dmattwads

Mahayana vs Theravada

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This topic has been the focus of a lot of my attention as of late. Here is the back ground.

 

Originally I was raised a Protestant Christian. During college I came to realize that this belief system didn't make a lot of rational sense and lost faith in it.

 

Fast forward a few years and I became active in Theravada Buddhism. It seemed very rational and made sense and didn't require much faith. It was easy to see that craving lead to suffering and to end suffering one needed to let go of craving by gaining insight into it. I also appreciated that the Buddha had an attitude of free inquiry that was based upon ones own experience. Herein also was the foundation of my own personal dilemma.

 As much sense as Theravada Buddhism made rationally, it didn't seem to be working for me in real life as far as making me happier and more peaceful. This being the case I began to experimentally try Mahayana practices even though they seemed less rational to me. 

 The "problem" was that the less rational Mahayana practices seemed to work better at making me happier and more peaceful, where as Theravada practice seemed to stress me out often.

 Being as it is I currently have a predominantly Mahayana practice even though Theravada seems to "make more sense" to me logically.

 Had anyone else had a similar experience? I'm not sure why Theravada practice hasn't worked well for me even though it makes more sense to me?

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Posted (edited)

You say Theravada makes sense to you rationally, but in the Pali Canon there are heavens, hells, deities, and magical powers. Can I surmise that because the core teachings of the four noble truths and noble eightfold path don't require belief in such things, you feel free to ignore the elements of traditional Theravada that seem irrational to you?  But you don't see a way to do this with Mahayana?

 

There is a strategy for doing this with Vajrayana that is very common in the West: Psychologize all deity practices and rituals.  That is, treat them all as symbols that work because symbols are the language of the subconscious mind.  A similar strategy could work for Mahayana, no? 

 

This is a type of mental rationalization. On the other hand, believing in things you have no personal experience of is also a type of mental rationalization.  Since you are doing the practices and they are working, maybe you don't need to engage in either type of mental rationalization?  (Edited to add: that was just a thought for discussion's sake, personally I always want to fit what I'm practicing into a logical framework.)

Edited by Creation
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Posted (edited)
4 hours ago, Creation said:

You say Theravada makes sense to you rationally, but in the Pali Canon there are heavens, hells, deities, and magical powers. Can I surmise that because the core teachings of the four noble truths and noble eightfold path don't require belief in such things, you feel free to ignore the elements of traditional Theravada that seem irrational to you?  But you don't see a way to do this with Mahayana?

 

The point you make cosmologically and mythologically is a very good one and I agree you are correct Theravada has all the same aspects as Mahayana.

 

I guess I should have been a little more specific but the primary aspect I'm talking about is in results from practice so experientially. The Theravada viewpoint of mindfulness in concentration leading to insight into the mind leading to wisdom leading to liberation logically makes a lot of sense. Practically however this was not working for me and basically just turned it into self torture sessions. The main Mahayana practice that I am personally referring to that seems to work for me is mantra practice. Logically and rationally I do not understand how this is supposed to work but on an experiential level it does work for me.

 The other aspect of Mahayana contradiction is that their scriptures seems either be of a later date and or contradict the arihant ideal of Theravada Buddhism. For example textual analysis has shown the lotus sutra to be written by more than one author at a much later date than the time of the Buddha yet chanting it's title as a mantra practice seems to get me results that Theravada practice never did. So it works for me which it's good and I have no complaints about but from a rational point of view I don't understand why it works for me and Theravada practice does not.

 Another reason that thing's making logical sense to me is important because as I stated in my original post the primary reason that I left Christianity is because it did not make sense nor did it work for me while on an experiential level either.

Edited by dmattwads

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Posted (edited)

Interesting thread. I always got the impression that Theravada sticks to the old teachings, or Preserving them like a manual of practice. And Mahayana is the community version where you have people over centuries who practice in their life but also came from different background and were essentially trying to achieve something, just like Gotama. Maybe Mahayana was combined with lineage like structure and Magick to defend against invaders, defend the weak, bring good weather to the crops, restructured to fit current norms or practices that were real etc. So it has all these community extensions that were added over the years, lost, kept, interpreted and reinterpreted, etc. and these weren't necessarily negative contamination but an external influence nonetheless.

 

Would you agree on this view?

Edited by EmeraldHead

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3 hours ago, EmeraldHead said:

Interesting thread. I always got the impression that Theravada sticks to the old teachings, or Preserving them like a manual of practice. And Mahayana is the community version where you have people over centuries who practice in their life but also came from different background and were essentially trying to achieve something, just like Gotama. Maybe Mahayana was combined with lineage like structure and Magick to defend against invaders, defend the weak, bring good weather to the crops, restructured to fit current norms or practices that were real etc. So it has all these community extensions that were added over the years, lost, kept, interpreted and reinterpreted, etc. and these weren't necessarily negative contamination but an external influence nonetheless.

 

Would you agree on this view?

 

I can't necessarily agree nor disagree with that view because it's more complicated than that. There's plenty of magic Theravada because they have something called parita chanting which is done by the monks to ward off disaster and bring prosperity to the village. 

 but you are correct the idea of Theravada is that they stick to the original teachings of the Buddha, at least that is the idea. The primary original teaching of the Buddha that they emphasize is the arahat ideal which is becoming a monk to achieve enlightenment and not be reborn.

 This contrasts with the bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana what are one postpones final Nirvana in order to help other beings become enlightened. This is a concept not found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada scriptures.

 You are also correct by saying that Mahayana Incorporated a lot of teachings later on not originally taught by Gautama Buddha. You are also correct in saying that Mahayana is more inclusive of lay people. In Theravada it's mostly thought that the only way to become enlightened is to become a monk. In Mahayana it's more coming to believe that lay people can become enlightened as well.

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Posted (edited)
12 hours ago, dmattwads said:

 

Fast forward a few years and I became active in Theravada Buddhism. It seemed very rational and made sense and didn't require much faith. It was easy to see that craving lead to suffering and to end suffering one needed to let go of craving by gaining insight into it. I also appreciated that the Buddha had an attitude of free inquiry that was based upon ones own experience. Herein also was the foundation of my own personal dilemma.

 As much sense as Theravada Buddhism made rationally, it didn't seem to be working for me in real life as far as making me happier and more peaceful. This being the case I began to experimentally try Mahayana practices even though they seemed less rational to me. 

 The "problem" was that the less rational Mahayana practices seemed to work better at making me happier and more peaceful, where as Theravada practice seemed to stress me out often.

 Being as it is I currently have a predominantly Mahayana practice even though Theravada seems to "make more sense" to me logically.

 Had anyone else had a similar experience? I'm not sure why Theravada practice hasn't worked well for me even though it makes more sense to me?

 

What Theravada vs Mahayana Buddhist practices did you have in mind? Because there is a lot of overlap.

 

I think we should also think carefully about the way Protestant/ Reformation thinking about Christianity colors our way of thinking about other religions. Even Westerners who were not raised in Protestantism are ingrained with very dubious assumptions about how religions start out with some "pure" teaching that is later adulterated with lots of extraneous doctrine and cultural baggage.

 

9 hours ago, Creation said:

You say Theravada makes sense to you rationally, but in the Pali Canon there are heavens, hells, deities, and magical powers. Can I surmise that because the core teachings of the four noble truths and noble eightfold path don't require belief in such things, you feel free to ignore the elements of traditional Theravada that seem irrational to you?  But you don't see a way to do this with Mahayana?

 

But the Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path, in their classic expositions, are inseparable from the teaching about karma and rebirth.

 

Quote

 

There is a strategy for doing this with Vajrayana that is very common in the West: Psychologize all deity practices and rituals.  That is, treat them all as symbols that work because symbols are the language of the subconscious mind.  A similar strategy could work for Mahayana, no? 

 

This is not a tenable solution, and here's why: in the Buddhist view, everything is "psychologized", insofar as all phenomena are held to be expressions of mental states. That is equally true of the realm we live in as of hell realms, deva realms, etc. So if we "psychologize" these other states, the implicit assumption is that our present state- the body we inhabit, the ground we walk on, the chair we sit in, etc.- is more real than these other states. This is a major surrender to the prevailing materialist positivism of the present age and a rejection of much of the dharma. The result is not Buddhism but some kind of materialist psychotherapy with a lot of Asian LARPing mixed in. And that, I dare say, is a fair description of so much what passes for Zen in Western societies. With Vajrayana I think it's much harder to get away with this sort of stuff, because so much of the practice- the guru-devotion, the intense asceticism, the offerings and prayers, etc., simply doesn't make sense as just metaphorical ritual.

 

 

 

Edited by SirPalomides
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12 minutes ago, SirPalomides said:

What Theravada vs Mahayana Buddhist practices did you have in mind? Because there is a lot of overlap.

 

This is a very fair question and I realize this could vary a lot from individual to individual so I will specify how it applies my case.

 

 Theravada practice I was doing a lot of concentration and mindfulness meditation. For whatever reason this did not tend to make me happy you're in more peaceful but rather the opposite.

 

 As far as Mahayana practices go the mean ones I do are its mantras various varieties. These do seem to be quite beneficial to my peace of mind and happiness

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Posted (edited)
16 minutes ago, SirPalomides said:

This is not a tenable solution, and here's why:

I don't disagree with you, but I know many Westerners who would not have been able to make any sense of the dharma without psychologizing it, and benefitted from the psychologized version. This is why teachers like Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized the more psychological aspects when first presenting the dharma to the West - skillful means. 

 

You seem well informed enough to know that it took the Chinese something like 300 years before they stopped interpreting Buddhism as a form of Daoism and understood it on it's own terms (I'm taking Kumarajiva as the major watershed figure here).  The West started seriously learning about  Buddhism about 150 years ago for comparison's sake.

Edited by Creation
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Posted (edited)
7 minutes ago, Creation said:

I don't disagree with you, but I know many Westerners who would not have been able to make any sense of the dharma without psychologizing it, and benefitted from the psychologized version. This is why teachers like Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized the more psychological aspects when first presenting the dharma to the West - skillful means. 

 

You seem well informed enough to know that it took the Chinese something like 300 years before they stopped interpreting Buddhism as a form of Daoism and understood it on it's own terms (I'm taking Kumarajiva as the major watershed figure here).  The West started seriously learning about  Buddhism about 150 years ago for comparison's sake.

 

This is exactly what I ran into when I did meditation retreats at Theravada monastery in the United States that had Western monks. The Western monks did not believe in anything metaphysical or supernatural at all. They pretty much saw all of it as a type of psychology and mind science. When I would ask about supernatural phenomenon they usually look kind of put off or annoyed. When I would ask about mantras or other Mahayana practices they would dismiss them as not what the Buddha taught and therefore not legitimate.

 I also noticed as they taught me more about "correct original" Buddhism the less fun Buddhism became and it turned into more of a drudgery.

Edited by dmattwads
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I think there is a tendency to try to make the dharma something acceptable to us.  For instance, making it rationalist by emphasising how the Buddha used reason to teach or making it a form of psychotherapy by stressing that it's all about mind - without clearly saying what 'mind' is in these terms.  Both of these a big mistakes.

 

Also much of western scholarship does use paradigms from the history of Christianity to try to understand how Buddhism developed - which are equally in error.

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4 minutes ago, dmattwads said:

 

This is exactly what I ran into when I did meditation retreats at Theravada monastery in the United States that had Western monks. The Western monks did not believe in anything metaphysical or supernatural at all. They pretty much saw all of it as a type of psychology and mind science. When I would ask about supernatural phenomenon they usually look kind of put off or annoyed. When I would ask about mantras or other Mahayana practices they would dismiss them as not what the Buddha taught and therefore not legitimate.

 

Thus demonstrating their own limited view of what mind is.

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Posted (edited)
5 minutes ago, Apech said:

I think there is a tendency to try to make the dharma something acceptable to us.  For instance, making it rationalist by emphasising how the Buddha used reason to teach or making it a form of psychotherapy by stressing that it's all about mind - without clearly saying what 'mind' is in these terms.  Both of these a big mistakes.

 

Also much of western scholarship does use paradigms from the history of Christianity to try to understand how Buddhism developed - which are equally in error.

 

I think there's this tendency in religion in general. For my undergrad I was a history major and I have often thought that if you were to teleport a modern Western Evangelical back into the early Christian medieval period they probably be burned at the stake.

Edited by dmattwads
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Posted (edited)
21 minutes ago, Apech said:

 

Thus demonstrating their own limited view of what mind is.

 

Yeah they almost seemed to me to be what Puritans were to Christianity. I think because of my encounter with them I went through several years of misery Buddhism. They told me that the things that had been working for me weren't legitimate so I stopped them and they seemed most interested in talking about being a monk and insisting that I now to them frequently. The things that they did tell me to do only seemed to make me miserable but they told me to persist because in the big picture it was beneficial.

Edited by dmattwads
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12 minutes ago, dmattwads said:

I also noticed as they taught me more about "correct original" Buddhism the less fun Buddhism became and it turned into more of a drudgery.

I have read some articles that make a plausible case that contemporary Theravada's emphasis on being the "correct original" teaching of the Buddha is actually due to the influence of Protestant missionaries on educated Southesat Asians in colonial times.

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Posted (edited)
4 minutes ago, Creation said:

I have read some articles that make a plausible case that contemporary Theravada's emphasis on being the "correct original" teaching of the Buddha is actually due to the influence of Protestant missionaries on educated Southesat Asians in colonial times.

 

I think I have heard that before as well. That would very much line up with the Protestant view that the original teachings of the church were corrupted by the Catholics and they were going back to the original purity. Since I had become acquainted with Taoism before Buddhism when I initially heard about the new practices introduced in Mahayana I thought of it as a positive thing like innovation and progress and not as a negative thing like a loss of purity.

Edited by dmattwads
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6 minutes ago, dmattwads said:

 

I think there's this tendency in religion in general. For my undergrad I was a history major and I have often thought that if you were to teleport a modern Western Evangelical back into the early Christian medieval period they probably be burned at the stake.

 

*pushes up glasses* Well actually as I recall stake-burning heretics was not widespread until maybe the mid to late medieval period. Heretics were more often just ostracized, exiled, or, if they were really outspoken, maybe mutilated and exiled. And it depends on the region too- sometimes the heretics were too numerous and people just had to learn to get along or look the other way.

 

Evangelicals though are really annoying and might have their tongues cut out to stop them singing their horrible praise songs.

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1 minute ago, SirPalomides said:

 

*pushes up glasses* Well actually as I recall stake-burning heretics was not widespread until maybe the mid to late medieval period. Heretics were more often just ostracized, exiled, or, if they were really outspoken, maybe mutilated and exiled. And it depends on the region too- sometimes the heretics were too numerous and people just had to learn to get along or look the other way.

 

Duly noted. I will adjust the dial on my time machine to make sure that the proper executions take place. 🤭

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5 minutes ago, SirPalomides said:

 

*pushes up glasses* Well actually as I recall stake-burning heretics was not widespread until maybe the mid to late medieval period. Heretics were more often just ostracized, exiled, or, if they were really outspoken, maybe mutilated and exiled. And it depends on the region too- sometimes the heretics were too numerous and people just had to learn to get along or look the other way.

 

Evangelicals though are really annoying and might have their tongues cut out to stop them singing their horrible praise songs.

 

those wishy washy liberals and their mutilating ways!

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A few years ago I hit a similar or related problem. I was practicing Tibetan Buddhism because of my feeling of connection to it – particularly the historical figures like Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa. But I realised after a while that I knew practically nothing about the Buddha himself or early Buddhism or the history of Buddhism. In fact I found some of the ways in which Buddha is presented a real turn off. So I spent quite a while reading a number of academic books on the subject and researching through what's available on the internet in terms of serious academic study. It's a huge subject and has layers of what I came to understand as misunderstandings built over it.

 

What is not always immediately apparent is that contemporary Buddhism and popular western Buddhism has been majorly influenced by Western rationality. It has been as if (or it may actually be the case) that various schools of Buddhism responded to Western influence by saying 'we can be as rational as you' – and they did this by being selective about what the sutras say and portraying the Buddha as a kind of Eastern Socrates. To do this they have to eliminate all accounts of spirits, deities, Vajrapani and so on – clean it up and repackage. Western academics climbed on the back of this repackaging, the height of this approach is in Oxford, England with Richard Gombridge, Stephen Batchelor and so on. Everything that does not quite fit like rebirth, karma and the six realms are rejected as 'cultural'. Personally I reject this as much as I reject the 'psychological' treatment of dharma e.g. Jungian and so on.

 

Its quite surprising how little is known about early Buddhism from archeology and historical research – and it has to be bourne in mind that the Pali Canon was not written down for several centuries – and while I have no problem with the oral tradition as being accurate – Buddhism had by the 1st Century BC become quite institutionalised – was scholastic and monastic (in the sense of fixed institutions rather than wandering forest dwellers). So you have to be very careful about assuming that the Theravada is the same as early Buddhism (even though the Theravada scholars would say it is). The Buddha taught in 84,000 ways – and said that his teachings were like a handful of leaves compared to a whole forest.

 

The earliest Mahayana sutras were only slightly later than the Pali Canon – and the Mahayana did not arise as part of a schism (that is a Western projection ) - actually Mahayana was always a minority practice style which existed alongside Hinayana in some sanghas. It grew in influence over centuries until the Hinayana died out. Please note Theravada does not equal Hinayana (some similarities maybe).

 

The difference in Mahayana sutras was the way they were taught and practiced. They departed from the Sravaka (listen, reflect, meditate) system – to become more participatory and image based . The Mahayana sutras were chanted by the teacher to a group which would be expected to memorise, repeat, visualise and then practice the sutra – so it was more of a practice based teaching transmission than an analytical/reflective one. This became even more true when the Vajrayana came along (!). All this has to be seen in the context of a view of history which includes increasing degradation over time (Kali Yuga) – and the idea that it is actually getting harder to achieve enlightenment over time compared for instance with when the Buddha was alive.

 

I came to see that the Buddha used reason – but was not a rationalist – that early Buddhism was probably not scholastic and remote from ordinary people's lives but very much part of the community. That the world view they held (still hold) encompasses gods, demons, ghosts and so on – even where these are seen as aspects of Mind this is still not in the sense we would mean it today. As Buddha himself said of his awakening that it was deep, profound, ineffable, unborn etc. - so any tight definition of what mind is or is not is impossible conceptually.

 

I have found in my own practice for instance that making offerings to negative ghost-like beings is effective, that prayer and devotion is key to pure perception, that we interact with all kinds of 'beings' in dream-like perception – and yet I remain rational (just about :) ).

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6 minutes ago, Apech said:

 

 

What is not always immediately apparent is that contemporary Buddhism and popular western Buddhism has been majorly influenced by Western rationality. It has been as if (or it may actually be the case) that various schools of Buddhism responded to Western influence by saying 'we can be as rational as you' – and they did this by being selective about what the sutras say and portraying the Buddha as a kind of Eastern Socrates. To do this they have to eliminate all accounts of spirits, deities, Vajrapani and so on – clean it up and repackage. Western academics climbed on the back of this repackaging, the height of this approach is in Oxford, England with Richard Gombridge, Stephen Batchelor and so on. Everything that does not quite fit like rebirth, karma and the six realms are rejected as 'cultural'. Personally I reject this as much as I reject the 'psychological' treatment of dharma e.g. Jungian and so on.

 

I continue to be struck by how often when I read the Pali Canon how different it is then what I'm told about Theravada. Clearly large parts of it are the same or similar to what I've been taught of Theravada, but other parts are very different than what I was told.

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26 minutes ago, Creation said:

I have read some articles that make a plausible case that contemporary Theravada's emphasis on being the "correct original" teaching of the Buddha is actually due to the influence of Protestant missionaries on educated Southesat Asians in colonial times.

 

I also noticed on a personal experience a level that the more I spent time at the Theravada monastery and learn from them that I began to feel about as happy as a Puritan as well. I feel like there's a lot of the same attitude that while this might be tough and it might not be fun but it's worth it in the end if we're saved. 😑

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1 minute ago, dmattwads said:

 

I continue to be struck by how often when I read the Pali Canon how different it is then what I'm told about Theravada. Clearly large parts of it are the same or similar to what I've been taught of Theravada, but other parts are very different than what I was told.

 

 

There's one sutra (I think its called The Arrogant Brahmin (?) ) where Vajrapani appears out of the top of Buddhas head.  I suppose they can still discount this as being symbolic or whatever.

 

The other thing I find slightly weird is the clinging to atheism - as if the Buddha was Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris - when the Buddha didn't say there were no gods - just don't rely on them.  

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1 minute ago, Apech said:

 

 

There's one sutra (I think its called The Arrogant Brahmin (?) ) where Vajrapani appears out of the top of Buddhas head.  I suppose they can still discount this as being symbolic or whatever.

 

The other thing I find slightly weird is the clinging to atheism - as if the Buddha was Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris - when the Buddha didn't say there were no gods - just don't rely on them.  

 

Stephen batchelor seems to love everything that the Buddha says and thinks he's a genius until it sounds superstitious and then he claims that it was just a cultural thing that the Buddha didn't really know any better about.

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5 minutes ago, Apech said:

 

 

There's one sutra (I think its called The Arrogant Brahmin (?) ) where Vajrapani appears out of the top of Buddhas head.  I suppose they can still discount this as being symbolic or whatever.

 

The other thing I find slightly weird is the clinging to atheism - as if the Buddha was Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris - when the Buddha didn't say there were no gods - just don't rely on them.  

 

On the other hand to balance that out and to be fair one of the primary reasons that I left Christianity was because I did not feel that it lined up with the science. the primary reason was because of textual inconsistencies but nevertheless the lack of scientific evidence or the contradiction with science was a factor.

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3 minutes ago, dmattwads said:

 

Stephen batchelor seems to love everything that the Buddha says and thinks he's a genius until it sounds superstitious and then he claims that it was just a cultural thing that the Buddha didn't really know any better about.

 

I read some Batchelor and John Peacock (?) - also a few books by Richard Gombridge - and I like what they say about the etymology of words like dukkha and so on - so there's a lot to be learned from them - and in a way being skeptical about a subject is quite healthy - but they let themselves down when they get selective in this way.

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