Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana? - Dhamma Wheel

Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

A forum for beginners and members of other Buddhist traditions to ask questions about Theravāda (The Way of the Elders). Responses require moderator approval before they are visible.
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Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby 0pper » Fri Apr 09, 2010 6:24 pm

I'm extremely intrigued by Buddhism and am well on my way to becoming Buddhist. I've been reading about it for a long time, but I'm close to making a commitment to becoming a Buddhist. I am now in the stage of choosing what specific path of Buddhism I want to follow.

My understanding is that Theravada Buddhism is closer to what the Buddha actually taught while Mahayana, although also very profound, seems to be influenced very much by others aside from the Buddha himself. Mahayana seems to have more cultural trappings. Things like dieties, divas and spirit worship... well frankly I have no interest in that whatsoever. I was a Christian in my early 20s for 4 years. Been there, done that.

I'm more interested in the practical aspects of Buddhism and less in the religious stuff.

Is Theravada a better fit for me?

What do those who are critical of the Theravada path have to say?

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Wind » Fri Apr 09, 2010 6:33 pm

I chose Theravada because it's closest thing to what the Buddha taught and back by sound reasoning. It does give me the impression that Theravada has less mysticism than what you find in Mahayana Buddhism. Of course Theravada isn't immune to cultural influences but we have the Dhamma to fall back on to set us on the right path.

Whether it is a fit for you is up to you to decide.

Those who are critical of Theravada sometimes say it is a more selfish path since it concern mainly how one is to be liberated whereas Mahayana focus more on liberating all beings. Although that is really a misjudgment on Theravadans. We help others by leading as examples and preserving and spreading what we believe to be the original teaching of the Buddha.

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Cittasanto » Fri Apr 09, 2010 9:20 pm

only you can tell if something fits!
try it and see, if you don't like it great, if you do great
this isn't a general Buddhism forum rather a Theravada orientated forum so it isn't likely many if any members would be critical of, or openly critical here for a balanced response base, although do understand there are cultural add ons within Theravada which aren't necesarily in accordance with the teachings.

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them.
But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion …
He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby BlackBird » Fri Apr 09, 2010 10:18 pm

"For a disciple who has conviction in the Teacher's message & lives to penetrate it, what accords with the Dhamma is this:
'The Blessed One is the Teacher, I am a disciple. He is the one who knows, not I." -

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Mukunda » Fri Apr 09, 2010 11:11 pm

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Dan74 » Fri Apr 09, 2010 11:29 pm

I think it is impossible to accurately answer this question the way it stands.

In Theravada, there are many strands and teachers. Some are focused more on the scripture, some on meditation, others perform rituals and various cultural functions and don't do much else.

In Mahayana, there are many schools that especially outwardly differ to a huge extent. Some work extensively with deities but this has a very practical purpose (tantra in Tibetan Buddhism), others don't. Even within a given school, emphasis can depend on a teacher (and the student).

So all these preconceptions in my opinion just stand in the way. Go to centres and find out for yourself, would be my advice.

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Bankei » Sat Apr 10, 2010 1:30 am

Theravada can be extremely 'religious' - have a look at how it is practiced in Thailand for example.

Or it could be extremely non-religious, like some western (and asian too) approached where it is more like a philosophy with no rituals (temples, priests, bowing, chanting etc) or psychotherapy type of approach.

Similar can be said about the Mahayana too.

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Kim OHara » Sat Apr 10, 2010 5:40 am

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby ground » Sat Apr 10, 2010 6:46 am

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby 0pper » Sun Apr 11, 2010 8:44 am

Thank you kindly for the replies. I have definitely learned something.

There is a New Kadampa Tradition Buddhist Centre a few kilometres from my condo. Reading their literature they seem very open to welcoming new comers. I think I'm going to go to a guided meditation class they offer, see where things are at, and take it from there.

Any thoughts on the New Kadampa Tradition?

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby tiltbillings » Sun Apr 11, 2010 8:49 am

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Mawkish1983 » Sun Apr 11, 2010 9:15 am

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Dan74 » Sun Apr 11, 2010 11:03 am

About NKT, it a "new religious movement", some would say a cult. It has a reputation for being exclusivist - people are strongly discouraged from reading (or following) anything outside NKT and classical Gelug (Tsongkapa). It is basically shunned by other Tibetan groups and is on very bad terms with the Dalai Lama over the issue of worshipping a deity which the Dalai Lama (and some other senior lamas) believes to be harmful. This seems to be a major part of their practice.

It is also known for active proselytising and having inexperienced (sometimes abusive) teachers.

Now all this doesn't necessarily mean your particular group is going to be a bad one and you may actually learn some solid basic Buddhism but personally I would stay away.

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Monkey Mind » Sun Apr 11, 2010 6:01 pm

My initial attraction to Theravada (at least the version presented in my Buddhist Studies class) was the "down to Earth" practical presentation. I didn't have to ring a bell 108 times, do a lot of prostrations, or travel hundreds of miles to learn a secret handshake from a teacher who was trained in an Asian temple. Having said that, a few years ago I decided that I had opted out of a lot of the "optional" devotional practices, and that maybe it would be good for my practice to opt into some of those practices. Chanting, dedication of gifts to a Buddha rupa, bringing flowers to temples, observing the Uposatha... So these days my practice seems as religious (superstitious?) as the practices I was trying to avoid in the first place. And the benefit has been a renewed focus, dedication, and motivation. So engage in Buddhism on whatever level will inspire you to practice the most.
"As I am, so are others;
as others are, so am I."
Having thus identified self and others,
harm no one nor have them harmed.

Sutta Nipāta 3.710

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Nosta » Sun Apr 11, 2010 10:23 pm

In my opinion- the opinion of someone with little pratice on meditation and just some bare knowledge on general buddhism - is that actually you may start your practice slowly, without choosing exactly right now your path (and in the end, that path is very similar on many aspects i think). Be it Mahayana or Theravada, you still have the 4 Noble Truths, the 8Fold Path, Kamma concept, Rebirth concept, and Nibbana (i prefer the word "Nibbana", because "Nirvana" has a very strong mystical feeling, in a very Western way) concept. Also, you still have meditation techniques in both paths. Maybe in Mahayana one gives more attention to Karuna/Compassion.
So, why not still reading, studying and pratice things in a general way until you reach a much more strong feeling about your path?

Also, be aware that some schools may be apparently very different from Theravada, like Esoteric Schools and Pure Land School, for example.

But Theravada is still a religious path. Buddhism is religion, whatever the school. Buddhism is not a philosophical way of life. Kamma (or karma) and rebirth, for example, are some of the concepts that makes buddhism a religion. If kamma and rebirth were scientifically accepted, probably we would say that buddhism was a way or philosofy of life, i guess. :-)

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby jcsuperstar » Mon Apr 12, 2010 12:50 am


however both Mahayana and Theravada have followers who choose to not be so "religious"
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Sucitto » Tue Apr 13, 2010 7:17 am

However, just come and see (Ehipassiko) the truth of Buddhism. :sage:
I follow the Theravada Buddhism on my life, but I'm so welcome with others teaching or methods too.
Because, the real Buddhism is in our heart and mind.

Every evil neverdoing, and in wholesomeness increasing, and one's heart well-purifying: This is the Buddhas' teaching. :buddha1:

with Metta,


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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby METTAXCORE » Sat May 15, 2010 11:14 pm

This is how I started: Researching the Buddha and reading as many of his teachings as I could get my hands on. Not so much paying attention to what country it came from or what language is was origianally written in or what school it was from, but reading the actual word and teachings and thinking about it for days and days and saying to myself "Does this make sense to me? Let me apply it and see if it works." I did that for years and developed a love and respect for the Buddha's teachings and have come to realize them as the truth, as following the path has brought me true happiness and I could never stray from it. Now... Ive realized "Oops, I didnt know there were all these different schools of Buddhism! Which one have I been in?!" And the answer is: I dont know! lol I've taken bits and pieces from every school and came up with a wonderful mesh of something that works great for me, obviously focusing on the primary aspects or teachings (Like the 4 noble truths, eightfold path, etc) And I kind of feel that maybe this is the way the Buddha intended it to be. I cant remember the exact words he used, but I read something the Buddha said that basically translated into "Dont do anything just because I told you to do it. Take what I've said and see if it works for you." I dont feel a need to fit my beliefs into a little category. They could NEVER fit into a little category! I feel like the Buddha's teachings are like a kaleidoscope. I dont want to decide whether I'm going to follow the blue path, or the red or the yellow. I'm going to enjoy the WHOLE kaleidoscope, no labels attatched. Granted, I am still a new comer to Buddhism, but my suggestion is to follow whatever you naturally gravitate towards, dont feel like you need to choose a school. Enjoy Buddhism as a whole.

Kind wishes to you,
"The way is not in the sky, the way is in the heart."

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby alan » Sun May 16, 2010 3:58 am

Hi Stephanie. I'd just like to point out a few things.
There is no need to fit your beliefs into a category. That is not the issue. A better question might be "why do I believe what I believe?' Hard question to answer, since we all have blind spots.
Nowadays we are presented with a spiritual smorgasbord--Buddha's Big Buffet. Just pick and choose the yummiest of ideas and all you want and come back for more. The problem with this is that it is all to easy to choose what reaffirms our preconceptions, and maybe ignore what we should actually be attending to. On the level of practice, this attitude can be be also become a problem. It is difficult to meditate if you are holding conflicting ideas about it's goal, or even how to go about it in the first place.
So I'd say to you and the OP that there is more than enough within the Therevada tradition (not category) to keep you occupied for the rest of your lives.

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Re: Is Theravada Less "Religious" than Mahayana?

Postby Goofaholix » Sun May 16, 2010 5:41 am

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