Mahayana Buddhism vs. Theravada Buddhism

What's the Difference?

Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism are two major branches of Buddhism that differ in their beliefs and practices. Mahayana Buddhism, also known as the "Great Vehicle," emphasizes the idea of compassion and the pursuit of enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. It places a strong emphasis on the concept of bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who postpone their own liberation to help others. On the other hand, Theravada Buddhism, also known as the "Way of the Elders," focuses on the individual's path to enlightenment and the attainment of nirvana. It emphasizes the importance of meditation and the study of Buddhist scriptures. While both branches share the core teachings of the Buddha, they differ in their approach and emphasis, with Mahayana Buddhism being more inclusive and Theravada Buddhism being more individualistic.


AttributeMahayana BuddhismTheravada Buddhism
OriginDeveloped in India and spread to East AsiaOriginated in Sri Lanka and spread to Southeast Asia
Belief in BodhisattvasEmphasizes the role of Bodhisattvas in achieving enlightenmentFocuses on individual enlightenment and becoming an Arahat
ScripturesIncludes Mahayana Sutras such as the Lotus Sutra and Heart SutraRelies on the Pali Canon, also known as the Tripitaka
GoalAttaining Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beingsAchieving Nirvana and ending the cycle of rebirth
MonasticismMonastic communities play a significant roleMonasticism is highly valued and central to the tradition
Devotional PracticesIncludes chanting, meditation, and ritualsEmphasizes meditation and mindfulness
Views on LaypeopleEncourages laypeople to practice and support monastic communitiesLaypeople are seen as supporters of the monastic Sangha
Views on ArhatsArhats are respected but seen as lower than BodhisattvasArhats are highly revered as enlightened beings
Views on Buddha NatureBelieves all beings have the potential to become BuddhasDoes not emphasize the concept of Buddha Nature

Further Detail


Buddhism, one of the world's major religions, encompasses various traditions and schools of thought. Two prominent branches of Buddhism are Mahayana and Theravada. While both share the core teachings of the Buddha, they differ in their interpretations, practices, and overall approach to the path of enlightenment. This article aims to explore and compare the attributes of Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, shedding light on their similarities and differences.

Origins and Historical Development

Mahayana Buddhism emerged around the 1st century CE, several centuries after the Buddha's passing. It originated in India and gradually spread to various parts of Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The Mahayana tradition emphasizes the Bodhisattva ideal, which focuses on attaining enlightenment not only for oneself but also for the benefit of all sentient beings.

On the other hand, Theravada Buddhism, also known as the "Doctrine of the Elders," traces its roots back to the earliest Buddhist teachings. It is considered the more conservative and orthodox form of Buddhism, preserving the original teachings of the Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is primarily practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Scriptures and Texts

Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism have their own collections of sacred texts. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Tripitaka, which consists of the Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma, is revered. However, Mahayana Buddhism also includes additional scriptures known as the Mahayana Sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra, which are highly regarded and widely studied.

Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, places a strong emphasis on the Pali Canon, also known as the Tipitaka. This collection of scriptures is written in Pali, the language spoken during the Buddha's time. The Tipitaka is divided into three sections: the Vinaya Pitaka (rules for monastic discipline), the Sutta Pitaka (discourses of the Buddha), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (philosophical analysis).

Goal and Path to Enlightenment

Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism share the ultimate goal of attaining enlightenment, liberation from the cycle of birth and death, and the cessation of suffering. However, they differ in their approach to achieving this goal.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva ideal plays a central role. A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who compassionately postpones their own liberation to assist others in their spiritual journey. Mahayana practitioners aspire to become Bodhisattvas and work towards the liberation of all sentient beings. They emphasize the cultivation of compassion, wisdom, and the practice of the six perfections (generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom).

Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, focuses on individual liberation through the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. This path consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Theravada practitioners aim to attain Arhatship, the highest state of enlightenment achievable by an individual, through their own efforts and practice.

Role of the Buddha

In both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha holds a central and revered position. However, their perspectives on the Buddha differ to some extent.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha is seen as an eternal, transcendental being who manifests in various forms to guide and teach sentient beings. Mahayana practitioners often venerate not only the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, but also other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are considered enlightened beings. They believe in the concept of Buddha-nature, the inherent potential for enlightenment present in all beings.

Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, views the Buddha as an extraordinary human being who achieved enlightenment through his own efforts. While highly respected and revered, the Buddha is not considered divine or eternal in Theravada tradition. The focus is primarily on following the Buddha's teachings and example to attain liberation.

Monasticism and Lay Practitioners

Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism have a strong monastic tradition, with monks and nuns playing a vital role in preserving and propagating the teachings. However, the role of lay practitioners differs between the two traditions.

In Theravada Buddhism, monastic life is highly esteemed, and the path to enlightenment is often seen as more accessible for those who renounce worldly attachments and become monks or nuns. Lay practitioners support the monastic community through acts of generosity and by following the Five Precepts, which are ethical guidelines for leading a virtuous life.

Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on the role of lay practitioners. While monastic life is still valued, Mahayana teachings emphasize that enlightenment is attainable for all beings, regardless of their social or religious status. Lay practitioners actively engage in the practice of generosity, ethical conduct, and meditation, striving to cultivate wisdom and compassion in their daily lives.

Deities and Devotional Practices

Another notable difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism lies in their approach to deities and devotional practices.

Mahayana Buddhism incorporates a wide range of deities and celestial beings, often referred to as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, or celestial protectors. Devotional practices, such as chanting, making offerings, and seeking blessings from these deities, are common in Mahayana traditions. These practices are believed to generate positive karma and aid in spiritual progress.

Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, generally avoids the worship of deities and emphasizes personal responsibility and self-reliance on the path to enlightenment. While there is respect for the Buddha and his teachings, the focus is primarily on individual practice and the development of one's own wisdom and virtue.


Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, despite their shared roots, have evolved into distinct traditions with their own unique characteristics. While Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the Bodhisattva ideal, the role of compassion, and the inclusion of additional scriptures, Theravada Buddhism focuses on individual liberation, the original teachings of the Buddha, and the importance of monastic life. Both traditions offer valuable paths to enlightenment, catering to the diverse needs and aspirations of Buddhist practitioners worldwide.

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