Three Schools of Buddhism

Three Schools of Buddhism

Described in text
Figure 3-3 Map of the Main Modern Buddhist Sects by Rupert Gethin is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 . Map illustrating the major centers for the three schools of Buddhism. Burma, Sri, Lanka, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia are shaded red for Theravada. Tibet and Mongolia are shaded orange for Vajrayana. China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan are shaded yellow for Mahayana.

To clarify this complex movement of spiritual and religious thought and religious practice, it may help to understand the three main classifications of Buddhism to date: Theravada (also known as Hinayana, the vehicle of the Hearers), Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

These are recognized by practitioners as the three main routes to enlightenment (Skt: bodhi, meaning awakening), the state that marks the culmination of all the Buddhist religious paths. The differences between them are as follows:

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Vajrayana

Vajrayana, the Diamond School, originally exclusive to Tibet (in 20th century CE the Chinese occupation of Tibet forced it out of the country), emphasizes the permanence of the Buddha’s teachings as symbolized by the vajra (thunderbolt), a ritual implement used for ceremonies, employs Tantra (techniques to reach enlightenment quickly) and focuses mainly on lay practitioners.

Mahayana

Mahayana uses Sanskrit as its main language, and monastic and lay followers work for the liberation of all sentient beings, making compassion and insight (wisdom) its central doctrines.

Theravada

Theravada is the only remaining school from the Early Buddhist period. Its central texts are in Pali (Pãli Canon), the spoken language of the Buddha; and its exclusively monastic devotees strive to become enlightened for their own liberation.

It is significant that Theravada texts exclusively concern the Buddha’s life and early teachings; whereas, due to widespread propagation (spreading of the teachings), Mahayana and Vajrayana texts appear in at least six languages. Mahayana texts contain a mixture of ideas, the early texts probably composed in south India and confined to strict monastic Buddhism, the later texts written in northern India and no longer confined to monasticism but lay thinking also. (22)

Mahayana Doctrine of the Bodhisattva

As mentioned, the main tenets of this Mahayana Buddhism are compassion (karuna) and insight or wisdom (prajna). The perfection of these human values culminates in the Bodhisattva, a model being who devotes him or herself altruistically to the service of others, putting aside all self-serving notions; in contrast, is the preceding pursuit of self-interested liberation (Hinayana or Sravakayana). Bodhisattva (Skt; Pali: Bodhisatta) means an enlightened being or one who is oriented to enlightenment. This ideal human being is inspired by the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni who began by generating the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings in the form of a vow. Then he embarked on a religious life by cultivating the Six Perfections (paramitas).

Early Mahayana texts stipulate that a Bodhisattva can only be male, but later texts allow female Bodhisattvas. The term Bodhicitta is used to describe the state of mind of a Bodhisattva, and there are 2 aspects:

  • The relative , a mind directed towards enlightenment, the ceasing of all cravings and attachments
  • The absolute , a mind whose nature is enlightenment

A Bodhisattva must place him or herself in the position of others, in order to be selfless and embody compassion: in other words, to exchange him or herself for the other. (22)

Buddhist Texts

Buddhist scriptures and other texts exist in great variety. Different schools of Buddhism place varying levels of value on learning the various texts. Some schools venerate certain texts as religious objects in themselves, while others take a more scholastic approach. Buddhist scriptures are mainly written in Pali, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese. Some texts still exist in Sanskrit and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

The followers of Theravada Buddhism take the scriptures known as the Pali Canon as definitive and authoritative, while the followers of Mahayana Buddhism base their faith and philosophy primarily on the Mahayana sutras and their own vinaya. The Pali sutras, along with other, closely related scriptures, are known to the other schools as the agamas.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to synthesize a single Buddhist text that can encompass all of the major principles of Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, condensed ‘study texts’ were created that combined popular or influential scriptures into single volumes that could be studied by novice monks. Later in Sri Lanka, the Dhammapada was championed as a unifying scripture.

The Pali Tripitaka, which means ” three baskets ,” refers to:

  • Vinaya Pitaka: This contains disciplinary rules for the Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as explanations of why and how these rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification.
  • Sutta Pitaka: This contains discourses ascribed to Gautama Buddha.
  • Abhidhamma Pitaka: This contains material often described as systematic expositions of the Gautama Buddha’s teachings.

Mahayana Sutras

The Tripitaka Koreana in South Korea, an edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon carved and preserved in over 81,000 wood printing blocks.

The Mahayana sutras are a very broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that the Mahayana Buddhist tradition holds are original teachings of the Buddha. Some adherents of Mahayana accept both the early teachings (including in this the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, which was criticized by Nagarjuna and is, in fact, opposed to early Buddhist thought) and the Mahayana sutras as authentic teachings of Gautama Buddha, and claim they were designed for different types of persons and different levels of spiritual understanding.

The Mahayana sutras often claim to articulate the Buddha’s deeper, more advanced doctrines, reserved for those who follow the bodhisattva path. That path is explained as being built upon the motivation to liberate all living beings from unhappiness. Hence, the name Mahayana (lit., The Great Vehicle). (19)