Brief Guide to Major Schools of Buddhism

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Brief Guide to Major Schools of BuddhismBuddhism is not a monolithic tradition. As it spread through Asia over more than two millennia, it divided into several sects, each with its own liturgies, rituals, and canon of scriptures. There are also doctrinal disagreements. However, all are founded on the same basic teachings of the historical Buddha.

This is a very simple guide to major sectarian divisions for people who are new to Buddhism. For more guidance, see "Which School of Buddhism Is Right for You?"

The Two (or Three) Major Schools of Buddhism

Buddhism can be divided into two major schools: Theravada and Mahayana. Today, Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. Mahayana is dominant in China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Korea and most of Vietnam.

You will sometimes hear there are three major schools of Buddhism, the third being Vajrayana. Vajrayana is associated with Tibetan Buddhism as well as a Japanese school called Shingon. But Vajrayana is founded on Mahayana philosophy and is more accurately understood as an extension of Mahayana. Further, you can find elements of Vajrayana in many schools of Mahayana beside Tibetan and Shingon.

Note that if you come across a discussion of schools of Buddhism called Sthaviravada or Hinayana, most of the time this refers to Theravada.

Anatta - The Doctrinal Divide Between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist Schools

The basic doctrinal difference that divides Theravada from Mahayana is an interpretation of anatta, the teaching that there is no soul or self. The self that seems to inhabit our bodies continuously through our lives is an illusion. All schools of Buddhism support this teaching.

However, Mahayana Buddhism takes anatta further and teaches a doctrine called shunyata, or emptiness. According to Mahayana, all phenomena take identity to us only in relation to other phenomena and cannot be said to either exist or not exist. The difference in interpretation of anatta impacts how many other doctrines are understood.

If you are scratching your head at this point, you are not alone. These are extremely difficult doctrines to understand, and many will tell you they cannot be understood by intellect alone. If you're a beginner there's not much point spinning your wheels over which school is right. Practice awhile, and come to your own conclusions as you gain more understanding.

If you are new to Buddhism, the most obvious difference you might see is that in Theravada, the ideal of practice is the arhat, the individual who has realized enlightenment. In Mahayana, the ideal of practice is the enlightened being who is dedicated to bringing all beings to enlightenment.

Divisions of Theravada

In Asia, there is a bigger difference between monastic and lay Theravada Buddhism than among different orders or sects of Theravada Buddhism. Monks meditate, study and teach; laypeople, on the whole (there are exceptions), do not. Laypeople practice by supporting the monasteries with alms, donations, chants, and prayers. They are encouraged to keep the five precepts and observe uposatha days.

In the West, those who come to Theravada as adults -- as opposed to growing up with it in an ethnic Asian community -- most commonly practice Vipassana or "insight" meditation and study the Pali Canon, which is the main body of scripture for Theravada. The more traditional monastic-lay symbiosis found in Asia hasn't yet emerged among non-ethnic-Asian Western practitioners.

There are a number of different Theravada monastic orders in Asia. There are also beliefs and practices associated with Buddhism, often taken from local folk cultures, that are found in some parts of Southeast Asia but not others. But compared to Mahayana, Theravada is relatively homogenous.

Divisions of Mahayana

The distinctions among different sects of Mahayana Buddhism are so pronounced they might seem to be entirely different religions, yet they are all built on the same philosophical and doctrinal foundation.

The doctrinal differences tend to be minor compared to differences in practice, such as meditation, ritual, and chanting. Most people who come to Mahayana choose a school because its practices resonate well with them.

Here are some of the Mahayana traditions you are most likely to find in the West, but it is not an exhaustive list, and there are many variations and sub-sects. There are also traditions that combine elements of more than one sect. The practices described are all long-established means to enable practitioners to actualize the Buddha's teaching.

  • Amitabha or Amida Buddhism also called Pure Land Buddhism. Pure Land emphasizes faithful devotion to the Buddha Amitabha. By the grace of Amitabha, one may be reborn in the Pure Land, where enlightenment may be realized and Nirvana is close at hand. The most distinctive practice of Pure Land Buddhism, called Nianfo in Chinese and Nembutsu in Japanese, is the mindful recitation of Amitabha's name.
  • Nichiren Buddhism is a Japanese tradition that has gained a large following in the West. It emphasizes a mindful chanting practice that evokes the mystical power of the Lotus Sutra to bring all beings to enlightenment. Probably the largest Nichiren group in the West is Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay organization, but there are others.
  • Tendai is less widespread in the West than many other traditions but is a long-established Mahayana tradition in Asia. Tendai offers a number of meditation and other practices to enable enlightenment.
  • Tibetan Buddhism has gained a huge following in the West in recent years. There are four major schools and many sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism combines meditation with ritual, chanting, and other practices. The most distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhism is tantra or deity yoga. This is most simply translated as "a means to enlightenment through identity with tantric deities."
  • Zen is the Japanese name of Chan, a sect that originated in 6th century China. Chan Buddhism also spread to Korea and Vietnam. The most basic practice of Zen is a mindful, silent meditation practice called zazen in Japanese. Zen has been predominantly a monastic school for most of its history, although there is a long tradition of lay practice also.

Not every temple you might visit will fit neatly into one of these sectarian niches. It's not at all unusual to find temples that combine practices of more than one tradition, for example. There are many sects not listed, and those that are listed come in many denominations.

By Barbara O'Brien