In my recent bhikkhu ordination I've crossed the divide between the two major modern branches of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. This was anticipated in the name of this blog: "Bhante" is the Theravada title for a monk or nun, and "Dogen" is a reference to the founder of Japanese Soto Zen Mahayana Buddhism. It feels indeed like I have one foot in each branch.
The Mahayana distinguished itself in India as a separate movement within Buddhism India by about 300 or 400 AD, and the early users of the name "Mahayana" (Great Path) used "Hinayana" (Small Path) to refer to the numerous non-Mahayana schools. Mahayana is almost the exclusive school of Buddhism in the north Asian countries of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia. For many centuries Theravada has been the only remaining school originally designated as "Hinayana." It is almost the exclusive school in the the southern Asian countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia. I believe Vietnam is the only country in Asia in which both schools substantially exist side by side.
Centuries of separation have not fostered understanding between these two major schools as they re-encounter one another in modern Asia and in the West. For instance, last Summer I read a (very inspiring) book, The Banner of the Arahants, written by an early British Theravada bhikkhu, who therein details the history of the monastic sangha from the time of the Buddha, through the spread of Buddhism as an international religion to modern times, and never once acknowledges that there is a monastic sangha north of Himalayas. A Zen priest, on hearing that I would be traveling to Myanmar to reordain, responded, "Theravada?!? I don't get it." In our pilgimage travels before I ordained I was repeatedly introduced as the Mahayana monk who was about to ordain in Theravada; the responses were informative. The abbot of one monastery we were visiting suggested that I read the Buddha's discourse on wrong views (of which none of those enumerated can be said to characterize the Mahayana). A different reaction was elicited by the ninety-two year-old leader of the large Shwe Gyin sect of Burmese Theravada, who expressed his high regard for the Mahayana tradition. Many monks I've talked with here think of Mahayana monks as not following any precepts.
Many on both sides trace the divide to the Second Council, 100 years after the Buddha's parinirvana, which, so it is recorded, resulted in a serious schism because of differing views, according to the Theravadins with regard to discipline, and according to the Mahayanists with regard to doctrine. However, this was hundreds of years before even the rudiments of the Mahayana school has arisen.
I would like to explore many of differences and similarities of the Mahayana and Theravada in a series of blog postings. I think this is an important topic for Western Buddhism as we individually go shopping among the various sects of Buddhism now present in the West and as as we collectively develop a Buddhism that works for the West. My plan is two write seven more blog postings as follows:
Mahayana/Theravada I (this posting)
Mahayana/Theravada II: The Pa Auk Tawya Encounter
Mahayana/Theravada III: The Great Schism?
Mahayana/Theravada IV: Will the Real Mahayana Buddhism Please Stand Up?
Mahayana/Theravada V: Carrying the Torch
Mahayana/Theravada VI: The Cultural Context
Mahayana/Theravada VII: What Makes Buddhism Thrive?
Mahayana/Theravada VIII: The Future History of Buddhism in the West