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Theravada Vs Mahayana Buddhism – What Are The Differences?

by Shannon Terrell January 9, 2021

Buddhism is one of the oldest religions in the world. It began in the 6th century BCE in Nepal. Today, it has an international following of over 500 million people.

But Buddhism isn’t a single set of beliefs or practices. In fact, Buddhism is split into two major branches: Theravada and Mahayana.

What are the major differences between Theravada vs Mahayana Buddhism? And why did they split in the first place?

These two branches of Buddhism each have their own unique identity. And you might be surprised by what each can offer the beginner practitioner learning how to practice Buddhism.

But before we dive into the differences between Theravada vs Mahayana Buddhism, let’s take a quick look at the 3 major branches of Buddhism. 

What Are The 3 Types Of Buddhism?

The three main branches of Buddhism are: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

But keep in mind that there are many more branches, including Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Thai Forest Tradition.

That said, the three main branches of Buddhism are:

  1. Theravada Buddhism: The School Of The Elders
  2. Mahayana Buddhism: The Great Vehicle
  3. Vajrayana Buddhism: The Way Of The Diamond

Is Zen Buddhism Theravada or Mahayana?

Even though Zen Buddhism is a separate branch of Buddhism, it originated from Mahayana Buddhism.

As a matter of fact, it uses the Mahayana sutras and strongly emphasizes the Bodhisattva path.

Why Did Theravada And Mahayana Split?

Almost every major religion in the world is made up of smaller branches. And it makes sense — when you’ve got millions of followers, not everyone is going to agree on everything.

This is the story of Buddhism as well. The core teachings of Buddhism have been reinterpreted many times over the years. And there are two schools of Buddhism that have created a distinct identity for themselves.

Theravada Buddhism came first. It focuses on the teachings of the Buddha through strict meditation and the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. Theravada Buddhists seek to become an arhat or fully awakened beings. Becoming an arhat requires great dedication. In fact, it’s usually only attempted by monks.

On the other hand,  Mahayana tradition aimed to incorporate newer teachings into the practice. It also gave laypeople the chance to reach Enlightenment. With less emphasis on the original Pali canon and a focus on encouraging everyone toward Enlightenment, the Mahayana branch of Buddhism was established.

What does Theravada and Mahayana mean?

Theravada literally means “Teaching of the Elders,” while Mahayana means “The Great Vehicle.”

What’s The Difference Between Theravada Vs Mahayana Buddhism?

The main difference comes down to one thing: the end goal of the two branches. Theravada Buddhism is organized around the notion of breaking the cycle of Samsara (escaping reincarnation). Mahayana Buddhists aim to achieve enlightenment through the teachings of the Buddha, but they ultimately choose to stay in Samsara and reincarnate, out of compassion for others.

The two major branches of Buddhism have their own interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. But it’s important to remember that while
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are unique, they still are based on the same beliefs.

At the end of the day, Buddhists follow the teachings of the Buddha. But they have different ways of going about it.

So, here’s a quick breakdown of the other major differences between Theravada vs Mahayana Buddhism.

Major features of Theravada Buddhism:

  • Called “The School of the Elders”
  • Follows teachings in Pali
  • Mainly practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar
  • Focus on individual attainment of Enlightenment or becoming an arhat
  • Uses samatha and vipassana meditation

Major features of Mahayana Buddhism:

  • Called “The Greater Vehicle”
  • Follows teachings in Sanskrit
  • Mainly practiced in Nepal, Japan, China, Tibet, and Korea
  • Focus on the Bodhisattva path of encouraging and teaching others
  • Uses chanting of mantras and sutras

While Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism take different approaches to Buddhism, both follow the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. After all, these were the core teachings of the Buddha when he was alive. And they remain at the center of both branches of Buddhism today.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are unique in their approach to the teachings. So, is one better than the other? No.

They’re simply different. In fact, in many instances, the two branches coexist quite harmoniously.

Diving Deeper Into Your Spiritual Curiosity

We hope you have found this article enlightening! If you’re still curious about Buddhism, a great place to start is by visiting a local Buddhist center or temple. Buddhists are a welcoming community and are often happy to speak with those curious about the practice.

If your interests go beyond Buddhism and you feel called to explore your own unique spiritual development, you’re not alone.

At Mindvalley we know that personal growth of any kind can sometimes feel daunting, especially if you’re growing and transforming alone without the support of those around you. And when it comes to your spirituality, it can feel even more isolating! Spirituality is all about embracing the challenge to go within ourselves for the answers we seek, so it’s often a solo trip.

That’s why we hooked up with the best, most celebrated spiritual teachers on the planet to help guide the way and provide free content to support all of our Mindvalley Tribe. That’s you!

So if you’re starting out your own path to self-discovery and are eager to have your spiritual growth supported in the best way, check out Mindvalley’s Top 3 Free Spiritual Growth Masterclasses next. 

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