Buddhism Basics

What Are the Branches/Schools of Buddhism?

Learn about the different schools of Buddhism.


If you are exploring Buddhism, or a beginner, you are probably utterly confused about why there are different branches (sometimes referred to as ‘schools’) of Buddhism and which one you should pick.

Learn more about the schools of Buddhism by clicking here.

The Two Main Branches

There are two main ‘branches of Buddhism:

  • Mahāyāna, which is 56% of all Buddhists  (Vajrayana or “Tibetan” (6% of all Buddhists) is part of Mahāyāna, however it has its own unique practices and scriptural canon)
    and
  • Theravāda, which is 38% of all Buddhists

The two major branches of Buddhism are Mahāyāna, practiced in east and central Asia, and Theravāda, practiced in southeast Asia.

What’s the Same?

At it’s core, all Buddhism is exactly the same, but have some fundamental differences on how it is practiced and what the laity (that’s you and me) can hope to get out of it.

All have, and follow, what is known as the “Triple Gem”:

  • The Buddha (as the founder of Buddhism)
  • The Sangha (having a monastic community)
  • The Dharma (essentially the ‘truth’, or scripture)

They also have as part of their teachings:

  • The Four Noble Truths
  • The Eightfold Path
  • The Triple Gem
  • A scriptural canon (collection of Buddhist scripture which includes the sermons of the Buddha). The Chinese Canon (Mahayana) has doctrinally similar sermons of the Buddha as that of the Pali Canon (Theravada).

You can learn more about the different scriptures for each branch by clicking here.

What’s Different?

Let’s cut to the chase and get to the major differences:

In addition, Buddhism is a growing religion that takes in new scripture and teachings all the time.  It is not restricted to just the teachings of the Buddha 2,600 years ago (but those are the core and primary teachings).  These teachings must conform to what is known as the “Three Dharma Seals” in order to be considered a genuine Buddhist teaching.

So What’s Different?

  • Each branch or school may focus more on certain texts.  For example in Mahāyāna, the Eight Realizations of a Bodhisattva Sutra is one of the primary sutras that defines Mahāyāna.
  • Some schools and branches may wear different clothing (for monastics), practice meditation in different ways, or teach in a different manner.
  • Another aspect that is different is how a practitioner wants to achieve enlightenment or progress in Buddhism.  For example in Mahāyāna, all practitioners can follow the “Bodhisattva path”.  Whereas in Theravāda, practitioners (non-monastics) are considered less likely to attain any true growth or enlightenment (Theravāda is a primary monastic tradition, compared to Mahāyāna which encompasses laity and monastic).

Because there are so many different ways (or “paths”) to practice Buddhism, there is a literally a path for everyone.  The end of the path, however, is the same for everyone…just everyone enjoys different ‘scenery’ and teachers to get there.

Which Did the Buddha Follow?

The historical Buddha, the Prince Sidharttha Gottama, didn’t follow either of these schools! They came hundreds of years after his death. For more about the early schools of Buddhism and their scriptural canons, click here.

Featured Image: CC0 photo via Pixabay
Copyright © Alan Peto. All Rights Reserved.

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