What's the Difference Between Theravada and Mahayana?

One of the main causes of suffering is trying to grasp what can’t be grasped. We can’t grasp it because it’s impermanent and dependently arisen. Back in the day, I compared it to clutching a hot coal, but that’s not totally accurate. It’s more like trying to grab onto boiling water. Our hands are in the pot, searching for something solid, but there’s only water.

 

By John Lee Pendall

Early Buddhism (I’m just going to say Theravada) and later Buddhism (Mahayana) have more in common than you might think. But, before we go into that, let’s dispel a few myths:

  • Theravada (and other schools that use the Arhat as the ideal Buddhist) were often called the Small Vehicle as an insult. But Theravada is just as focused on kindness and compassion as the Mahayana is and it has been since the beginning.
  • Mahayana Buddhist scriptures (the Sanskrit Canon) are full of deities and psychedelic imagery, but that’s present in the Pali Canon as well.
  • Mahayana Buddhism didn’t break away from Theravada or vice versa. The two streams of thought and practice pretty much developed side by side, and they were often practiced in the same monasteries. The “split” that occurred in Buddhism happened before any of the currently existing Buddhist schools, well, existed.
  • Theravada is usually associated with West Asia and Mahayana East Asia, but—like Theravada—the Mahayana schools have their roots in India. Mahayana made its way East along the Silk Road.

Alright, so now we can get down to the differences—well, difference, really since all the other peculiarities come from just one divergence: Theravada and Secular Buddhism say that we need to let go; Mahayana Buddhism says that we were never holding on. Together, they pretty much form one balanced view, because when we fully let go for a moment, we realize that we were never holding on. Because who is it that was holding on? What is it that was held onto?

One of the main causes of suffering is trying to grasp what can’t be grasped. We can’t grasp it because it’s impermanent and dependently arisen. Back in the day, I compared it to clutching a hot coal, but that’s not totally accurate. It’s more like trying to grab onto boiling water. Our hands are in the pot, searching for something solid, but there’s only water.

Whenever we think that something is permanent and self-existent, then we’re plunging our hands into that pot. The pain we feel gives rise to all our afflictions like bitterness, sadness, and regret, and it’s so intense that we totally forget that our hands are in boiling water. So, instead of taking our hands out, we just stand there screaming, probably while wearing nothing but pink bunny slippers and a baseball cap.

Step one in Theravada/Secular Buddhism is to stop screaming and settle our minds. Step two is to observe the situation we’re in so that we can figure out why we’re in pain. Once we figure that out, we move to step three: taking our hands out of the pot. But that’s not the end of it because we’re really very forgetful. After a little while—maybe just a few minutes—we plunge our hands right back into the pot again.

The breaks between plunges get longer and longer as we practice. Eventually, we might even reach out and switch the burner off. That’s step four. If you turn off the heat and pour out the water, then you’re an Arhat or Pratyekabuddha. That’s letting go—aka—Nibbana.

The Mahayana perspective is different: we don’t have hands because we are the water.

We can’t take our hands out of the pot because we’re in it. We are it, 100%. When we practice letting go, we’re actually working at bringing the water to room temperature. Fewer bubbles disturb the surface as it cools. Those bubbles are our afflictions—our anger, fear, longing, pride and self-centered thoughts and impulses. That urge to cling to things forever, to deny change and interdependence, is like boiling water trying to keep its steam. The more we try, the more we boil, the more satisfaction and well-being dissolve into thin air.

Once we’ve cooled off, we realize that all of our views and troubles were bubbles in the water. We see that whether water’s in a liquid, solid, or gaseous form, it’s still H2O. Whether it’s placid or boiling, or if it’s rain, ice or vapor—it’s still fundamentally the same. That’s emptiness or Buddha-nature.

Another way to say it is that Theravada is about taking salt water and desalinating so that it’s safe to drink. Mahayana focuses on that as well, but the liberating insight in the Mahayana is that salt water and fresh water are both water, that we’ve all been fundamentally awake this whole time.

The main practical reason behind that view is that then we’re less likely to get attached to Buddhism, because if we’ve let go of everything, but we’re still clinging to the Dharma, then our water is still gonna be a little salty.

 

Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall

 

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John Pendall

John Lee Pendall is a featured columnist, editor, podcast host, and co-owner of the Tattooed Buddha. He's also a composer, musician, poet, self-published author and Novice Chan Priest.

He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.

Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".
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