Psychological Aspects of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

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Psychological Aspects of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Though the most of the teachings followed by the different sects of Buddhism vary and conflict with each other, the general core values set by Buddha are still followed by all Buddhists. In regard to this we examine two Buddhism sects namely Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Whilst Theravada is psychologically oriented, Mahayana is idealistically oriented. The two sects have varying perceptions of the reality and the world besides the concept of being. There are many inherent differences between the two sects of Buddhism though the two seem to broadly agree on the original teachings of Buddha.

Firstly, Theravada Buddhism denies the existence of any true being behind any given phenomenon and consequently avoids making metaphysical statements unlike Mahayana which teaches an Eternal Absolute included in many names. In this sense, Mahayana holds that all beings in all forms are identical with the absolute in their cores. Moreover, Mahayana sees Gautama as seeing through the projection of the absolute though it holds or possess a mortal frame of illusion which is frail. On the other hand, Theravada consider Gautama as a natural teacher or a superman at most.

In the teachings of Theravada, liberation can only be achieved through an individual’s effort as opposed to the teaching of Mahayana which holds that liberation can be achieved through the help of outside assistance and deliverance through the power of others (Paul, 1999, 45). Moreover, Theravada Buddhism teaches it followers to set their ultimate goal to be the achievement of nirvana as opposed to the case of Mahayana which its ultimate goal is defined in following the ways of bodhisattva in leading all other human beings especially the sentient beings to liberation.

In addition, Theravada Buddhism sees Hinayana as the final exit from the world while the same to Mahayana Buddhism is considered as achieving consciousness of an individual absolute nature and gaining mental aloofness state from all suffering. As seen in the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, it attitudes are organized in such a way that an individual or a follower should endeavor to help the world and unselfish to it. On the contrary, Theravada attitudes are such that it followers should always endeavor to defeat the world through analysis strategies employed on its elements and through using knowledge and experience of an individual conduct.

Mahayana Buddhism sometimes referred to as Northern Buddhism or the great wheel (vehicle) is mostly found in china, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Nepal. It is usually followed by monks and lay. In essence, the Monks follow the rules set by Vinayas and which constitutes the prescriptions for monastic life in the Tipitaka also known to be Theravada sacred canon. However, they do this via the interpretation of Mahayana. In addition, the Monks also take vows to strive attain bodhisattva, with those who pursue esoteric practices of Tantric Buddhism taking Tantric initiations and vows (Michael, 2003, 56).

In essence, Mahayana Buddhism is founded on speculations of metaphysical nature in respect to the nature of reality or what can be termed as enlightenment in addition to the core values set by Buddha. The general idea of Mahayana Buddhism is that when one achieves enlightenment, such a person returns to the world as a Bodhisattva to join other human beings. In this context, this branch of Buddhism emphasizes that the duty of a Buddhist who has achieved enlightenment is compassionately work in an effort to help end the sufferings of other Buddhists.

In addition, Mahayana Buddhism holds the argument that through enlightenment, all creatures which can be considered as sentiment will finally achieve Buddhahood (Christopher, 1999, 23). Mahayana Buddhism is commonly divided into philosophical schools which are known to be influential not only to the Mahayana Buddhism but also to the Shankara and Advaita Vedanta as well. In this regard, the dialectic school also known as Madhyamika constitute one of the two schools of Mahayana.

In essence, this school emphasizes negation of every possible phenomenological reality through logical reducto-ad-absurdum means in an effort to achieve Shunyata which can be seen as ineffable absolute or void and which is considered as the only reality. The concept of Shunyata was introduced in an effort to refute the delusions caused by separate enduring egos. Moreover, the concept was adopted to emphasize the ways in which everything in the universe is connected to each other. The second school is a consciousness doctrine also known as Vijnanavada.

This school uses mediation process in an effort to prove that consciousness constitutes the ultimate reality. Unlike the other school, Vijnanavada has a number of occult and metaphysical conceptions including an emanationist which psychologically oriented but similar to Samkhya which is on the contrary cosmologically oriented. Mahayana Buddhism is centered on the noble Bodhisattva ideal which guides the enlightened Buddhists while dealing with the sentimental beings. In definition, a bodhisattva can be seen as a being who is in constant search of means of achieving or attaining Buddhahood in order to benefit sentiment beings.

The conception of bodhisattva was developed from the idea of a Buddhist who differs with the ultimate goal of extinction also referred to as nirvana so that such a person can often make his or her way back to the world of suffering and help end the suffering of sentient beings (Michael, 2003, 59). In essence, the idea of bodhisattva is considered as demonstrating selfishness in the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism largely because a bodhisattva having not reached nirvana, postpone enlightenment so as to help the sentient beings.

On the other hand, Theravada Buddhism is seen as the oldest surviving school of Buddhist school and began first in India. It is also known as Hinayana and is relatively close to original Buddhism and conservative as compared to Mahayana Buddhism. Different from the teachings offered by Mahayana, Theravada emphasizes on the concept of Vibhajjavada or Pali which is literally used to mean the teaching of Analysis. According to this teaching, insight comes from the experience of the aspirant coupled by reasoning instead of by blind faith and critical investigation.

Despite this teaching, the scriptures adopted by Theravada Buddhism emphasizes on the need to heed to the advice of the elders or the wise. In essence, heeding to the advice given by the elders and evaluation of one’s experience are considered to be the two vital tests on which the judgment of practices adopted by any given follower should be based. In Theravada Buddhism, the cause of human suffering and existence is identified as tanha or a craving which constitutes all the defilements inclusive of sensual desires, anger, ill will, jealousy, fear, hatred among others. In this context, the level of defilement can be coarse, subtle or medium.

In essence, the phenomenon of defilement in Theravada Buddhism is seen as arising temporary, taking hold for a short time and then vanishing all together. In this respect, the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism believes that defilements are harmful not only to the person who commits them but also to others and that they are the force behind all the inhumanities committed by any given human being. Moreover, the followers of Theravada Buddhism holds the believe that defilements constitutes habits which are born out of ignorance afflicting the minds of the unenlightened human beings.

Being under the influence of defilements, human beings are believed to cling to them by ignoring the established truth. On the other hand, these defilements are considered to be nothing but taints afflicting the mind of human beings consequently creating stress and suffering. Furthermore, the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism believes that the unenlightened human beings tends to cling to their bodies with the assumption that it is their self while on the contrary it present itself as an impermanent phenomenon which is formed on air, fire, water and earth. In this context, it is believed that the body will decompose and disperse after death.

Moreover, it is believed that the mental defilements’ continuous and frequent manipulation and instigation of human mind prevents it from seeing the true nature of reality. These defilements according to Theravada Buddhism are further strengthened by unskillful behavior and that if a human being follow a noble eightfold path, he or she can weaken or overcome these defilements. The doctrine of Theravada Buddhism believe that those who are unenlightened experience the world through imperfect six senses inclusive of the ears, the eyes, nose, tongue, mind and tactile sense.

They then goes on to use the mind which is by then clouded by much defilement in forming their interpretations, perceptions of reality and conclusions. In essence, the conclusion reached is based on the perceptions of these individuals in regard to the reality. On the other hand, the five physical senses are inactive to unenlightened person and consequently, the defilements are further strengthened unlike in the case of an enlightened person where the senses are wholly active thus suppressing any defilement.

In order for any human being to overcome the stress and suffering caused by these defilements one must strive to overcome the defilements first. The defilements in this context are believed to be initially restrained through mindfulness in regard to preventing them from taking over the bodily and mind action. To uproot them therefore, one need to undertake internal investigation and to analyze and at the same time understand the experience and the true nature of such defilements through the use of jhana.

The process of uprooting the defilements need to be performed on each kind of defilement if optimal results are to be achieved. Consequently, the mediator will realize four noble truths as believed by the Theravada doctrine which will help him in achieving enlightenment and overcome the defilements completely (Prebish, 1994, 67). In essence, the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism consider enlightenment and Nibbana as their ultimate goals. In this sense, Nibbana is thought of as the perfect bliss through which a person is freed from the cycle of birth, illness, aging and death.

The doctrine believe that each and every person should be held personally responsible for their own liberation and self-awakening. In this context, every individual is the one responsible for the consequences of his or her actions as well as those specific actions. As such, by simply believing and striving to learn the truth as provided for by the original Buddhism, an individual cannot fully be awakened but rather he or she must strive to know and conceptualize such reality through direct experience.

In this regard, the individual has to follow the teachings of Buddha in respect to the noble eightfold path in an effort to individually discover the truth. According to the doctrine of Theravada, gods, Buddhas, or even deities are not capable of offering awakening to any human being and as such are incapable of lifting from freeing them from the samsara cycle of birth, ageing and death. According to the beliefs held by followers of Theravada Buddhism, Buddhas are only teachers while the gods and deities are subject to anger and other forms of defilements (Robinson, 2005, 46).

Theologically, Theravada Buddhism is founded on the four noble truths which are also referred to as the four sublime truths. In essence this can be disseminated as defining the problem, the cause of the problem, the solution to such a problem and the methods and ways that must be followed to attain that solution. Firstly, Theravada Doctrine takes suffering or Dukkha as one of the four noble truths. In this regard, we can have inherent suffering which includes all forms of suffering undergone by an individual as a result of worldly things .

On the other extreme, we can have suffering that results from change and finally suffering that is caused by one’s failure of recognizing that he or she is an aggregate definite with an identity that is unsusceptible to change. Secondly, we have the cause of the suffering referred to as Dukkha Samudaya and which can be defined as a craving that leads an individual to worldly bondage and attachment thus causing suffering for such an individual. In this regard, Kama Tanha is the act of craving for any given pleasurable object as a result of the body senses.

On the other hand, Bhava Tanha is when an individual crave to be attached to a particular ongoing process such as the longing for existence. Still, Vibhava Tanha is when an individual crave to be detached from any given ongoing process such as the longing for self annihilation. The third truth called Dukkha Nirodha can be seen as a cessation for suffering. According to this truth, it is impossible for one to adjust the entire world in order to fit in his or her taste in an effort to free from suffering.

On the other hand, one must adjust his or her mind through detachment process so that any occurring change will have no effect on the peace of mind of such an individual. In other words, the elimination of the craving or the cause will help in eliminating the result. The final truth is a pathway to freedom from suffering and is known as Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipata. It is commonly known as the noble eightfold pathway towards Nibbana or freedom. It constitutes the right intention, speech, actions livelihood among other right things that an individual needs to do to free from suffering.

According to the doctrine of Theravada Buddhism, all conditioned phenomena including physical qualities, knowledge, theories adopted and the physical characteristics are subject to change with time. This is referred to as Anicca which can also be taken to mean impermanence. Moreover, the teachings of Theravada holds that suffering or Dukkha is caused by craving in the sense that whatever is craved for is subjected to change, transition and perishing. In this regard, the impermanence of the craving object causes sorrow and disappointment in the long run.

Since individuals are the one involved in labeling the objects to be liked and those to be disliked on one hand and the comforts and discomforts in the world on the other hand, they are the ones who create suffering in the first place. In this context, if an individual succeeds in overcoming the tendency to label thing in the world, he or she will be free from suffering (Prebish, 1994, 68). Still, Theravada Buddhism uses the concept of anatta in referring to the lack of unchanging and fixed identity. In this regard no specific phenomenon constitutes any individuals’ essential and permanent self.

In essence, any human being is composed of five aggregate elements. First, there is the rupa which includes the feelings and other forms of sensations also known as vedana, sanna which includes all the perceptions held by an individual, sankhara which is the mental formations arising from the perceptions and vinnana or the consciousness. All of this cannot be identified as ones’ self but rather together forms the core of an individual. The realization of anatta, dukkha and anica enables one to achieve freedom and to reach nibbana, a state in which one is complete and ultimately free.

In regard to meditation, Theravada Buddhism sees it as a way of positively reinforcing the mind of the individual in question. In this respect, mediation is categorized into two. Samatha which in literal terms mean making something skillful includes the acts of achieving visualizing or tranquilizing reality through meditation. Vipassana can be defined as insight or abstract understanding through meditation. In essence, samatha helps one to skillfully concentrate the mind while vipassana helps in seeing through the veil of ignorance (Paul, 1999, 47).

In conclusion, while it is easy to disseminate the psychological orientation and aspects of Theravada Buddhism, it is hard to identify the psychological perspectives of Mahayana Buddhism. This is because as stated earlier Mahayana is idealism as opposed to Theravada Buddhism which is psychologically oriented. The teachings of Mahayana Buddhism are those of metaphysically assisting other human beings to achieve enlightenment though the one helping need not have fully achieved it himself. In other words, it teaches it followers to be unselfish to the others and to the world as a whole.

It teaches its followers to strive to attain enlightenment and to help others who have not attained it do so. On the other hand, Theravada teaches its followers to strive to overcome the world through individual efforts other than relying on external assistance. In essence, Theravada Buddhism encourages its followers to find effective means of overcoming their defilements and thus to free themselves from sufferings. It holds that the suffering undergone by any individual starts with that individual himself and thus he or she is the only one who can liberate himself from such suffering.

Work Cited:

Christopher Brown. Can Buddhism Save? Finding Resonance in Incommensurability. Cross Currents, Vol. 49, Summer 1999, pp. 23 Michael Pye. Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism. London, Routledge Publishers, 2003, pp. 56, 59 Paul Groner. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana. China, University of Hawaii Press, 1999, pp. 45, 47 Prebish Charles. Buddhism: A Modern Perspective. United States, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994, pp. 67, 78 Robinson R. Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2005, pp. 46.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 30 November 2016

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