Mahayana, Hinayana, and Theravada Compared

By Ron Epstein


"'Mahayana' means 'great vehicle.' 'Hinayana' means' 'small vehicle' or 'lesser vehicle'. 'Theravada' means 'teaching of the elders.'

Mahayana and Hinayana began not as separate schools but as alternative intentions and goals, which were a matter of personal choice. The adherents of each lived and practiced together. It took many centuries for those differences to coalesce into different schools, which eventually spread into different geographic areas.

The Theravada School of Buddhism, which is found in Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia, should not be called 'Hinayana', because Hinayana originally referred to the commitment of individuals, not to a school of Buddhism. Later it became incorrectly used as an inappropriate and pejorative term for the Theravada. Theravada is sometimes referred to as Southern Buddhism, while Mahayana is sometimes called Northern Buddhism, because it came to be found in China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet.

What then are the different goals? The goal of the Hinayana practitioner is that of ending attachment to self and, thereby, becoming an Arhat, who undergoes no further rebirth. Although those on the path of the Arhat help others, often extensively, that help ends with the entering of nirvana because the Arhat is not reborn. The Mahayana practitioner does not treat Arhatship as an ultimate goal, and is on the Path of the Bodhisattva, which leads to becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is replete with perfect wisdom (whereas the wisdom of the Arhat is seen as limited and imperfect) and universal compassion. The Bodhisattva is reborn voluntarily in order to aid all living beings to become enlightened. The realization of Buddhahood includes not only realization of the emptiness of self but also of the emptiness of dharmas, that is, of the entire psycho­physical world. Emptiness is a Buddhist technical term that refers to the lack of real, permanent, inherent nature in any one, any thing, or any concept. Roughly speaking, it means that there are no real essences of people (i.e. selves) or of 'things' (dharmas).

The various Mahayana schools accept all of the teachings that are found in the Theravada canon; however, the Theravada school rejects the Mahayana Sutras and does not recognize the "expansive" teachings of the Mahayana about Bodhisattvas and about the Buddhas of the other directions. The Theravada primarily discusses the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, while the Mahayana pays comparatively more attention than the Theravada to other Buddhas, who stretch infinitely into the past and who are also found in other world-systems. The scriptures of the Theravada do mention Buddhas prior to the Buddha Shakyamuni and Buddhas in other world-systems, and also the path of the Bodhisattva.

Mahayana emphasizes compassion more than the Theravada and recommends that we universalize it. Mahayana also
advocates the goal of a higher level of wisdom, that of the Buddha.

Further Comments on Mahayana and Theravada

Western scholars often analyze Mahayana, Theravada, and their antecedent schools in Western historical and social evolutionary perspective, an approach that makes little sense from a Buddhist point of view. (It is true that the two schools did develop historically and evolve socially, but that is not central to the Buddhist way of looking at things.) A Buddhist analysis emphasizes alternate choices for pathway to enlightenment and different levels of enlightenment.

Some Western scholars have erroneously tried to claim that Mahayana is primarily a religion for laymen and Theravada is a priamarily monastic religion. Both Mahayana and Theravada have as their foundation strong monastic communities,
which are almost identical in their regulations. Schools of Mahayana Buddhism without monastic communities of fully ordained monks and nuns are relatively recent and atypical developments, usually based on cultural and historical considerations rather than differences in fundamental doctrine. Both Mahayana and Theravada also provided a clear and important place for lay followers.

Both Mahayana and Theravada have little use for intellectual speculation. Though rational thought is valued and has its place on the Buddhist Path, in itself it will not take one to enlightenment. Nonetheless, Buddhist logicians were the most advanced in the world until relatively recently.

The cosmologies of Mahayana and Theravada are quite similar. In Mahayana scriptures, the realms of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are described in greater detail.

In Mahayana Buddhism the Buddha is not considered to be a savior . Buddhists of some schools do talk about self effort and other power. Yet, according to Buddhist teaching, that distinction ultimately does not hold up, because the distinction between self and other is unreal. Likewise, for the same reason, no clear dividing line exists between prayer and meditation. Although no equivalent to grace is found in Mahayana, the aid of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is an important reality. Yet Buddhists do not consider Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to be separate, ultimately, from themselves, from their own true minds. In both Mahayana and Theravada, enlightenment is not contingent upon others. If the Buddha had been able to grant enlightenment, he certainly would have enlightened all living beings.

From "Clearing Up Some Misconceptions about Buddhism," Ron Epstein, Institute for World Religions and San Francisco State University. Published in Vajra Bodhi Sea: A Monthly Journal of Orthodox Buddhism, Feb., 1999, pp. 41-43.