Comparison Charts

Compare Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

Over its long history, Buddhism has taken a wide variety of forms. The Mahayana tradition tends to emphasize rituals and the worship of deities, while the Theravada tradition rejects rituals and gods in favor of pure meditation. Yet all forms of Buddhism share respect for the teachings of the Buddha and the goal of ending suffering and the cycle of rebirth.

The following chart provides an introduction to the similarities and differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

 Mahayana BuddhismTheravada Buddhism
etymologySanskrit, "Great Vehicle"Pali, "School of the Elder Monks"
languagesSanskrit. Scriptures translated into local languages.Pali. Tripitaka is only in Pali. Teaching in Pali supplemented by local language.
main locationsNorthern (Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, parts of Southeast Asia)Southern (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, parts of Southeast Asia)
InfluencesHeavily influenced by local religious ideas as transmitted to new cultures (China, Japan, Tibet).Mainly pre-Buddhist Indian influences like concepts of karma, sangha, etc.
branches8 major schools: four practice-based (Zen, Pure Land, Vajrayana, Vinaya); four philosophy-based (Tendai, Avamtasaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika)One surviving school (as many as 18 existed at one time)
textsTripitaka plus many other sutras (e.g. Lotus Sutra)Pali Canon/Tripitaka only
BuddhasGautama Buddha plus Amitabha, Medicine Buddhas, and othersHistorical Buddha (Gautama) and past Buddhas only
BodhisattvasMaitreya, Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and SamanthabadraMaitreya only
goal of practiceBuddhahood via bodhisattva pathArhat
TrikayaEmphasized, including the samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment bodyVery limited emphasis; mainly on nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya
 Mahayana BuddhismTheravada Buddhism
Buddha's disciplesMany bodhisattvas that are not historical figuresHistorical disciples described in Scriptures
buddha-natureEmphasized, especially in practice-based schoolsNot taught
bardoTaught by all schoolsRejected
practicesMany, owing to local cultural influencesVery few; not emphasized
mantrasEmphasized in Vajrayana; sometimes incorporated in other schoolsSome equivalent in the use of Parittas

Article Info

Title Compare Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism
Last UpdatedFebruary 13, 2021
MLA Citation “Compare Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.” 13 Feb. 2021. Web. Accessed 8 Mar. 2021. <>