There have been many “types” of Mormons discussed online and in other places. Sometimes these “types” have to do with one’s “faithfulness”. Other times they may have to do with someone’s level of participation on Sundays. Perhaps it is based on whether someone is primarily “spirit of the law” or “letter of the law”. Today, I want to suggest another way of looking at types of Mormons based on general styles of comments I have seen here on Wheat & Tares. Interestingly, both types could be considered equally “active”, and both types can support their positions with scripture, etc. The biggest difference here is someone’s perception of their relationship between themselves and others. I’d call them Theravada Mormons and Mahayana Mormons.
So what do those terms even mean? They are the two main schools of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. In many regards, they have the same fundamental beliefs. Much like our regard for Joseph Smith, they revere Buddha for the teachings he brought forth. They both believe in the Four Noble Truths and in the Eightfold Path. Many fundamental teachings are common between the two schools.
While there are also a number of differences between the two schools, the one I want to focus on for the point of this post is the “ideal person” according to each school. In Theravada Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to be an Arhat (Sanskrit, Arahant in Pali). This is someone who has achieved the ultimate goal for themselves. Perhaps our equivalent would be “having our calling and election made sure”. In Theravada Buddhism, one focuses on improving all aspects of one’s life following the Eightfold Path. While this obviously and necessarily includes developing compassion for and helping others, the primary goal is perfecting oneself.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the “ideal person” is a Bodhisattva (Sanskrit, Bodhisatta in Pali). In this case, someone also tries to attain Buddhahood, but primarily for the ultimate goal of helping to save all other beings. Even though someone has “succeeded” in the test of life, as a Bodhisattva, they postpone their ultimate reward indefinitely until literally EVERYONE has also reached the same point. This obviously would take eons, but it something they are willing to do. In this life, someone who aspires to this takes a Bodhisattva Vow. This can be done to oneself, and can be repeated each day. On a practical basis, repeating this each day changes one’s outlook to place others’ needs in front of one’s own in all decisions throughout the day.
So, what does this have to do with Mormons? In comments here and other places, it seems that people tend to fall in one of these two groups.
A Theravada Mormon is focused on perfecting themselves. They feel that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14). As Paul said in Philippians 2:12, it is important to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Just like in Buddhism, Theravada Mormons also care for their fellowman, but it can be seen as meeting their primary goal. Perhaps they do home teaching because it is a requirement to “perfect” themselves. Perhaps they “love the sinner but hate the sin” with regards to homosexuals, “loving them” because they are suppose to love their neighbor, but never truly accepting them as a person. Perhaps they do missionary work because this is the “one and only true Church” and everyone has to also be a Mormon to be saved. And at the end of the day, being a Theravada Mormon is an admirable quality. We truly are here to try to perfect ourselves. We are taught that the gate truly is strait.
A Mahayana Mormon is primarily focused on others. They might remember the two great commandments: Love God, Love your Fellowman. Or they may quote from Matthew 25:40, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Just like in Buddhism, Mahayana Mormons are focused on others. They continue to try to improve themselves and live the gospel more fully, but this is primarily so they have a greater capacity to also lift others up. Perhaps they love their neighbors but are bad home teachers because they don’t really care about “programs”. Perhaps they truly love and respect a homosexual friend at the risk of being seen as “embracing” something sinful. Perhaps they have a hard time with missionary work, because they see strengths and goodness in others and don’t really know if they’d be better as Mormons. And at the end of the day, being a Mahayana Mormon is also an admirable quality. We are truly here to lose ourselves in the service of others. God truly does love all of his children equally.
So, which is better? It’s hard to say. I do think that we tend to drift towards being Theravada Mormons in the LDS Church and culture. We tend to drift towards focusing on “ourself” things: what we drink, what we wear, how many earrings or tattoos we have, what our callings are, whether we are reading scriptures each day as asked, whether we pay a full 10% tithing, whether we are magnifying our callings, whether we faithfully attend ALL of our meetings, and all sorts of things. These are all inwardly focused things. They are perfecting ourselves.
We desire that after we have lived unto the age of man, that our ministry, wherein thou hast called us, may have an end, that we may speedily come unto thee in thy kingdom. And he said unto them: Blessed are ye because ye desired this thing of me; therefore, after that ye are seventy and two years old ye shall come unto me in my kingdom; and with me ye shall find rest.
But for three others, this wasn’t enough:
And when he had spoken unto them, he turned himself unto the three, and said unto them: What will ye that I should do unto you, when I am gone unto the Father? And they sorrowed in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired. And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me. Therefore, more blessed are ye, for ye shall never taste of death… and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand.
So, obviously all 12 served others and devoted themselves toward becoming better people, but I would argue that the first 9 were more like Theravada Mormons, concerned with doing all they were supposed to do, then asking for their reward in heaven. Contrast this with the 3 Nephites who were more like Mahayana Mormons, even willing to postpone their reward in order to help their fellowman . And as Christ told them, “more blessed are ye”.
In more modern teachings, President Uchtdorf also addressed this topic in General Conference earlier this month in a talk entitled “Providing in the Lord’s Way”:
Unfortunately, there are those who overlook the temporal because they consider it less important. They treasure the spiritual while minimizing the temporal. While it is important to have our thoughts inclined toward heaven, we miss the essence of our religion if our hands are not also inclined toward our fellowman….
This very hour there are many members of the Church who are suffering. They are hungry, stretched financially, and struggling with all manner of physical, emotional, and spiritual distress. They pray with all the energy of their souls for succor, for relief.
Brethren, please do not think that this is someone else’s responsibility. It is mine, and it is yours. We are all enlisted. “All” means all—every Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood holder, rich and poor, in every nation. In the Lord’s plan, there is something everyone can contribute.
Given this, I would argue that being a Mahayana Mormon is “higher” than being a Theravada Mormon. It doesn’t really matter what color shirt we wear, what callings we have, how many months we have 100% home teaching, or how eloquent we are in teaching our classes. In the long run, many of the things we fuss about are unimportant. Our primary goal should be on serving others. We should dedicate our lives to helping everyone around us. We should treat each person we see as our brother or sister – regardless of their religion, background, learning, economic status, orientation, style of dress or hair, etc. We are all in this together.
I would love to work on perfecting myself, but that is something I will never fully do here in mortality. In my eulogy, I could care less about lists of things I may have done or callings I may have had or honors of men I may have received. Instead, I want to be known as someone who truly and honestly loved those around him. And I would love to be known as a true bodhisattva and a Mahayana Mormon.
- Is the difference between a Theravada and a Mahayana Mormon clear from this?
- Which do you consider yourself?
- Do you think one type is “better” than another type? Why or why not?
- Do you think that one type is more common in the Church, officially or unofficially?