Schools of Buddhism

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Representatives from the three major modern Buddhist traditions, at The World Fellowship of Buddhists, 27th General Conference, 2014.

The schools of Buddhism are the various institutional and doctrinal divisions of Buddhism that have existed from ancient times up to the present. The classification and nature of various doctrinal, philosophical or cultural facets of the schools of Buddhism is vague and has been interpreted in many different ways, often due to the sheer number (perhaps thousands) of different sects, subsects, movements, etc. that have made up or currently make up the whole of Buddhist traditions. The sectarian and conceptual divisions of Buddhist thought are part of the modern framework of Buddhist studies, as well as comparative religion in Asia.

From a largely English-language standpoint, and to some extent in most of Western academia, Buddhism is separated into two groups: Theravāda, literally "the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching," and Mahāyāna, literally the "Great Vehicle." The most common classification among scholars is threefold: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna.


Map showing the three major Buddhist divisions
Districtwise Buddhist population percentage, India census 2011. India's West-centre area Maharashtra shows Navayana Buddhist population
Percentage of Buddhists by country, according to the Pew Research Center.

In contemporary Buddhist studies, modern Buddhism is often divided into three major branches, traditions or categories:[1][2][3][4]

A fourth branch is sometimes included as well:

  • Navayāna ("new vehicle"), also called "Bhimayana", "Neo Buddhism" or "Ambedkarite Buddhism", mainly dominant in Maharashtra, India. It refers to the re-interpretation of Buddhism by B. R. Ambedkar.[5][6] Ambedkar was born in a Dalit (untouchable) family during the colonial era of India, studied abroad, became a Dalit leader, and announced in 1935 his intent to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism.[7] Thereafter Ambedkar studied texts of Buddhism, found several of its core beliefs and doctrines such as Four Noble Truths and "non-self" as flawed and pessimistic, re-interpreted these into what he called "new vehicle" of Buddhism.[8][8] Ambedkar held a press conference on October 13, 1956, announcing his rejection of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, as well as of Hinduism.[9][10] Thereafter, he left Hinduism and adopted Navayana, about six weeks before his death.[5][8][9] In the Dalit Buddhist movement of India, Navayana is considered a new branch of Buddhism, different from the traditionally recognized branches of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Marathi Buddhists follow Navayana.

Another way of classifying the different forms of Buddhism is through the different monastic ordination traditions. There are three main traditions of monastic law (Vinaya) each corresponding to the first three categories outlined above:


The terminology for the major divisions of Buddhism can be confusing, as Buddhism is variously divided by scholars and practitioners according to geographic, historical, and philosophical criteria, with different terms often being used in different contexts. The following terms may be encountered in descriptions of the major Buddhist divisions:

"Conservative Buddhism"
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
"Early Buddhist schools"
the schools into which Buddhism became divided in its first few centuries; only one of these survives as an independent school, Theravāda
"East Asian Buddhism"
a term used by scholars[11] to cover the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Korea, and most of China and Southeast Asia
"Eastern Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[12][page needed] for East Asian Buddhism; also sometimes used to refer to all traditional forms of Buddhism, as distinct from Western(ized) forms.
"Ekayāna (one yana)
Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra sought to unite all the different teachings into a single great way. These texts serve as the inspiration for using the term Ekayāna in the sense of "one vehicle". This "one vehicle" became a key aspect of the doctrines and practices of Tiantai and Tendai Buddhist sects, which subsequently influenced Chán and Zen doctrines and practices. In Japan, the one-vehicle teaching of the Lotus Sutra also inspired the formation of the Nichiren sect.
"Esoteric Buddhism"
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[13] Some scholars have applied the term to certain practices found within the Theravāda, particularly in Cambodia.[14][page needed]
literally meaning "lesser vehicle." It is considered a controversial term when applied by the Mahāyāna to mistakenly refer to the Theravāda school, and as such is widely viewed as condescending and pejorative.[15] Moreover, Hīnayāna refers to the now non extant schools with limited set of views, practices and results, prior to the development of the Mahāyāna traditions. The term is currently most often used as a way of describing a stage on the path in Tibetan Buddhism, but is often mistakenly confused with the contemporary Theravāda tradition, which is far more complex, diversified and profound, than the literal and limiting definition attributed to Hīnayāna .[16] Its use in scholarly publications is now also considered controversial.[17]
an old term, still sometimes used, synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism; widely considered derogatory.
a movement that emerged from early Buddhist schools, together with its later descendants, East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayāna traditions are sometimes listed separately. The main use of the term in East Asian and Tibetan traditions is in reference to spiritual levels,[18][page needed] regardless of school.
"Mainstream Buddhism"
a term used by some scholars for the early Buddhist schools.
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[19] The Tendai school in Japan has been described as influenced by Mantrayana.[18][page needed]
("new vehicle") refers to the re-interpretation of Buddhism by modern Indian jurist and social reformer B. R. Ambedkar.[5][6]
"Newar Buddhism"
a non-monastic, caste based Buddhism with patrilineal descent and Sanskrit texts.
"Nikāya Buddhism" or "schools"
an alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
an alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
"Northern Buddhism"
an alternative term used by some scholars[12][page needed] for Tibetan Buddhism. Also, an older term still sometimes used to encompass both East Asian and Tibetan traditions. It has even been used to refer to East Asian Buddhism alone, without Tibetan Buddhism.
"Secret Mantra"
an alternative rendering of Mantrayāna, a more literal translation of the term used by schools in Tibetan Buddhism when referring to themselves.[20]
"Sectarian Buddhism"
an alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
"Southeast Asian Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[21][page needed] for Theravāda.
"Southern Buddhism"
an alternative name used by some scholars[12][page needed] for Theravāda.
an alternative term sometimes used for the early Buddhist schools.
"Tantrayāna" or "Tantric Buddhism"
usually considered synonymous with "Vajrayāna".[19] However, one scholar describes the tantra divisions of some editions of the Tibetan scriptures as including Śravakayāna, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts[22] (see Buddhist texts). Some scholars[23][page needed], particularly François Bizot,[24] have used the term "Tantric Theravada" to refer to certain practices found particularly in Cambodia.
the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam, China, India, and Malaysia. It is the only surviving representative of the historical early Buddhist schools. The term "Theravāda" is also sometimes used to refer to all the early Buddhist schools.[25]
"Tibetan Buddhism"
usually understood as including the Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of China, India and Russia, which follow the Tibetan tradition.
a movement that developed out of Indian Mahāyāna, together with its later descendants. There is some disagreement on exactly which traditions fall into this category. Tibetan Buddhism is universally recognized as falling under this heading; many also include the Japanese Shingon school. Some scholars[26][page needed] also apply the term to the Korean milgyo tradition, which is not a separate school. One scholar says, "Despite the efforts of generations of Buddhist thinkers, it remains exceedingly difficult to identify precisely what it is that sets the Vajrayana apart."[27]

Early schools[edit]

Map of the major geographical centers of major Buddhist schools in South Asia, at around the time of Xuanzang's visit in the seventh century.
* Red: non-Pudgalavāda Sarvāstivāda school
* Orange: non-Dharmaguptaka Vibhajyavāda schools
* Yellow: Mahāsāṃghika
* Green: Pudgalavāda (Green)
* Gray: Dharmaguptaka
Note the red and grey schools already gave some original ideas of Mahayana Buddhism and the Sri Lankan section (see Tamrashatiya) of the orange school is the origin of modern Theravada Buddhism.

The early Buddhist schools or mainstream sects refers to the sects into which the Indian Buddhist monastic saṅgha split. They are also called the Nikaya Buddhist schools, and in Mahayana Buddhism they are referred to either as the Śrāvaka (disciple) schools or Hinayana (inferior) schools.

Most scholars now believe that the first schism was originally caused by differences in vinaya (monastic rule).[28] Later splits were also due to doctrinal differences and geographical separation.

The first schism separated the community into two groups, the Sthavira (Elders) Nikaya and the Mahāsāṃghika (Great Community). Most scholars hold that this probably occurred after the time of Ashoka.[29] Out of these two main groups later arose many other sects or schools.

From the Sthaviras arose the Sarvāstivāda sects, the Vibhajyavādins, the Theravadins, the Dharmaguptakas and the Pudgalavāda sects.

The Sarvāstivāda school, popular in northwest India and Kashmir, focused on Abhidharma teachings.[30] Their name means "the theory that all exists" which refers to one of their main doctrines, the view that all dharmas exist in the past, present and in the future. This is an eternalist theory of time.[31] Over time, the Sarvāstivādins became divided into various traditions, mainly the Vaibhāṣika (who defended the orthodox "all exists" doctrine in their Abhidharma compendium called the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra), the Sautrāntika (who rejected the Vaibhāṣika orthodoxy) and the Mūlasarvāstivāda.

The Pudgalavāda sects (also known as Vātsīputrīyas) were another group of Sthaviras which were known for their unique doctrine of the pudgala (person). Their tradition was founded by the elder Vātsīputra circa 3rd century BCE.[32]

The Vibhajyavādins were conservative Sthaviras who did not accept the doctrines of either the Sarvāstivāda or the Pudgalavāda. In Sri Lanka, a group of them became known as Theravada, the only one of these sects that survives to the present day. Another sect which arose from the Vibhajyavādins were the Dharmaguptakas. This school was influential in spreading Buddhism to Central Asia and to China. Their Vinaya is still used in East Asian Buddhism.

The Mahāsāṃghikas also split into various sub groups. One of these were the Lokottaravādins (Transcendentalists), so called because of their doctrine which saw every action of the Buddha, even mundane ones like eating, as being of a supramundane and transcendental nature. One of the few Mahāsāṃghika texts which survive, the Mahāvastu, is from this school. Another sub-sect which emerged from the Mahāsāṃghika was called the Caitika. They were concentrated in Andhra Pradesh and in South India. Some scholars such as A.K. Warder hold that many important Mahayana sutras originated among these groups.[33] Another Mahāsāṃghika sect was named Prajñaptivāda. They were known for the doctrine that viewed all conditioned phenomena as being mere concepts (Skt. prajñapti).[34]

According to the Indian philosopher Paramartha, a further split among the Mahāsāṃghika occurred with the arrival of the Mahayana sutras. Some sub-schools, such as the Kukkuṭikas, did not accept the Mahayana sutras as being word of the Buddha, whole others, like the Lokottaravādins, did accept them.[35]


The Tipitaka (Pali Canon), in a Thai Style book case. The Pali Tipitaka is the doctrinal foundation of all major Theravāda sects today

Theravāda is the only extant mainstream or non-Mahayana school. They are derived from the Sri Lankan Mahāvihāra sect, which was a branch of the South Indian Vibhajjavādins. Theravāda bases its doctrine on the Pāli Canon, the only complete Buddhist canon surviving in a classical Indian language. This language is Pāli, which serves as the school's sacred language and lingua franca.[36]

The different sects and groups in Theravāda often emphasize different aspects (or parts) of the Pāli canon and the later commentaries (especially the very influential Visuddhimagga), or differ in the focus on and recommended way of practice. There are also significant differences in strictness or interpretation of the vinaya.

The various divisions in Theravāda include:

Mahāyāna schools[edit]

Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism[edit]

Nagarjuna, one of the most influential thinkers of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism

Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) Buddhism is category of traditions which focus on the bodhisattva path and affirm texts known as Mahāyāna sutras. These texts are seen by modern scholars as dating as far back as the 1st century BCE.[37] Unlike Theravada and other early schools, Mahāyāna schools generally hold that there are currently many Buddhas which are accessible, and that they are transcendental or supramundane beings.[38]

In India, there were two major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. The earliest was the Mādhyamaka ("Middle Way"), also known as Śūnyavāda, the emptiness school. This tradition followed the works of the philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE). The other major school was Yogācāra ("yoga practice") school, also known as Vijñānavāda (the doctrine of consciousness), Vijñaptivāda (the doctrine of ideas or percepts).

Some scholars also note that the Tathāgatagarbha texts constitute a third "school" of Indian Mahāyāna.[39]

East Asian Mahayana[edit]

East Asian Buddhism or East Asian Mahayana refers to the schools that developed in East Asia and use the Chinese Buddhist canon. It is a major religion in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. East Asian Buddhists constitute the numerically largest body of Buddhist traditions in the world, numbering over half of the world's Buddhists.[40][41]

East Asian Mahayana began to develop in China during the Han dynasty (when Buddhism was first introduced from Central Asia). It is thus influenced by Chinese culture and philosophy.[42] East Asian Mahayana developed new, uniquely Asian interpretations of Buddhist texts and focused on the study of Mahayana sutras.[43]

East Asian Buddhist monastics generally follow the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya.[44]

Main sects[edit]

Esoteric schools[edit]

Indian Buddhist Mahasiddhas, 18th century, Boston MFA.

Esoteric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayāna, Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Secret Mantra, and Tantric Buddhism is often placed in a separate category by scholars due to its unique tantric features and elements. Esoteric Buddhism arose and developed in medieval India among esoteric adepts known as Mahāsiddhas. Esoteric Buddhism maintains its own set of texts alongside the classic scriptures, these esoteric works are known as the Buddhist Tantras. It includes practices that make use of mantras, dharanis, mudras, mandalas and the visualization of deities and Buddhas.

Main Esoteric Buddhist traditions include:

New Buddhist movements[edit]

B. R. Ambedkar delivering speech during conversion, Deekshabhoomi, Nagpur, 14 October 1956
Taixu, the founder of Chinese Humanistic Buddhism

Various Buddhist new religious movements arose in the 20th century, including the following.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lee Worth Bailey, Emily Taitz (2005), Introduction to the World's Major Religions: Buddhism, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 67.
  2. ^ Mitchell, Scott A. (2016), Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts, Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 87.
  3. ^ Gethin, Rupert, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, pp. 253–266.
  4. ^ William H. Swatos (ed.) (1998) Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Altamira Press, p. 66.
  5. ^ a b c Gary Tartakov (2003). Rowena Robinson (ed.). Religious Conversion in India: Modes, Motivations, and Meanings. Oxford University Press. pp. 192–213. ISBN 978-0-19-566329-7.
  6. ^ a b Christopher Queen (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 524–525. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  7. ^ Nicholas B. Dirks (2011). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton University Press. pp. 267–274. ISBN 978-1-4008-4094-6.
  8. ^ a b c Eleanor Zelliot (2015). Knut A. Jacobsen (ed.). Routledge Handbook of Contemporary India. Taylor & Francis. pp. 13, 361–370. ISBN 978-1-317-40357-9.
  9. ^ a b Christopher Queen (2015). Steven M. Emmanuel (ed.). A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 524–529. ISBN 978-1-119-14466-3.
  10. ^ Skaria, A (2015). "Ambedkar, Marx and the Buddhist Question". Journal of South Asian Studies. Taylor & Francis. 38 (3): 450–452. doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1049726., Quote: "Here [Navayana Buddhism] there is not only a criticism of religion (most of all, Hinduism, but also prior traditions of Buddhism), but also of secularism, and that criticism is articulated moreover as a religion."
  11. ^ B & G, Gethin, R & J, P & K
  12. ^ a b c Penguin, Harvey
  13. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan, New York, volume 2, p. 440
  14. ^ Indian Insights, Luzac, London, 1997
  15. ^ "Hinayana (literally, 'inferior way') is a polemical term, which self-described Mahāyāna (literally, 'great way') Buddhist literature uses to denigrate its opponents", p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  16. ^ Ray, Reginald A (2000) Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, p. 240
  17. ^ "The supposed Mahayana-Hinayana dichotomy is so prevalent in Buddhist literature that it has yet fully to loosen its hold over scholarly representations of the religion", p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  18. ^ a b '
  19. ^ a b Harvey, pp. 153ff
  20. ^ Hopkins, Jeffrey (1985) The Ultimate Deity in Action Tantra and Jung's Warning against Identifying with the Deity Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 5, (1985), pp. 159–172
  21. ^ R & J, P & K
  22. ^ Skilling, Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, p. 78
  23. ^ Indian Insights, loc. cit.
  24. ^ Crosby, Kate( 2000)Tantric Theravada: A bibliographic essay on the writings of François Bizot and others on the yogvacara Tradition. In Contemporary Buddhism, 1:2, 141–198[1]
  25. ^ Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1987, pp. 440ff; Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, sv Buddhism
  26. ^ Harvey
  27. ^ Lopez, Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 6
  28. ^ Harvey, Peter (2013). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 88–90.
  29. ^ Cox, Collett (1995), Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories on Existence, Tokyo: The Institute for Buddhist Studies, p. 23, ISBN 4-906267-36-X
  30. ^ Westerhoff, Jan (2018). "The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy in the First Millennium CE", pp. 60 – 61.
  31. ^ Kalupahana, David; "A history of Buddhist philosophy, continuities and discontinuities", p. 128.
  32. ^ Williams, Paul (2005), "Buddhism: The early Buddhist schools and doctrinal history; Theravāda doctrine," Volume 2, Taylor & Francis, p. 86.
  33. ^ Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 313
  34. ^ Harris, Ian Charles (1991). The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogacara in Indian Mahayana Buddhism. p. 98
  35. ^ Sree Padma. Barber (2008), Anthony W. Buddhism in the Krishna River Valley of Andhra, p. 68.
  36. ^ Crosby, Kate (2013), Theravada Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity, and Identity, p. 2.
  37. ^ Warder, A.K. (3rd edn. 1999). Indian Buddhism: p. 335.
  38. ^ Williams, Paul, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, 2008, p. 21.
  39. ^ Kiyota, M. (1985). Tathāgatagarbha Thought: A Basis of Buddhist Devotionalism in East Asia. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 207–231.
  40. ^ Pew Research Center, Global Religious Landscape: Buddhists.
  41. ^ Johnson, Todd M.; Grim, Brian J. (2013). The World's Religions in Figures: An Introduction to International Religious Demography (PDF). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 34. Archived from the original on 20 October 2013. Retrieved 2 September 2013.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  42. ^ Gethin, Rupert, The Foundations of Buddhism, OUP Oxford, 1998, p. 257.
  43. ^ Williams, pAUL, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Taylor & Francis, 2008, P. 129.
  44. ^ Gethin, Rupert, The Foundations of Buddhism, OUP Oxford, 1998, p. 260
  45. ^ "Buddhism in China Today: An Adaptable Present, a Hopeful Future". Retrieved 2020-06-01..
  46. ^ "法鼓山聖嚴法師數位典藏". Archived from the original on 2013-05-28. Retrieved 2013-07-29..

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]