Schools of Buddhism developed after the death of Buddha to propagate his teachings. The schools over the years have been interpreted in different ways giving rise to numerous subsects and movements. Read here to learn about the major schools of Buddhism.
Buddhism is a way of life that is founded on the teachings of the Buddha, who lived in India during the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. Buddhism is the fourth most practiced religion in the world, with little over 7% of the world’s population identifying as Buddhists.
Buddhism has been widely popular since the Buddha’s passing in the fifth-century BCE in India. His teachings have been altered over time as a result of encounters with various groups of people and civilizations.
The main tenets of Buddhism include a renunciation of desire, studying sacred texts, engaging in meditation, and cultivating compassion. Based on these tenets various schools developed within the Buddhist faith.
Schools of Buddhism
Initially, there may have been a unified vision of what Buddha had taught but, in time, disagreements over what constituted the “true teaching” resulted in fragmentation and the establishment of three main schools:
- Theravada Buddhism (The School of the Elders)
- Mahayana Buddhism (The Great Vehicle)
- Vajrayana Buddhism (The Way of the Diamond)
The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Way as taught by the Buddha are shared by all three schools, although they each follow the road differently.
Although followers of each believe otherwise, they all recognize they are a part of Ekayana (“One Vehicle” or “One Path”) in that they all support Buddha’s overarching goal and work to spread peace and compassion in the world.
According to objective standards, none are seen as more legitimate than the others, nor are the numerous minor schools that have emerged.
An Arahant is an awakened being, one who has destroyed desire, anger, and ignorance and has acquired Nibbana (Nirvana) in this life from personal experience.
- The Buddha was also an Arahant. However, unlike the other Arahants, the Buddha discovered the path himself, without instructions. In other words, the Buddha was the first Arahant.
Shortly after the death of the Buddha, 500 Arahants gathered and formed the 1st council meeting led by the Venerable Maha Kassapa, the oldest among them, to repeat the teachings of the Buddha and record them in memory.
In the first years after the Buddha’s death there were still disciples who had awakened directly under his guidance.
- Halfway through the 4th century BC, less than 100 years after the death of the Buddha, discord arose within the Sangha (the order of monks).
- The primary cause is not clear. Probably there was a difference of opinion about the Vinaya, the moral rules of conduct for monks, but even that is not certain.
The Mahasanghikas, seem to have been in favor of less moral rules and held the opinion that an Arahant still had mental limitations, because this is what could be seen in many so-called Arahants, and the ultimate goal for a monk should therefore be to become a Buddha.
The Sthaviravadins, seem to have wanted more or stricter moral rules and stuck to arahantship as the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s path, declaring that those who claimed to be Arahants but still had mental (or mainly moral) limitations were not Arahant at all.
Theravada school of Buddhism claims to be the oldest school and to maintain Buddha’s original vision and teachings. It is also known as Hinayana (lesser vehicle) sometimes.
- Theravada, the school of the Elders, began to take shape around 250 BC through the original disciples of Buddha.
- It is considered the most orthodox form of Buddhism and has followers mainly in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
- The vipassana movement (mindfulness) is a modern-day school within Theravada Buddhism.
- Theravada concentrates on the original teachings of Buddha- the four noble truths and the eight-fold path.
- They follow strict monastic life of meditation to attain nirvana.
- They do not worship buddha as a deity but rather believe in his teachings of karma and meditation.
From 268 to 232 BCE Asoka the Great of the Maurya Dynasty ruled over almost the entire Indian subcontinent.
He converted to Buddhism and focused on ahimsa, non-violence. Asoka is seen as a great, tolerant, and respectful leader, an example for kings that came after him.
He spent his wealth on his people and the Sangha. With this, however, he also created a problem.
- Greedy and immoral people infiltrated the Sangha to take advantage of his charity.
- They were not interested in liberation, only in the offerings provided and the associated status, and therefore held wrong views, which resulted in a decrease in the respect for the Sangha.
When Asoka heard of this corruption, he organized a 3rd council meeting in 250 BCE to purify Buddhism and record the true Dhamma.
The Venerable Moggaliputtatissa chaired the 9-month-long 3rd council meeting.
- The Venerable Moggaliputtatissa belonged to the Vibhajjavada school, the doctrine of analysis descended from the Sthaviravadins.
The Dhamma that was recorded during the 3rd council meeting and supported by Asoka was the Tipitaka (the three baskets).
- The followers of this movement called themselves Theriya’s ‘elders’ and in this way, Theravada was born.
- Since then, the Pali Canon, the Pali version of the Tipitaka, has existed. Since the 3rd Council meeting of 250 BCE, no more teachings have been added or removed from the main texts.
- Buddhagosa wrote the Visuddhimagga, a monumental summary of the Tipitaka.
Asoka’s son, Mahinda traveled to Sri Lanka to preach Buddhist teachings, and Theravada Buddhism, flourished in Sri Lanka.
Mahayana (Great Vehicle) school of Buddhism is a group of religious practices that emphasizes the bodhisattva path and upholds the Mahayana sutras.
According to contemporary researchers, these writings originate from the first century BCE.
It was founded 400 years after Buddha’s death, probably inspired by the early Mahasanghika ideology, and was streamlined and codified by the sage Nagarjuna (c. 2nd century CE), the central figure of the school.
Mahayana schools often maintain that there are now numerous Buddhas who are accessible and that they are transcendental or supramundane creatures, in contrast to Theravada and other early schools.
Mahayana Buddhism is said to have split off from Theravada in the belief that it was too self-centered and had lost its true vision; this school also claims it holds to the Buddha’s original teaching.
- The Mahasangikas around the 2nd council meeting (4th century BCE) began to find the goal of becoming an Arahant inadequate.
- This opened the way to Buddhahood as an alternative, which seems to have been the first point of departure.
- Around the 3rd council meeting in 250 BCE. there were 18 different Buddhist schools.
They believed that Buddha had infinite compassion and hence would not enter nirvana where no good for others can be done. Therefore, there must be some aspect of the Buddha that is still present in the here and now as an expression of his infinite compassion.
- They revered and worshipped Buddha as a god, hence deification is observed in this sect.
- They believed Buddhahood is for everyone, hence they were more liberal and inclusive than the earlier schools.
- Even though they considered Buddha a divine being, they also believed that every person is a potential Buddha. The emphasis is on striving for the enlightenment of all beings and not only yourself.
- They attained salvation through worshipping Buddha and following his core teachings.
The Mahayana school spread around Central Asia via the silk route around the 1st century CE. It is followed largely in China, Korea, and Japan.
Vajrayana school of Buddhism developed, largely in Tibet, in response to what was perceived as too many rules in Mahayana Buddhism.
The Vajrayana, as a relatively late branch from the Mahayana, seems to have started somewhere around the 5th century CE. It is also known as Tantrayana or Tantric Buddhism.
- Tantra is a combination of mantras (protective verses), actions, and visualizations that accelerate the path to enlightenment.
- Its origins lay in the changing environment of mainland India where Jainism and Hinduism became more prevalent and the Huns regularly went on raids with devastating consequences for monastic communities.
- The beginning of this movement is attributed to a group of mahasiddha (great masters), a kind of magician who lived in India and seem to have complemented the teachings of the Buddha with esoteric rituals.
Vajrayana Buddhism focuses on the efforts of becoming a buddha and creating a unique path to enlightenment through tantric rituals.
- In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is understood that one already has a Buddha nature, and everyone does, just as Mahayana believes – but, in Vajrayana, one only has to realize this to fully awaken.
- An adherent, therefore, does not have to give up bad habits such as drinking alcohol or smoking right away to begin one’s work on the path; one only has to commit to following the path and the desire to engage in unhealthy and damaging behaviors will steadily lose their allure.
- Instead of distancing one’s self from desire, one steps toward and through it, shedding one’s attachment as one proceeds in the discipline
- Tara is a meditation deity revered by practitioners of the Tibetan branch of Vajrayana Buddhism to develop certain inner qualities and to understand outer, inner, and secret teachings such as karuṇa (compassion), metta (loving-kindness), and shunyata (emptiness).
It was systematized by the sage Atisha (982-1054 CE) in Tibet and so is sometimes referred to as Tibetan Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama, often referenced as the spiritual leader of all Buddhists, is technically only the spiritual head of the Vajrayana School, and his views are most directly in line with this school of thought.
This sect can primarily be found in Bhutan, Mongolia, Tibet, and the Kalmykia region of Russia.
Other Schools of Buddhism
Many other Buddhist schools have developed from these three all around the world.
- In the West, the most popular of these is Zen Buddhism which traveled from China to Japan and was most fully developed there before arriving in the West.
- Pure Land Buddhism is another which developed from Mahayana Buddhism and its goal is rebirth in a “pure land” of a Buddha Realm which exists on a higher plane.
- An increasingly popular school in the West is Secular Buddhism which rejects all metaphysical aspects of the belief system to focus on self-improvement for its own sake.
- 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.
-Article written by Swathi Satish