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Buddhist Schools

The Theravada - The Teaching of The Elders

In the Buddhist countries of southern Asia, there never arose any serious differences on the fundamentals of Buddhism. All these countries - Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, have accepted the principles of the Theravada school and any differences there might be between the various schools is restricted to minor matters.

The earliest available teachings of the Buddha are to be found in Pali literature and belongs to the school of the Theravadins, who may be called the most orthodox school of Buddhism. This school admits the human characteristics of the Buddha, and is characterised by a psychological understanding of human nature; and emphasises a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness. The teaching of the Buddha according to this school is very plain. He asks us to 'abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind'. These can be accomplished by The Three Trainings: the development of ethical conduct, meditation and insight -wisdom.

The philosophy of this school is that all worldly phenomena are subject to three characteristics - they are impermanent and transient; unsatisfactory and that there is nothing in them which can be called one's own, nothing substantial, nothing permanent. All compounded things are made up of two elements - the non-material part and the material part. They are further described as consisting of nothing but five constituent groups, namely the material quality, and the four non-material qualities - sensations, perception, mental formatives and consciousness. When that perfected state of insight is reached, i.e. Nibanna, that person is a 'worthy person' an Arhat. The life of the Arhat is the ideal of the followers of this school, a life where all (future) birth is at an end, where the holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to the worldly life'.

Areas where Theravada Buddhism spread


The Mahayana - The Great Vehicle

The Mahayana is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools, from the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) well represented in Tibet and Nepal to the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha, longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace, which are found in China, Korea and Japan. Ch'an and Zen Buddhism, of China and Japan, are meditation schools.

It is generally accepted, that what we know today as the Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghikas sect who were the earliest seceders, and the forerunners of the Mahayana. They took up the cause of their new sect with zeal and enthusiasm and in a few decades grew remarkably in power and popularity. They adapted the existing monastic rules and thus revolutionised the Buddhist Order of Monks. Moreover, they made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. And they rejected certain portions of the canon, which had been accepted in the First Council. According to it, the Buddhas are lokottara (supramundane) and are connected only externally with the worldly life. This conception of the Buddha contributed much to the growth of the Mahayana philosophy. The ideal of the Mahayana school is that of the Bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her own enlightenment in order to compassionately assist all other beings and ultimately attains to the highest Bodhi.


Mahayana Lineages Imported from India - Chinese Buddhism

Madhyamika (San Lun, Ch.) Based on the Chinese translation of Nagarjuna's (second century) Madhyamika Karika and two other works of uncertain authorship, this lineage emphasized the notion of shunyata (emptiness) and wu (nonbeing). So rigorous was the teaching of this lineage, that it declared that the elements constituting perceived objects, when examined, are really no more than mental phenonena and have no true existence.

Yogacara Founded in the third century by Maitreyanatha and made famous by Asanga and Vasubandhu in the fourth or fifth century, this school held that the source of all ideas is vijρana ("consciousness"), which is seen as the fundamental basis of existence. Ultimate Reality is therefore only perceived but has not real existence.

Indigenous Mahayana Lineages

T'ien T'ai Named after the mountains on which the founder Zhi Yi (d. 597 C.E.) resided, this lineage is based on a scheme of classification intended to integrate and harmonize the vast array of Buddhist scriptures and doctrines. This scheme of classification is based on the Buddhist doctrine of upaya ("skilful means"). The most important form of Buddhism for this lineage is the Mahayana devotionalism found in the Lotus Sutra.

Avatamsaka (Hua Yen, Ch.) This lineage takes its name from the Avatamsaka Sutra, its central sacred text, and like the T'ien T'ai school is oriented towards a classification of sutras. Basic to this lineage is the assertion that all particulars are merely manifestations of the absolute mind and are therefore fundamentally the same.

Pure Land (Amitabha) Based on the Sukhavati Vyuha ("Pure Land Sutra"), this lineage was founded in 402 C.E. by Hui Yuan. The Pure Land lineage held that the spiritual quality of the world has been in decline since its height during the lifetime of the Buddha and taught followers to cultivate through prayer and devotion a sincere intent to be reborn in the heavenly paradise of the Buddha Amitabha.

Ch'an Its name is derived from the Sanskrit term dhyana (meditation), this lineage emphasises meditation as the only means to a spiritual awakening beyond words or thought, dispensing almost entirely with the teachings and practices of traditional Buddhism. Ch'an is thought to have been brought to China by the enigmatic South Indian monk Bodhidharma in about the year 500 C.E.

Areas where Mahayana Buddhism spread


The Vajrayana - The Thunderbolt Vehicle

This is the kind of Buddhism predominant in the Himalayan nations of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and also Mongolia. It is known as Vajrayana because of the ritual use of the vajra, a symbol of imperishable diamond, of thunder and lightning. At the center of Tibetan Buddhism is the religious figure called the lama, Tibetan for "guru"," source of another of its names, Lamaism. Several major lineages of lamas developed, beginning in the ninth century with the Nyingma-pa. Two centuries later, Sarma-pa divided into the Sakya -pa and the Kagyu-pa. Three hundred years later, one of Tibet's revered lamas, Tsong-kha-pa, founded the reforming Gelug -pa.

Tibetan Buddhist Lineages

• Nyingma-pa Tracing its origin to the Indian adept, Guru Padma-sambhava, who came to Tibet in 817 C.E. at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen (742-797) in order to subdue the evil forces then impeding the spread of Buddhism. This lineage of Buddhism is uniquely Tibetan in that many aspects of the traditional Bon religion are mixed together with more properly Buddhist beliefs and practices to form a unique expression of Buddhist piety. This lineage emphasizes the move towards more advance stages of enlightenment through "preliminary practice" that comprises the beliefs and practices of Buddhism before the advent of Tantra, and through the "higher practices," which involve the attainment of enlightenment through the chanting of magical spells, special hand gestures and mystical diagrams.

• Sakya-pa The lineage has descended intact up to the present time from Khon K φnchok Gyelpo(1034-1102), founder of the Sakya tradition. From the doctrinal point of view the tradition traces its origins to the Indian Yogin Virupa through Gayadhara. His disciple Drogmi Shakya Yeshe (992-1074) travelled to India where he received teachings on the Kalachakra, the Path and its Fruit, and others from many Indian masters and returned to Tibet. Later, Khon K φnchok Gyelpo, one of his main disciples, built a monastery in the Tsang province of central Tibet and named it Sakya, or Grey Earth monastery. So the school took its name, Sakya, from the location of the monastery. Succession to the position of head of the Sakya tradition has been hereditary since the time of Khon K φnchok Gyelpo. The present incumbent is the 4lst occupant of the Sakya Throne. The central teaching and practice of the Sakya -pa, called Lamdre (Lam-bras), the Path and Its Fruit, ultimately leads a practitioner to the state of Hevajra. The Path and Its Fruit is a synthesis of the entire paths and fruits of both the exoteric and esoteric classes of teachings.

• Kagyu-pa The lineages of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism derive primarily from two sources: Marpa Chφkyi Lodro (1012-1099) and Khyungpo Nyaljor (978 -1079). Marpa received the lineage of tantric teachings called the Four Commissioned Lineages - concerning the Illusory Body and Consciousness Transference, Dreams, Clear Light, and Inner Heat directly from Naropa (1016-1100), who had been given them by his teacher Tilopa (988-1069). Mahamudra, the unique feature of Kagyu tradition, can be explained according to interpretations of sutra and tantra. Both aspects of the teachings are aimed at direct understanding of the real nature of the mind. The approach to Mahamudra, which differs slightly within each Kagyu school, generally follows through the stages of foundation, path and fruit. Tantric practices unique to Kagyu tradition are the Six Yogas of Naropa, Chakrasambhava and Mahakala. In the context of tantric practice, the application of Mahamudra becomes much more profound and sophisticated. The Karma Kagyu was founded by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110 -1193). This tradition has remained strong and successful due in large part to the presence of an unbroken line of reincarnations of the founder, the successive Karmapas.

• Gelug-pa Founded by Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419) as a reform movement within Tibetan Buddhism, followers acclaimed the third teacher as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, thus inaugurating the line of the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth and most recent of whom was born in 1935. Emphasis in this lineage is on a strict monastic discipline and on the conviction that the bodhisattva, a Buddha who has foregone final nirvana out of compassion for all sentient beings, is continually present. This tradition remains dynamic even after coming into exile. The major Gelug monasteries, Sera, Drepung, Ganden, and Tashi Lhunpo monasteries and Gyumey Tantric College have been re -established in various Tibetan settlements in Karnataka, and Gyut φ Tantric College has been reestablished in Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh, all in India.

H.H. The Dalai Lama

Tibetan Buddhist Traditions:

NYINGMA (Old School; School of the Ancient Ones)
• FOUNDER: Padmasambhava 9th century
• LINEAGES: Mindroling, Palyul, Dorje Trak, Shechen, Dzogchen, Kathok
• CENTRAL TEACHINGS: Kama and Terma; Nyin-Thig
• MAIN TANTRIC PRACTICE: 3 Innermost Tantras = Mahayoga/Anuyoga/Atiyoga (Dzogchen)
• HEAD OF NYINGMA: H.H. Penor Rinpoche
• LITERARY WORKS: Tibetan Book of the Dead, Rin-chen Ter-dzod
• LAMAS: Sogyal Rinpoche (Rigpa), Chagdud Tulku and Chagdud Khandro, Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche

SAR (New Translation Schools)
• FOUNDERS: Marpa & Gampopa 1077-1152; Naropa 1016-1100
• LINEAGES: Karma / Tsalpa / Baram/ Phagmo
• CENTRAL TEACHING: Mahamudra (Anuttarayogatantra)
• MAIN TANTRIC PRACTICE: Six Yogas of Naropa/Cakrasambhava/Mahakala
• HEAD OF KAGYU: H.H. XV11 Karmapa
• LITERARY WORKS: Jewel Ornament of Liberation
• LAMAS : HE Tai Situ, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche
SAKYA (School that came from the monastery with grey earth walls)
• FOUNDER: Khon Konchok Gyelpo 1034-1102
• LINEAGES: Ngor, Tsarpa, Ngorpa
• MAIN TANTRIC PRACTICE: (Anuttarayogatantra) Hevajra/Mahakala/Chakrasambhava
• HEADS OF SAKYA TRADITION: Ngawang Kunga / Sakya Trizin
• LAMAS: H.E. Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
• LITERARY WORKS: Discrimination of the 3 vows/Treasury of Logic on Valid Cognition
and works of Gorampa Sonam Sengey and others.

GELUGPA (School that came from Gaden Monastery)
• FOUNDERS: Atisha 982-1054, Tsongkhapa 1355-1417
• LINEAGES: Gaden, Gyume, Drepung, Sera, Tashi Lhunpo and Gyuto
• CENTRAL TEACHINGS: Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, Kalachakra
• HEAD: Ven.
Ganden Tripa Rinpoche
• LAMAS: HH the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama/ Ven Yeshi Dhondup, Lama Zopa.
• LITERARY WORKS: Lam Rim / Works by Tsongkhapa


The Chinese Buddhist Schools

The Chinese possess a history of over five thousand years. An important component, which had yielded fruitful results on Chinese culture, is Indian Buddhism. One will realise this enormous influence when reading the cultural History of China. If one tries to talk about Chinese culture without touching on Buddhism, one will be in the position of a blind man as told in the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

Buddhism had been established some twenty -five centuries ago. It had been transmitted to China during the Ch'in and Han Dynasties some five hundred years after the Parinirvana of Sakyamuni Buddha. Buddhism in China had risen and fallen according to the law of constant changes during the past two thousand years. Nevertheless it had been well established in China. In the past it had not been greatly affected by the upheavals and chaos of political changes. For me the Chinese have been open-minded in their nature and have been capable of absorbing foreign culture. That is why Buddhism, when introduced into the well-cultured land of China, has flourished abundantly and developed fruitfully.

The golden age of Chinese Buddhism was from the age of the Three Kingdoms to the T'ang Dynasty. During this period the various Schools in Buddhism evolved their theories based on the doctrine of Sakyamuni Buddha.

Historically speaking the rise and fall of the various schools had been closely connected to the evolution of cultural thoughts and current events in China. For the past fifty years, the social system of China had been changed from Absolute Monarchy to Constitutional Monarchy, Republicanism and then to Socialism. Brief introduction to the ten schools of Chinese Buddhism:

The Ten Schools of Chinese Buddhism:

1. Reality School or Kosa School or Abhidharma School.

2. Satysiddhi School or Cheng-se School.

3. Three Sastra School or San-lun School.

4. The Lotus School or T'ien-t'ai School
(absorbed the Nirvana school).

5. The Garland School or Hua-yen School or Avatamsaka School.
(absorbed the Dasab-humika School and the Samparigraha -sastra school).

6. Intuitive School or Ch'an School or Dhyana School.

7. Discipline School or Lu School or Vinaya School.

8. Esoteric School or Chen-yien School or Mantra School.

9. Dharmalaksana School or Ch'u-en School or Fa-siang School.

10. Pure-land School or Sukhavati School or Ching-t'u School.

 The principles of all the above schools are based on the partial doctrine of Sakyamuni Buddha. In the beginning there were no such things as schools in Buddhism. The disciples of Buddha, however, took up what had been most beneficial and most practicable for them. Thus ten schools have evolved. Buddhism in China may also be divided into thirteen schools, but the other three have been absorbed within the ten.

The various schools may be further classified into Mahayana and Theravada; esoteric teachings and open teachings, and the easy way as contrasted to the hard way of salvation. The Kosa and Satysiddhi schools belong to Theravada whereas the other eight belong to the Mahayana. The Mantra School belongs to the esoteric teachings whereas the other nine are open teachings. The Pure-land School is the easy way of salvation as compared to the other nine schools, which are the hard way. This is just a general view of classification on the Buddhist Schools in China. (Description of the Ten Individual Chinese Schools).

Japanese Buddhist Schools

Tendai (T'ien Tai, Chinese): Founded in Japan by Saicho (d. 822 C.E.), this lineage quickly rose to prominence as the most important lineage in Japanese Buddhism. The basic doctrine of this lineage and the Chinese T'ien Tai are the same, as in their reverence for the Lotus Sutra, but Tendai differs in its emphasis on the mystical and esoteric aspects of Buddhism. The four primary categories of this lineage are (1) morality, (2) monastic discipline, (3) esoteric practices, and (4) meditation.

Shingon: Founded by Kukai (d. 835 C.E), this lineage grew to rival the Tendai lineage as early as the late ninth century. The Shingon belief system was tantric and taught that through mantras (short, repetitive incantations), meditation and the performance of hand gesture one can gain access to the power of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Jodo or Pure Land: Began at the time of the publication of the treatise of Honen (d. 1212 C.E) entitled Senchakushu, this lineage traces its scriptural heritage to the Pure Land Sutra (Sukhavati Vyuha), which prescribes loving devotion to the Buddha Amida as a means of being reborn in the Pure Land, or the paradise over which he presides. Pure Land prayer centres on the repetition on the phrase namu amida butsu ("Homage to Amida Buddha") and became one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Japan.

Joho Shinshu or True Pure Land: Founded by Shinran (d. 1262 C.E), this lineage takes Pure Land teaching one step further, claiming that humility and faith in Amida's love are in themselves true signs that the redeeming grace of the Buddha has already been bestowed. Amida Buddha seeks and saves without first requiring faith and good works. These spring up spontaneously from Amida's spiritual presence in the heart.

Nichiren: Named after its founder Nichiren (d. 1282 C.E), this lineage was founded on the Lotus Sutra and taught that the mere repetition of the title of that sutra Nam-myoho-renge-kyo ("Homage to the Lotus Sutra") was sufficient to gain one access to paradise.

• Zen (Soto and Rinzai Sects): The monk Eisai (d. 1215 C.E) is usually considered the first proponent of Zen in Japan, although Ch'an had existed since the early sixth century and probably existed also in Japan before Eisai's time. The earliest forms of Zen generally avoided intellectualism and de -emphasized scriptures, doctrines and ceremonial. Eisai, whose form of Zen took on the name of Rinzai (Lin -chi, Ch.) affirmed the authority of the traditional Buddhist scriptures and used the koan or meditational riddle as a means of transcending linear thinking. Soto Zen (Ts'ao-tung, Ch.), tracing its roots back to Dogen (d. 1253 C.E), also affirmed the validity of the Buddhist scriptures but de-emphasized the use of koans and focused solely on extended, silent meditation.

A Comparison of the Two Primary Schools

Common Ground Between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Sakayamuni Buddha is the original and historical founder of Buddhism.

The Three Universal Seals, Four Noble Truths, Eight Fold Paths and Twelve Links of Dependent Origination are the basic foundation to all schools of Buddhism including the Tibetan schools of Vajrayana.

Threefold training of Precepts, Meditation and Wisdom is universal to all schools.

Organization of the Buddhist teachings / Dharma into three classifications (Sutra, Vinaya and Sastra) is practiced among the Buddhist Canons of various countries.

Mind over matter concept. Mind as the principal area of taming and control is fundamental to all schools.


The Differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism






The Buddha

Only the historical Gautama (Sakyamuni) Buddha and past Buddhas are accepted.

Besides Sakyamuni Buddha, other contemporary Buddhas like Amitabha and Medicine Buddha are also very popular.



Only Maitreya Bodhisattva is accepted.

Avalokitesvara, Manjushri, Ksitigarbha and Samanthabadra are four very well known Bodhisattvas besides Maitreya.


Objective of training

Arahant or Pacceka Buddha.

Buddhahood (via the Bodhisattva path).


Organization of Buddhist scriptures


The Pali Canon is divided into three baskets (Tipitaka): Vinaya Pitaka of 5 books, Sutta Pitaka of 5 collections (many suttas) and Abhidhamma Pitaka of 7 books.


The Mahayana Buddhist Canon also consists of Tripitaka of disciplines, discourses (sutras) and Dharma analysis. It is usually organized in 12 divisions of topics like Cause and Conditions and Verses. It contains virtually all the Theravada Tipikata and many sutras that the latter does not have.


Concept of Bodhicitta

Main emphasis is self liberation.
There is total reliance on oneself to eradicate all defilements.

Besides self liberation, it is important for Mahayana followers to help other sentient beings.


Trikaya concept

Very limited emphasis on the 3 bodies of a Buddha. References are mainly on Nirmana-kaya and Dharma-kaya.

Very well mentioned in Mahayana Buddhism. Samboga-kaya or reward/enjoyment body completes the Trikaya concept.


Transmission route

Southern transmission: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia.

Northern transmission: Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and parts of Southeast Asia.


Language of Dharma teaching

Tipitaka is strictly in Pali. Dharma teaching in Pali supplemented by local language.

Buddhist canon is translated into the local language (except for the 5 untranslatables), e.g. Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese. Original language of transmission is Sanskrit.


(Nibbana in Pali)

No distinction is made between nirvana attained by a Buddha and that of an arahat or Pacceka Buddha.

Also known as 'liberation from Samsara,' there are subtle distinctions in the level of attainment for the three situations.


Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples

Basically historical disciples, whether Arahats or commoners.

A lot of Bodhisattvas are introduced by Sakyamuni Buddha. Most of these are not historical figures.


Rituals and liturgy

There are some rituals but not heavily emphasized as in Mahayana schools.

Owing to local cultural influences, there is much more emphasis on the use of rituals; e.g. Rituals for the deceased, feeding of Petas, Tantric formalities (in Vajrayana).


Use of Mantras and Mudras

Some equivalent in the use of Parittas.

Heavily practiced in the Vajrayana school of Mahayana Buddhism. Other schools also have included some mantras in their daily liturgy.


Dying and death aspects

Very little research and knowledge on the process of dying and death. Usually, the dying persons are advised to meditate on impermanence, suffering and emptiness.

The Vajrayana school is particularly meticulous in these areas. There are many inner and external signs manifested by people before they die. There is heavy stress in doing transference of merit practices in the immediate few weeks following death to assist in the deceased's next rebirth.



This in-between stage after death and before rebirth is ignored in Theravada school.

All Mahayana schools teach this after death aspect.


One meal a day practice

This is the norm among the Theravada Sangha.

This is a highly respected practice but it is left to the disposition of each individual in the various Sangha.



This aspect is not necessary. In places like Thailand where daily morning rounds are still practiced, it is very difficult to insist on the type of food to be donated

Very well observed in all Mahayana schools (except the Tibetans due to the geographical circumstances). However, this aspect is not compulsory.


Focus of worship in the temple

Simple layout with the image of Sakyamuni Buddha the focus of worship.

Can be quite elaborate; with a chamber/hall for Sakyamuni Buddha and two disciples, one hall for the 3 Buddhas (including Amitabha and Medicine Buddha) and one hall for the 3 key Bodhisattvas; besides the protectors, etc.


Schools/Sects of the tradition

One surviving major school following years of attrition reducing the number from as high as 18.

8 major (Chinese) schools based on the partial doctrines (sutras, sastras or vinaya) of the teachings. The four schools inclined towards practices like Pure Land/Amitabha, Ch'an, Vajrayana and Vinaya (not for lay people) are more popular than the philosophy based schools like Tien Tai, Avamtasaka, Yogacara and Madhyamika.


Non Buddhist influences

Mainly pre-Buddhism Indian/Brahmin influences. Many terms like Karma, Sangha, etc were prevailing terms during Sakyamuni Buddha's life time. References were made from the Vedas and Upanishads.

In the course of integration and adoption by the people in other civilizations, there were heavy mutual influences. In China, both Confucianism and Taoism exerted some influence on Buddhism which in turn had an impact on the indigenous beliefs. This scenario was repeated in Japan and Tibet.


Buddha nature

Absent from the teachings of the Theravada tradition.

Heavily stressed, particularly by schools inclined to these practices.

Continue to: The 10 Schools of Chinese Buddhism
Or to: Zen Sayings

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Buddhism Introduction

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