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Schools of Buddhism

The schools of Buddhism are the various institutional and doctrinal divisions of Buddhism that have existed from ancient times up to the present. The classification and nature of various doctrinal, philosophical or cultural facets of the schools of Buddhism is vague and has been interpreted in many different ways, often due to the sheer number (perhaps thousands) of different sects, subsects, movements, etc. that have made up or currently make up the whole of Buddhist traditions. The sectarian and conceptual divisions of Buddhist thought are part of the modern framework of Buddhist studies, as well as comparative religion in Asia.

From a largely English-language standpoint, and to some extent in most of Western academia, Buddhism is separated into two groups at its foundation: Theravāda, literally "the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching," and Mahāyāna, literally the "Great Vehicle." The most common classification among scholars is threefold, with Mahāyāna itself split between the traditional Mahāyāna teachings, and the Vajrayāna teachings which emphasize esotericism.


Map showing the three major Buddhist divisions
Percentage of Buddhists by country, according to the Pew Research Center.

In contemporary Buddhist studies, modern Buddhism is often divided into three major branches, traditions or categories:[1][2][3][4]

Another way of classifying the different forms of Buddhism is through the different monastic ordination traditions. There are three main traditions of monastic law (Vinaya) each corresponding to the categories outlined above:


The terminology for the major divisions of Buddhism can be confusing, as Buddhism is variously divided by scholars and practitioners according to geographic, historical, and philosophical criteria, with different terms often being used in different contexts. The following terms may be encountered in descriptions of the major Buddhist divisions:

"Conservative Buddhism"
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
"Early Buddhist schools"
the schools into which Buddhism became divided in its first few centuries; only one of these survives as an independent school, Theravāda
"East Asian Buddhism"
a term used by scholars[7] to cover the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Korea, and most of China and Southeast Asia
"Eastern Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[8][page needed] for East Asian Buddhism; also sometimes used to refer to all traditional forms of Buddhism, as distinct from Western(ized) forms.
"Ekayāna (one yana)
Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra sought to unite all the different teachings into a single great way. These texts serve as the inspiration for using the term Ekayāna in the sense of "one vehicle". This "one vehicle" became a key aspect of the doctrines and practices of Tiantai and Tendai Buddhist sects, which subsequently influenced Chán and Zen doctrines and practices. In Japan, the one-vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sutra also inspired the formation of the Nichiren sect.
"Esoteric Buddhism"
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[9] Some scholars have applied the term to certain practices found within the Theravāda, particularly in Cambodia.[10][page needed]
literally meaning "lesser vehicle." It is considered a controversial term when applied by the Mahāyāna to mistakenly refer to the Theravāda school, and as such is widely viewed as condescending and pejorative.[11] Moreover, Hīnayāna refers to the now non extant schools with limited set of views, practices and results, prior to the development of the Mahāyāna traditions. The term is currently most often used as a way of describing a stage on the path in Tibetan Buddhism, but is often mistakenly confused with the contemporary Theravāda tradition, which is far more complex, diversified and profound, than the literal and limiting definition attributed to Hīnayāna .[12] Its use in scholarly publications is now also considered controversial.[13]
an old term, still sometimes used, synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism; widely considered derogatory.
a movement that emerged from early Buddhist schools, together with its later descendants, East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayāna traditions are sometimes listed separately. The main use of the term in East Asian and Tibetan traditions is in reference to spiritual levels,[14][page needed] regardless of school.
"Mainstream Buddhism"
a term used by some scholars for the early Buddhist schools.
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[15] The Tendai school in Japan has been described as influenced by Mantrayana.[14][page needed]
"Newar Buddhism"
a non-monastic, caste based Buddhism with patrilineal descent and Sanskrit texts.
"Nikāya Buddhism" or "schools"
an alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
an alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
"Northern Buddhism"
an alternative term used by some scholars[8][page needed] for Tibetan Buddhism. Also, an older term still sometimes used to encompass both East Asian and Tibetan traditions. It has even been used to refer to East Asian Buddhism alone, without Tibetan Buddhism.
"Secret Mantra"
an alternative rendering of Mantrayāna, a more literal translation of the term used by schools in Tibetan Buddhism when referring to themselves.[16]
"Sectarian Buddhism"
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
"Southeast Asian Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[17][page needed] for Theravāda.
"Southern Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[8][page needed] for Theravāda.
an alternative term sometimes used for the early Buddhist schools.
"Tantrayāna" or "Tantric Buddhism"
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[15] However, one scholar describes the tantra divisions of some editions of the Tibetan scriptures as including Śravakayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts[18] (see Buddhist texts). Some scholars[19][page needed], particularly François Bizot,[20] have used the term "Tantric Theravada" to refer to certain practices found particularly in Cambodia.
the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam, China, India, and Malaysia. It is the only surviving representative of the historical early Buddhist schools. The term "Theravāda" is also sometimes used to refer to all the early Buddhist schools.[21]
"Tibetan Buddhism"
usually understood as including the Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of China, India and Russia, which follow the Tibetan tradition.
a movement that developed out of Indian Mahāyāna, together with its later descendants. There is some disagreement on exactly which traditions fall into this category. Tibetan Buddhism is universally recognized as falling under this heading; many also include the Japanese Shingon school. Some scholars[22][page needed] also apply the term to the Korean milgyo tradition, which is not a separate school. One scholar says, "Despite the efforts of generations of Buddhist thinkers, it remains exceedingly difficult to identify precisely what it is that sets the Vajrayana apart."[23]

Early schools

Map of the major geographical centers of Sectarian Buddhist schools in India. Sarvāstivāda (red), Theravāda (orange), Mahāsāṃghika (yellow), Pudgalavāda (green), and Dharmaguptaka (gray).
An image of Gautama Buddha with a swastika, a traditional Buddhist symbol of infinity, on his chest. Ananda, the Buddha's disciple, appears in the background. This statue is from Hsi Lai Temple.

Twenty sects

Sthaviravāda split into 11 sects:

 Sthaviravāda─┬─ Haimavata────────────────────────────────────────────
              └─ Sarvāstivādin─┬───────────────────────────────────
                               ├ Vatsīputrīya ─┬────────────────────
                               │               ├ Dharmottara───────
                               │               ├ Bhadrayānīya─────
                               │               ├ Sammitiya────────
                               │               └ Channagirika─────
                               ├ Mahīśāsaka─┬─────────────────────
                               │            └ Dharmaguptaka──────
                               ├ Kāśyapīya────────────────────────
                               └ Sautrāntika──────────────────────

Mahāsāṃghika split into 9 sects:

             ├ EkavyahārikaCaitikaLokottaravādin       ├ Aparaśaila
             ├ Kaukkutika           └ Uttaraśaila
             ├ BahuśrutīyaPrajñaptivāda

Influences on East Asian schools

The following later schools used the vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka:

  • Chinese Buddhism, especially the Vinaya School
  • Korean Buddhism, especially Gyeyul
  • Vietnamese Buddhism
  • Japanese Ritsu

The following involve philosophical influence:

  • The Japanese Jojitsu is considered by some an offshoot of Sautrāntika; others consider it to be derived from Bahuśrutīya.
  • The Chinese/Japanese Kusha school is considered an offshoot of Sarvāstivāda, influenced by Vasubandhu.

Theravāda subschools

The different schools in Theravāda often emphasize different aspects (or parts) of the Pāli canon and the later commentaries, or differ in the focus on and recommended way of practice. There are also significant differences in strictness or interpretation of the vinaya.

Mahāyāna schools

Esoteric schools

Subcategorised according to predecessors

New Buddhist movements

See also


  1. ^ Lee Worth Bailey, Emily Taitz (2005), Introduction to the World's Major Religions: Buddhism, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 67.
  2. ^ Mitchell, Scott A. (2016), Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts, Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 87.
  3. ^ Gethin, Rupert, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, pp. 253–266.
  4. ^ William H. Swatos (ed.) (1998) Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Altamira Press, p. 66.
  5. ^ Gary Tartakov (2003). Rowena Robinson (ed.). Religious Conversion in India: Modes, Motivations, and Meanings. Oxford University Press. pp. 192–213. ISBN 978-0-19-566329-7.
  6. ^ Christopher Queen (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 524–525. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  7. ^ B & G, Gethin, R & J, P & K
  8. ^ a b c Penguin, Harvey
  9. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan, New York, volume 2, p. 440
  10. ^ Indian Insights, Luzac, London, 1997
  11. ^ "Hinayana (literally, 'inferior way') is a polemical term, which self-described Mahāyāna (literally, 'great way') Buddhist literature uses to denigrate its opponents", p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  12. ^ Ray, Reginald A (2000) Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, p. 240
  13. ^ "The supposed Mahayana-Hinayana dichotomy is so prevalent in Buddhist literature that it has yet fully to loosen its hold over scholarly representations of the religion", p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  14. ^ a b '
  15. ^ a b Harvey, pp. 153ff
  16. ^ Hopkins, Jeffrey (1985) The Ultimate Deity in Action Tantra and Jung's Warning against Identifying with the Deity Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 5, (1985), pp. 159–172
  17. ^ R & J, P & K
  18. ^ Skilling, Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, p. 78
  19. ^ Indian Insights, loc. cit.
  20. ^ Crosby, Kate( 2000)Tantric Theravada: A bibliographic essay on the writings of François Bizot and others on the yogvacara Tradition. In Contemporary Buddhism, 1:2, 141–198[1]
  21. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1987, pp. 440ff; Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, sv Buddhism
  22. ^ Harvey
  23. ^ Lopez, Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 6
  24. ^ Kiyota, M. (1985). Tathāgatagarbha Thought: A Basis of Buddhist Devotionalism in East Asia. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 207-231.
  25. ^ "法鼓山聖嚴法師數位典藏". Archived from the original on 2013-05-28. Retrieved 2013-07-29..

Further reading

External links