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: 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: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna.
Vajrayāna ("Vajra Vehicle"), also known as Mantrayāna, Tantric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism. This category is mostly represented in "Northern Buddhism", also called "Indo-Tibetan Buddhism" (or just "Tibetan Buddhism"), but also overlaps with certain forms of East Asian Buddhism (see: Shingon). It is prominent in Tibet, Bhutan and the Himalayan region as well as in Mongolia and the Russian republic of Kalmykia. It is sometimes considered to be a part of the broader category of Mahāyāna Buddhism instead of a separate tradition. The main texts of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism are contained in the Kanjur and the Tenjur. Besides the study of major Mahāyāna texts, this branch emphasizes the study of Buddhist tantric materials, mainly those related to the Buddhist tantras.
A fourth branch, Navayāna, is sometimes included as well. It is a re-interpretation of Buddhism by B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was born in a Dalit (untouchable) family during the colonial era of India, studied abroad, became a Dalit leader, and announced in 1935 his intent to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism. Thereafter Ambedkar studied texts of Buddhism, found several of its core beliefs and doctrines such as Four Noble Truths and "non-self" as flawed and pessimistic, re-interpreted these into what he called "new vehicle" of Buddhism. Ambedkar held a press conference on October 13, 1956, announcing his rejection of many traditional interpretations of practices and precepts of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, as well as of Hinduism. Thereafter, he left Hinduism and adopted Navayana, about six weeks before his death. In the Dalit Buddhist movement of India, Navayana is considered a new branch of Buddhism, different from the traditionally recognized branches of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Marathi Buddhists follow Navayana.
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 first three 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:
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 is also a main doctrine of Nichiren Buddhist sects. The Lotus Sutra has so much influence that meditation was replaced by chanting the Japanese words Namu Myoho Renge Kyo ("The Way of the Lotus Sutra") in religious practice.
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna". Some scholars have applied the term to certain practices found within the Theravāda, particularly in Cambodia.
literally meaning "lesser vehicle". It is considered a controversial term when applied by the Mahāyāna, to refer to the Theravāda school, and as such is widely viewed as condescending and pejorative.[a] 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. Its use in scholarly publications is now also considered controversial.[b]
synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism; an old term, sometimes still used, but 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, regardless of school.
an alternative term used by some scholars[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.
an alternative rendering of Mantrayāna, a more literal translation of the term used by schools in Tibetan Buddhism when referring to themselves.
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna". However, one scholar describes the tantra divisions of some editions of the Tibetan scriptures as including Śravakayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts (see Buddhist texts). Some scholars, particularly François Bizot, have used the term Tantric Theravada to refer to certain practices found particularly in Cambodia.
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 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."
Map of the major geographical centers of major Buddhist schools in South Asia, at around the time of Xuanzang's visit in the seventh century. * Red: non-Pudgalavāda Sarvāstivāda school * Orange: non-Dharmaguptaka Vibhajyavāda schools * Yellow: Mahāsāṃghika * Green: Pudgalavāda (Green) * Gray: Dharmaguptaka Note the red and grey schools already gave some original ideas of Mahayana Buddhism and the Sri Lankan section (see Tamrashatiya) of the orange school is the origin of modern Theravada Buddhism.
The early Buddhist schools or mainstream sects refers to the sects into which the Indian Buddhist monastic saṅgha split. They are also called the Nikaya Buddhist schools, Ezhuthupally, and in Mahayana Buddhism they are referred to either as the Śrāvaka (disciple) schools or Hinayana (inferior) schools.
Most scholars now believe that the first schism was originally caused by differences in vinaya (monastic rule).: 88–90 Later splits were also due to doctrinal differences and geographical separation.
The first schism separated the community into two groups, the Sthavira (Elders) Nikaya and the Mahāsāṃghika (Great Community). Most scholars hold that this probably occurred after the time of Ashoka. Out of these two main groups later arose many other sects or schools.
The Sarvāstivāda school, popular in northwest India and Kashmir, focused on Abhidharma teachings. Their name means "the theory that all exists" which refers to one of their main doctrines, the view that all dharmas exist in the past, present and in the future. This is an eternalist theory of time. Over time, the Sarvāstivādins became divided into various traditions, mainly the Vaibhāṣika (who defended the orthodox "all exists" doctrine in their Abhidharma compendium called the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra), the Sautrāntika (who rejected the Vaibhāṣika orthodoxy) and the Mūlasarvāstivāda.
The Pudgalavāda sects (also known as Vātsīputrīyas) were another group of Sthaviras which were known for their unique doctrine of the pudgala (person). Their tradition was founded by the elder Vātsīputra circa 3rd century BCE.
The Vibhajyavādins were conservative Sthaviras who did not accept the doctrines of either the Sarvāstivāda or the Pudgalavāda. In Sri Lanka, a group of them became known as Theravada, the only one of these sects that survives to the present day. Another sect which arose from the Vibhajyavādins were the Dharmaguptakas. This school was influential in spreading Buddhism to Central Asia and to China. Their Vinaya is still used in East Asian Buddhism.
The Mahāsāṃghikas also split into various sub groups. One of these were the Lokottaravādins (Transcendentalists), so called because of their doctrine which saw every action of the Buddha, even mundane ones like eating, as being of a supramundane and transcendental nature. One of the few Mahāsāṃghika texts which survive, the Mahāvastu, is from this school. Another sub-sect which emerged from the Mahāsāṃghika was called the Caitika. They were concentrated in Andhra Pradesh and in South India. Some scholars such as A.K. Warder hold that many important Mahayana sutras originated among these groups. Another Mahāsāṃghika sect was named Prajñaptivāda. They were known for the doctrine that viewed all conditioned phenomena as being mere concepts (Skt. prajñapti).
According to the Indian philosopher Paramartha, a further split among the Mahāsāṃghika occurred with the arrival of the Mahayana sutras. Some sub-schools, such as the Kukkuṭikas, did not accept the Mahayana sutras as being word of the Buddha, whole others, like the Lokottaravādins, did accept them.
The Tipitaka (Pali Canon), in a Thai Style book case. The Pali Tipitaka is the doctrinal foundation of all major Theravāda sects today
The different sects and groups in Theravāda often emphasize different aspects (or parts) of the Pāli canon and the later commentaries (especially the very influential Visuddhimagga), or differ in the focus on and recommended way of practice. There are also significant differences in strictness or interpretation of the vinaya.
Nagarjuna, one of the most influential thinkers of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism
Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) Buddhism is category of traditions which focus on the bodhisattva path and affirm texts known as Mahāyāna sutras. These texts are seen by modern scholars as dating as far back as the 1st century BCE. Unlike Theravada and other early schools, Mahāyāna schools generally hold that there are currently many Buddhas which are accessible, and that they are transcendental or supramundane beings.
In India, there were two major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. The earliest was the Mādhyamaka ("Middle Way"), also known as Śūnyavāda, the emptiness school. This tradition followed the works of the philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150–c. 250 CE). The other major school was Yogācāra ("yoga practice") school, also known as Vijñānavāda (the doctrine of consciousness), Vijñaptivāda (the doctrine of ideas or percepts).
Some scholars also note that the Tathāgatagarbha texts constitute a third "school" of Indian Mahāyāna.
East Asian Mahayana
East Asian Buddhism or East Asian Mahayana refers to the schools that developed in East Asia and use the Chinese Buddhist canon. It is a major religion in China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. East Asian Buddhists constitute the numerically largest body of Buddhist traditions in the world, numbering over half of the world's Buddhists.
Indian Buddhist Mahasiddhas, 18th century, Boston MFA.
Esoteric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Secret Mantra, and Tantric Buddhism is often placed in a separate category by scholars due to its unique tantric features and elements. Esoteric Buddhism arose and developed in medieval India among esoteric adepts known as Mahāsiddhas. Esoteric Buddhism maintains its own set of texts alongside the classic scriptures, these esoteric works are known as the Buddhist Tantras. It includes practices that make use of mantras, dharanis, mudras, mandalas and the visualization of deities and Buddhas.
^Skaria, A (2015). "Ambedkar, Marx and the Buddhist Question". Journal of South Asian Studies. Taylor & Francis. 38 (3): 450–452. doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1049726., Quote: "Here [Navayana Buddhism] there is not only a criticism of religion (most of all, Hinduism, but also prior traditions of Buddhism), but also of secularism, and that criticism is articulated moreover as a religion."
^Skilling, (1997). Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, p. 78. Lancaster, UK: Pali Text Society
^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; doi:10.1080/14639940008573729.
^Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1987, pp. 440ff; Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, sv Buddhism