What Are Buddhism’s 4 Main Schools of Thought?

An introduction to Buddhism through its main schools: Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, and Vajrayana — exploring the basic beliefs, practices, and traditions of each.

Apr 25, 2024By Rose Woodward, BTEC Art and Design, BA Arts and Humanities (in progress)

buddhist schools though


With its origins in India more than 2,500 years ago, Buddhism has profoundly influenced religion and philosophy across Asia. Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, was the historical figure who founded Buddhism; after his passing around 483 BCE, his teachings became the fundamental principles of Buddhism. Over time, Buddhism diverged into various branches, each embracing its own unique approach to these teachings. This article will delve into four primary sects: Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, and Vajrayana. Each sect offers a distinct path to enlightenment.


What Do the Schools Have in Common? 

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Head of Buddha, Ming dynasty, ca. 1500, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The earliest schools of Buddhism started as sanghas (communities). As Buddhism expanded, these Sanghas were formed in different regions and cultures. This regional divide led to varying interpretations of the early Buddhist texts and oral transmissions and these differences naturally created divisions within the faith which ultimately resulted in the emergence of distinct Buddhist schools with their own unique practices.


While each school has its own specific practices, they all share common foundations, adhering to the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the belief in the cycle of karma and rebirth. The teachings at the core of all Buddhist schools, known as the four noble truths, serve as the foundation for understanding Buddhist ideals and the path to liberation from suffering. The Four Noble Truths in Buddhism explain the nature of suffering (Dukkha), its cause (Samudaya), the possibility of its cessation (Nirodha), and the path to overcoming it (Noble Eightfold Path).


historical buddha preaching
The Historical Buddha Preaching, a section from The Illustrated Sutra of Past and Present Karma (Kako genzai inga kyō emaki), Nara period (710–794), Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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The Eightfold Path is a set of the eight correct practices of perception, resolve, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and samadhi. By acknowledging that life is suffering, relinquishing attachment and craving, and embracing the teachings of Buddha, the Buddhist practitioner can then embark on the journey toward liberation.


The concept of Karma is another fundamental belief in all Buddhist schools. Karma can essentially be described as the connection between actions and consequences. It is not a form of divine justice or punishment but rather a natural law similar to cause and effect. In Buddhist teachings, reincarnation is a core belief that explains the continuation of consciousness after death. It is not viewed as a soul or self, but rather a continuous flow of energy and experiences known as Samsara. The type of rebirth one attains is determined by their accumulated karma, with positive actions leading to a higher realm and negative actions leading to lower realms.


1. Theravada

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Monks pass shop window, by conceptphoto.info, Source: Flikr


Theravada, literally meaning “Way of the Elders,” is widely credited with being the earliest form of Buddhism and is believed to be the closest of the sects to Siddhartha Gautama’s original teachings. Theravadins believe that enlightenment can only be attained by closely following the historical Buddha’s path and as such, place importance on the earliest Buddhist texts, known as the Pali canon. Salvation is limited to only those who follow a monastic approach to Buddhism and is obtained by the practitioner’s own merit. In this way, Nirvana can be achieved through an individual journey of practice, reflection, and self-realization.


These ancient practices are the foundation for many modern-day mindfulness meditation techniques. Theravada is seen as conservative in comparison to other sects as it is more analytical and less ritualized, and the teachings focus solely on the historical Buddha. Theravada Buddhism recognizes past incarnations of the historical Buddha but not contemporary buddhas nor much of the large pantheon of bodhisattvas and deities acknowledged within the other schools of thought. The leading school of Buddhism, Theravada is mostly practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia where the majority of the population is Buddhist.


The Arhat

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Two Arthats, Korean, Joseon dynasty, Source: Google Arts & Culture


When a Theravadin gains insight into the true nature of reality they become what is known as an “Arhat” and are thus liberated from the cycle of samsara (life, death, and rebirth). An arhat is a devoted follower of Buddha who achieves enlightenment through profound contemplation of his teachings. By fully comprehending the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path, they attain awakening, a state typically pursued through a monastic path. Each school of Buddhism has a slightly different relationship with the arhat. In Mahayana Buddhist schools, the arhats are respected but usually considered as being one step before reaching the ultimate position on the Buddhist spiritual path; for them, the goal is to become a Bodhisattva.


For the Theravadins, becoming an arhat is the ultimate goal. The arhat has an ancient history predating Buddhism, and this is why sometimes in art or literature the arhat is portrayed with mystical or eccentric aspects, although the Theravada tradition does not recognize the Arhat as esoteric.


2. Mahayana

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Monk with Flowing Robes, by Adam Brill, Source: Flickr


Mahayana or “great vehicle” has a wider interpretation of what constitutes teachings from the Buddha and incorporates doctrine and text that are not recognized by the Theravada tradition and whose core is the Pali Canon. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism focuses less on individual salvation and more on the liberation of all sentient beings, and in this way, Mahayana can be seen as a more inclusive school of Buddhism.


Mahayana practitioners, with the objective of enlightening many, strive to become bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are enlightened individuals who are close to Buddhahood but choose to delay entering nirvana in order to help others also reach enlightenment, and for this reason, bodhisattvas play an integral role in the Mahayana tradition.


The Bodhisattva

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The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara Expounding the Dharma to a Devotee, from a folio from Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra Manuscript, 12th century, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


In order to become a bodhisattva, the Mahayana practitioner must cultivate compassion which is a feeling that when meditated on and mastered is believed to lead one on the path to seeing the ultimate truth of reality. Mahayana believes that this enlightened quality, which is free from illusion, resides in all sentient beings and is called “Buddha Nature.” The main idea of this philosophy is to access an innate ineffable wisdom that is free from cultural and personal variations.


Mahayana believe in a more complex pantheon of buddhas and bodhisattvas than the Theravada tradition. There are many Buddhas, not just Siddhartha Gautama and these Buddhas exist in different realities. Mahayana is practiced in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The country with the largest Buddhist population is China although Buddhists still make a relatively small percentage within the overall population.


3. Vajrayana

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Buddha Vajradhara, 15th century, Source: The Philadelphia Museum of Art


Vajrayana, which means “diamond vehicle,” is the most mystical branch of Buddhism and originally evolved from the Mahayana tradition. While Vajrayana has its roots in ancient Indian tantra, it found its stronghold in the Himalayas, particularly Tibet. The primary goal of Vajrayana is to guide practitioners toward enlightenment within a single lifetime. This expedited path to enlightenment can be perceived as intense, which is why the transmission of Vajrayana knowledge to new practitioners is entrusted solely to established teachers or gurus. Through the use of ritual initiations, visualization techniques, exercises, and mantras, Vajrayana equips practitioners with the tools to liberate themselves from the confines of self and ascend to their innate buddha nature.


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People of Tibet, photo by Pedro-Szekely, Source: Flickr


The mystical essence of tantra can be traced back to ancient esoteric traditions that predate the origins of Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism was inspired by and emerged from ancient Indian tantra texts, Shaivism, and Yogins. Although modern-day yoga in the West draws loose inspiration from these early tantric disciplines, it has evolved in a distinct and separate manner. This branch of Buddhism is commonly referred to as Tibetan Buddhism due to its predominant influence in Tibet. Vajrayana is also practiced in Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan, India, China, and Japan.


4. Zen 

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Ensō, by Taidō Shūfū,19th century, Japan, Source: Museum Institute Chicago


Zen, also referred to as Chan in Chinese, is a school that originated from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in China during the Tang Dynasty. It is believed that Chan was brought to China by Bodhidharma, a legendary Buddhist monk of Indian descent, who traveled there and eventually settled. By the 7th century, Chinese Buddhist missionaries had introduced Chan to Japan, where it became known as Zen.


Although Zen Buddhism had much earlier roots, it only gained widespread recognition during the 12th century. The Zen sect distinguishes itself from other Buddhist schools through its emphasis on meditation, known as zazen, which lies at the heart of all Zen Buddhist philosophies. Practitioners believe that meditation leads to self-discovery and enlightenment. In essence, Zen and meditation are inseparable.


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Samurai with raised sword, by Felice Beato, 1863, Source: The Getty Museum


Zen Buddhism has captivated the world for centuries. It influenced various aspects of Japanese heritage, particularly the samurai and their code of honor known as “bushido.” Zen principles also manifested in artistic practices such as calligraphy, ink painting, pottery, music, and gardening. The tea ceremony, known as “chanoyu,” became an important meditative ritual and practice of etiquette. Monks embraced drinking tea to stay alert during long meditation sessions, and this practice evolved into a ceremonial homage to Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen.

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By Rose WoodwardBTEC Art and Design, BA Arts and Humanities (in progress)Rose is an artist, author, and alumni of the Kent Institute of Art and Design. A particular interest in sacred and ancient art led to a decade of study in theology and religion with the main focus of research being Eastern philosophies. Her work has been published with Roli Books and Interlink publishing.