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Guide to Buddhist Sects


"The Lesser Vehicle," also called Theraveda (Doctrine of the Elders) is the earliest form of Buddhism, and is probably the closest to the original doctrine of Shakyamuni. Theravada Buddhist stress moral discipline and believe that enlightenment can only be attained by closely following of the Buddha's path. Consequently, enlightenment is only possible to a devoted few—usually members of the monastic community. Hinayana imagery is almost exclusively concerned with depictions of Shakyamuni, his past lives, and his life on earth. The Theraveda tradition took root in the Southeast Asian countries of Sri Lanka (2nd century), Thailand (3rd century) and Burma (Myanmar; 5th century).


Mahayana, or "The Greater Vehicle," regards Shakyamuni as only one emanation of Buddhahood and holds that other cosmic Buddhas inhabit other worlds into which the faithful could be reborn. Elements of worship and devotion developed so that salvation could be open to all through the intervention of bodhisattvas. A bodhisattva was a being who elected to postpone entrance into nirvana in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism flourished in India after the time of Christ and spread to China (1st century AD), Korea (early 6th century), Japan (mid-6th century) and Tibet (7th century).

Esoteric Buddhism

Developed by the 6th century in India, Esoteric Buddhism incorporated many different practices, including some sexual rites, to induce the state of enlightenment. A large number of folk gods as well as Hindu deities entered the Buddhist pantheon. This form of Buddhism is known as esoteric because stress was placed on transmission of secret formulas (mantra), gestures (mudra), and diagrams (mandala) from master to pupil. Tibetan Buddhism, known as Vajrayana, is the most prevalent form of Esoteric Buddhism, but other sects also incorporate esoteric practices, notably the Shingon (True Word) sect of Japan.

Pure Land Buddhism

Belief in Amitabha (C: A-mi-t'o-p'o; J: Amida), the Buddha of Western Paradise, developed in India as early as the 2nd century and was transmitted to China in the 3rd century. Through faith in the mercy and saving grace of Amitabha, followers believed they would be reborn in a kind of heaven (Pure Land or Western Paradise) where they could continue to strive toward enlightenment free from the difficulties of life on earth. Pure Land teaching became popular in China in the 7th century and in Japan in the 12th century.

Zen/Ch'an Buddhism

While embracing the vast Mahayanist pantheon, Zen Buddhism (Ch'an in Chinese) stresses an individual's efforts to achieve enlightenment through meditation. Zen Buddhists trace this tradition all the way back to the historic Buddha who first achieved enlightenment while seated in meditation. The Indian sage Bodhidharma (J: Daruma) transmitted the creed to China by in the 6th century. Zen Buddhism became popular in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1382).