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Philosophy 312: Oriental Philosophy
Main Schools of Buddhism

Abstract: The contrast of the two main schools of Buddhism is briefly sketched.

I.  First origins of the main schools began to develop almost immediately after Buddha's death.

    A. Like many ancient teachers Buddha, himself, wrote nothing which has survived. The first written records of Buddhism were composed almost one hundred and fifty years after he died.

    B. Many texts and interpretations began to appear; partisan schools of thought developed.

      1. Buddha's followers began to identify things which symbolized teachings of the master

        a. Bo-tree: the tree of wisdom.

        b. Lotus blossom: anyone can rise up and transcend the surroundings.

        c. Wheel: the endless rounds of becoming and the way to truth.

      2. Buddha's attributed thoughts were written down into three sections:  the Tripitka. Later, many additions were made to the scriptures.

      C. Due to Buddha's Noble Silence, crucial controversial philosophical points were left for discussion and development.

      D. Almost five hundred years after Buddha's death two main schools had developed--the schools divided their opinions on essentially three basic questions.

        1. Are human beings inherently social creatures or not?

          a. If the answer is "yes," then Mahayana school.

          b. If the answer is "no," then Theravada school.

        2. Is the world essentially safe or dangerous?

          a. If the answer is "safe," then Mahayana School.

          b. If the answer is "dangerous," then Theravada school.

        3. Is feeling (valuing) or reason the more basic attribute of human beings?

          a. If the answer is "feeling," then Mahayana School.

          b. If the answer if "reason," then Theravada school.

II. The contrast of the two main schools may be tabulated as follows.

(Way of the Elders)

(Hinayana, "Little Raft")


("Big Raft")


absolute idealism

realization by self-effort

salvation of grace

the individual is important;
individual salvation

society is important;
universal salvation

emphasis of wisdom

emphasis of compassion

religion of total concern

life in world is of concern

Arhat ideal--eliminate excessive
desire and craving.

Bodhisattva ideal--help
 others overcome suffering.

Noble Silence

some metaphysics

no ritual






Buddha is a holy man

Buddha is a savior

Single tradition

Divided tradition: scriptures,
devotion, ritual, political, 



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