Buddhism is based on Gauthama Buddha’s teachings. There are two major branches and one minor branch of Buddhism. Theravada
(The school of the Elders) and Mahayana
(The Great Vehicle) are the two main branches. Vajrayana
(The Diamond Vehicle) is a minor branch.
Buddhism adheres most accurately to the original teachings by the Buddha. It only reveres the Buddha. It is relatively conservative.
Theravada Buddhism is also labelled by the Mahayanists as “Heenayana”
(The Lesser Vehicle).
Theravada Buddhism traces its lineage back to the original followers of the Gauthama Buddha, who literary heard his sermons.
The canonical writings (Collection of Buddha’s teachings written in Pali language) of Theravada are divided into three main sections. .
1. Buddha’s sermons (Sutta Pitaka)
2. Monastic rules (Vinaya Pitaka)
3. Buddha’s teachings (Abhidhamma Pitaka) .
The ultimate goal in Theravada Buddhism is to escape the “Life – Death Circle” (Samsara) and attain “Nirvana” (Release from suffering). Those who have attained Nirvana are never reborn again.
Theravada Laypeople actively participate by providing material support to the monks which are considered as meritorious deeds which would help them in their journey through “Samsara” and finally, in attaining “Nirvana”.
It is practiced in countries such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and some minority districts in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Western world.
Buddhism has arose out of schism (rifts and divisions among the monks) regarding both Buddha’s teachings and monastic rules though it is considered as a more authentic version of the Buddhist doctrine by them. It reveres not only the Buddha, but, vast number of Bodhisattvas and other powerful beings such as Hindu Gods.
Mahayana sect accepts the Theravada canonical writings though they have a variety of philosophical and devotional texts of their own.
The most distinctive teaching of the Mahayana is that the Bodhisattvas who are enlightenment beings postpone their final enlightenment (Nirvana) in great compassion to guide and assist the beings who are still suffering in “Samsara”.
Mahayana believes that Bodhisattvas employ ‘skillful means’ to know the mental capacity of each individual and guide them according to it.
Mahayana believes that Buddha’s death as an illusion; he is living in other planes of existence and monks are permitted to offer “New Truths” based on his input. It is believed that none of the Bodhisattvas, Arahanths or Buddhas have attained the final enlightenment (Nirvana) and live beyond our plane of existence to assist all of us to attain Nirvana together.
Original Mahayana Buddhism is practiced in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, parts of Russia and most of Vietnam.
As Mahayana moved beyond India, it adhered the distinct cultural characteristics of that country into the doctrine. Thus, Mahayana pantheon in China is vastly different from that of India and Japan.
It has various traditions such as ‘Pure Land’, ‘Zen’, ‘Nichiren Buddhism’, Tibetan Buddhism’, ‘Shingon’, ‘Tiantai’ and ‘Shinnyo-en’.
Buddhism, though based upon Mahayana doctrine is largely concerned with ritual and meditative practices. It is also called “Thanthrayana”
(Tantric Buddhism) or “Manthrayana”
(Esoteric Buddhism) since it involves in developing the mind by the means of harnessing psycho - physical energy through rituals, visualization, physical exercises and meditation. Thus, they believe that a person could attain Buddha-hood in one’s lifetime or as little as in three years.
Vajrayana is practiced in Tibet, Mongolia and adjacent parts of China and Russia.