Buddhism is one of the most prominent religions in East and South-East Asia. The religion, founded by Siddhartha Gautama back in the 5th century, has grown to amass a following of over 5 million individuals. As Buddhism spread across the world, it came in contact with all kinds of cultures and people, with each individual interpreting Buddha’s teachings differently. Eventually, different schools of thought started to develop, each school claiming to represent Buddha’s original version.
During his lifetime, Buddha had openly requested that following his death, no leader was to be chosen, but his disciples didn’t follow through. Soon after his passing, Buddha’s teachings were institutionalized with rules, regulations, and hierarchy. Initially, there was a unified sect, but soon disagreements began over what constituted Buddha’s “true” teachings. As a result, the disciples became divided into three primary schools of thought.
Jonah Engler‘s Guide to the Three Sects of Buddhism
Jonah Engler believed that the teachings of Dhamma, although beneficial are vague and open-ended. Dhamma intends to guide people on a path of liberation and freedom by renouncing worldly desires. The different translations of this concept have led to the fragmentation of Buddhist disciples. Now, 2500 years later, we can classify Buddhism into three sects. While each school believes in Nirvana, the teachings of Dhamma, and the noble eightfold path, they have different ways of following and abiding by them.
Theravada – The School Of Elders
Theravada Buddhism is the oldest and the most orthodox of all Buddhist schools. 250 BC during the reign of King Osaka the great is now the most prominent sect of faith in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and other regions of South-East Asia.
The school of elders places high regard on Buddhism’s ancient and traditional practices, guiding disciples to focus on their effort (sila). They believe the path to developing wisdom (pana) lies in the patient practice of morality and concentration (meditation).
Devotion also plays a vital role in the beliefs of this school. According to the elders, devotion shouldn’t stem from duty or blind faith. Instead, genuine devotion originates naturally from one’s desire to end suffering and seek liberation. Dukha compels a person to seek the teachings of a higher power, but it is one’s wisdom and understanding that allows one to accept and implement these teachings.
Mahayana – The Great Vehicle
The origin of Mahayana can be traced back to the 1st Century BC, after its split from Theravada, claiming that the sect had become too self-centered and lost the true vision of Buddhism. It is now the most followed school in Korea, China, and Japan, making it the largest Buddhist sect in the world.
Mahayana rejects the idea that the goal of Buddha’s teaching was solely to elicit individual spiritual perfection. They believed that an arhat- a man who abides by Buddha’s vision is just as fallible as any other human being and possesses no supernatural instincts. According to the past and parents are just illusions, there only exists one eternal present. Their main holy book is the Mahayana sutra.
Vajrayana – The Diamond Vehicle
Vajrayana is a form of tantric Buddhism that is an extension of the Mahayana School. The faith originated in the 7th Century AD in response to what disciples believed were too many rules in Mahayana Buddhism. Vajrayana considered Mahayana teachings or Bodhisattva to be a slower form of attaining enlightenment and liberation and thought that the tantric way was faster to attain Nirvana. Over time, Buddhists have noticed that tantric Buddhism’s mystical and esoteric practices seem to depart greatly from Buddha’s ancient etchings. Vajrayana practices tantras, mantras, dharanis, mudras, and mandalas while visualizing and worshipping other deities and Buddhas like Amitabha Buddha.
The Bottom Line:
Jonah Engler wants to point out that the three schools of Buddhism have tons of rich history, practices, and traditions which broadly differ from one another but utilize the same basic teachings of Buddha.