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Schools of Buddhism

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Schools of Buddhism are classified in various ways. Normal English-language usage (as given in dictionaries) divides Buddhism into Theravada (also known by the name Hinayana, which many consider pejorative) and Mahayana. The most common classification among scholars is threefold, with Mahayana split into East Asian (also known simply as Mahayana) and Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism (although Vajrayana properly includes the Japanese Shingon school).

Classifications Edit

The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion distinguishes three types of classification of Buddhism:

Terminology Edit

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, Theravada
East Asian Buddhism
A term used by scholars[1][page needed] to cover the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Korea, Singapore and most of China and Vietnam
Eastern Buddhism
An alternative name used by some scholars[2][page needed] for East Asian Buddhism; also sometimes used to refer to all traditional forms of Buddhism, as distinct from Western(ized) forms.
Esoteric Buddhism
Usually considered synonymous with Vajrayana.[3] Some scholars have applied the term to certain practices found within the Theravada, particularly in Cambodia.[4][page needed]
Often interpreted as a pejorative term, used in Mahayana doctrine to denigrate its opponents.[5] It is sometimes used to refer to the early Buddhist schools, including the contemporary Theravada, although the legitimacy of this is disputed.[6] Its use in scholarly publications is controversial.[7] By the Mahayana schools and groups in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan the term is felt to be only slightly pejorative, or not pejorative at all.[8] By some it is used with respect proper to teachings coming direct from the Buddha. The main use of the term in East Asian and Tibetan traditions is in reference to spiritual levels[9] regardless of school. The literal meaning of Hinayana can also be interpreted as "the small vehicle," referring to a raft meant to carry one person, as an arhat, to nirvana through their own effort, in contrast to the "large vehicle" of Mahayana meant to carry many there at once, piloted by a bodhisattva.
An old term, still sometimes used, synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism; widely considered derogatory.
A movement that emerged out of early Buddhist schools, together with its later descendants, East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana traditions are sometimes listed separately. The main use of the term in East Asian and Tibetan traditions is in reference to spiritual levels[10][page needed] regardless of school.
Mainstream Buddhism
A term used by some scholars for the early Buddhist schools.
Usually considered synonymous with Vajrayana.[11] The Tendai school in Japan has been described as influenced by Mantrayana.[10][page needed]
Newar Buddhism
A non-monastic, caste based Buddhism with patrilineal descent and Sanskrit texts.
Nikaya 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[2][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 mantrayana, a more literal translation of the term used by schools in Tibetan Buddhism when referring to themselves.[12]
Sectarian Buddhism
An alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
Southeast Asian Buddhism
An alternative name used by some scholars[13][page needed] for Theravada.
Southern Buddhism
An alternative name used by some scholars[2][page needed] for Theravada.
An alternative term sometimes used for the early Buddhist schools.
Tantrayana or Tantric Buddhism
Usually considered synonymous with Vajrayana.[11] However, one scholar describes the tantra divisions of some editions of the Tibetan scriptures as including Sravakayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana texts[14] (see Buddhist texts). Some scholars[15][page needed], particularly François Bizot,[16] have used the term "Tantric Theravada" to refer to certain practices found particularly in Cambodia.
The traditional Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam, China, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia. It is the only surviving representative of the historical early Buddhist schools. The term 'Theravada' is also sometimes used to refer to all the early Buddhist schools.[17]
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 Mahayana, 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 also the Japanese Shingon school. Some scholars[18][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."[19]

Early schools Edit

Buddha image - stone - with disciple

An image of Gautama Buddha with a swastika, a traditional Buddhist symbol of infinity, on his chest. Ananda, the Buddha's disciple, appears in the background. This statue is from Hsi Lai Temple.

Numerous attempts have been made to tabulate these schools. Here is one.

Twenty sects Edit

The following lists the twenty sects described as Hinayana in some Mahayana texts:

Sthaviravada (上座部) split into the 11 sects:

 Sthaviravada─┬─ Haimavata────────────────────────────────────────────
              └─ Sarvastivadin─┬───────────────────────────────────
                               ├ Vatsiputriya ─┬────────────────────
                               │               ├ Dharmottara───────
                               │               ├ Bhadrayaniya─────
                               │               ├ Sammitiya──────── 
                               │               └ Channagirika─────
                               ├ Mahisasaka─┬─────────────────────
                               │            └ Dharmaguptaka──────
                               ├ Kasyapiya────────────────────────
                               └ Sautrāntika──────────────────────

Mahasanghika (大眾部) split into 9 sects:

             ├ EkavyaharakaCaitikaLokottaravadinAparasailaKaukkutikaUttarasailaBahussrutiyaPrajnaptivada

Influences on East Asian schoolsEdit

The following later schools used the Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka:

The following involve philosophical influence:

Theravada subschoolsEdit


Samadhi Buddha statue at Mahamevuna Park in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka carved in the 4th century AD.

The different schools in Theravada often emphasize different aspects (or parts) of the Pali Canon and the later commentaries, or differ in the focus on (and recommended way of) practice. There are also significant differences in strictness or interpretation of the Vinaya.

Mahāyāna schoolsEdit

SFEC BritMus Asia 019

Chinese Glazed stoneware of a Buddhist monk, or Future Buddha, dated to the 20th year of the Chenghua Emperor, or 1468 AD.

Tantric schoolsEdit

see also: Vajrayāna Subcategorised according to predecessors

New Buddhist movementsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. B & G, Gethin, R & J, P & K
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Penguin, Harvey
  3. Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan, New York, volume 2, page 440
  4. Indian Insights, Luzac, London, 1997
  5. Hinayana (literally, “inferior way”) is a polemical term, which self-described Mahayana (literally, “great way”) Buddhist literature uses to denigrate its opponents. - p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  6. Hinayana is a designation that has no clearly identifiable external referent - p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  7. 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
  8. It is also certain that Buddhist groups and individuals in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan have in the past, as in the very recent present, identified themselves as Mahayana Buddhists, even if the polemical or value claim embedded in that term was only dimly felt, if at all., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  9. Penguin Handbook, pages 378f
  10. 10.0 10.1 Penguin Handbook
  11. 11.0 11.1 Harvey, pages 153ff
  12. 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
  13. R & J, P & K
  14. Skilling, Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, page 78
  15. Indian Insights, loc. cit.
  16. Crosby, Kate( 2000)'Tantric Theravda: A bibliographic essay on the writings of François Bizot and others on the yogvacara Tradition', Contemporary Buddhism, 1:2, 141—198[1]
  17. Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1987, pages 440f; Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, sv Buddhism
  18. Harvey
  19. Lopez, Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995, page 6

Coleman, Graham, ed. (1993). A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.. ISBN 1-57062-002-4.

Warder, A.K. (1970). Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

External linksEdit

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Schools of Buddhism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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