The Principal Spiritual Traditions of Buddhism

As Buddhsim spread through Asia, the teachings came to be interpreted in different ways, and distinct practices became associated with the different "schools" that evolved. Although the schools found today do reflect unique beliefs and practices, they all share the fundamental teachings of the Buddha as outlined in the Fundamentals section of DharmaNet's Learning Center.

It is common to see the Buddhist traditions presented as three main "schools" — Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism). Although these categories have a useful purpose, they also oversimplify the distinctions between traditions and obscure the connections between all the traditions. With that caveat in mind, we present an introductiom to Buddhist traditions using this formula.

Understanding the history of the movement of Buddhism will help you understand how the various traditions evolved as they merged with the indiginous belief systems Buddhism encountered as it spread. See the History section of DharmaNet's Learning Center for this story; here we describe the traditions as they exist today.


Theravadan ("Doctrine of the Elders") Buddhism traces its rooots to the earliest traditions of Buddhism, beginning with the original Sangha of the Buddha. Today's Theravadan Buddhists consider their tradition to be the only surviving representative of the earliest schools of Buddhism.

Theravadan Buddhists accept the earliest collected teachings of the Buddha, the Pail Canon, as the true authoritative Dharma. (Pali was a language used during the Buddha's lifetime.) While the suttas (teachings) of the Pali Canon are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism, we shall see that other traditions recognize other teachings as well as authentic.

Theravadan Buddhismh has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka and continental Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar and Thailand). It is also found in parts of southwest China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, as well as in Malaysia and Indonesia. Theravadan Buddhism is growing today in Singapore and in the West.

Theravadans maintain that the ideal Buddhist is the “one who is worthy” (Sanskrit: arhat; Pali: arahant), the perfected person who attains nirvana through his own efforts. Although the Theravadan arhat “takes refuge in the Buddha,” his focus is on the practice of the Buddha's dhamma. The role of the monastic and layperson are clearly differentiated by the Theravadans, with monks who withdraw from the world seen as those who may become arhants, with laypeople . . .

The contemporary Theravadan monastic tradition includes both Pali scholarship as well as a meditative practices. In traditional Asian Theravadan cultures th role oflay Buddhists role is to support the monastic community which is working toward arahantship. While scholars may be found in the large monasteries of the Asian Theravadan countries, meditators often continue the tradition of "forest monks" from the Buddha's time.

Theravadans profoundly revere the historical Buddha as a perfected master but do not pay homage to the numerous buddhas and bodhisattvas that are worshiped in the Mahayana.

Vipassana in the West

in the modern West a new form of Theravadan lay practice centered on meditation practice has taken root. Often refered to as Vipassana or insight meditation, this form of Theravadan practice was brought to the west by Westerners who trained in Thailand, Burma and India with teachers such as Mahasi Saydaw and Ajahn Chah. As well, traditional Theravadan monasteries can be found in most Western countries, serving the Asian communities now living in the West.

As taught in the West, insight meditation does not teach a system of beliefs but rather teaches tehniques for seeing clearly into the nature of the mind. Insight meditation refers to practices for the mind that develop calm (samatha) through sustained attention, and insight (vipassana) through reflection. A fundamental technique for sustaining attention is focusing awareness on the body; traditionally, this is practised while sitting or walking. In addition to practices of mindfulness, loving-kindness meditation (metta bhavana) is plays an important role in contemporary Theravadan practice.

For more on Thervada see the Learning Center's Theravada study pages.


Historically, Mahayana Buddhism has been practiced in the Far East and in North Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia. Today many Mahayana traditions are taking root in the West.

Mahayana refers to a movement that occurred in the first century C.E., self-described as the "great vehicle" to distinguish itself from the Thervadan schools (which they disaparagionly referred to as the "lesser vehicle" or hinayana.) While there is much debate regarding how different the two movement really are, we list here a few of the generally agreed upon distintions (recognizing that each of these is open to interpretation).

  • Mahayana Buddhists, like Theravadans, recognize the Pali Canon as sacred scripture, they also recognize many sutras (sutras in Pali) written later in Sanskrit.
  • While for Theravadan Buddhists the the ultimate purpose of life is to strive to become an arhant, an aspiration suitable only to monks and nuns, Mahayana Buddhists aspire to become boddhisatvas, saints who have become enlightened but who unselfishly delay nirvana to help others attain it as well, as the Buddha did.

    The paths for attaining these goals also differ, with Mahayana Buddhists teaching that enlightenment can be accomplished even by a layperson and can be attained in a single lifetime. (Different Mahayana schools teach different paths to the attaiment of this goal.)
  • In Mahayana, the supreme practice is that of Bodhicitta, or the Bodhi Heart.
  • Some Mahayana traditions tends to be more religious in nature than Theravadan, practiing ceremonies, religious rituals, magical rites, veneration of celestial beings, Buddhas and boddhisatvas, and the use of icons, images, and other sacred objects. Again such a generalization can not encompass the Mahayana's range of practices, which range from Tibetan Tantric Buddhism's elaborate rituals and religious ceremony to Zen practitioners spare practice orientation and frequent outright rejection of such elements.

It is worth noting here that although both the Thervadan and Mahayana assert that their's is the more authentic form of teachings of the Buddha, they peacefully worked together in the great learning monasteries such as Nalanda. And today we are beginning to see bridges growing between the three "schools."

The Mahaya movement of 2000 years ago has led to a wide range of practices, and the Mahayana traditions of today are known by the traditions that evolved in places such as Tibet, China and Japan, rather than as "Mahayana." In DharmaNet's Learning Center you can learn about several sects and schools within the Mahayana tradition:


Zen stresses the prime importance of the enlightenment experience, which is indefinable, incommunicable, free from all forms and concepts. The authenticity of the enlightenment experience can only be tested by an enlightened. The general practice of Zen is to point directly at one's mind with just a few hint and force one to become enlightened instantly. From this point of view it can be seen that the Zen practice depends on no words and emphasizes no setting up of words and letters.

Zen also teaches the practice of zazen, sitting in meditative absorption as the shortest but also the steepest way to awakening. Zen meditation quiets the mind of all conceptual thought so that the pure nature of the mind as compassionate and endowed with wisdom will shine forth.

Pure Land traditions

The Pure Land tradition emphasizes recitation of the name of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, as a method for going to his Pure Land of Happiness, a type of paradise in which everything is conducive for becoming a Buddha.


Also called New Lotus school, Nicheren Buddhism is based on the Lotus Sutra, the title of which alone, according to its founder, Nichiren, contains the essence of the Buddhist teachings. The practice advocated by Nichiren consists in reciting the formula, "Veneration to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law" (Jap., Namu myoho renge-kyo). If this formula of veneration is recited with complete devotion, through it buddhahood can be realized in an instant.

See the Learning Center's Mahayana study pages. >>>


Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana are oten lumped together and mistakenly confused. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in Tibet and the Himalayan region beginning in the 7th century C.E. It combines Mahayana philosophy, meditation, Tantric symbolic rituals, Theravadan monastic discipline and the shamanism of the indigenous religion, Bon. Tibetan Buddhism is, then, a form of Mahayana Buddhism that inorporates the practice of tantra (Vajrayna).

The Vajrayana or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric or esoteric Buddhism) shares many of the basic concepts of Mahayana, but also includes a vast array of spiritual techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. One component of the Vajrayana is harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing profoundly powerful states of concentration and awareness. These profound states are in turn to be used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime. In addition to the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, Vajrayana Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras.

In the Tibetan scheme of Buddhism the Vajrayana is the third and highest of the three "yanas"—Hinayana (roughly equivelant to Theravada), Mahayana and Vajrayana. However this hierarchy is not shared by Mahayana Buddhists such as Zen practitioners or by Theravadan Buddhists.

See the Learning Center for more on Vajrayana.