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The Three Main Branches of Buddhism

The Three Main Branches of Buddhism Philosophy

    Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three types:
  • Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
Of the Nikaya schools, only the Theravada survives. Each branch sees itself as representing the true, original teachings of the Buddha, although some schools believe that the dialectic nature of Buddhism allows its format, terminology, and techniques to adapt over time in response to changing circumstances.

The Theravada school, whose name means "Doctrine of the Elders", bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon. This is considered to be the oldest of the surviving Buddhist canons, and its sutras are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism. Theravada is the only surviving representative of the historical Nikaya branch. Nikaya Buddhism and consequently Theravada are sometimes referred to as Hinayana or "lesser vehicle", although this is generally considered to be impolite. Theravada is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and portions of Vietnam and Malaysia.

The Mahayana, or exoteric branch, literally means "Great Vehicle" and emphasizes universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the bodhisattva. In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, Mahayana schools recognize all or part of a genre of scriptures that were first put in writing around 1 CE. These later scriptures were written in Sanskrit and are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood by following the path of the bodhisattva over the course of what is often described as countless eons of time. Because of this immense timeframe, many Mahayana schools accept the idea of working towards rebirth in a Pure Land, which is not enlightenment in itself but which is a highly conducive environment for working toward enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam.

The Vajrayana or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric or esoteric Buddhism) shares many of the basic concepts of Mahayana, but also includes a vast array of spiritual techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. One component of the Vajrayana is harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing profoundly powerful states of concentration and awareness. These profound states are in turn to be used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime, or as little as three years. In addition to the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, Vajrayana Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras. Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia, areas of India, and, to a limited extent, in China and Japan.

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