Buddhism is a path of practice where one changes himself in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness, and wisdom. Its essence is the attainment of enlightenment.
Its goal of enlightenment continues to attract followers all over the globe. But one thing that interests or confuses a beginner of Buddhism is that there are so many different forms of Buddhism in the world.
People in the West tend to think that the Dalai Lama is like the Pope of the Buddhist church, where he represents the whole of Buddhism. But, the truth is that he is the head of one of four major schools in Tibetan Buddhism, and the titular head of the Tibetan people.
In his 45-year teaching career, the Buddha taught to a wide variety of people. After his death, his teachings spread to different Asian lands and cultures. In turn, the local people adopted those aspects that resonated harmoniously with their own indigenous beliefs.
Because of this, many types of Buddhism developed but retained the most essential features of the teachings. However, each branch has its own unique approach and style.
Here are the 5 main types of Buddhism:
1. Theravada Buddhism: The School Of The Elders
Theravada is believed to be the oldest and most conservative form of Buddhism. They have strict rules that govern meditation practice wherein new teachings aren’t usually accepted into the practice.
It’s also called the “School of the Elders” because its practices are from the earliest Buddhist teachings. Their traditions also focus on life events of the Buddha.
“From a Buddhist perspective happiness and joy do not depend on outer conditions, which change constantly, but on the experiencer of all phenomena — mind itself.” Lama Ole Nydahl, Buddha and Love
They adhere to the oldest surviving recorded sayings of the Buddha which is known as the Pali Canon. The teachings are written in the ancient Indian language Pali found in both Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism.
The aim of Theravada Buddhism is to become a fully awakened being through the help of contemplation of sutras, and following the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: right vision, right emotion, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation.
It teaches about cause and effect (karma) and pacifying meditations to create distance from difficult thoughts and feelings. It also emphasizes the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Mindful meditation is done by focusing on the breath and the sensations in the body while sitting. It also focuses on the movements and intentions to move while walking extremely slowly.
This mindfulness technique makes one aware of the arising and falling of each moment. In turn, one realizes that there is no permanent, unchanging self that exists independently of everything and everyone else.
With this practice, one gains an understanding of reality. You will be liberated from self-centered concern and the unhappiness it brings.
This type of Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism today in Sri Lanka as well as Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Theravada monks study and chant the Buddhist scriptures and perform ritual ceremonies for the public.
(I recently distilled everything I know about Buddhism and eastern philosophy into a practical, down-to-earth guide to living a better life. Check it out here).
2. Mahayana Buddhism
Mahayana Buddhism is the most popular branch of Buddhism today especially in Nepal, Japan, China, Tibet, and Korea.
Mahayana means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit as a reference to the teaching of the bodhisattva, a person who has become awakened.
It is a philosophical movement which proclaimed the possibility of universal salvation, offering assistance to practitioners in the form of compassionate beings called bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are people who have the ability to access nirvana, the state beyond suffering. However, they choose to delay their nirvana to guide and teach others.
The goal of Mahayana Buddhism is to open up the possibility of becoming a Buddha to everyone. They interpret the Buddha as a transcendent figure who all could aspire to become.
Mahayana’s teachings and meditations aim to gradually increase compassion and wisdom. It attracts people whose primary motivation in life is to be useful to others.
This type of Buddhism believes that anyone can become a bodhisattva and bodhisattvas work to help others achieve freedom from suffering.
In contrast to the conservative nature of Theravada, Mahayana tradition allows for new teachings outside the Pali canon. Some of their popular sutras are the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra.
3. Pure Land Buddhism
Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the veneration of Amitābha Buddha, a celestial buddha representing pure perception and a deep awareness of emptiness.
Pure Land developed out of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. But while Mahayana believes that its goal is liberation into Nirvana, Pure Land sees its goal as a rebirth into “Pure Land” from which Nirvana is but a short step away.
The teachings focus on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The primary practice common to all schools of Pure Land is the recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha.
Pure Lands are understood in many ways such as a state of mind cultivated through practice, or a real place. Within a Pure Land, the dharma is proclaimed everywhere, and enlightenment is easily realized.
A Pure Land is not a final destination. It is a location from which rebirth into Nirvana is thought to be an easy step. But it is still possible to miss the opportunity and go on to other rebirths back into the lower realms of samsara.
The followers believed that achieving the liberation of nirvana through a life of monastic austerity is very difficult for most people. So, they rejected the “self-effort” emphasized by the early Buddhist teachings.
Instead, they believe that the ideal is a rebirth in a Pure Land, where nothing can interfere with the devoted practice of the Buddha’s teachings. By the grace of Amitabha’s compassion, the people reborn in a Pure Land find themselves only a short step from Nirvana.
This is the reason why Pure Land became popular with laypeople because the practice and the promise are more achievable.
4. Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism is headed by the Dalai Lama. It combines the essential teachings of Mahayana Buddhism with Tantric (Vajrayana) and Shamanic, and material from an ancient Tibetan religion called Bon.
It follows the following six features:
- the status of the teacher or “Lama”
- preoccupation with the relationship between life and death
- the important role of rituals and initiations
- rich visual symbolism
- elements of earlier Tibetan faiths
- mantras and meditation practice
Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the study about the nature of the mind, the emotions and reality. It encourages logic and debate, carried out in conjunction with intense meditation on these topics.
5. Vajrayana Buddhism
Vajrayana is one of the most unique types of Buddhism. It is special because of its approach to rapid Enlightenment through the use of tantras. And because of the intense application needed for many Vajrayana Buddhist practices, they only accept advanced teachers and students.
It is an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism and it teaches about the mind itself. These direct teachings that Buddha gave are for those who have a special kind of confidence.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, the Buddha is not considered a person. He is considered a mirror to your own mind. Its teachings point out the mind’s perfect qualities directly.
Buddhism is a system based on practice and individual experience rather than on theology or dogma. That is why there are many types of Buddhism. However, it is all Buddhism and it all has the same taste of freedom.
Although Buddhism has evolved into different forms, it remained relevant to the different cultures in which it exists. In fact, it has been reinterpreted over the centuries so that it can remain relevant to each new generation.
Many types of Buddhism exists but at the center of all of them is the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. And even if they have split into different schools and sects, they never have gone to war with each other.
Instead, they practice tolerance and understanding – they could go to each other’s temples and worship together.
NEW EBOOK: If you liked reading this article, check out our new eBook The No-Nonsense Guide to Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy. This is Hack Spirit’s #1 selling book and is a highly practical, down-to-earth introduction to essential Buddhist teachings. No confusing jargon. No fancy chanting. No strange lifestyle changes. Just an easy-to-follow guide for improving your health and happiness through eastern philosophy. Check it out here.
You may also like reading:
Sign up to Hack Spirit's daily emails
Learn how to reduce stress, cultivate healthy relationships, handle people you don't like and find your place in the world.