By: Khemanando Bhikkhu


The different forms of Buddhism can be understood by becoming familiar with the two major schools that arose out of the Buddha’s basic teachings: The two major schools of Buddhism, Theravada and the Mahayana, are to be understood as different expressions of the same teaching of the historical Buddha because, in fact, they agree upon and practice the core teachings of the Buddha’s Dhamma. And while there was a schism after the first council on the death of the Buddha, it was largely over the monastic rules and academic points such as whether an enlightened person could lapse or not. The first Buddhist Council was held in Rajagraha by five hundred Arahants headed by Maha Kassapa under the sponsorship of King Ajatasatthu. When the Third Buddhist Council was held in the year 235 Buddhist Era, the Great Emperor Asoka asked the head of the Sangha, venerable Mahamonggaliputtatissa, the numerical extent of the Buddha’s teaching. The Mahathera answered that the Buddha’s teachings consist of 84.000 Dhammakhandhas. In veneration to the Buddha’s teaching, he ordered his ministers to build 84.000 monasteries and 84.000 stupas in 84.000 towns[1]. Time, culture and customs in the countries in Asia which adopted the Buddha-Dhamma have more to do with the apparent differences, as you will not find any animosity between the two major schools, other than that created by healthy debate on the expression of and the implementation of the Buddha’s Teaching[2].


Theravada (The Teachings of the Elders)

In the Buddhist countries of southern Asia, there never arose any serious differences on the fundamentals of Buddhism. All these countries – Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, have accepted the principles of the Theravada school and any differences there might be between the various schools is restricted to minor matters. The earliest available teachings of the Buddha are to be found in Pali literature and belong to the school of the Theravadins, who may be called the most orthodox school of Buddhism. This school admits the human characteristics of the Buddha, and is characterized by a psychological understanding of human nature; and emphasizes a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness.

The teaching of the Buddha according to this school is very plain. He asks us to ‘abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind’[3]. These can be accomplished by The Three Trainings: the development of ethical conduct, meditation and insight-wisdom. The philosophy of this school is straight forward. All worldly phenomena are subject to three characteristics – they are impermanent and transient; unsatisfactory and that there is nothing in them which can be called one’s own, nothing substantial, nothing permanent. All compounded things are made up of two elements – the non-material part, the material part. They are further described as consisting of nothing but five constituent groups, namely the material quality, and the four non-material qualities – sensations, perception, mental formatives and lastly consciousness.

When an individual thus understands the true nature of things, she/he finds nothing substantial in the world. Through this understanding, there is neither indulgence in the pleasures of senses or self-mortification, following the Middle Path the practitioner lives according to the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. She/he realizes that all worldly suffering is caused by craving and that it is possible to bring suffering to an end by following the Noble Eight Fold Path. When that perfected state of insight is reached, i.e.Nibbana, that person is a ‘worthy person’ an Arahant. The Buddha called it Nibbana, because it is the end of Vana, which means “craving.[4]” The life of the Arahant is the ideal of the followers of this school, where all (future) birth is at an end, where the holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to the worldly life’.

Mahayana (The Great Vehicle)

The Mahayana is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools, from the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) well represented in Tibet and Nepal to the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha, longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace, which are found in China, Korea and Japan. Ch’an and Zen Buddhism, of China and Japan, are meditation schools. According to these schools, to look inward and not to look outwards is the only way to achieve enlightenment, which to the human mind is ultimately the same as Buddhahood. In this system, the emphasis is upon ‘intuition’, its peculiarity being that it has no words in which to express it at all, so it does this in symbols and images. In the course of time this system developed its philosophy of intuition to such a degree that it remains unique to this day. The sequence of practice in Mahayana Buddhism is represented in China by the four Great Boddhisatvas: Di Tzang (Earth Treasure) of Jiuhua Mountain; Guan Yin (Great Compassion) of Putuo Mountain; Wen Shu Shi Li (Manjushri) of Wutai Mountain; and Pu Xian (Universal Worthy) of Emei Mountain[5].

It is generally accepted, that what we know today as the Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghikas sect who were the earliest secedes, and the forerunners of the Mahayana. They took up the cause of their new sect with zeal and enthusiasm and in a few decades grew remarkably in power and popularity. They adapted the existing monastic rules and thus revolutionized the Buddhist Order of Monks. Moreover, they made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. And they rejected certain portions of the canon which had been accepted in the First Council. According to it, the Buddhas are lokuttara (supramundane) and are connected only externally with the worldly life. This conception of the Buddha contributed much to the growth of the Mahayana philosophy.

Mahayana Buddhism is divided into two systems of thought: the Madhyamika and the Yogacara. The Madhyamikas were so called on account of the emphasis they laid on the middle view. Here, the Middle Path stands for the non-acceptance of the two views concerning existence and nonexistence, eternity and non eternity, self and non-self. In short, it advocates neither the theory of reality nor that of the unreality of the world, but merely of relativity. It is, however, to be noted that the Middle Path propounded at Sarnath by the Buddha had an ethical meaning, while that of the Madhyamikas is a metaphysical concept.

The Yogacara School is another important branch of the Mahayana. It was so called because it emphasized the practice of yoga (meditation) as the most effective method for the attainment of the highest truth (Bodhi). All the ten stages of spiritual progress of Bodhisattahood have to be passed through before Bodhi can be attained. The ideal of the Mahayana school, therefore, is that of the Bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her own enlightenment in order to compassionately assist all other beings and ultimately attains to the highest Bodhi.

Theravada and Mahayana

Now, what are the difference between and Theravada and Mahayana? I have studied Theravada for many years and the more I study it, the more I find there is evidently any difference between Theravada and Mahayana, for example;

In Theravada School believe that one who attains the Arahant won’t have doubt to the Triple Gem, The Buddha, The Dhamma and The Sangha which called Tiratana. Second, one who attains the Arahant won’t have the bad dreams which make them emission of semen. Third, one who attains the Arahant is not depended on others who decide them. And fourth, one who attains the Arahant is not only saying “DUKKHA” but also has to know about the Four Noble Truths. But in Mahayana School believe that one who attains the Arahant still has the bad dreams and emission of semen. Second, one who attains the Arahant still has doubt to the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha or Tiratana. Third, one who attain the Arahant depends on others to decide it if they attain the Arahant. Fourth, one who attains the Arahant only says “DUKKHA.[6]”

But another one Theravada and Mahayana have some parts which are the same things, they are; both accept the Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher. Both of them believe exactly the Four Noble Truths. The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools. The Paticcasamuppada or the dependent Origination is the same in both schools. Both accept Anicca, Dukkha Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any difference. They are also some points where they differ. An obvious one is the Boddhisatta ideal. Many people say that Mahayana is for the Boddhisattahood which leads to Buddhahood while Theravada is for Arahantship. I must point out that the Buddha was also an arahant. Pacceka Buddha is also an Arahant. A disciple can also be an Arahant. The Mahayana texts never use the term arahant-yana, arahant vehicle. They used three terms; Boddhisattvayana, Prateka-Buddhayana, and Sravakayana[7].

Beside that the obviously one which is different is about Boddhisatta. In Theravada is only Metteya Boddhisatta accepted but in Mahayana so many Boddhisattas who accepted like Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Ksitigarbha, and Samantabadra are four very well know Boddhisatta beside Metteya Boddhisatta[8]. In Theravada School is focus of worship in the temple to the image of Sakyamuni Buddha but in Mahayana can be quite elaborate; with a chamber/ hall for Sakyamuni Buddha and two disciples, one hall for the three Buddhas including Amitabha and Medicine Buddha and one hall for the three key boddhisattas who is protector is mainly ideal in Mahayana School. In the organization of Buddhist scriptures, in Theravada School, the Pali Canon is divided into three baskets (Tipitaka): Vinaya Pitaka of five books, Sutta Pitaka of Five Collections (many Suttas) and Abhidhamma Pitaka of seven books. But in Mahayana Buddhist Canon also consists of Tripitaka od disciplines, discourses (sutras) and dharma analysis (Sadharma Pundarika Sutra). It usually organized in 12 divisions of topics like Cause and Conditions and Verses. It contains virtually all the Theravada Tipitaka and many sutras that the latter does not have.


In conclusion, although there are some differences between these 2 forms of Buddhism, the essential subject, which is the Teaching of the Buddha, remains the same. In the same way, men or women are to be able to attain Arahant. At the end of the day, we are one big group of living beings with brains. There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking[9]. So, both of them are the teaching of the Buddha which has different view about the teaching, preaching the difference way to Buddhist people to over the world. Eventually, Theravada and Mahayana School have developed in our world to practise the essential of the teaching of the Buddha. But they can live together to spread the teachings which is very important to the entire people in the world. It is the mainly purpose of them to make the world better a place for living. Buddhism is pluralism which has so many styles growing up in the world. It is our responsibility to share our thinking, our knowledge, and our experience, with as many as possible. So that ultimately we all see that the teaching of the Buddha, which is meant for the good of mankind, continues to reach mankind in every nook and corner of the world. The philosophical teaching of the Buddha were accompanied by an ever-increasing volume of imagery, including sculpted and painted images of the Buddha, Boddhisatta and deities of the Buddhist pantheon and depictions of the Buddhist cosmos. Temples, monasteries and reliquaries also involved as locations for the veneration of the Buddha and his teachings, and the wide range of rituals conducted by priests, monk and lay Buddhist led to the creation of numerous ritual objects decorated with Buddhist motifs and symbols[10].

[1]. The Teachings of the Buddha ( Basic Level ), Ministry of Religious Affairs Kaba-

Aye, Yangon, Myanmar

[2] . www. Buddhanet.net

[3] . http://www.buddhanet.net

[4] . A Survey of Paramattha Dhamma, by Sujin Boriharnwanaket, translated by Nina

Van Gorkom

[5] . The Wisdom of Compassion & Awakening, by Venerable Master Chin Kung

[6] . Mahayana Buddhism, by Abhichai Bodhiprasitsat (โดย อภิชัย โพธิ์ประสิทธิ์ศาสต์)

[7] . The book of Gem of Buddhist Wisdom by Ven.Dr. W. Rahula

[8] . www. Buddhanet.net

[9] . http://www.suanie.net/ Alfred Korzybski

[10] .Reading Buddhist Art, An illustrated guide to Buddhist signs & symbols, Meher