So, what are the schools of Buddhism? As any religion grows and evolves, there is bound to have division in it. The same is the case with Buddhism. Buddhism spread through oral transmissions before the teachings were put to paper.
As the followers of Buddhism started to form differing stands regarding the original and the deepest teachings, various schools of Buddhism emerged.
In this article, we will talk about the two major schools that are found today.
Theravada School of Buddhism
This school is the closest in appearance to the original way of life advocated by the Buddha himself. Theravada literally stands for ‘the way of the elders’. The monks are recluses who stay in the forest and beg for food from villagers.
They spend their time in meditation as advised by the Buddha. Their goal is to attain Nirvana or freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
The main tenets of this school are the 4 noble truths and the 12 links of dependent origination. Followers believe that Nirvana is won only after hard practice of many years after going through various stages and finally becoming an Arahat.
This style of Buddhism is most commonly found in Thailand, Burma and Vietnam in deep forest monasteries. Many monks with a following of westerners have set up monasteries in England, USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Mahayana School of Buddhism
There were a significant number of early followers who believed that Buddha’s teachings were deeper than the mere outward form of monasticism. Therefore, they termed the Theravada path as Hinayana, or the lower vehicle and called their own understanding as the higher vehicle, Mahayana.
The key principle is that of the Bodhisattva – a person who delays his personal Nirvana in order to help all the people of the world to attain salvation.
The Mahayana tradition enriched the Buddhist philosophy like no other tradition. It’s most famous pronouncement being ‘Emptiness is Form and Form is Emptiness’.
There have been many great teachers in the Mahayana school like Shantideva, Nagarjuna and Milarepa. The tantric school of Buddhism Vajrayana is an offshoot of Mahayana.
This school was founded in the Himalayas and the region beyond it in Tibet.
Buddhism spread to China and took the name of Chan. In Japan, it came to be called Zen, meaning meditation. Zen originated from Mahayana but took its own form and is sometimes known as crazy Buddhism. Zen claims that it is possible to point the student directly to the source of his mind thus obtaining liberation.
Zen literature is filled with funny stories, mind-bending riddles and some of the deepest interpretations of Buddhism.