Theravada Theravada is known as “The Way

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are still
prevalent today. These have been around for centuries. The beliefs come from
Gautama Buddha, Pali Canon, and other Buddhist literature. The teachings
consist of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. They both stay
consistent with the traditional ideas of Buddhism. The concept of enlightenment
and how it is attained is the biggest difference between the two major types of
Buddhism
            The
Third Council to occur after the death of the Buddha was called the Council of
Pataliputra which occurred in 350 B.C.E. This council created a huge impact on
the history of Buddhism and changed the way in which Buddhism is practiced. The
Great Schism occurred during this council which led to the division of a once
close-knit Buddhist community. This division arose because of a disagreement
between traditional orthodox Buddhists and more forward-thinking Buddhists;
these groups debated the importance of arhants in comparison to Buddhas and
bodhisattavas. This division was among the Sthaviras or Elders who emphasized
orthodox Buddhist beliefs and subscribed to traditional values and rules set
forth by the Buddha; and the Mahasamghikas or The Great Assembly who presented
many innovative ideas to the Buddhism belief. The Mahasamghika sect became the
most successful belief system in India and led to the development of numerous
other schools to branch from the original. Mahasamghika provided a major
stepping stone for the development of the Mahayana belief system which has
become one of the two main branches of Buddhism that are present today. Theravada
Buddhism is the other major type of Buddhism. The Great Schism is still evident
in modern day Buddhist practices. Mahayana Buddhism was established by the
Mahasamghikas while Thereavada was established by the Sthaviras.
            Theravada
is known as “The Way of the Elders” and it emphasizes traditional teachings
that connect directly to the historical Gautama Buddha. This Buddhist belief
system stresses traditions which closely follow the authentic beliefs and
practices of the historical Buddha which are dictated through the Pali Canon
and Tipitaka. Both these forms of literature are the oldest and most
authoritative documentations of the collection of teachings set forth by
Gautama Buddha. Theses are the only two Buddhist texts that have been adopted
by Theravadians as their scriptures in which they base their practices and teachings
from. Theravadians endorse their beliefs in these texts so considerably that
they are one of the first Buddhist schools to commit their complete canon to
writing. When the Buddhist religion was brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, the
Pali canon was transmitted orally until the last century B.C.E. During this
time the Fourth Council occurred, according to Theravada texts, in which the
Pali canon, along with the Tipitaka and other beliefs, were committed to
writing. These scriptures are still studied by Theravada Buddhists today, as
they are the authoritative texts that set the doctrinal base for this form of
Buddhism.
            Theravada
Buddhism is the most classic and orthodox form of Buddhism; it is very strict
and invests much importance into the world-renouncing monastic lifestyle. It
attempts to mirror Gautama Buddha’s ideal view of the way in which Buddhism
should be practiced, by re-instilling ancient practices that had been altered
by different Buddhist sects throughout the centuries. In this sense Theravada
tends to identify greatly with the Buddha and even illustrates his human
characteristics rather than viewing him as a religious symbol. As Strong
explains, “Theravada is like a great banyan tree: it represents the complete
teaching of the Buddha with nothing added to it and nothing taken away” (The
Experience of Buddhism 140). This sets the grounds for a very conventional form
of Buddhism with strict, orthodox rules and regulations. 
            Both
Theravada and Mahayana remain steadfast to the same beliefs presented by the
Gautama Buddha, including The Four Noble Truths which he introduced during his
first sermon following his enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths present
rationality behind the pain that prevails in the world and the cause of such
pain. The First Noble Truth, Dukkha states that life consists of suffering and
every individual is faced with it in some form or another. The Second Noble
Truth, Dukkha Samudaya provides an explanation for this suffering, naming the
cause of such pain to be craving, or our selfish desires which we submit to.
However The Third Noble Truth, Dukkha Nirodha explains that such craving can be
diminished through the attainment of nirvana which will end the suffering for
the individual. The Fourth Noble Truth, Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada consists
of the Eightfold Path which will lead an individual to enlightenment. This path
includes right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right
livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. Each of these
steps within this Eightfold Path assists an individual in the achievement of
self-awakening. The path brings forth the realization that material possessions
are not substantial, and it teaches followers to find such possessions as
unsatisfactory. These teachings are brought on by the utilization of The Three
Characteristics of all Conditional Phenomena; the term phenomena used in the
sense that it refers to harsh realities that exist in the world. These
characteristics have been developed for Buddhists as a way to judge the
challenges they are faced with in order to understand that they are able to
overcome such problems. The first characteristic is Anicca, or the impermanence
of such realities, in which it is understood that nothing is permanent because
of their changing causes. The second characteristic Dukkha, addresses the
concept of suffering; it reasons that since everything is impermanent, craving
of these objects will lead to disappointment. This characteristic recognizes
the way in which individuals label materials as like or dislike which leads to
an unnecessary yearning for unsubstantial objects that, once an individual can
free themselves from such yearning, they can reach ultimate freedom. The last
of the three characteristics is Anatta or the concept of no-self in which an
individual does not have a permanent, essential identity, but five aggregates
that they are composed of which are subject to constant change. Once these
characteristics of phenomena are fully understood, a Buddhist is able to disregard
earthly possessions and begin to live a life of the Buddha’s ideal Middle Way,
in which they do not experience much luxury nor extreme self-denial. 
            The
Buddhist religion revolves around the ultimate goal of attaining nirvana which
is the complete release from suffering. Nirvana is attained through
enlightenment, and once it has been reached, the individual will be no longer
stuck in the continuous cycle of rebirth and according to Theravadins, are
referred to as an Arhat. An Arhat is a perfect saint that is regarded with
authority because of his great insight into the Buddhist beliefs. Theravadins
believe that enlightenment or self-awakening cannot occur naturally but may
only be reached through abiding by the Eightfold Path that has been set forth
by the Buddha. This Eightfold Path is followed very strictly by Theravadins
because they entrust the teachings of the Buddha, since he was the first to achieve
this enlightenment and nirvana and therefore he is the most trusted teacher on
this practice. Enlightenment can only be achieved by an individual, according
to Theravadin teachings, and this self-awakening can only come about after
multiple rebirths in which they earn higher statuses each time. It is ideal in
the Theravada belief that one has reached the status of monk before the option
of enlightenment is available to them and they are able to obtain the superior
title of Arhat. It is believed that there are four stages a Buddhist must
endure before they reach the title of Arhat and they are as follows: “There are
four stages to becoming an arhat: 1. Sotapanna (“stream-enterer”) – a
convert, attained by overcoming false beliefs. 2. Sakadagamin (“once-returner”)
– one who will only be reborn once more, attained by diminishing lust, hatred
and illusion. 3. Anagamin (“never-returner”) – one who will be reborn
in heaven, where he or she will become an arahant. Finally 4. Arhat
(“worthy one”) – one who has attained perfect enlightenment and will
never be reborn” (ReligionFacts). Once an individual has become an Arhat, they
are given much more authority in the Theravada Buddhist sangha and referred to
with much respect by laymen.
            The
Mahayana tradition of Buddhism began around 200 B.C.E. in India. It arose from
the historical Buddhist sect Mahasamghika that developed after the Great Schism
of the Third Council. Mahayana began as a set of beliefs in regard to
bodhisattava practices that were documented through many sutras. These beliefs
flourished throughout India and were included during the huge rise in
popularity of Buddhism that was brought by Emperor Asoka’s stupa building
during the Mauryan Dynasty. These ancient stupas are burial mounds bearing
religious importance that are covered with ancient Buddhist art. This art
presents some of the first available evidence of Mahayana beliefs during this
time. The first documented proof of Mahayana does not arise until the first few
centuries of the common era. After the Mahayana beliefs had been extended to
areas of Asia in the north and east, the doctrinal sutras that presented
Mahayanan ideas were translated into Chinese and distributed among the area. It
grew in popularity most predominately in regions such as China, Japan, Tibet,
Korea and Vietnam; and it remains as the main belief system in these areas
today. This growth caused Mahayana to grow from a set of beliefs to a whole new
sect of Buddhism. 
            Mahayana
is referred to as the Great Vehicle which is used to liberate Buddhists and
assist them on the path to enlightenment. They share many similar beliefs with
the Theravada form of Buddhism and study much of the same literature. Just as
Theravadins, Mahayanins subscribe to the teachings of the Pali Canon including
the historical Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path that were presented by
the Buddha during his first sermon. Unlike Theravada, Mahayana also
acknowledges the literature put forth by other Buddhist schools and regard them
as valid, but they entrust the most authority into their own literature called
the Prajnaparamita or the Perfection of Wisdom. The Prajnaparamita is a
collection of all Mahayana beliefs and it took over a thousand years to
compose, it includes many writings and the countless sutras that were developed
by Mahayanins around the first century B.C.E. A few of these sutras are the
Lankavatara Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Pure Land Sutra. All followers of
Mahayana invest much time to the study of the Prajnaparamita and all teachings
that derive from it, but they vary on their opinion of the proper way of
attaining enlightenment. This disagreement prompted to development of three
separately branched schools from Mahayana; Zen, Nichiren and Pure Land sect.
There are also presently two forms of Mahayana; Madhyamaka and Yogacara. These
forms and schools still subscribe to most of the same Mahayana beliefs. 
            The
Mahayana belief system seems to focus much attention to the mindfulness of the
Buddha, it studies the Buddha’s Dharma extensively and all believers look
respectfully to Amitabha Buddha because of his saving powers. Mahayana is a
more religious form of Buddhism as compared to Theravada in the sense that they
hope to generate spiritual beliefs through rituals, ceremonies and religious images.
Because they both follow the Pali canon, Theravada and Mahayana share most of
the same Buddhist beliefs except that “Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists differ
in their perspective on the ultimate purpose of life and the way in which it
can be attained.” (ReligionFacts). For Theravadins, the ultimate purpose of
life is to become an Arhat who has been freed from suffering and will not be
reborn again, while Mahayanins hope to become bodhisattvas who have been
enlightened and teach others how to do the same. It can be understood that
Mahayana presents a whole new path to enlightenment for its followers in which
any lay person can achieve self-awakening. As it has been explained, in
Theravada tradition an individual must be reborn numerous times and be an ordained
monk before they are able to gain enlightenment as an Arhat and reach nirvana.
The Mahayana perspective believes in universal liberation from suffering for
all believers who desire this, which can be reached within one lifetime. They
believe that every Buddhist is entitled to their own self-realization and
enlightenment should not be reserved for only authoritative figures. Mahayanins
hope to become bodhisattvas once they achieve enlightenment, bodhisattvas are
different from arhats because they delay nirvana in order to teach other
Buddhists how to reach self-awakening. Arhats only hope to be enlightened so
they may reach nirvana and be freed from suffering, whereas bodhisattvas merely
hope to lend their knowledge gained through enlightenment to others who
struggle with their beliefs, just as the historical Gautama Buddha did. However,
Buddhists do not rely only on bodhisattvas to aide them in the journey towards
enlightenment, “In the Mahayana the personae of bodhisattvas were not the only
agents of salvation; the very texts in which they figured, because they
contained and conveyed the Dharma, came to be seen as having the power both to
enlighten and to protect beings who turned to them” (The Experience of Buddhism
196). In this way, the Mahayana belief makes enlightenment a much easier
concept to grasp and a much less daunting path to embark on. 
            Theravada
and Mahayana are the only two forms of Buddhism that are mostly prevalent today,
they have grown and flourished all over Asia and these beliefs are widely
accepted throughout the country. They share many of the same common beliefs and
basic understandings of Buddhist teachings, and they both revert back to the
orthodox teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha. However, it is now
apparent that the only major difference between Mahayana and Theravada is their
view on enlightenment and how it is attained.

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