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Schools of Buddhism are classified in various ways. Normal English-language usage (as given in dictionaries) divides Buddhism into Theravada (also known by the name Hinayana, which many consider pejorative) and Mahayana. The most common classification among scholars is threefold, with Mahayana split into East Asian (also known simply as Mahayana) and Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism (although Vajrayana properly includes the Japanese Shingon school).


The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion distinguishes three types of classification of Buddhism:

  • Movements:
  • Nikayas, or monastic fraternities, three of which survive at the present day:
    • Theravada, in Southeast Asia
    • Dharmaguptaka, in China, Korea and Vietnam
    • Mulasarvastivada, in the Tibetan tradition
  • Doctrinal schools


The terminology for the major divisions of Buddhism can be confusing, as Buddhism is variously divided by scholars and practitioners according to geographic, historical, and philosophical criteria, with different terms often being used in different contexts. The following terms may be encountered in descriptions of the major Buddhist divisions:

Conservative Buddhism
An alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
Early Buddhist Schools
The schools into which Buddhism became divided in its first few centuries; only one of these survives as an independent school, Theravada
East Asian Buddhism
A term used by scholars[1][page needed] to cover the Buddhist traditions of Japan, Korea, Singapore and most of China and Vietnam
Eastern Buddhism
An alternative name used by some scholars[2][page needed] for East Asian Buddhism; also sometimes used to refer to all traditional forms of Buddhism, as distinct from Western(ized) forms.
Esoteric Buddhism
Usually considered synonymous with Vajrayana.[3] Some scholars have applied the term to certain practices found within the Theravada, particularly in Cambodia.[4][page needed]
Often interpreted as a pejorative term, used in Mahayana doctrine to denigrate its opponents.[5] It is sometimes used to refer to the early Buddhist schools, including the contemporary Theravada, although the legitimacy of this is disputed.[6] Its use in scholarly publications is controversial.[7] By the Mahayana schools and groups in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan the term is felt to be only slightly pejorative, or not pejorative at all.[8] By some it is used with respect proper to teachings coming direct from the Buddha. The main use of the term in East Asian and Tibetan traditions is in reference to spiritual levels[9] regardless of school. The literal meaning of Hinayana can also be interpreted as "the small vehicle," referring to a raft meant to carry one person, as an arhat, to nirvana through their own effort, in contrast to the "large vehicle" of Mahayana meant to carry many there at once, piloted by a bodhisattva.
An old term, still sometimes used, synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism; widely considered derogatory.
A movement that emerged from early Buddhist schools, together with its later descendants, East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana traditions are sometimes listed separately. The main use of the term in East Asian and Tibetan traditions is in reference to spiritual levels[10][page needed] regardless of school.
Mainstream Buddhism
A term used by some scholars for the early Buddhist schools.
Usually considered synonymous with Vajrayana.[11] The Tendai school in Japan has been described as influenced by Mantrayana.[10][page needed]
Newar Buddhism
A non-monastic, caste based Buddhism with patrilineal descent and Sanskrit texts.
Nikaya Buddhism or schools
An alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
An alternative term for the early Buddhist schools.
Northern Buddhism
An alternative term used by some scholars[2][page needed] for Tibetan Buddhism. Also, an older term still sometimes used to encompass both East Asian and Tibetan traditions. It has even been used to refer to East Asian Buddhism alone, without Tibetan Buddhism.
Secret Mantra
An alternative rendering of mantrayana, a more literal translation of the term used by schools in Tibetan Buddhism when referring to themselves.[12]
Sectarian Buddhism
An alternative name for the early Buddhist schools.
Southeast Asian Buddhism
An alternative name used by some scholars[13][page needed] for Theravada.
Southern Buddhism
An alternative name used by some scholars[2][page needed] for Theravada.
An alternative term sometimes used for the early Buddhist schools.
Tantrayana or Tantric Buddhism
Usually considered synonymous with Vajrayana.[11] However, one scholar describes the tantra divisions of some editions of the Tibetan scriptures as including Sravakayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana texts[14] (see Buddhist texts). Some scholars[15][page needed], particularly François Bizot,[16] have used the term "Tantric Theravada" to refer to certain practices found particularly in Cambodia.
The traditional Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam, China, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia. It is the only surviving representative of the historical early Buddhist schools. The term 'Theravada' is also sometimes used to refer to all the early Buddhist schools.[17]
Tibetan Buddhism
Usually understood as including the Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of China, India and Russia, which follow the Tibetan tradition.
A movement that developed out of Indian Mahayana, together with its later descendants. There is some disagreement on exactly which traditions fall into this category. Tibetan Buddhism is universally recognized as falling under this heading; many also include also the Japanese Shingon school. Some scholars[18][page needed], also apply the term to the Korean milgyo tradition, which is not a separate school. One scholar says, "Despite the efforts of generations of Buddhist thinkers, it remains exceedingly difficult to identify precisely what it is that sets the Vajrayana apart."[19]

Early schools

An image of Gautama Buddha with a swastika, a traditional Buddhist symbol of infinity, on his chest. Ananda, the Buddha's disciple, appears in the background. This statue is from Hsi Lai Temple.

Numerous attempts have been made to tabulate these schools. Here is one.

  • Sthaviravāda
    • Pudgalavāda ('Personalist') (c. 280 BCE)
    • Sarvāstivāda
      • Vibhajjavāda (prior to 240 BCE; during Aśoka)
        • Theravāda (c. 240 BCE)
          • Theravada subschools (see below)
        • Mahīśāsaka (after 232 BCE)
          • Dharmaguptaka (after 232 BCE)
        • Kāśyapīya (after 232 BCE)
        • Vatsīputrīya (under Aśoka) later name: Saṃmitīya
          • Dharmottarīya
          • Bhadrayānīya
          • Sannāgarika
      • Mūlasarvāstivāda (third and fourth centuries)
      • Sautrāntika (between 50 BCE and c. 100 CE)
  • Mahāsaṃghika ('Majority', c. 380 BCE)
    • Ekavyahārikas (under Aśoka)
      • Lokottaravāda
    • Golulika (during Aśoka)
      • Bahuśrutīya (late third century BCE)
      • Prajñaptivāda (late third century BCE)
        • Cetiyavāda
    • Caitika (mid-first century BCE)
      • Apara Śaila
      • Uttara Śaila

Twenty sects

The following lists the twenty sects described as Hinayana in some Mahayana texts:

Sthaviravada (上座部) split into the 11 sects:

  • 說一切有部(Sarvastivadin)
  • 雪山部(Haimavata)
  • 犢子部(Vatsiputriya)
  • 法上部 (Dharmottara)
  • 賢冑部(Bhadrayaniya)
  • 正量部(Sammitiya)
  • 密林山部(Channagirika)
  • 化地部 (Mahisasaka)
  • 法藏部(Dharmaguptaka)
  • 飲光部(Kasyapiya)
  • 經量部(Sautrāntika)
 Sthaviravada─┬─ Haimavata────────────────────────────────────────────
              └─ Sarvastivadin─┬───────────────────────────────────
                               ├ Vatsiputriya ─┬────────────────────
                               │               ├ Dharmottara───────
                               │               ├ Bhadrayaniya─────
                               │               ├ Sammitiya──────── 
                               │               └ Channagirika─────
                               ├ Mahisasaka─┬─────────────────────
                               │            └ Dharmaguptaka──────
                               ├ Kasyapiya────────────────────────
                               └ Sautrāntika──────────────────────

Mahasanghika (大眾部) split into 9 sects:

  • 一說部(Ekavyaharaka)
  • 說出世部(Lokottaravadin)
  • 雞胤部 (Kaukkutika)
  • 多聞部(Bahussrutiya)
  • 說假部(Prajnaptivada)
  • 制多山部(Caitika)
  • 西山住部 (Aparasaila)
  • 北山住部(Uttarasaila).
             ├ EkavyaharakaCaitikaLokottaravadinAparasailaKaukkutikaUttarasailaBahussrutiyaPrajnaptivada

Influences on East Asian schools

The following later schools used the Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka:

  • Chinese Buddhism, especially the Vinaya School
  • Korean buddhism, especially Gyeyul
  • Vietnamese Buddhism
  • Japanese Ritsu

The following involve philosophical influence:

  • The Japanese Jojitsu is considered by some an offshoot of Sautrāntika; others consider it to be derived from Bahusrutiya
  • The Chinese/Japanese Kusha school is considered an offshoot of Sarvastivada, influenced by Vasubandhu.

Theravada subschools


Samadhi Buddha statue at Mahamevuna Park in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka carved in the 4th century AD.

The different schools in Theravada often emphasize different aspects (or parts) of the Pali Canon and the later commentaries, or differ in the focus on (and recommended way of) practice. There are also significant differences in strictness or interpretation of the Vinaya.

  • Bangladesh:
    • Sangharaj Nikaya
    • Mahasthabir Nikaya
  • Burma:
    • Thudhamma Nikaya
    • Shwekyin Nikaya
    • Dvaya Nikaya or Dvara Nikaya (see Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1975)
  • Sri Lanka:
    • Siam Nikaya
      • Waturawila (or Mahavihara Vamshika Shyamopali Vanavasa Nikaya)
    • Amarapura Nikaya
      • Kanduboda (or Swejin Nikaya)
      • Tapovana (or Kalyanavamsa)
    • Ramañña Nikaya
      • Galduwa (or Kalyana Yogashramaya Samsthava)
      • Delduwa
    • forest nikaya
  • Thailand
    • Maha Nikaya
      • Dhammakaya Movement
    • Thammayut Nikaya

Mahāyāna schools

Chinese Glazed stoneware of a Buddhist monk, or Future Buddha, dated to the 20th year of the Chenghua Emperor, or 1468 AD.

  • Madhyamaka
    • Prāsangika
    • Svatantrika
    • Sanlun (Three Treatise school)
      • Sanron
    • Maha-Madhyamaka (Jonangpa)
  • Yogācāra
    • Cittamatra in Tibet
    • Wei-Shi (Consciousness-only school) or Faxiang (Dharma-character school)
      • Beopsang
      • Hossō
  • Tathagatagarbha
  • Chan / Zen / Seon / Thien
    • Caodong
      • Sōtō
        • Keizan line
        • Jakuen line
        • Giin line
    • Linji
  • Pure Land (Amidism)
    • Jodo Shu
    • Jodo Shinshu
  • Tiantai (Lotus Sutra School)
  • Nichiren
    • Nichiren Shū
    • Nichiren Shōshū
    • Nipponzan Myōhōji
    • Soka Gakkai

Tantric schools

see also: Vajrayāna Subcategorised according to predecessors

  • Tibetan Buddhism
    • Nyingma
    • New Bön (synthesis of Yungdrung Bön and Nyingmapa)
    • Kadam
    • Sakya
      • Ngor-pa
      • Tsar-pa
    • Jonang
    • Gelug
    • Kagyu:
      • Shangpa Kagyu
      • Marpa Kagyu:
        • Rechung Kagyu
        • Dagpo Kagyu:
          • Karma Kagyu (or Kamtshang Kagyu)
          • Tsalpa Kagyu
          • Baram Kagyu
          • Pagtru Kagyu (or Phagmo Drugpa Kagyu):
            • Taglung Kagyu
            • Trophu Kagyu
            • Drukpa Kagyu
            • Martsang Kagyu
            • Yerpa Kagyu
            • Yazang Kagyu
            • Shugseb Kagyu
            • Drikung Kagyu
    • Rime movement (ecumenical movement)
  • Japanese Mikkyo

New Buddhist movements

See also

  • Buddhism by region
  • Gandhāran Buddhist Texts
  • Humanistic Buddhism
  • Northern and Southern Buddhism
  • Early Buddhist Schools
  • Perfection of Wisdom School


  1. B & G, Gethin, R & J, P & K
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Penguin, Harvey
  3. Encyclopedia of Religion, Macmillan, New York, volume 2, page 440
  4. Indian Insights, Luzac, London, 1997
  5. Hinayana (literally, “inferior way”) is a polemical term, which self-described Mahayana (literally, “great way”) Buddhist literature uses to denigrate its opponents. - p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  6. Hinayana is a designation that has no clearly identifiable external referent - p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  7. The supposed Mahayana-Hinayana dichotomy is so prevalent in Buddhist literature that it has yet fully to loosen its hold over scholarly representations of the religion. - p. 840, MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004
  8. It is also certain that Buddhist groups and individuals in China, Korea, Tibet, and Japan have in the past, as in the very recent present, identified themselves as Mahayana Buddhists, even if the polemical or value claim embedded in that term was only dimly felt, if at all., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  9. Penguin Handbook, pages 378f
  10. 10.0 10.1 Penguin Handbook
  11. 11.0 11.1 Harvey, pages 153ff
  12. Hopkins, Jeffrey (1985) The Ultimate Deity in Action Tantra and Jung's Warning against Identifying with the Deity Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 5, (1985), pp. 159-172
  13. R & J, P & K
  14. Skilling, Mahasutras, volume II, Parts I & II, 1997, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, page 78
  15. Indian Insights, loc. cit.
  16. Crosby, Kate( 2000)'Tantric Theravda: A bibliographic essay on the writings of François Bizot and others on the yogvacara Tradition', Contemporary Buddhism, 1:2, 141—198[1]
  17. Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, Macmillan, New York, 1987, pages 440f; Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, sv Buddhism
  18. Harvey
  19. Lopez, Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995, page 6

Coleman, Graham, ed. (1993). A Handbook of Tibetan Culture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.. ISBN 1-57062-002-4.

Warder, A.K. (1970). Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Schools of Buddhism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.