Schools and Systems of Buddhism

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The Buddhism has throughout its 2,500-year history, many schools and systems produced. The terms “school” (vada) ( Sanskrit वाद vāda) and (Sanskrit यान yāna), “walking” (yana) are roughly comparable to the terms “direction”, “denomination”, “denomination” or “sect”, whereby the word "sect" has no negative valuation and all of the terms mentioned have the same meaning.

Schools of Buddhism


Chronology: development and dissemination of Buddhist traditions. (approx. 450 BC - approx. 1300 AD )

  450 BC Chr. 250 BC Chr. 100 AD 500 AD 700 AD 800 AD 1200 AD


Buddhism in India

Early Buddhism




Early Buddhist Schools Mahāyāna Vajrayāna






Sri Lanka  &
Southeast Asia










Buddhism in Tibet




Kadam / Gelug


Dagpo Kagyu


East asia


Early Buddhist schools
and Mahāyāna
(along the Silk Road
to East Asia )

Esoteric Buddhism in China ( Zhenyan , Tangmi , Mizong )

Six Nara schools




Thiền , Seon
  Zen in Japan
Tiantai zong & Amitabha Buddhism ( Pure Land )







Jōdo shū


Buddhism in Central Asia & Tarim Basin


Graeco Buddhism



Distribution along the Silk Road


  450 BC Chr. 250 BC Chr. 100 AD 500 AD 700 AD 800 AD 1200 AD
  Legend:   = Theravada   = Mahayana   = Trantric Buddhism   = different and syncretic directions

Main directions

There are essentially two main directions: Theravada , the "school of the elders" and Mahayana , the "great way". The designation Hinayana »Little Way«, as it is often used in Mahayana for early Buddhism and equated with Theravada, is unknown in Theravada itself and is not accepted, as it represents an obvious devaluation (»hina« literally does not mean » small "- as is mostly asserted - but rather" bad "," mean "," inferior "). In addition, the early schools that are meant in Mahayana ( Vaibhasika and Sautrantika , sub- schools of the Sarvastivada ) have long since died out. Today's Theravada never belonged to these schools and also represents other points of view.

Of the two main directions, Theravada is the older, while Mahayana did not develop until the turn of the Christian era (100 BC to 600 AD). The third major main direction is Vajrayana or Tantrayana , which, despite its specific characteristics, can be philosophically assigned to Mahayana. Vajrayana developed in India between 400 and 1000 AD and was influenced by the resurgent Hinduism (especially Tantrism ).

In contrast to Theravada, Mahayana does not form an actual and uniform teaching tradition and practice. The numerous schools are not based - as in Theravada - on the canon of the teachings of the Buddha in Pali language (the Pali canon , also Tipitaka ), which was laid down in three councils in the centuries after the Buddha's death , but on a remnant of what was created in parallel and later translated into Chinese or Tibetan, the original mostly lost Sanskrit sutras, as well as a variety of Mahayana sutras (in Sanskrit ) that were created later and existed for themselves . However, these were only selectively recognized by the various schools and made their own basis. There is therefore no common canon in Mahayana, but there are Chinese (San-ts'ang) and Tibetan collections (Kanjur) of various texts translated from Sanskrit, plus their own Chinese or Tibetan texts.

All directions of Buddhism adhere to the " Four Noble Truths " of Buddha about suffering, its origin, its overcoming and the " eightfold path " leading to overcoming suffering , which leads to the redemption of suffering (liberation from the fetters of delusion and attachment). This liberation from suffering is called Nibbana (P.) or Nirvana (Skr.) ("Extinction" of greed, hatred and delusion), which is the common goal of salvation for all denominations. The goal of realizing nirvana and thus realizing Buddhahood (Buddhata) is therefore the same everywhere, only the paths that lead to this goal are different.

The following list does not name all schools, sects, or systems of thought that have emerged over the course of Buddhism's long history. Only the most important ones that were or are of great importance in the past or present are listed.

Theravada (teaching of the elders)

  • Origin: 4th century BC In India.
  • Founder: No central founder figure.
  • Systematists: Buddhadatta (4th / 5th century), Buddhaghosa (5th century), Dhammapala (5th century), Anuruddha (12th century)
  • Branches: -
  • Present distribution: Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, PR China (in Yunnan), western world.
  • Most important sources: Tipitaka (three basket) or Pali canon ; Visuddhimagga , Milindapañha , Abhidhammatthasangaha .
  • Way of salvation: Overcoming suffering by eliminating the causes of suffering, greed, hatred and delusion through virtue, meditation and knowledge.

Extinct systems

  • Mahasanghika . Founded in the 4th century BC BC Preparer of the Mahayana, in which she was finally absorbed.
  • Pudgalavada . Founded in the 3rd century BC Chr. One of the great early Buddhist schools. Fall in the 7th century
  • Sarvastivada . Founded in the 3rd century BC Early Buddhist school with great effectiveness. Sank with the Islamic conquest of India.
  • Sautrantika . Founded in the 2nd century AD. Early Buddhist school whose teachings provided many impulses for the emergence of Mahayana.

Systems of Mahayana


  • Origin: 2nd century AD in India.
  • Founder: Nagarjuna (2nd century AD).
  • Systematists: Aryadeva (3rd century), Buddhapalita (5th / 6th century), Bhavaviveka (6th / 7th century), Candrakirti (7th century), Shantideva (7th / 8th century) .
  • Branches: (1) in China: Sanlun; (2) in Japan: Sanron.
  • Today's distribution: no longer exists as an independent school, but strong penetration, especially of Tibetan and Sino-Japanese Buddhism.
  • Main sources: Prajñaparamitasutra, Mulamadhyamakakarika.
  • Path of salvation: Knowledge of the emptiness ( Shunyata ) of all phenomena of existence and insight that this emptiness is the absolute = redemption.

Vijñānavāda (Yogacara)

  • Origin: 3rd / 4th centuries Century AD in India.
  • Founder: Maitreyanatha (3rd / 4th century).
  • Systematists: Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th century), Dignaga (5th / 6th century), Dharmakirti (7th century).
  • Branches: (1) in China: Faxiang-zong; (2) in Japan: Hossō-shū .
  • Today's distribution: As an independent school outside of Japan no longer exists, but strong penetration, especially of Tibetan and Sino-Japanese Buddhism.
  • Main sources: Yogacarabhumishastra, Samdhinirmocana, Avatsamsaka, Lankavatara.
  • Path of salvation: Recognition that everything is "only spirit" ( cittamātra ) and turning back to the pure spirit, the basic consciousness = absolute = redemption.

Pure Land, Amidism ( Amitabha Buddhism , School of Faith)

  • Origin: 1st century AD in India.
  • Founder: -
  • Systematists: (1) in China: Huiyuan (334-416), Tanluan (476-542); Daochuo (Japanese Doshaku) (562-645) Shandao (Japanese Zendō) (613-681) (2) in Japan: Hōnen Shonin (1133-1212) and Shinran Shonin (1173-1263).
  • Branches: (1) in China: Jìngtǔ-zōng; (2) in Japan: Jōdo-shū , Jōdo-Shinshū .
  • Today's distribution: China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore.
  • Most important sources: The Great Amitabha Sutra (Sukhâvatîvyûha-mahâyânasûtra, Japanese Muryôju-kyô), the Small Amitabha Sutra (Sukhâvatîvyûhonâma-mahâyânasûtra, Japanese Amida-kyûâmra, Japanese Amida-kyûâmury (Amida-kyûtra jap. kyô)
  • Way of Salvation: (1) Trust in the helping support of the transcendent Buddha Amitabha (Amida); (2) Relief from karma through the helping assistance of healing bodhisattvas; (3) rebirth in an intermediate paradise ( sukhavati ); (4) Become a bodhisattva yourself.

Saddharmapundarika (lotus school)

Vajrayana (Esoteric Buddhism / Tantrayana / Mantrayana)

  • Origin: originated in India from the 3rd century, there are similarities to Indian Tantrism
  • Founder: No central founder figure. (1) in Tibet: Padmasambhava (8th century) [representative of Vajrayana]; (2) in Japan: Kobo Daishi [Kukai] (774-835) [representatives of Shingon-shu].
  • Systematists: In Tibet: Atisha (980–1054), Marpa (1012–1097), Tsongkhapa (1357–1419).
  • Branches: (1) in China: Zhenyan Mizong ; (2) in Japan: Shingon ; (3) in Tibet: Nyingma , Kadampa , Kagyu , Sakya , Gelug
  • Today's distribution: Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mongolia, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Ladakh, China, Korea, Japan, western world.
  • Main sources: Tantra literature.
  • Path of salvation: redemption through experience of the all-identity and opening up of the absolute within oneself by means of secret psychoactive techniques.

Chan / Zen / Son / Thien (meditation school)

See also


  • Nalinaksha Dutt: Buddhist Sects in India. Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi 1998, ISBN 978-8-1831-5198-6 .
  • Bibhuti Baruah: Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. Bibhuti Baruah, Sarup 2000, ISBN 8176251526 .
  • Nalinaksha Dutt: The Spread of Buddhism and the Buddhist Schools. Rajesch Publications, New Delhi / Allahabad 1950 ( [1] on

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. speaking, saying, speaker, playing a musical instrument; Saying, utterance, statement; Doctrine, doctrine; Conversation, entertainment; Discussion, dispute, debate, controversy; Story, report; Thesis; Explanation, explanation
  2. leading to, also walking, riding, driving, marching; Train; Wagon, wagon, vehicle, vehicle; Path. The terms stand as a metaphor for the spiritual path.
  3. ^ Arvind Sharma: A Note on the Use of the Word Hīnayāna in the Teachings of Buddhism, Eastern Buddhist Society - Vol. 9, Issue 2, 1976 digitized
  4. ^ Fire in The Lotus , Daniel B. Montgomery, Mandala 1991, p. 280