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III. Branches of Buddhism

           Diagram of Divisions of Buddhism

Buddhism divides into two main branches: Theravada and Mahayana.  It is possible to understand Pure Land, Zen, Vajrayan and Nichiren as sub-groups of Mahayana since they all developed from Mahayana Buddhism. 

A. Theravada (“way of the elders”)   also referred to as hinayana (lesser vehicle)

            1. Scriptures:

The Pali Canon – also known as the Tipitaka – three baskets

·        In the Pali dialect

·        Written down in first century BCE

Jataka Tales

·        547 folk tales


            2. The Triple Gem

1.      I take refuge in the Buddha – honors rather than worships

2.      I take refuge in the dharma – the teachings of the Buddha

3.      I take refuge in the sangha – monastic community of Buddhism


3. Vipassana Meditation

            Mindfulness/insight meditation

            Purpose is to perceive the truths of existence – i.e. dukkha, anicca and anatta

4. The Laity

            Theravada Buddhism is generally a  path for monks and nuns rather than the laity.  Nevertheless,  lay people participate in Theravada Buddhism through:

·        Veneration of relics thought to be from the Buddha and housed in stupas


·        Learning from monks and nuns

·        Giving alms to support the sangha.

 B. Mahayana (the “greater vehicle”)

            More extensive sacred writings than Theravada

            Encompasses monks and laity

            Many subdivisions/schools within Mahayana

            Common Characteristics of Mahayana include:

            1. Bodhisattvas

·        Seek enlightenment for the sake of others.

·        Both laity and monastics take vow to become bodhisattvas:

§         Beings are infinite in number, I vow to save them all;

§         The obstructive passions are endless in number; I vow to end them all;

§         The teachings for saving others are countless, I vow to learn them all:

§         Buddhahood is the supreme achievement: I vow to attain it.

·        Heavenly bodhisattvas hear pleas of the suffering

One of the most important is Kuan-yin (Kannon)

2. The Three Bodies of the Buddha

            Buddha is an eternal presence with three aspects or bodies

·        Pure universal consciousness

·        Body of bliss “radiant celestial aspect of Buddhahood that communicated the dharma to Bodhisattvas

·        Body of transformation –Siddhartha Gautama

   3. Emptiness (Sunyata)

  • All earthly things have no eternal reality/independent origin

  • Thus world of samsara is empty of inherent existence

  • Five aggregates of a person are empty of absolute self-nature; exist only in relation to other.

C. Vajrayana: indestructible way to unity

            Originated in Tibet in the 7th Century CE; incorporated elements from a shamanistic religion called Bon (pronounced “pern”). This Tibetan Buddhism, known as vajrayana, claims that one can reach nirvana in a single lifetime by enlisting all the energies (chakra)  that are latent in the human body in the service of one’s spiritual quest. Thus, rather than quieting the mind in meditation, vajrayana ritual focuses on sound, sight and movement.  In particular, it makes use of: mantras (chants),  mudras (hand gestures) and mandalas (icons).  In their mediation, they visualize the deities and seek the merge experientially with them.

Also notable among Tibetana/Vajrayana Buddhism is the Dalai Lama. the function of the Dalai Lama is to incarnate on earth the principle of compassion and mercy.  The Dalai Lama is believed to have incarnated himself 14 times.

 D. Zen: (Ch’an)

Dismissed the scriptures, buddhas and bodhisattvas in favor of training for direct intuition of cosmic unity (the Buddha nature).  In other words, Zen Buddhism emphasized experience over concepts. Concepts are bound by our limited logic and language. The concept is not the experience – just as the menu is not the food! To experience the Buddha nature two practices are employes.

            1. zazen – sitting meditation: calm mind until enlightenment comes with realization of the nature of reality (transience) and the realization of the unity of all existence – nothing is separate from one’s self.

            2. use of koan:  purpose is to shatter the logical thought processes move to direct intuition of nature of reality.   “What is your face before your parents’ birth?”


E. Pure Land: calling on Amida Buddha

  • Amida – ancient prince who vowed to attain enlightenment and used his virtue to prepare a special place of bliss, the Pure Land, for all who call on his name

  • “Salvation by faith” - call upon Amida for salvation to the Pure Land

  • Some take Pure Land to be a literal place, others see it as metaphorical.

 F. Nichiren: salvation through the Lotus Sutra

  • Nichiren  was a 13th Century Japanese Fisherman’s son.

  • Believed that the highest truths of Buddhism were embodied in the Lotus Sutra – a large compilation of parables, verses and description of innumerable forms of beings who support the teachings of the Buddha. 

  • Special attention given to the Bodhisattva of Superb Action and the Bodhisattva Ever-Abused

  • Reveres and respects everyone since each person is potentially a Buddha).
    "We do not believe that people are good because we see that they are good, but by believing that people are good we eliminate our own fear and thus we can intimately associate with them.”


For more information on Nichiren visit:



Buddhism - Part One