The Branches of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana & Vajrayana

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  • 0:01 Branches of Buddhism
  • 0:32 Theravada
  • 2:46 Mahayana
  • 4:10 Vajrayana
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

This lesson will explore the three main branches of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. It will also highlight Pure Land and Tantric Buddhism, as well as the belief in nirvana and the bodhisattva.

Branches of Buddhism

Most world religions have different sects or branches, each with their own school of thought. For instance, Christianity has Lutheranism and Evangelicalism, while Islam has their Sunni and Shiites. Similarly, Buddhism can be broken down into three main schools. They are Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism. In today's lesson, we'll explore these main branches of this faith.


Being that it's the most conservative, or orthodox, branch of Buddhism, we'll start with Theravada Buddhism. Being a very strict, more monastic branch of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism holds most firmly to the original teachings, or themes, of Buddha. For this reason, and to aid in remembering this one, I usually link the word 'Theravada' to the word 'themes.'

Being practiced in much of Southeast Asia and especially Sri Lanka, Theravada Buddhism holds firmly to Buddha's belief that human existence is full of suffering, that nothing on Earth is ever permanent, and that humans are just a part of this fleeting, rather insignificant whole. For this reason, Buddha taught that nothing in this world should be held tightly or even desired. Instead, he instructed his followers to stay away from evil, seek only what is good, and continually work to purify their minds.

According to Theravada Buddhism, one must live ethically, meditate, and seek wisdom. These teachings come from the sacred texts of Buddhism, known as the Tripitaka, and according to Theravada Buddhism they are to be taken literally and followed in one's daily life. In following the Tripitaka, a person will achieve the ultimate Buddhist goal of nirvana, which is enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. With its focus on nirvana and its adherence to the oldest teachings of Buddha, Theravada Buddhism is often referred to as the 'Path of the Elders.'

Loosely translated by the West as freedom from reincarnation, the word nirvana actually means 'to extinguish.' This connotes the Buddhist belief that nirvana is sort of the snuffing out of all Earthly desires, passions, and attachments, and in Theravada Buddhism, a person who achieves nirvana is known as an arhat. Again, since this branch holds most firmly to the original teachings, or themes, of Buddha, it helps me to remember it by linking the word 'Theravada' to the word 'themes.'


Next is Mahayana Buddhism. Differing from the Theravada branch, Mahayana Buddhism has made alterations to Buddha's original teachings. Open to many, Mahayana Buddhism believes enlightenment is universally accessible to everyone.

In fact, Pure Land Buddhism, which is sort of a sub-sect of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in both China and Japan, believe its followers can be reborn into a Western paradise before attaining true nirvana. Going with this whole vehicle motif, and as a sort of absurd way to remember, we could say this sort of Western paradise acts like a pit stop on the way to nirvana and that Mahayana Buddhism acts like a mini-van that brings many to enlightenment. Yes, that's a whole lot of 'm's' being used, but it helps me to remember.

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Additional Activities

Buddhism's Three Main Branches

Essay on Reaching Nirvana

All three main branches of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, center on the idea of finding nirvana. Reaching nirvana is the ultimate goal for all Buddhists. However, these three branches of Buddhism believe in different paths on the way to reaching nirvana.

For this essay, respond to the following question: How do the three main branches of Buddhism differ in their path to reaching nirvana? Explain thoroughly.

Before writing, it is important to organize your ideas and develop a plan. You will want to research ways in which these three religions differ in terms of how their followers can discover nirvana. Once you have this information, create a thesis statement that sums up this difference. Here is an example of a thesis statement: Although Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhists all strive to achieve nirvana, these three branches differ in their teachings of how to reach this state of freedom and enlightenment. Once you have a clear thesis statement, it is time to organize your ideas with the help of an outline. Below is an example that you can use. Once your outline is complete, you are ready to write your essay. Finally, make sure to proofread, edit, and revise your draft!

I. Introduction

  • Hook/Attention-Getter
  • Introduce Buddhism and the three main branches.
  • Thesis statement

II. Body Paragraphs

  • Theravada
  1. Explain how followers of this branch strive for nirvana.
  2. Include a transition to the next branch of Buddhism.
  • Mahayana
  1. Explain how followers of this branch strive for nirvana.
  2. Include a transition to the next branch of Buddhism.
  • Vajrayana
  1. Explain how followers of this branch strive for nirvana.
  2. Summarize how these three branches differ in reaching nirvana.

III. Conclusion

  • Summarize main points.
  • Re-state thesis statement.

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