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Standing Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum. One of the earliest known representations of the Buddha, 1st–2nd century CE.
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Buddhism refers to a collection of traditions, beliefs, and practices based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, the Sage of the Shakyas, commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened one). The Buddha lived and taught in northern India approximately 2,500 years ago, and since his passing, his teachings have spread throughout the world.

The name Buddhism was first introduced by Western scholars about 150 years ago—as they attempted to understand and transmit the teachings of the Buddha to the West. In the Buddha's own days, and as his teachings spread throughout Asia beginning around the 6th century B.C.E., the Buddha's teachings were "known as Dhamma (Sanskrit Dharma), what is right and as it ought to be, also as Buddha-vacana, the word or speech of the Buddha, and also as Buddha-sāsana, the message, teaching, instruction or dispensation of the Buddha."[1]

Buddhism is generally categorized among the major world religions,[note 1] and it is now commonly studied in the religion departments of the great universities in the Western world. However, many contemporary Buddhists and scholars note that Buddhism does not fit the common Western notion of a religion. For example, contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin writes:

...is [Buddhism] a religion? Obviously it depends on how one defines 'a religion'. What is certain, however, is that Buddhism does not involve belief in a creator God who has control over human destiny, nor does it seek to define itself by reference to a creed; as Edward Conze has pointed out, it took over 2,000 years and a couple of Western converts to Buddhism to provide it with a creed. On the other hand, Buddhism views activities that would be generally understood as religious—such as devotional practices and rituals—as a legitimate, useful, and even essential part of the practice and training that leads to the cessation of suffering.[2]

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes understanding the teachings of the Buddha, and putting them into practice. Contemporary scholar Peter Harvey notes:

In its long history, Buddhism has used a variety of teachings and means to help people first develop a calmer, more integrated and compassionate personality, and then ‘wake up’ from restricting delusions: delusions which cause attachment and thus suffering for an individual and those he or she interacts with... Buddhism thus essentially consists of understanding, practising and realizing Dhamma.[3]

In a similar vien, contemporary scholar Carol Anderson notes:

Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development. The Buddha-dharma is simply a starting point; concepts that if practiced and applied will bring peace, acceptance and freedom from pain. The basic tenets of Buddhist teaching are straightforward and practical: nothing is fixed or permanent, all actions have consequences, and all life is interdependent. It enables people to realize and use its teachings to transform their life experience, to be fully responsible for their lives and to find relief from suffering.
To do no evil
To cultivate good;
To purify one's mind:
This is the teaching of the Buddha.[4]

Life of the Buddha

Traditional account

Ascetic Gautama with his five companions, who later comprised the first Sangha. (Painting in Laotian temple)

According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born in northern India approximately 2,500 years ago to King Śuddhodana of the Shakya clan and given the name Siddhartha Gautama. After his birth, the sages of the kingdom visited the King and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king and military conqueror or he would renounce the material world and become a great spiritual teacher.

King Śuddhodana was determined to see his son follow in his own footsteps and become a great king and conqueror, so he attempted to insulate his son from all outside influences.

In an effort to assure that his son's spiritual nature was never awakened, the King insulated Siddhartha from all pain and suffering. He was surrounded by wealth and pleasure, his every wish granted. Orders were given that no unpleasantness would intrude upon Siddhartha’s life of courtly pleasures and so all signs of illness, aging, and mortality were hidden from him.[5]

But at age 29, despite his father's efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.

Gautama first went to study with famous religious teachers of the day, and mastered the meditative attainments they taught. But he found that they did not provide a permanent end to suffering, so he continued his quest. He next attempted an extreme asceticism, which was a religious pursuit common among the Shramanas, a religious culture distinct from the Vedic one. Gautama underwent prolonged fasting, breath-holding, and exposure to pain. He almost starved himself to death in the process. He realized that he had taken this kind of practice to its limit, and had not put an end to suffering. So in a pivotal moment he accepted milk and rice from a village girl and changed his approach. He devoted himself to anapanasati meditation, through which he discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way (Skt. madhyamā-pratipad): a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

Gold colored statue of man reclining on his right side
Buddha statue depicting Parinirvana. (Mahaparinirvana Temple, Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India)

Gautama was now determined to complete his spiritual quest. At the age of 35, he famously sat in meditation under a sacred fig tree — known as the Bodhi tree — in the town of Bodh Gaya, India, and vowed not to rise before achieving enlightenment. After many days, he finally destroyed the fetters of his mind, thereby liberating himself from the cycle of suffering and rebirth, and arose as a fully enlightened being (Skt. samyaksaṃbuddha). Soon thereafter, he attracted a band of followers and instituted a monastic order. Now, as the Buddha, he spent the rest of his life teaching the path of awakening he had discovered, traveling throughout the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent,[6] and died at the age of 80 (483 BCE) in Kushinagar, India. The south branch of the original fig tree available only in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka is known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

Historical account

Scholars are hesitant to make unqualified claims about the historical facts of the Buddha's life. Most accept that he lived, taught and founded a monastic order, but do not consistently accept all of the details contained in his biographies.[7][8]

According to author Michael Carrithers, while there are good reasons to doubt the traditional account, "the outline of the life must be true: birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death."[9] In writing her biography of the Buddha, Karen Armstrong noted,

It is obviously difficult, therefore, to write a biography of the Buddha that meets modern criteria, because we have very little information that can be considered historically sound... [but] we can be reasonably confident Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could.[10]

The evidence of the early texts suggests that Siddhārtha Gautama was born in a community that was on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the northeastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE.[11] It was either a small republic, in which case his father was an elected chieftain, or an oligarchy, in which case his father was an oligarch.[11]

Basic concepts

Middle Way

According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha expressed the principle of the middle way in his first teaching, in which he advocated a path that avoided the two extremes of self-indulgence or self-denial. The Buddha asserted that a path that followed either extreme would not lead to ultimate truth.[12][note 2]

Contemporary scholar Carol Anderson states:

The Middle Way is a life lived between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence and lies at the heart of Buddhism even today. The Buddha wanted his companions to understand that austerity would destroy their health and undermine their ability to realize enlightenment for themselves. To cultivate a moral lifestyle hand in hand with a mindful meditative practice is to walk the Middle Way. Despite the current diversity of Buddhist belief, the Middle Way remains a commonality shared by all.[14]

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit manuscript. Nālandā, Bihar, India.

The teachings on the Four Noble Truths are regarded as central to the teachings of Buddhism, and are said to provide a conceptual framework for Buddhist thought. These four truths explain the nature of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness), its causes, and how it can be overcome. The four truths are:[note 3]

  1. The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness[note 4])
  2. The truth of the origin of dukkha
  3. The truth of the cessation of dukkha
  4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

The first truth explains the nature of dukkha. Dukkha is commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "unsatisfactoriness", "unease", etc., and it is said to have the following three aspects:

  • The obvious suffering of physical and mental illness, growing old, and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A subtle dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.[note 5]

The central importance of dukkha in Buddhist philosophy has caused some observers to consider Buddhism to be a pessimistic philosophy. However, the emphasis on dukkha is not intended to present a pessimistic view of life, but rather to present a realistic practical assessment of the human condition—that all beings must experience suffering and pain at some point in their lives, including the inevitable sufferings of illness, aging, and death.[15] Contemporary Buddhist teachers and translators emphasize that while the central message of Buddhism is optimistic, the Buddhist view of our situation in life (the conditions that we live in) is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic.[note 6]

The second truth is that the origin of dukkha can be known. Within the context of the four noble truths, the origin of dukkha is commonly explained as craving (Pali: tanha) conditioned by ignorance (Pali: avijja). On a deeper level, the root cause of dukkha is identified as ignorance (Pali: avijja) of the true nature of things. The third noble truth is that the complete cessation of dukkha is possible, and the fourth noble truth identifies a path to this cessation.[note 3]

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path—the fourth of the Buddha's Noble Truths—consists of a set of eight interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the cessation of dukkha.[16] These eight factors are: Right View (or Right Understanding), Right Intention (or Right Thought), Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

Ajahn Sucitto describes the path as "a mandala of interconnected factors that support and moderate each other."[16] The eight factors of the path are not to be understood as stages, in which each stage is completed before moving on to the next. Rather, they are understood as eight significant dimensions of one's behaviour—mental, spoken, and bodily—that operate in dependence on one another; taken together, they define a complete path, or way of living.[17]

The eight factors of the path are commonly presented within three divisions (or higher trainings) as shown below:

Division Eightfold factor Description
(Sanskrit: prajñā,
Pāli: paññā)
1. Right view Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be
2. Right intention Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness
Ethical conduct
(Sanskrit: śīla,
Pāli: sīla)
3. Right speech Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way
4. Right action Acting in a non-harmful way
5. Right livelihood A non-harmful livelihood
(Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)
6. Right effort Making an effort to improve
7. Right mindfulness Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness;
being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion
8. Right concentration Correct meditation or concentration, explained as the first four jhānas

Nature of existence

Three Marks of Existence

The three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering and no-self) are accepted as core beliefs by all Buddhist traditions. Carol Anderson explains:

In the 26 centuries since the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, Buddhism has developed into a diverse religion rich with culture, beliefs and practices that can vary between the different traditions. As Buddhism spread into new regions, it became enmeshed in the regional religious beliefs. New religions sprang up that were Buddhist in appearance but which retained little of the Buddha's teachings. As well, new schools of Buddhism arose that approached the original teachings in fresh new ways. With these changes, questions arose as to the true nature of Buddhism. Regardless of the title, the Three Dharma Seals, the Three Marks of Existence...and the Three Universal Characteristics refer to the same concepts. All schools of Buddhism based on Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings accept these concepts as the core of their beliefs thus distinguishing true Buddhism from other religions that might look like Buddhism. It follows then that any teaching that contradicts theses concepts is not a true Buddhist teaching. According to the Buddha, all conditioned things, all things in existence, share three characteristics. These are: 1. Impermanence (anicca) 2. Suffering (dukkha) 3. No-soul (anatta/ anatman).[18]

In brief, the three marks of existence are:

  • Impermanence (Pāli: anicca; Sanskrit: anitya) expresses the Buddhist notion that all compounded phenomena (all things and experiences) are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent.
    The Buddha listed impermanence (anicca) as the first of his three marks of existence—characteristics that apply to everything in the natural order—the other two being suffering (dukkha) and the absence of independent existence (anatta). Nothing in nature is identical with what it was the moment before; in this the Buddha was close to modern science, which has discovered that the relatively stable objects of the macro world derive from particles that are so ephemeral that they barely exist. To underscore life’s fleetingness the Buddha called the components of the human self skandhas—skeins that hang together as loosely as yarn—and the body a “heap,” its elements no more solidly assembled than grains in a sandpile. But why did the Buddha belabor a point that may seem obvious? Because, he believed, we are freed from the pain of clutching for permanence only if the acceptance of continual change is driven into our very marrow.[19]
  • Suffering (Pāli: dukkha; Sanskrit duḥkha) -- because all conditions things are impermanent, and because we fail to recognize this and instead cling to things as if they are permanent, there is suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, frustration, and so on.
  • No-self (Pāli: anatta; Sanskrit: anātman) -- upon careful examination, one finds that no phenomenon is really "I" or "mine"; these concepts are in fact constructed by the mind. By analyzing the constantly changing physical and mental constituents (skandhas) of a person or object, the practitioner comes to the conclusion that neither the respective parts nor the person as a whole comprise a self.

A fourth concept, nirvana is often added to this list,[18] particularly in the Mahayana tradition. Thus, in the Mahayana tradition, the list of four concepts is referred to as the four seals.

Dependent arising

The general or universal definition of pratityasamutpada (or "dependent origination" or "dependent arising" or "interdependent co-arising") is that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity.[note 7][note 8] A traditional example used in Buddhist texts is of three sticks standing upright and leaning against each other and supporting each other. If one stick is taken away, the other two will fall to the ground. Thich Nhat Hanh explains:[20]

Pratitya samutpada is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect, but that can be misleading, because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect. According to the teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising, cause and effect co-arise (samutpada) and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions... In the sutras, this image is given: "Three cut reeds can stand only by leaning on one another. If you take one away, the other two will fall." For a table to exist, we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things, in turn, has to be brought about by other causes and conditions. If we continue to look in this way, we'll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one. One cause is never enough to bring about an effect. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be the cause of something else. Cause and effect inter-are. The idea of first and only cause, something that does not itself need a cause, cannot be applied.[note 9]


In the Mahayana tradition, the principle of pratītyasamutpāda is said to complement the concept of emptiness (sunyata). It is said that because all things arise in dependence upon causes and conditions, they are empty of inherent existence.[note 10]

A classic expression of this relationship was provided by the renowned Indian scholar Nagarjuna in the twenty-fourth chapter of his Treatise on the Middle Way; Nagarjuna stated:[24]

Whatever arises dependently
Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.

Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.

Geshe Sonam Rinchen explains the above quote as follows: "Here Nagarjuna states the Madhyamika or middle way position. Everything that exists does so dependently and everything that is dependently existent necessarily lacks independent objective existence."[24]

Life and the world


Within Buddhism, samsara is defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence,[note 11] where each realm can be understood as physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a particular type of suffering. Samsara arises out of avidya (ignorance) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction). In the Buddhist view, liberation from samsara is possible by following the Buddhist path.[note 12]


Within the Buddhist system of belief, the term karma is used in two senses:

  • On the specific level, karma refers to those actions which spring from the intention (cetanā) of a sentient being. Karmic actions are traditionally likened to a seed that will inevitably ripen into a result or fruition (referred to as vipāka or phala in Sanskrit and Pali).
  • On the general level, contemporary Buddhist teachers frequently use the term karma when referring to the entire process of karmic action and result.

Within Buddhism, developing a genuine, experiential understanding of karmic action and result — i.e., how one's actions will have a consequential outcome — is an essential aspect of the Buddhist path. Karmic actions are considered to be the engine that drives the naturally occurring cycle of rebirth (samsara) for sentient beings. Correspondingly, a complete understanding of the process of karmic action and result enables beings to free themselves from samsara and attain liberation.[note 13]

Within Buddhism, the theory of karmic action and result is identified as part of the broader doctrine of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which states that all phenomena arise as the result of multiple causes and conditions. The theory of karmic action and result is a specific instance of this broader doctrine that applies to sentient beings. Specifically, when there is a conscious intention (cetanā) behind an action, whether positive, neutral, or negative, then that action is karma, and the corresponding results are karmic results. Thus, every deed of body, speech, or mind is considered to be a karmic action, and the determining factor in the quality of one's actions is one's intentions or motivations.[note 13]

In the Buddhist view, karmic results are not considered to be a "judgement" enforced by a God, Deity or other supernatural being that controls the affairs of the Cosmos. Rather, karmic results are considered to be the outcome of a natural process of cause and effect. Contemporary Buddhist teacher Khandro Rinpoche explains:[25]

Buddhism is a nontheistic philosophy. We do not believe in a creator but in the causes and conditions that create certain circumstances that then come to fruition. This is called karma. It has nothing to do with judgement; there is no one keeping track of our karma and sending us up above or down below. Karma is simply the wholeness of a cause, or first action, and its effect, or fruition, which then becomes another cause. In fact, one karmic cause can have many fruitions, all of which can cause thousands more creations. Just as a handful of seed can ripen into a full field of grain, a small amount of karma can generate limitless effects.


In the Buddhist tradition, nirvana is described as the extinguishing of the fires that cause suffering. These fires are typically identified as the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya).[note 14]

For example, Rupert Gethin states:[26]

Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ [...] What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily indicates is the event or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. At the moment the Buddha understood suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, these fires were extinguished. This process is the same for all who reach awakening, and the early texts term it either nirvāṇa or parinirvāṇa, the complete ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. This is not a ‘thing’ but an event or experience.

Contemporary Buddhist scholar Ajahn Sucitto emphasizes that when these fires are extinguished, the mind is freed. Ajahn Sucitto states:[28]

The metaphors associated with nibbāna often liken it to the blowing out of a fire. When it is no longer burning, the fire has “nibbāna’d”—the elements on which it was based are no longer in a state of combustion. This may seem like sterility and lifelessness from the viewpoint of the fire, but from the perspective of the elements it means life and potential. That is, when the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion are extinguished, the mind is free to operate in terms of its fullest capacity.

Philosophical schools and living traditions

What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?

What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?

  • A philosophical school is a philosophy (a system of thought) based on a set of texts. It provides the philosophical underpinnings for the living traditions.
  • A living tradition is a tradition (set of beliefs and practices) based upon one or more philosophical systems. It is common for living traditions to draw on multiple philosophies or belief systems, or to have different interpretations of the underlying philosophical systems.

Philosophical schools

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Three main schools

In contemporary Buddhism, there are three major philosophical schools:

  • Theravada
    • The Theravada school is based on a set of texts that are referred to as the Pali Canon and its commentaries. These texts were written in the Pali language.
    • This is the philosophical foundation of the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia.
  • Mahayana
    • The Mahayana school is based on the Mahayana sutras.
      • These texts were originally written in the Sanskrit language, then translated from Sanskrit into both Chinese and Tibetan. Eventually, the texts were translated from Chinese into Japanese and other East Asian languages.
    • Broadly speaking, the Mahayana is the philosophical foundation of the traditions of East Asia, Tibet, Mongolia and the Himalayan region.
  • Vajrayana
    • This school is a subset of the broader Mahayana philosophical school.
    • The Vajrayana school is based on both the Mahayana sutras and a specialized group of texts referred to as Buddhist tantras.
      • The tantras were originally written in Sanskrit, and then translated from Sankskit into Tibetan. A smaller number of tantric texts were also translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, and then from Chinese into Japanese.
    • Along with Mahayana, this is the philosophical basis of Tibetan Buddhism and some minor sects in present day Japan.

What all philosophical schools have in common

The foundation of all of Buddhism is the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths; these truths are said to provide a unifying theme, or conceptual framework for all Buddhist thought.[note 3]

These four truths are: the truth of suffering; the truth of the cause of suffering; the truth of the cessation of suffering; and the truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. All Buddhist philosophical schools accept that:

  • suffering exists (the first noble truth),
  • the causes of suffering can be known (the second noble truth),
  • the cessation of suffering is possible (the third truth), and
  • there is a path that can be followed (the fourth truth).

A key difference between the various philosophical schools and traditions is in the methods used to progress along the path (the fourth truth). As contemporary Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher Chogyal Namkai Norbu writes: “All the various traditions are agreed that this basic problem of suffering exists, but they have different methods of dealing with it to bring the individual back to the experience of primordial unity.”

Theravada school

Theravada is a system of Buddhist thought based on a set of texts that that consist of the Pali Canon and its commentaries. These texts are written in the Pali language.

The texts of the Pali canon are traditionally divided into there pitakas (a Pali term that literally means baskets):

  • Sutta Pitaka: records of the teachings Buddha
  • Vinaya Pitaka: teachings on monastic discipline and related explanations
  • Abhidhamma Pitaka: texts that seek to define many of the topics mentioned in the Buddha’s teachings (Pali: suttas), and arranges them in classifications, the five skandhas, the eight consciousnesses and so on

Sometime after the Pali canon was written down, scholars of this tradition wrote commentaries to help organize the teachings of the canon into a coherent system of thought. The most important of these commentaries is called The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) by Bhadantácariya Buddhaghosa. Regarding this commentary, contemporary Theravada scholar Bhikkhu Naoamoli states:

It systematically summarizes and interprets the teaching of the Buddha contained in the Pali Tipiþaka... As the principal non-canonical authority of the Theraváda, it forms the hub of a complete and coherent method of exegesis of the Tipiþaka, using the “Abhidhamma method” as it is called. And it sets out detailed practical instructions for developing purification of mind.

The Encyclopedia Britannica states:

[The Path of Purification] organizes its material broadly under three headings: sila (morals), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom), but it also comments on and explains a wide range of details of Buddhist doctrine through the use of narrative and by means of direct quotation from and explanation of the canonical texts of the Tipitaka, presenting Theravada doctrines as a systematic whole. In addition, the Visuddhimaggacontains a detailed description of Buddhist meditative techniques and can be regarded as a general reference work on Theravada doctrine.[web 2]

The Theravada phisolophy outlined in the The Path of Purification provides the philosophical foundation of the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia.

Mahayana school

Mahayana literally means "Great Vehicle". The early Mahayana adherents used this term to distinguish themselves from other early buddhists, who they described as followers of the Basic Vehicle.

Thus, the texts of the Mayahana school include:

  • All of the texts of the Basic Vehicle
    • These texts are roughly equivalent to the texts of the Theravada tripitaka (the Pali Canon); though the Mahayana school is based on the Sanskrit versions of these texts
    • These texts include the teaching on the Four Noble Truths and other sutras that are accepted by all traditions as authentic teachings of the Buddha
    • Note that Theravada commentaries such as The Path of Purification were not yet written when the Mahayana philosophy was formed; thus these commentaries are not considered part of the Basic Vehicle within the Mahayana system
  • Sutras and commentaries of the Great Vehicle (the Maya-yana)
    • The Great Vehicle sutras appeared in Northern India sometime after the texts of the Basic Vehicle were recorded
    • The Great Vehicle sutras are based on the texts of the Basic Vehicle, but they emphasize training in bodhichitta (limitless wisdom and compassion)
    • The Great Vehicle sutras are generally not considered as authentic teachings of the Buddha within the Theravada tradition

The texts of the Mahayana tradition were originally written in Sanskrit, and then translated to Chinese and Tibetan. They were later translated from Chinese to Japanese (and possibly other East Asian languages).

The Mahayana path is described as a “gradual path” of the perfections and bhumis as taught in the Mahayana sutras. Generally speaking, this path emphasizes the gradual development of the six perfections of generosity, discipline, diligence, patience, meditative concentration and wisdom. The first five perfections are focused on the development of compassion and love on both an aspirational and a practical level. The final perfection of wisdom focuses on development of direct insight into the true nature of reality.

Thus, the Mahayana philosophy emphasizes both:

  • direct insight into the nature of reality, and
  • limitless love and compassion for all sentient beings.

The Mahayana view of the true nature of reality is that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence. A common way of expressing this view in the Mahayana tradition is to say that all appearances are illusory or dreamlike. This view is expressed in the Diamond Sutra as follows:[web 3]

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.

The aspiration for limitless love and compassion for all beings is expressed in the following prayer from the Bodhicaryavattara:[31]

May I be a guard for those who are without protection.
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
A lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed;
For those who need a servant, may I be their slave.
May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
A word of power and the supreme healing.
May I be the tree of miracles, and for every being a source of abundance.
Thus for every thing that lives,
As far as are the limits of the sky,
May I provide their livelihood and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering

Mahayana philosophy provides the philosophical framework for:

  • The East Asian tradition of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam
  • The Tibetan tradition (which practices a form of Vajrayana that is based in the Mahayana philosophy)

Vajrayana school

Vajrayana is a system of Buddhist thought based on a set of texts that are referred to as Buddhist tantras. These texts first appeared in Northern India between the 5th and 7th century CE. Vajrayana thought and practice first influenced Buddhist practitioners in Northern India, and then spread to China, Mongolia, and Tibet. From China, the Varjayana texts and practices were transmitted to Korea and Japan.

The Vajrayana path builds on the foundation of the Mahayana philosophy. Rupert Gethin states that Vajrayana is “a particular approach to the practice of the Buddhist path occurring within the general Mahāyāna philosophical framework…”[32] Thus, the Vajrayana path includes all the aspects of the Mahayana philosophy, such as the development of boundless love and compassion, and developing direct insight into the nature of reality. But the Vajrayana path also includes additional “skillful means” to enable a practitioner to reach enlightenment more quickly.

One key difference between these two paths is that whereas the Mahayana path emphasizes transcending samsara in order to reach the state of nirvana, the Vajrayana path gives “special emphasis to the idea of the equivalence of nirvana and samsara.”[32] In practice, this means that in the Mahayana tradition one works skillfully to rid oneself of negative emotions such as anger, desire, and so on; in the Mahayana tradition the emphasis is on taming the mind and developing the positive qualities of love and compassion. In the Vajrayana tradition, a practitioner is encouraged to view negative emotions as a form of energy that can be directly transformed into wisdom. For example, contemporary scholar Damien Keown explains:

Based on the view that nirvana and samsara are not different, the Tantras [the Vajrayana texts] teach that anything – even desire – can profitably be used as a means to liberation. The passions come to be regarded not as inherently wicked but simply as a powerful form of energy which – rather like electricity – can be used for many purposes.[33]

The texts of the Vajrayana have been translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan and Chinese, and from Chinese into Japanese.

Vajrayana practice remains as the dominant form of practice within the Tibetan tradition. In addition:

  • While Vajrayana practice had reportedly died out in China, today many teachers from the Tibetan tradition teach Vajrayana practice methods in China.
  • In Japan, there are small sects of Vajrayana practitioners remaining from the original transmission. There are some Tibetan teachers teaching in Japan.
  • In the Western countries today, there are also many dharma centers following the Tibetan tradition.
  • The Newar Buddhist tradition of Nepal practices a unique Vajrayana tradition. This is the only tradition that still relies Sanskrit texts for is practice rituals and philosophy.

Living traditions

This content is a work in progress. Workinprogress-icon-50px.jpg

About living traditions

Since ancient India until modern times, it has been common for traditions, groups and individuals to be influenced by more than one philosophy or tradition. For example:

  • Chinese pilgrims to India around 400 CE reported seeing Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks both co-existing in the same monasteries.[note 15] This seems to have been a process of self-identification, where those monks who were attracted to the Mahayana sutras identified themselves as Mahayana.
  • The East Asian Buddhist tradition was influenced by the native Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism.
  • The Tibetan Buddhist tradition was influenced by the indigenous Bon tradition.
  • In many countries of Southeast Asia, local indigenous traditions influence the practice of Buddhism in those countries (see below)
  • In the Western countries, many contemporary Buddhist practitioners are influenced by more than one Buddhist tradition or philosophy

Contemporary scholar Damian Keown notes:

When Buddhism spreads it tends not to eradicate existing beliefs but to incorporate them, along with local gods and spirits, into its own cosmology. It is quite common to find Buddhists at the village level [in Southeast Asia] turning to the local gods for solutions to everyday problems – such as curing an illness or finding a marriage partner – and to Buddhism for answers to the larger questions about human destiny.[34]

Idealized religion vs. practiced religion

This distinction between the philosophical schools and the living traditions is expressed by contemporary scholar James C. Dobbins, as the distinction between an idealized religion (of the doctrines) and the practiced religion (the way people live).

Dobbins writes:

This distinction between idealized religion and practiced religion is important because there is a widespread tendency to mistake the religious ideal presented in the great doctrinal treatises for the historical reality of how religion was actually practiced. This is not the case. Throughout history there has been a disjunction between idealized and practiced religion. Needless to say, idealized religion informs and shapes practiced religion, and practiced religion likewise modifies and redefines idealized religion. At any particular moment, however, there tends to be a discrepancy between the two. In such circumstances, the ideal should not be mistaken for practiced reality. Hence, when looking at religious documents one needs to be mindful of whether they are prescriptive or descriptive in nature—that is, whether they project an idealized view of religious life or present observations of its actual practice.[35]

Three broad traditions

Contemporary Buddhist scholars generally classify living Buddhism into three broad traditions: southern (Theravada), eastern, and northern.[36] [note 16] For example, Rupert Gethin identifies the three "broad traditions" as follows:[37]

  • The Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, also sometimes referred to as 'southern' Buddhism. Its canonical scriptures are preserved in Pali, an ancient Indian language closely related to Sanskrit.
  • The East Asian tradition of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, also sometimes referred to as ‘eastern’ Buddhism. Its scriptures are preserved in Chinese and its general outlook is that of the Mahayana...
  • The Tibetan tradition, also sometimes referred to as 'northern' Buddhism. Its scriptures are preserved in Tibetan and once more its outlook is broadly that of the Mahayana, but its more specific orientation is that of the [Vajrayana].

Within these major traditions, there are a variety of smaller traditions and sects.

What all traditions share in common

Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin identifies the following areas of Buddhist thought and practice that are common to all major traditions of Buddhism:[38]

  • the story of the Buddha
  • a textual and scriptural tradition
  • the framework of the four noble truths
  • the monastic and lay ways of life
  • a cosmology based around karma and rebirth
  • the teaching of no self and dependent arising
  • a progressive path of practice leading on from good conduct and devotions through stages of meditation to a higher understanding
  • the theoretical systems of either the Abhidharma or the Madyamaka and Yogācāra
  • the path of the bodhisattva

Theravada (as a living tradition)

Alexander Berzin explains:[web 4]

Theravada, practiced in Southeast Asia, emphasizes the practice of mindfulness meditation. This is done by focusing on the breath and the sensations in the body while sitting, and on the movements and intentions to move while walking extremely slowly. With mindfulness of the arising and falling of each moment, one gains an experiential realization of impermanence. When this understanding is applied to analyzing all one's experience, one realizes that there is no permanent, unchanging self that exists independently of everything and everyone else. All is momentary changes. In this way, one gains an understanding of reality that will liberate oneself from self-centered concern and the unhappiness it brings.
Theravada also teaches meditations on immeasurable love, compassion, equanimity and joy, but only in the last decades has it had a movement of what is called "Engaged Buddhism," starting in Thailand, for engaging Buddhists in programs of social and environmental help.
Theravada monks study and chant the Buddhist scriptures and perform ritual ceremonies for the lay public. The monks go on daily rounds of silent begging for alms, and the householders practice generosity by offering them food.

East Asian Mahayana (as a living tradition)

Tibetan Mahayana (as a living tradition)

Alexander Berzin explains:[web 4]

The Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism found throughout Central Asia preserves the full historical development of Indian Buddhism, particularly the traditions of the great monastic universities such as Nalanda. Thus, it emphasizes study, particularly about the nature of the mind, the emotions and reality, through the medium of logic and debate, carried out in conjunction with intense meditation on these topics.
This approach is combined, in Tibet, with the Indian Buddhist tradition of tantra practice, in which one uses the powers of the imagination and works with the subtle energies of the body to transform oneself into a Buddha. This is done by concentrating on voidness (emptiness) and compassion, and within that context, imagining oneself to have become a specific Buddha-form. Although such forms are sometimes called "meditation deities," they are not the equivalent of God in meaning or function, and Buddhism is not in any way a polytheistic religion. Each Buddha-form is a symbolic representation of one aspect of a Buddha's enlightenment, such as wisdom or compassion. Visualizing oneself in such a form and reciting the sacred syllables (mantras) associated with it helps one to overcome one's deluded, negative self-image and to develop the qualities embodied by that figure. Such practices are very advanced and require close supervision by a fully qualified teacher.
Tibetan Buddhism also has a great deal of chanting and ritual, often designed to eliminate negative forces and interference visualized in the form of demons. While performing such rituals, one imagines oneself in an extremely forceful form as a meditational aid for gaining the energy and confidence to overcome difficulties. There is also great emphasis on meditational techniques for cultivating love and compassion, also involving the use of visualization.

Timeline of early development of schools and traditions

The following chart provides a rough timeline of the development of the different schools/traditions:[note 17]

Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)

  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE







Early Buddhist schools Mahāyāna Vajrayāna






Sri Lanka &
Southeast Asia










Central Asia & Tarim Basin





Silk Road Buddhism


East Asia


Early Buddhist schools
and Mahāyāna
(via the silk road
to China, and ocean
contact from India to Vietnam)


Nara (Rokushū)




Thiền, Seon
Tiantai / Jìngtǔ









Tibetan Buddhism








  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE
  Legend:   = Theravada   = Mahayana   = Vajrayana   = Various / syncretic



Among the various Buddhist traditions, a variety of methods are used to achieve the goals of the Buddhist path.


  1. The term world religion is used here to refer to religions that are not limited to a specific location, tradition, or ethnic group.
  2. Note that within the Mayahana tradtion, the term middle way is also used to indicate the middle ground between certain metaphysical views (for example, that things ultimately either do or do not exist).[13]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 See the article Four Noble Truths for further details and citations.
  4. For clarification of translations, see Dukkha#Translating the term dukkha.
  5. See the article Dukkha for further details and citations.
  6. For citations and further clarification, see Dukkha#Neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic; in particular, see the footnotes in this section for detailed information on sources.
  7. See the article Pratītyasamutpāda for further details and citations.
  8. Pratityasamutpada can also be described as follows: that all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. When one cause changes or disappears, the resulting object or phenomenon will also change or disappear, as will the objects or phenomena depending on the changing object or phenomenon.
  9. Thich Nhat Hanh also refers to this reality of mutual interdependence as 'Interbeing'.
  10. In the Mahayana tradition, the principle of pratītyasamutpāda is said to complement the concept of emptiness (sunyata):
    • The Dalai Lama states: "...the meaning of pratityasamutpada is that which arises in dependence upon conditions, in reliance upon conditions, through the force of conditions. On a subtle level, it is explained as the main reason why phenomena are empty of inherent existence."[21]
    • Nan Huai-Chin states: "Buddhist ontology points out that all relative phenomena arise and disappear through processes of cause and effect: this is called "interdependent origination" (Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada; in Chinese yuan ch'i). Accordingly, all such phenomena are dependent on the (temporary) linking of causal factors that bring them into existence and maintain them, and thus they have no stable, absolute identities independent of the web of causation. Lacking absolute independent entities they are said to be inherently empty".[22]
    • Jay Garfield states: "That all phenomena are dependently originated is the heart of the Buddhist ontological theory."[23]
  11. Earlier Buddhist texts refer to five realms rather than six realms; when described as five realms, the god realm and demi-god realm constitute a single realm.
  12. See the article Saṃsāra (Buddhism) for further details and citations.
  13. 13.0 13.1 See the article Karma in Buddhism for further details and citations.
  14. Nirvana is described as extinguishing the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya).
    • Rupert Gethin states: "Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ [...] What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily indicates is the event or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. At the moment the Buddha understood suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, these fires were extinguished. This process is the same for all who reach awakening, and the early texts term it either nirvāṇa or parinirvāṇa, the complete ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. This is not a ‘thing’ but an event or experience."[26]
    • Paul Williams states: "[Nirvana] means 'extinguishing', as in 'the extinguishing of a flame', and it signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion (i.e. ignorance), the forces which power samsara."[27]
    • Ajahn Sucitto states: "By the extinguishing of the “three fires” of greed, hatred, and delusion, nibbāna gives tangible results in terms of other people’s welfare."[28]
    • Smith and Novak state: "Nirvana is the highest destiny of the human spirit and its literal meaning is “extinction,” but what is to be extinguished are the boundaries of the finite self and the three poisons that feed that self: “The extinction of greed, the extinction of hate, the extinction of delusion: this indeed is called Nirvana.”"[29]
    • Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "The state of perfect peace that comes when craving is eliminated is Nibbāna (nirvāṇa), the unconditioned state experienced while alive with the extinguishing of the flames of greed, aversion, and delusion."[30]
    • Donald Lopez states: "[Nirvana] is used to refer to the extinction of desire, hatred, and ignorance and, ultimately, of suffering and rebirth."[web 1]
    • See also Gombrich Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benāres to Modern Colombo. Routledge
  15. See account of the monk Faxian, for example.
  16. Robinson & Johnson (1982) divide their book into two parts: Part One is entitled "The Buddhism of South Asia" (which pertains to Early Buddhism in India); and, Part Two is entitled "The Development of Buddhism Outside of India" with chapters on "The Buddhism of Southeast Asia", "Buddhism in the Tibetan Culture Area", "East Asian Buddhism" and "Buddhism Comes West; Penguin handbook of Living Religions, 1984, page 279; Prebish & Keown, Introducing Buddhism, ebook, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2005, printed ed, Harper, 2006
  17. See the article Timeline of Buddhism for further details and citations.



  1. Horn 1997, p. 263.
  2. Gethin 1998, p. 65-66.
  3. Harvey 2012, p. 2.
  4. Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 286-294.
  5. Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 364-367.
  6. Skilton 1997, p. 25.
  7. Buswell 2003, p. 352.
  8. Lopez 1995, p. 6.
  9. Carrithers 1986, p. 10.
  10. Armstrong 2004, p. xii.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Gombrich 2002, p. 49.
  12. Ajahn Sucitto 2010, pp. 21-22.
  13. Kohn 1991, pp. 131, 143.
  14. Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 563-567.
  15. Gethin 1998, p. 61.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 87-88.
  17. Gethin 1998, p. 82.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 972-984.
  19. Smith & Novak 2009, p. 57.
  20. Thich Nhat Hanh 1999, p. 221-222.
  21. Dalai Lama 1992, p. 35.
  22. Nan Huai-Chin 1994.
  23. Edelglass 2009, p. 26.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Geshe Sonam Rinchen 2006, p. 21.
  25. Khandro Rinpoche 2003, p. 95.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Gethin 1998, p. 75.
  27. Williams 2002, pp. 47-48.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 163.
  29. Smith & Novak 2009, pp. 51-52.
  30. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 25.
  31. Translation by the Padmakara Translation Group
  32. 32.0 32.1 Gethin 1998, p. 268.
  33. Keown 2000, chapt. 6.
  34. Keown 2000, Kindle Locations 1311-1315.
  35. Dobbins 1991, p. 109.
  36. (Harvey, 1990); (Gombrich,1984)
  37. Gethin 1998, p. 2.
  38. Gethin 1998, p. 3.


Sources cited in this article

  • Ajahn Sucitto (2010), Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching, Shambhala 
  • Anderson, Carol (2013), BASIC BUDDHISM: A Beginner's Guide: Volume 1 - Origins, Concepts and Beliefs, Carol Anderson (Kindle edition) 
  • Armstrong, Karen (2004), Buddha, Penguin Books 
  • Bhikkhu Bodhi (2011), The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering (Kindle ed.), Independent Publishers Group 
  • Buswell, Robert E., ed. (2003), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, MacMillan Reference Books 
  • Carrithers, Michael (1986), "The Buddha", Founders of Faith, Oxford University 
  • Dalai Lama (1992), The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom 
  • Dobbins, James C. (1991), "Women's Birth in Pure Land as Women: Intimations From the Letters of Eshinni", Biennial Conference of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies (Berkeley, California, August, 1991), ATLAS 
  • Edelglass, William (2009), Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, Oxford University Press 
  • Geshe Sonam Rinchen (2006), How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Snow Lion 
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press 
  • Gombrich, Richard F. (2002), Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, London: Routledge 
  • Harvey, Peter (2012), An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press (Kindle edition) 
  • Horn, I. B. (1997), "Buddhism: The Theravada", in Zaehner, R. C., Encyclopedia of the World's Religions, New York: Barnes and Noble, pp. 263–292 
  • Keown, Damien (2000), Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition 
  • Keown, Damien; Prebish, Charles S., eds. (2004), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, London: Routledge 
  • Khandro Rinpoche (2003), This Precious Life, Shambhala 
  • Kohn, Michael H. (trans.) (1991), The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, Shambhala, ISBN 0-87773-520-4 
  • Lopez, Donald S. (1995), Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-04442-2 
  • Nan Huai-Chin, J.C. Cleary (trans.) (1994), To Realize Enlightenment: Practice of the Cultivation Path, Weiser Books 
  • Robinson, R.H.; Johnson, W.L.; Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2005), Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction (fifth edition), Belmont, California: Wadsworth 
  • Skilton, Andrew (1997), A Concise History of Buddhism, Windhorse Publications, ISBN 0-904766-92-6 
  • Smith, Huston; Novak, Philip (2009), Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Kindle ed.), HarperOne 
  • Thich Nhat Hanh (1999), The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Three River Press 
  • Walpola Rahula (2007), What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press. Kindle Edition 
  • Williams, Paul (2002), Buddhist Thought (Kindle ed.), Taylor & Francis 

Further reading

These are general sources that are not cited in the article. This list is by nature arbitrary.

  • Bechert, Heinz & Richard Gombrich (ed.) (1984). The World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson.
  • Donath, Dorothy C. (1971), Buddhism for the West: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna; a comprehensive review of Buddhist history, philosophy, and teachings from the time of the Buddha to the present day, Julian Press, ISBN 0-07-017533-0 
  • Goldstein, Joseph (2002), One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, HarperCollins 
  • Gombrich, Richard F. (1997), How Buddhism Began, Munshiram Manoharlal 
  • Jong, J.W. de (1993), "The Beginnings of Buddhism", The Eastern Buddhist, vol. 26, no. 2 
  • Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006), The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions, Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-513798-9 
  • Lopez, Donald S. (2001), The Story of Buddhism, HarperCollins 
  • Morgan, Kenneth W. (ed), The Path of the Buddha: Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists, Ronald Press, New York, 1956; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; distributed by Wisdom Books
  • Robinson, Richard H. and Willard L. Johnson (1970; 3rd ed., 1982). The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing). ISBN 0-534-01027-X.
  • Walpola Rahula (2007), What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press. Kindle Edition 
  • Williams, Paul (1989), Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-02537-0 
  • Williams, Paul (ed.) (2005). Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, 8 volumes, Routledge, London & New York.

External links

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