Buddhism, a religion based more on the moral living of the life, was founded by Gautama Buddha more than two centuries ago. Though Buddha did not leave any written record of his preaching, Buddhism is one of the greatest religions in the world. Being inspired by the life and the teaching of Buddha, Buddhism spread widely to the ‘great variety of cultural and geographical regions’ (Neusner, 2010).
There exist two major communities in the followers of Buddhism: Theravadas and Mahayanas. However, needless to say, when the Buddha taught the world, he did not create the difference of Theravada and Mahayana as such.
In this essay, the attempt will be to shed light on the what these branches are and what similarities and differences they have. As is seen in the major world religions that they have separate faith communities within the same religion, Buddhism too has this division. However, despite having the differences in the opinion and practices, both believe in the core teaching of Buddhism.
Before the mahaprinirvana the Buddha had told his disciples that if Sangha wants to make any changes in the minor rules, they could make it. But W. Rahula (1998) says that he did not indicate what minor rules were. After the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, there remained some divided opinions regarding the amendment of the rules. In the first council, they had some reservations regarding the rules of vinaya but as the Buddha had just got his mahaparinirvana, his disciples decided not to change any rules (Appleton, 2010).
But, in the second council that took after 100 years, people wanted to discuss about the changes in the rules of Vinaya, the older monks in the sangha insisted that the rules would not be changed. And as a result, Appleton (2010) says that some monks left the assembly and called themselves Mahasanghika but it was also not the Mahayana. In the third assembly, the council head compiled the book refuting all the disagreements of the people and people followed this which was called Theravada. And regarding the emergence of Mahayanas, Conze(2008) writes:
The Mahásanghikas were in the course of time led to an increasing scepticism about the value of verbalized and conceptualized knowledge. Some of them taught that all worldly things are unreal, as a result of the perverted views. Only that which transcends worldly things and can be called “emptiness”, being the absence of all of them, is real. Others said that everything, both worldly and supramundane, both absolute and relative, both Samsára and Nirvana, is fictitious and unreal and that all we have got is a number of verbal expressions to which nothing real corresponds. In this way the Mahásanghikas early implanted the seeds which came to fruition in Maháyána Buddhism in the second period. (20) He is also of the opinion that the socio-cultural background of the origin of Mahayana Buddhism were the literatures that told about the life of Buddha, faith in stupa worshipping and the prevalent conservatism in Theravada Buddhism.
Buddhists of whatever belief of school come to an agreement that the religion includes the three main aspects of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (Conze, 2008). Both schools believe that Guatama Buddha as the founder of the Buddhism. Many scholars who have studied Buddhism find more similarities than differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. As per their understanding, despite the differences in terms of the practices and notions of observing, both believe in the fundamental principles of Buddhism. Both Theravada and Mahayanas believe in the Four Noble Truth (the truth of suffering, the truth of the causes of suffering, the truth of the cessation of the suffering, the truth of the path to the cessation of the suffering) and the Eight-Fold Path (Right view, thought, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and meditation). As found in the other religion, it is also a common issue in Buddhism that one group of people find the other group as corrupted, polluted and deviated from the true inspiration from the god. Another similarity found in both is in the belief in the scripture. Both believe in Tripitika, the Buddha’s original teachings recorded years after he passed away. However, the Mahayanas believe in other scriptures called Sutras which are not included in Pali canon. (Appleton, 2008).
One of the notable similarities found in both is the notion of Nirvana. The only way possible to get rid of the circle of Samsara, the circle of birth and death. Both believe in the enlightenment as the source to reach to the Nirvana. However, here comes a contrast in the belief in the mode of achieving this. Mahayanas believe that “the bodhisattva path” can take the people from the cycle of life and death and those who have achieved not only get rid of it, but they should also help the commoners to get this enlightenment (Hanh, 1998). The difference that marks between the Theravadas and Mahayanas is the way of achieving the enlightenment. While Theravadas believe in the enlightenment of an individual, being an Arhat, the individual effort is needed and there should not be the influence of the outsiders, Mahayanas believe in individual effort for enlightenment but they believe in the possibility of the enlightenment of “all” through the path of Bodhisattva (Hanh, 1998). For Theravadas the common people also can achieve the enlightenment, but they should also be following the path of the monastic life for the pursuit and achievement of the enlightenment. Unlike, Theravadas, Mahayans believe that everyone can follow the path of Bodhisattava. However, they also believe like Theravadas that one needs to have true devotion and dedication for that achievement (Walpola, 1974).
In terms of meditations also they differ. Theravadas believe in the pure form of meditation whereas Mahayanas perform this with the chanting of the songs offering to the Buddha. The Theravadas also insist on the monastic life for the meditation and are of the belief the Buddha once came to life and was enlightened and now there does not exist any incarnation of Buddha. He was just one and no one can replace him. Theravadas believe that the true way for being the ‘Arahat’, a worthy person one should dedicate himself to the rigorous life and should abstain from all the worldly affairs or the evils to achieve the enlightenment (Hanh,1998).
In terms of geography, the Theravadas and Mahayanas are divided. The Theravadas are found mostly in the southern part of the Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and therefore also called the ‘Southern Buddhism’. Mahayanas comprise of more than 60 percent of all Buddhists who are found in China, Taiwan, Nepal, Japan, Korea, Mongolia etc. (Conze, 2008). This is sometimes referred to as ‘Eastern Buddhism’.
Some scholars believe, unlike the common people’s notion that traditionalists (Theravadas) have existed first and the reformist or innovators came later, that both view always exist from the very beginning and therefore it is not necessary to address one as pure and another as deviated or modern. (Kalupahana, 2006). He is also of the opinion that not only the Pali canon but also the Sutras of Mahayanas resembles aspects of the preaching of the Buddha.
Buddhism is a major world religion and it too has communities divided into two different beliefs as we see in the other religions also. Both have similarities in terms of the fundamental and core teaching of the Buddha. However, we find a lot of differences in terms of practices, way of life, belief. To be precise, there are some explicit differences but, in some differences, also we can find the underlying similarities. It should also be mentioned that neither of them is superior or inferior in themselves, they are just different or somehow similar in whatever way they are seen.