Schools of Buddhism

Buddhism divides into many doctrinal, philosophical, cultural and institutional schools ranging from ancient to more recent. There are three main sub-divisions.


Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) is also called Southern Buddhism. Theravada links to conservative Buddhist traditions as opposed to the more liberal Mahayana ideas. Today Theravada can mostly be found in Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.


Mahayana (Great Vehicle) divides into Indian and East Asian Mahajana. Mahayana includes the ‘Middle Way’ philosophy. Mahayana is the largest Buddhist school in the world. It is most vital in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea.


Vajrayana originated on the Indian sub-continent and spread to Tibet, East Asia, Mongolia and other Himalayan states. Specific linages play a significant role in Vajrayana. The practise focuses on transformation based on esoteric Tantric methods, which may provide a faster vehicle towards liberation.

Shortly after the death of the Buddha, the question of how to perpetuate the teaching arose. Even though the Buddha had requested otherwise, Buddhist institutions developed quickly, organising the teachings into rules, regulations and hierarchies. The question of what was the ‘true teaching’ led to disagreement the fragmentation. The First Buddhist Council (c.483BC) focused on how best to preserve the teachings. The Tripitaka (Triple Basket) presented the teachings in three categories:

  • Sutra Piṭaka (about 10,000 sutras)
  • The Vinaya Piṭaka (monastic code of conduct)
  • The Abhidhamma Piṭaka (scholastic and metaphysical aspects)

The Second Buddhist Council (c.383BC) discussed monastic practices. The Third Buddhist Council (250BC) concentrated on commentaries on the Tipitika. The Fourth Buddhist Council (250 (CE) split the sangha into Mahayana and Hinayana.

Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana evolved as the three primary schools and are still to this day.

Theravada Buddhism emerged after the Second Buddhist Council (c.383BC) when one group of monks rejected reforms to monastic conduct. Initially known as the ‘School of Elders, ‘ Theravada shaped itself into the conservative, orthodox school spreading across Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Theravada Buddhism embraces the central concepts of the Middle Way, Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Dependent Arising, and Karma doctrine. Educational and philosophical development plays an important role. In Theravada Buddhism, the focus is on becoming an arhat, or fully-enlightened being. There is no concept of the Bodhisattva, which is central to Mahayana Buddhism, making liberation accessible to all.

The expressed aim of Mahayana Buddhism, the ‘Great Vehicle’, is to liberate all sentient beings. After the Second Buddhist Council (c.383BC) group of monks saw the emerging Theravada school as too exclusive and not representative of Buddha’s true vision. The great sage Nagarjuna (c.2nd century CE) established the philosophical foundation for Mahayana. In the Mahayana view, all beings possess Buddha-nature and can attain personal liberation and become Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings dedicated to guiding others on the path. Central to Mahayana is the concept of ’emptiness’, stating that all things are devoid of intrinsic existence. Mahāyāna Buddhism prospers in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, and Japan. In the West, Mahayana ideas contributed to arts, environmentalism, psychotherapy, and many practitioners’ lives.

Vajrayana Buddhism, the ‘Diamond Vehicle, ‘ alludes to a diamond’s hardness capable of cutting through anything as the ‘Thunderbold Vehicle’ of Vajrayana can cut through all obscurations like a thunderbolt. This tradition links to 5th-century medieval Indian Tantra culture and spread to Tibet, East Asia and other Himalayan states. Some Vajrayana sources claim a direct link to the historical Buddha. Vajrayana practitioners claim that Tantric methods provide a faster vehicle to liberation and contain many more skilful means than other traditions. In Vajrayāna, negative mental factors such as desire, hatred, greed, and pride are part of the path. Transmission of certain teachings only occurs directly from teacher to student during an empowerment ceremony. Many techniques are kept secret outside the teacher/student relationship. The role of the guru is indispensable in Vajrayana. Practitioners need to abide by various tantric vows or pledges called Samaya. Vajrayana embraces many rituals, including mantras, mudras, deity yoga, other visualisation based meditations and subtle body yoga. Vajrayana teaches that these techniques provide a faster path to Buddhahood. There are many expressions of Vajrayana, including Chinese esoteric Buddhism, Japanese esoteric Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

As a sub-branch of Mahajana Buddhism, Zen Buddhism originated in China as the Chan School and spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. There is a substantial Taoist influence in Zen. Meditation practice, insight into the nature of mind and self-restraint impact on a Zen practitioner’s life. Zen meditation practices aim to point to the human mind directly. Mindful breathing and silent illumination are forms of Zen meditation. Koan, usually short anecdotes, illustrate non-conceptual insights. Traditional martial arts, like Japanese archery, other forms of Japanese budō and Chinese martial arts have also been seen as forms of Zen praxis.

Related Posts