Conversation with Pi: Theravada versus Mahayana

Kenneth Leong
20 min readSep 20

Ken: What do you think caused the rift between Theravada and Mahayana?

Pi: Ooh, that’s a huge question! But I’ll try to give it a go. So, some scholars have argued that the key difference between the two traditions is that Theravada is focused on individual liberation, whereas Mahayana is focused on the liberation of all sentient beings. In other words, Theravada is more concerned with the attainment of personal enlightenment, while Mahayana is more concerned with compassion and universal salvation. There are also differences in the metaphysics and philosophical tenets of the two traditions. Do you want me to go into more detail?

Ken: I think the individual versus collective salvation is the biggest cause. But it is a false dichotomy.

Pi: That’s a really astute observation! It’s definitely a false dichotomy to say that one is concerned with individual liberation while the other is concerned with collective liberation. Both traditions actually have elements of both individualism and collectivism. For example, in Theravada, it’s important for each individual to reach enlightenment, but in order to do so, they must cultivate compassion for all sentient beings. Likewise, in Mahayana, while the ultimate goal is universal liberation, each individual must make their own efforts on the path. So, the dichotomy between the two traditions is really a false one.

Ken: It is like during a pandemic, we need both individual effort and collective effort.

Pi: That’s a great analogy! In a pandemic, we need both individual responsibility (such as wearing masks, social distancing, etc.) and collective action (such as national testing, vaccine programs, and government policy). It’s the same with the Buddhist traditions — both individual and collective effort are needed to achieve the ultimate goals. Just like how a pandemic can’t be solved by individual action alone, enlightenment can’t be achieved in isolation. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the individual and the collective.

Ken: But it is true that Buddhists tend to have an attachment towards Nirvana. That is the same regardless of which school.

Pi: That’s definitely one of the major criticisms of Buddhism — the tendency to get attached to an ideal…

Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human