Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

“Everything is changeable, everything appears and disappears;

there is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death.” 

Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.”


This quote by Buddha, (born Siddhartha Gautama, who lived from 566 to 480 B.C.) offers us profound words of wisdom worthy of reflection and contemplation.  Buddha is telling us that “Everything is changeable…” (Yes, we change from a physical form to a formless form). “Everything appears and disappears…” (Yes, our physical bodies are here and then they are not).   He further offers a particularly powerful concept when he says, “…there is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death. Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.”  I believe that our learning from his wise words is not to agonize, whether during our living time nor at our time of death.  When we let go of agonizing and agony even, then and only then will we not fear life, or even death for that matter, enabling us to experience that blissful peace we all seek so much. We may tend to believe that the sense of peace is elusive, however, in being in awareness of that state of enlightenment, the ultimate liberation that Buddha talks about can free the path to peace.   

In this article, I’d like to give a contemplative overture on Buddha’s perspective on how to live life and even look upon death with mindfulness. In this endeavor, I’ll expose some of his philosophical tenets in hopes that we can grasp and embrace the sagacity of adopting meditation as a help in navigating that path to enlightenment.

Living Life in Agony

How many people do you know that live in agony over almost every little thing, almost every single day, always reacting to the effect of the external circumstances of their lives, giving equal weight and importance to all the little and the big things that bother them?  Stress is everywhere they look.  They justify how miserable they are by trying to convince others, making sure you know their rationale by the stories they relate about people, the condition of the economy, their work, their relationships, things that happen, thus setting the stage that all these issues “made” them that way. They remain in this harrowing vehement mode, no matter what you say to veer them away gently from that mode humanly reacting to make them feel better.  You can bet, that if they are in agony of the everyday living things when it is time for them to die, they will also be in agony.  So, where’s the peace of mind and how do we achieve it?

Buddha’s Introduction to Enlightenment

Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

Learning to navigate our human experience generates hope and assurance that we can attain a sense of well-being and peace of mind. These two qualities are important in living and dying. However, the path may not be always easy.  Learning from various traditions, like the Theravadic and Mahayana Buddhist traditions, propound astonishingly simple but profound tenets on how to live, readying us ultimately for how to die.  When we are at peace with ourselves and our lives, releasing attachments to what we think things should and ought to be, we become more ready and apt to hold the space for others with kindness and compassion.

There are no right answers of how to view life and living.  We each have our own soul’s journey, but I would hope that for everyone, there is always a sense of honor, dignity, and regard infused into mindful living.  I talk about bringing those qualities to our lives, right here and now, and just writing these words brings over a feeling of what it is to own that peace of mind.  It does begin with ourselves, and once adopted, it radiates outwardly towards others whom we love and who are at the end of their life. 

With just a few words in Buddha’s quote at the beginning of this article, imparts to us how important it is to be mindful of living life in certain ways.  He exposes these further when he states, “…cultivates certain qualities to Enlightenment/Awakening” … through his basic teachings called, “The Four Noble Truths.”  “The Four Noble Truths”, when adopted meaningfully with an open heart of volition, can provide us with the path that leads us to become liberated from suffering about things, and ultimately giving us that sense of peace and well-being, all the way to the end of our breathing lives…and beyond:

Buddha’s foundational focus rests upon the concept of karma, meaning an action that is brought upon oneself with inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation, and which sets the tone for living one’s life here on earth or in another life, depending on your belief.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Around the time of Buddha’s own enlightenment when he imparted “The Four Noble Truths” in his first sermon, later became inherently the foundation for both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. The basis of these two variant Buddhism is a common one – that life is suffering.  Suffering is caused by greed and suffering ends when we stop being greedy.  He proposes a roadmap that paves the way to end “greed” and that is to follow what he called, “The Eightfold Path”. 

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism share the same core beliefs and are devotions to the life and teachings of Buddha, however, they distinguishably differ one from the other.  Theravada Buddhism is associated with Southeast Asia, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, and is perhaps closer to the original form of Buddhism.   Mahayana Buddhism spread north through Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and also parts of Southeast Asia, which took on more of the local customs of the people.

Pali and Sanskrit: Ancient Language Interpretations

Buddhist Scriptures are written in different languages, with Theravada written in Pali, and Mahayana written in Sanskrit.   Respectively in each of these, there are certain terms used which are valuable in serving to deepen our understanding of Buddhists’ traditions.  Dharma (Sanskrit) and/or dhamma (Pali) are words that Buddhists use often, and are defined as “the teachings of the Buddha”, meaning something akin to “natural law”.   The root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support”, which, in its broader sense, is common to many religious traditions referring to the natural order of the universe. Dharma refers to ethical conduct and to conscientiously upright conduct, and can also be interpreted as, “sacred duty” onto oneself and others.   Basically, dhamma is the nature of what-is, in other words, it’s the truths that Buddha believed and taught. In Theravada Buddhism, dhamma is sometimes used to signify all the factors of existence.  Dhamma is more than simply a doctrine. It is an active process of teaching, which includes the practice and embodiment of the teachings, thus enabling the achievement of enlightenment.

In Mahayana Buddhism, dharma refers to both the teachings of Buddha and the realization of enlightenment.  Inherently within both of these meanings is also one’s personal understanding of their own dharma. It also preempts the possible notion that a person who can recite the Buddhist doctrines is, either more or less, in awareness of their own state of consciousness.

In both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, the most important thing is to live one’s life ethically, practice meditation, and develop wisdom through taking the same journey that Buddha took to his own enlightenment and thus achieving freedom from suffering.  Let’s take a brief moment here to take a closer look at the meaning of the word “suffering”. 

As with any ancient language, there are many possible interpretations of words, and some of these may depend upon more familiar reference points for people within the respective regional cultures.  Buddha’s teachings were given initially in a language, called Magadhi Prakrit , but were not written down until four hundred years after his death.  Pali/Sanskrit became one of the more carefully memorized versions, along with Vinaya, Sutra, and Abhidharma

In Pali/Sanskrit, the word, “dukkha,” is translated as “suffering,” but, the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho, a Theravadin monk and scholar, informs us that the word, “suffering,” actually means, “incapable of satisfying” or “not able to bear or withstand anything.  Other scholars supplant the word “suffering” with “stressful,”  which is believed to make it more identifiable and thus understandable in our modern, everyday life.  “Stressful” plugs into the addiction of negative thoughts that may leave us feeling inadequate, that may even make us compare and judge ourselves based on everything going on outside of us, never really being satisfied with “our lot in life,” – all the stuff which comprise the complaints of people. The word, “dukkha” also refers to that which is temporary, conditional, or compounded with other things. Even something precious and enjoyable is considered dukkha because it will end, just like all the components of a living human being: form, sense, ideas, tendencies, and consciousness. Obviously, this refers to the animated human body, because, it too is impermanent and will eventually perish, which are also considered part of this “suffering”.

How to Become a Buddhist: Follow The Path of The Four Noble Truths

theravada buddhism

One of the first places to begin is to follow the path of “The Four Noble Truths” understanding the concept of “suffering” through discipline and practice.  Let’s now examine more closely how “suffering” is interpreted through Buddha’s “The Four Noble Truths”.

The First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering.  This truth comes from the belief that life always involves suffering, due to the negative thoughts we entertain about our own existence and our relationship to the world.

The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering. The cause is believed to stem from greed which is identifiable as some degree of certain desires we may have, some of which may consist of cravings and wants. However, ignorance, and the mistaken belief that we are a separate “I” can make us be in perpetual search for things outside of ourselves to make us happy.  Let’s not take this as a firm denying ourselves of anything that we love that gives us true happiness. It’s really about the attachment to what we desire and want that can us into trouble.

When we cling or hold on too tightly or are attached to constant desires and wants, we either squish out what we can truly love, or feel that we cannot be enough without these.  Buddha taught that this is a kind of unquenchable thirst grows from the ignorance of the self and that we are each responsible for mastering our mind’s thoughts.   Buddha gifted us his teachings.  They’re there for those of us who search for more spiritual depth and peace in our life. If this particular belief venue speaks to us, then it is to us to take action and engage in practicing the disciplines that can lead us to our own sense of enlightenment and liberation.  Thoughts that lead us down an unhealthy, negative path of thinking is a habit that can be traded up for training our mind to think more along the lines of positivity, and, focusing on diminishing the attachment factor to desires and wants. Surely each one of us has met someone who goes through life grabbing constantly at one desire and want after another to get a sense of security about themselves. This is a false illusion because, as we can all imagine, that sense of security is short-lived and propels them never-endingly to continue feeding their next desire and want.

As human beings, we do have a natural tendency to attach ourselves to physical things, as well as to ideas and opinions about ourselves and the world around us.  However, all within enlightened limits. Perhaps, though, you may have met someone who is so opinionated that they don’t care or give space for anyone else’s opinion?  Or, perhaps you may know someone who holds an image of themselves that they believe to be true, but in reality, is falsely misguided. Everyone around them sees it, yet they go about blindly in this erringly perceived belief of themselves.  What results from this type of illusion is that they become frustrated when the world doesn’t behave according to the way they think it “should” and other people’s lives fall short of conforming to their expectations. 

Buddhist practice offers us an opportunity to adopt a radical change in the perspective of our tendency to divide the universe into “me” and “everything else”.  With devoted volition and time, a Buddhist practitioner can achieve a certain ability to enjoy life’s expectations without judgment, bias, manipulation, or any other mental barriers we erect between themselves and what’s real.  These steps are definitely meant to guide one in the direction of creating a sense of peace and well-being, rather than continuing a life filled with agony, constant suffering, and victimhood.

The Third Noble Truth: The End of Suffering.  The end of Suffering provides us with an explanation of what to do to cure the cause of suffering.  The solution, according to the Buddhist teaching, is to stop clinging and attaching. Sounds simple, but how do we do that?  It’s not as easy as just saying, “Okay stop, I won’t crave anything anymore.”   We must go back to the Second Noble Truth to look at the belief that clinging to things makes us happy or keeps us safe.  This type of grasping for one temporary thing after another never satisfies for long, because it’s all impermanent, just as we are. 

As humans, we are designed to break down one day.  Our human selves were not created to last indefinitely. 

When we conscientiously acknowledge that we can stop grasping, it becomes easier to let go, and the cravings eventually disappear on their own accord.  However, according to Buddhist teachings, it demands diligent practice. Once the practice begins to be truly owned and clenched deeply, the enlightenment begins to take hold, and the enlightened being goes into a state called, “nirvana”.  “Nirvana” means to “cool” or to “extinguish”.  Attaining the state of nirvana results from and is the extinguishment of the flames of suffering – a cooling down from suffering from constant desires and wants. This state is considered to be the ultimate freedom both from suffering and a craving for false happiness, and thus represents the attainment of freedom from the bonds that had enslaved one, enabling a state of profound peace and great wisdom.  It’s this state of consciousness which is above all others and is quite the opposite of ignorance, greed, hatred, and attachment, which can cloud some people’s mind and make them do things and comport themselves in detrimental ways.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path that Frees us from Suffering. This path follows with The Eightfold Path, which consists of eight broad areas of practice that touches every part of one’s life ranging from study to ethical conduct, to what you do for a living, and any moment-to-moment mindfulness.  Every action of the body, speech, and mind is addressed by this path, because, it is a path of exploration and discipline to be walked upon for the rest of one’s life.  Without engaging fully on this path, the first three Truths would be just theories, and fodder for philosophers to perhaps argue about.  The practice of the Eightfold Path brings the “dharma” into one’s life and makes it bloom.

The Eightfold Path is heralded as the guideline to be considered and contemplated, and, is more of a way of looking through eight aspects of life, rather than being viewed as a process of consecutive learning that one must integrate in everyday life.  This path stays away from extremes and encourages one to seek a simpler approach to living through Right Understanding, Right Intent, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

  • Right Understanding relates to seeing the world as it is and not the way you want it to be through direct experience or influence.  Buddha said that his teachings were not doctrines, but a method to experience reality.   Don Eduardo Calderon, a shaman with whom I had the privilege of studying years ago in Peru, used to say, “You don’t know what you don’t use.”
  • Right Intent is being committed to the mindful path from the heart with passion for the human journey, removing desire which causes suffering.
  • Right Speech addresses the power of the word and how important it is to pay attention to what we say, how we say it, and to whom we say it, staying away from negativity, arrogant talk, and idle gossip.  As a matter of fact, in Judaism, gossiping is like killing 3 people, the one you are talking about, the one you are telling and yourself.  Buddha also believed that speaking kindly moves us closer to everyday compassionate living.  Kindness is key.
  • Right Action means living an ethical life – not to kill physical body or spirit, steal, lie, cheat, indulge in sexual misconduct, taking addictive hallucinatory drugs or other intoxicants, thus comprising a whole conscientiousness approach to the environment that future generations stand to inherit.
  • Right Livelihood promotes the principle of equality of all living beings and respect for all life, staying away from doing work that produces harmful and detrimental effects on humanity, such as selling guns, drugs and even liquor.
  • Right Effort means cultivating a positive attitude in a balanced way, not too tense and not too impatient, producing an attitude of steady and cheerful determination with honest thoughts and focused action.
  • Right Mindfulness is being aware of and being focused in the moment, right in the here and now. This path of study is designed to achieve being one with the world, rather than solitarily escape from it. By means of a contemplated and studied awareness of our actions, patterns and negative habits that may control us, we can thus see how fears and limitations affect our present actions.
  • Right Concentration allows us to choose well-meaning directions for our mind, so that everything in nature, beautiful and ugly can be used for concentrating at a deeper level, helping to teach the mind to see things as they really are.  This leads to feeling a sense of joy of the moment, releasing pain and all sorts of mind games so that we can get closer to attaining freedom from suffering.

Theravada and Mahayana Meditation

Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions are gentle ways of navigating the experience of life, death, and beyond, through quieting the mind within, what they call, “Theraveda Meditation,” with various intentional practices that bring one to a certain state of mind through quieting the wandering, active mind, stepping in, once and for all, to just “BE” without the “monkey mind” ranting on and on.

We, as humans, don’t always allow the spirit of calm to rest for any length of time into ourselves.  Many of us are addicted to our thoughts.  We are not used to being in that sort of balance.  We are constantly bombarded with arising thoughts, uninterrupted streams of thought incessantly coming at us with a vast variety of things.  We actually get comfortable with this habitual state of mind and perhaps not giving a second conscious thought whether it’s really “normal”. 

Theravada and Mahayana Meditations are disciplined practices of quieting that active mind, and the addiction to thoughts, and all the results from these thoughts.  There are two types of meditation methods that are attributed to Buddha in Theravada, called, Samatha (Calming meditation) and Vipassana, (Insight meditation). These meditations gently provide a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness as it unfolds piece by piece over a period of years, with the student’s guided attention carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of his own existence, trained to notice more and more of his own flowing life experiences.  It is gentle and thorough, training the mind with a set of exercises to become more and more aware of one’s own life experiences, being attentive to listening, mindful seeing and careful testing.  In Mahayana meditation, there is greater emphasis on mantras and chanting, especially in Tibetan Buddhism.

Being human, our senses, emotions, and thoughts are activated by the physical world, and our mind is thus influenced.  Our thoughts and feelings, such as anger, fear, jealousy, envy, and attachment tend to rule the roost, so to speak. This is why getting a good handle on the mind is key. When we come to the realization that our un-serving thoughts, (according to the Theravada practitioners), are not truly existent, we suffer and end up agonizing over almost anything. 

Theravada and Mahayana Meditation practitioners, who are accomplished meditators, reach an understanding concerning the true nature of mind, and are not distracted by the incessant thinking that occurs, and achieve an inherent inner stability of mind.  It takes time, commitment and practice.  It’s quieting the mind with stillness.  The mind may not be yet used to being in this sort of balance. We are restless, distracted and sometimes confused.  Theravada and Mahayana practitioners practice daily, sometimes only sleeping six to seven hours and meditating all day long to master the art of this type of meditation in order to achieve inner calm and a peace of mind in a short period of time, unattached to the external world and internal mind, and not eating anything after lunch helps the mind be clearer and less sleepy.

Theravada tradition goes through three stages of meditation in order to develop concentration and to reach the state of liberation quickly. The first stage is called,

Samten, which is experiencing a stable state of mind.  The second stage is called,

Tingdzin (ting meaning depth, experiencing the calm depth of mind, and dzin meaning to hold the unwavering quality of mind).    The third stage is called, Samadhi, which is a deep insight and inner calm with a studied and developed ability to help other beings.

Throughout these stages, an analytical meditation approach is applied for the purpose of carefully analyzing the experiences of every movement of the mind.   By recognizing thoughts as such, one reaches an understanding concerning the true nature of the mind, will recognize thoughts as they are, and thusly see the inherent inner stability of mind.  Analyzing thoughts in this way reveals the nature of the mind and gradually helps one develop certainty discernment regarding what is otherwise hidden within the ongoing stream of thoughts.  By analyzing thoughts, one is able to control the negative thoughts that lead to agonizing over whatever negative thinking and thoughts. 

Benefits of Theravada and Mahayana Meditation

There are benefits of meditation that go beyond what we may not even realize.  Negative thoughts trigger negative consequences and hold, according to Theravada and Mahayana practitioners, different karmic tendencies.  Thoughts like anger or jealousy originate in the mind and bring about strong negative results.  Once we learn to recognize these kinds of mental activities, then we can learn to avoid their negative result.  Thus, there are two benefits of this kind of meditation:

  1. You can control your mind by recognizing your mental processes and slowly uproot the negative emotions to uncover the true nature of the mind.
  2. You can reduce your sense of attaching and clinging to sense impressions.  It’s helpful to refrain from excessive sensory input.  If you are strongly outwardly oriented, and also project great expectations onto the world, it will be challenging to calmly concentrate the mind on itself.  Clinging to outer sense impressions create useless distractions.  The opposite is true when the mind observes itself. The stage where you can experience a calm and peaceful mind is a stage of meditation that has become effortless.


Living in agony is not an ideal way to live.  It’s a slow, everyday death of the spirit. Considering Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist ways of navigating life guides one to make peace with what is, and to be mindful of being present in every moment.  Learning how to go within and finding strength there, without being at the effect of everything outside of the mind. One’s mind is the key to attaining a peace of mind too.  When we learn how to live with compassion, kindness, and love, we learn how to die in the same way.

It’s your life.  Enjoy the journey.  And, remember to bring love into everything you do.