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Buddhist Schools in Brief

The Meaning of 'School'

The word 'school' when it is applied to Buddhism is a rather loose term. Basically it refers to the distinct beliefs and practices of a particular form of Buddhism. There are several such 'schools' or 'traditions' each of which have their own beliefs and practices. The teachings of the Buddha are common to each of these schools, though one school might give especial emphasis to one aspect of the Buddha's teaching more than another. The first distinct school was Theravada Buddhism out of which grew Mahayana. Out of Mahayana came Zen and Pure Land, two quite different traditions. When a new school emerged, it didn't mean the old one faded away. Instead, the new school became independent and lived alongside what had preceded it. So, today, Theravada, Mahayana, Pure Land, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are all thriving schools of Buddhism.


This is the earliest form of Buddhism. 'Thera' means old and 'vada' means school; the word is sometimes translated as 'The Teaching of the Elders'. Its main scriptures are contained in the Pali canon, which was written down in the first century BCE. This contains the essential teachings of the Buddha, rules for monastic life and philosophical and psychological analyses. Through the sangha (the Buddhist community of monks and nuns), the basic doctrines and practices are preserved. Both samatha and vipassana are practiced within this school but there is more emphasis on the latter. The emphasis in Theravada Buddhism is on perfecting one's life and thereby reaching enlightenment, often referred to as the 'arahant ideal'. There are Theravada communities throughout the world but this form of Buddhism is culturally dominant in Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand.


This school of Buddhism developed out of the Theravada between 100 BCE and 100 CE. It regarded the Theravada school as 'the lesser vehicle' (Hinayana) and themselves as 'the Great Vehicle' (Mahayana). They regarded the arahant ideal as a selfish act and replaced it with the Bodhisattva ideal. In this is the idea that one's primary objective is not to win enlightenment for oneself but to help all sentient beings first. Although compassion is a key virtue in all schools of Buddhism, in the Mahayana tradition it gains particular prominence. Out of compassion, the Bodhisattva finds the best means possible to capture the hearts of people and lead them to nibbana, postponing his own entry time and time again. The role of Bodhisattvas then became more and more significant as Mahayana developed. Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, became a particular focus for veneration.

The Mahayana school also extended the idea of not self (anatta) to a more comprehensive idea of 'emptiness' (sunyata) , the idea that all phenomena is lacking what might be termed a self, soul or essence. To see emptiness is to see reality. Another radical departure was the development of the Three Body Doctrine (Trikaya).

This saw the Buddha as having three manifestations. First there is the Appearance Body (Nirmanakaya) which refers to the historical Buddha, except that he is seen less as a flesh and blood figure and more as a manifestation of compassion. Secondly, there is the Enjoyment Body (Samboghakaya). This is the Buddha who appears in his own Buddha land for the enjoyment of Bodhisattvas. Lastly, there is the Dharma Body (Dharmakaya) which sees the Buddha as the embodiment of ultimate reality. The main scriptures, written in Sanskrit, are a range of sutras including, most significantly, The Lotus Sutra, The Heart Sutra and The Diamond Sutra. As with Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism is practiced around the world but perhaps finds its strongest expression in Japan.

Pure Land

This school of Buddhism arose in China in about the fifth century CE, later spreading to Japan.. The starting point were the Sukhavativyuha scriptures which described a Western Paradise (Sukhavati) or Pure Land. The aspiration of Pure Land Buddhists is to obtain rebirth in the Pure Land, presided over by Amitabha Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light). Faith in Amitabha is demonstrated through the recitation of the following mantra: Namu Amida Butsu ('Hail to Amitabha Buddha'). It is believed that recitation of this mantra ten times with genuine faith will guarantee entry into the Pure Land on death.


The words Ch'an in China and Zen in Japanese derive from the Sanskrit word 'dhyana' meaning meditation. It's not surprising that meditation is a prime characteristic of this school of Buddhism. The founder of Zen was Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who traveled to China in the sixth century CE. The stories about Bodhidharma are larger than life. One story has it that he cut off his eyelids to stop himself falling asleep in meditation! For Bodhidharma, the experiential dimension was the most important so we find in Zen Buddhism a rejection of the scriptures for more direct methods of gaining insight. This included giving much more emphasis to the master and disciple relationship. Traditionally, Zen masters have used koans (riddles that have no logical answer; for example, What was your face before your parents were born? ) and mondos (questions and answers) which, as with koans, defy logic. The idea behind these is to jolt the mind out of its habitual thought processes into satori (a flash of insight in to the true nature of reality). The idea is to let the pure mind, the Buddha nature within, reveal itself. The practice of sitting meditation ( zazen) is seen as crucial to this process. It is often referred to as 'just sitting', just letting be rather than trying to become.

There are two major schools of Zen, Rinzai and Soto. The former, named eponymously after Rinzai Roku, was founded in the ninth century. It favors 'sudden enlightenment' methods and makes much use of the mondo and koan. Soto, founded by Dogen in the early twelfth century, places more emphasis on zazen.


Buddhism did not reach Tibet until about the middle of the seventh century CE. The impact of Padmasambhava, an Indian saint, was substantial but Buddhism failed to gain a permanent foothold until the eleventh century. In time four distinct schools of Tibetan developed, Nyingma-pa, Kagyu-pa, Sakya-pa, and Gelug-pa (pa meaning school). The Nyingma-pa or 'Old School' stems from Padmasambhava and relies on very early esoteric scriptures known as tantras. In this school there is a good deal of emphasis placed on meditation. The Kagyu-pa ('speech school'), as its translation suggests, is an oral tradition which is very much concerned with the experiential dimension of meditation.

Its most famous exponent was Milarepa, an eleventh century mystic who meditated for many years in ice-cold Tibetan mountain caves before eventually reaching enlightenment. The Sakya school (meaning 'tawny earth' and derived from a monastery of the same name) very much represents the scholarly tradition. It was founded in 1073 CE by a layman named Konchol Gyelpo. The Gelug ('virtuous ones') school emerged in the fourteenth century and was founded by Tsongkhapa who was renowned for both his scholasticism and his virtue. Followers of the Gelug school are also sometimes referred to as 'the yellow hats' (in contrast to 'the red hats' of the Nyingma school).

The Dalai Lama heads the Gelug school and is regarded as the embodiment of Chenrezig, The Bodhisattva of Compassion (the equivalent of Avalokitesvara). He is therefore regarded as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. However, he also has a political role which has become even more significant since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama's subsequent exile since 1959. In many ways, Tibetan Buddhism represents the blossoming of the seeds sown in Mahayana Buddhism with its emphasis on compassion and the Bodhisattva ideal. Tibetan is both rich in history and practice. In addition to meditation, other practices include devotion to one's guru, visualizations, prostrations, mandalas and mantras.

Timeline of the Spread of Buddhism

The Major Buddhist Traditions - Comparison









Overall Goal

Cultivate moral virtue and compassion  and pursue enlightenment

Venerate and respect bodhisattvas and cultivate wisdom and understanding

Learn the nature of the universe through the medium of the body

Highest State

Arhat "Worthy One," a liberated being who has followed the Buddha into nirvana but who does not teach the Dharma

Bodhisattva "One who bound for enlightenment," a compassionate being who assists others in quest of nirvana

Siddha "Accomplished Person," a fully trained and learned practitioner of the preceptors teachings

View of Liberation

Difficult, but possible after many births and only for monks/nuns

Less difficult because of the assistance of the bodhisattvas, but still normally out of reach of ordinary people

Possible for all in this lifetime with proper training in the ritual and magical techniques of tantric practice

Celestial Beings/ Deities

Not emphasized, but sometimes admitted

Focused on the divine bodhisattva figure who helps others achieve  enlightenment

Many deities along with bodhisattvas who can assist ordinary humans

Distinctive Ritual Practices

Insight meditation & Ritual Donations (dana); less emphasis on ritual

Prayers, meditation, devotional rites 

Visualization meditation, yogic postures, chanting, ritual diagrams (mandalas)

Major Texts

Tipitaka (Pali)

Perfection of Wisdom Texts (Sanskrit/ Chinese)

Tantras (Sanskrit/ Tibetan)

Role of Laity

Support monastic community and strive to be like them

Not different in kind from that of monks/nuns but different in degree

Not fully distinguishable from monastic community

Role of Monks/ Nuns

Discover the reality of the world and preach the dharma to all

Serve the lay community and all people; intercede

More advanced lay people take on higher training and levels

Transfer of Merit

Possible, but the burden for liberation is on the individual

Well-developed process demonstrating compassion and wisdom

Possible through deities and buddha-beings, but less developed than Mahayana

View of the Buddha

Historical human being like any other, but who has now passed beyond our world leaving only Dharma behind; saint

Series of semi-divine beings unlike most humans who still maintain a presence in this world; savior

Semi-divine being who embodies the Truth of the universe and is active in our world; incarnate Reality

Geographic Areas

Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, etc.

China, Japan, Korea

Tibet; Mongolia


For more in-depth information on the Buddhist Schools, continue to: Buddhist Schools 2

Continue to: Buddhist Schools 2
Or to:
Zen Sayings

Return to:
Buddhism Introduction

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Last updated: 07/11/09

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