Theravada VS Mahayana

This article was originally published in Feng Shui Times on 29 January 2001.

It’s Buddhism. Both originated from India. So why are they divided into 2 or more groups?

Louis Vuitton, Donna Karen, Armani, Versace, Vera Wang, Dolce and Gabbana – they are basically selling clothes. Different brands, yes but still dealing with apparel.

Several hundred years after Gautama Buddha’s death, the Sangha (disciples of Buddha) became divided. This was because the original Teaching – determined by a council of Buddhist monks – catered only to those who renounced the world and spent their time in meditation. A group of monks recognized the need for a new formulation of the Dharma in order to accommodate ordinary laymen.

This brought about the split of The Order Of Monks. The group who retained the original Teaching was called Sthaviravadins (later Theravadins). The group who reconstructed Buddhism became known as the Mahasanghikas (later Mahayanas).

In reality, there is no right or wrong in their different beliefs. Religion is for the benefit of mankind and thus adjusted to suit the living conditions of the people in different regions.

Below shows the differences between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism:

Theravada Buddhism
(The Teaching Of The Elders, Southern School)

  • Supremacy is Gautama Buddha
  • Aim is to achieve Arahant Ideal. Believes that while attaining Buddhahood is ideal, it is extremely difficult and beyond most people’s capabilities
    *Although the Buddha was also called an Arhat, they are of different natures. In other words, an Arhat is a degree holder of Enlightenment and the Buddha is a Ph.D holder.
    **Arahant carries the same meaning as Arhat.
  • Aspire to achieve Nirvana, or to have a better rebirth in the next life
  • Sacred text is called Tripitaka
  • Believes that the Buddha has 2 Bodies (as a human being and as consciousness)
  • Follows the Noble 8 Fold Path
    – right understanding
    – right thought
    – right speech
    – right action
    – right livelihood
    – right effort
    – right mindfulness
    – right concentration
  • Influential in Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar etc

Mahayana Buddhism
(The Great Vehicle, Northern School)

  • Supermacy are Celestial Buddhas
  • Aim is to achieve bodhisattva Ideal. Believes that restricting oneself to attaining Arahant Ideal is too limiting
    *A Bodhisattva is someone who compassionately delays his or her own Enlightenment in order to help other beings to attain Enlightenment
    **Arhats and Bodhisattvas are of the same rank, albeit with different goals.
  • Aspire to attain Enlightenment, or rebirth in the Pure Land (heaven)
  • Sacred texts are the Sanskrit Sutras
  • Believes that the Buddha has 3 Bodies – Trikaya (as in the body of Gautama Buddha, as a holder of the Dharma and as a deity)
  • Follows the 6 Paramitas:
    – giving
    – morality
    – patience
    – effort
    – concentration
    – wisdom
  • Influential in China, Tibet, Korea, Japan etc

Nevertheless, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are unified by these points :

  1. The only Master is the Buddha.
  2. Do not believe that the world is created and ruled by a single almighty God.
  3. Accept the 4 Noble Truths (Truth of Suffering, Truth of the Cause of Suffering, Truth of the End of Suffering, Truth of the Path Leading to the End of Suffering) and the Law of Karma (Law of Cause and Effect)
  4. Believe that all things are impermanent.
  5. Believe that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination.
  6. Believe in only 3 ways of achieving Enlightenment – as a disciple, as a Bodhisattva and as a Buddha.
  7. Accept that Buddhism varies in different countries, but the variation should not be confused with the core Teaching of the Buddha.
  8. Co-exist with each other without seeking to change each other’s views.
  9. Believe that the 5th and final Buddha of our time will be Maitreya Buddha.

Although there are differences between these 2 forms of Buddhism, the essential subject, which is the Teaching of the Buddha remains the same.

In the same way, men are from Venus, women – or to be politically correct, womyn; womban; person of gender – are from Mars. At the end of the day, all human.

There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking. – Alfred Korzybski



  1. i reallytreasure your budhism journals, they r really helpful. i m compiling it for my reading pleasure, i dont wanan be bullied!! hehe, thx, cheers

  2. hope they are of help, cheers ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. isnt the term “men are from mars, women are from venus”? maybe not…just curious.

    thanks for the info though, it helps to see it broken down like this ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. VERYYYY Helpful! Thank you so much!

  5. do you view vajrayana as being under mahayana? thanks.

  6. I am not an authority on Buddhism, but I view Vajrayana as another (third) vehicle alongside Theravada and Mahayana.

  7. hou wenrong says:

    ms suanie is pretty

  8. Georgie1776 says:

    if God is single then it is also everything; thanks for your distinctions

  9. Gandawin Hein says:

    Theravada is like Catholic , and Mahayana like Protestant in Christian.
    Mixing up with traditional culture may deviate the purity of real Buddha teaching.
    So, I tend to learn Theravada if we really want to know the real teaching of Buddha.
    We should read TIPITIKA, before we make any critique about Buddhism.
    However, how many people really finish reading TIPITAKA in the world even who really believe and practice in Buddhism ? Because of language barrier and availablity.
    Can someone tell me where we can get the Whole set of TIPITAKA in English ?

  10. Dilawar khan says:

    really ineresting,but as a student of buddha i want to know “Buddhisattva and Arhat a comparative study between Theravada and Mahayana”

  11. I dont believe in amitabha buddha and the pure land where he lives.
    Until the end of my journey in samsara wheel, I only keep my Faith in Tathagata Sammasambuddha, his teaching (Dhamma) and his Ariya Sangha.
    May all being be happy

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