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Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

An introduction to the major schools of Buddhist thought--Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] What I'd like to do in this video is talk about the major schools of Buddhism as it is practiced today. And it can be broadly divided into Theravada Buddhism, which means school of the elder monks, and Mahayana Buddhism, which means great vehicle. Maha for great. So first on the commonalities. Now both of these schools of Buddhist thought or Buddhist tradition believe in this notion of the cycle of birth and rebirth from one life or one reality to the next, that we call samsara which is also shared with the core of Hindu philosophy. And this idea that your goal should be to realize that all is thought, to escape from the dukkha and eventually obtain nirvana. Now the difference between the two schools of thought, in Theravada buddhism, it is much closer to some of the original practices or teachings that we see with Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. It is a very personal journey that is all about the individual though meditation, perhaps with some help from some teacher recognizing the non-self, recognizing that we are all one, and eventually, either in this life or in future lives, achieving nirvana. Now Mahayana Buddhism actually encompasses a very large set of various practices but the general idea is that you might have help as you try to achieve nirvana. Someone who achieves nirvana is known as an arhat, so you could Therevada Buddhism as, hey try to go on this personal journey to become an arhat, to achieve nirvana. But in Mahayana Buddhism, the pursuit is not necessarily to get to nirvana as quickly as possible. It's to get close to nirvana but then to help others try to achieve that same state So the real goal is to be a bodhisattva, bodhisattva. Now the word bodhisattva is used in both traditions. In Theravada Buddhism, it refers to someone who is trying to become an arhat. Someone who is on the path to achieving nirvana. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is someone who has almost achieved nirvana but holds that off in order to help the rest of the sentient reality. The rest of sentient beings eventually achieve nirvana and if you aren't one of the bodhisattvas, you have that help not only from bodhisattvas but there's a fairly large grouping of celestial beings that are there to help. That are there to help focus your meditation and your energy. And what you see here is a depiction that's not atypical from a Mahayana Buddhist shrine. In the middle here, you have Amitabha Buddha and a significant chunk of Mahayana Buddhists believe in Amitabha Buddha and you could view him as someone who's revered or is almost a deity-like figure. And this idea that by visualizing, by focusing, by invoking Amitabha Buddha, that you can get to his pure land of bliss known as Sukhavati. And so it's this idea of almost a kind of salvation. That by focusing on Amitabha, you get to this pure land of bliss which is a place where it is easier to achieve nirvana from and you can almost view it as something of a heaven. Now what's interesting is Amitabha Buddha isn't exactly the same figure as Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. in some traditions, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is a projection of Amitabha into our reality. And in some Mahayana belief systems there are multiple realities, each with their own Buddha and you can be born and reborn into these different realities and the pure land, the pure land of bliss, the Sukhavati is where you might want to go if you are following, if you are practicing this belief in Amitabha Buddha. So at a very high level, Theravada buddhism is all about this personal journey. Trying to follow the practice of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha through meditation, through recognizing the four noble truths, by following the middle way, getting eventually in this life and in future lives to nirvana, becoming an arhat. Mahayana buddhism has a more complex pantheon of celestial beings and deities and can be diverse form one part of the world to another. Eventually the goal is for all sentient beings to achieve nirvana. But your individual goal can be better described as delaying nirvana, become a bodhisattva, and assisting all other sentient beings in achieving that nirvana. These are actually the attendant bodhisattvas on the left and the right of Amitabha Buddha. But you don't have just the help of the bodhisattvas, there's also celestial beings, things that you can focus on, things that you can invoke to eventually help you get you to that nirvana. Now in order to see where it is practiced, we have this map right over here. First of all, most of buddhism is practiced in the far east of asia or southeast asia. And you see the various schools of buddhism. So in red here, you have the Therevada, the school of the elder monks. In yellow here, you have Mahayana, the great vehicle. And in orange, you have Vajrayana. A significant chunk of Vajrayana Buddhists are often referred to as Tibetan Buddhists and they're sometimes grouped with the Mahayana, it's closer to Mahayana. There's this notion of boddhisatvas. There are celestial beings. There are more rituals. Now in terms of population, the country with the largest Buddhist population is China, roughly 250 million Buddhists of the 500 million Buddhists that there are in the world. But despite the fact that there are so many Buddhists in China, it is still only 18% of the entire Chinese population. In places like Burma and Thailand, you have a much higher percentage of the population that is actually Buddhist and these regions of southeast asia, most of the population is Buddhist. Now one other really interesting thing about this map is we talk about buddhism starting in northeast India, in southern Nepal. That's where Siddhartha Gautama Buddha lived. That's where he spread his teachings. And not only is that where it originated, you have Ashoka who really catalyzed the spread of buddhism and once again that was out of India. But when you look at this demographic map of where you have significant Buddhist groupings, you don't see a lot in India. You see a lot in Sri Lanka. And that's actually where the Theravada tradition comes primarily from. And there's a couple of interesting explanations as to why you don't see it in India. One possible explanation is that it was so close to many versions on Hindu practices and we talk about Hinduism being this very diverse and open religion. And it really just got reabsorbed, reassimilated as part of the diverse Hindu tradition. In fact, many Hindus view Buddha as another incarnation of Vishnu.