Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism: A Fresh Perspective

The Buddha's Arahats 3

(Taken recently with permission at Kannon-ji temple in Japan, this shows some of the Buddha’s “arahat” disciples. Sorry for the poor quality. The room was very dark, and I only had a camera phone.)

Hi all,

Folks who are new to Buddhism usually become aware that there are two broad “traditions”: the Theravada and Mahayana. These traditions are not quite the same as you find in other religious traditions, they are not born out of schism or mutual ex-communication. Purely in terms of geography, Mahayana can be thought of as “Northern Buddhism” because it is much more common in Asian countries north of India: Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, Japan and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Theravada can be thought of as “Southern Buddhism”: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos. A lot of the issue is geography, but there are differences in style and thought as well.

In high school when I was 16, I first became interested in Buddhism and remember reading textbook definitions that seem kind of naive and inaccurate now. “The Mahayana Buddhists were focused on compassion and their ideal was the bodhisattva; the Theravada Buddhists were focused on wisdom and their ideal is the arahant.” This is what such books sounded like to me.

It’s a persistent stereotype that confuses a lot of new people to Buddhism. Thankfully, I recently found a great article by Bhikkhu Bodhi that challenges this view with a very well-written, thorough explanation of both schools and their origins. Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, for those not familiar, is a Theravadin Buddhist scholar that worked a lot with the late Venerable Yin-Shun, a Mahayana Buddhist scholar from Taiwan. I deeply revere both men myself within the Buddhist world a lot more than slick-talking gurus you sometimes see on the Internet. My blog has a lot of posts over the years talking about their writings. 🙂

Anyhow, I high recommend reading all of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article if you can, but it is pretty long and scholarly. If you don’t have the time, consider reading Section V if possible. It begins with the line:

I said above that each extreme attitude — “Nikāya purism” and “Mahāyāna elitism” — neglects facts that are discomforting to their respective points of view.

I had never heard of either term, but they’re both kind of appropriate in describing certain attitudes that one sees in Theravada and Mahayana. “Nikāya purism” as Bhikkhu Bodhi describes earlier:

An opposing attitude common among conservative advocates of the Nikāyas rejects all later developments in the history of Buddhist thought as deviation and distortion, a fall away from the “pristine purity” of the ancient teaching. I call this attitude “Nikāya purism.” Taking the arahant ideal alone as valid, Nikāya purists reject the bodhisattva ideal, sometimes forcefully and even aggressively.

and of “Mahāyāna elitism”:

Now some people argue that because the arahant is the ideal of Early Buddhism, while the bodhisattva is the ideal of later Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Mahāyāna must be a more advanced or highly developed type of Buddhism, a more ultimate teaching compared to the simpler, more basic teaching of the Nikāyas. That is indeed an attitude common among Mahāyānists, which I will call “Mahāyāna elitism.”

Indeed in the Buddhist community you can see this attitude among some disciples, both past and present. Unlike some other religions, the two branches have never had conflict or wars, but unfortunately, Buddhist texts sometimes contain childish or snippy comments about the other. Occasionally, you meet a Buddhist teacher or disciple who wants to vent his spleen on the other. It happens when people get too worked up for religion. As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

It is much simpler to adopt either a standpoint of “Nikāya purism” or one of “Mahāyāna elitism” and hold to it without flinching. The problem with these two standpoints, however, is that both are obliged to neglect facts that are discomforting to their respective points of view.

Anyhow, the rest of the article helps to explain why these two strains of thought even exist at all, and then carefully shows how the differences are often greatly exaggerated. It’s clear that the Nikāyas, the core texts in the Theravadin tradition (i.e. the Pali Canon) and in the Mahayana tradition (the Agama Sutra), are the oldest and most historically accurate of the Buddhist texts. One would have to be very naive to believe that the Mahayana sutras that came after are literal, historical teachings of the Buddha.1 But Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article also shows how both have their blind spots and their virtues.

In the end, he argues:

The kind of tolerance that is needed is one that respects the authenticity of Early Buddhism so far as we can determine its nature from the oldest historical records, yet can also recognize the capacity of Buddhism to undergo genuine historical transformations that bring to manifestation hidden potentials of the ancient teaching, transformations not necessarily preordained to arise from the early teaching but which nevertheless enrich the tradition springing from the Buddha as its fountainhead.

Indeed, if you read Yin-Shun’s book, The Way to Buddhahood, he describes his approach as “humanistic Buddhism”, which is essentially Mahayana in nature, but strongly rooted in the historical Buddhist tradition as well. I think this is a good model for future generations.

For my part, I think the comment about transformation by Bhikkhu Bodhi is also very true. I noticed a while back while reading certain Mahayana sutras, that they often sound like summaries or “re-hashing” of earlier texts. This is not always the case, since some Mahayana sutras are very focused and topical, but for example, try reading the last-half of the Immeasurable Life Sutra. The first half sounds like a typical Mahayana sutra, replete with dramatic narrative and language, but the second-half which most people don’t read, is a good summary of the Buddhist doctrine in general, the Four Noble Truths, the impermanence of existence, the importance of conduct, etc. I don’t believe that the Mahayana Buddhists abandoned the original teachings, but they can get somewhat obscured in the dramatic narrative sometimes if you are not familiar with the text. Likewise, the Theravadin Arhat isn’t just a guy who has a lot of wisdom, but really embodies the virtues of teaching the Dharma to others, and being selfless having uprooted the conceit of self.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, the key to healing the Buddhist community is recognizing the virtues of both, and also recognizing that both contain the same truths, but may express them somewhat differently.

Namu Amida Butsu

1 To be fair, past Buddhists didn’t have the benefit of modern archeology and very, very few had ever been to India. So, many did believe the Mahayana sutras were literal and historical, but I can’t fault them for it.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism: A Fresh Perspective”

  1. I’ve read the article by Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi of which you speak, and have found it a great inspiration in a way. As a result of it, and probably other expositions that are similarly open-minded, I have felt incredible freedom to explore Buddhism more fully, regardless of schools or traditions, even though I would probably identify myself as observing the Theravada tradition, primarily if asked.

    Not that identifying myself as Theravada (or anything else, for that matter) has any intrinsic value anyway. Ha!

    A great post, my friend. Be well!


    1. Hi Hickersonia,

      Yeah, I think the identity issue doesn’t really matter after a while, but I guess it helps explain where you draw the most inspiration. I tend to find the most inspiration from Mahayana sources, but for “logisitical” stuff, I tend to find the Theravada teachings most useful.


  2. Great post Doug, I have often said I have a Mahayana body and a Theravada mind but in truth Shakyamuni from the begining was attempting to lead us away from our dulistic thinking and that both schools have helped me towards that end.


  3. Hi Timetales,

    I agree that both have been helpful for me. Though I consider my base as “Mahayana”, I’ve learned a lot by going back “to the source”, which Theravada Buddhism has been very helpful with.


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