Many people who want to learn about Buddhism get very confused by the
terminology and different points of view presented by various schools of
Buddhism. In order to clear up some of this confusion, I offer this brief
overview, beginning with the Buddhist canon, which is the source for the
Buddhas actual teachings and therefore the inspiration for all of the
various schools and lineages.
The closest we are going to get to the actual life and teachings of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha and his first disciples is in the Pali Canon
of the Theravadin school and the Chinese Agamas. The Agamas are the Chinese translations of the Sarvastivadin canon. The Sarvastivadins were a major school of Indian Buddhism that disappeared in the 12th century. The Agamas as a whole have not been translated into English.
The Pali Canon is called that because it is written in the Pali language which may be very close to the ancient Magadhan dialect that the Buddha may have spoken. Pali terms are slightly different than the Sanskrit terms commonly used in the Mahayana sutras and by many people here in the West. So the Sanskrit words Nirvana, Dhamma, and sutra are Nibbana, Dhamma, and sutta in Pali. After discussing the Pali Canon I will use the Sanskrit terms simply because they are more widely known - but I want to acknowledge that the Pali Canon does use a different dialect.
There is substantial agreement between the Pali Canon and the Agamas relating to the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Twelvefold Chain of Dependent Origination, the Thirty-Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, and even a significant overlapping in the precepts (the Vinaya) for monks and nuns. This material encompasses the bedrock of Buddha Dharma in all the schools. It is the foundation or base for all that is found in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools as well.
The basic teachings of Buddhism which all schools hold in common can be found in the English translations of the Pali Canon which are being made available in new updated translations by Wisdom publications. The Pali Text Society has the entire Tripitika translated and these can be ordered from the Pariyattai Book Service (pariyatti.com). Much of Pali Canon is available at accesstoinsight.org. That sight also has some excellent material giving an overview of Buddhism from the Theravadin perspective.
The Pali Canon as a whole is called the Three Baskets or Tipitika in Pali
(Tripitika in Sanskrit) because it contains three major sections, or
baskets. The Three Baskets are:
I. The Sutta-pitika (or Sutra-pitika) which contain all the sermons or talks given by the Buddha. The Sutta-pitika is further broken down into
five collections (nikayas):
This is an enormous amount of material that would fill a bookcase. The
Abhidhamma and huge sections of the Vinaya make for extremely dry technical
reading. Even the suttas can be very technical and repetitive. And yet there are gems to be found in all parts of the Pali Canon, and together it
presents the unique worldview and way of life taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.
1. The Digha-nikaya or Long Discourses
II. The Vinaya-pitika consists of the monastic precepts and related stories and material. The Vinaya is divided up as follows:
2. The Majjhima-nikaya or Middle Length Discourses
3. The Samyutta-nikaya or Connected Discourses
4. The Anguttara-nikaya or Numerical Discourses
5. Khuddaka-nikaya or Short Collection. This collection actually consists
of a number of short works, some of which are very well known all by
themselves such as: the Dhammapada, the Itivuttaka, the Udana, the
Sutta-nipata, the Therigatha, the Theragatha, and the Jataka tales.
1. Suttavibhanga - which is the analysis of the precepts. This is broken down into the Mahavibhanga or Great Analysis which looks at the precepts for monks, and the Bhikkhunivibhanga or Nun's Analysis which analyzes the precepts for nuns.
III. Finally there is the Abhidhamma which contains the systematic analysis of the teachings found in the sutta and vinaya collection. This is
divided into the following works:
2. The Khandhaka - which provides a wealth of material about the life of
the early Sangha and highlights of the Buddha's teaching career. It also
provides those rules pertaining to the organization and life of the Sangha
as a whole. This part is divided into the Mahavagga or Great Section, and
the Cullavagga or Small Section.
3. Parivara or Accessory - which is another presentation of the precepts in
a very terse form for memorizing.
1. Dhammasangani - Explication of Dhamma
2. Vibhanga - Division
3. Dhatukatha - Discourse on the Elements
4. Puggalapannatti - Description of Persons
5. Kathavatthu - Subjects of Discourse
6. Yamaka - Pairs
7. Patthana - Causal Relation
Before getting into the Mahayana sutras one must know something about the
Oral Tradition which all these sutras (or suttas) are supposedly based on.
After the Buddha's death (perhaps in the 5th or 4th century BCE), it is
said that 500 of the Buddha's enlightened disciples came together and
recited all the sermons (sutras) and precepts (vinaya) that the Buddha had
taught. Ananda, the Buddha's attendant, recited all the sutras he had heard
(which is why all the sutras open with Ananda saying, "Thus have I
heard..."). Upali, who was known for his scrupulous attention to the
precepts, recited the vinaya. All the monks there endorsed what had been
recited by Ananda and Upali. The Vinaya account of this event, however,
does admit that there were other enlightened monks (arhats) who were not
part of this gathering who had their own seperate recollection of the
sutras and vinaya. So there was some recognition that others may have
remembered things differently. Anyhow, this recitation was passed down as
an oral tradition until the first century BCE when the Pali Canon was first
recorded in Sri Lanka. At about the same time, the first Mahayana sutras
were recorded in Sanskrit.
Now at this point there were already divisions within the monastic community over variations in the precepts the different regional communities (or Sanghas) followed. There were also different schools of thought regarding the Abhidharma (the third basket of the Tripitika which systematized the teaching of the sutras). Out of this arose the more conservative monastic centered Buddhism which still exists in Sri Lanaka and SE Asia and is now known as Theravadin Buddhism. They are the ones who have preserved the Pali Canon and they follow those teachings exclusively and do not recognize the Mahayana sutras as the teaching of the Buddha.
The Mahayana followers, however, began to inscribe their own sutras which in many ways critiqued what they saw as the naive realism and self-indulgent spirituality of the Abhidharma scholars. They called themselves the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) because they believed that instead of becoming an arhat (someone who is liberated from birth and death) one should instead become a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a compassionate being who voluntarily remains in the world of birth and death until achieving buddhahood so they can then save others by teaching the Dharma. The bodhisattva way is like a "great vehicle" because it aims to carry along all people to enlightenment without leaving anyone behind. They used the deragatory title Hinayana or "Small Vehicle" to lable their more conservative opponents who allegedly taught that enlightenment can only be achieved by the individual through his or her own unaided efforts. It must be pointed out that while Buddhists in Mahayana countries such as Tibet, China, or Japan will identify themselves as Mahayana Buddhists, Theravadins will rightfully take offense at being referred to as Hinayana Buddhists. Truthfully, Mahayana and Hinayana are terms used only within Mahayana Buddhism that should be applied to attitudes and not to schools or individuals.
Mahayana monastics also originated devotional practices which exalted the Buddha or inspired people with stories of Buddhas and bodhisattvas who transferred their merits to others and whose Pure Lands one could go to after death. These practices dovetailed with the needs of the laity who were involved in the worship of holy relics enshrined in stupas. Devotion and worship was also directed at the sutras themselves, which were believed to have a mystical power to protect their devotees, bring good fortune, and even lead one to enlightenment simply through revering them.
Now the Mahayana sutras may not literally be the word of the historical Buddha (and in fact it is not always the historical Buddha who is presented as teaching in them). However, Mahayana Buddhists claim that these sutras better express the heart and spirit of the Buddha by using myth and poetry and paradox than the Pali Canon or the Agamas which give a more straightforward presentation of what the Buddha did and said. The devotional exuberance and paradoxical insights of Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism all have their source in these Mahayana sutras.
The Mahayana movement may never have been all that popular in India itself, and along with the rest of Buddhism in India it disappeared in the 12th century due to a variety of historical factors (with the Islamic
invasion of India providing the coup de gras). However, it was the Mahayana
form of Buddhism which was successfully imported into China, Korea, and
Japan, and eventually into Tibet.
Now the basic teachings that all Mahayanists agree on are the ones
contained in the Tripitika as taught in the Pali Canon and/or Agamas. But
above and beyond that, Mahayana teachings also include teachings about
emptiness (which is a deeper way of understanding Dependent Origination),
the way of the bodhisattva (including the six perfections which are really
an expanded restatement of the Eightfold Path), and the Three Bodies of the
Buddha (which is another expansion of ideas found in a seed form in the
There are, however, many Mahayana sutras, and in China different schools
of monks concentrated their study and practice on different sutras
depending on their interests and needs. These schools then went into Korea
and Japan. Here is a brief summary of the major ones:
The T'ien-t'ai (Tendai in Japan): This school upholds the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching, but also taught the emptiness philosophy of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Their main practice is called Concentration & Insight meditation, but this school also practices chanting the Name of the Buddha (Amitabha Buddha), and various ceremonial forms of devotion.
These schools virtually disappeared in China due to the persecution of
Emperor Wu in the 9th century. They were too dependent on large monasteries
and scholasticism and never had a popular appeal. They did however, leave a
legacy of creative synthesis of the teachings and practices of Mahayana
Buddhism from India which still exists within Chinese, Korean, and Japanese
Buddhism to this day. So what did survive in China? And what will you find
in a Chinese temple today?
The Hua-yen (Kegon in Japan): This school upholds the
Flower Garland Sutra as the highest teaching. In terms of practice, it also focuses on
meditation and chanting. One of its early Chinese patriarchs was also a Zen
Master and there has long been a connection between the theoretical Hua-yen
teachings and the practice oriented Zen school - esp. in China and
The Chen-yen (Shingon in Japan): This school follows the esoteric (aka tantric) practices of early Vajrayana Buddhism. It did not last long in China but became very powerful in Japan.
Two other schools of Chinese Buddhism survived the persecution of the 9th
century. These two schools did not require massive monasteries or vast
scholarly or ritualistic resources. These two schools did have a broader
appeal (or at least the first one did).
Pure Land Buddhism - this form of Buddhism focuses on the Pure Land Sutras
wherein Amitabha Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life) makes a
series of vows in order to create a perfect Pure Land wherein those who
call upon his name can be reborn and attain enlightenment. This salvation
by faith in the Buddha is the most popular and widely spread form of
Buddhism throughout all of East Asia. It's most extreme/developed(?) forms
are found in Japan, but more on that later.
Buddhism first came to Japan in the 6th century. The first schools to be
established were called the six schools of Nara, which was the capital of
Japan at that time. They were:
Ch'an (Zen in Japan, Son in Korea) is the Buddhism that is most well known in the West. This is the Buddhism of the legends of Bodhidharma, Hui-Neng, and others.
Two main subschools have survived into recent times:
The Tsao Tung (Soto in Japan) which focuses on the practice of "serene-reflection" meditation, otherwise known as "just
sitting." Dogen was a 13th century Japanese teacher of this tradition
In Japan, the Pure Land and Zen schools are very distinct. But on the
continent, in China, Korea, and Vietnam, the Pure Land and Zen schools are
taught in the same monasteries by the same teachers. The two have long
since been blended and harmonized. So in a Chinese temple today, you will
find that the laypeople for the most part practice Pure Land, as do the
devout monks and nuns. The monks and nuns, however, also follow the
precepts of the vinaya, study the philosophy of T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen, and
may even learn a little Chen-yen or esoteric Buddhism as well. Truly
dedicated lay and monastics will practice Zen as well.
The Lin Chi (Rinzai in Japan) which focuses on koans (which means "public case") which are stories or seemingly meaningless riddles
which are used to help the Zen practitioner achieve a breakthrough and
attain enlightenment. Hakuin was a 17-18th century teacher of this tradition in Japan.
In China, Korea, and Vietnam the Lin Chi school is the main representative of Zen. In Japan, Soto is the largest Zen school, but the Rinzai school has
a strong cultural influence beyond its small numbers.
The Ritsu school which teaches the vinaya, or monastic precepts of the
Of these six schools, the first three were considered Hinayana because they
focused on the non-Mahayana sutras and teachings of the Tripitika. The last
three are all Mahayana schools.
The Jojitsu and Kusha schools which study different versions of the Abhidharma.
The Sanron school which studies the Emptiness teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras using commentaries by the great Indian Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna and his disciple Aryadeva. In fact, the name of this school means "Three Treatises" and refers to two works by Nagarjuna and one by his disciple Aryadeva.
The Hosso school which studies the Consciousness Only teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, specifically as translated and taught by the Chinese
pilgrim/adventurer/translator/monk Hsuan-tsang. Hsuan-tsang, incidentally, was the actual historical basis for the story of Monkey which is a very
popular fantasy/myth in East Asia.
The Kegon School which studies the Flower Garland Sutra. This is the
Japanese version of the Chinese Hua-yen school.
In the 8th century two more schools were brought in:
The Tendai school was brought over by Saicho who had gone to China to
study the T'ien-t'ai teachings. In Japan he set up a precept platform on
Mt. Hiei for bestowing the specifically Mahayana precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra. Saicho (aka Dengyo Daishi) also brought over some esoteric teachings, Pure Land practices, and Zen practices. This school is very
comprehensive - though it gradually came to be dominated by esoteric
By the late 12th and the 13th century the Tendai and Shingon schools had
become the established religions of Japan under the patronage of the
aristocracy. The other schools became subordinate to these and were mainly
relegated to scholastic teaching. However, these schools were not
responsive to the needs of the masses who needed simple and easy practices
suitable for busy samurai and uneducated (and very busy) peasants. Into
this vaccuum came the Kamakuran reformers - Honen, Shinran, Dogen, Nichiren
The Shingon school is the premiere esoteric school of Japanese Buddhism and it was founded by Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi). Kukai had gone over to China with Saicho, but he received the transmission to teach Buddhism from the
Honen pioneered the Pure Land movement in Japan by teaching that one only
needed to recite Namu Amida Butsu (Devotion to Amitabha Buddha)
to be reborn in the Pure Land and that all other Buddhists teachings and
practices were superfluous and in fact an obstacle to simply practicing the
Nembutsu (reciting the Name of the Buddha). Honen's exclusivistic teachings
were censured by the Tendai school and the shogunate and he and many of his disciples were exiled (two were actually executed for various
improprieties). But his movement would eventually become so popular that
eventually even the other schools gave in to it and promoted the practice
These different movements were quite exclusivistic in their ideology and
practices. However, in recent times, members of all the schools have begun
to see that they do more harm to the Dharma by engaging in polemical debate
and that each of the schools and their founders have things that are worth
giving a respectful hearing. So in my experience both with the adherents of
these schools in America and with their followers in Japan, I have found in
most a willingness to learn and share with one another.
Shinran was a disciple of Honen and he took things even further and thus
became the founder of the Jodo Shinshu (the True Pure Land School) which is more or less the mainstream of Japanese Buddhism today. Shinran taught that
it is by faith alone that one attains rebirth in the Pure Land, and that
even the chanting of Nembutsu and the faith-mind itself is a gift of
Dogen founded the Soto School - which is ironic because he denounced even
using the name Zen let alone the even more sectarian designation Soto Zen.
Dogen had gone to China and studied Buddhism under Master Rujing. As far as
he was concerned he was not teaching a sectarian form but Buddhism itself.
He felt that the Nembutsu practice was little better than frogs croaking in
a pond. Dogen had little patience for the scholasticism and ritualism of
the other school, but he also condemned other Zen teachers for being
anti-intellectual and for neglecting the sutras and true discipline of Zen
life as he had experienced it under his master in China.
was a Tendai monk who felt that the problem with Buddhism in
Japan was that people had neglected the Lotus Sutra and original teachings of the T'ien-t'ai school. At first he tried to reform Tendai and bring it back to its original inspiration, but eventually he felt that there was an
even deeper meaning in the Lotus Sutra that had not been brought out in
even traditional T'ien-t'ai. Nichiren felt that he had been given the
mission to spread this deeper meaning by Shakyamuni Buddha himself. This
teaching revolves around the direct practice of the Lotus Sutra through
faith and rejoicing in its teaching by reciting Namu Myoho Renge
Kyo (Devotion to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra).
This was both Nichiren's way of responding the popularity and simplicity of
the Pure Land movement, and also a way of bringing people back to what he
felt was the true intention of Shakyamuni Buddha which was only expressed
in the Lotus Sutra (ie the One Vehicle whereby all beings are potential
buddhas; and the revelation of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha whereby the
Buddha is still present in and as our lives as the fully actualized
Buddhism entered Tibet much later than it entered East Asia. Whereas Buddhism is said to have entered China in the first century, and in Japan
in the 6th, Tibet didn't begin receiving Buddhism from India until the 9th
century. In betweem the 6th and the 9th centuries the tantric or Vajrayana
movement within Mahayana Buddhism had blossomed in India. Now mandala
visualizations, mantras, and symolic hand gestures called mudras were being
ceremonially imparted (through empowerments or initiations) by tantric
masters so that disciples could attain awakening in a more expeditious way.
In addition, Buddhist logic had also flowered and Nagarjuna's teachings
about emptiness and relinquishing views were further refined by his successors. All these tantric practices and highly sophisticated forms of Buddhist logic and dialectic (which did not enter into East Asia - but I
should note that East Asian Buddhism continued to develop the Buddhist
tradition in its own unique ways and is thus not necessarily superior or
inferior to this late Indian transmission) are what were brought into Tibet
by teachers like Atisa, Padmasambhava and others. There these teachings blended or in various ways accomodated the native shamanistic tradition
Eventually, Tibetan Buddhists formed four distinct schools:
The Nyingma - this is the earliest school and is very tantric in
orientation. The highest teaching of this school is called Dzogchen.
In the 19th century a movement called Rime came into being. Rime was an
attempt by several monks of various traditions to create a more ecumenical
atmosphere in which the various schools would stop fighting and start
learning from one another. The Dalai Lama is also a proponent of the Rime
The Kagyu - a later school which also focuses on tantra. It's most famous teacher is Milarepa. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a Kagyu teacher. The
highest teaching in this and the other schools is called Mahamudra.
The Sakya - a later school named after its main monastery (not Shakyamuni Buddha). It's teachings have not been propagated to any great extent outside Tibet.
The Gelug - this is the latest school in the sense that its most modern form is a reformed and revitalized verion of the older Kadam school.
Sometimes the Gelugs are called the New Kadampa (pa means school). The
reformer Tsongkhapa is one of the most widely known teachers of the Gelug school. This school is very monastic and scholastic in orientation, and prefers that one mature in basic Hinayana and Mahayana teachings before
moving on to Vajrayana. The Dalai Lama is the head of this school, and for several centuries the political leader of Tibet (the Mongols had set the
Dalai Lamas up in that position in, I believe, the 17th century).
To see the flow chart of Buddhist development, click the thumbnail below.
Diagram copyright by Max Guernsey, used with his
Here are several books that I have found to be very helpful and would
recommend to others who want to learn more:
The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin. (An excellent non-sectarian survey of Buddhism which I only found after writing this overview. I highly recommend it. It would make an excellent text book for a college course on Buddhism.)
Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience by Donald W. Mitchell. (Another excellent non-sectarian survey which is a little more detailed than Gethin's book, especially in regard to Buddhist developments and schools in different countries and also in its treatment of contemporary issues. This book also has quotes from various contemporary Buddhist teachers which give an inside glimpse of the different teachings and schools. This book is the one to pick if you are teaching a college or even a graduate level course on Buddhism.)
The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Nanamoli.
(This one I feel is really essential reading.)
What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. (Aside from the
accesstoinsight.org websight this book is the best starting point for learning about Theravadin Buddhism.)
It's Easier Than You Think by Sylvia Boorstein. (This is a very good
beginners book and is also coming out of the Vipassana-mindfulness
practices of Theravadin Buddhism.)
Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield. (An excellent anthology
of short snippets from a variety of Buddhist scriptures including Mahayana
Dhammapada: The Sayings of Buddha translation and commentary by Thomas
Cleary. (The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings and aphorisms by the
Buddha. It is a very good starting point for new Buddhists, and also for
longtime Buddhists who have been badly taught. Cleary's commentaries bring
in a Mahayana perspective and are also very critical of modern and not so
modern misuses of Buddha Dharma.)
Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul
William. (This book is a lot heavier going than the others, but it is the
best overview of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism that I have come across.)
Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey by Kenneth Ch'en. (This is also
probably a graduate level book, but it does give good overview of the
development of Chinese Buddhism and the different schools that arose).
The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master by the
Venerable Yin-shun. (This book also brilliantly covers the ins and outs of
modern Chinese Buddhism from the perspective of a practitioner.)
Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen - Traditions and Teachers by Mu Soeng Sunim.
(I would be remiss if I left out a good overview of Korean Buddhism. Though
it says it is about Korean Zen, it does touch upon the other schools of
Foundation of Japanese Buddhism: The Aristocratic Age in two Volumes by Alicia and Daigan
Matsunaga. (These are the books to read if one wants a comprehensive
overview of the development of Japanese Buddhism and the teaching of its
Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism by Reginald A. Ray
Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet by Reginald A. Ray
(These two books are the best introduction to the history, teachings, and
practices of the various Tibetan schools that I have yet come across.)
Lotus Seeds: The Essence of Nichiren Shu Buddhism.
(This book is put out by and only available from the San Jose Nichiren
Buddhist Temple, so email me privately if you are interested in getting a copy. It is $10, and covers general Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra, and Nichiren's life and teachings.)
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,