Theravada monks in Myanmar
There are many different schools or sects of Buddhism. The three main ones — 1) Theravada Buddhism, 2) Mahayana Buddhism, and 3) Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) — developed over its long history, each with its own characteristics and spiritual ideals. Theravada Buddhism is the earliest of the three and emphasizes the attainment of salvation for oneself alone and the necessity of monastic life in order to attain spiritual release. The Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") teaches the salvation of all. Practitioners of the Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") believe that one can achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, as opposed to the other two types, which postulate that it takes many eons to accrue the necessary good karma. [Source: Asia Society Museum asiasocietymuseum.org |~| ]

The two largest schools are Theravada Buddhism, the dominant form of Buddhist in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar), and Mahayana Buddhism, which is dominant in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. Tibetan Buddhist which is viewed as a kind Mahayana Buddhism is strong in Tibet, the Himalayan region and Mongolia. All schools of Buddhism seek to aid followers on a path of enlightenment. The majority of Buddhist sects do not seek to proselytise (preach and convert), with the notable exception of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan. [Source: BBC]

The schools were not mutually exclusive, but they emphasize different practices. For example, whereas Theravada Buddhism teaches that only a few devotees are able to reach enlightenment and that they do so through their own efforts, Mahayana and its later offshoot, Vajrayana, teach that buddhahood is attainable by everyone with help from beings known as bodhisattvas. |~|

There are some cult-like and charismatic offshoots. At one time Taiwan-based Fo Guang Shan was the largest Buddhist organizations in the world with with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues and assets. Its leader Hsing Yun filled stadiums in South Africa and Malaysia and earned $780,000 to tape 20 hours of speeches. Bookstores and a mail order business for his organization sell books, CDs, videos, magazines, children's educational comic books and other materials.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ;

Schisms Within Buddhism

Buddhism broke into various schools at an early date. Many schisms had to do with philosophical or ideological differences while others stemmed from disputes over the rules of monastic conduct. Beginning in the first century B.C. a complex of lay and monastic movements coalesced into a new form of Buddhism that referred to itself as the Bodhisattvayana ("vehicle of the bodhisattvas") or Mahayana ("great vehicle"), and to its opponents as the Hinayana ("lesser vehicle"), known today as Theravada Buddhists. [Source: A. S. Rosso,; Jones, C. B. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia.com]

Theravada Buddhism is the sole survivor of at least 18 ancient Indian schools. It has a relatively unified orthodox doctrine, a fixed body of canonical literature, a clearly structured institutional distinction between the monastic order and the laity, and a long history as an established doctrine. Conversely, Mahayana Buddhism is a diffuse and highly complex combination of many schools and sects, based on a heterogeneous literature of massive proportions, from which no single doctrinal or institutional orthodoxy can ever be derived. [Source: Peter A. Pardue, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com ~]

Within the main schools, there are many sub-schools. In Japan, the Shingon school evolved as a tantric form of Buddhism, whereas the eclectic Tendai school stuck more closely to traditional Buddhist practices. Tendai was eventually overtaken by its more popular offshoots: Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Nichiren Buddhism, which produced the Soka Gakkai organization, a particularly mission-oriented form of Buddhism, in the 20th century. ~

Pure Land Buddhism in Mahayana Buddhism developed in China and evolved in Japan.It describes a fabled heavenly land in the West that is a halfway point on the path to Nirvana. This realm is ruled by the spirit of the beloved Buddha Amitabha. Believers who are unable to attain Nirvana can call upon Amitabha at the time of their death to be reborn in the Pure Land. Teachers there will help them reach the ultimate goal of nirvana. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism are the two main branches of Buddhism. Theravada means “Way of the Elders,” an implication that it is literally what Buddha taught. Mahayana means “Greater vehicle,” a derogatory reference that it superior to Theravada Buddhism, the Lesser Vehicle. One of the main difference between the two is that the ideal of Mahayana is becoming a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be). Buddha only referenced himself as this and never gave instructions on how one should become a Bodhisattva. Sutra that address this matter were created after he died. During his life, The Buddha stressed the need to end suffering in this very life and try for the highest goal Arhatship. Theravada Buddhists resist the idea of Bodhisattvas and regard their system of beliefs as being purer and close to what The Buddha taught.

Most of Mahayana is based on the Lotus Sutra, which, according to to legend, was brought from the Nagas by Nagarjuna, regarded as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things.Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible also the Heart Sutra.

The fact that Buddha never stressed the Bodhisattva ideal as the goal of teaching has created strain between the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist schools. The highest version of the Bodhisattva Ideal is based on Avalokiteshvara, who wanted to achieve enlightenment only when all being did so first, hence this high level means that Mahayana has a focus on compassion.

Development of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism


Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: “Between 100 to 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha, the Sangha (the monastic community) split over the political question of 'Who runs the Sangha?' A controversy over some monastic rules was decided by a committee of Arahats (fully Enlightened monks or nuns) against the views of the majority of monks. The disgruntled majority resented what they saw as the excessive influence of the small number of Arahats in monastery affairs. From then on, over a period of several decades, the disaffected majority partially succeeded in lowering the exalted status of the Arahat and raising in its place the ideal of the Bodhisattva (an unenlightened being training to be a Buddha). [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana =|=]

“Previously unknown scriptures, supposedly spoken by the Buddha and hidden in the dragon world, then appeared giving a philosophical justification for the superiority of the Bodhisattva over the allegedly 'selfish' Arahat. This group of monks and nuns were first known as the 'Maha Sangha', meaning 'the great (part) of the monastic community'. Later, after impressive development, they called themselves the 'Mahayana', the 'Greater Vehicle' while quite disparagingly calling the older Theravada 'Hinayana', the 'Inferior Vehicle'. =|=

Mahayana still retains most of the original teachings of the Buddha (in the Chinese scriptures these are known as the 'Agama' and in the Tibetan version as the 'Kangyur') but these core teachings were mostly overwhelmed by layers of expansive interpretations and wholly new ideas. The Mahayana of China, still vibrant in Taiwan, reflects an earlier phase of this development, the Mahayana of Vietnam, Korea and Japan (mostly Zen) is a later development, and the Mahayana of Tibet and Mongolia is a much later development still. =|=


Nagarjuna (A.D. c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is regarded by many as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism after The Buddha. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things. Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible for the Heart Sutra.

Nagarjuna is widely considered the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Aryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñaparamita sutras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nagas (water spirits often depicted in the form of serpent-like humans). Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nalanda. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A number of influential Buddhist texts have attributed to Nagarjuna though many of the claims have dubious evidence to back them up. A lively debate over which are his authentic works continues to this day. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna's is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven chapters. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism” ("doctrine of the elders") is the oldest and most orthodox of Buddhism's three major sects. Regarded as the belief closest to the one taught by The Buddha himself, it is based on the recollections of The Buddha’s teachings amassed by the Elders — the elder monks who were Buddha’s companions. It is practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Mekong Delta areas of Vietnam.

Theravada Buddhism was one of 18 schools that existed in centuries after The Buddha’s death.. It spread from India to Sri Lanka and then to Southeast Asia and remained close to the original Pali canon (See Below). The other 17 schools disappeared when Muslims swept into northern India and destroyed the Buddhist monasteries that existed there. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) Buddhism by Mahayana Buddhists (See Below).

Theravada Buddhism stresses spirituality, the enlightenment of the individual, self-discipline, the importance or pure thought and deed, the importance of the monastic life and the strict observance of the ancient “Vinaya” code It has distinct roles for monks and lay people, emphasizes that each individual is responsible for his or her salvation and takes the position that only monks are capable of reaching nirvana.

Mahayana Buddhism

20120430-Ray Kinnane 29805624_pagoda.jpg
Mahayana Buddhist pagoda
in Japan
“Mahayana Buddhism” encompasses a wide range of philosophical schools, metaphysical beliefs, and practical meditative disciplines. It is more widespread and has more followers than Theravada Buddhism and includes Zen and Soka-gakkai Buddhism. It is practiced primarily in northern half of the Buddhist world: in China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Japan.

"Mahayana” means "the Great Vehicle.” The word vehicle is used because Buddhist doctrine is often compared to a raft or ship that carries one across the world of suffering to better world. Greater is reference to the universality of its doctrines and beliefs as opposed to narrowness of other schools. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as the Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) sect.

Mahayana Buddhism evolved around the A.D. 1st century during the second phase of Buddhist development as a reinterpretation of the Theravada rules for monks. It teaches that there is only one path to enlightenment and it is open to all beings; holds Bodhisattvas in great reverence; and places an emphasis on ritualistic practices, sutras and meditation and discourages forming attachments on the basis they are impermanent.

Mahayana spread to more distant lands than Theravada Buddhists because it allowed monks to travel more freely and was able to assimilate and accommodate local religions by using the concept of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists have great reverence for Bodhisttavas, the future Buddha Maitreya and Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise and the Buddhist equivalent of a savior who helps followers get into "heaven.”.

Differences Between Mahayana Buddhist and Theravada Buddhists

According to the BBC: Theravada and Mahayana are both rooted in the basic teachings of the historical Buddha, and both emphasise the individual search for liberation from the cycle of samsara (birth, death, rebirth...). The methods or practices for doing that, however, can be very different.”

Mahayana Buddhists claim their doctrines are rooted in early teachings of Buddha and say they do not reject the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism, but have just expanded on them. Theravada Buddhists view Mahayana Buddhism as a corrupted form of Buddha's teaching plus see it as too easy. Theravada Buddhists are taught that one must “work out one's own salvation with diligence” whereas Mahayana Buddhists believe faith is enough to earn all believers eventual salvation. Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism differ greatly on the matter of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists recognize many of them as well as many Buddhas. Theravada Buddhists recognize just one, The Buddha.

The tenets of Mahayana Buddhism are more vague and all-encompassing than the strict tenets of Theravada Buddhism, but its followers often conform to a very regimented routine as is the case with Zen. Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas—Buddhist "saints" on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.

Chinese Buddhist Schools and Sects

percentage of Buddhists that belong to the major branches

As Buddhism developed it splintered into many schools and sects, each with its own distinctive traditions, doctrines and practices. Sub-sects — representing lineages of disciples that split off from the main schools often over minor doctrinal differences — and cults — that conducted special observances and rituals often focused on a particular sutra and kept alive by a lineage of masters — also developed. Despite the large number of groups and subgroups monks tended to be initiated into the general Buddhist community rather than into a particular school, sect or cult.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Buddhism in China grew into a variety of powerful schools. These schools were distinguished by significantly different interpretations of Buddhism's basic message, different forms of meditational practices by monks and nuns, and different ceremonies of devotional practice by lay believers. Several schools continue to have influence in East Asia today. These include Tiantai (Japanese: Tendai) Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

Schools and sects in China generally fall into one of three categories: 1) classical schools, which are based on a particular sutra and trace their origin back to India; 2) catholic sects, based on different sutras, often ones oriented toward reaching enlightenment selected by the founder of the sect; and 3) exclusive sects, which advocate a single path and select the systems and sutra to suit that purpose.

The two exclusive sects are: 1) Pure Land and 2) Cha’an. The four principal classical schools are :1) the Kola School, based on doctrines from India translated by Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang); 2) the Satyasiddho School, based on Kumarajiva's translation of the Satyasiddhi sutra; 3) the San-Lun (Three Treatises) School; 4) the Fa-hsiang School, founded by Xuanzang.

Buddhist Schools in Japan

20120430-Ray Kinnane monk begging2.jpg
Zen monk in Japan
The are numerous Buddhist sects in Japan. According to 2021 statistics on religion by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, 135 million people in Japan were believers, Of these 47 million were Buddhists. The number of believers in each sect were approximately: 1) Jodo Buddhism (Jodo-shu, Jodo Shinshu, Yuzu Nembutsu and Ji-shu) — 22 million. 2) Nichiren Buddhism — 11 million 3) Shingon Buddhism — 5.5 million 4) Zen Buddhism (Rinzai, Soto and Obaku) — 5.3 million 5) Tendai Buddhism — 2.8 million.

The main Japanese Buddhist sects — Shingon, Tendai, Pure Land Nichiren, and Zen — sprung up during the Heian Period (794-1185) and Kamakura Period (1192-1338). The first homegrown Buddhist sects to take hold in Japan were the Tendai and Shingon schools. Only about 700,000 Japanese belong to the old schools, which were established in the Nara period (710 794). Most of these sects are followed by a relatively small group of people today. The sects that grew out of them have larger followings.

For many Japanese, all sects are the same and they have little understanding of the differences between them. Most embrace beliefs of East Asian Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") Buddhism, which preaches salvation in paradise for everyone rather than focusing on individual perfection as is the case with Theravada Buddhism favored in Southeast Asia. According to some sources the largest sect in Japan in the 1990s was the Nichiren sect with about nine million members. At that time he Zen sect had about 4.5 million member

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures. Zen schools of meditation played a profound role in late medieval and early modern Japan.

Zen Buddhism evolved out of the Ch'an School, a Buddhist sect that was founded in China in the A.D. 8th century. Ch'an is pronounced Zen in Japanese. It means "contemplation" or "mediation." Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China during the Chinese Song Dynasty in the 10th century by a Chinese monk named Huineng. It had a relatively small following for two centuries and didn't take hold and flourish in Japan until the 12th century. The Ch'an sect’s origins are obscure. It is it not clear whether its early patriarchs were legendary or real. Under the leadership of its sixth patriarch Hui-neng (A.D. 637-723) it grew from a cult with around 500 members to a distinct sect after Hui-neng spent 15 years meditating in the hills.

Once Zen Buddhism took hold in Japan had a profound influence on the Japanese. Its austere tone and the simplicity of the doctrine appealed to the military class and artists and was a focal point of samurai culture and art from the 12th century onward. Not only that, Zen Buddhists helped bring Chinese philosophy, especially Neo-Confucianism, to Japan and were involved in commercial endeavors, such as shipping lines, that controlled trade between Japan and China.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism — properly called Vajrayana (literally the “Diamond Way) and also referred to as tantric Buddhism — emerged around the A.D. third or fourth century as an amalgamation of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other popular religious practices in the Tibetan and Himalayan region.

Tibetan Buddhism is a syncretic mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Tantrism and local pantheistic religions, particularly the Bon religion. Its organization, public practices and activities are coordinated mainly by monasteries associated with temples. Religious authority is in the hands of priests called lamas. Although the goal of Tibetan Buddhism is individual enlightenment, the social organization of the religion rests on a laity that is expected to support the religious practices of the monastic population. Thus, Tibetans contributed sons, produce, savings, and labor to the monasteries to acquire religious merit. [Source: Rebecca R. French, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Tibetan Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, practiced in China, Japan and Korea, as opposed to Theravada Buddhist, practiced in Southeast Asia. Regarded by some as a third branch of Buddhism, it emphasizes symbolic ritual practices of Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana) and incorporates features of the indigenous Tibetan Bon Religion. Tibetan Buddhism is more mystical than other forms of Buddhism.Tibetan

Buddhism has many sects and sub-sects. The most well-known sect is Gelugpa, the order which the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama belong. It also known as the Yellow Hat sect because high-ranking monks sometimes don yellow hats. The sect began with Tsong Khapa, a great Buddhist reformer, in 1407. It stresses strict discipline and study of scriptures.

geographical location of the main Buddhist branches

Tantrism and Tibetan Buddhism

Tantrism is a found in Hinduism and India Religions as well as Buddhism.Originally from India, it is a highly ritualistic religion that combines beliefs in magic and esoteric philosophy and emphasizes mystic symbols, sacred chants, and other esoteric devotional techniques. It is usually associated with Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism.

Tantric Buddhism is often called Vajrayana ("thunderbolt vehicle"). In Tibet, it is heavily influenced by the ancient Bon religion,which used shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and incorporates a number of mudras ("ritual postures"), mantras ("sacred speech"), yantras ("sacred art") and secret initiation rites. Most of the ritual objects and images of deities used in Tibetan Buddhism are derived from Tantrism. The techniques are generally not written down but passed orally from master to student.

Tantrism emerged around A.D. 600 and was based on texts known as Tantras. It put forth the idea that all human states and conditions, even one traditionally regarded as polluting,, were connected and things such as desire and wrath could be viewed as being on the same plane with love and righteousness.

Tantrism is seen by some as a complex union of Hinduism and Buddhism: incorporating different offshoots of each religion with folk religious beliefs and combing Hindu gods with Buddhist theology. One religious text described Tantrism as “Buddhist and Hindu hierarchies converted to create rigid social organizational patterns that merge “erotic Hindu ideas....static and authoritative Buddhist teachings...Hindu patterns of individual paths to enlightenment” and “Buddhist notions of the power of many.”

Schools of Buddhism

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons. Ray Kinnane, Onmark productions, Buddha.net and the Buddhism school diagram, jameskennedymonash.wordpress.com

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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