Representatives from the three major modern Buddhist traditions, at the World Fellowship of Buddhists, 27th General Conference, 2014.

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 (lit. 'the Teaching of the Elders' or 'the Ancient Teaching'), and Mahāyāna (lit. 'the Great Vehicle'). The most common classification among scholars is threefold: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna.


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 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:

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, Theravāda, survives as an independent school.
East Asian Buddhism
a term used by scholars[5] to cover the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Korea, Vietnam and most of China and Southeast Asia
Eastern Buddhism
an alternative name used by some scholars[6] 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 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.
Esoteric Buddhism
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[7] Some scholars have applied the term to certain practices found within the Theravāda, particularly in Cambodia.[8]
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.[9][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.[10] 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,[11] regardless of school.
Mainstream Buddhism
a term used by some scholars for the early Buddhist schools.
usually considered synonymous with Vajrayāna.[12] The Tendai school in Japan has been described as influenced by Mantrayana.[11]
("new vehicle") refers to the re-interpretation of Buddhism by modern Indian jurist and social reformer B. R. Ambedkar.[13][14]
Newar Buddhism
a non-monastic, caste based Buddhism with patrilineal descent and Sanskrit texts.
Nikāya Buddhism
a non-derogatory substitute term for Hinayana or the early Buddhist schools.
an alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
Northern Buddhism
an alternative term used by some scholars[6][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.[15]
Sectarian Buddhism
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
Southeast Asian Buddhism
an alternative name used by some scholars[16][page needed] for Theravāda.
Southern Buddhism
an alternative name used by some scholars[6][page needed] for Theravāda.
an alternative term sometimes used for the early Buddhist schools.
Tantrayāna or Tantric Buddhism
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[12] However, one scholar describes the tantra divisions of some editions of the Tibetan scriptures as including Śravakayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts[17] (see Buddhist texts). Some scholars,[8] particularly François Bizot,[18] 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 of the early Buddhist schools.[19]
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[20] 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."[21]
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.

Early schools

Main articles: Early Buddhist schools and Nikaya Buddhism

See also: Pre-sectarian 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).[22]: 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.[23] Out of these two main groups later arose many other sects or schools.

From the Sthaviras arose the Sarvāstivāda sects, the Vibhajyavādins, the Theravadins, the Dharmaguptakas and the Pudgalavāda sects.

The Sarvāstivāda school, popular in northwest India and Kashmir, focused on Abhidharma teachings.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27] Another Mahāsāṃghika sect was named Prajñaptivāda. They were known for the doctrine that viewed all conditioned phenomena as being mere concepts (Skt. prajñapti).[28]

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.[29]

Although there are differences in the historical records as to the exact composition of the various schools of early Buddhism, a hypothetical combined list would be as follows:


The Tipitaka (Pali Canon), in a Thai Style book case. The Pali Tipitaka is the doctrinal foundation of all major Theravāda sects today

Theravāda is the only extant mainstream non-Mahayana school. They are derived from the Sri Lankan Mahāvihāra sect, which was a branch of the South Indian Vibhajjavādins. Theravāda bases its doctrine on the Pāli Canon, the only complete Buddhist canon surviving in a classical Indian language. This language is Pāli, which serves as the school's sacred language and lingua franca.[31]

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 Pitaka, the Theravādin Vinaya followed by monastics of this tradition.

The various divisions in Theravāda include:

Mahāyāna schools

Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism

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.[32] 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.[33]

In India, there were two major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. The earliest was the Mādhyamaka ("Middle Way"), also known as the Śūnyavāda ("Emptiness") school. This tradition followed the works of the philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150c. 250 CE). Two subsects of the Madhyamaka school that developed were the Svatantrika, founded by the 6th-century Indian philosopher Bhāviveka, and the Prasangika, founded by Chandrakirti and later advanced by Je Tsongkhapa, 14th-century founder of the Gelug sect in Tibet.

The other major school of Indian Mahayana was the Yogācāra ("yoga practice") school, also known as the Vijñānavāda ("the doctrine of consciousness"), Vijñaptivāda ("the doctrine of ideas or percepts"), or Cittamātra ("mind-only") school, founded by Asanga in the 4th century AD.

Some scholars also note that the compilers of the Tathāgatagarbha texts constitute a third "school" of Indian Mahāyāna.[34] This movement heavily influenced East Asian and Tibetan Mahayana schools such as the Dashabhumika, Huayan, Tiantai, Jonang, Nichiren and Zen sects, as did both Madhyamaka and Yogacara.

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.[35][36]

East Asian Mahayana began to develop in China during the Han dynasty (when Buddhism was first introduced from Central Asia). It is thus influenced by Chinese culture and philosophy.[37] East Asian Mahayana developed new, uniquely Asian interpretations of Buddhist texts and focused on the study of sutras.[38]

East Asian Buddhist monastics generally follow the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.[39]

Main sects

Esoteric schools

See also: Vajrayāna

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.

Main Esoteric Buddhist traditions include:

New Buddhist movements

B. R. Ambedkar delivering speech during conversion, Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur, 14 October 1956
Taixu, the founder of Chinese Humanistic Buddhism

Various Buddhist new religious movements arose in the 20th century, including the following.

See also


  1. ^ Hinayana (literally, "inferior way") is a polemical term, which self-described Mahāyāna (literally, "great way") Buddhist literature uses to denigrate its opponents.[9]
  2. ^ "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".[9]

Other notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f According to Buswell and Lopez, the Kāśyapīya and Mahīśāsaka were offshoots of the Sarvastivadins, but are grouped under the Vibhajjavāda as "non-sarvastivada" groups.[30]


  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. ^ B & G, Gethin, R & J, P & K
  6. ^ a b c Penguin, Harvey[page needed][full citation needed]
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 2, p. 440. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  8. ^ a b (([))no author cited((])) (1997). Indian Insights. London, UK: Luzac.[page needed][full citation needed]
  9. ^ a b c Encyclopedia of Buddhism. MacMillan Library Reference. New York, NY: MacMillan. 2004. p. 840.
  10. ^ Ray, Reginald A (2000) Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, p. 240
  11. ^ a b Penguin Handbook[full citation needed][page needed]
  12. ^ a b Harvey, pp. 153ff
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Christopher Queen (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 524–525. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ R & J, P & K
  17. ^ Skilling, (1997). Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, p. 78. Lancaster, UK: Pali Text Society
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1987, pp. 440ff; Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, sv Buddhism
  20. ^ Harvey[page needed][full citation needed]
  21. ^ Lopez, Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 6
  22. ^ Harvey, Peter (2013). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history, and practices (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  23. ^ Cox, Collett (1995). Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist theories on existence. Tokyo, JP: The Institute for Buddhist Studies. p. 23. ISBN 4-906267-36-X.
  24. ^ Westerhoff, Jan (2018). The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy in the First Millennium CE, pp. 60–61.
  25. ^ Kalupahana, David (n/d). A history of Buddhist philosophy, continuities and discontinuities, p. 128.
  26. ^ Williams, Paul (2005). Buddhism: The early Buddhist schools and doctrinal history; Theravāda doctrine, vol. 2, p. 86, Taylor & Francis.
  27. ^ Warder, A.K. (2000). Indian Buddhism, p. 313
  28. ^ Harris, Ian Charles (1991). The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogacara in Indian Mahayana Buddhism, p. 98
  29. ^ Sree, Padma; Barber, Anthony, W. (2008). Buddhism in the Krishna River Valley of Andhra, p. 68.
  30. ^ Buswell, Robert E. Jr.; Lopez, Donald S. Jr. (2013), Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDF), Princeton University Press, p. 859, ISBN 978-0-691-15786-3, archived (PDF) from the original on 12 June 2018
  31. ^ Crosby, Kate (2013), Theravada Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity, and Identity, p. 2.
  32. ^ Warder, A.K. (3rd edn. 1999). Indian Buddhism: p. 335.
  33. ^ Williams, Paul, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, 2008, p. 21.
  34. ^ Kiyota, M. (1985). Tathāgatagarbha thought: A basis of Buddhist devotionalism in east Asia. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 207–231.
  35. ^ Pew Research Center, Global Religious Landscape: Buddhists.
  36. ^ Johnson, Todd M.; Grim, Brian J. (2013). The World's Religions in Figures: An Introduction to International Religious Demography (PDF). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 34. Archived from the original on 20 October 2013. Retrieved 2 September 2013.((cite book)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  37. ^ Gethin, Rupert, The Foundations of Buddhism, OUP Oxford, 1998, p. 257.
  38. ^ Williams, Paul, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Taylor & Francis, 2008, P. 129.
  39. ^ Gethin, Rupert, The Foundations of Buddhism, OUP Oxford, 1998, p. 260
  40. ^ "Buddhism in China Today: An Adaptable Present, a Hopeful Future". Retrieved 2020-06-01..
  41. ^ "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