The Three Branches of Buddhism – Overview

The Three Branches of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayanathe three branches of buddhism

There are three different approaches Buddhism, though the core teachings themselves are the same.  All of these variants of Buddhism essentially reflect different interpretations that evolved over time as the understanding of the Dharma grew deeper and deeper over the centuries.

It is said that the split between Theravada and Mahayana occurred during the Third Buddhist Council convened by Buddhist Emperor Ashoka.

The purpose of this council was to correct and/or expose heresies and false buddhas  During the course of the Council, eventually the adherents of the Sthairavardins school were determined to be the orthodox form of Buddhism.  Also during this council the decision was made to send emissaries to Nine Countries (including Greece) to have discourse with other faiths.

Theravada – First of the Three Branches of Buddhism

The world theravada means ‘Teachings of the Elders’ in the Pali language and this is the oldest of the three branches. According to Buddhist tradition it is said that his disciples wrote down his words on palm leaves which were then organized into three baskets, and these scriptures were collectively named the Tipitaka (Pali, “The Three Baskets”).

  1. The first basket is the Vinaya Pitaka (“Discipline Basket”) which covers monastic rules
  2. The second is the Sutta Pitaka (“Discourse Basket”) which were the teachings attributed to Buddha himself.
  3. The third is the Abhidhamma Pitaka (“Special Teachings Basket”) which consists of Seven texts devoted to the more advanced and philosophical teachings of the Buddha.

    the three branches of buddhism

    The Spread of Theravada Buddhism

They believe that each individual should find his own path to path to Nirana just like how Buddha did and emphasis is placed on attaining Nirvana for oneself .  They are also concerned with achieving personal “salvation” by renouncing the world and attaining the state of Arhat or “Awakened one”.

For this reason some Mahayana Buddhist teachers refer to Theravada Buddhism as the “Individualistic Vehicle”,”Monastic Vehicle”, or “Renunciation Vehicle” but it should be kept in mind that Mahayana monks are also Theravada monks since they follow the same rules and regulations, generally speaking.

There are more similarities than differences between Theravada and Mahayana.

This is the form of Buddhism that took root in southeast Asia in countries such as Burma (present-day Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia, so it is often referred to as “southern Buddhism”.

Theravada Buddhists accept only the Pali canon (Tipitaka) as the true teaching of the Buddha.

Mahāyāna – Second of the Three Branches of Buddhism

the three branches of buddhism

Buddhism Timeline

The term Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”) was originally called Bodhisattvayāna (“Bodhisattva Vehicle”) the vehicle of a bodhisattva attaining buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings.  This school followed a rather liberal interpretation of Buddhism not only for monastics but also for lay people.

The earliest reference to Mahayana is in the Lotus Sūtra (Skt. Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) dating between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.

Seishi Karashima (Professor of Indian philology) has proposed that the term Mahayana can be traced back to the word mahajana (which in the original Prikrit language signified mahajnana) which was transcribed as “mahayana”.

This means that the term has a double meaning since the famous Parable of the Burning House, also speaks of three vehicles or carts (Skt: yāna) one of which is Mahayana.

This school of Buddhism not only accepts the Pali Canon as the word of Buddha but also goes over the secret teachings that the Buddha only shared with his disciples and not with ordinary people.

This is also the form of Buddhism that took root in Central Asia, China, Vietnam, and East Asia and is often referred to as “Northern Buddhism”.

Examples of the various forms of Mahayana include: Chan (China), Thien (Vietnam), Seon (Korea), Zen (Japan), Nara (Japan), Tiantai (China), Tendai (Japan), Nichiren (Japan), etc.

The three branches of Buddhism

The spread of Buddhism

Vajrayana (aka Tantric Buddhism) – Third of the Three Branches of Buddhism

The term Vajrayana translates roughly to “The Diamond Vehicle” the “The Thunderbolt Vehicle” which developed between the 500 – 700 CE in North India. The aim of Vajrayana is to become a bodhisattva as quickly as possible in order to help others realize the Bliss of Nirvana.

Vajarayana also incorporates ritual into its practices as symbolic representations of the spirit of enlightenment. Vajrayana is considered to be esoteric in the sense that many of the secrets are passed down carefully and with great secrecy from Guru to disciple.

Vajrayana thrived in Central Asia particularly in Tibet with the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and in Japan Vajrayana took the form of Shingon Buddhism.

If you have any thoughts or would like to ask a question, then I encourage you to post a comment below.


8 Responses to The Three Branches of Buddhism – Overview

  1. Viljoen says:

    What I really like about buddhism is the amount of meditation that you can do. I know that the monk love to meditate and they always talk about our mind as a drunk monkey.

    The history of buddhism looks very interesting to learn about. Would like to learn a little bit more

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes the untrained mind can be like a monkey mind tends to be constantly distracted and dominated by selfish desires. But I suppose some people’s thoughts could be like a drunken monkey as well.

  2. Kat says:

    Hi, this is a great article to start learning about Buddhism. I have few Japanese friends that are Buddhist. We talked a lot about how they are more for harmony living and thinking about other’s people feelings as well. From what I have read, the first branch – Theravada sounds the most appealing to me.

    • Ian H says:

      Thanks! In Japan, Mahayana Buddhism is dominant since the emphasis is on the realization of our buddha-nature via meditation.

      There are also other schools such as Pure Land, Tendai, Zen (Rinzai and Soto sects), Nichiren, and Nara. Would you happen know which school your Buddhist friends below to? Zen is definitely the most popular but the other sects I mentioned also have a considerable presence in Japan.

  3. Anh Nguyen says:

    I was once a Buddhist myself – although I am not sure which branch I followed at first. I was really interested in the idea of Nirvana enlightenment and how life doesn’t hold many meanings and has many setbacks, like what Buddha discovered when he set out on his journey outside of his castle.

    After a while, I started to learn about Vajrayana, the secret teachings, as you said it and travelled to monasteries in Bhutan and Nepal – where I was lucky to visit what is believed to be Buddha’s birthplace, to deepen my understanding.

    I am curious is if it’s normal not to know which branch you are from? Before knowing about Vajrayana, I just followed the teachings of the monks in my local areas and such things as branches are never mentioned.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Anh,

      Buddhism has been a source of refuge and solace for me since I was 12 years old so I definitely can relate.

      I’ve never been in that area of the world, though I intend to visit monasteries and travel to the Buddha’s birthplace and I’d like to see the descendant of the original Bodhi Tree where Buddha sat.

      I don’t think it matters if you don’t know which branch you’re from. The important thing are the Buddha’s teachings and there are far more similarities between the various branches than differences.

      If you live in Southeast Asia (with the exception of Vietnam where Zen or Thien is more dominant as taught by teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh), then the local monks would likely belong to the Theravada branch. Especially if they placed a lot of emphasis on loving-kindness vipassana meditation.

      In China, Central Asia, and East Asia, Mahayana and Vajrayana are dominant. In Mahayana the local deities of the people became bodhisattvas and guardians of the Dharma. Mahayana and Vajrayana is much more flexible in its interpretation and has an emphasis on using every possible resource to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, in this lifetime.

  4. Curtis J. Pratt says:

    Your interest in Buddhism is an inspiration of religion. I am a Christian and share your sense of spirit for what you have for your niche. The education you share with us is one of value. My special other shares a slight interest in Buddhist practices, and is always trying to educate herself, and find herself spiritually.

    Thank you for your hard work,
    Curtis J. Pratt

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Curtis,

      Thanks for your kind words. Have you shared my site with your significant other? I think she would find the articles interesting.

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