Theravad Buddhist forest monk

Theravada Buddhism ("doctrine of the elders") is the oldest and most orthodox of Buddhism's three major sects. Regarded as the belief closest to the one taught by The Buddha himself, it is based on the recollections of The Buddha's teachings amassed by the Elders — the elder monks who were Buddha's companions. It is practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta areas of Vietnam.

Theravada Buddhism was one of 18 schools that existed in centuries after The Buddha's death.. It spread from India to Sri Lanka and then to Southeast Asia and remained close to the original Pali canon (See Below). The other 17 schools disappeared when Muslims swept into northern India and destroyed the Buddhist monasteries that existed there. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) Buddhism by Mahayana Buddhists.

Mahayana Buddhism encompasses a wide range of philosophical schools, metaphysical beliefs, and practical meditative disciplines. It is more widespread and has more followers than Theravada Buddhism and includes Zen and Soka-gakkai Buddhism. It is practiced primarily in northern half of the Buddhist world: in China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan.

"Mahayana” means "the Great Vehicle." The word vehicle is used because Buddhist doctrine is often compared to a raft or ship that carries one across the world of suffering to better world. Greater is reference to the universality of its doctrines and beliefs as opposed to narrowness of other schools. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as the Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) sect. Mahayana Buddhism is not a single group but a collection of Buddhist traditions: Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism are all forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

Similarities Between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

Although Theravada Buddhists and Mahayana Buddhists have very different ways of attaining enlightenment, they both share some core beliefs that are best summed up in what is known as the Three Jewels — 1) belief in the Buddha; 2) a belief in dharma, or the universal moral law that the Buddha's teachings reveal and 3) a belief in the sangha, the community of monks. When a person chooses to become a Buddhist he or she recites a prayer — "I go to the Buddha for refuge / I go to the Dharma for refuge / I go to the Sangha for refuge" — to an ordained monk or nun. Also part of nearly every school of Buddhism is the practice of meditation. [Source:]

Korean Bodhisattva

According to the BBC: Theravada and Mahayana are both rooted in the basic teachings of the historical Buddha, and both emphasize the individual search for liberation from the cycle of samsara (birth, death, rebirth...). The methods or practices for doing that, however, can be very different.” Theravada Buddhism is usually associated with Southeast Asia but Mahayana is also found in Southeast Asia, particularly in Vietnam, in syncretistic fusion with Theravada.

The Mahayana sense of communal responsibility is often usually read as a reaction to the Theravada arhat ideal, in which Buddhists focus on achieving enlightenment for themselves in an individualistic quest for nirvana. Some scholars, however, have begun to complicate the sharp historical distinctions between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions. [Source: Joseph W. Williams, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

Dr. W. Rahula wrote: “I have studied Mahayana for many years and the more I study it, the more I find there is hardly any difference between Theravada and Mahayana with regard to the fundamental teachings. 1) Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher. 2) The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools. 3) The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools. 4) The Paticca-samuppada or the Dependent Origination is the same in both schools. 5) Both rejected the idea of a supreme being who created and governed this world. 6) Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Panna without any difference. These are the most important teachings of the Buddha and they are all accepted by both schools without question. [Source: Dr. W. Rahula, BuddhaSasana (, Wisdom Quarterly: American Buddhist Journal, August 14, 2008; Grant Olson, Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University +++]

Key Differences Between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is the sole survivor of numerous ancient Indian schools. It has a relatively unified orthodox doctrine, a fixed body of canonical literature, a clearly structured institutional distinction between the monastic order and the laity, and a long history as an established doctrine. Conversely, Mahayana Buddhism is a diffuse and highly complex combination of many schools and sects, based on a heterogeneous literature of massive proportions, from which no single doctrinal or institutional orthodoxy can ever be derived. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s,]

Mahayana Buddhists claim their doctrines are rooted in early teachings of Buddha and say they do not reject the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism, but have just expanded on them. Theravada Buddhists view Mahayana Buddhism as a corrupted form of Buddha's teaching plus see it as too easy. Theravada Buddhists are taught that one must “work out one's own salvation with diligence” whereas Mahayana Buddhists believe faith is enough to earn all believers eventual salvation. Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism differ greatly on the matter of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists recognize many of them as well as many Buddhas. Theravada Buddhists recognize just one, The Buddha.

The tenets of Mahayana Buddhism are more vague and all-encompassing than the strict tenets of Theravada Buddhism, but its followers often conform to a very regimented routine as is the case with Zen. Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas—Buddhist "saints" on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.

Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism compared

On ways Mayahana and Theravada Buddhism are different, Dr. W. Rahula wrote: “There are also, however, some points of difference, or at least of emphasis. An obvious one is the “Bodhisattva ideal.” Many people say that Mahayana is for a Bodhisattvahood that will lead to Buddhahood, while Theravada is for Arahantship (immediate enlightenment as taught by the Buddha). I must point out that the Buddha was an arahant (an enlightened one). A Nonteaching (Prateka or Pacceka) Buddha is also an arahant. A disciple can also be an arahant. Mahayana texts never use the term “Arahant-yana,” the Arahant Vehicle. Instead, Mahayanists use three terms: Bodhisattva-yana, Prateka-Buddha-yana, and Sravaka-yana (the Bodhisattva-vehicle, the Nonteaching-Buddha vehicle, and the Disciple-vehicle). In the Theravada tradition these three are called Bodhis. [Source: BuddhaSasana (, Wisdom Quarterly: American Buddhist Journal, August 14, 2008; Grant Olson, Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University]

Confusion Over the Differences Between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

Dr. W. Rahula wrote: “Some people mistakenly imagine that Theravada Buddhism is “selfish” because it teaches (what the historical Buddha taught) that people should diligently work towards their own salvation without helping others. But how could a selfish person ever gain enlightenment? (It would be impossible because selfishness precludes the compassion and wisdom necessary for realizing the truth that leads to enlightenment and the liberation of nirvana). Both Theravada and Mahayana schools accept the three Yanas or Bodhis and consider Bodhisattvahood the ideal, the highest. The difference is Mahayana Buddhism has created many mystical Bodhisattvas, while Theravada Buddhism considers a “bodhisattva” a person among us who devotes his or her entire life to the attainment of perfection, ultimately attaining buddhahood [enlightenment] for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of the world.” [Source: BuddhaSasana (, Wisdom Quarterly: American Buddhist Journal, August 14, 2008; Grant Olson, Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University]

Confusing matters on the issue of enlightenment is the fact that Buddha referred to himself as an Arhat (Pali for "one who is worthy" or a "perfected person" who achieved Nirvana). This seems to have implied that he was no different from any of his enlightened disciples who attained this state. The only difference was that he was a full master of all the powers and great perfections that go with being enlightened, things that others didn't necessarily have. One inference of Mahayana Buddhism is that in attaining perfections and striving for nirvana one must forestall full enlightenment to continuously work on the perfections. [Source:]

Mahayana and Theravada Differences: Buddha and Bodhisattvas

Mahayana monks praying at Qibao Temple in China

1) While Theravada Buddhism believe be that there is only one Buddha — the historical Gautama Siddhartha (Sakyamuni) Buddha and past buddhas are accepted, Mayahana Buddhists believe : that in addition to the Sakyamuni Buddha, other contemporary buddhas like Amitabha and Medicine Buddha also exist. [Source: Tan Swee Eng, ^|^]

2) Bodhisattvas: A) Theravada Buddhism: Only Maitreya bodhisattva is accepted. B) Mayahana Buddhism:Avalokitesvara, Mansjuri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra are four very well known bodhisattvas besides Maitreya. ^|^

3) Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples: A) Theravada Buddhism: Basically historical disciples, whether arahats or commoners. B) Mayahana Buddhism: A lot of bodhisattvas are introduced by Sakyamuni Buddha. Most of these are not historical figures. ^|^

4) Buddha nature: A) Theravada Buddhism: Absent from the teachings of Theravada tradition. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Heavily stressed, particularly by schools inclined practices. ^|^

Mahayana and Theravada Differences: Texts and Language

1) Organisation of Buddhist scriptures: A) Theravada Buddhism: The Pali Canon is divided into Three baskets (Tipitaka): Vinaya Pitaka of Five books, Sutta Pitaka of Five collections (many suttas) and Abhidhamma Pitaka of Seven books. B) Mayahana Buddhism: The Mahayana Buddhist Canon also consists of Tripitaka of disciplines, discourses (sutras) and dharma analysis. It is usually organised in 12 divisions of topics like Cause and Conditions and Verses. It contains virtually all the Theravada Tipikata and many sutras that the latter does not have. [Source: Tan Swee Eng, ^|^]

2) Language of dharma teaching: A) Theravada Buddhism: Tipitaka is strictly in Pali. Dharma teaching in Pali supplemented by local language. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Buddhist canon is translated into the local language (except for the 5 untranslatables), e.g. Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese. Original language of transmission is Sanskrit. ^|^

Mahayana and Theravada Differences: Concepts and Ideas

1) Concept of Bodhicitta: A) Theravada Buddhism: Main emphasis is self liberation. There is total reliance on one-self to eradicate all defilements. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Besides self liberation, it is important for Mahayana followers to help other sentient beings. [Source: Tan Swee Eng, ^|^]

2) Trikaya concept: A) Theravada Buddhism: Very limited emphasis on the three bodies of a buddha. References are mainly on nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Very well mentioned in Mahayana buddhism. Samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment body completes the Trikaya concept. ^|^

3) Nirvana: A) Theravada Buddhism: (Nibbana in Pali) No distinction is made between nirvana attained by a buddha and that of an arahat or pacceka buddha. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Also known as 'liberation from Samsara,' there are subtle distinctions in the level of attainment for the three situations. ^|^

Mahayana and Theravada Differences: History, Schools and Outside Differences

1) Transmission route: A) Theravada Buddhism: Southern transmission: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Northern transmission: Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and parts of Southeast Asia. [Source: Tan Swee Eng, ^|^]

Burmese-Pali manuscript of a Theravada text

2) Schools/Sects of the tradition: A) Theravada Buddhism: One surviving major school following years of attrition reducing the number from as high as 18. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Eight major (Chinese) schools based on the partial doctrines (sutras, sastras or vinaya) of the teachings. The four schools inclined towards practices like Pure Land/Amitabha, Ch'an, Vajrayana and Vinaya (not for lay people) are more popular than the philosophy based schools like Tien Tai, Avamtasaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika. ^|^

3) Non Buddhist influences: A) Theravada Buddhism: Mainly pre-Buddhism Indian/Brahmin influences. Many terms like karma, sangha, etc were prevailing terms during Sakyamuni Buddha's life time. References were made from the Vedas and Upanishads. B) Mayahana Buddhism: In the course of integration and adoption by the people in other civilizations, there were heavy mutual influences. In China, both Confucianism and Taoism exerted some influence on Buddhism which in turn had an impact on the indigenous beliefs. This scenario was repeated in Japan and Tibet. ^|^

Mahayana and Theravada Differences: Rituals and Worship

1) Objective of training: A) Theravada Buddhism: Arahant or pacceka-buddha. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Buddhahood (via bodhisattva path). [Source: Tan Swee Eng, ^|^]

2) Rituals and liturgy: A) Theravada Buddhism: There are some rituals but not heavily emphasized as in Mahayana schools. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Owing to local cultural influences, there is much more emphais on the use of rituals; e.g. Rituals for the deceased, feeding of Petas, tantric formalities (in Vajrayana). ^|^

3) Use of Mantras and Mudras: A) Theravada Buddhism: Some equivalent in the use of Parittas. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Heavily practised in the Vajrayana school of Mahayana Buddhism. Other schools also have included some mantras in their daily lithurgy. ^|^

4) Focus of worship in the temple: A) Theravada Buddhism: Simple layout with the image of Sakyamuni Buddha the focus of worship. B) Mayahana Buddhism: Can be quite elaborate; with a chamber/hall for Sakyamuni Buddha and two disciples, one hall for the 3 Buddhas (including Amitabha and Medicine Buddha) and one hall for the 3 key bodhisattvas; besides the protectors, etc. ^|^

Lotus sutra, the primary Mahayana text

Mahayana and Theravada Differences: Death, Food, Vegetarianism

1) Dying and death aspects: A) Theravada Buddhism: Very little research and knowledge on the process of dying and death. Usually, the dying persons are advised to meditate on impermanence, suffering and emptiness. B) Mayahana Buddhism: The Vajrayana school is particularly meticulous in these areas. There are many inner and external signs manifested by people before they die. There is heavy stress in doing transference of merit practices in the immediate few weeks following death to assist in the deceased's next rebirth. [Source: Tan Swee Eng, ^|^]

2) Bardo: A) Theravada Buddhism: This in-between stage after death and before rebirth is ignored in Theravada school. B) Mayahana Buddhism: All Mahayana schools teach this after death aspect. ^|^

3) One meal a day practice: A) Theravada Buddhism: This the norm among Theravada sanghas. B) Mayahana Buddhism: This is a highly respected practice but it is left to the disposition of each individual in the various sanghas. ^|^

4) Vegetarianism: A) Theravada Buddhism: This aspect is not necessary. In places like Thailand where daily morning rounds are still practised, it is very difficult to insist on the type of food to be donated . B) Mayahana Buddhism: Very well observed in all Mahayana schools (except the Tibetans due to the geographical circumstances). However, this aspect is not compulsory. Some of the Mahayana scriptures, notably the Lankavatara Sutra, take a strong position in favor of vegetarianism. ^|^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, National Palace Museum, Taipei Library of Congress; New China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University; Asia Society Museum; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.