Theravada, Mahayana –Will the Real Buddhism please stand up!


by Bhante Dhammika of Australia

Recently several articles in The Island have raised the question of the differences between Theravada and Mahayana and particularly Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. I refer to Dr. Upal Wijayawardhana’s well informed article (2nd, January, 2019), N. A. De S Amaratunga’s response to it (7th, January, 2019) and Wijayawardhana’s subsequent rebuttal. The question of whether Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism are genuine Buddhism or a distortion of it hangs on one’s definition of Buddhism. So what is Buddhism? If one takes the fundamentalist (i.e. relying strictly on the texts) position that only what the Dhamma as presented in the Pali Tipitaka is genuine Buddhism then I am afraid that neither Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana are Buddhism. I will explain what I mean by this below. If on the other hand one defines Buddhism as all the philosophical concepts that were inspired by and grew out of the Buddha’s teachings then all three schools are certainly part of the rich, diverse, and spiritually vibrant family that is Buddhism.

To an outsider, or someone not well-informed about the various expressions of Buddhism, its numerous school and traditions and outward manifestations may appear to be so diverse as to have little or nothing in common with each other. While it is true that some minor sects and cults identifying themselves as Buddhist are not really so, mainly in Japan, all genuinely Buddhists traditions share and adhere to certain common features. In 1967, the First Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council, representing Buddhists from 25 countries and made up of all the main Buddhist branches and traditions, drew up an ecumenical document which was called ‘The Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and the Mahayana.’ This document is a concise formula of the unifying principles that all Buddhists adhered too and was unanimously approved by the participants of the Council, including, it should be noted, the representative of the Dalai Lama. Ceylon’s representative was Dr. Walpola Rahula. The statement was in Sanskrit and reads:

(1). The Buddha is our only Master (teacher and guide). (2) We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha (the Three Jewels). (3) We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a god. (4) We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings, without discrimination, and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom leading to the realization of the Ultimate Truth. (5) We accept the Four Noble Truths, namely dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the path leading to the cessation of dukkha; and the law of cause and effect (paticcasamuppada). (6) All conditioned things are impermanent and dukkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things are without self. (7) We accept the 37 qualities conducive to enlightenment (bodhipakkhaya dhamma) as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment. (8) There are three ways of attaining Enlightenment: namely as a disciple (savaka), as a paccakabuddha and as a samma sambuddha (perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha). We accept it as the highest, noblest, and most heroic to follow the career of a Bodhisattva and to become a samma sambuddha in order to save others. (9) We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.

Having lived with Chinese and Tibetan monks for extended periods, and often engaged with them in discussions, I know that those who are learned (not all monks are, even in Sri Lanka) are familiar with, subscribe to, and take as the basis of their practice all these ideas. There is, of course, more emphasis on one doctrine than another in the different schools – e.g. Mahayana gives more attention to the way of the bodhisattva while Theravada gives more to the way of the arahat. But even Sri Lankan monks sometimes take the bodhisattva vow, the late Ven. Narada of Vajrayana for example. And, when I visited the remote Rezong Gompa, a famous Tibetan meditation monastery in the Himalayas, I found that all the monks there were practicing the way of the arahat. And of course, there are significant differences in how some doctrines are interpreted, and in the rituals, the robes, and the popular practices of the different schools.

If some in Sri Lankans are critical of these differences I know that Mahayana monks are quite shocked by some Theravada practices. For example, they are surprised that bhikkhunis have had, until very recently, no place in the Theravada Sangha, despite what the Buddha taught. They are shocked to learn that a young man’s caste is the deciding factor in which sect he can be ordained in, and that the various nikayas are (let’s be honest) based on caste. Again a stark contradiction to what the Buddha taught. I have heard Sri Lankans say that Mahayana is "mixed up with Hinduism". Perhaps, but during my 20 years in Sri Lanka I met a few people who had never been to Anuradhapura but I never met one who had not been to Kataragama. And is not Kataragama the Hindu god of war? And are not there many temples in Colombo that have Hindu temples in them? And do not some of these offer Set Kavi to the many who ask for it?

But two things come to my mind when the Theravada verses Mahayana issue comes up. The first is that I have met very few people in Sri Lanka who have anything more than an extremely shallow knowledge of Mahayana, mainly reliant on simplistic generalizations. It is a complex and in parts profound approach to Buddhism worthy of deep study, and academics such as the late Gunapala Dhammasiri of Peradeniya University was one local who had a deep appreciation of it. The second thing is that everywhere I have gone in countries where Mahayana prevails – Taiwan, Korea, Bhutan, Japan, Tibet, Malaysia and Singapore - the monks and lay people have, without exception, treated me in a friendly and respectful manner, as one of their own. I am not a Mahayanist, there are aspects of it that I think are mistaken, but I always look upon it and those who live by it with the same respect they have given me. As for our differences, I keep in mind the Buddha’s words from the of the Maha-sihanada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya;

"Those things about which there is no agreement let us put aside. Those things about which there is agreement let the wise bring up, discuss and examine."

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