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Over the centuries, the many Buddhist sects that came into being either died out or were absorbed into three main streams – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.
What led to the first schism among the Buddha’s followers? It was primarily the perceived role of a Buddhist. The Theravada school held that the chief aim of a practitioner was self-liberation through enlightenment; the practice of instructing others in Buddhism was secondary.
The Mahayana school differed. Their ideal was the Bodhisattva (literally, Buddha-to-be), an evolved being who deliberately chooses rebirth over attaining personal enlightenment, to help liberate others from the endless cycle of existence (samsara). Vajrayana differs from its parent school, the Mahayana, more in terms of its esoteric practices rather than philosophy.
While Theravada established itself and continues to exist in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, Mahayana developed into an umbrella organization for various sects, spreading northwards via Nepal and Tibet into China, Mongolia, Japan and Korea. Today, Theravada exists as one major school while Mahayana has eight Chinese schools – four of them emphasizing practices and another four based on philosophy. Mahayana also includes the Chinese and Japanese schools of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism.
The scriptures of Theravada, known as the Pali Canon, have three divisions, each consisting of several books. The Mahayana Canon incorporated many of the teachings of the Pali Canon, expanded upon it and rejected some of its monastic rules. The language of Theravada teaching is essentially Pali, supplemented by local languages, while Mahayana Buddhism is taught entirely in the local language.
Theravada was deeply influenced by Indian culture; its scriptures contain references to the ancient Indian religious texts. In China, Buddhism and the native philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism influenced each other.
Differences in practice, architecture and lifestyle
Extreme simplicity of practice was an original feature of Buddha’s teachings. Theravada Buddhism continues this tradition, with minimal use of ritual. Mahayana, however, absorbed the cultural traditions of its adoptive countries and has varied and elaborate rituals. Vajrayana’s use of the bell, drum and ritual dagger and paintings of deities have greatly inspired Tibetan art and crafts.
There are marked differences in temple architecture. Theravada temples have simple, clean lines, with the focus on the idol of Sakyamuni Buddha. Mahayana temples have more decorative elements and contain different sections for Sakyamuni and the three main Bodhisattvas.
Some similarities are seen between the two major schools when it comes to contemporary lay practices, such as accepting the Five Precepts and meditating on a daily basis.
On special days, Theravada followers observe a fast, study the scriptures and visit monasteries to offer their support. Mahayana practitioners study or listen to discourses about Buddha’s teachings, make ceremonial offerings and practice repentance. Both schools reinforce the need to imbibe the Buddha’s Eightfold Path on these days.
Theravada emphasizes the importance of undertaking pilgrimages; Mahayana exhorts its practitioners to take Bodhisattva vows. Vajrayana, besides incorporating many of these practices, also involves reciting of mantras and initiation into esoteric practices.
There are differences in the lifestyle of monks. Members of the Theravada eat just one meal a day. Mahayana leaves it to individual practitioners to exercise this option. While the Mahayana schools observe vegetarianism (barring Tibet, for geographical reasons), the Theravada schools do not consider it essential.
Thus, the schools of Buddhist thought that evolved after the passing of the great spiritual leader reveal more differences than similarities in philosophies, traditions and practices. There is little that unites them other than the central figure of the Buddha himself.