Theravada Vs. Mahayana (Part III )

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (also known as Tantrayana) are three major branches of Buddhism that have evolved over centuries, each with its distinct philosophies, practices, and historical developments. While all three share a common foundation in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, they have diverged in their interpretations, scriptures, and approaches to enlightenment or eternal liberation. Understanding the differences between Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana is essential for appreciating the diversity and complexity of Buddhist traditions worldwide. 

In our past two segments titled, ‘Theravada vs. Mahayana’, we explained the growth and spread of various Buddhist schools and sects and how they originated. We also explained how the early teachings of Gautama Buddha were derived into two main schools, Southern Buddhism and Northern Buddhism. 

We also presented to you the story of Mahayana and Vajrayana in Sri Lanka and how measures were taken by Sinhalese monarchs and monks to control the spread of Mahayana and Vajrayana in Sri Lanka. However, we also said that despite these many efforts, sometimes violent measures by Sinhalese kings, Mahayana and Vajrayana spread in Sri Lanka for a short period. Yet, Theravada Buddhism or the Southern Buddhist Tradition, also known as the Maha Vihara Theravada Tradition succeeded in securing its place in Sri Lanka and becoming the evergreen stronghold of Theravada Buddhism in the entire world. 

Theravada, Mahayana and Tantrayana; basic differences

Theravada Buddhism:

Theravada, which translates to ‘the teaching of the elders,’ is often regarded as the oldest surviving school of Buddhism. It traces its roots to the early Buddhist communities of ancient India and emphasises the original teachings of the historical Buddha preserved in the Pali Canon, known as the Tipitaka. Theravada practitioners strive for personal enlightenment through the practice of meditation, moral conduct, and the cultivation of wisdom.

Key characteristics of Theravada Buddhism:

Emphasis on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as the foundational teachings for liberation from suffering.

Focus on individual liberation (arhatship) through the attainment of nirvana, the cessation of suffering.

Monasticism plays a central role, with monks and nuns dedicated to the pursuit of enlightenment through meditation, study, and ethical living.

Meditation practices such as Vipassana (insight meditation) and Samatha 

(calm-abiding meditation) are essential for developing mindfulness and concentration.

Emphasis on the original teachings of the Pali Canon and adherence to the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct.

Mahayana Buddhism:

Mahayana, meaning ‘the great vehicle,’ emerged as a distinct Buddhist tradition around the 1st century CE and spread across East Asia, including China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Unlike Theravada, Mahayana texts incorporate a vast corpus of scriptures known as the Mahayana suttas, which emphasise compassion, wisdom, and the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Key characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism:

Emphasis on the bodhisattva ideal, in which practitioners aspire to achieve Buddhahood not only for their own liberation but also for the welfare of all beings.

Recognition of multiple Buddhas and celestial bodhisattvas, such as Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri, who embody compassion and wisdom.

Teachings on emptiness (shunyata) emphasise the interdependent nature of reality and the illusory nature of the self.

Embrace of skilful means (upaya) to expedite the liberation of sentient beings, including devotional practices, chanting, and visualisation.

Openness to diverse interpretations and cultural expressions, leading to the development of various Mahayana schools and traditions, including Pure Land, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism.

Vajrayana Buddhism (Tantrayana):

Vajrayana, often referred to as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, emerged as a distinct tradition within Mahayana Buddhism and flourished in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Bhutan, and Mongolia. Vajrayana teachings are rooted in the Mahayana suttas but also incorporate esoteric rituals, meditation techniques, and tantric practices aimed at achieving enlightenment in this lifetime.

Key characteristics of Vajrayana Buddhism:

Emphasis on the transformative power of tantric practices, including deity yoga, mantra recitation, and visualisation, to awaken one’s innate Buddha nature.

Use of ritual implements (such as vajras and bells) and sacred symbols (such as mandalas and mudras) to facilitate spiritual transformation and ritual purity.

Transmission of teachings through a lineage of realised masters (lama) and initiations (empowerments) that empower practitioners to engage in advanced tantric practices.

Integration of esoteric symbolism and ritual into daily life, including practices aimed at harnessing the subtle energies (prana) of the body and mind.

Emphasis on the unity of wisdom (prajna) and skilful means (upaya), to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime through the direct realisation of emptiness and the union of bliss and emptiness.

Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana represent three distinct yet interconnected branches of Buddhism, each offering unique paths to awakening and liberation. While Theravada emphasises individual liberation through the cultivation of wisdom and moral conduct, Mahayana emphasises compassion and the bodhisattva ideal, while Vajrayana employs esoteric practices and rituals to expedite the attainment of enlightenment. Despite their differences, these traditions share a common commitment to the teachings of the Buddha and the alleviation of suffering for all sentient beings.

To know more about the philosophical and ideological differences between Theravada Nirvana and Mahayana ‘Nirvruthiya’, we contacted a well-known Sri Lankan scholar who has researched on Buddhist philosophy extensively, Senior Lecturer Sumedha Weerawardhana. He is a senior lecturer attached to the Department of Philosophy, University of Peradeniya. Weerawardhana has conducted extensive research about various philosophies and the philosophical differences between various Buddhist sects and is the author of a number of research publications.

Weerawardhana explained that the Vinaya followed by all Northern and Southern Buddhist sects is Theravada Vinaya thus, interlinking all Buddhist schools together. However, due to the evolutions of practices and rituals, as Buddhism spread across the globe, various ideological and philosophical changes occurred in these Buddhist schools and sects. 

Theravada liberation and Mahayana liberation

“According to Professor S.A.G. Wijesinghe, four positions on nirvana explained in the Lankavathara Sutta have been held by the Madhyamika, Theravada, Sarvastivada (Vaibhasika) schools respectively. He has not made it clear whether the last two positions, the third and the fourth, belong to the Vaibhasikas. According to the Lankavathara Sutta, Nirvana is the cessation of mental consciousness which is the source of alternation.”

It is not intended here to carry out a detailed discussion of the varieties of Nirvana shown in the Lankavathara Sutta and the scholarly opinions about them. Here it was necessary to point out that there are contradictions in various Mahayana traditions about Nirvana and the liberated person.

Accordingly, it was stated before that Ven. Nagarjuna Thera, who influenced many Mahayana scholars, rejected the idea that Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha exists eternally. It is also clear that the Lankavatara Sutta has rejected the mediumistic position on nirvana. 

“We should expect the existence of such contradictions in the Mahayana, which was formed by all the monks who belonged to the Northern Theravada and Mahasanghika schools, which held different ideologies.”

“From the discussion so far, it is clear that various schools of Mahasanghika that spread northward from India and splintered from Northern Theravada became the current Mahayana and Tantrayana Buddhist traditions. But it is also clear that both these Mahayana and Tantrayana traditions are followed in the practice of Vinayakarma by two northern Theravada schools, Dharmaguptaka and Mulasarvastiva Vinaya Pitaka”, explained Weerawardhana. 

It is also clear that the Mahasanghika and Northern Theravada schools had to compete with powerful religious philosophies in spreading to regions and countries within and outside India. 

Weerawardhana also said that it is clear that the Mahayana and Tantrayana teachings have taken on a different nature from the basic Buddhist teachings because of that and because the monks belonging to those schools, do not have a strong desire to protect the basic teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha. 

Simultaneously, the Pali tradition or the Mahaviharaya Theravada Tradition, which spread southward from India and spread to Southeast Asia based on Sri Lanka, seems to have taken a different path. In Sri Lanka and other countries where it spread, the Tradition did not have to contend with strong religious and philosophical systems. It is also a special feature that the monks who belong to that Tradition have a keen interest and commitment to protecting the basic dharma discipline.

“Another special feature is the existence of a historical tradition based on the Mahavamsa written from the fifth century until now in Sri Lanka, and the existence of the Maha Vihara Theravada Buddhism”, said Weerawardhana.

Therefore, it is also clear that there are fundamental differences between nirvana, which is the absolute nishtava found in the works belonging to the Maha Vihara Theravada Tradition, and nirvritya, which is mentioned in the Mahayana Tradition. 

“The ideologies against the great arahants who sacrificed their lives and preserved the dharma discipline gradually developed and it became more apparent through the Nirvrti of the Mahayana. But even in the basic Mahayana traditions of liberation and the liberated person, there are conflicting interpretations”, concluded Weerawardhana. 

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