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published: 3/17/04
updated: 7/26/13

Theravada vs. Mahayana Buddhism



What's the Difference?

lotus flower
Zen Symbol

Buddhism is one of the oldest religions in the world, and while adherents agree on many fundamental aspects of the religion, there are is also some diversity. Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are different schools of Buddhist thought that sometimes have different convictions, different sources of authority, and different practices. The chart below is intended to help the reader begin to understand similarities and differences of these two Buddhist paths.

 
Theravada
Mahayana
Location Southern (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, parts of Southeast Asia)Northern (Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, parts of Southeast Asia )
  See Buddhist history
Schools and Sects One surviving school (as many as 18 existed at one time) 8 major schools: four practice-based (Zen, Pure Land, Vajrayana, Vinaya); four philosophy-based (Tendai, Avamtasaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika)
Buddhist Scriptures Pali Canon/Tripitaka only Books of the Theravada Tripitaka plus many other sutras (e.g. Lotus Sutra)
  See Buddhist texts
Buddhas Historical Buddha (Gautama) and past Buddhas only Gautama Buddha plus Amitabha, Medicine Buddhas, and others
  See Life of Buddha
Bodhisattvas Maitreya only Maitreya plus Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra
Goal of Training Arhat Buddhahood via bodhisattva-path
3 Buddha Bodies (Trikaya) Very limited emphasis; mainly on nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya Emphasized, including the samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment body





Original Language Pali Sanskrit
Language of Transmission Tripitaka is only in Pali. Teaching in Pali supplemented by local language. Scriptures translated into local language.
Buddha's Disciples Historical disciples described in Scriptures Many bodhisattvas that are not historical figures
Mantras and Mudras Some equivalent in the use of Parittas Emphasized in Vajrayana; sometimes incorporated in other schools
  See Meditation in Buddhism

See Mantras in Buddhism
Bardo (Limbo) Rejected Taught by all schools
Non-Buddhist Influences Mainly pre-Buddhist Indian influences like concepts of karma, sangha, etc. Heavily influenced by local religious ideas as transmitted to new cultures (China, Japan, Tibet).
Buddha Nature Not taught Emphasized, especially in practice-based schools
Rituals Very few; not emphasized Many, owing to local cultural influences

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