Mahayana vs Theravada Buddhism, the differences, and the similarities. Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism are somewhat extreme in their differences yet still adhere to the basic Buddhism beliefs as taught by the Buddha.
Within four centuries after the Buddha there were eighteen sects of Buddhism. All of those traditions are now extinct except for Theravada. The entire Mahayana doctrine was not actually taught by the Buddha. The Theravada tradition was carried forward by monks that did not want to deviate from the Buddha's teachings.
The Theravada Tradition
Theravada is the only survivor among the early schools of Buddhism. It is the oldest and most orthodox school or Buddhist tradition. It has also remained conservative as it was not influenced as much by indigenous beliefs of the countries it traveled to. Whereas the Mahayana school is very much influenced by cultural beliefs. Take for example, Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon religion.
The Theravada tradition has survived intact from the five hundred elders who followed in the tradition of the monks of the First Buddhist Council. Theravada has no hierarchical authority structure. Seniority, though, is respected in the Sangha. The Pali canon, the Tipitaka in Pali or Tripitaka in Sanskrit is the authoritative scripture. This work contains the complete teachings of the Buddha.
In my opinion it is best to follow the Buddha's teachings without bias towards any one tradition. This may be difficult depending on your culture. But, the great teachers from all traditions transcend any bias.
The Theravada path is interesting because it does stick to the basics as much as possible. It is a living tradition with an unbroken lineage going back to the historical Buddha himself.
Theravada Buddhism is the main religion of continental Southeast Asia -Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka since its arrival.
The Mahayana Tradition
Mahayana Buddhism contains much of the Buddha's teachings but it is mixed with other philosophical beliefs so that it has a different view leading to a slightly different goal. Compared to the Theravada tradition both follow and honor Shakyamuni Buddha. The Theravada followers do not recognize the various celestial Buddhas and gods that are associated with Mahayana Buddhism.
Basically, Theravada is the more orthodox form of Buddhism while Mahayana has accepted the layperson. Some general differences are the Bodhisattva-hood in Mahayana and the Arahantship in Theravada. It is considered that the Theravada tradition teaches enlightenment that for the most part is dependent on the individual. Mahayana teaches that enlightenment is possible with and for all sentient beings through the assistance of Bodhisattva's.
The Mahayana tradition has given rise to various other traditions such as Ch'an, Zen, Tibetan, Vajrayana, et cetera. It is the more popular tradition if one considers the above list as 'Mahayana'. These traditions may well consider themselves their own tradition.
Mahayana vs Theravada
Theravada Buddhism Beliefs
The name Theravada means 'the teachings of the elders', or 'the way of the elders'. It is based mainly on the Pali Tipitaka texts. These texts are the oldest and most complete record of the Buddhist teachings. Theravada is said to be more monastic.
Theravada only believes in Shakyamuni Buddha and the previous Buddhas. Few if any Bodhisattvas exist. There is no difference between the nirvana attained by the Buddha and that of the practitioner. There are fewer rituals.
Mahayana Buddhism Beliefs
Mahayana is more expansionist. As a result changes as the times change. It is intended to include all people in order to help all sentient beings in attaining Buddhahood. It is not just for the monastic.
Mahayana recognizes Shakyamuni Buddha as well as other contemporary Buddhas such as Amitabha and Medicine Buddha. Many Bodhisattvas exist such as Avalokitesvara as well as others. Nirvana tends to be attained at varying levels. There are many rituals.
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