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The Evolution of Buddhist Schools


Charley Linden Thorp
published on 03 April 2017
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All Buddhist schools today despite their differences in ritual, doctrine, and practice are based on the original teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became enlightened at approximately the age of 35 whilst sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, northern India, about 2600 years ago. 'Enlightenment' is the most common translation of the Sanskrit term 'bodhi,' in Japanese 'satori' or 'kensho,' which means awakening and should not be confused with the western idea of intellectual enlightenment which means 'informed, aware, knowledgeable, illuminated' and so on. In Buddhism, enlightenment is the state that marks the culmination of the Buddhist religious path as established by Buddha Shakyamuni.

The release from human suffering and continual rebirths, known in Indian religions as the world of 'samsara,' is Nirvana (Skt: moksha or mukti; Pali: Nirbanna) which literally means the 'blowing out' or 'extinguishing' of all human cravings. This is recognised as a state of perfect quietude, freedom, and the highest form of happiness which all humans are seeking. But in Buddhism, this liberation refers to a realisation of non-self (Skt: anatta) and emptiness (Skt: shunyata) which bring an escape from samsara.  

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The Wheel of Dharma

To fully understand the diversity of Buddhist schools, it is important to recognise the Dharmachakra (Skt: wheel of the law with eight spokes) which represents the Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration). This wheel turns eternally with no beginning or end and is significant because it was the theme of the very first sermon Buddha gave, 'Setting in Motion of Wheel of Law' (Dharmacakrapravartana Sutra) in which he sets out the Four Noble Truths (first: suffering is inevitable in human life; second: suffering arises due to attachment; third: suffering ceases with the attainment of Nirvana; fourth: the Eightfold Path described above). At this time, Buddha predicted two more turnings of the Wheel of Dharma to suit the condition of humans as time went by. The second would be Mahayana Buddhism and the third Vajrayana Buddhism.    

Dharma Wheel
Dharma Wheel
saamiblog (CC BY)

The ThreE Turnings of the Wheel

The first turning of the wheel was Thervada. This is the oldest and most orthodox of the Buddhist schools and is known also as the 'Teaching of the Elders or Hearers' (Skt: Hinayana or Sthavira school). Originating in Sri Lanka, it is characterized by a strong division between monks and lay practitioners: the monks meditate, study, and teach, working for individual enlightenment, while the laity follows the basic five precepts (refraining from harming living beings, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying/gossip, and from intoxication, e.g. drugs/drinks), gives alms, makes donations, chants and offers prayers.

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In summary, these teachings are plain and guide aspirants to abstain from evil, accumulate good, and purify the mind. They focus on the human Buddha and the Three Trainings: ethical conduct, meditation, and insight wisdom. The key figure in Theravada Buddhism is Buddhaghosa, and the key text is Visuddhimagga ('The Path of Purification'). The ideal of this individual path is the arhat or worthy person, but this may take several lifetimes to achieve. 

Theravada practitioners aim for a life in which all birth is at an end, holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to worldly life. The texts of this Early Period, written in Pali which is thought to be the spoken language of the Buddha, are called Pali Canon, although Thervadans acknowledge all sutras from the following wheel-turnings also. Its limitations may be said to be that the figure of the Buddha is remote to practitioners, that it may take several lifetimes to become an arhat and women are, even today, thought of as inferior.

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The second turning of the wheel was Mahayana, known also as the Mahayanas, (the 'Great Vehicle' or 'Truth') a movement of diverse teachings systematised by Nagarjuna c. 2nd century CE. It follows the basic Theravada structure, but the demarcation between the monks and lay practitioners is blurred because all beings can become equally enlightened. The body of Mahayana sutras, the Wisdom Sutras, has seen many cultural adaptations due to the spread of Buddhism to the north to Nepal and Tibet and east to northern and southern Asia. Stupas, depositories for relics of Holy Beings and sacred texts, appeared, maintained and patronised by lay practitioners; and ideal became the Bodhisattva, a being who served all humanity and put their own enlightenment aside. The figure of the Buddha became supernatural with many aspects or emanations. All beings can reach Nirvana within their lifetime through meditation, rituals, and chanting because all beings contain the seed of Buddhahood, Buddha Nature.

Sanchi Stupa
Sanchi Stupa
Elleen Delhi (CC BY-NC-SA)

Mahayana Buddhists work towards the salvation of all who sincerely seek enlightenment, monks and laity alike, therefore, compassion and wisdom are towering values and the Bodhisattva ideal dominates all practice. Its limitations may be said to be that enlightenment is often perceived as a goal rather than a step in a much larger process and rituals and practice are so elaborate that the life of suffering may easily be forgotten and practitioners instead become attached to life.

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The third turning of the wheel was Vajrayana ('Diamond Vehicle'), an extension of the Mahayana Buddhism, also known also as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, which came into existence circa 700 CE. Vajra is a thunderbolt used the symbolise the imperishable nature of enlightenment. Tibet has always been isolated with its mountainous terrain, few natural resources and tiny population, but there were three diffusions of Buddhism: first, at the hand of Songsten Gampo, the first religious king who had an Indian and Chinese wife who were acquainted with Buddhism; the second, King Trisong Detsen who invited Santaraksita from India to promulgate the teachings, succeeded by Padmasambhava, a powerful guru who established the first monastery; and the third, King Relpa Chen was assassinated and succeeded by Lang Darma, but quickly followed by the great Atisha (982-1054), an Indian teacher, who perfected the Buddhist system in Tibet.

Vajrayana Buddhists aspire to become Bodhisattvas, taking their innate Buddha Nature as the starting point. 

In the 20th century CE, Tibet was invaded by China, leading to the political and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fleeing to India. Over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet were destroyed. Since then Tibetan Buddhism has become an international practice led by Tibetan gurus resident in UK, US, and many parts of Europe.

Vajrayana Buddhists aspire to become Bodhisattvas, taking their innate Buddha Nature as the starting point.  Employing tantric techniques, the practitioner works to attain the empty nature of the enlightened mind and to purify all perceptions so that they can see the ultimate truth. Its limitations are that Vajrayana Buddhists can be boastful and competitive and the four main schools constantly fight for supremacy. This school also tends to value myth more highly than history and the rituals are complex because of the inherited indigenous practices of Tibet (Bon and other superstitious beliefs). 

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The First Rifts

After the Buddha's death, his disciples worked hard to disseminate his teachings. In 480 BCE, the First Council meeting was held led by Mahakassyapa, Ananda, and Upali, those disciples closest to the Buddha. As a result, the teachings of Buddha were then codified and later recorded in writings known as the sutras. The Second Council was held in 350 BCE mainly to stamp out heresy which was growing among the followers. Due to unrest, this is when the first major rift appeared in the sangha (the community of monks) led by Mahadeva who protested against the arrogance of the elite, in other words, the enlightened, who still had many shortcomings but had become complacent. This is when the first and second turnings of the wheel of Dharma can be traced back to.  

Two important Mahayana Schools

Madhyamaka, or the Middle School, was founded by the first great name in Buddhism, Nagarjuna c. 2nd century BCE, about whom little is known. This school, which claimed to be faithful in spirit to the original teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, advocated the Middle Way between extreme practices and theories, for example, either that 'things exist' or 'things do not exist,' believing the essence of the Dharma lay in between the extremes. Debate was popular then, so the strategy of attacking the opposite views rather than defending their own was adopted. Through this intellectual process, reality became like a film strip, each independent frame constantly giving way to the next producing the illusion of stability and continuity. Their conclusion was that the true nature of phenomena can only be described as emptiness which is synonymous with the doctrine of Dependent Origination (Skt: Pratityasamutpada) – all phenomena arise because they depend on causes and conditions and therefore lack intrinsic being, i.e. when A exists, B arises. If A does not exist, B does not arise. This reasoning is set out in the root text of this school, Mulamadhyamakakarika.

The important implication for the future of Buddhism was that if emptiness is the true nature of everything that exists, there is no difference between samsara and Nirvana and any difference that is perceived must come from ignorance or misconception. Therefore, Madhyamaka suggests there are two levels of truth: the Ultimate Truth (the view of the enlightened); and the Relative or Veiled level of Truth (the view of the unenlightened).

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After Nagarjuna, his disciple Aryadeva continued to develop the school. But later there was a division in this school leading to two branches of Madhyamaka: the Svatantrika and the Prasangika. These systems were transmitted from India to Tibet and East Asia. In China, it was known as San-lun (the three treatises school), but due to its negative doctrines, it was heavily criticised by Buddhists and non-Buddhists and eventually converged with the Yogacara School.

The Yogacara School (or Yogachara), which practised yoga, emerged in the 4th century CE. This school is also known as Vijnanavada or the 'Way of Consciousness.' Its origins are shrouded in mystery, and its founders were Maitrayanatha, Asanga, and Vasubandhu. It flourished in India until the 8th century CE when it combined with the best elements of the Madhyamaka. It was transmitted to China through the efforts of Paramartha and Hsuan-tsang and was also introduced and widely studied in Tibet.

Avatamsaka Sutra Frontispiece
Avatamsaka Sutra Frontispiece
Unknown Artist (Public Domain)

The key scriptures are the Sandhinirmocana Sutra, Dasabhumika Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra. Many Buddhist classics are attributed to this period, but the encyclopaedic Yogacarabhumi Sastra is perhaps the best known attributed to the three founders. Its doctrines and theories are derived from meditational experiences and focus on two themes: the nature of the mind and the nature of experience. Eight aspects of consciousness were distinguished: the afflicted mind, the six perceptual consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and thought; deluded awareness a result of self-grasping; and the all-encompassing foundation consciousness, the result of memory. Rebirth in samsara leaves a string of imprints derived from experiences and actions which will eventually ripen when the conditions are right to produce dualistic delusions of subject and object. This gives rise to the production of a false self and the potential production of more imprints. There are three natures: the imagined, the dependent, and the consummate. At enlightenment, a radical transformation occurs creating a mirror-like Awareness.   

Yogacara also contributed to a refining of the Three Bodies (trikaya), the Five Awarenesses and brought to prominence the ten stages of Bodhi, that of a Bodhisattva being the most important.

Five Schools popular in the West

Pure Land Buddhism. There are Pure Land Schools in both China and Japan. It comes from the term Buddha-land or Buddha-field, a Mahayana term describing the idea that when beings become enlightened they do not disappear but remain to help others. Each of the five Buddhas, the Five Dhyani Buddhas, was assigned a different colour, wisdom, and realm in early 19th century CE, as follows: white Buddha Vairochana in the centre; green Amoghasiddhi in the north; red Amitabha in the west; yellow Ratnasambhava in the south, and blue Akshobya in the east. In Esoteric Buddhism, these areas of the Cosmos were charted on sacred maps known as mandalas, but although outside samsara, the human world, they were not to be confused with the idea of heaven. These practices have become very popular in the west.

Zen. The Chinese word 'Ch'an' means meditation and is pronounced 'Zen' in Japanese. Zen is comprised of a number of particular religious techniques and is an umbrella term for various schools of Zen in Japan: Rinzai, Soto, Obaku, and Fuke. Zen is also used to cover the whole tradition of Ch'an in China and other countries such as Vietnam and Korea. Its main practice is seated meditation (zazen)' and koans or riddles, brief stories or dialogues from the Ch'an tradition, which are used as the main focus of meditation. Zen is famous for austerity and aggressive teaching techniques, including shouting and beating, which shock practitioners into awakening.

Tendai. One of the major schools of Japanese Buddhism that appeared between 794-1185 CE. It was founded by the monk Saicho who brought the Chinese teachings of T'ien-t'ai to Japan and is widely eclectic embracing both Esoteric rituals, Exoteric studies in doctrine and scripture, and early forms of Zen and Pure Land. Unlike Shingon Buddhism established by Kukai at the same time, Tendai was patronised by the imperial family and became wealthy. This made it a breeding ground for new reform movements such as Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren and combined with corruption and military conflicts caused it to recede into the background. It was eclipsed by the newer schools and today is a minor sect.

Nichren-shu. Nichiren (1222-1282 CE) was the first non-aristocratic leader of a Japanese Buddhist sect which may account for his uncompromising style of religion. Ordained as a Tendai priest which championed the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, he is famous for promoting his views and openly attacking the teachings of other schools which were considered intolerant and arrogant. As a result of this behaviour, he was exiled to remote islands several times and heavily persecuted. According to him, the Daimoku mantra - 'Namo myoho renge kyo' - was the sole chant and only practice. There have been many divisions in this sect, and in 1937 CE, one of the most successful and controversial, Soka Gakkai International, has evolved into the third largest political party in Japan, blending politics and religion together.

Chris Gladis (CC BY-ND)

The Order of Interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh, the international Vietnamese peace activist established this international order in 1966 CE. It is a mixed lay and monastic group which now has its headquarters in Plum Village, the Dordogne region of southern France. Hanh also established the Unified Buddhist Churches of France and Vietnam and coined the term 'Engaged Buddhism,' meaning Buddhism in action in a society promoting the non-violent solutions to conflict of the individual. He has published over 100 books, 40 of which are written originally in English. This term was inspired by a 13th-century CE king of Vietnam who abdicated his throne to become a monk and founded the School of the Bamboo Forest tradition. In 1960, Hanh was exiled from Vietnam at the outbreak of the Vietnam War, going to study comparative religions at Princeton, and eventually returned to Vietnam in 1963 to aid his fellow practitioners in non-violent peace efforts. His approach combines traditional Zen teachings with insights from other Mahayana and Theravada traditions, offering modern meditation techniques and strategies.

Secular Buddhism

Today, in the 21st century CE, Secular Buddhism, which focuses on Buddhism as an applied philosophy rather than a religion, is gaining ground. This is based on humanistic values rather than religious. It looks closely at how we see the world as individuals and how to change that view. 

The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.  

Thich Nhat Hahn - Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment

Editorial Review This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.
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About the Author

Charley Linden Thorp
Linden is a writer/university teacher living in Japan. She is also a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.

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APA Style

Thorp, C. L. (2017, April 03). The Evolution of Buddhist Schools. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Thorp, Charley Linden. "The Evolution of Buddhist Schools." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 03, 2017.

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Thorp, Charley Linden. "The Evolution of Buddhist Schools." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 03 Apr 2017. Web. 10 May 2021.