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Differences Between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

The Buddha Only the historical Gautama (Sakyamuni) Buddha and past buddhas are accepted. Besides Sakyamuni Buddha, other contemporary buddhas like Amitabha and Medicine Buddha are also very popular.
Bodhisattvas Only Maitreya bodhisattva is accepted. Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra are four very well known bodhisattvas besides Maitreya.
Objective of training Arahant or pacceka-buddha. Buddhahood (via bodhisattva path).
Organisation of Buddhist scriptures


The Pali Canon is divided into 3 baskets (Tipitaka): Vinaya Pitaka of 5 books, Sutta Pitaka of 5 collections (many suttas) and Abhidhamma Pitaka of 7 books.


The Mahayana Buddhist Canon also consists of Tripitaka of disciplines, discourses (sutras) and dharma analysis. It is usually organised in 12 divisions of topics like Cause and Conditions and Verses. It contains virtually all the Theravada Tipikata and many sutras that the latter does not have.
Concept of Bodhicitta Main emphasis is self liberation.
There is total reliance on one-self to eradicate all defilements.
Besides self liberation, it is important for Mahayana followers to help other sentient beings.
Trikaya concept Very limited emphasis on the 3 bodies of a buddha. References are mainly on nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya. Very well mentioned in Mahayana buddhism. Samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment body completes the Trikaya concept.
Transmission route Southern transmission: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia. Northern transmission: Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and parts of Southeast Asia.


Language of dharma teaching Tipitaka is strictly in Pali. Dharma teaching in Pali supplemented by local language. Buddhist canon is translated into the local language (except for the 5 untranslatables), e.g. Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese. Original language of transmission is Sanskrit.
(Nibbana in Pali)
No distinction is made between nirvana attained by a buddha and that of an arahat or pacceka buddha. Also known as 'liberation from Samsara,' there are subtle distinctions in the level of attainment for the three situations.
Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples Basically historical disciples, whether arahats or commoners. A lot of bodhisattvas are introduced by Sakyamuni Buddha. Most of these are not historical figures.
Rituals and liturgy There are some rituals but not heavily emphasized as in Mahayana schools. Owing to local cultural influences, there is much more emphais on the use of rituals; e.g. Rituals for the deceased, feeding of Petas, tantric formalities (in Vajrayana).
Use of Mantras and Mudras Some equivalent in the use of Parittas. Heavily practised in the Vajrayana school of Mahayana Buddhism. Other schools also have included some mantras in their daily lithurgy.
Dying and death aspects Very little research and knowledge on the process of dying and death. Usually, the dying persons are advised to meditate on impermanence, suffering and emptiness. The Vajrayana school is particularly meticulous in these areas. There are many inner and external signs manifested by people before they die. There is heavy stress in doing transference of merit practices in the immediate few weeks following death to assist in the deceased's next rebirth.


This in-between stage after death and before rebirth is ignored in Theravada school.

All Mahayana schools teach this after death aspect.
One meal a day practice This the norm among Theravada sanghas. This is a highly respected practice but it is left to the disposition of each individual in the various sanghas.
Vegetarianism This aspect is not necessary. In places like Thailand where daily morning rounds are still practised, it is very difficult to insist on the type of food to be donated Very well observed in all Mahayana schools (except the Tibetans due to the geographical circumstances). However, this aspect is not compulsory.
Focus of worship in the temple Simple layout with the image of Sakyamuni Buddha the focus of worship. Can be quite elaborate; with a chamber/hall for Sakyamuni Buddha and two disciples, one hall for the 3 Buddhas (including Amitabha and Medicine Buddha) and one hall for the 3 key bodhisattvas; besides the protectors, etc.
Schools/Sects of the tradition One surviving major school following years of attrition reducing the number from as high as 18. 8 major (Chinese) schools based on the partial doctrines (sutras, sastras or vinaya) of the teachings. The four schools inclined towards practices like Pure Land/Amitabha, Ch'an, Vajrayana and Vinaya (not for lay people) are more popular than the philosophy based schools like Tien Tai, Avamtasaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika.


Non Buddhist influences

Mainly pre-Buddhism Indian/Brahmin influences. Many terms like karma, sangha, etc were prevailing terms during Sakyamuni Buddha's life time. References were made from the Vedas and Upanishads.

In the course of integration and adoption by the people in other civilizations, there were heavy mutual influences. In China, both Confucianism and Taoism exerted some influence on Buddhism which in turn had an impact on the indigenous beliefs. This scenario was repeated in Japan and Tibet.
Buddha nature
Absent from the teachings of Theravada tradition.

Heavily stressed, particularly by schools inclined practices.

[Compiled by Tan Swee Eng]

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