theravada-mahayana: non-duality. What's the difference?

I watched someone talk about the difference between theravada and mahayana buddhism.
He said theravada broadly speaking emphasizes happiness and liberation, while mahayana emphasizes absolute compassion as epitomized by the bodhisattva vow.
Then he said mahayana rejects dualism and proclaims that nirvana and samsara, this shore and the yonder shore are one and the same, while theravada rejects it (I heard Bikku Bodhi the theravada scholar argue that nibbana is an element, not just a psychological or spiritual state).
Anyone can shed light on the above?

about the examination of the intrinsic nature

The bodhisattva’s way is a spiritual development that leads to the enlightenment in the Mahayana tradition. Although these practices have been grown in the Mahayana, we can find their origins in the Hinayana. The main aspiration of the bodhisattva is to achieve Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentients beings. The bodhisattva recognizes the suffering in the world and he determines to reach Buddhahood following the long path of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva acts with altruism and compassion for all living beings.
According to Mahayana point of view, the sravakayana or "hinayana" follower only seek his own benefit, he only seek the liberation. I often listened about the denigration of the "hinayana" as minor vehicle and the superiority of Mahayana. But, both by equal has compassion and wisdom in the long path to the liberation. The bodhisattva follows the ten paramitas, and the sravaka also follows the ten paramis.
According to madhyamaka and yogacara, nirvana and samsara are equal. Samsara is the conditional true/constructed nature and nirvana is the ultimate true/real nature. The Abhiddhamma says that all dhammas are conditioned but nibbana is unconditioned. The ultime true from madhyamaka is the same as the real nature from yogacara and the nibbana from abhidhamma. In my opinion, theravada and Mahayana are non dual. But the emphasis is in the examination of the intrinsic nature of dhammas (svabhava)

Inner Harmony and Balance

Maybe this comment fits Buddhism and society more however, It seems that older schools of Buddhism were more centered on methods and practices which focus one's own mind as a path to enlightenment. However, afterwards this goal itself has become a new challenge and source of attachment and clinging for many of the disciples who begin to attach and strengthen their delusion about self, salvation and ultimate goal. Besides that despite the humanitarian and harmonious nature of Buddhism some crash in an extreme of their solidarity and irresponsibility about other pain which is far away from ethical dimensions of the Buddhism. So the some newer schools emphasized more on eccentric teachings as upaya to help practitioners divert their focus from their own to other beings. On the other hand this viewpoint also not only provided a more socially responsible role for the Buddhism practitioners but helped them develop more of their inner ethical values. However, many both great masters of the both Theravada and Mahayana schools were an example of a balanced character between the two aspects. and applied each of the methods for their disciples to help them build up a harmonious mind which may attain enlightenment.

Non-duality, what is the difference?


I think we cannot have a discussion of the concept of non-duality in Mahayana without also talking about the doctrine of buddha-nature.

The tathagatagarbha doctrine posits that every sentient being is capabale of being enlightened and achieve buddhahood because every sentient being possesses a buddha-nature. However, sentient beings are not enlightened because this buddha-nature or luminous mind or pure consciousness as otherwise known is being obscured by defilements due to ignorance. And as long as this initial pure state of mind remains defiled, the sentient being remains in the cycle of samsara. Conversely, if the defilements are removed, the sentient being becomes enlightened and achieves nirvana.

Hence, that is why it is being stated in Mahayana that samsara is no different from nirvana because they are two aspects of the same mind/consciousness.

In the Platform Sutra, Master Huineng puts it thus:

“Noble friends, prajna, the wisdom of enlightenment, is inherent in all people of the world. Only because their minds are deluded, they fail to realize it themselves. Therefore, they need the guidance of great masters to see their true nature. Know that Buddha nature is no different in the wise and in the ignorant. What separates them is whether one is enlightened or deluded.”

And that is also why one sees so often especially in Chinese Mahayana which is very much influenced by the Tientai and Huayan schools (in which the tathagatagarbha doctrine is a central theme) sayings such as 十法界不離一念心 and 烦恼皆菩, loosely translated as “the ten dharma realms are not beyond a single thought” and “afflictions are the same as bodhi” respectively.

Personally, I think another reason why Mahayana puts so much emphasis on this non-duality is because when we treat niravana to be different from samsara and as an destination to be achieved by following the path, nirvana then also becomes an object of grasping and clinging. However because nirvana is a state free from any grasping or clinging, striving to achieve nirvana becomes an obstacle in itself in one's efforts to achieve nirvana.

Dual is one

With absolute compassion, a bodhisattva striving for happiness and liberation for himself and at the same time striving to teach and help more to achieve the same fruit. 'Dual' or 'one' depends on which point of the time. When you are in the point of striving for your own happiness and liberation, you are "theravadin". At the same time, if you are caring about others,you are "bodhisattva" or "mahayanist". In Theravada tradition we see a lot of bodhisattva around. On the other hand,we observe selfish 'mahayanist' only care for themselves.For me, 'mahayana' or 'theravada', both are Buddhism.Dual or one, both are the teaching of Buddha.

No real difference

Generally speaking, the difference between these two schools is in their emphasis on various aspects of Buddhism. I personally prefer to interpret this difference as another example of using what Mahayana texts call Upaya or skillful means. Different Buddhist masters find different ways useful to bring liberation to other people. Regarding the issue of dualism, if we view the subject in a more profound way there is no difference between the two schools. Theravada believes that dharmas lack any self because they are impermanent. In other words, lack of permanence leads to creation and destruction of dharmas or micro-phenomena as I call them. Self or essence must be permanent and immutable and because nothing is permanent, there is no Self. Nibanna is unconditioned, that is its existence is not dependent on other things, however it lacks any self. Mahayana explains this theory with a different terminology: for two things to be different (albeit in its ultimate meaning not the conventional empirical sense) there must be two different “essence” or “self” with fixed immutable characteristics. Otherwise, ultimately speaking, there is no difference. Nirvana is not different from samsara because there must be a self to establish this difference. However, they are not the same, because there must be a self too to establish their sameness. Since Theravada believes that dhammas are created and remain for a very very small fraction of time( which is almost zero), it believes in the “real” existence of dharmas. But Mahayana holds that this creation and destruction is and illusion not reality because there is no Self and without a self, or essence what is created or destroyed? One must keep in mind that Mahayana does not deny the conventional existence of the phenomena, existence here means having a substance or essence.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Real dhammas?

Is the statement above true that the Theravada "believes in the 'real' existence of dharmas" or is this an Abhidharmika position?

Given the clear direction to Kaccayana, I struggle to understand the basis for this view in any school.

"'Everything exists': That is one extreme. 'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle."