Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Prof. Evgueni A. Tortchinov
Departament of Oriental Philosophy and Cultural Studies
Faculty of Philosophy
St. Petersburg State University

This lecture focuses on the main points of difference between the two major divisions in the Buddhist world: Theravada and Mahayana. A general comment is made concerning Buddhist cosmology. The cosmos is not interpreted as something out there, but as one’s own personal experience of it and one’s effort to achieve proper detachment.

Theravada Buddhism, self-entitled and meaning the Teaching of the Elders, is the Buddhism of southern Asia, in countries including Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Burma and Cambodia. Mahayana Buddhism is the Buddhism found in northern Asian countries such as China, Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, Korea and Mongolia. The central difference between these groups is the ideal of the liberated individual that they postulate. In Theravada it is called an aharant, which is regarded as a monk in a monastery who achieves nirvana for himself and escapes the cycle of samsara, or birth and death. In the Mahayana tradition, the ideal is called a bodhisattva, which means a being who is enlightened. The being seeks enlightenment not for herself, but for the benefit and eventual liberation of all sentient beings.

Another main difference concerns the respective traditions’ understanding of the Buddha himself. While Theravadins think of the Buddha as a historical person, having lived, taught, and died, the Mahayanists maintain the Buddha as one of countless buddhas having come to this world, and yet to come. Further, “Buddha” describes the nature of all of reality, with everything that exists having an essential buddha-nature. The last section of the lecture discusses briefly the main features of Buddhist meditation, as outlined by the Theravadin samatha and vipassana practices, which are used by all schools.