The Different Types of Buddhism
Here at One Mind Dharma, we practice mainly in one tradition of Buddhism. However, there are different types of Buddhism out there, and it may be useful to investigate for ourselves which tradition and practices work for us in our lives. These different schools of Buddhism have many things in common, and generally follow the basic teachings. However, the spread of Buddhism to new cultures and lands created traditions that vary greatly in practice.
You can also check out our post Differences Between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism for more information about how these schools differ.
When you’re done reading, take our fun little quiz at the bottom. You can also skip ahead to the quiz to see what you know before you read!
The Schools of Buddhism
There are three main schools of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Vajrayana is considered by some scholars to be a branch of Mahayana, while others consider it to be a separate tradition. Within each school are many different traditions and practices. The different types of Buddhism can be broken down most basically into three schools, with further subdivisions below.
Theravada Buddhism translates to the “Way of the Elders,” and is the oldest form of Buddhism existing. Using the Pali language, Theravada Buddhism relies on the Tipitaka, or Pali canon. This is the collection of the Buddha’s earliest teachings and discourses. During Buddhist councils, Theravada Buddhists added commentary to the suttas, or scriptures. You can learn about the suttas in our post The Suttas – The Buddhist “Holy Book” or Sacred Text.
Theravada is most popular in Southeast Asia, in countries such as Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, and Laos. Theravada may be considered more conservative, following older teachings of the Buddha and not adding widely-accepted new scriptures or teachings. Monks follow fairly rigorous training rules (vinaya), eat only what is freely offered, and often spend hours of their day sitting in formal meditation.
The focus of Theravada Buddhism is to cultivate liberation and become an arhat, or fully awakened being. This is done through meditation practice, taking refuge in the Three Jewels, contemplation of the dhamma, and and the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Among individual traditions, teachers focus on different practices leading to awakening. Some traditions encourage reading the suttas repeatedly, while others focus on concentrative meditation to work toward awakening.
Thai Forest Tradition
The Thai Forest Tradition, or kammatthana, is a tradition that took shape in the late 19th century with Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto and Ajahn Sao Kantasilo. Building off the previously established Dhammayut order, the kammatthana order was created by monks wishing to investigate Buddhism as the Buddha taught it. The two monks came from a region in Northeast Thailand called Isan, and wandered the country in order to practice monasticism as the Buddha did. Thai Forest tradition focuses on applying the Buddha’s teachings to the defilements of the mind in order to relieve suffering.
This type of Buddhism as a whole is against the idea of “dry insight.” That is, teachers in the Thai Forest tradition often teach that we must first cultivate concentration through jhana practice before developing wisdom and insight. Without calming the mind, we cannot achieve true insight and liberation. The words “exertion” and “effort” are commonly used in this tradition, as the tradition holds that we must put some effort forth in order to achieve liberation.
There have been many wonderful teachers from Thai Forest tradition. Some of our personal favorite include: Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Brahm, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and Ajahn Amaro. If you’re looking for books on Theravada Buddhism, we recommend Food for the Heart by Ajahn Chah and Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma: Teachings and Meditation Instructions from Twelve Theravada Masters.
You can also check out or list of The Best Buddhist Books, a collection of our favorite books about Buddhism.
Like Thailand, Buddhism has a long history in Myanmar. The recent Sixth Buddhist Council was held in Rangoon in the mid 1950’s, and the country has had strong Buddhist roots for many centuries. Burmese monks wear maroon robes, where Thai, Laotian, and Sri Lankan monks often wear saffron robes. The largest order of monks is the Thudhamma tradition, which consists of an estimated 300,000 monks in the country.
Burmese Buddhist culture places strong emphasis on merit, or creating positive karma through meritorious deeds. This leads to a community of laypeople that strongly supports and venerates the monastic order, offering money, food, and space for the monks to practice. Meditation practice centers around the practice of vipassana, or insight, meditation. This is a form of meditation as old as the Buddha, but popularized in recent centuries. You can learn about different types of meditation in our post 17 Types of Meditation – Which One is For You?.
There are many great Burmese teachers, and Jack Kornfield covers some of them in the aforementioned Living Dharma book. Some of our favorite Burmese teachers include Mahasi Sayadaw, Pa Auk Sayadaw, S.N. Goenka, and Sayadaw U Pandita. We recommend reading In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita and the large but wonderful Manual of Insight from Mahasi Sayadaw.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is an important area in the history of Buddhism. The dharma first traveled to Sri Lanka with Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE. Sri Lanka is where the Pali canon was first written down, where Buddhist monk-scholar Buddhaghoso wrote the Visuddhimaga, and was home to the Fourth Buddhist Council. Sri Lanka has a strong tradition of writing the Buddha’s teachings and making them available to surrounding cultures and people.
Sri Lanka has the oldest known lineage of Buddhist communities, with the sangha remaining largely intact since the 3rd century BCE. Because of its history and involvement in the writing of the suttas, reading and writing dhamma is still important today in Sri Lanka. Due to colonization and Christian proselytizing, Buddhism gained some momentum in the mid 1800’s. Unlike many other Theravada countries, Sri Lanka has an active order of bhikkhunis, or nuns.
Sri Lankan Buddhism still revolves around learning the dhamma, studying the teachings, and applying the teachings. Prominent teachers in Sri Lankan lineages include Bhante Henepolo Gunaratana, Bhante Sujatha, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ayya Khema, and Bhikkhu Analayo. For readings from the Sri Lanka traditions, we recommend Bhikkhu Analayo’s Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization and Ayya Khema’s Being Nobody, Going Nowhere.
Insight meditation is a tradition that has taken hold in the West very strongly, and you may have heard the term. Also known as the vipassana movement, insight meditation is the foundation of meditation centers like Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The insight meditation movement became popular in the 1950’s in Myanmar, and moved to the West through American teachers like Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Sylvia Boorstein, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and S.N. Goenka.
Originating from vipassana meditation in Theravada schools, it is largely influenced by Thai Forest teachers and Burmese teachers. Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah, and Dipa Ma are often considered some of the most powerful influencers of the modern-day vipassana movement. The emphasis in insight meditation is on developing insight, specifically through investigation of experience and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
Insight meditation is perhaps most popular in Myanmar and Western countries. Many of the American teachers who helped bring insight meditation back to the United States are still alive and teaching today, leading the vipassana movement in the country. For books on insight meditation, we recommend Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart.
Mahayana is the other major school of Buddhism, and the largest school of Buddhism in the world. It is popular in many countries in Asia, including Nepal, Tibet, Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia. Although these countries may not be majority Buddhist, the Buddhist traditions which are most popular in these areas tend to be Mahayana ones. There are many different types of Mahayana, and we are going to cover a few well-known traditions.
The term Mahayana means “great vehicle” and refers the the path of the bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism, the aim of practice is generally not to attain enlightenment for oneself but to cultivate buddhahood for all sentient beings. Many people take the bodhisattva vows, which is the promise to return to this world until all living beings are freed from suffering. The traditional Four Great Vows are:
Sentient beings are numberless,
I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible,
I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless,
I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable,
I vow to attain it.
Mahayana monks tend to live with less strict rules than Theravada monks. They often eat vegetarian and are able to participate in more activities than Theravada monastics. In addition, bhikkhuni orders are generally much more common in Mahayana schools than Theravada. Some scholars believe this schism from Theravada happened at the Second Buddhist Council, although it is unclear when Mahayana emerged as a different type of Buddhism than Theravada.
In many Mahayana traditions, there are teachings outside the Pali canon. There are many teachers who have been revered and sutras (the Sanskrit word equivalent to the Pali word sutta) which have been included. These include popular teachings like the Lotus Sutra or the Heart Sutra. Meditation practice also includes more chanting and mantras, especially in Tibetan traditions.
Chan and Zen
Perhaps one of the best-known types of Buddhism is Zen Buddhism. Zen originated in China around the 5th century CE as Chan. Heavily influenced by Taoist culture and yogic practices, Chan emerged as its own tradition. From China, Chan traveled to Vietnam, Korea, and eventually to Japan. In Japanese, Chan is called Zen. Lineage is very important in Zen and Chan traditions, and most teachers can trace their lineage back to Bodhidharma.
Zen students spend time sitting in meditation, known as zazen. Reading and understanding teachings is wonderful, but the focus of this tradition is on actually practicing and observing mind and experience. Zazen usually begins with a focus on the breath, and students will move on to simply sitting (known as shikantaza) and koan study with a Zen teacher.
Zen has heavily influenced artistic styles in Asia, and become rather trendy in the West in recent decades. Prominent Zen teachers include Thich Nhat Hanh, Suzuki Roshi, Wu Bong, and Jakusho Kwong Roshi. Although we have relatively little experience with Zen practice, we do recommend the books Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi.
Nichiren is a branch of Buddhism which originated in Japan in the 13th century CE. Founded by the Buddhist priest Nichiren, it has been the foundation of many newer religious movements like SGI. Nichiren focuses on the innate Buddha-nature that all beings have within them. This means we are all capable of attaining enlightenment in our lives.
Nichiren practices relies heavily on chanting. Nichiren Buddhists often chant the Lotus Sutra and the names of bodhisattvas. The most common mantra is nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is a recitation of the title of the Lotus Sutra in Japanese. Nichiren taught and wrote of the importance of practicing the dharma with our bodies and in everyday life, and called for more than contemplation and meditation. Nichiren is one of the few Buddhist traditions that advocates for the spread of the tradition.
Pure Land Buddhism originated in India and is popular in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet. This type of Buddhism focuses on the Buddha Amitabha, a celestial Buddha known as the aggregate of discernment and deep awareness of emptiness. The word Amitabha means “limitless light.” The basis of Pure Land Buddhism is that this world will always contain corruption, and we must seek rebirth in a realm without corruption, the Pure Land.
Practice in Pure Land Buddhism focuses on Amitabha. Students recite the name of Amitabha and the mantra of Pure Land rebirth. They also may visualize Amitabha Buddha. These are practices in mindfulness of the Buddha, and Pure Land Buddhism is perhaps the tradition with the strongest emphasis on faith. It is popular in the West for its relative simplicity and clarity in practice.
Vajrayana Buddhism is sometimes considered a type of Mahayana, while other scholars consider it its own specific type of Buddhism. The most famous form of this school is Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is sometimes called Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism. It involves the use of tantras, or specific spiritual techniques which help individuals gain enlightenment as quickly as possible.
Because the practices are considered advanced, they may be dangerous if worked without proper guidance. The practices can lead individuals into more craving, clinging, and suffering if not done carefully. With proper work, it is believed that tantric practice can bring you to full enlightenment in this lifetime, rather than waiting for countless reincarnations. Many practices in Vajrayana schools are known only to senior teachers and serious students, as laypeople are not able to handle them. This leads to quite a bit of mystery around practices.
Many people in the West use the term Tibetan Buddhism to describe all Vajrayana traditions, but there are actually many different types of Vajrayana. His Holiness the Dalai is the leader of a tradition known as Gelug, in addition to being the ruler of Tibet. Vajrayana is responsible for quite a bit of Buddhist art, Buddhist symbols, and commonly-known mantras, as the practices focus on the use of objects and visualization.