Major Differences

What are the main differences between the 3 major schools of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana? What is the brief history of their development?

The main differences are:

Theravada School, also pejoratively referred to as the Hinayana (lit. = Lesser Vehicle) by Mahayana adherents, who claim that Hinayana emphasizes personal liberation/salvation in contrast to the collective liberation of the Mahayana (lit. = Greater Vehicle). The Theravada school is based on the teachings of its founder, the Historical Buddha.

In contrast to Theravada Buddhism (with its emphasis on monastic life), the Mahayana school promises salvation to all who sincerely seek it — monk and laity alike. The Mahayana tradition embodies the Bodhisattva Ideal — the desire to liberate all beings from suffering — whereas the Theravada tradition embodies the Arhat Ideal.

The last of the three main schools of Buddhism, Vajrayana traditions developed around 500 AD out of Mahayana teachings from northwest India. Vajra in Sanskrit means diamond (lit. adamantine, unsplittable), while yana means vehicle. Vajrayana is thus translated as “Diamond Vehicle.” In English it is also known as Tantric Buddhism or Esoteric Buddhism, due to its reliance on sacred texts called tantras.


Now, a brief history of their development is,

When the Lord Buddha died, the monks codified 84,000 lines of his dharma teachings – which were much later made into the “sutras” — at the First Council, which was held soon after the Buddha’s death around 480 BC. Some 130 years later the sangha (i.e., monks, sometimes spelled samgha) convened the Second Council to stamp out heresies within the religion. Again they agreed upon the same 84,000 lines from the Buddha and nothing of importance has been lost to the present day. It was at this Second Council that we have evidence of the first rift known within Buddhism, the first ever major split in views. This probably occurred in southeast India below the mouth of the Ganges River.

The rift was led by Mahadeva. Mahadeva was a charismatic leader and he resonated with a cord deep in Buddhist society because many lay people objected to the god-like power and respect that enlightenedarahants had within temple life. “When the cat’s away the mice will play.” The Buddha wasn’t around anymore to defend the elite position of the arahants– which they rightly deserved. Mahadeva turned against the saints, the women and men who were enlightened, by putting forth his views that the arahants were not yet fully evolved because of five shortcomings. In A Short History of Buddhism the eminent British Buddhist scholar, professor Edward Conze, listed these five as:

  1. allegedly some arahants were prone to seminal emissions in their sleep
  2. had nightmares
  3. were still subject to doubts
  4. ignorant of many things
  5. and owed their salvation to the guidance of others (Conze, 1980, 28).

Also at issue was the belief that the sutras were the ultimate authority in Buddhism. Mahadeva held that it was possible for the Buddha’s revelation to come anywhere at anytime, so people shouldn’t have to cling to the sutras. This remains the big issue today.

Mahadeva won the popular debate and thousands of people followed his lead but the established Theravadins renounced their views as a heresy. Mahadeva’s sangha called themselves the Mahasanghikas — “the great community” — and more than 60% of all the Buddhists in recorded history can trace back their lineage to this one man.