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  • Writer's pictureLama Jigme Gyatso

What's the Difference Between the Theravada and Mahayana Teachings of Buddhism

Ahamed recently asked a double question,

What’s the difference between

Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism?

And, “Which is the true message of Buddha,

Mahayana and Theravada?

Let us begin by addressing

the banthas in the room:

FIRST are we certain that either

Mahayana or Theravada

is the, so called,

True message of the Buddha?


and a trifle more sobering,

could the true message of the Buddha

ever be known?

When we consider

the vast collection of discourses

that claim to have been

uttered by the Buddha

scholars typically think of them in terms

of the three baskets

(or Pi-ta-kas, if you prefer the ancient language of Pali).

But the very great irony

was that at first

there were only two Pitakas,

the Sutta Pitaka containing discourses

and the Vina Pitaka

chiefly containing monastic rules

and also some discourses.

But for more than a thousand years

we have also had a third basket:

the Abhidhamma Pitaka (or super dhamma)

dealing largely with metaphysics.

Where did that third basket

come from?

We began with the original teachings

of Siddhartha Gautama

who was known as the Enlightened One,

or Buddha if you prefer Pali.

After his death

the FIRST wave of Hindu influence upon his teachings

was the addition of ritual,

something the Buddha expressly taught against.

The SECOND wave of Hindu influence upon the teachings

was the addition of mythology

to the body of the Buddha’s teachings

which inferred that enlightenment was only for the special,

and not the lowly riff raff like me and you.

The THIRD wave of Hindu influence upon the teachings

was the addition of metaphysics,

which is a clear deviation

from the earthy and trenchant teachings of the Buddha.

Over the centuries there have been many sects,

but these days they are collectively known

as the way of the elders

or Theravada if you prefer Pali.

If the Hindu waves of influence

upon the Buddha’s teachings

gave us the Theravada,

then it could be argued

that the Chinese waves of influence

upon the Buddha’s teachings

gave us the Mahayana.

The FIRST wave of Chinese influence

upon the Buddha’s teachings

was the introduction of additional metaphors

such as emptiness and voidness.

The SECOND wave of Chinese influence

upon the Buddha’s teachings

was the modification of mythology

to the scale of the epic

influencing our perception of the Buddha

and his disciples.

The THIRD wave of Chinese influence

was an additional layer of metaphysics.

Line up all the children

in a first grade class,

whisper a short message

in the ear of the first child.

The first child whispers to the second,

the second child whispers to the third,

and so on,

until the thirty-fifth child recites the message aloud…

and we discover it now bears little resemblance

to the original one.

Given the unreliable nature

of verbal transmission

and the fact that they were not written down

for about five hundred years

how are we to know

what the Buddha taught?

FIRST, when we read English translations

of both the Sutta of the Kalamas’ Dilemma

as well as the Parinibbana Sutta…

we learn that according to the Buddha

the test of a teacher and his teachings

is NOT their age, beauty, prestige, nor wealth,

NOR our intellectual NOR intuitive reaction to them

NOR even their credentials NOR letters of reference,

BUT, rather, the test of the teacher and his teachings

are merely the results that we generate

from practice the teachings we receive

for as little as seven consecutive days.

If, after a week of twice daily practice,

your anxiety, aggression, and sorrow have failed to improve

then it’s time to find a new teacher.

But, if after a week of twice daily practice,

your peace, love, and resiliency have increased

then it could be wise to persist with that teacher.

SECONDLY, let’s return to first principals;

specifically, the Buddha’s first discourse

where he taught the four noble truths.

From a certain point of view:

FIRST life has no shortage of stress

SECOND humans have the strange ability

to take whatever stress life throws at them

and make it much worse

by neurotically indulging our tendencies

to strive to push some things away

and strain to pull other things closer.

THIRD there is a state, a way of being,

wherein although we might NOT be free from the presence

of the push and pull of dread and desire

we are at least liberated from their tyranny.

FOURTH the path to that state,

depends NOT upon the caprice

of a real or imagined celestial entity,

but is simply a path,

consisting of eight sets of techniques.

In conclusion, the ONLY test of whether or not

a set of teachings are the true message of the Buddha

is whether they free us from the tyranny

of dread or desire, or not.

You are welcome to stay for tonight’s guided meditation.

Perhaps you could find it helpful on your journey.

Let us conclude

with a simple

call to action

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