From an ultimate perspective, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism are essentially the same, despite their external appearances:
The Basic Points Unifying the Theravāda and the Mahāyāna is an important Buddhist ecumenical statement created in 1967 during the First Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC), where its founder Secretary-General, the late Venerable Pandita Pimbure Sorata Thera, requested the Ven. Walpola Rahula to present a concise formula for the unification of all the different Buddhist traditions. This text was then unanimously approved by the Council.
The Eightfold Path of Theravada Buddhism is equivalent to the Six Paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism:
- Generosity (Skt. Dāna, Jp. fuse 布施)
- Moral conduct, upholding precepts (Skt. Śīla, Jp. jikai 持戒)
Corresponding elements of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Conduct, and Right Livelihood
- Forbearance (Skt. Kṣānti, Jp. ninniku忍辱)
Corresponding element of the Eightfold Path: Right Effort with regard one’s state of mind.
- Diligence (Skt. Vīrya, Jp. shōjin 精進)
Corresponding element of the Eightfold Path: Right Effort with regard one’s words and actions.
- Contemplation (Skt. Dhyāna, Jp. zenjō 禪定)
Corresponding elements of the Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
- Wisdom (Skt. Prajñā, Jp. chie 智慧)
Corresponding elements of the Eightfold Path: Right View and Right Thought.
While it’s often claimed that Mahayana Buddhists seek after Buddhahood, while Theravadins settle for mere arahantship, this is not the case:
Sāvaka-buddha (Pāli) is a rarely used term in Theravada Buddhism, identifying enlightened ‘disciples of a Buddha’ as Buddhas. These disciples are those enlightened individuals who gain Nibbana by hearing the Dhamma as initially taught by a Sammasambuddha.
The Upasaka-janalankara, a Pali treatise dealing with the ethics for the lay Buddhist written in the 12th century by a Thera called Ananda in the Theravada tradition of the Mahavihara at Anuradhpura, Sri Lanka, says that there are three Bodhis: Savakabodhi (Skt: Sravakabodhi), Paccekabodhi (Skt: Fratyekabodhi) and Sammasambodhi (Skt: Samyaksambodhi). A whole chapter of this book is devoted to the discussion of these three Bodhis in great detail. It says further that when a disciple attains the Bodhi (Enlightenment), he is called Savaka-Buddha (Skt: Sravaka-Buddha).
It’s also often claimed that Mahayana Buddhists postpone personal enlightenment until all other beings are enlightened, which would be absurd if sentient beings are infinite. The Bodhisattva vows to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, to then lead all other beings to enlightenment.
What differentiates the Mahayana understanding of enlightenment is its belief in non-abiding Nirvana, that the enlightened being remains active in the world after passing away. In Theravada Buddhism, it’s left an unanswered question what happens to the enlightened being after death.
It just so happens that, as a Mahayana Buddhist, my favorite Western converts to Buddhism are Bhikkhu Bodhi and Ajahn Brahm.