Differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism?
July 14, 2009 3:59 PM   Subscribe

What are the basic differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?

I have an inkling as to some of the very general regional and historical differences between the two, but what are some of the major philosophical differences?
posted by ninotchka to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Mahayana Buddhism is basically more accessible to the masses. More emphasis is placed on bodhisattvas in a way similar to the role of saints in the Catholic (but not broader Christian) religion. Basically, and I'm sure someone else will be along shortly to explain this more eloquently, Theravada Buddhism is more purist and individual (if Christian analogues help, it's more like radical Protestantism), while Mahayana more resembles other world religions in terms of deities, rituals, etc.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:04 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The central soteriological focus of Theravada ("Vehicle of the Elders") is one's self--attaining enlightenment and release from the cycle of rebirth. The central soteriological focus of the so-called "great vehicle"--Mahayana--is on all beings. That is to say, the idea is to release all sentient beings from the cycle of rebirth before you take your own leave.
posted by everichon at 4:35 PM on July 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Actually Theravada is "teachings of the elders" according to wikipedia while Mahayana is indeed "greater vehicle" (maha is the same indo-european root as mega).

From an outsider's perspective, the mahayana tradition has become a more watered-down "pop" religion designed to integrate with everyday life better than theravada, which AFAICT is hard-core, inward-looking, and outside world-repellant.

The difference is arguably parallel to pentecostal christianity vs. orthodox judaism.

The Mahayana Pure Land school has interesting parallels with early Pauline Christianity in terms of popular evangelical and focus on eternal salvation / perfection after death. Theravada is more similar to the monastic / hermetic tradition of early Christianity.
posted by @troy at 5:11 PM on July 14, 2009

I think of the distinction as being between two literal vehicles, say ferryboats which can take me from here to the yonder shore. On a big ferry boat (Mahayana), everyone can ride on a little ferryboat (Theravada/hinayana), only a few people can travel: the elders/saints/those who have been working really hard.
posted by shothotbot at 5:19 PM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

@troy, everichon was in a Zen monastery for 2.5 years.
posted by Houstonian at 5:56 PM on July 14, 2009

I had been told Hinayana translated as the "narrow path" where the rules and procedures dominated. It was a Zen Buddist who told me. They were focused on the daily schedule.
posted by pointilist at 6:41 PM on July 14, 2009

'Hinayana' has been out of favor in academic circles for some time--it translates as "lesser vehicle", and was reputedly coined pejoratively by a Mahayana sect.

While it is true that certain instances of Theravadin monastic practice place a large emphasis on minute regulation of monks' daily routines, that is just as true for certain Mahayana monastic traditions. Both are an admixture of the vinaya pitaka and whatever local culture a given tradition congealed in.
posted by everichon at 7:55 PM on July 14, 2009

Also, yeah--'vada' means 'doctrine', not 'vehicle'.
posted by everichon at 7:58 PM on July 14, 2009

Best answer: One of the most important distinctions is in their canonical texts. The Theravada schools take only the Tipitaka as canonical, whereas the Mahayana schools take a much larger group of texts. The Tipitaka texts were possibly composed around the time of the Buddha, but the Mahayana texts came much after his death. Many Buddhists who follow the Mahayana texs believe that they are authentic accounts of the Buddha's life and teachings which were hidden for many hundreds of years by various esoteric means, to be revealed when humans were ready for them.

An important thing to remember is that the Theravada and Mahayana schools were constantly changing and influencing each other, and that a bewildering complexity of beliefs compose both schools, with many regional variations, internal inconsistencies, and degrees of syncretism.
posted by sid at 8:26 PM on July 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

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