Humanities Courses / Course / Chapter

Major Sects of Buddhism

James Bierly, Jessica Whittemore, Jenna Clayton
  • Author
    James Bierly

    James earned his Bachelor's in History and Philosophy from Northwestern College, and holds a Master of Education degree in Secondary Social Studies from Roberts Wesleyan College. He worked as a Special Education Teacher for one year, and is currently a stay-at-home dad.

  • Instructor
    Jessica Whittemore

    Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional 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.

Learn about the philosophy of Buddhism and see its historical development into various sects. Identify the schools of Buddhism prevalent in the modern world. Updated: 01/15/2022

Table of Contents


Buddhism Overview

The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, who Buddhist tradition holds to have been a prince. It was said that when he was born he could already speak and announced that this would be his last reincarnation. Divination revealed that the boy would either become a great ruler or a great religious teacher. So his father, hoping to preserve his family's power, kept young Siddhartha sheltered from the world in the hopes that he would become a strong secular ruler rather than an ascetic. Siddhartha wanted for nothing in his royal upbringing, and had access to all Earthly delights.

One day, Siddhartha decided to venture out of his confinement in the opulent palace. In the village below the palace, he encountered an old man, a sick man and a corpse. The experience of age, illness and death shocked Siddhartha into a new way of life: he would seek to end all suffering.

He traveled into the forest and met a group of 'renouncers' who taught that humans are reborn into the world over and over, to suffer again and again. The only way out of this cycle was to embrace their practices of extreme fasting, meditation and prayer. After nearly starving himself to death, the Buddha finally settled beneath a Lotus tree, alone in a deer park. Here he resolved to sit until he found the solution to all human suffering once and for all. After resisting the temptations and taunting of the demon Mara, the Buddha at last saw all of his past lives and through their lessons came to understand the secret to the end of suffering. He left the park and began preaching and attracting followers to his message: follow a 'middle way' between worldliness and asceticism in order to quell the energy of desire. The cause of our suffering is the unsatisfactoriness of life (called 'Dukkha') due to the fact that whenever one desire is satisfied, another comes to take its place. We always want more or different experiences, and can never be satisfied.

The goal of Buddhism is to stop being the kind of being who is driven by the constant need for more. In coming to realize that there is no stable self to have desires at all, Buddhists hope to achieve liberation from rebirth. To achieve this result, Buddha instructed his followers to adopt the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths are that all of life contains suffering, there is a cause to that suffering, the cause can be eliminated and the Noble Eightfold Path is the way to do so. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of prescriptions for correct behavior in thought, understanding, speech, livelihood, effort, concentration and mindfulness. By following this path an individual monk strove to become an arhat, which was an individual who had achieved enlightenment in this life, but had not yet passed beyond this life into the peace of the afterlife.

Views of Buddhism

The Buddha taught that we live many lives, being reincarnated over and over. What drives this process forward is the karma we accumulate. Karma is the energy of desire which fuels our actions and therefore fuels the act of our rebirth. For example, if we steal out of greed, we will face the consequences for theft either in this life or the next, because that greedy desire will persist and get us in trouble. But to be free of the cycle of rebirth, we must eliminate the desire that produced the theft.

Eliminating desire is called achieving a state of 'emptiness.' Emptiness is a doctrine of radical interpendence. What is 'empty' is the idea that there is a concrete essence to something which is separate and unique from everything else. What it is to be a person, for example, is to be a part of a family, a nation and a species. On a deeper level, what it is to experience the world is to experience a vast mixture of thoughts and sensations all interacting with and influencing each other. Finally, the deepest truth of Buddhism is that there is no one experiencing these things. The 'self' itself is simply a series of interlocking and mutually dependent relations. Since there is no self to have desires, the full realization of this truth dissolves karma along with the sense of personal identity.

One must realize emptiness both in experience and in thought. It's not enough to understand the doctrine. Instead one must experience it. This is the goal of Buddhist practices like meditation. The achievement of full liberation is known as Nirvana. Nirvana means 'extinguishing' and is described as like a candle being blown out. All desire is gone, and often Nirvana is seen as the final destination of an enlightened human being, beyond this life. Therefore it is often equated with a final afterlife state, although in some traditions the experience of Nirvana is said to be attainable in this life, with a final Nirvana beyond the grave.

The Buddha in Meditation

The Buddha in Meditation

Common Buddhist practices

Buddhism began as a school of renouncing monks, and so from the earliest days restraint was an important part of Buddhist practice. This means not simply abstaining from carnal pleasures and materialistic desires, but also from harmful speech and undisciplined thoughts. Monks renounce family and possessions and instead live a communal life with other monks. They are supported by donations of food and other resources from the laity.

Most Westerners associate meditation with Buddhism, but in reality few Buddhists throughout history have actually focused on meditation. For most Buddhist monks and nuns, learning dharma through studying the teachings of the Buddha and other enlightened sages has been the primary method of attaining growth. For laity, offering food to the monks and nuns has been the primary way to receive spiritual blessings. In some communities today, monks still travel around with begging bowls every morning which are filled with food by the common people who earn spiritual merit by their gifts.

Still, meditation was practiced by certain sects of Buddhism, and today is practiced widely by laity who practice forms of meditation such as 'mindfulness meditation,' where one focuses on sitting still and fully feeling the breath while accepting all sensations and thoughts as they come. However, the forms of meditation have varied widely through time, and this kind of mindfulness meditation has hardly been the norm. Some of the oldest forms are focused intensely on contemplating death while living in order to help dissolve one's sense of self and increase the feeling of contingency. Monks in Thailand today still practice a form of mediation wherein they meditate next to a rotting corpse, and some of the earliest visualization techniques practiced by monks involved imagining the decay of one's own body in intense detail.

Schools of Buddhism

There are three early Buddhist councils where Buddhist doctrine was defined after the death of the Buddha himself, but the first is perhaps a mythical description of the process by which the earliest scriptures were compiled and approved by the monks who had followed the Buddha. The second occurred sometime in the 4th century BCE, although the exact date is not known. The main purpose of this council was to discipline a sect of monks who were seen as too lax and worldy. Around 247 BCE the Indian ruler Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after a bloody early life of conquest, convened a council to shore up monastic discipline and define heresies that the monks in the kingdom were to avoid.

The necessity of these councils demonstrates how Buddhism has always contained many different interpretations. The denominations of Buddhism today are: Theravada Buddhism, the oldest branch, focused on cognitive methods of enlightenment, Mahayana Buddhism, focused on compassion and supernatural intervention, and Vajrayana Buddhism, focused on exploring esoteric and often counter-intuitive secrets to reach enlightenment.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Dalai Lama: Tibetan Buddhism

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Branches of Buddhism
  • 0:32 Theravada
  • 2:46 Mahayana
  • 4:10 Vajrayana
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Branches of Buddhism

The monks who were censured in the second council broke away to form their own group, called the Mahasangika, or 'great order of monks.' This order did not survive past ancient times, but the monks from the majority the council, who called themselves Sthaviravadin, which meant 'followers of the way of the elders,' remained and evolved into new branches of Buddhism. This early split foreshadowed contemporary divisions between Buddhists. The Mahasangika had a view of the Buddha similar to the modern Mahayana school of Buddhism. The main point of difference doctrinally (apart from the concerns about monastic discipline) was how to see the Buddha. The Mahasangika, like the modern Mahayana, had an elevated view of the Buddha as a spiritual pre-existing being who incarnated as Siddhartha Gautama. The Sthaviravadin school saw the Buddha as simply a man like any other who was different only in his spiritual insight and attainment.

Further Divisions of Buddhism

The Sthaviravadin school eventually split into at least eighteen different sects. Despite Ashoka's efforts to unify the Buddhists, the differences persisted. However, most of these sects did not survive. The Theravada school, however, traces its origins to this period. The followers of this school settled in Southeast Asia and continue to practice their faith today. Buddhism declined in its homeland of India, but spread through missionaries and monks into China, Japan and Korea. As it spread, it gradually evolved into a new form called Mahayana. As Buddhism spread into Tibet, it interacted with the indigenous religion there to produce the school of Buddhism known as Vajrayana.

Types of Buddhism in the Modern World

There are three main classifications of Buddhism in the modern world, but one should note that incredible diversity exists within them. The divisions do not always hold up perfectly. For example, Western secular Buddhism often traces its root to Mahayana traditions, but in practice strongly de-emphasizes supernatural elements. Vajrayana Buddhism is properly classified as a subset of Mahayana Buddhism, and both traditions emphasize texts such as the Lotus Sutra. Still, for a beginning student of Buddhism these divisions are a good first approximation to get a feel for the breadth of Buddhist practice.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

  • Activities
  • FAQs

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.

Are there different types of Buddhists?

Yes, there are as many types of Buddhists as there are people. Broadly, Buddhism can be divided into Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada is primarily found in Southeast Asia, Mahayana in China, Japan and Korea, and Vajrayana in Tibet and the Indian exile of the Dalai Lama.

What are the 18 sects of Buddhism?

There were at least 18 sects which flourished in India in the second and third centuries BCE. All except the Theravada are now extinct. However, the Mahasangika can be seen as a doctrinal forerunner to modern Mahayanna Buddhism.

Known names of the sects include:



















What are the 2 main branches of Buddhism?

Buddhism can be safely divided into two broad branches: Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana refers to the original Buddhists in ancient India, and contemporary followers of those earliest traditions. Mahayana refers to everything else, and include Vajrayana Buddhism which is properly seen as a subset of the Mahayana. The Mahayana contains more supernaturalism and a greater emphasis on acts of compassion in the world than the Hinayana.

What are the 3 types of Buddhism?

Vajrayana Buddhism, focused on tantra, Theravada Buddhism, focused on traditional monasticism and Mahayana Buddhism, focused on supernatural intervention and compassion are the three main types of Buddhism.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Resources created by teachers for teachers

Over 30,000 video lessons & teaching resources‐all in one place.
Video lessons
Quizzes & Worksheets
Classroom Integration
Lesson Plans

I would definitely recommend to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.

Jennifer B.
Jennifer B.
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account