Theravada vs. Mahayana
Theme 1: Rituals
Theravada festivals: One important festival in Theravada is Wesak, which celebrates the life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. It is usually practiced on a full moon in May, but the date of the festival differs between each country based on the calendar they use. During Wesak, Buddhists congregate in temples where the ceremony of the hoisting of the Buddhists flag is performed and they sing hymns about the three jewels of Buddhism. Then they will lay candles and flowers at the feet of a statue of the Buddha, which are supposed to remind the people celebrating that everything decays and is impermanent. Buddhists also perform service or acts of charity on Wesak, in order to help those who are less fortunate or just to offer food to those who stay in the temples during Wesak. Since the Buddha did not want to be worshipped by His followers, Wesak acts as a way to remind Buddhists that the true way to worship Him s to follow Buddhist teachings. Theravada Buddhists also celebrate Asala, which commemorates the conception, renunciation, and first sermon that he gave. Asala is also called Dharma day and allows Buddhists to show their gratitude to the Buddha or other Buddhas who have taught Buddhists.
Mahayana Buddhism: Mahayana Buddhists celebrate Wesak and Asala along with Theravada Buddhists but have their own New Year’s holiday, which is celebrated on the first full moon in January.
Theme 2: Sacred Texts
Theravada Texts: The main texts used in Theravada Buddhism are the Tipitaka, which is divided into three sections: the sutras, the texts on discipline (Vinaya-pitaka), and the texts on special topics (Abhidharma-pitaka). The most common version of the Tipitaka is the Pali Cannon, which is the Tipitaka texts translated into Pali. Theravada Buddhists do not think that the Mahayana texts are authentic or carry authority.
Mahayana Texts: The main Mahayana texts used are Sutras, which Mahayana Buddhists believe carry the authority of the Buddha but it is argued that the Buddha did not actually write or speak the words in the Mahayana Sutras. The sutras are called Prajnaparamita Literature because they are considered to contain a lot of wisdom are divided into categories like the Heart Sutra, the Sukhavati Sutra, or the Lotus Sutra, which describes the world in which the Buddha resides, which is called the “pure lands.”
Theme 3: Doctrines/Beliefs
Theravada Eschatology Doctrine: Theravadins do not believe in an ultimate or permanent higher power and generally do not focus on metaphysics. They believe in the basic cycle of life that consists of birth, death, and re-birth until one reaches Nirvana. In Theravada Buddhism, human suffering is due to Tanha, and the defilements that come with cravings can be classified into the Ten Fetters and the Five Hindrances. Theravadins believe that each person is responsible for his or her path to enlightenment and focus primarily on attaining wisdom through deep meditation and study of the Dharma.
Mahayana Eschatology: Mahayana Buddhists believe there is a supreme power that does not directly control everything, but keeps the universe in balance. Mahayana Buddhists also focus on emulating the Bodhisattvas such as Amitabha, who are viewed like saints within the religion. Mahayana Buddhists focus more on practicing compassion and view the sacrifice of Nirvana in order to help others reach enlightenment by the Bodhisattvas a model and example of compassion.
Theme 4: Religious Experience
Theravada Religious Experience: Theravada Buddhism emphasizes monastic as the best way to attain Nirvana. Although there are many people who practice Theravada Buddhism who are not monks, this lifestyle is emphasized and lay people believe that good karma will help them be reborn into a better life where he or she can be a monk. Monks have the opportunity to devote their lives to achieving enlightenment and Nirvana. All boys are required to spend some time in a monastery, even if they do not plan on becoming a monk.
Mahayana Religious Experience: Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes practicing compassion in one’s everyday life and although monasteries and monk-hood are important, they are not seen as the only way to achieve enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhists perform daily puja and also perform service to monks, so it is more individual based than group based.
Theme 5: Ethics and Moral Conduct
Theravada and Mahayana Ethics: There are some distinctions between Theravada and Mahayana ethics specifically relating to the Vinaya, or rules of the monasteries in each type of Buddhism. Theravada follows the traditional Vinaya and Mahayana Buddhists will either follow the Vinaya or the Bodhisattva Precepts, which are mainly used in Japan. There are 253 rules for the Bhikshus and 364 rules for the Bhikshunis (female monks).