The Buddha was born in the 6th Century B.C. From the attainment of enlightenment at the age of 35 until his final nirvana at the age of 80, he spent his life teaching. He was energetic: for 45 years he taught day and night, sleeping for about two hours a day.
The Buddha spoke to all kinds of people: kings, farmers, beggars, brahmins, wanderers, and ordinary everyday people. His discourses were tailored to the experience, understanding, and mental capacity of his audience. What he taught was called Buddha-Vacana, that is, “the word of the Buddha.” There was nothing called Theravada or Mahayana at that time.
After establishing the Order of monks and nuns, the Buddha set down disciplinary and procedural rules called the Vinaya to the guide the Order. The remainder of his Teaching was called the Dharma, which included discourses, sermons, and sayings to monastics and lay people.
The First Council
Three months after the Buddha’s final nirvana, his immediate disciples convened a council in Rajagaha, India. Maha Kassapa, the most respected and elderly monk, presided over that council. Two very important Great Disciples (mahatheras) who specialized in the two distinct areas of the Teaching (the Dharma and the Vinaya) were present. The first was Ananda, the Buddha’s closest companion and disciple over the preceding 25 years. Endowed with a remarkable memory (even in an age of remarkable memories), Ananda was able to recite all the discourses the Buddha had uttered. [When sutras begin “Thus have I heard,” Ananda is that “I” and he made this statement in front of the First Council of enlightened elders]. The other monastic was Upali, who had committed all of the Discipline to memory.
Only these two sections, Discourses and Discipline, were recited at the First Council. Although there were no differences of opinion on the Dharma (no mention was yet made of the Abhidharma, “Higher Teaching,” the metaphysical and psychological explanations), there was some discussion about the Rules.
Before the Buddha’s was to pass into nirvana, he told Ananda that if the Order wished to amend or modify some “minor” rules after his passing, they could do so. But on that occasion Ananda, overpowered by grief on hearing of the Buddha’s impending passing, it did not occur to him to ask what the “minor” rules were.
As the members of the First Council were unable to agree as to what constituted those minor rules, Maha Kassapa finally ruled that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed and that no new ones should be introduced. No intrinsic reason was given. Maha Kassapa did say one thing, however: “If we changed the rules, people would say that Ven. Gautama’s disciples changed them even before his funeral pyre had gone out.”
At the First Council, the Dharma was divided into various sections, and each section was assigned to an Elder (a Thera) and his pupils to commit to memory. The Dharma (or “Teaching,” the Vada) was then passed on from teacher to pupil orally.
The Second Council
One-hundred years later, a Second Council was held to discuss some Rules. There was no need to change the Rules three months after the final passing of the Buddha because little to no political, economic, or social changes took place during that short interval. But a century later, some monastics saw the need to change certain minor rules. The orthodox Order said that nothing should be changed, while others insisted on modifying some Rules.
The Third Council
In the 3rd Century B.C.E., during the reign of Emperor Asoka, the Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion among the monks of  different sects that had arisen. By the Third Council the differences were not confined to the Rules but were also connected with the Teaching. At the end of the Third Council, the president of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book he called Kathavatthu refuting the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects.
After the Third Council, Asoka’s son, Venerable Mahinda, brought the Three Collections (Tripitaka: Teaching, Rules, and Abhidharma) to Sri Lanka, along with the commentaries and explanations which were recited at the Third Council. The texts brought to Sri Lanka were preserved to the present day without losing a single page. The texts were written in the Pali language, which was based on the Magadhi dialect spoken by the Buddha. There was still nothing known as “Mahayana.”
The Coming of Mahayana
Between the 1st Century B.C.E. to the 1st Century A.D., the two terms Mahayana (the “Great Vehicle”) and Hinayana (the “Inferior Vehicle”) appeared in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, the “Discourse of the Lotus of the Good Law.”
About the 2nd Century A.D., Mahayana became clearly defined. Nagarjuna developed the Mahayana philosophy of Sunyata (Emptiness or nonexistence) and proved that everything is Void [devoid of personality or identity] in a small text called the Madhyamika Karika.
After the 1st Century AD., the Mahayanists took a definite stand and only then were the opposing terms Mahayana and Hinayana introduced and propagated, the latter as a foil or strawman for the former. [Mahayana teachings were a criticism of those now defunct Indian sects (not of Theravada) particularly the Sarvastivada School, which taught the theory that all exists].
Therefore, one must not confuse Hinayana with “Theravada,” the Teaching of the Elders, because the terms are not synonymous. Theravada Buddhism had gone to Sri Lanka during the 3rd Century B.C.E. when there was no Mahayana at all. Hinayana schools [among the 18 sects that had] developed in India [200 years after the Buddha’s passing] and had an existence independent from the form of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka.
Today there is no “Hinayana” sect or school in existence anywhere in the world.
Therefore, in 1950 the World Fellowship of Buddhists inaugurated in Colombo, Sri Lanka unanimously decided that the term “Hinayana” should be dropped when referring to Buddhism existing today in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc. [sometimes referred to as “Southern Buddhism”].
This is the brief history of Theravada, Mahayana, and Hinayana.
Mahayana and Theravada
Now, then, what can be said of the difference between Mahayana and Theravada?
I have studied Mahayana for many years, and the more I study it the more I find there is hardly any difference between Theravada and Mahayana with regard to the fundamental Teaching.
- Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the teacher.
- The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
- The Eightfold Path (to enlightenment) is exactly the same in both schools.
- The teaching of Dependent Origination is the same in both schools.
- Both reject the idea of a supreme being who creats and governs this world.
- Both accept the teachings of Impermance, Unsatisfactoriness (Dukkha), Impersonality (Anatta) as well as Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom without any difference.
These are the most important teachings of the Buddha, and they are all accepted by both schools without question.
There are also, however, some points of difference, or at least of emphasis. An obvious one is the “Bodhisattva ideal.” Many people say that Mahayana is for a Bodhisattvahood that will lead to Buddhahood, while Theravada is for Arahantship (immediate enlightenment as taught by the Buddha). I must point out that the Buddha was an arahant (an enlightened one). A Nonteaching (Prateka or Pacceka) Buddha is also an arahant.
A disciple can also be an arahant. Mahayana texts never use the term “Arahant-yana,” the Arahant Vehicle. Instead, Mahayanists use three terms: Bodhisattva-yana, Prateka-Buddha-yana, and Sravaka-yana (the Bodhisattva-vehicle, the Nonteaching-Buddha vehicle, and the Disciple-vehicle). In the Theravada tradition these three are called Bodhis.
Some people mistakenly imagine that Theravada Buddhism is “selfish” because it teaches (what the historical Buddha taught) that people should diligently work towards their own salvation without helping others. But how could a selfish person ever gain enlightenment? (It would be impossible because selfishness precludes the compassion and wisdom necessary for realizing the truth that leads to enlightenment and the liberation of nirvana). Both schools accept the three Yanas or Bodhis and consider Bodhisattvahood the ideal, the highest.
The difference is Mahayana Buddhism has created many mystical Bodhisattvas, while Theravada Buddhism considers a “bodhisattva” a person among us who devotes his or her entire life to the attainment of perfection, ultimately attaining buddhahood [enlightenment] for the benefit, welfare, and happiness of the world.
Types of Buddhahood
There are three types of Buddha:
- Samma Sambuddha (a supremely enlightened one), who gains full enlightenment [by perfecting ten qualities and gaining the magical ability to teach] by one’s own effort alone
- Pacceka Buddha who is fully, independently enlightened but has not developed the Ten Perfections to a lesser degree than the Samma Sambuddha [and therefore is not skilled in showing others the way to enlightenment], and the
- Savaka Buddha who is an arahant-disciple of a perfectly enlightened Buddha.
The nirvana of the three types is exactly the same. The only difference is that the Samma Sambuddha has many more qualities (paramitas, paramis, or perfections) and capacities which are useful in teaching than the other two types.
Some people think that the Voidness (Sunyata) discussed by Nagarjuna is purely a Mahayana teaching. However, it is based on the Buddha’s teaching of Impersonality (anatta) or no-self and Dependent Origination, both found in the original Theravada, Pali language texts.
On one occasion Ananda asked the Buddha, “People say the word Void. What is Void (Sunya)?” The Buddha replied, “Ananda, there is no self, nor anything belonging to a self in the world. Therefore, the world is empty.”
This idea was used by Nagarjuna, who wrote the small remarkable book, Madhyamika Karika.
Apart from the idea of Voidness, the concept of the “store-consciousness” in Mahayana Buddhism also has its seed in Theravada texts. The Mahayanists have simply developed it into a deep psychology and philosophy.
PHOTOS: Map showing distribution of the two Buddhist schools (Feng Shui Times); the Buddha sending out the first Buddhist missionaries (who were arahant-savakas or "enlightened disciples"); modern day Theravada monks on almsround in Sri Lanka; ornate and elaborate golden Bodhisattva (Nepal); Theravada Sangha (Order) living as simply as the Buddha originally set out (Kare Lie); Mahayana-Vajrayana Sangha in front of many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on an altar (thubtenchodron.com); anthropomorphic depiction of a Bodhisattva of "perfect wisdom."