Foundations and Transformations of Buddhism: An Overview
John M. Koller

Mahayana and Theravada

Several distinct Buddhist traditions were in existence by as early as the late third century BCE. Generally speaking, these traditions can be categorized in two ways: Mahayana and Theravada. (Note: “Theravada” is the name of the sole surviving school of the so-called Eighteen Schools that made up what the Mahayana tradition came to refer to pejoratively as “Hinayana” Buddhism. For the sake of clarity, we are using Theravada here to refer to all forms of non-Mahayana Buddhism.) By the second century there was already a significant Mahayana literature, some of which clearly expressed a sense of superiority over the “Hiniyana”/Theravada tradition.

The Mahayana initially developed in India but then spread to Central Asia , Tibet , and China . From China it spread to Korea , Vietnam , and Japan , bringing most of East Asia under its influence. Although there are significant differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, they share much in common, namely, their commitment to the central teaching of the Noble Fourfold Truth and the Noble Eightfold Path (see “Central Teachings”); their emphasis on establishing mindfulness as the heart of their practice; and their acceptance of the Buddha, the Teaching ( Dharma ) and the Community ( Sangha ) as the triple refuge of practice.


Differences Between Mahayana and Theravada

If we were to compare fully developed Chinese Mahayana Buddhism in the seventh or eighth century with Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka at the same time, we could categorize their major differences according to their answers to seven important questions: (1) Who is the Buddha? (2) Which are the essential teachings? (3) Who is a member of the Buddhist community? (4) At what ideal should one aim? (5) What path should one follow? (6) In what does one have faith? (7) What is the nature of reality?

The Buddha
The Buddha is first and foremost the historical person Siddhartha Gautama, who achieved enlighten-ment in the 6th century BCE
Emphasizes the timeless nature of the Buddha as the indwelling truth and enlightenment of reality. The historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama is merely one of innumerable manifestations of the eternal Buddha.
Essential Teachings
Emphasizes the instructions given by the historical Buddha Siddhartha regarding the Way and its practice as the essential teachings
Places greater emphasis on the Buddha's teaching by example, stressing, for example the importance of compassion. Since the Mahayanists saw the teachings as being presented in different forms at different times, they created a whole new literature. Therefore, the collected teachings of the Mahayana tradition is more than twice the size of the Theravada.
Buddhist Community
Primary members are members of the monastic community of monks and nuns; lay persons are of inferior status, incapable of attaining enlightenment
Status of lay persons is elevated; lay practitioners are fully capable of attaining enlightenment
Ideal is to become an Arhant , a person worthy of attaining nirvana because of personal attainment
Ideal is to become a Bodhisattva , an enlightened being dedicated to ending the suffering of all others.
The Path
Emphasizes the Noble Eightfold Path
Reformulated the Eightfold Path as the path of the paramitas , the surpassing virtues that will carry all beings to Nirvana. (The six paramitas are generosity, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom.)
Faith in the Buddha, his teachings, and the power of the community
Added a host of celestial beings; devotion to these beings is regarded as sufficient to attain nirvana
Emphasizes the reality of what is experienced in meditation as the ultimate truth
Emphasizes the emptiness of all things and persons


Analysis of these seven differences reveals that the Mahayana did not reject the basic teachings and practices of early Buddhism; rather they added practices and teachings that provided a new emphasis on becoming Buddha-like and practicing compassionate efforts to enlighten others.


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