There are two main branches of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada (meaning ‘Doctrine of the Elders’) is more conservative of the two branches. It emphasizes belief in historical Buddha and the original teachings in Pali language. The Theravada Buddhism scripture is the Pali Canon, which is divided into 3 baskets (Tipitaka). Mahayana Buddhism (meaning ‘Great Vehicle’) recognizes more than one Buddha and considers other sutras, besides Pali Canon, as religious scripture. Furthermore, Mahayana Buddhism does not emphasize the learning of Pali language and local languages are used as languages of religious instruction. In Theravada, rituals are not underscored as in Mahayana. Finally, Theravada Buddhists are asked to focus on meditation and self-liberation, while Mahayana Buddhists also believe in helping other beings, besides themselves.
In short, Theravada is the more conservative and scriptualist form of Buddhism and thus is probably more prone to religious orthodoxy than Mahayana, the Buddhism for the masses. More detailed information on differences between the two can be read here. Some experts consider Tibetan Buddhism, not part of Mahayana branch, but a separate branch called Vajrayana Buddhism. This branch is also popular is Mongolia and Bhutan.
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana is considered to have the largest number of followers among the two/three branches of Buddhism. Sometimes Mahayana is called Northern Buddhism and Theravada Southern Buddhism because of their popularity in countries of East and South-East Asia respectively. Most of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos belong to the Theravada branch while Mahayana Buddhists are concentrated in China, Japan, Korea, Bhutan, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
During the last few decades, religious nationalism has been popular in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, leading some analysts to wonder about the elective affinity between Theravada Buddhism and religious nationalism. Following are the arguments given to support this thesis:
- Theravada Buddhism is more conservative and scriptualist than Mahayana Buddhism;
- Monks have a higher status in Theravada Buddhism which makes them wary of minority religions’ appearance/expansion and thus more ready to collaborate with political powers;
- Most of the countries giving special status to Buddhism in state affairs are majority Theravada Buddhist;
- All three Buddhist countries (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand) where religious nationalism has recently gained popularity are Theravada-majority countries. (See Connecting the Dots on Buddhist Fundamentalism)
- Scriptualistism has never been a necessary condition for religious nationalism. For example, Hinduism, which is not scriptualist, has been used as the basis of Hindutva nationalism;
- Conservatism can be linked to religious nationalism but before one does that, one has to define conservatism. Religious traditions can be conservative in one way but liberal in another;
- The power of religious clergy given in the scriptures or in theology also has no relationship with religious nationalism. Quran, for example, does not even recognize a separate Muslim clergy but still Islam has been used for promoting religious nationalism;
- There are five countries in the world that give special status to Buddhism in their constitutions. These are Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Bhutan. The majority religion of first four countries is Theravada Buddhism but majority religion in Bhutan in Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism. Diluting the argument further is Laos, where the majority of the people are Theravada Buddhists, but it does not give any special status to Buddhism in its constitution.
- One might argue that a contested political environment (a struggling democracy/dictatorship) might be more susceptible to the use of religious nationalism. Religious nationalism is rising in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand not because of them being Theravada- majority countries but because of the fragility of their political set-up. Compare the fragility of their political set-up with the political stability in Mahayana/Vajrayana-majority countries, such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
My argument is that any religion can be used for supporting religious nationalism. To gauge the susceptibility of a country to religious nationalism, one has to study the history of that country, not the history of its majority religion. Hence, to explain religious nationalism in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, it would be more useful to analyze the emergence of these countries in the last hundred years than to focus on the characteristics of different branches of Buddhism.