In the year 1516 CE, Martin Luther nailed a list of ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenburg Castle Church in Saxony, setting off a firestorm of Christian controversy that would crack the Catholic Church in two. One hundred years later, in the city of Medina, two groups of grieving Muslims chose sides and fought, often violently, over who would succeed the late Prophet Muhammad. Such ruptures have occurred so often within the world’s great faiths that the word “schism” has become permanently associated with religion itself. In the Western world, these rifts are usually the result of years of growing discontent that manifest in a sudden, painful process of separation. But in the East, religious division has transpired quite differently.
Buddhism’s two foremost modern factions began as a single faith under the guidance of a living founder, the venerated Buddha. In the centuries after his death, the faith spread across all of Southeast Asia and China, where people received the doctrine within the contexts of their cultures. When new concepts were introduced, and fresh texts appeared – some purporting to convey messages directly from the Buddha himself – councils were convened in an attempt to standardize the canon and doctrine. As some followers clung to established practice and others embraced the new views, it became clear that two distinct schools of thought were emerging across the realm. Theravada, or “The Way of the Elders” is the name that came to designate the adherents of Early Buddhist doctrine. The term “Mahayana” (or the “Great Vehicle”) applied to those who accepted the innovations.
Of course, both sides agree on many fundamental points. For example, no one questions the truth of karma and samsara (transmigration). For all Buddhists, like Hindus and Jains, there is no doubt that all of mankind is subjected to an endless cycle of deaths and rebirths into new physical forms (although the faiths vary on the scope of existence concerned in this process: some contend that samsara involves only humans, while others believe that animals, plants, “gods”, and – in the case of Jains – even inanimate objects are included). The driving force of samsara is karma, the idea that an individual’s actions (including thought) affect his happiness or misery in life, and determine the form of each incarnation. A man is a human in this life because of the way in which he lived past lives – how he lives as a man now will determine whether he comes back in the future as another man, a god, or a toad. The karma that a person accumulates is thought to be entirely in each individual’s control, and therefore, responsibility for his station in present and future life is ultimately his own. He should regard other people’s misfortune not as their deserved punishment, but as his opportunity to provide help, generate good karma and affect his own future in a positive way.
Another tenet of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, an explanation of existence and salvation that was taught by the Buddha directly.
Although the two branches of Buddhism may derive different presumptions or implications from the Four Noble Truths, they do not doubt the Buddha’s teaching that 1) there is suffering; 2) suffering is caused by desire; 3) suffering can be stopped by stopping desire; and, 4) the way to stop desire is to follow the “Noble 8-Fold Path,” which is universally understood to encompass the “Wisdom” of right views and intentions, the “Ethical Conduct” of right speech, action, livelihood and effort, and the “Mental Discipline” of right mindfulness and concentration.
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism both agree initially on the principle of “Conditioned Arising” (although Mahayanist thought develops this concept further), which propounds that nothing in the universe exists independently. All things are factors of other things, each a culmination or stage of some endless process. In understanding that all relative attributes of life are merely aspects of an absolute reality, a person uncovers his inherent buddhanature, and comes much closer to his ultimate goal, which both branches of Buddhism refer to as nirvana.
Here the two sides disagree over the relationship between nirvana and samsara, as well as the connection between the enlightened person and the rest of creation.
These concepts are outlined in the most ancient of Buddhist sacred texts, which both sides believe were taught to the clergy by Buddha during his lifetime. However, the Mahayana assert that Buddha’s teachings did not end when he died. Through what is referred to as “skillful means”, it is explained that the Buddha taught on two levels: conventional and profound (ultimate). His living discourses had been transcribed by followers who only grasped the conventional level of the message, producing texts of “inferior” understanding. On the other hand, "the discourses in which Gautama taught Mahayana doctrines had … been preserved in non-human realms” (Batchelor, 16) which survived his death. It was the role of the Mahayana philosophers to discern these discourses from those realms and divulge them to those who were ready to understand. An outpouring of new discourses flooded the Buddhist world, and fueled the Mahayana evolution.
One primary distinction of this evolution was a deepening understanding of Conditioned Arising, and what this meant for human existence. Early Buddhism taught that man was a conglomeration of five dharmas (aggregates): form, perception, conception, inclinations and consciousness. Each of these dharmas was considered an ultimate component of the individual which could not be broken down further. This ultimacy, the Mahayana argue, is not in keeping with the very definition of Conditioned Arising, which states that everything – even the dharmas – must be dependent on something that has gone before. Their conclusion is that dharmas do not exist independently, and that, beneath the aggregates of human existence, there is nothing left, a condition the Mahayana call Emptiness. This concept makes a strong contribution to enlightenment, forcing the subject to let go of fixed ideas about himself and the world, and reducing egocentrism down to nothing. Emptiness can even engender a sense of morality. "Emptiness becomes the basis for an ethics of spontaneous empathetic responsiveness" writes the monk and author Stephen Batchelor (34), revealing the individual man as "... a cell that form[s] part of the interdependent multicellular organism of existence itself" (33).
Samsara is Nirvana
Another distinct difference between Theravada and Mahayana thought is found in the understanding of samsara and Nirvana. For the Therevadans, Nirvana is a sacred condition of existence that is separate from the profane world of samsara. Samsara is to be shed in attainment of Nirvana, which can only be fully achieved after death. For the Mahayana, Nirvana is the full realization of Emptiness, an understanding that can (and in fact, must) be achieved while alive – it is a state of mind. "Nirvana and samsara are not two separate realities,” explains the Buddhist professor Peter Harvey, “but the field of emptiness, seen by either spiritual ignorance or true knowledge" (103). Emptiness brings Nirvana into the relative world, infusing every aspect of samsara with sacredness, if only for those who are able to understand it. "Awakening is present here and now at the very heart of ordinary experience rather than as a distant goal to be attained in the future,” says Batchelor, “The awakened mind of a buddha is nothing other than the pristine awareness animating one's own ordinary mind at every moment" (41). For the enlightened Mahayana Buddhist, samsara and Nirvana are the same.
One of the most visible differences between the two branches of Buddhism is in their depictions of the Enlightened Ones. For followers of the early doctrine, Arhats are generally members of the clergy who have practiced their faith to the point of Enlightenment, and who become one with Nirvana after their final death. The Arhat pursuit of Enlightenment is solitary and can only be achieved by abandoning samsara for good. While the Arhat is praised for his accomplishments, in the Mahayana perception a being of higher rank is the Bodhisattva.
Through the doctrines of Emptiness and Samsara-as-Nirvana, the Bodhisattva does not need to escape samsara in order to experience Nirvana, because he realizes that both are the same. In Enlightenment, he is suffused with beneficence, and turns his attention to those beings still mired in ignorance. Bodhisattvas are resolved to help all sentient beings achieve Enlightenment, lending them a saintly quality in the eyes of their followers.
The Buddha as Savior
For any Buddhist, the most saintly of beings is the Buddha himself. Theravadans look to him as the ultimate teacher, source of inspiration, and model. But the Mahayana carry this veneration even further, to the point of looking to the Buddha in messianic terms. Perhaps the theologian Paul Williams explains this development most accurately: "... as time went on so the Buddha became more an object to be reached, an object with whom one might hope to enter into a real relationship as was experienced when he was present on Earth” (219). The distance of time between the Buddha and his followers created ever deepening needs “for the Buddha to be present, to console, clarify, teach, and perhaps protect “ (219).
From the perspective of those outside the new school of thought, Mahayana Buddhism could be seen as a reformation or revolution; for insiders, the innovations were nothing more than refinements, or even a restoration of ideals that the Buddha presented early on. Surprisingly, little friction has sprung up between these differing groups, other than spirited debate. The Western schismatic wars underscore Buddhism’s relatively peaceful evolution, and its inherent respect for other paths to Enlightenment.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
Batchelor, Stephen. Verses from the Center: a Buddhist Vision of the Sublime. New York: Riverhead Books, 2000.
Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge, 1989.