
Theravada believe that Bodhisatvas are not supernatural living beings. They merely view them as people who devote their entire life towards enlightenment. In essence, they are monks.
They believe that these monks or Bodhisatvas will eventually become fully enlightened Buddhas for the well-being and happiness of the world.
In this school, anyone can become a Bodhisattva or a monk, but it does not not push or require that everyone should as this is considered not practical.
As a result, the Bodhisattva path is reserved for certain exceptional people who will eventually become the future spiritual leaders of the religion.
Theravada Buddhists may seek spiritual advice or guidance from a Bodhisatvas, but they believe that their release from suffering can only be realized through individual effort (See Buddhism: The DIY Religion).
Theravada generally believe that the desire to end one’s own suffering is not a selfish act since all living creatures desire to be free from suffering.
Mahayana views of Bodhisatvas
Mahayana Buddhists believe that Bodhisatvas are supernatural living beings.
The Mahayana school has created many mystical Bodhisatvas which are honored and revered in the same manner as the original Buddha. Mahayana believe that they can seek salvation from suffering through the help of superior beings calls Bodhisatvas.
Mahayana also believe that it is selfish to solely focus on ending one’s own suffering. As a result, they define Bodhisatvas as future Buddhas who have compassionately and selflessly delayed their own attainment of Buddhahood until they have helped others towards liberation.
In other words, Mahayana Buddhists vow not to reach full enlightenment until they have successful helped all others become liberated from suffering.
This is contrast to the original Buddha who both found and experienced enlightenment himself and provided help to others who also wanted to end their suffering.
This school of Buddhism encourages everyone to become a Bodhisatva. Therefore, the practice of Mahayana focuses on the path of a Bodhisatva, including the Bodhisatva vows.
The vows are a promise to work for complete enlightenment of all living beings by following the Six Perfections.
What are the cultural and geographic difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?
Theravada Buddhists generally follow the orthodox religious traditions that prevailed in India two thousand five hundred years ago.
Religious services are therefore usually performed in the Pali language which is a classical Indian language and considered a sacred.
Additionally, their teachings are primarily based upon the Pali Canon, which is the oldest, most complete version of Buddha’s teachings.
Buddhists in southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand belong to this school.
On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhists practice Buddhism using the customs and traditional of their home countries. They also usually perform their religious ceremonies in their own language.
Buddhists in China, Japan and Korea typically below to this school.
Which school of Buddhism is the most popular and which should you follow?
Out of the 500 million Buddhists in the world, approximately two-thirds (2/3’s) are Mahayana and one-third (1/3) are Theravada.
Do not stress if the different schools of Buddhism seem confusing or if you can’t decide which one you prefer.
Keep in mind that both main schools of Buddhism share the same core teachings and neither is superior to the other. All sects and schools of Buddhism are united in their goal of spreading Buddha’s teachings for the happiness and welfare of sentient beings.
Buddhism teaches us to think rationally for ourselves. Therefore, we are free to interpret Buddha’s teachings according to our own understanding and to follow the school of Buddhism that appeals most to us.
You can still be a genuine Buddhist without adhering to any school or sect at all and this is actually the preferred route.
Remember that Buddha taught only one true path to perfection. The fact that groups of Buddhists over the years have gone in different directions is a result of man’s imperfections.
It is these imperfections that have given rise to these different schools of Buddhism.
If you want to become a Buddhist, then start with the basic teachings such as the life of Buddha, and the Noble Eightfold Path (see our Guide to Buddhism).
Once you have a solid understanding of the core principles of Buddhism, then you can study how and why the original teachings evolved into the various schools that we have today.
What is Transcendental Buddhism?
Transcendental Buddhism means to transcend or give up our narrow sectarian views on Buddhism.
This means that we should not focus on the diverging viewpoints of the different schools of Buddhism but rather focus on the core teachings of Buddhism that all schools share.
Advocates of this approach urge all Buddhists to pool their resources and to leave bind our culture-based approach to the teachings.
In the modern world, this has become critically necessary given that the world has become so small given modern transportation and communication and the fact that there are so many people with different languages, believes, cultures and attitudes.
If all Buddhists worldwide can come together under this concept of united transcendental Buddhism, then we will have a better chance of bringing ultimate happiness to mankind.
We will be able to show the next generation a single, harmonious set of Buddha’s teachings.