THREE MAIN TYPES OF BUDDHISM
There are many different schools or sects of Buddhism. The two largest are Theravada Buddhism, the dominant form of Buddhist in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar), and Mahayana Buddhism, which is dominant in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. Tibetan Buddhist which is viewed as a kind Mahayana Buddhism is strong in Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Mongolia. All schools of Buddhism seek to aid followers on a path of enlightenment. The majority of Buddhist sects do not seek to proselytize (preach and convert), with the notable exception of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan.
There are three main Buddhist sects:
1) Theravada Buddhism,
2) Mahayana Buddhism,
3) Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism and Tantrism).
According to the Asia Society Museum: “Three main types of Buddhism have developed over its long history, each with its own characteristics and spiritual ideals.” Foundational Buddhism,” [precursor of Theravada Buddhism] often known by the pejorative term Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”), is the earliest of the three and emphasizes the attainment of salvation for oneself alone and the necessity of monastic life in order to attain spiritual release. The Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”), whose members coined the word “Hinayana” and believed its adherents pursued a path that could not be followed by the majority of ordinary people, teaches the salvation of all. Practitioners of the Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”), or Esoteric Buddhism [Tibetan Buddhism], believe that one can achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, as opposed to the other two types, which postulate that it takes many eons to accrue the necessary good karma
“These three types were not mutually exclusive, but their emphasis on different practices affected Buddhist art. For example, whereas foundational Buddhism teaches that only a few devotees are able to reach enlightenment and that they do so through their own efforts, Mahayana and its later offshoot, Vajrayana, teach that Buddhahood is attainable by everyone with help from beings known as bodhisattvas. As a result, images of bodhisattvas proliferated in Mahayana and Vajrayana art and are often depicted flanking Buddha’s.
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism and the two main branches of Buddhism. Theravada means “Way of the Elders,” an implication that it is literally what Buddha taught. Mahayana means “Greater vehicle,” a derogatory reference that it superior to Theravada Buddhism, the Lesser Vehicle. One of the main differences between the two is that the ideal of Mahayana is becoming a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be). Buddha only referenced himself as this and never gave instructions on how one should become a Bodhisattva. Sutras that address this matter were created after he died. During his life, The Buddha stressed the need to end suffering in this very life and try for the highest goal Arhatship. Theravada Buddhists resist the idea of Bodhisattvas and regard their system of beliefs as being purer and close to what The Buddha taught.
Confusing matters is the fact that Buddha referred to himself as an Arhat (Pali for “one who is worthy” or a “perfected person” who achieved Nirvana). This seems to have implied that has no different from any of his enlightened disciples who attained this state. The only difference was that he was a full master of all the powers and great perfections that go with being enlightened, things that others didn’t necessarily have. One inference of Mahayana Buddhism is that in attaining perfections and striving for nirvana one must forestall full enlightenment to continuously work on the perfections.
Differences between Mahayana Buddhists and Theravada Buddhists
Mahayana Buddhists claim their doctrines are rooted in early teachings of Buddha and say they do not reject the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism, but have just expanded on them. Theravada Buddhists view Mahayana Buddhism as a corrupted form of Buddha’s teaching plus see it as too easy. Theravada Buddhists are taught that one must “work out one’s own salvation with diligence whereas Mahayana Buddhists believe faith is enough to earn all believers eventual salvation.
Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism differ greatly on the matter of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists recognize many of them as well as many Buddhas. Theravada Buddhists recognize just one, The Buddha.
Tantrism and Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhist monks Tibetan Buddhism is a syncretic mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Tantrism and local pantheistic religions, particularly the Bon religion. Its organization, public practices and activities are coordinated mainly by monasteries associated with temples. Religious authority is in the hands of priests called lamas. Tantrism is sometimes regarded as one of the three major sects of Buddhism along with Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Originally from India, it is a highly ritualistic religion that combines beliefs in magic and esoteric philosophy and emphasizes mystic symbols, sacred chants, and other esoteric devotional techniques. It is usually associated with Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism.
Tantric Buddhism is often called Vajrayana (“thunderbolt vehicle”). In Tibet, it is heavily influenced by the ancient Bon religion, which used shaman to dispel demons and appease the gods, and incorporates a number of mudras (“ritual postures”), mantras (“sacred speech”), yantras (“sacred art”) and secret initiation rites. Most of the ritual objects and images of deities used in Tibetan Buddhism are derived from Tantrism. The techniques are generally not written down but passed orally from master to student.