What are the basic differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism?
The Theravada Buddhist believed that they practiced the original teachings of Buddhism as it was handed down to them by Buddha.
Theravada Buddhism corresponds fairly exactly with the teachings of Buddha. Theravada Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths and the idea that all physical reality is a chain of causation. This includes the cycle of birth and rebirth. Through the practice of Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Cardinal Virtues, an individual can eventually attain Nirvana. Theravada Buddhism focused primarily on meditation and concentration, the eighth of the Eightfold Noble Path. As a result, it emphasized on a monastic life and required an extreme expenditure of time meditating. This left little room for the bulk of humanity to join in. Theravada Buddhism was, by and large, an esoteric religion. A new schism then erupted within the ranks of Buddhism, one that would attempt to reformulate the teachings of Buddha to accommodate a greater number of people, the "Greater Vehicle," or Mahayana Buddhism.
The Mahayanist did not see themselves as creating a new start for Buddhism, they claimed to be recovering the original teachings of Buddha. The Mahayanist claimed that their canon of scriptures represented the final teachings of Buddha. They accounted for the non-presence of these teachings in over five hundred years by claiming that these were teachings entrusted only to the most faithful followers.
The goal of Theravada Buddhism is practically unattainable. In order to make Buddhism a more esoteric religion, the Mahayanists invented two grades of Buddhist attainment below becoming a Buddha. The Buddha was the highest goal, the level before that is to become a Pratyeka-Buddha which is one who is awakened to the truth but keeps it secret. Below the Pratyeka-Buddha is the Arhant, or "worthy," who has learned the truth from others and has realized it as truth, and...
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