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Buddhism is a family of traditions which trace their lineage back to a figure known as Siddartha Gautama, a man who discovered a means of escape from the suffering of existence. It is said that he became 'awakened', and this is the meaning of his title: Buddha.



Buddhism is a family of traditions which trace their lineage back to a figure known as Siddartha Gautama, a man who discovered a means of escape from the suffering of existence. It is said that he became ‘awakened’, and this is the meaning of his title: Buddha.

Broadly speaking, Buddhists follow the Four Noble Truths, as expressed by the Buddha:

  • Life is unsatisfactory (dukkha)
  • This unsatisfactoriness has a singular cause (samudaya)
  • This cause can be stopped (nirodha)
  • Buddhism is the way to stop it (magga)

The precise nature of the underlying cause, the way that unsatisfactoriness manifests, and other key details have been the subject of many Buddhist scriptures, which claim to relate what Gautama, also known by his title of the Awakened One (Buddha), said on these matters.

Differences and subtraditions

Over many centuries, differences in opinion and experience among the community of monks and nuns (the sangha) led to doctrinal splits, which became increasingly manifest, until today it is common to speak of Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism as two separate entities.

Theravada is a form of Buddhism that claims to represent an historically accurate version of Buddhism, which venerates the Buddha but does not deify him, follows the teachings of the old scriptures (the Pali Canon), and values the aspirational figure of the arhat: the liberated individual who finds freedom by strength of will.

Mahayana is a form of Buddhism that includes many divergent traditions spread over a geographically and culturally diverse area, but can be summarised as a religion where compassion for others is the principal virtue. For Mahayanists, the aspirational figure is the bodhisattva: one who delays their own salvation in order to help others achieve liberation first.

Although these Buddhist schools appear to practise different methods and place emphasis on different values, their shared heritage provides a firm foundation which unites, rather than divides them. An analogy might be drawn with the way that different branches from the same tree can be viewed as connected and ultimately one. We’ll now explore whether this idea of unity is warranted, given the historical and cultural developments within the Buddhist tradition.

Understanding the split

The conventional Buddhist narrative is that Gautama Siddhartha (the Buddha) discovered a practice that brought him to a state of enlightenment, in which he remembered his previous lives, understood the nature of his existence, and learned to avoid living in a way that generated suffering for himself. This liberated state is referred to in Buddhism as nibbana or nirvana.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha devoted his remaining years to teaching his methods and principles.

As his death approached, according to the Maha-Parinibbana-Suttanta, he explained to his disciples that, ‘The truths and the rules of the order which I have set forth and laid down [will] be the Teacher to you’ (Rhys Davids, 1881, p.112).

This was generally interpreted in Theravada Buddhism to mean that there was nothing missing or omitted from the Buddha’s teachings, and therefore there was no need for innovation and development over time. From the Theravada perspective, the Buddha and his teachings had been clearly and unambiguously revealed.

Accordingly, Theravada Buddhism holds that though the Buddha was a tremendous soul, who had struggled for many lifetimes to achieve liberation, at the moment of his death he departed the cyclic rounds of existence known as samsara. Those who remained after his passing attempted to emulate his behaviour and live out his principles without elevating him to the status of a deity. Therefore the aspirational ideal of Theravada is the perfected person, or arahant: one who aims to achieve liberation as the Buddha did, by following his teachings through personal effort and dedication.

New ideas

The emergence of the Mahayana movement was gradual, and many of their doctrines and ideas were already floating around in Buddhist thought prior to the split.

Writing in A History of Zen Buddhism, Heinrich Dumoulin argues that:

At no point in the history of Buddhism is it actually possible to demonstrate an upheaval which might have brought about a radical break [between Theravada and Mahayana]

Dumoulin, 1963, p.20

However, the beginnings were certainly visible at the second council of the Buddhist community, just over a century after the Buddha’s death.

Discussions at the Second Council

During this meeting (the exact details of which are debated), monastic members of the sangha discussed how strictly to interpret the Buddha’s rules of conduct.

After a majority voted against relaxing the communal standards, the minority who supported relaxing the rules formed their own community, known as the Mahasanghika school - this was the seed of the Mahayana movement (Britannica, 1998(a)).

Developing diversity

One of the obvious characteristics of Mahayana is its diversity; it embraced change and encouraged its members to engage with people on their own terms.

Because of this strong diversity, it’s difficult to say with accuracy which principles and practices are ‘Mahayanist’ without qualifying the statement with exceptions.

They aspire to the ideal of the bodhisattva, or Enlightenment Being, who stands on the threshold of nirvana but doesn’t cross over, instead vowing to liberate all beings (Dumoulin, 1963, pp.22-5). In consequence, bodhisattvas are always to be found acting in the world, either embodied as humans, or dwelling in one of the heavens, not as disengaged beings of bliss, but as liberators who respond to practitioners who invoke them.

Along with the geographical and cultural spread of Buddhism that Mahayana embraced, there were also linguistic and scriptural developments; as Buddhism spread across Asia it was translated into the local languages. While Theravadins adhere mostly to the material contained in the Pali Canon, Mahayanists recognise a far wider array of inspired and inspirational literature (for example the Lotus Sutra), along with the older texts.

In Mahayanist philosophy, the historical Buddha’s significance became enlarged over time, until he was no less than the very foundation of existence, and the goal to which Buddhists aspired, he ‘…transcends the boundary so definitively as to belong to the absolute reality … Essentially, he is the Absolute’ (Dumoulin, 1963, p.28).

The Buddha’s importance for Mahayanist schools was established doctrinally via the concept of the three bodies, or Trikaya.

This doctrine states that buddhas have:

  • a created body, which engages with the world physically (nirmankaya),
  • a celestial, heavenly body, which can appear to meditators in visions and perform miracles (sambhogakaya),
  • and an unmanifested body, which does not have personal qualities, but instead represents the essence of buddhahood and enlightenment (dharmakaya).

These metaphysical doctrines were not explained in detail by Gautama during his lifetime, and instead were developed by later Mahayanist thinkers. Such developments are justified, in part, by the idea that the Buddha’s teachings were not intended to be absolute, but rather that his ideas, language, and even principles, were ‘skillful means’. These skillful means, or upaya, were evident in the way that the Buddha structured his language and arguments to appeal to his audience. In other words, he only told people as much as they could handle, just like how teachers present complicated ideas in simplified form for children, then gradually scale up the detail as the child matures.

The Mahayanists, however, took this idea further, and argued that the Buddha’s entire corpus of philosophy and practical instruction was similarly delivered, and therefore was only true or relevant in the circumstances during which it was expounded. Future Buddhists were not bound to the letter of the teachings. The Lankavatara Sutra has the Buddha state quite explicitly that, ‘…anyone that discourses on a truth that is dependent on letters is a mere prattler because truth is beyond letters’ (trans. Suzuki, 2007).

Recognising the unity

Despite these many differences, at their root, both Theravada and Mahayana hold the Buddha to be an individual of profound importance, who by his own power and determination put an end to his suffering; out of compassion for the suffering of others he went into the world and taught so that others might follow in his footsteps.

Dumoulin, in discussing the issue of multiplicity and unity in Buddhism, wrote:

In vain does one seek a bond that would embrace all these numerous contradictory forms. And yet, despite the absence of a common denominator, Buddhism constitutes a whole. The specific essence of Buddhism is nowhere so clearly apparent as in the mysticism that pervades the whole of this religion

Dumoulin, 1963, p.5

Mysticism, experience, self-validation, these underline the essential message of the Buddha; he taught not merely the means to end suffering, but asked people to put his method to the test. Experience was, and remains, key to Buddhism’s vitality as a missionary religion.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism both ‘…agree upon and practice the core teachings of the Buddha’s Dharma’ (Buddhanet, 2008). The ‘core teachings’, therefore, can be understood as the route to liberation as mapped out by the four noble truths and the eightfold path - arguably the minimum required to start someone on the Buddhist path. Therefore we can make the claim that Theravada and Mahayana are connected in one, unified ‘Buddhism’, but at the expense of considerable nuance; Theravada and Mahayana are clearly not identical.

We have seen that there is - at least according to the Mahayana - room for interpretation and development within the Buddha’s teachings, and many new practices and theories have emerged from them - none sought to invalidate what Gautama taught, only to build on his foundations. No matter how the Buddha and his teachings were interpreted by later Buddhist schools, Gautama was treated as an exemplary individual. In this sense, no matter what the doctrinal or philosophical differences between the movements, they were intrinsically linked by their shared heritage, and their shared respect for it.

However, we must be careful in how far we take this linkage; it is misleading to suggest that Theravada and Mahayana are the same by virtue of this relationship. They are complex, multifaceted collections of ideas and practices, which have migrated, grown, conflicted, and sometimes merged. After such a colossal journey, they cannot be equated by suggesting they are simply different ways of saying the same thing, and yet both ultimately aim at the wordless experience by which the Buddhist liberation is confirmed.

To the extent that we understand this as a relationship between Buddhisms at their religious and historical root, then we can cautiously agree that they are both unified, but we must always be mindful that just because they are joined at the root does not make them identical.


Image Credits

Photo by Norbu Gyachung on Unsplash

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