An introduction to the main schools of Buddhism

This page presents a short introduction to the history of the various Buddhist traditions, which I researched to help me make sense of the mass of written material available online and in print. Having gone to the trouble, I thought I might save others some of the effort by making my work available here.

It has a companion page outlining the core beliefs common to all schools. The two may be read in either order.

My first priority has been historical truth, in so far as that is possible on a subject with such a vast chronological and geographical scale. I apologise to anyone whose beliefs I have contradicted.


Gautama Buddha (c. 560 – 480 BCE according to recent research) taught for about forty-five years in Northern India, leaving a large group of followers (the sangha) and the teachings (the dharma) they had memorised.

Followers of the dharma have always had their own perspectives on the teachings and over about two thousand years these divergent perspectives have hardened into distinct schools or traditions. ‘Lineage’ is a term often used; it means the chain of teacher-student transmission and, by implication, explains much of the divergence.

Differences in interpretation emerged in the first century after the Buddha’s death but the most significant split (around 100 CE although its roots lie as far back as 300 BCE) was between those who called their teaching the Mahayana – the ‘Great Vehicle’ – and the more traditional group whose doctrine they, logically but disparagingly, called the Hinayana – the ‘Lesser Vehicle’.

The name the non-Mahayana group prefer for themselves is Theravada or ‘Teachings of the Elders’.

In the course of history, the Mahayana travelled North and East from Northern India to China, Tibet, Korea and Japan, while Theravadin teachings flourished in the South and South-East, passing through Sri Lanka to Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. The two branches are consequently sometimes known as Northern and Southern Buddhism. That is not entirely accurate, since another early wave of Mahayana, mixed with Hinduism, spread from India to Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of South East Asia starting in about the fifth century.

The relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is close but complex: Buddhism was an offshoot of Brahminism, which in turn became Hinduism (much as we know it) by around 300 CE. In India itself, Buddhism waned and was eventually absorbed (‘re-absorbed’ is not quite correct) into Hinduism; Muslim rule, from 1192 onwards, merely hastened a decline that was already well under way.

Angkor Wat facade
Angkor Wat, a temple which was alternately Buddhist and Hindu, reflected in its own moat

Theravada traditions

Theravada traditions tend to be conservative, analytical and monastic, as contrasted with the more adaptable, devotional and inclusive Mahayana. Each established its canonical scriptures, Theravada in the Pali language and Mahayana in Sanskrit. The languages are both Indian and are very close – most of the common terms in one are recognisable in the other, e.g. dhamma (Pali) / dharma (Skt). The two sets of scriptures were also originally very close but diverged incrementally over the centuries, since later Theravadin writings do not appear in the Mahayana canon, and vice versa.

The Theravada tradition changed only slowly after the split. Its scriptures, codified as the Tipitaka after the Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE and committed to writing around 100 BCE, are probably the most complete and reliable guide to the actual teachings of the historical Buddha.

Mahayana traditions

The Mahayana tradition was always more open to innovation and in due course its branches grew apart from each other. In China it absorbed Taoist and Confucian elements, and in Tibet it absorbed elements of the indigenous religion, Bonpo. Most of the original Sanskrit scriptures have been lost, so the Mahayana teachings survive primarily in later Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese translations. It is clear, too, that many of the Mahayana scriptures were composed later than the Theravada canon, centuries after the time of the historical Buddha (see

Three major Mahayana schools arose in China under the Tang dynasty, approximately 600 – 900 CE:

  • Tiantai (Tendai in Japan), established late in the 6th century CE, was the first truly Chinese school. It acknowledged all the sutras but gave special emphasis to the Lotus Sutra, which was probably composed in the 1st century CE.
  • Zen (Japan; known as Ch’an in China where it originated, and Seon in Korea) downplays both metaphysics and ritual to emphasise awakening through meditation.
  • Pure Land is a faith-oriented branch of Buddhism which teaches that devotion to Amitabha (Amida) Buddha is enough to guarantee enlightenment. It is widespread in Eastern Asia as a Mahayana school in its own right and its ideas are also popular within the Ch’an and Tiantai traditions.

Buddhism reached Tibet from both India and China from the seventh century onwards. Tibetan Buddhism inherited Theravada and Mahayana traditions from India, the Chinese interpretation of the Mahayana, and elements of the shamanistic indigenous religion. It spread throughout the Himalayas and to Mongolia, East Turkistan, Kyrghyzstan, Kazakhstan, northern Inner China, Manchuria, Siberia and the Kalmyk Mongol region near the Caspian Sea in European Russia. Tibetan Buddhism is divided into four great schools. Nyingma, identified as the form of Buddhism introduced with Guru Padmasambhava’s arrival in Tibet in the eighth century, is the oldest. The three other major orders, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug, arose in the eleventh to fourteenth centuries.

Eventually (before 900 CE) some groups, especially in Tibet, differed enough from the Mahayana that their doctrines were described as a new vehicle, the Vajrayana or ‘Diamond Vehicle.’ Vajrayana, also called Tantrayana or Mantrayana, employs a range of special (‘tantric’) techniques to accelerate practitioners’ progress towards enlightenment but the underlying doctrines remain Mahayanan: the goal is still the bodhisattva ideal, to ‘reach enlightenment to aid all sentient beings’. Monastic Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition is essentially tantric but non-tantric Mahayana teaching is the norm for lay people in Tibet. The non-tantric schools are sometimes called Sutrayana, the ‘Scripture Vehicle’ or Paramitayana, the ‘Perfection Vehicle’, to differentiate them from the Vajrayana schools.

Buddhism reached Vietnam from both North (China) and South (down the Mekong) and the result was a unique Theravada-Mahayana synthesis best known in the West through the Engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Shingon is a Japanese vajrayana sect, established in the early ninth century. It developed separately from Tibetan Buddhism but out of the same Mahayana matrix: they share a common ancestor in Indian esoteric Buddhism of the 7th and 8th centuries, which had already incorporated Hindu deities and rituals. The Shingon transmission was through China: a Japanese monk studied with Indian and Chinese masters in China, then returned to teach in Japan. Its central texts are the Mahavairocana Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. (Bullitt, in a footnote to What is Theravada Buddhism? on the ‘Access to Insight’ site, says that Vajrayana developed in India in the 8th century and was exported wholesale, but most sources suggest significant local development in China, Japan and Tibet.)

Finally, Nichiren Buddhism is a group of Japanese schools whose eponymous founder split acrimoniously from Shingon and Zen in the thirteenth century. The teaching focuses on the Lotus Sutra and orientation is, unusually for Buddhism, evangelical. In turn, Soka Gakkai split from Nichiren in 1930.


Total numbers of adherents to the three main branches have been estimated at around 500 million: 170 million for the Theravada and 300 million for the Mahayana, with another 30 million following the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition (more detail at Wikipedia/Buddhism by country).

Most of the differences between schools arose peaceably and naturally from the means of transmission of the teaching. Typically, individual teachers or a small group would introduce the dharma to a new community where it would develop in isolation from its origins. Oral transmission of the scriptures, inaccuracies of translation, the infusion of local beliefs, and inevitable cultural drift took care of the rest.

It is primarily in the last fifty years that people have had the opportunity to compare practices and doctrines (see ‘Core Beliefs’, to come), and it is in the same period that Buddhism has spread significantly in the West. It is an interesting time to be studying the dharma: we have easy access to the insights of all traditions, and Western Buddhism may even create a new synthesis.

We should not be afraid of this. Buddha’s own teachings prized independent critical thinking over blind obedience to authority:

Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.

Kalamasutta, translated by Thanissaro, from ‘Access to Insight’

References for this page

Wikipedia – various pages. The top-level entry point is (Looking at it makes clear just how many branches of Buddhism were established by single missionaries – no wonder doctrines diverged!) Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism (A wonderful site, including excellent translations of the main texts, and hundreds of authoritative introductory and historical essays and books.) The ‘Four Lectures’ of Peter Della Santina (pdf) – Shingon

Page created April 2008,
checked and republished to this site March 2021