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The Major Sects of Buddhism

MG is an air warrior and a global traveler well as an amateur astrologer who loves to visit and explore new places.



Buddhism is a philosophy that emanated from the teachings of the Buddha. This is a Sanskrit word meaning 'the enlightened one.' The real name of the Buddha is Gautama Siddharth. He was born a higher caste( Vedic brahmin) Hindu as a prince. He is recognized as the founder of Buddhism. He preached in North India during 4-5th century BC. Being a high caste Hindu he imbibed a lot of concepts from Hinduism. Thus the theory of rebirth and reincarnation and immortality of the soul is basically a Hindu concept. Hinduism recognizes the Buddha as the 9th Avatar of Vishnu, the omnipotent god. The Buddha also incorporated a lot of concepts from the Vedas and never condemned the Vedas or any aspect of Hindu thought.

The Buddha refined the concepts of Hinduism and recast them. After his death, his disciples further finetuned his concepts to give birth to Buddhism. There is also no debate that the Buddhist religion had mutated from Hindu concepts.

The basic aim of Buddhism is to achieve Buddhahood. What is Buddha-hood? It is the closest approximation to what the Lord Buddha achieved and is considered the highest spiritual level and the path to the attainment of nirvana.

As Buddhism spread to distant lands it was inevitable that many other saints emerged. They gave their interpretation and different strains of Buddhism developed. But all the sects share a common belief regarding the attainment of Buddha-hood. We can now discuss the various sects of Buddhism

The great Buddha at Bodh-gaya India

The great Buddha at Bodh-gaya India

Sects of Buddhism

Generally, Buddhist scholars classify classical Buddhism into 3 main sects. They are

a) Theravada Buddhism,

b) Mahayana Buddhism

c) Northern or Tibetan Buddhism

a) Theravada Buddhism. This is the oldest Buddhist sect and conforms closest to the pristine teachings of the Buddha. Theravada is derived from the Sanskrit language and means "School of the Elders." It's Buddhism's oldest school of thought. The Theravādins, have preserved the original teachings of the Buddha. in the Pali script for over 2500 years. This preservation of the original teachings is referred to as Buddha Dhamma.

Sri Lanka, Burma, southwest China, and other southeast Asian nations have a preponderance of Theravadins. There has been a big revival in China where it is thought to be a counter to Christianity which is disliked. Their strength could be between 250-300 million. No census of Chinese Buddhists is available

Theravada Buddhism's goal is the achievement of Buddhahood. This is attained by following the original teachings of Lord Buddha. These emphasize the achievement of Buddhahood through deep meditation and following the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Middle Path. I will not discuss these but these basically mean control over human emotions and desires.

Meditation has great importance and through it the aim is to conquer ego, doubt, skepticism, rituals, and rites. To this list is added craving, Ill -will, anger, ignorance, and restlessness. These cover the entire gamut of man's desires and everyday life. These are called hindrances and have to be mastered.

The sages further say that these hindrances are further classified into 3 classes. They are i) Anagami. Ii) Sakadagami and iii) Sottapanna. The learned ones have defined an Angami as a partially enlightened person who has mastered the first 5 hindrances while a Sakadagami is a person who has mastered the first 3 hindrances. A Sottapanna is a person who will be reborn at least 7 times and has entered the first stage of enlightenment.

Xuedou Shan, a mountain temple in China

Xuedou Shan, a mountain temple in China

Chinese ancient  sculptor on Silk route

Chinese ancient sculptor on Silk route

Further sects

b) Mahayana Buddhism. This is a later version and a pragmatic form of Buddhism. It appeared about 500 years after the death of Buddha around 100 AD. In other words, one can say it's a simpler form of Buddhism and is easier to follow. This form of Buddhism is prevalent in North Asia, Japan, and Korea.

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Mahayana does not oppose anything said in Theravada Buddhism and accepts all the scriptures. It also incorporates many other works, like the Sutras. These appear in the Brahmana and Aranyaka layers of Vedic literature.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists have other distinct differences. We must understand the difference between the two because this refers to the method to attain Buddhahood.

Theravada Buddhists strive to achieve Buddhahood through meditation by monks and nuns,

Mahayana Buddhists, in contrast, strive to achieve the same through Bodhisattvas. These are saints who help others attain Nirvana. Bodhisattvas mean 'cast in the image of Buddha.' In other words in case you have to achieve Nirvana you must have a man who is cast in the image of Buddha, that is a bodhisattva.

Mahayana has developed further sub-sects that go by the name of Zen, Nichiren, and Pure Land. These sects define their own path to achieve Nirvana. The Mahayana form of Buddhism includes the veneration of magical rites and celestial beings.

c) Northern or Tibetan Buddhism. This is the third form of Buddhism. It is similar to Mahayana Buddhism, but Tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana has a major hold. Tantric philosophy is enunciated by Hinduism and is part of Northern Buddhism. Tantric philosophy is also supposed to lead to Nirvana through many earthly acts.


Buddhism is recognized as a separate religion but it has many common factors with Hinduism. The theory of transmigration of souls. rebirth, and following the middle path are all part of Vedic thought. At one time the entire Indian subcontinent had become Buddhist and the Indian emperor Ashoka had converted to Buddhism. This was the time, he sent missionaries to Southeast Asia and Tibet to spread Buddhism. Buddhism spread in these lands but it died away in India where the Brahminical cult re-emerged.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 22, 2021:

Dreamer Meg, your comment is most welcome.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 22, 2021:

Gyanendra, thank you for your appreciation. Nice, you commented.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on May 22, 2021:

Very interesting. My husband is interested in Zen but I had not realised that Buddhism came from Hinduism.

gyanendra mocktan from Kathmandu,Nepal on May 22, 2021:

MG Singh, This is a story that refreshes my memory. I know Buddha's story as close to your article. I live nearby Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu where Tibetan Biddhism is at peack.

I came to know much later Tibetan Boddhism is further divided into 4 sects: Sakyapa, Gelukpa, Kagyukpa and Ningma pa.

Among them mostly Ningma pa sect practices tantric rituals amongs them.

Great piece!!

Thank you

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 22, 2021:

Pamela, so nice you commented. Such a joy to read your comment.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 22, 2021:

Bill, thank you. It's always a pleasure to read your comments.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 22, 2021:

This is a very well-written article about Buddhism. I enjoyed reading the history of this religion and some new aspects for me. Thank you for sharing this information, MG.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 22, 2021:

Always an excellent history lesson from you, my friend. Thank you for the education and the peak into another culture.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on May 22, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, I didn't know that Kerala was Buddhist at one time. Yes, ancient Indian kings were all Buddhists. Kanishka had conquered Central Asia and Afghanistan. Buddhism did not take root in India because of Shankaracharya.

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