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Two schools of Buddhist philosophy — Theravada and Mahayana

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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By Upali Salgado

Sakyamuni Gauthama Buddha’s teaching is primarily concerned with the single problem common to all mankind – the problem of Dukkha or Suffering and how to bring it to an end.

The missionary vehicle that carries his message to end suffering (seen in many faceted forms) is the Buddha Dhamma.

About 250 years after the Great Master’s demise (Maha Parinibbana) at the Second Council of Elders, two schools of Buddhist philosophy emerged with slight differences of outlook but both accepted the core values of the Buddha’s philosophy such as Trilaksana and the doctrine of Kamma.

What then are these sublime disciplines?

Large populations that live in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and around Chittagong (in East Pakistan) and in North India around Madhya Pradesh and the United provinces of North India follow the Theravada traditions of worship.

Other Asian countries namely China, Japan, North Korea, parts of Mongolia and Taiwan follow the Mahayana Buddhist teachings which is a modification of the Buddha’s philosophy.

The Tantric form of Buddhism (Yan Trayana) is followed by a small population in Tibet and Bhutan.

What is Mahayana Buddhism?

Mahayana literally means ‘great vehicle’.

It refers to the path of the Bodhisattva seeking enlightenment for the benefit of sentient beings.

Today about 50 per cent of the world Buddhists follow the Mahayana tradition.

Strengthening the Mahayana tradition are several suttas.

The better known are : the lotus sutra, the Bad Rapala sutra, the Vimalakirti sutra.

The Mahayana triad includes Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha and Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Bodhisattva worship is highlighted in Cave No 4 at Ajantha in Maharashtra, India.

In Sri Lanka there are rock figures of the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva seen at Weligama and at Buduruvagala near Buttala to confirm that Mahayana Buddhism was practised here in the 5th and 11th centuries.

Some of the kings of Sri Lanka who gave recognition to Mahayana Buddhism were Mahasen Agbo VI, Parakramabahu I and Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa.

What then were the reasons for the emergence of the Mahayana tradition?

Prof. Akia Hirakawa of Japan states that after the Maha Parinibbana of Gautama Buddha sufficient devotion was not paid to pay homage to the Great Master.

Therefore the stupa which enshrined the Buddha’s relics was to be given more prominence and sanctified.

At first in India, Buddhists adopted the stupa as an object of commemoration but later it became an object of veneration and worship because of the enshrinement of the Buddha relics.

In China, Japan and North Korea, relics are enshrined in ‘The Pagoda’ (usually made of brick or wood).

In the Theravada tradition, they are known as stupas and in Sri Lanka they are called ‘Chaitiyas’.

Another perspective of the Mahayana tradition was that it had to be a popular religious movement of Buddhist devotion against the elite orthodoxy of the early disciples.

The development of the deep Abhidhamma Buddhist philosophy grew vigorously during the first two centuries but did not help at all the spiritual liberation of the less educated masses.

The result was that the Mahayanist tradition introduced new forms of worship which appealed to the masses.

Another development by the Mahayana School is that of the void (Shunyatha).

This doctrine rejects all attachments.

It means that things have no self, they are empty.

As reference has been made to the stupa that enshrines the relics of the Buddha, it is to be noted in the Theravada tradition that stupa worship is an integral part of the Master’s teachings.

It was Emperor Ashoka of India (325-288 BC) who made the worship of the stupa popular and today, in Sri Lanka, every Buddhist temple has its chaitya (stupa) to be worshipped first by all the devotees and thereafter the Bodhi tree and Image house.

The basic qualities of the Buddhist philosophy (Dharma) are similar in both schools and so are the disciplinary rules and restrictions.

Both schools observe the Four Noble Truths and Rules governing the Vinaya.

Those who observe the Mahayana tradition are known as Mahayana Buddhists while those who follow the Theravada tradition are Buddha Sravakas (Noble disciples of the Buddha) and have the Arahant ideal associated with them (an Arahant is one who is worthy to accept homage;

he is one striving towards purity in life, wisdom and compassion for Enlightenment)

An outstanding difference between the two schools of thought is that Mahayanists believe that Buddhahood itself is attainable by all followers in this life.

In the Theravada tradition, one must first be an Arahant.

Arahants are exclusively concerned with their own salvation as opposed to deep compassionate self sacrifices to benefit others.

In the Mahayana tradition, much importance is paid to the Bodhisattva cult and worship of very old Buddhist manuscrpits.

Reciting long suttas (discourses) makes them believe that certain spots or stupa are sanctified or consecrated as if the Buddha himself preached there.

The constant turning of prayer wheels, the regular use of bead chains when in prayer;

the sounding of three foot long low pitched horns at dawn, the colourful display of flags on very tall masts and vows performed at Mount Kailas in the Himalayas (revered by Hindus) are well known.

In contrast in the Theravada tradition with lessons learnt from the Tripitaka and the development of Bodhi Chitta (mind development) is of great importance.

Abhidhamma the Suttas are important.

Meditation (Bhavana) of two types–Sanatha and Vipassana is observed with insight meditation wisdom (Panna) growing to guide one’s life, spiritually Bhavana is not a form of mental prayer nor is it a negative escape from the tribulations of life but raises man to a divine position.

This mind development is to achieve Arahantship in Samsara.

Theravada Buddhists believe that vows will not lead to Nirvana but Mahayana Buddhists believe that prayers, vows, aspirations will lead them to Nibbana.