Are there many types of Buddhism or just one?

In the early days of Buddhism, it spread geographically creating isolated communities which began to differ in emphasis and interpretation. The points of view of each school was eventually written down and is known as the abhidharma for that group. Each group became a sect.

One the positive side, Buddhism has never had sectarian violence. However unfortunately the sects do engage in pissing contests. Don’t get me wrong. I love Buddhism, but I also try to be honest about its faults too.

The major split is between Southern and Northern schools. The only Southern sect left is Theravada. They consider themselves the purest expression of the Buddha’s teaching. Where there is some truth to this, scholarship has shown (comparing the Chinese agamas to the Pali nikayas). Theravadin deviation from the earliest forms of Buddhism. By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that the Buddha spoke Pali, he spoke Maghadi Prakrit.

The Northern schools call themselves Mahayana or large vehicle, because of the emphasis on compassion for all living beings (scholars believe this was a reaction to compassion and the other brahmaviharas being de-emphasized by the Theravadins).

The Mahayanists didn’t stop there. They consider their tradition to be a given secretly by the Buddha to his advanced students. To add insult to injury, the Mahayanist coined the term Hinayana or lesser vehicle for the Southern schools implying that the Southern schools emphasis on individual enlightenment is selfish. There are many Mahayanist sects including Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren.

Then in the middle of the first millennium was the Tantric revolution (sexual practices are just a tiny bit of Tantra). Tantra means loom which a way of being superior to the sutras (which are the Buddhist scriptures. Sutra means thread as in a thread of ideas).

Tantra influenced Hindu Yoga (one of the six schools of Hinduism) and Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism is called Tantrayana or more commonly Vajrayana or the diamond vehicle (suggesting indestructibility). Some Vajrayana schools are Tibetan Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism from Japan. Tibetan Buddhism is the only Buddhist school I know of that talks about yogis (a term usually reserved for the practitioners of Hindu Yoga).

©2017 Stephen L. Martin

Photo: Young Monks in Cambodia by JJ Harrison (
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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