Branches of Buddhism

By Glenda | May 1, 2014

There are two main branches of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada, both formed after the Buddha’s death. Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism share the same core beliefs and devotion to the life and teaching of Buddha. Both share the common basic Buddhist teachings of Four Noble Truths, Eightfold path, etc., but they do have some differences.

The Theravada branch, the more conservative school, also called the “doctrine of the elders,” maintains that an individual is responsible for his or her own enlightenment. Students are encouraged to value personal experience and critical thinking over doctrine. Students meditate and focus on releasing bad habits and attaining personal enlightenment. The main emphasis is self liberation. There are no priests. Devout monks live in monasteries where they study the words and deeds of Buddha and strive to live pure lives to achieve enlightenment which they believe comes gradually. The Theravāda Path starts with learning, to be followed by practice. The doctrine involves “Teaching of Analysis” which says that insight must come from application of knowledge and critical reasoning to the aspirant’s own experience. Evaluation of one’s own experiences, as well as careful consideration of the practices of other wise ones, form the basis of growth. There are some rituals, but these are not heavily emphasized.

The Mahayana branch of Buddhism, also called the “greater vehicle,” incorporates many more teachings, practices, and rituals. It holds that besides self liberation, it is important for Mahayana followers to help other sentient beings to achieve enlightenment. This branch also maintains that spiritual growth can be nurtured through the help of others, including a bodhisattva (bodi means “wise” and sattva means “being”), and many Boddhisattvas are revered (Only one Boddhisatva is recognized in the Theravada tradition.) A Bodhisatva is one so full of compassion that he or she will not enter into a state of nirvana until others can enter with him. Owing to local cultural influences, there is much more emphasis on the use of rituals, including mantras, chanting, etc.

Other branches stem from the Mahayanas, including Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism.

Vajrayana, also known as the “Diamond Vehicle” was originally influenced greatly by Hinduism, and contains strong ritual and yogic practices.

Tibetan Buddhism combines aspects of Vajrayana, such as the use of rituals and ritualistic tools, with some other Mahayana traditions. The esoteric practice of teachers giving energetic initiations or attunements in place of theoretical teachings is common. The most distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhism is tantra. This is most simply translated as “a means to enlightenment through identity with tantric deities.”

Zen is the form of Buddhism first developed in Japan. The most basic practice of Zen is a mindful, silent meditation practice called zazen in Japanese. Zen de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine and favors direct understanding through zazen as well as direct interaction with an accomplished teacher.

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