What Are The Major Schools Of Buddhism?

Theravada Bhikkhu meditating in Vietnam. Editorial credit: Dory F / Shutterstock.com
Theravada Bhikkhu meditating in Vietnam. Editorial credit: Dory F / Shutterstock.com

Buddhism is a religious belief system that is based on the teachings of Buddha, who lived between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE in India. Just over 7% of the global population identifies as Buddhist, making Buddhism the 4th most widely practiced religion in the world. Some of the principal ideas of Buddhism include meditation, practicing compassion, studying sacred text, and renouncing desire. Buddhism religion can be organized into several divisions, known as schools. This article takes a closer look at the major schools of Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism, also known as Mantrayana, is one of the two largest schools of Buddhism in the world. It has more than 150 million practitioners, also known as Theravadins, around the world. In many countries, the majority of the population practices this division of Buddhism. Some of the majority-Theravada countries include Cambodia (95% of the population), Thailand (90%), Myanmar (89%), Sri Lanka (70%), and Laos (67%).

Theravadins trace their roots back to the Sthavira division, which was created during the Second Buddhist Council in 334 BCE due to conflicting views on the interpretation of certain sacred texts. From India, this Buddhist sect was introduced to Sri Lanka where it continued to grow. Here, Buddhist monks tasked themselves with writing down the traditionally oral scripture. Today, these writings are known as the Pali texts and are the oldest written record of Buddhist teachings in the world. Over time, the Theravada tradition split into 3 sub-sects, including Jetavana, Abhayagiri Vihara, and Mahavihara.

Theravada Buddhism differs from other schools in that it promotes the idea of critical analysis of sacred texts, suggesting that a complete understanding of the Buddhist scriptures can only come from the personal experience of an individual. Practicing Theravada Buddhism requires an understanding of three ideas: temporariness, suffering, and lack of self. The idea of temporariness reminds practitioners that nothing in the world is permanent. The idea of suffering comes from the teaching that desire produces suffering since the thing that one desire can never be permanent. Finally, the idea of lack of self suggests that each individual consists of five specific characteristics, none of which can be considered the personal individual. By understanding these three concepts, one may rid oneself of ignorance. A key belief of Theravada Buddhism is that each person is independently responsible for achieving higher levels of awareness.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism is generally regarded as one of the two largest schools of Buddhism. In fact, this particular division of Buddhism has more followers than any of the others. Of all the Buddhists in the world, approximately 53.2% identify as practitioners of the Mahayana tradition. These individuals may be found in a large number of countries, but are particularly concentrated in the southeastern, southern, and eastern regions of Asia. In some countries, primarily those located in Central Asia, Mahayana Buddhism has given way to Theravada Buddhism.

Neither researchers nor Mahayana followers agree on the origins of this sect of Buddhism. Some academics suggest that Mahayana Buddhists never attempted to break away from the earliest forms of Buddhism. Instead, these individuals suggest that Mahayana offered an additional ideological focus to the earliest Buddhist teachings. Additionally, researchers are unable to find a difference in the scripture or written guidelines between Mahayana and the earlier divisions of Buddhism. This particular sect of Buddhism has gone on to influence a number of other Buddhist groups, including Korean Seon, Nichiren Buddhism, Japanese Zen, and Chan Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism is comprised of a large number of scriptures and varying teachings, which span from ancient to more modern. Many practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism believe that following the Mahayana teachings will bring them a higher level of spiritual awakening than other Buddhist teachings. They support this belief by claiming that Buddha specifically identified the Mahayana script as superior to others. This faith also proposes the idea that other Buddhist leaders may exist and display Buddha-like qualities. Additionally, Mahayana Buddhists commit themselves to achieving mindfulness and have faith in Buddha. Liberation, if not obtained independently, may be obtained by buddha Amitabha.

Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Esoteric Buddhism, is sometimes classified as a variation of Mahayana Buddhism. Many scholars, however, consider it an independent branch of the Buddhist faith. This sect can primarily be found in Bhutan, Mongolia, Tibet, and the Kalmykia region of Russia.

Scholars believe that Vajrayana emerged between the 3rd and 13th centuries CE and was rooted in the teachings and practices of nomadic yogis, also known as mahasiddhas. These individuals often ridiculed traditional Buddhist practices and created a unique path to enlightenment. For example, these mahasiddhas lived in the wilderness in northern India, rather than in traditional monasteries. Additionally, they would gather with others to practice rituals that involved alcohol consumption, eating, dancing, and singing. The development of this division of Buddhism led to the creation of the Buddhist Tantras writings.

Whereas some branches of Buddhism focus on increasing positive human qualities and decreasing negative ones, Vajrayana Buddhists focus their efforts on becoming a buddha. Under this religious school, achieving enlightenment can occur in one lifetime. The principal Vajrayana teachings are based on the Buddhist Tantra writings, which include practices such as reciting mantras, using mandalas, imagining gods and buddhas, and utilizing mudras. One of the primary ideas behind Vajrayana Buddhism is the concept of emptiness. In this sect, the teaching of emptiness focuses on the belief that everything in the world is temporary and constantly changing. This lack of a concrete existence allows Vajrayana practitioners to believe that the visualization of themselves as gods is just as real as daily, more mundane, occurrences.

Other Schools of Buddhism

In addition to the previously mentioned schools of Buddhism, this religion may also be classified into several other divisions. Three Buddhist fraternities currently exist throughout Asia, including Dharmaguptaka (in China, Vietnam, and Korea), Mulasarvastivada (in Tibet), and Theravada (in southern and southeastern Asia). In addition, present-day Buddhism may also be found in two doctrinal schools, known as Prasangika and Svatantrika. Another division of Buddhism is referred to as Newar Buddhism, which is a sect based on the caste system. Its followers rely on writings in Sanskrit. Some of the earliest forms of Buddhism include Mahasamghika and Sthaviravada.


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