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Difference between Tibetan Buddhism and the Theravada tradition

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  • Difference between Tibetan Buddhism and the Theravada tradition


    My first interaction with Buddhism, outside if a book, was in the Tibetan tradition. I was wondering if you could explain the differences between the Tibetan and Theravada traditions? I have noticed a few differences myself after attending the Friday night talks in Nollamara, including less of an emphasis on rituals and symbolic gestures, but wondered if you could shed some light on the practice and faith based side of things?

    With many thanks for your time and knowledge

  • #2
    Dear Kathryn,

    I think it is important to keep in mind that the similarities are greater than the differences. We humans seem to be particulaly interested in differences, and sometimes this may exacerbate our "tribal" tendencies. Perhaps if we focussed more on our common ground, we would have more harmony. A good place to start would be to accept that we are all suffering, that is, we are all in this mess together!

    Nevertheless, there are differences. (I should clarify, though, that I am no expert on Tibetan Buddhism.) To understand these diffeerences, it is useful to understand the origins of the two traditions. Theravada is focussed on the earliest record of the Buddha's teachings, usually known as the Pali Canon. This Canon has then been interpreted through layers of commentaries and auxiliary works, and the sum of all these is what we now call Theravada. It needs to be said, however, that at Friday night talks at Dhammaloka we try to focus on the Pali Canon, and not so much on the later layers of interpretation.

    Tibetan Buddhism, by contrast, is much more of a hybrid religion. Buddhism only fully penetrated Tibet from India at the beginning of the second millenium, and by this time Indian Buddhism was quite different from what it had been at the time of the Buddha. Among other things, it was quite heavily influenced by Hinduism. In Tibetan Buddhism you will see godesses with multiple arms, which are an import from Hinduism. In Tibetan Buddhism you find so-called tantric practices, which again are an import from Hinduism. In addition to this, Tibetan Buddhism was influenced by the local shamanistic religion known as Bon.

    In practice, this means that Tibetan Buddhism is a much more developed form of Buddhism. In particular, Tibetan Buddhism focusses on the Bodhisattva ideal, whereas Theravada Buddhism has the Arahant as its ideal. Tibetan Buddhism emphasises visualisation as a method of meditation and mental development, whereas Theravada tends to focus on meditation such as mindfulness of breathing.

    There is much more, but at least that's a start!

    With metta.


    • #3
      Thank you Ajahn Brahmali. That is a great answer and explained a lot of the things I saw but did not understand. I can now remember the Hindu influences in the tapestries decorating the meditation space and the concept of Bodhisattvas rings a bell. I really do enjoy the purity and almost "back to basics" approach that the Theravada tradition embodies. Before I started attending the Friday nights at Dhammaloka I visited on an open day to try and make sure I knew what to do and when to do it, i.e. gestures, expected donations, required textbooks. The poor volunteer that showed me around must have thought I had control issues! I had found the Tibetan tradition very rule oriented and full of symbolic gestures that if not done properly or at the right time provoked correction and almost scorn from fellow attendees!

      I guess what I am trying to say is that I am very grateful for the services and sacrifices the sangha have made here in Perth, and that Friday nights have become
      something I look forward to immensely. Thank you.


      • #4
        Hi Kathryn,

        I worked in a non denominational Dhamma (Dharma) centre for some time and we had many visiting monastics from all the major buddhist traditions, and in truth there are very few differences when it comes down to it ... I have seen fantastically powerful and inspiring monks of all 'makes and models' and some monks with some very suspicious ideas and behaviours in all traditions also ...

        ... there are different traditions within tibetan buddhism also (just as in theravada) and they all have different ways of going about things and I found myself more drawn to some than to others ...

        ... one story I like to tell was when some gelupa monks were spending a week at the centre making a sand mandela and my teacher (a sri lankan theravada monk) came to visit and I took him to see the it being constructed ... the conversation went like this: "so, they are buddhist monks?" - "Yes bhante" - "and they are doing 'arts and crafts?'" - "I think it is part of their practice bhante" ... my teacher and the monks exchanged greetings and then my teacher stood for a few minutes watching in silence with the monks as they worked, and then he said "now I get it" and we both went to our meditation class ...



        • #5
          From my (fairly limited) reading on the subject of Buddhism, I am glad to say that Adjahm Brahmali's explanation chimed well with what I thought the differences were; and these differences are some of the reasons that I feel more interested in Thweravada at the moment, because I want to know more about the purest, earliest teachings of the Buddha, not mixed with too many other things that might risk complicating things for me. That's despite the fact that I would say being in the presence of the Dalai Lama once was one of the strongest spiritual experiences I have had.



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