Buddhism originated sometime between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama gained enlightenment and began teaching the Dharma. Since then his teachings have spread out from India, integrated with local cultures and belief systems resulting in many schools and traditions. However, despite their diversity, all these schools have one thing in common, the Middle Way taught by the Buddha.

the Three Schools

The origins of Buddhism are attributed to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince believed to have lived between the 4th and 6th Centuries BCE in what is now present day India, who became the Buddha or Awakened One. As his teachings spread, they eventually became over 18 sub-schools of thought. His teachings also spread beyond India, where the teachings integrated into the cultures and existing religions of local communities, resulting in the many, many different faces of Buddhism that we see today. However, despite this diversity, there are only 3 main schools of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana (or two schools, as Vajrayana is considered part of the Mahayana school.)

Theravada means “Tradition of the Elders” in Pali and is the only school that uses the Pali Canon as its core doctrine. The main countries where the Theravada traditions are currently practiced are Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos. The main teachings and practice focus on the Four Noble Truths and the primary means of realising enlightenment is through Vipassana or “insight” meditation. The ultimate goal of the Theravada practice is to attain the state of an Arhat or personal enlightenment, as Buddhahood is considered to be unachievable by everyone in this age. Despite the importance of helping other sentient beings, the main motivation for following the spiritual path is to achieve liberation for oneself.

You may have also have heard of the term Hinayana, which means “Lesser Vehicle” in Sanskrit. This is not interchangeable with the term Theravada. Hinayana is a term used by Mahayana traditions to describe the earlier schools (of which only Theravada remains) that practice to attain the state of an Arhat. This is considered a lesser path than the Mahayana ideal of the path of the Bodhisattva. This term isn’t used much any more, as some consider it a derogatory term.

Photo Credit:
Buddha by Unknown Artist

Mahayana means “Greater Vehicle”. It is mainly practiced in countries north of India – China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Tibet. There is also more diversity within the Mahayana schools compared to the Theravada school. Mahayana schools includes Ch’an or Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism.

In contrast to the Theravada school, the Mahayana school teaches that all sentient beings can attain Buddhahood – that we have a Buddha nature. Thus the main Mahayana motivation is the enlightenment of all beings. The Mahayana ideal is to become a bodhisattva who strives to free all beings from the suffering of samsara, as there is no separation of self from the world. Thus to free the world from suffering is to free oneself from suffering. This motivation is reflected in taking Bodhisattva vows on top of taking Refuge. These vows are not taken for this life only, but for all future lives as well, until this goal is achieved. The main practices of a Mahayanist are in the 6 perfections (Paramita): the perfection of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditation and wisdom.

Photo Credit:
Golden Buddha – Craig Loftus

Vajrayana means “Diamond Vehicle” in Sanskrit. It is considered part of the Mahayana school and is the main Buddhist practice in the Himalayan regions, including Tibet, Bhutan, northern Nepal and India. It is also practiced in Mongolia and parts of Russia. Vajrayana differs from other schools in its pantheon of buddhas and bodhisattvas and the importance of tantric practice. Tantric practice arose out of Mahayana traditions, and one of these tantric masters, Padmasambhava (in Sanskrit) or Guru Rinpoche (in Tibetan) brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century on the invitation of King Trisong Detsen. And it is now only in Tibet, Mongolia and Bhutan, that the complete tantric teachings are preserved.

Vajrayana emphasises the quick attainment of Buddhahood. There is emphasis on speed, as the belief is that the sooner one achieves Buddhahood, the sooner one can be of maximum benefit to world . Tantra practice may require taking additional vows on top of the Refuge and Bodhisattva vows. There may also be other specific practices to be followed depending on the school and lineage.

Photo Credit:
Photo by Marilyn Rhie and Robert Thurman via Mountains of Travel Photos

Background Photo Credit: Untitled via Pixabay