What Different Types of Buddhism Are There?

What Different Types of Buddhism Are There?

Statue of Buddha

What different types of Buddhism are there? We’re going to take a look at the main branches of Buddhism and how each branch carries its own unique set of values and practices.

Buddhism is a major world religion with over 500 million followers. And even though it began in India over 2,000 years ago, it continues to draw devoted practitioners from all over the world.

Today, Buddhist temples can be found from Sri Lanka to Canada.

So, what different types of Buddhism are there? And does a Buddhist in North America follow the same practices as a Buddhist in Japan?

Let’s take a look.

How Many Types of Buddhism Are There?

We’re going to take a look at how to practice Buddhism through the three main branches of Buddhism:

  1. Theravada Buddhism
  2. Mahayana Buddhism
  3. Vajrayana Buddhism

So, let’s begin!

Close up of monk's hands in prayer

What Are the 3 Types of Buddhism?

The three main branches of Buddhism are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. 

But don’t be fooled. There are many different types of Buddhism, including Zen, Thai Forest Tradition, and Pure Land Buddhism.

Today, we’re going to cover the three main schools of Buddhism. First up: Theravada Buddhism.

1. Theravada Buddhism: The School of the Elders

Theravada, the School of the Elders, is the oldest school of Buddhism. It draws its practices from the earliest Buddhist teachings.

Theravada Buddhism follows the Pali Canon — the oldest recorded teachings of the Buddha. The teachings are written in the ancient Indian language, Pali. Both Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism feature the Pali language.

Theravada is the most conservative branch of Buddhism. In fact, a number of strict rules govern Theravada meditation practice. And new teachings are often rejected from the practice. 

The aim of Theravada Buddhism is to become an arhat — a fully awakened being. This can be achieved through meditation, the contemplation of sutras, and following the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path includes right vision, right emotion, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.

Today, Theravada Buddhism is most popular in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

2. Mahayana Buddhism: The Great Vehicle

Next up is Mahayana Buddhism: the most popular branch of Buddhism today. Mahayana Buddhism is most popular in Nepal, Japan, China, Tibet, and Korea.

In Sanskrit, Mahayana means, “Great Vehicle.” Why? Well, this is a reference to the Mahayana Buddhism teaching of the bodhisattva.

A bodhisattva is a person who has become awakened. In fact, bodhisattvas have the ability to access nirvana, the state beyond suffering. But instead of doing so, they choose to delay their nirvana to guide and teach others.  

In Mahayana Buddhism, anyone can become a bodhisattva. And bodhisattvas work to help others achieve freedom from suffering.

Unlike Theravada Buddhism, the Mahayana tradition allows for new teachings outside the Pali canon. Popular sutras in Mahayana Buddhism are the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra.

3. Vajrayana Buddhism: The Way of the Diamond

Vajrayana Buddhism is known as“the Way of the Diamond.” But it’s sometimes also called Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism.

And as far as different types of Buddhism go, Vajrayana is one of the most unique.

What makes Vajrayana Buddhism so special is its approach to rapid Enlightenment through the use of tantras. The tantras are mystical texts that date back to the 6th century CE. Some of these practices combine spiritual and physical practices that can be overwhelming for beginners.

Because of the intense application needed for many Vajrayana Buddhist practices, most Vajrayana schools only accept advanced teachers and students.

Statue of Buddhist hands

What Are the 5 Rules of Buddhism?

These five rules, also called the five precepts, are common to most branches of Buddhism:

  1. “I undertake the precept to abstain from killing breathing beings.”
  2. “To abstain from taking what is not mine.”
  3. “I undertake the precept to abstain from misconduct concerning sense-pleasures.”
  4. “To abstain from false speech.”
  5. “I undertake the training precept to abstain from alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness.”

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