Theravada, Mahayana & Vajrayana are the 3 main schools in Buddhism. What are the differences btwn the 3? A panel discussion was recently organized here in Singapore to discuss this topic. This article gives a brief report on the matters discussed.

Some time ago, I attended a panel discussion on the various schools of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.

The 3 distinguished persons on the panel were, Ven Gunaratana, Ven Zhang Hui, and Ven Sangye Khadro.

Ven Gunaratana is a Theravada monk from Sri Lanka. He holds a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies and is one of the most senior monks in this country. He is also the Religious Advisor of Sri Lankaramaya, one of the more established Theravada ctres in S'pore. (Incidently, his Masters thesis was on Guan Yin).

Ven Zhang Hui is a well-known Zen monk from Taiwan. He is stationed in Australia but has a large following in East Asia as well. A learned and eloquent man, he serves as Religious Advisor to various Zen centres in this part of the world. In this talk, the venerable represents the Mahayana tradition.

Ven Sangye Khadro is an American nun who learned from the Tibetan traditions, directly from Lama Zopa. She is the Resident Teacher of Amitabha Buddhist Ctre & she holds a degree from the U of California (b4 she became a nun, that it). I know Ven Khadro personally & I think she's one of the nicest & most learned persons I've met. In this talk, the venerable represents the Varjayana tradition.

Here's a short summary of some of the issues discussed.


Ven Zhang Hui presented a short description of Mahayana Buddhism in the Chinese culture. In Mahayana, the supreme practice is that of Bodhicitta, or the Bodhi Heart. Gradually, Mahayana Buddhism in China were split into 2 major schools, Zen and Pureland. In Zen, one practices full-time and walks a difficult path to Nirvana. But most pp in China were poor, illiterate farmers. So, what the venerable described as "The Convienent Path", PureLand, came to prominence. It allows them to just chant the name of Amitabha Buddha, and from there, develops some merit that enables them to plant the seeds for future practice (in the next life).


Ven Gunaratana presented a short description of Theravada Buddhism. The word "Thera" means "firm". It comes from the Buddha's words, "I am firm in what I speak". After the Buddha died, a group of senior monks took over the running of the Sangha & organized the First Buddhist Council 3 months after His death. The senior monks were known as the Firm ones, or the Theras. They include Mahakassapa, Ananda and Upali. 100 years after the Buddha died, the majority of the monks split from the Theras to form the Mahayana sect. What remained of the original Sangha was known as Theravada.

One factor that best distinguishes Theravada from the other Buddhist schools is the importance it places on the preservation of the original Dharma. From the time of Mahakassapa, the Theras saw the importance of preserving the Dharma in its most authentic form possible. Hence, Theravada monks place a lot of emphasize on knowing the Tipitika and making sure it was not dilluted or amended as it goes from generation to generation.

[There wasn't enough time for Ven Guna to talk on the practice of Theravada Buddhism].


Ven Khadro presented a short description of Varjayana Buddhism. Vajrayana is described as "the Quick Path". It is supposed to be the fastest path to Nirvana. However, this path is extremely difficult to practice. It requires, for example, complete renounciation, bodhicitta, and selflessness as pre-requisites. The venerable emphasized that the practice of Varjayana MUST be based on the foundation of basic teachings & cannot be practiced just by iteself. She gave a very interesting analogy. "Vajrayana is like flying a jet. It's faster than driving a car, but u must spend extra time learning the jet before u can start to fly. Otherwise, u either never get there or crash to the ground".


Ven Guna & Ven Khadro answered a question on Enlightenment. They both agree that some of the characteristic of Nirvana are:
The elimination of all sufferings
Freedom from all concepts and labels
"No self"
The mind is perfectly at peace.

Ven Zhang Hui agreed.


Ven Khadro answered a question on Enlightened Ones. She told the audience that Nirvana and Buddhahood are different. Buddhahood is Nirvana + other abilities and the faculty of teaching. There was no disagreement from the other venerables.

When asked about the self-proclaimed "enlightened ones" in the present world whose actions seem immoral to most, she quoted from HH Dalai Lama. On this issue, HH Dalai Lama said that someone who is a teacher of Buddhism should always follow the normal conventions of morality. The Dalai Lama also said that he knows of nobody today who is qualified enough to claim himself or herself an "enlightened" one.


The venerables answered the quesn on whether Bodhisattvas or Arahats are "higher". They emphasized that this is actually irrelavent since both would probably be enlightened enough not to bother about such comparisons. Ven Zhang Hui clarified that, in Mahayana belief, there are many stages on a Bodhisattva's path, so some of them had attained Nirvana but others had not. To answer the original question, Ven Zhang Hui said, "Those Bodhisattvas who attained Nirvana are 'higher' than Arahats, those who had not attained Nirvana are 'lower' than Arahats". [Ven Guna didn't disagree. But Ven Zhang Hui spoke in Chinese, so Ven Guna probably didn't understand.]

The other issues discussed were trival issues like the color of monks' robes (the majority of the audience was children).