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Are the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism matters of doctrine or matters of practice?

This essay compares and contrasts the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions, examining both belief systems and how followers of both traditions differ in their everyday adherence to the Buddhist philosophy. First the similarities are discussed and then the main differences between the two strands are examined. Finally a comparison of the two belief systems will be made, looking at the pros and cons of both branches.

After the passing away of the Buddha, his teachings were split between two traditions, Theravada, which moved Southwards towards Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and Mahayana which moved northward towards Nepal, Mongolia, China, Korea and Vietnam. (Harris, 2:1998)

To the Western way of thinking the Mahayana way of thinking can seem attractive, in that the sacrificial model of the bodhisattva seems to compare with a Christ-like selflessness and concern for the well-being of others. There is also the attraction of the possibility of achieving enlightenment within a single lifetime as opposed to the aeons suggested by the Theravadin tradition. Not to mention the possibility of sudden enlightenment as suggested by one strand within Mahayana, namely Zen.

However, there are many concepts which the two schools agree upon. Namely, that there is no-self and that the world and all within it are in a constant state of flux. Sentient being are in a continual state of samsara (cycle of death and rebirth) and must strive to move beyond the contrains of anicca, anatta and dukkha by realizing the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. For both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists the goal is nirvana. It seems that the main teachings of the two schools of thought are the same. Both schools have the same goal and are not critical of each other. The Mahayana school of thought seems to appeal more to our Western society which expects more instant answers to all problems, but to the Buddhist time is of no consequence as all existence is 'maya'.

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