Ep. 028: The Two Vehicles: Theravada and Mahayana

The two major branches of Buddhist teaching and practice

Three Vehicles?

Most people who know anything about Buddhism are vaguely aware that it comes in two flavors: Mahayana and Hinayana (though we'll talk about the inappropriateness of that term in a minute). Unless they're boffo Buddhist fans, they may not be aware of a third strain--arguably just a variation of the Mahayana--called the Vajrayana, more comfortably (if inaccurately) known as "Tibetan Buddhism."

These three are sometimes referred to as "three vehicles." The literal meaning of Mahayana is "Great Vehicle" (and sometimes called quaintly in Chinese the "Big Boat"). A "bigger boat" is made necessary by the teaching that "everyone's a Buddha" and that laypeople are as eligible for enlightenment as monastics. The word Hinayana, meaning "Small Vehicle," has come to be thought of as insulting, with "small" meaning "lesser" or "inferior." So these days it's more politely called the Theravada, or the "Way of the Elders."

A statue of Kobo Daishi at Daxingshan Temple in Xi'an, whence he brought Shingon (esoteric) Buddhism back to Japan

What we now call the third vehicle, actually found not only in Tibet but in Mongolia and even to some extent as "esoteric" schools in China and Japan, is the Vajrayana, or "Diamond (or Thunderbolt) Vehicle." But in earlier times, when many of the sutras were being written, the Vajrayana was not so much a thing, not really forming until much later. Instead, the "third vehicle" in the story you're about to hear was called pratyekabuddhayana, the arising of a solitary Buddha who neither had a teacher nor became one. As this never became a popular idea in East Asia, we shall leave it alone, even though it predated the development of the Vajrayana.

Now, here's the story. The Lotus Sutra says that a father was trying to lure his children out of a burning house, but they were so preoccupied with their toys that they wouldn't come. So he told them there were three wonderful vehicles outside, one pulled by goats, one by deer, and one by oxen. But when the children got outside, there were not three vehicles, but one, pulled by white bullocks and decorated with precious jewels. After all, the story suggests, there is really just one vehicle, the ekayana (eka means "one" in Sanskrit); he told them there were three different vehicles as an expedient means to save them.

Comparing the Two Vehicles

A Theravada monk, my friend Venerable Thawatchai (one-time Abbot of Wat Dhammagunaram Buddhist Temple in Layton, Utah)

In attempting to get a grip on the differences between the two vehicles, the Mahayana and the Theravada, it's useful to see some of their elements side-by-side.


  • Timeline: The Theravada is generally held to precede the Mahayana--but not by much.

It is generally accepted that the Theravada (which, like the Mahayana, is no more monolithic than, say, all Protestant Christian denominations are alike) is earlier than the Mahayana. This is an open question, as the origins of both traditions can be found very early on. It is true, however, that the oldest body of texts we have is Theravadan; we'll talk more about that in a moment. But let's, for now, say that the Theravada came first, and the Mahayana grew out of it--again, not a settled question.


Three Mahayana (two Taiwanese and a Singaporean) nuns at Hsi Lai Temple when I worked there
  • Geography: The Theravada is generally found in South Asia; the Mahayana in North and East Asia.

Generally speaking, the Theravada is found in South and Southeast Asia--Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The Mahayana spread mostly via the Silk Road over the mountains and across the deserts to China and Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam (the last more likely via the maritime route). Buddhism had its origins in India, and though it died out there, the Mahayana is also historically present in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and Mongolia. It is also found in places like Singapore that were populated as a result of the Chinese diaspora.

Given all this, we tend to refer to Theravada as "Southern Buddhism," and the Mahayana as "East Asian" (though sometimes "North Asian").


Decidedly male representation of Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara) Bodhisattva in front of the Heart Sutra
  • Ideal Achievements: The ideal of the Theravada is Arhatship; in the Mahayana it's Bodhisattvahood.

In the Southern tradition, there can be only one Buddha in a very, very long age. So the best that most people can hope for is to become an Arhat: an enlightened being--that is, one who has attained nirvana, and will not be reborn after death--but without all the powers and responsibilities of a Buddha, especially that of being uniquely the Buddha with his function of teaching and leadership.

In the Mahayana tradition, to become an Arhat is possible, but it's considered selfish. Instead, one is to aspire to become a Bodhisattva, one who has pledged not to reach Enlightenment (which, in the Mahayana, means Buddhahood) until all sentient beings are able to cross over. (In practical terms, of course, this means "never," but "hope springs eternal.") In the broadest sense, all people (indeed, all sentient beings) are already Buddhas, but simply have not yet fully manifested their "Buddha Nature." Until then, they are (or can be) Bodhisattvas.

One of my Sri Lankan teachers compared the two ideals this way: Suppose a man is on a mission to a certain destination, and along the way encounters a landslide across the road. He has two choices: to clear the slide before continuing, or to climb over it and complete his mission before coming back to clear it. Thus, that teacher said, the Bodhisattva insists on clearing the way before traveling it himself; the Arhat attains the goal, then comes back to help.


The Pali Canon; you couldn’t do this with the Mahayana sutras (Wikipedia)
  • Texts: The Theravada primarily uses the texts found in the Pali Canon and rejects the Mahayana Sutras; the Mahayana accepts the Pali Canon in addition to the Mahayana Sutras (which are usually written in Sanskrit or Chinese).

The Pali Canon is a well-organized, fairly-cohesive set of texts that runs to over 16,000 pages in Sinhalese (Sri Lankan). It was written in Pali, a literary language that reads like a simplified version of Sanskrit, and the Canon is arranged into three Pitaka or “baskets." The Vinaya Pitaka or "Discipline Basket" prescribes the rules for the sangha or body of the Buddha's followers. The Sutta Pitaka or "Basket of Sutras" (teachings) records the Buddha's teachings, and is by far the largest of the three sections. And the Abhidhamma Pitaka contains elaborations of the teachings, generally along psychological lines. It is considered to be later than the other two, which seem to reflect more closely the Buddha's original words.

A tidy summary like this would be almost impossible to accomplish with the Mahayana texts. Yes, there's a canon, called the Agamas, which parallel the Pali Canon, though written in Sanskrit. But the Chinese Buddhist Canon, which incorporates much of the same material as the Pali Canon, has over 80,000 pages, found in 100 or more volumes! Many of the Mahayana sutras are unique to that tradition, and are rejected by Theravadans as being much later products, not the actual words of the Buddha.


The Seven Ancient (Mahayana) Buddhas at Qingyun Temple, Zhaoqing, Guangdong
  • Buddha Concepts: The Theravada believes there's only one Buddha in any given age; the Mahayana believes in multiple Buddhas (most of them "cosmic") and that ultimately, all living (and perhaps even non-living) things are, or will be, Buddhas.

As mentioned above, the Theravada tradition severely restricts the number of Buddhas who have ever lived, or will ever live. The idea is this: Start arbitrarily in the cycle with someone born to achieve Buddhahood in his lifetime. He becomes enlightened, he teaches, and he "passes into final nirvana" (i.e., dies). His teachings continue to be taught until, as with the children's game "Operator," they become so corrupted as to be useless. When that happens, another person is born to achieve Buddhahood.

Now, becoming a Buddha is not a matter of just one lifetime. It can take hundreds or thousands of them. So when any given Buddha arrives, there are others in progress. Thus, "the" Buddha, Shakyamuni, was recognized by a previous Buddha, Dipankara; and the Shakyamuni Buddha tagged one of his followers, Maitreya, as being the next Buddha. (This is the personage who is said to have manifested as "The Laughing Buddha"--actually, the next Buddha).

But in keeping with its "Big Boat" philosophy, the Mahayana says there are multiple Buddhas, serially and in parallel. Yes, Maitreya is next--but you, and I, and "Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas" (as the Wizard of Oz put it) will someday be a Buddha. Meanwhile, there are concurrent Buddhas, such as Amitabha presiding over the Western Pure Land, and Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, presiding over the Eastern. And that comes nowhere near exhausting the number of "Cosmic Buddhas"--there is an infinite number of Buddha-fields stretching through space in an infinite number of dimensions. It reminds me of the old Dr. Pepper commercial: "I'm a Buddha, he's a Buddha, she's a Buddha, we're a Buddha! Wouldn't you like to be a Buddha too?"


Chanting ceremony, Hong Fa Temple, Shenzhen
  • Practices: The Theravada prescribes meditation as virtually the only path to Enlightenment (Arhatship), meaning as a rule only monks and nuns can attain it; in addition to meditation, the Mahayana accepts rituals and prayer as other means of Enlightenment, so lay people can attain it as well--hence the Mahayana's designation as a "big boat."

Strictly speaking, the original tradition of Buddhism seems to be that one practices meditation, ascending up through various levels, until at last enlightenment is attained. To do so requires the kind of diligence that prevents one from doing too much of anything else. Thus the Theravada features a very "small boat," one that need carry only monks and nuns.

But if all beings are to become Buddhas, the path, like the boat, must be broad--hence, the Mahayana. Lay people usually don't have time to gain enlightenment through sitting, so they may do so through the perfections discussed in Episode 022, such as giving, morality, and so on. Furthermore, participation in rituals--whether conducted individually at home, or in large groups at temples--can be a path. I myself am not much of a sitter, but I find that chanting (especially the Heart Sutra) calms my mind considerably.


  • Views on Supernaturalism: The Theravada is more humanistic, insisting that Enlightenment must be the result of one's own effort (self-help) only; the Mahayana may have more "supernatural" elements, praying for help from others (as in Pure Land Buddhism) though still including a self-help ethic, as in Chan/Zen.

In general, Theravada tends to be very earthly. There are few supernatural claims, though some of the descriptions of meditational states tend to be concretized rather than recognized as internal, psychological phenomena. Likewise the concepts of past lives, the development of karma, and so on, though tainted with "magical thinking" from our perspective, merely represent the science of the day.

But with the Mahayana, all bets are off.

Most of the more-or-less authentic sutras begin with the expression, "Thus have I heard."A typical Theravada sutta then continues by saying where the Buddha was staying, and who he was with, like this: "Thus have I heard: The Blessed One was staying at Jeta's Grove near Savatthi. Venerable Sariputta, Venerable Moggalana, Venerable Kassapa, Venerable Kaccana, Venerable Kotthita, Venerable Kappina, Venerable Cunda, Venerable Anuruddha, Venerable Revata, and Venerable Nanda came to him..."

A medieval Korean representation of the Assembly at Vulture Peak (Wikipedia)

Now, here's how a Mahayana sutra begins (greatly condensed): "Thus have I heard: at one time the Buddha dwelt on Vulture Peak, near the City of the House of the Kings, together with a gathering of Great Bhikshus, twelve thousand in all. ... Moreover, there were those with further study and those beyond study, two thousand in all. ... There were eighty thousand Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas all irreversibly established in anuttarasamyaksambodhi. ... Their reputations extended throughout limitless world realms, and they were able to cross over countless hundreds of thousands of living beings. At that time, Shakra Devanam Indrah [the Hindu god Indra] was present with his retinue of twenty thousand gods. ... There was God King Brahma, ruler of the Saha world, as well as the Great Brahma Shikhin and the Great Brahma Brilliance, and others, with their retinues, twelve thousand gods in all. ... There were eight Dragon Kings ... There were four kinnara kings [a kinnara is a celestial musician, part human, part horse and part bird] ... each with his retinue of several hundreds of thousands of followers. There were four gandharva kings [a gandharva is another type of low-ranking god] ... each with his following of several hundreds of thousands of followers. There were four asura kings [an asura is a superhuman demigod] ... each with his retinue of several hundreds of thousands of followers. There were four garuda kings [a garuda is a legendary bird or bird-like creature] ... each with his own retinue of several hundreds of thousands of followers. There was Vaidehi's son, the King Ajatashatru [a real person, but] with his retinue of several hundreds of thousands of followers."

And so on. Can you spot the difference?

* * * * * * * *

Well, that's about it. Summing up, one could say that the Theravada is more straightforward, down-to-earth, simple in concept, restrained, strict, and conservative. Call it "Puritan." The Mahayana, on the other hand, is more convoluted, high-falutin', complex, extravagant, lackadaisical, and liberal. It's more "catholic" with a small "c." There's room for all in the "big boat."

Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: Come meet the Big Bathing Baby Buddha at Lingshan Mountain in Wuxi, China--24 feet tall!