9. Chinese Mahayana vs. Southeast Asia’s Theravada


Mahayana & Hinayana: large & small path?

In terms of Buddhism, Eastern Asians generally practice Mahayana, while Southeast Asians practice Theravada. Prior to the last few decades, Theravada was synonymous with Hinayana Buddhism. Indeed, professors of religion taught that Buddhism had two main branches, Mahayana and Hinayana – the ‘great path’ and the ‘small path’. To differentiate the two, professors would tell their students that Mahayana is more inclusive and compassionate, while Hinayana is exclusive and individual. There was virtually no mention of Theravada.

Indeed the terms ‘Mahayana’ and ‘Hinayana’ were convenient categories that Western scholars employed to differentiate the ‘two’ branches of Buddhism, at least until the past few decades. For instance, any form of Southeast Asian Buddhism that wasn’t Theravada was commonly referred to as Mahayana. The Hindu-infected Buddhism of 1st millennium Southeast Asia was an amalgam of many religious tendencies including indigenous tribal traditions. However, academics tended to refer to it as Mahayana because it wasn’t Theravada. In similar fashion, Theravada was referred to as Hinayana, even though it wasn’t a ‘small path’ at all, but instead the primary religion of Southeast Asia’s mainland.

Due to a more complete understanding of Buddhism’s global manifestations, modern scholars no longer employ the term ‘Hinayana’ as a synonym for Theravada. They instead view this equivalence as ‘academically incorrect’. Let’s see why.

Buddhism’s original arhat tradition

There are many uncertainties regarding the historical development of Buddhism with its many schools, as we shall see. Yet scholarly consensus does exist surrounding certain primary points.

The earliest Buddhists believed that only Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE), the historical Buddha, attained enlightenment. Despite arduous practice, his followers could only approach self-realization. Those members that attained the highest levels were and are referred to as arhats.

Like Catholic saints, arhats are high level individuals, but not God or Buddha. No matter how high their attainment, arhats remained imperfect and fallible. In other words, they were still human. Under this way of thinking, the quest for enlightenment was like mastering an instrument – constant refinement and practice, moments of perfection, however nothing permanent. Buddha symbolized the ultimate, but unreachable, goal.

The early Buddhists of the ‘arhat’ tradition attempted to remain as close as they could to the original teachings and ascetic practices of the historical Buddha. For centuries, they recited what they considered to be Buddha’s original words in the vernacular of the people. It was nearly a half millennium after his death that monks finally transcribed Buddha’s teachings into print – the Pali Canon.

The arhat tradition also tends to focus upon significant stories from Buddha’s historical life. In a similar vein, Christians relate stories from Jesus’ life and quote his words.

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, Asoka constructed many Buddhist stupas, i.e. temples, during his influential reign. These stupas were reliquaries for Buddha’s remains. Bone fragments or ashes supposedly from the historical Buddha were enshrined in the center of these stupas. This practice was a possible extension of ancestor worship, where the bones or ashes of a significant forebear are worshipped in a shrine. In this light, Buddha was the great ancestor.

This is yet a further indication of the relatively ‘down-to-earth’ nature of the arhat tradition. The disciples focused upon the words, life, and practices of the Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and venerated his real bones with a shrine.

Buddhism’s later Bodhisattva tradition

As the planet entered the Common Era, the ‘arhat’ tradition was entrenched in the territories of what we now call Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Southern India. It was even widespread in Northern India and the Central Asian Steppes. However, a serious rival had entered the scene.

Sometime in the centuries surrounding the millennial cusp, a new Buddhist school emerged that consciously challenged all the foundations of the arhat tradition. Writings emerged from the Central Asian/Northern India melting pot that were to become the foundational sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra was one of the first and most influential.

The original document begins with a rapacious attack upon the adherents of the older branch of Buddhism calling them smelly and dirty, among other things. The name-calling is malevolent and vindictive. The subtext is clear. Join our Buddhist group; its members are more elevated. This is but one indication of the desire to distance their school from the older arhat tradition.

One of the main tenets of this new tradition is that humans have the potential to attain the Bodhisattva state. The Bodhisattva is a human that has attained enlightenment, but has postponed leaving this state in order to assist other humans on the path. Like Buddha, the Bodhisattva is infallible and perfect. As such, the Bodhisattva is distinctly different from the arhat, who is fallible and imperfect.

Not only is it possible to attain salvation in this lifetime, the monk can even achieve this state of perfection instantly. The Diamond Sutra, another influential document in this new tradition, states that a flash of insight can take the disciple to enlightenment immediately. According to the sutra, the Diamond Vehicle transports the disciple from ordinary reality to the state of perfection. The lightening bolt, the Vajra, symbolizes the process. As such, this tradition is sometimes referred to as Vajra Buddhism.

In contrast, progress is slow and steady in the arhat tradition and the disciple never reaches his goal. Due to this limitation the Bodhisattva tradition even consciously attacks the arhat tradition as promoting a shortsighted goal. Why shoot for elevated imperfection, when one can attain perfection? Thoughts determine potentials, goes the reasoning. If the disciple believes that perfection is impossible, it is. Conversely if an individual believes that s(he) can attain Buddhahood, this increases the possibility of success.

In response to these attacks, the older arhat tradition probably stated the obvious. Their community was practicing a more authentic version of Buddhism. The historical Buddha’s original words and practices had been diligently transmitted from generation to generation for centuries. In contrast, the Bodhisattva tradition was based upon documents that had been written centuries after the historical Buddha lived. Further fallible and imperfect humans created the words, not the Buddha. Compounding their skepticism, these new written documents contain a very different message than the original verbal transmission.

 In anticipation of this critique or in response, the Bodhisattva tradition generated a standard rebuttal. After Buddha died, Ananda, a disciple with an excellent memory, recited the Buddha’s words verbatim. The other monks memorized this recitation. Unfortunately, Ananda had not reached enlightenment. Therefore, his transmission was incomplete. According to the Bodhisattva tradition, their writings contain the hidden truths that Ananda neglected to transmit. The subtext is clear. The arhat tradition had been transmitting an incomplete version of Buddha’s message for centuries.

The 2 traditions also differed in their attitude towards reincarnation. As mentioned, the more ‘down-to-earth’ arhat tradition focused their attentions upon the life, teachings and practices of Siddhartha, the historical Buddha. Reincarnation was not part of their focus. In contrast, the Bodhisattva tradition contains an abundance of influential stories from Buddha’s past incarnations. These stories are a significant feature of the sculpted friezes at Borobudur, the famous Buddhist temple in Java, as we shall see.

Differing Perspectives on the Buddhist Councils

Ultimately the arhat tradition of Southeast Asia became known as Theravada, while the Bodhisattva tradition of East Asia became known as Mahayana. Each school generated spurious histories to justify their particular viewpoint.

According to both traditions, there were a series of Buddhist councils over the centuries after the historical Buddha died. However each tradition has its own version. Let’s examine the Buddhist councils to see what they reveal about the differing perspectives.

According to Theravada tradition, the Buddhist conferences were called to protect Buddhism from corrupting influences. The first conference occurred after the historical Buddha died in the middle of the 6th century BCE. One member was happy because the community would not be required to follow the strict rules that Buddha had established. The council refuted this viewpoint in order to maintain Buddhism’s original purity. Scholars question the existence of this council.

A century later, the 2nd council was held. Most agree that this council was a historical event. As with the 1st council, it had less to do with doctrinal differences and more to do with the rules that governed the lives of the Buddhist monks. The eventual result of the council was that there was a split. The group that favored relaxing the rules of discipline broke from the group that wanted to maintain them. Of course, Theravadins claim that their tradition derived from the stricter group. Historians question this perspective.

Most agree that the council dealt with 10 disputed practices. The list differs in the varying accounts. However the practices seem to be fairly trivial, such as ‘the storing of salt, eating or begging after the prescribed hours, taking as precedent for one's actions the practices of one's tutor, and accepting gold and silver as alms’ (Encyclopedia Britannica). Evidently, the council also discussed doctrinal differences regarding the nature of the arhat. The multitudes of Buddhist traditions disagree in their accounts of the council.

A few centuries later in the middle of the 3rd century BCE, the original ‘pure’ Buddhists were upset that unsavory elements entered their religion due to Asoka’s benevolence. As ants are attracted to honey, the corrupt are attracted to money. In protest against this corrupting influence, many of the original Buddhists refused to take part in certain rituals. As a result, Asoka’s officials chopped off their heads. To resolve these differences, Asoka convened the 3rd Buddhist conference. According to Theravada sources, this is when the split occurred. According to this perspective, the corrupt elements presumably followed Mahayana, while the pure elements followed Theravada.

Most scholars reject the historicity of this conference. In his many Pillar Edicts, Asoka never mentions any Buddhist conference. In fact, he stresses religious tolerance and nonviolence. As such, it is unlikely that his officials would have beheaded Buddhists for refusing to cooperate. Instead Asoka attempted to resolve differences by reasoning rather than force.

According to Mahayana tradition, the split between the two traditions occurred after the 4th Buddhist conference called by Kanishka, the great Kushan Emperor. The Kushans had already merged Buddhism with their local pantheon of gods. In a call for a more inclusive version of Buddhism with a greater community, the council rejected the strict requirements of Hinayana and instead embraced the philosophy of Mahayana.

Most historians doubt that this council ever occurred. There is virtually no evidence that there was any schism between the two branches of Buddhism in their early centuries. Indeed, the employment of the word Hinayana follows Mahayana by centuries. Even then, Hinayana did not seem to refer to rival sects as much as it did to what Mahayanists considered the ‘small path’, i.e. the narrow and limited goal of the arhat. Instead of referring to another tradition, they were counseling their disciples to go for complete and instantaneous spiritual enlightenment, rather than being satisfied with second best.  It was only many centuries later that Hinayana became associated with Theravada.

In each version of the Buddhist councils, the issues separating the two groups seem to be fairly insubstantial. The councils were primarily concerned with the rules governing the monks, whether they should be strict or lenient. No mention is made of the monk’s relationship to the greater community or their quest for enlightenment. The decisions of the council applied to the monks alone and primarily concerned the rules of asceticism.

As a comparison, Christian battles over doctrinal differences, such faith vs. works, engaged entire countries in vicious wars for centuries. Compared to these destructive religious conflagrations, the Buddhist squabbles seem to be of a more scholarly nature, with different schools choosing different sides of the non-violent debate. As we shall see, the relationship of Buddhist monks to the greater community was quite similar regardless of which school they belonged to.

Conflict, what Conflict?

The discussion thus far overstates the conflict between Theravada and Mahayana, at least in the 1st millennium.

Due in part to the considerable influence of the great Kushan Emperor Kanishka, the missionary Buddhist monks, including the influential Kumarajiva, only translated the more syncretic Mahayana texts into Chinese. Because of the vast distances involved, Chinese Buddhists were relatively unaware of any other Buddhist tradition. As such, there was no rivalry. Similarly, the Southeast Asian Buddhists who followed the arhat tradition were not even conscious of the northern controversy.

When the two versions of the Buddhist message eventually crossed paths towards the end of the 1st millennium, there was a merger and a synthesis, rather than competition. First millennium Southeast Asians practiced an amalgam of religions rather than sticking to any one version of religious truth. It was only in the 2nd millennium that religions began to differentiate.

Even in Northern India and the Central Asia Steppes where the Mahayana texts developed, spiritual seekers of all persuasions were inclusive, not exclusive. They studied the teachings of all traditions. The prestigious and influential Kumarajiva is an excellent example. He was renowned for his knowledge of the texts of both branches of Buddhism, as well as the sacred texts of Hinduism. Like Southeast Asia, the cultural mixing pot of Northern India/Central Asia was religiously tolerant. There is evidence that monks of both persuasions even belonged to same monastery.

The same pattern held true in Southeast Asia at this time. During the 1st millennium CE, Southeast Asians and the Ceylonese of Sri Lanka practiced four different major religions simultaneously: Mahayana, Theravada, Tantra, and Hinduism. As evidence, the amazing religious monuments from this era represent a deliberate amalgam of perspectives. For instance, scholars continue to pose the question: Are those enormous heads at Bayon in the Angkor Wat temple complex, meant to represent the Buddha, Vishnu, or the Khmer emperor? Perhaps all three. The sculptors seem to deliberately blur the line.

During the 1st millennium at least, Southeast Asians seemed unconcerned about the differences between the Buddhist branches and even Hinduism. They took what they considered to be the best parts of each religion and blended them with their native beliefs to suit their needs. It was only in the 2nd millennium that authenticity became an issue and differentiation occurred.

Late in the first millennium Central Asia converted to egalitarian Islam and India’s Hindu-oriented religions absorbed Buddhism into their mix. Southeast Asians continued to practice their Hindu/Buddhist blend and the Chinese practiced their unique version of Mahayana. Because they were developing in relative isolation from one another, neither Southeast Asia nor China had any reason to justify their version of Buddhist truth. However, due to their close proximity to India’s multiplicity of religions, Hinduism posed the bigger threat.

Egalitarian Theravada differentiates from Elitist Hinduism

It is evident that Buddhism’s schisms were fairly benign, especially when compared to the destructive schisms of the Bible-based religions. Charges of corruption in the Buddhist councils tended to apply to the ascetic practices of the monks and not to their community relationships. While Buddhism remained homogenous in this sense, India’s Hinduism did represent a threat. This threat was not of a hostile nature. Instead Hinduism threatened to absorb Buddhism into its multiplicity of belief systems. This threat was real, as Buddhism eventually disappeared in India by the end of the 1st millennium.


It could be argued that most Buddhist beliefs derive from Hinduism. The ascetic practices, transmigration, the notion that life is suffering due to ignorance, and even enlightenment, can all be found in Hinduism. To incorporate this new religious philosophy into their lush mythology, the Brahmin priests simply turned Buddha into one of Vishnu’s incarnations.

However, there was and is one crucial difference between the 2 religious orientations. Hinduism is intimately linked with the caste system, while Buddhism is egalitarian in nature. Buddha was devoted to relieving the suffering of all humankind, not just certain castes.

Due to their proximity to India, the Theravadins of Southeast Asia had to deal with the ‘corrupting’ influence of Hinduism. In contrast, China’s Mahayana was separated geographically and linguistically from India and Hinduism. Hence their Buddhist communities had no need to differentiate.

To differentiate their beliefs and thereby prevent absorption, Theravada has gone through regular purifications. The primary purification occurred at the beginning of the 2nd millennium. At the end of this millennium, Buddhism declined in India. As a reaction to this decline, there was a revival of Theravada on Sri Lanka. This revival led to Sri Lanka becoming an exclusively Theravada kingdom. From this island, Theravada spread to the Southeast Asian mainland via Myanmar. Due to this purification, Buddhism became increasingly differentiated from Hinduism in Southeast Asia during the 2nd millennium.

Hinduism’s Sanskrit vs. Buddhism’s Pali

(From Part VIII: Chapter 24 (Top 10 Languages) on website and Original SEA File)

The major Theravada purification occurred at the beginning of the 2nd millennium. However from the very beginning, Buddhism attempted to set itself apart from Hinduism. Buddhists had been long aware of the big difference between the elitism of Hinduism’s caste system and their egalitarian message.

This difference is reflected in the Buddhists’ choice of language to transmit and preserve their doctrine. Early Buddhists chose Pali as their sacred language. In contrast, Hinduism employed Sanskrit as their written language.

What is the significance of Buddhism’s linguistic shift?

Sanskrit and Pali are both part of the Indic language family. Indic is the main branch of Indo-Iranian, which in turn is one of the eight branches of Indo-European. Indic was the original Aryan language of India. To indicate these Aryan roots, Indic is sometimes called Indo-Aryan.

Scholars break Indic’s development into three phases. Old Indic, the 1st phase, included the ancient Vedic language and Classical Sanskrit. This phase lasted until about 450 BCE. Middle Indic, the 2nd phase, lasted until about 1000 CE. Prakrits is one of the languages of this phase and Pali is one of its branches. Modern Indic, the 3rd phase, saw the fragmentation and evolution of these older languages into the modern languages of India and the surrounding areas.

Originally it was thought that Prakrits, Pali’s language family, derived from Sanskrit. However upon closer examination, it was found that some words from Prakrits were found in the ancient Vedas, but were not found in Sanskrit. In actuality, they probably evolved separately - neither deriving from the other. Basically Sanskrit was a written language, while the Prakrits were the vernacular – the spoken language.

All the most important Hindu texts were written in the ‘sacred language’ of Sanskrit, including the ancient Vedas from the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, the Upanishads from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, and the 2 classic Hindu novels: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which includes the Bhagavad Gita, with its classic dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna.

How did Sanskrit acquire such prestige?

Sanskrit was already the written language of the Aryans when they invaded the Indus Valley in the 2nd millennium BCE. But then in the middle of the last millennium BCE, the Hindus became heavily involved in the search for universal laws, called shastras. This led to an outpouring of systemizations, which included a formalization of the written grammar of Sanskrit by about 400 BCE. This systemization gave Sanskrit even more prestige. Although there were about 14 languages spoken in India during Indic’s second phase, the only one used for writing and teaching was Sanskrit.

Sanskrit employs the phonetic Devanagari script, which seems to have derived from the Arabic script, which preceded it. This indicates an intimate relation between the Semitic and Persian/Aryan herding communities before the invasion of India.

Pali, the Sacred Language of Theravada

In contrast, Pali and various other forms of the Prakrit language family of ancient India, originated beyond the influence of the Brahman society of the Aryans. The word Prakrits derives from the Sanskrit word prakrta or prakrti, which means original nature. So the Prakrits are the ‘natural’ languages of India, as opposed to the polished language of Sanskrit. In Hindu philosophy, prakrti represents the transitory world of phenomena that needs to be refined to reach purusa, the permanent world of spirit. As such, the Prakrits were considered common and unrefined by the Brahmin priests, while Sanskrit was considered the refined language of the elites that would take one to the higher spiritual states.

Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, rejected the elitism of Hinduism’s Sanskrit. He instead instructed his disciples to teach his doctrine in the local vernacular. His orally transmitted teachings eventually reached Sri Lanka (c. 3rd century BCE). Due to a lethal famine, the Sri Lankan monks decided to write down the Buddha’s sayings that they had been reciting for so many centuries. In this fashion, this oral wisdom would survive in written form in the extreme case that the community perished. The monks chose Pali, the most archaic Prakrits, to write their classic Buddhist canon. This momentous event occurred during the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE.

This Pali Canon, as it is referred to, is one of the earliest collections of sacred Buddhist literature. It is called the Tripitaka, the ‘three baskets’ of Buddhism. It is the Bible of Theravada Buddhism. This body of work is just as important to Theravada as are the Buddhist sutras to Mahayana.

Due to this prestige, Pali eventually became an honored, standard, and international tongue. It was only a few centuries ago that it died out as a literary language. In such a way did Pali become the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion on Southeast Asia’s mainland.

Glorification of Written Language

The glorification of the written language, as opposed to the spoken, seems to be a human universal. Latin was the only written language used by literate Europeans for up to a thousand years after it had ceased to be spoken by anyone but Catholic priests in church services. Also Chinese calligraphy was the only written language in China, despite the multitude of different tongues and dialects spoken there. As the universal language of the ruling class, calligraphy attained an almost mystical status, which it still retains today.

Written Arabic is also significantly different from the many dialects of spoken Arabic. And let’s not forget, Hebrew is a written language that can be understood by all Jews. However it was not a spoken language, until it was revived less than a hundred years ago.

Each of these written languages, i.e. Arabic, Chinese, Sanskrit, Latin and Hebrew, effectively transcended language barriers. Each culture had a multitude of mutually unintelligible tongues. The unique written language of the respective cultures bound the power elite together as one. The educated leaders in each of these cultures needed to be able to read the written language, independent of their ability to speak it. In similar fashion, the language of Pali bound the Theravadin monks together as an international community.

Identical Social Function of Buddhism’s Two Branches

There is no doubt in most scholars’ minds that Southeast Asia’s Theravada is the more authentic and original version of Buddhism. Theradavins have engaged in regular purifications to maintain the integrity of the original teachings and to differentiate their school, especially from the multiplicity of belief systems that comprise Hinduism’s caste-oriented religion. However, this authenticity does not dim the vitality or validity of East Asia’s Mahayana.

There are certainly doctrinal differences between the 2 schools. Theravadins focus more upon the historical Buddha, his life and sayings. As such, Theravada temples contain large statues of the Buddha in stylized poses that indicate distinct phases of his life. In contrast, Mahayana focuses more upon particular sutras and less upon the Buddha as a historical personage. Indeed this school includes a focus upon Buddha’s past lives. Further, a Mahayana temple might include enormous local deities combined with small Buddhas. As another indication of differing orientations of the schools, Theravada stupas contain the Buddha’s physical remains, while Mahayana stupas contain sutras.

However, the differences between Theravada and Mahayana are slight, especially when compared with the differences between the Bible-based religions. From the very beginning, Buddhism splintered into an uncountable number of schools of thought, just as did Christianity. Of course, each school felt that their interpretation of the Buddhist scripture was the correct one and that the other versions were more or less off track. Unlike Christianity, there were never any wars in Southeast Asia over these doctrinal differences. There were certainly wars between Buddhist nations, but they were political in nature, with no religious component. The two branches have rarely, if ever, gone to war with each other to prove that Buddha favors their version over their competitor. Conversion in Buddhism occurred through example and persuasion, not by military force. Disputes were of a scholarly, rather than military, nature, at least in Southeast Asia.

Despite some fundamental doctrinal differences, Buddhists monks of all persuasions have much in common. They regularly meditate aspiring to see through illusion and transcend the verbal world. In general, they believe in non-violence and non-intoxication. Due to their focus upon enlightenment, they tend to be non-materialist and lead a peaceful social life. As such, Buddhists are usually good citizens. In this regard, Buddhist monks of both traditions perform a similar positive role in their respective cultures. They are religious ascetics, who are literate members of society that provide counseling and guidance to the populace. In both traditions, Buddhist monks preside over indigenous rituals that have little to do with Buddhism. We can find elevated and corrupt human beings in both traditions. Enlightenment or self-realization is the aim of both versions of Buddhism. Mahayana calls realized beings Bodhisattvas, while Theravada calls them arhats. Yet both serve the same societal function: Help others along the path.

In this sense, it was elevated individuals, not doctrines, that were most influential in the spread of Buddhism to the global population. Asoka and Kumarajiva epitomized this class of people, one an emperor, the other a monk. Both followed the Buddhist dharma path. Besides practicing non-violence and showing respect for all living things, Asoka attempted to move beyond the petty intellectual squabbling that plagues humanity. Rather than choosing one side or another, one religion or another, he attempted to resolve doctrinal differences with reason not by force. Similarly Kumarajiva, in addition to being a great translator, also effectively counseled the Chinese Emperor to pursue negotiation and avoid violence whenever possible. It seems safe to say that due to Buddhist beliefs and practices, i.e. meditation and austerities, that the religion has generated an abundance of these elevated individuals, who have exerted a positive influence on their respective societies.


We’ve spent quite a few pages delineating the differences and similarities between Mahayana and Theravada. However during the first millennium, Southeast Asians tended to practice an amalgam of religions that included many branches of Buddhism, Hinduism and native religions. It was only in the second millennium that the variety of religions began to differentiate.

While Buddhism initially spread to Myanmar, Hinduism was the historical religion of the commercial centers of Southeast Asia during the 1st millennium, especially the first half. Perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of Hinduism on the mainland was the architectural achievements of the Khmer at Angkor. Let’s finish our discussion of Southeast Asia's 1st millennium with the Khmer Empire, whose artistic achievements still evoke a sense of awe and wonder.


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