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As you may know, there are many forms of Buddhism, all of which are rooted in the Buddha's teachings.
The different schools focus on different aspects of the teachings. One of the best descriptions of the
reason for so many different types of Buddhism that I have read comes from a small piece of text on
BuddhaNet which states:

          Buddhism has evolved into different forms so that it can be relevant to the different cultures in which it exists.
          It has been reinterpreted over the centuries so that it can remain relevant to each new generation. Outwardly,
          the types of Buddhism may seem very different but at the centre of all of them is the Four Noble Truths and
          the Eightfold Path. All major religions, Buddhism included, have split into schools and sects. But the different
          sects of Buddhism have never gone to war with each other and to this day, they go to each other's temples
          and worship together. Such tolerance and understanding is certainly rare.


Mahayana Buddhism

This is one of the earliest great schools of buddhism, the other being Theravada (Hinayana). Mahayana
is Sanskrit for "Great Vehicle" - it is called "great vehicle" because it expresses the intention to liberate
all beings rather than just oneself. The Mahayana and Theravada are both rooted in the basic teachings
of the historical Buddha, but stress different aspects of those teachings. While Theravada seeks the
liberation of the individual, Mahayana seeks to attain enlightenment for the sake of the welfare of all
beings. There is a zen story that seems to be addressed to expressing the difference between Mahayana
and Theravada Buddhism:


Two people are lost in the desert. They are dying from hunger and thirst. Finally, they come to a high
wall. On the other side they can hear the sound of a waterfall and birds singing. Above, they can see
the branches of a lush tree extending over the top of the wall. Its fruit look delicious.

One of them manages to climb over the wall and disappears down the other side. The other, instead,
returns to the desert to help other lost travelers find their way to the oasis.

The Mahayana places less value on monasticism than the Theravada; by contrast to early Buddhism,
here the layperson can also attain nirvana, in which endeavor he can rely on the active help of
buddhas and bodhisattvas.


The Bodhisattva ("enlightened essence") is a being who delays his entry into Nirvana in order to
help all sentient beings attain enlightenment, out of compassion, remaining in the samsaric realm
in order to help others along the path. Mahayana Buddhists take what is called the Bodhisattva
vow, which states:

The deluding passions are inexhaustible.
I vow to extinguish them all.
Sentient beings are numberless.
I vow to save them all.
The truth is impossible to expound.
I vow to expound it.
The way of the Buddha is unattainable.
I vow to attain it.

The Mahayana developed from the Theravada schools of the Mahasanghikas and Sarvastivadins,
which formulated important aspects of its teaching. From the Mahasanghikas came the teaching,
characteristic of the Mahayana, of the transcendent nature of a buddha, as well as the bodhisattva
ideal and notion of emptiness. Seeds of the trikaya teaching can be recognized in the doctrine of the Savrastivadins.

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Pure Land Buddhism

This type of Buddhism primarily consists of faith. The goal of the followers of this school is to be reborn
into the pure land of Buddha Amitabha. This school is characterized by its stress on the importance on
the profound faith in the power and active compassion of Buddha Amitabha.

Amitabha made a vow to cause all beings to be reborn in his pure land (Sukhavati), who trust themselves
to him with faithful devotion. Thus, the way of the Pure Land school is often regarded as the "way of faith".
To be reborn into the Pure Land, one (during death) has to call Amitabha's name ten times while visualizing
the paradise, and he will appear and escort the person to Sukhavati.

There are generally two forms of practice in that the followers of this school take part in. The recitation of Amitabha's name serves to bring the mind under control. The practitioner commits himself to a certain, usually very large, number of repetitions. This meditation is intended to make it possible to have a vision of Amitahba
and his companions Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta even during this lifetime and to gain foreknowledge concerning the time of one's death. This recitation can be done loud or silently, with or without concentration
on an image of Amitabha. The second type of practice consists of visualizations-which serve to cause Amitabha and his pure land to arise before the spiritual eye of the practitioner. The supreme stage of practice is the contemplation of Buddha Amitabha as not separate from one's own being. The supreme achievement is seeing Amitabha in a vision, which is considered a guarantee of being reborn in his pure land.

In the modern world this form of Buddhist practice is particularly stressed by the followers of Nichiren
Daishonin, a Japanese master of the thirteenth century. He regarded the Lotus Sutra as the supreme
teaching of the Buddha, and faith as the supreme attribute. Faith can be increased by daily chanting.
Chanting the mantra "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" becomes a practice of purification, which will affect daily
living and develop wisdom and compassion. A teaching by Nichiren Daishonin states:

The common mortal himself is the Buddha when he single-mindedly
chants Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with strong faith. This is how he attains
enlightenment naturally without discarding his life as a common-mortal.

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Theravada Buddhism

Theravada (formerly known as Hinayana-"small vehicle") means "way of the elders." Theravada Buddhism
regards itself as the school closest to the original form of Buddhism. Its canon, composed in the language
of Pali (the language Buddha spoke), comes according to the view of the Theravadins, directly from the
mouth of Buddha. The teaching of the Theravada consists essentially of the four noble truths, the eightfold
path, the doctrine of conditioned arising, and the doctrine of man. The emphasis in the Theravada is on the liberation of the individual, which takes place through one's own effort (in meditation), and through observance
of the rules of moral discipline and leading a monastic life.

It is said that the first Buddhist scriptures were written down by Theravada monks at the fourth council in Sri Lanka. The scriptures were written on palm leaves and became known as the Pali canon or Tipitaka. The term Tipitaka means "three baskets," which refers to the threefold division of  the scriptures, known as Vinaya Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka.
These scriptures can be found online at


The Arhat (or Arahant) is the ideal figure of this school, as is the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism.
It is the highest aspiration in Theravada Buddhism - to become an Arhat, or one who has passed beyond
the fetters of samsaric existence. Arhat refers to "saints" or "sages" who, having followed the Buddha's
teachings, upon death, will enter into Nirvana. The scriptures describe an arahant by a standard formula,
as one in whom the "outflows" (sense, desire, becoming, ignorance) have "dried up"; one who has "done
what has to be done." However, the question remained as to the distinction between an Arhat and a
Buddha. It was this distinction that the Mahayana school exploited, indicating that the ideal of arhatship
and the goal of Nirvana were inferior to the larger aspiration of Buddhahood and the Bodhisattva path,
which accentuated the virtues of compassion, and of gaining emancipation for the sake of others rather
than for one's own entry into Nirvana.

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Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana means "Diamond Vehicle".  This school of Buddhism developed around the middle of the first millennium, out of the teachings of the Mahayana, and reached Tibet, China, and Japan from central Asia and India, along with the Mahayana. This movement arose from a need to extend the worldview of Buddhism to confirm "magical" practices and is characterized by a psychological method based on highly developed ritual practices. Because of the use of mantras, Tibetan Buddhism also refers to the Vajrayana as the Mantrayana.

The teachings of the Vajrayana formed an esoteric tradition that combined elements of yoga and of the ancient Indian nature religion with original Buddhist thought. Decisive influences came from northwest India that led to a pronounced symbology of light.

A decisive role is played in the Vajrayana by initiations, given by an authorized master that empower
the practitioner for meditative practice connected with a specific deity and also necessarily place him or
her under an obligation to carry out such practice. Among these techniques are the recitation of mantras, contemplation of mandalas, and special ritual gestures. For Vajrayana Buddhists, the elimination of all
duality (unity in enlightenment) is symbolized by the vajra.

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Zen Buddhism

"Not thinking about anything is Zen. Once you know this, walking, standing,
sitting, or lying down, everything you do is Zen. To know that the mind is
empty is to see the Buddha...To see no mind is to see the Buddha."

Zen (or Ch'an, in Chinese) is derived from the Indian word dhyana, which refers to meditation. When
Buddhism spread into China, and then into Japan, the Ch'an and Zen schools developed from the teachings
and practice of the sixth-century Indian monk, Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma's message was that Buddhist
tradition had become to attached to the scriptures, and that the Buddha's teaching was understood by
watching the mind or looking into one's own heart. Though the meditation school appeals to scripture to
ground its practices in the authority of the Buddha, it does so only to support the capability of meditation
as an end in itself, as the truth realized in action.

More than any other school, Zen stresses the prime importance of the enlightenment experience and the uselessness of ritual religious practices and intellectual analysis of doctrine for the attainment of enlightenment. Zen teaches the practices of zazen, sitting in meditative absorption, as the shortest, but also steepest,
way to awakening. Zen seeks meaning from creative experiencing brought about in meditation. In this
simple, direct state, the mind is fully open. The individual is neither striving nor planning but simply "being".
Trivial concerns lose their attraction in Zen, and things clarify intuitively and naturally.


When Bodhidharma brought Dhyana Buddhism from India to China at the beginning of the 6th century,
he became the founder and first patriarch of the lineage of Zen. He believed that people should not be
concerned with mere appearances, that all appearances are illusions. Like the early Buddhists, Bodhidharma
saw the transitory nature of the of everyday concerns and the importance of full commitment to meditation. According to him, only the mind is always present; we just do not realize it. When we get in touch with the
mind, we find the source of wisdom.

In "The Wake-Up Sermon," Bodhidharma defined what he meant by mind and showed how our own mind is
the source of enlightenment:

                 To search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind impossible.
                 The reality of your own self-nature, the absence of cause and effect,
                 is what is meant by mind. Your mind is nirvana. You might think you
                 can find a Buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but
                 such a place does not exist.

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resources: The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen  and  T.Y.Buddhism

Return to Zen Buddhism @ Neurotopia

Mahayana BuddhismPure Land BuddhismTheravada BuddhismVajrayana BuddhismZen Buddhism