What is Buddhism?
This page will give you a short introduction to Buddhism and its various doctrines, concepts, and teachings.
Buddhist Beliefs - Introduction to Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion that originated around 2500 years ago and is followed today by approximately 300 million people around the world, mainly in Asian countries.
Originally called the "Middle Way", Buddhism was established by a man named Siddhartha Gautama - later known as the Buddha - after he had a spiritual awakening at the age of 35.
Buddhism is a way of training and developing the mind toward Nirvana, a state of mind giving insight into the true nature of reality.
Buddhism is known as being a very practical religion and does not indulge in metaphysical speculation about the first causes.
Buddhism is not a religion based on theism, there is no worship of a God or Gods or deification of the Buddha. The teachings of the Buddha are directed only at liberating sentient beings from suffering.
The experience developed within the Buddhist traditions over thousands of years has created unique teachings for all who want to follow a path — a path which ultimately leads to Enlightenment or Buddhahood.
Because Buddhism does not include the practice of worshipping a God, some people do not see it as a religion in the Western sense, but more as a philosophy of how to live a peaceful, fulfilling and meaningful life.
Buddhism explains the purpose of life, it explains apparent unfairness and disparity in the world, and also offers us a direct way of life that leads to a state of lasting, unconditional happiness.
Buddha - The Awakened One
Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family in Lumbini (present-day Nepal), now located in Nepal, in 563 BC.
At 29, he realized that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, so he went out on a Quest to explore the different religions and philosophies of the day, to find the answer to happiness.
After six years of investigation, reflection, and meditation, he finally found the "Middle Path" and was Enlightened.
After the Buddha got Enlightened, he spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of his philosophy called Dharma, or Truth, until his passing at the age of 80 years old.
The Buddha was not some sort of God, and he never claimed to be. He was a man, like you and me, who taught a path towards liberation and inner peace from his own experience.
The Buddha is commonly compared to a doctor because he treated the suffering that ails all of us.
The Buddha tells us how we can treat or cure all of our sufferings. His diagnosis and cure are called the Four Noble Truths.
In the first Noble Truths the Buddha he diagnosed the problem (suffering) and in the second Noble Truth, he identified its cause. In the third Noble Truth he tells us that there is a cure for our illness and the fourth Noble Truth, in which the Buddha set out the Eightfold Path, he gives us the prescription, the method to achieve liberation from suffering.
The Buddha taught us that all our problems and afflictions spring from our confused and negative mental states and that all our happiness and joy are the result of our peaceful and positive states of mindfulness.
He taught methods for progressively defeating our negative minds such as anger, jealousy, ignorance, and developing our positive thoughts such as love, compassion, and wisdom.
Through the Teachings of the Buddha, it is possible to experience real and lasting peace and happiness. Buddhist methods work for anyone independently of their beliefs, nationality or age.
Please note that The term 'Buddha' can refer to both to the historical Buddha and to the ideal of Buddhahood itself.
Sarana - The Three Jewels
At the heart of Buddhism lies the "Three Jewels" or the "Three Treasures" - The Buddha (the Founder), the Dharma (the Teachings), and the Sangha (the Community).
In the Buddhist tradition, when a person decides to make Buddhism a part of their life, they traditionally say "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha."
The First Jewel is the Buddha
To take refuge in the Buddha is not an escape, a way to hide under the protection of a powerful being, but a demonstration of our respect and appreciation for his teachings. Taking refuge in the Buddha, is also we decide wholeheartedly to become a Buddha ourselves, and to search within the potential to be awakened like the Buddha did, 2500 years ago.
The Second Jewel is the Dharma
The Dharma is called the second jewel. The Dharma is the Teaching of the Buddha, and which will ultimately lead to Awakening. The Buddha's Dharma explains to us that kindness for ourselves and also for others, through an understanding of The Four Noble Truths, will guide us towards liberation from anger and ignorance. The path involves embracing the teaching of the Buddha and applying that understanding to everyday life.
The Third Jewel is the Sangha
The Sangha is the third precious jewel and is composed of people who come together in any size group to study, share and practice meditation with a will to assist and be assisted by that community. The Buddha understood that communication and interaction with other people who are on the Path are essential for practice, both for ordained monks as well as lay people.
Pancasila - The Precepts
The Five Precepts, Pancasila in Sanskrit, are an important part of the Buddhist philosophy.
The Precepts are seen as the basic ethical guidelines to be followed by Buddhists, to ensure that they accumulate good karma and develop mind and character to make progress on the path to Enlightenment.
The number of precepts can vary from Buddhist traditions, but the Five are a common ground for every Buddhist Schools.
The Five Precepts should not be seen as an unyielding set of rules, but more as a practical foundation for a strong, moral living which will create the right environment in which to seek out our own truths.
They constitute the basic principles of ethics undertaken by Buddhist lay people. They cannot be separated for both the Buddha Nature and our relationships with each other and with the Universe.
To refrain from killing
This precept should also be understood as not harming others or absence of violence, not only an absence of killing.
To refrain from stealing
This is usually understood as including the avoidance of fraud and economic exploitation.
To refrain from false speech
This is precept interpreted as including lying, abusive speech, name-calling, divisive speech, gossip, and idle chatter.
To refrain from sexual misconduct
In Theravada, monks and nuns are concerned, are required to practice complete celibacy. For the laypeople, adultery should be avoided, along with any form of sexual harassment or exploitation.
To refrain from using intoxicants
The principal problem with intoxicants is that they cloud the mind and are often utilized as a means to escape reality. Abuse of intoxicants is often the cause of breaking the other four precepts. You don't necessarily have to stop using intoxicants, but just be mindful of why you are using it.
Majjhima Patipada - The Middle Way
The Middle Way or Middle Path is the term that the Buddha himself used to describe his philosophy of self-discovery that leads to liberation or Nirvana.
In his search for Enlightenment and contentment, Siddhartha followed a life of extreme asceticism and self-mortification for six years, and found himself on the brink of death from self-neglect, and yet found himself nowhere closer to Enlightenment - he still had not escaped from the world of suffering.
His body was so weak that it’s said he nearly was swept away and drowned in a knee-high stream. A woman named Sujata happened upon Gautama in this state. In an act of compassion, she offered the starving Gautama a bowl of rice porridge. A self-neglecting aesthetic would have rejected this offering, but in a moment of clarity, he accepted the rice and regained his strength.
After he recovered his health and his senses, he then called his way of live "The Middle Way" - a path away from extreme views and practices.
The concept of the Middle Way has seen multiple interpretations, but, simply, it describes the way or path that transcends and reconciles the duality that characterizes most thinking and that transcends extremes like self-indulgence and self-mortification or materialism as well as spirituality.
The meaning of life in Buddhism
In Buddhism, the main goal of life is to end suffering. The Buddha explained that human beings are suffering because we constantly cling to things that do not give lasting happiness. We hopelessly try to hold on to things that do not last, and that only causes sorrow.
The Buddha clearly understood that there are things in life that give joy and happiness, but denoted that none of them will satisfy us and our clinging to them naturally produces more affliction. His teachings were directed solely on this predicament and its resolution.
Recognizing the impermanence of all things and freeing oneself from attachment to them in an important process in Buddhism. This spiritual realization will reduce suffering and eventually end the cycle of rebirth.
These teachings are expressed most concisely in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which together form the foundation of belief for all branches of Buddhism.
Karma - The Law of Causation
Karma is the Universal law of causation and is, with Samsara, a fundamental belief in Buddhism.
This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.
In Buddhism, the Sanskrit word Karma means "action" and is defined as the intention manifested in the action of thought, body, and speech.
Teachings about Karma explain that our previous actions affect us, either positively or negatively, and that our present actions will also affect us in the future, whether in this lifetime or the next.
There are many kinds of karma, but there are mainly two main categories: karma that creates suffering, and karma that frees us from suffering.
Buddhism uses an farming metaphor to explain how sowing good or bad actions will result in good or bad fruit.
Karma and Afterlife
For Buddhists, Karma has implications that go beyond this life. Wrong actions in a previous life can follow a person into their next life and cause adverse effects.
On a larger scale, Karma ultimately determines where a person will be reborn and what will be their situation in their next incarnation.
Taking full responsibility of one's Enlightenment
Contrary to what many Westerners think, Karma is not some sort of punishment or fate determined by an external force or a God - it is entirely determined by our actions, in particular by the intentions behind our actions.
Actions that are based on love, compassion, kindness, generosity, and sympathy lead to the creation of favorable Karma. On the other hand, actions driven by selfishness, anger, and ignorance, will naturally lead to the creation of unfavorable karma.
Why Cultivating Good Karma?
Buddhists try to cultivate good karma and avoid bad not only to escape the cycle of rebirth and be born into a more pleasant state but also to cultivate joy and happiness in this life.
Samsara - The Cycle of Rebirth
Samsara, sometimes called reincarnation, is the cycle of death and rebirth through six realms of existence to which life in the physical world is bound.
Commonly called reincarnation in the West, this cycle of conditioned existence is without beginning and is perpetuated by the accumulation of Karma, and ends for each being when Enlightenment or Nirvana is reached.
The conditions surrounding your rebirth is directly related to the 'quality' of your karma. Good karma will give you favorable circumstances, as where bad karma will provide you with unfavorable ones.
Each life you experience refines your Karma, and each incarnation is an opportunity to do good and improve your karma, eventually breaking the cycle rebirth.
When there is a passage to the next life, nothing of our personality is transferred, nothing of "us" goes from one life to the other, only our Karma continues.
Until Nirvana is reached through Enlightenment, the cycle of Samsara is repeated over and over so it is essential to make diligent and sincere effort in this life.
Nirvana - Buddhist Spiritual Awakening
Nirvana is the state of ultimate liberation from the cycle of Samsara and is characterized by the eradication of attachment, suffering, and sorrow.
It is a state of mind of perfect understanding and wisdom, combined with boundless kindness and compassion.
One who reaches Nirvana recognizes the nature of the self-mind and no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination. For such a being there is no more thirst nor grasping; where there is no more attachment to external things.
The word Nirvana is a Sanskrit word that means 'extinction' or 'disappearance', and it refers to the dissolution of the bond that enslaves us and that is known as "the triple fire of greed, hatred, and delusion" which leads to rebirth.
Attaining Nirvana is closely linked to the concept of karma, where the cumulative actions and attachments of life become the reason for the soul’s becoming trapped in an endless cycle of reincarnation. The result of the extinction of individual passion, hatred and delusion is freedom from the endless cycle of Samsara or rebirth.
Enlightenment is an understanding of both our minds as well as the external world. Such knowledge is the essential antidote to ignorance and suffering.
Following the teachings of the Buddha leads to release from rebirth and the attainment of Nirvana.
An individual who attains Nirvana is a Buddha.
Different Paths Towards Enlightenment
The two main Buddhist traditions, Theravada and Mahayana, have two different perspectives on who and how to attain Enlightenment.
In the Theravada tradition, the most ancient branch of Buddhism still extant today, you need to be a Monk and pursue a monastic life to achieve Enlightenment. Theravada Buddhists consider that it is nearly impossible for a layperson to reach Nirvana or Enlightenment.
In Mahayana, Enlightenment can be attained by anyone, layperson or monk alike. Any sentient being can attain Enlightenment because all sentient beings possess the Buddha Nature.
The Buddhist Cosmology
Buddhist Cosmology is surprisingly modern as it recognizes the existence of millions of other worlds and casually asserts that they are inhabited by being of different quality.
The Buddhist Cosmology describes the configuration and growth of the Universe according to the Buddhist scriptures.
The sutras mention about thirty-one different planes of existence or "realms" into which beings can be reborn during their long wandering through Samsara.
These plans of existence are varied and go from the extraordinarily harsh and painful realms all the way up to the beautiful, exquisite, refined and blissful heaven-like realms.
Existence in every realm is not something eternal, but temporary. In the Buddhist cosmology, there is nothing permanent.
Depending on the nature of their Karma, beings are born into a particular realm or another. Sometimes after their death, they come back to life once again somewhere else, according to the quality of their Karma. Wholesome actions bring about a favorable rebirth, while unwholesome actions lead to an unfavorable one. And so the strenuous cycle continues.
31 Planes of Existence divided into three main categories
These realms of existence are commonly divided into three distinct "worlds" or "realms".
The Sensuous Realms
This Realm consists of eleven realms in which experience, both pleasurable and not is, governed by the five senses. The Earth on which we live is in the Sensuous Realms.
The Fine-Material Realms
This finer Realm consists of sixteen realms whose inhabitants (called Devas in Sanskrit) experience remarkably refined levels of mental joy and delight. These realms are available to those who have achieved at least some degree of Awakening.
The Formless Realms
The Formless Realms consists of four worlds. It is the immaterial realm of spirit or consciousness, which is said to be free from the limitations of matter and from all thought of matter. Beings inhabiting these realms are steps away from full Buddhahood.
Dharma - The Teachings of The Buddha
Trilaksana - The Three Universal Truths
During his Enlightenment, the Buddha discovered three Great Truths that will later become part of the central teachings of Buddhism.
Also known as the Three Universal Characteristics of Existence, these Universal Truths are always present in existence, and they give us the wisdom to understand what to do with our lives.
These three Truths of existence are the truths of impermanence (Anitya), suffering (Dukkha) and no self (Anatman).
The first truth states that everything changes and transform itself, nothing lasts forever. This Truth is called "anitya" in Sanskrit. People, situations, feeling, material objects, landscapes are changing all the time. The Buddha stated that because nothing stays the same forever, there is no rest except Nirvana.
Dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction)
The second truth is Dukkha. To learn from this Truth, it is imperative to understand that suffering but is more than actual pain. States of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, boredom, and discomfort are also called Dukkha. For Buddhists, life as a whole is Dukkha because nothing in existence is perfect. The Buddha stated that no one could avoid Dukkha. His teaching is a way of overcoming it.
Anatman (no self)
The third universal Truth is anatman, which means "no soul". The Buddha explained that there is nothing within a human being that can be called a soul and said that people are made up of five parts: feelings, thoughts, awareness, ideas, and body. However, there is nothing in people that carry on into another life, except the Karma that they previously created as well as the Karma produced in this life.
The Four Noble Truths
Nowadays, Buddhism is divided into several schools, but the essence of the Buddha's teachings is summed up in the Four Noble Truths and is at the heart of every Buddhist tradition.
They are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.
It was these four principles that the Buddha came to realize during his meditation under the bodhi tree where he attained Nirvana.
These four truths are called "noble" because of their fundamental importance - they are teachings that liberate us from suffering, the path that teaches us how to get free from craving.
These Truths states that we crave and cling to impermanent mental states and things, which are incapable of satisfying and painful (dukkha). This craving keeps us caught in the endless cycle of Samsara or rebirth.
The Four Noble Truths represent the awakening and liberation of the Buddha, but also the possibility of liberation for all sentient beings, you and I included. This can be realized by following the Eightfold Path.
The First Noble Truth - Life is Suffering (Dukkha)
The word dukkha can be translated as ‘suffering’, ‘anguish’, ‘pain’, or ‘dissatisfaction’.
Life is suffering and universal. Sometimes suffering its real, sometimes it is self-created. Suffering has many causes: loss, frustration, illness, pain, failure, boredom, and the impermanence of pleasure.
Many Westerners find this first teaching to be pessimistic, but Buddhists find it neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but actually realistic.
The Second Noble Truth - Origin of suffering (Samudāya)
The Fourth Second Truth tells us that there is a cause to our suffering and that cause is our desires (and attachments). This can take many forms: craving of sensual pleasures, the desire for recognition, the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations like anxiety, irritation or resentment.
The Third Noble Truth - Cessation of suffering (Nirodha)
The Fourth Noble Truth tells us that it is possible to end to suffering and to overcome attachment or clinging. Suffering ceases with Nirvana, the final liberation. The mind, therefore, experiences total freedom, liberation, and non-attachment as it lets go of desires or cravings.
The Fourth Noble Truth - Path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)
The Fourth Noble Truth tells us that in order to end suffering, we must follow the teachings of the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is a collection of eight practices that leads to liberation from Samsara, the cycle of rebirth and the end of suffering.
The eight parts of the path toward liberation are organized into three fundamental elements of the Buddhist practice - ethical conduct (sila), mental discipline (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna).
The Eightfold Path does not have to be studied and practiced in any particular order but should be followed more or less simultaneously as they are all connected, and each one of the paths helps the understanding the others.
In Buddhist symbolism, the Eightfold Path is usually depicted employing the Dharma wheel, in which its eight sides represent the eight elements of the path.
The components of the Eightfold Path are separated among the three forms of training as follows: right action, right speech, and right livelihood.
The Right View or Right Understanding
Knowledge or understanding that life always involves change and suffering; and that our actions (thoughts, action, words) have consequences in generating karma which influences the cycle of death and rebirth.
The Right Intention or Right Thoughts
Determining and resolving to practice Buddhist faith and avoiding thoughts of attachment, hatred, and harmful intent.
The Right Speech
Avoiding cursing, slander, gossip, lying, and all forms of untrue and abusive speech as well as frivolous chatter.
The Right Conduct or Right Action
Abstaining from physical offenses or crimes such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
The Right Livelihood
Avoiding lines of work that directly or indirectly harm others or causes others to suffer, such as human trafficking, selling weapons, animals for slaughter, intoxicants, or drugs.
The Right Effort
Avoiding or abandoning negative states of mind (thoughts) and emotions, such as anger, jealousy and attachment.
The Right Mindfulness
Having a clear sense of awareness of one’s mental state and bodily health, feelings and thoughts.
The Right Concentration
For Buddhists, meditation is at the core of their practice and is the primary way to reach the highest level of enlightenment.
The Eightfold Path is at the core of the middle way, and should be integrated into everyday life.
Skandhas - The Five Aggregates
In Buddhism, the Skandhas are the five elements that compose and describe a sentient being’s mental and physical existence.
They represent the fixed structure of human psychology as well as its pattern of evolution.
The skandhas concept is a complements the anatta doctrine of Buddhism which asserts that all things and beings are without self and are impermanent.
The doctrines of anatta and the five aggregates are closely related together and are essential components of the liberating wisdom in Buddhism and make it easy for a practitioner to realize that an individual is nothing more than a construct made up of a temporary grouping of five aggregates.
When we look meticulously at whatever it is that we label "me", "I", or "myself", we can observe that it includes many components, not only the elements which compose our material bodies, but also our various senses as well as our minds.
- Material form, or the physical world (rupa),
- Feeling or sensations (vedana),
- Perception (sanna),
- Mental formations (sankhara),
- Consciousness (vinnana)
Don't forget that the Five Skandhas are only temporary, conditioned phenomena. They are empty of any permanent essence of self, therefore, we should not attach to them.
Paramitas - The Ten Perfections
The Paramitas or Perfections are the acts that people need to do to attain Awakening and guide others towards liberation.
The Ten Paramitas are simple, yet profound truths that anybody can understand and apply in his or her life to live every day with compassion, kindness, and sincerity.
They are teachings and guidelines that become a support to our daily life, and that helps us to be kind and respectful to all life.
There are in fact various lists of paramitas in Buddhism. The Ten Paramitas of Theravada Buddhism were adopted from numerous sources, such as the Jataka Tales. On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism uses a selection of Six Paramitas takes from different Mahayana Sutras, including the famous Lotus Sutra as well as the Perfection of Wisdom sutra.
A list of the 10 Perfections
- Generosity - providing help and support to other living beings,
- Morality - live a moral life,
- Renunciation - renounce earthly pleasures,
- Wisdom - achieve a right understanding of life and the world,
- Energy - determined effort and not being discouraged by failures,
- Patience - calmly accept life’s ups and downs,
- Truthfulness - honesty and sincerity in all things,
- Determination - steady determination to progress on the path,
- Loving-kindness - exhibit kindness and compassion to all things,
- Equanimity - develop the perfect mental balance.
Trivisa - The Three Poisons
In Buddhism, greed, hatred, and delusion are known as the Three Poisons or the Three Unwholesome Roots.
They are so deeply rooted in the conditioning of our beings that our behavior is tainted by these poisons buried deep into our consciousness.
The poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion are the result of ignorance, ignorance of our true nature, wisdom, and compassion.
Emerging out of our ignorance, these negative states of mind can trigger non-virtuous and unskillful thoughts, speech, and actions, which cause all sorts of suffering and unhappiness for us individually, as well as for others.
Although this teaching may appear negative or unpleasant, indeed, a wise understanding of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion is ultimately positive and empowering.
Greed is our selfishness and misplaced desires, grasping, and attachment for finding happiness and fulfillment outside of ourselves.
Hatred has to do with our anger, our disgust, aversion and repulsion toward bothersome people, events, and even toward our own uncomfortable feelings.
Delusion refers to our insensibility and misperception, to our wrong views of reality.
With this understanding, we can undoubtedly become aware of the constituents of our confusion, unhappiness, and suffering. Moreover, with this clarity and insight, we can choose to eliminate those factors.
Sunyata - Emptiness
Sunyata, often translated as emptiness and sometimes nothingness, is one of the most misunderstood principles of Buddhism.
Emptiness does not mean ‘nothingness’ in the nihilistic sense of the word - certainly doesn’t mean that nothing exists at all. We very much exist, the world around us very much exist.
To understand what Buddhism means by “everything is empty”, we must ask ourselves an elementary question: “Empty of what?” The answer is quite simple; we and everything else in the Universe are empty of a separate existence.
The physical separation between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the world brings us to the conclusion that we are separate from the rest. Things do not exist the way our five senses tell us they do, this is the grand illusion that Buddhism famously talks about.
Everything in the universe is interconnected. In Buddhism it is called “dependent origination”: nothing exists in isolation, independent of other life.
Our existence depends not only on other existences but on a whole lot of conditions that also have infinitely long chains of dependence.
Trisiksa - The Three Trainings
The Trisiksa or "three trainings" in English, refers to the practices necessary for Enlightenment - morality, meditation, and wisdom.
These three trainings incorporate all aspects of the Buddhist teachings and are a comprehensive method used to overcome attachment and sufferings.
According to Buddhism, pursuing this training leads to the abandonment of lust, hatred, and delusion and only the ones who fully accomplished in this training can attain Nirvana.
Ethical Discipline (Sila)
The first step is morality. Morality relates to the proper behavior, behavior that conforms with the generally accepted standards and causes no distress to other people or oneself. It is written in the form of five moral precepts called Pancasila.
The Practice of Meditation (Dhyana)
The second aspect of the threefold training is concentration. The concentration of the mind is a prerequisite to attaining a clear vision of the truth. This is achieved by the rigorous practice of meditation.
The third aspect is the training in Wisdom. Understood not as a collection of intellectual knowledge but as an intuitive experience of ultimate reality, Prajna is attained in a state of samadhi or great concentration.
Sutras - The Buddhist Scriptures
The sutras (sutta in Pali) are Canonical Buddhist scriptures that contain valuable ancient teachings written by Buddhist masters that came long before us.
Contrary to the popular beliefs, the sutras were not written by the Buddha. Initially, Buddhist texts were transmitted verbally by monks but were later written down and made into manuscripts using various Indo-Aryan languages which were later transcribed into different regional languages as Buddhism grew.
Some Buddhist scholars believe that some parts of the Pali Canon not only contain the actual essence of the original teachings but possibly the words of the Buddha himself.
Each sutra carries profound wisdom, and they are often written in the form of a conversation between a master and a pupil. It’s this conversational simplicity that makes the Buddhist sutras so easy to approach.
Even though these Buddhist texts are now thousands of years old, their messages are as relevant today as it was then.
Three Buddhist Traditions
Buddhism is not a monolithic religion. As it expanded throughout Asia over more than 1500 years ago, it separated into several traditions, each with its canon of scriptures and interpretation of the Buddha's teaching.
Even if there are some doctrinal differences among these traditions, all follow the same basic teachings of the historical Buddha.
There are three main Buddhist traditions: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism Vajrayana.
The Theravada Tradition, whose name means "Doctrine of the Elders", is considered the closest to the original Indian form of Buddhism.
Being more conservative, Theravada Buddhism emphasized individual enlightenment through self-effort and full-time monastic devotion and based its teachings and practices solely on the Pali Canon. Theravada put far greater emphasis on the monastic approach than other forms of Buddhism.
Theravada Buddhists are known for their commitment to the study of their vast cannon of Buddha's words, which they believe to be a thorough, accurate, and sufficient representation of proper Buddhist teaching.
Being a very strict, more monastic branch of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism holds most firmly to the original teachings, or themes, of Buddha.
The Theravada Tradition held as their ideal the "Arhat", a being who has reached a state of perfection and enlightenment through rigorous discipline and meditations practices.
Today, Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma.
Mahayana means "Great Vehicle" and emphasizes universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the Bodhisattva.
The Bodhisattva is an Enlightened individual who decides not to transcend into Nirvana entirely but instead to remain in the cycle of reincarnation to continue to help others attain enlightenment and freedom from suffering.
The Mahayana Tradition avoids the excessive emphasis on self-serving monasticism and is focused on the awakening of the masses and the capacity for laypeople as well as the monks to reach Nirvana.
The Mahayana branch encourages the idea that a practitioner should not seek enlightenment for personal, selfish reasons, but for the benefits of all beings.
Interestingly, it also accepts other methods as ways to reach enlightenment - it includes not only meditation and individual disciplines but selfless actions done for the benefit of others.
Mahayana is practiced today in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
The Vajrayana or "Diamond Vehicle" is a school of esoteric Buddhism that shares many of the basic concepts of Mahayana, but also introduces an extensive collection of spiritual techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice.
Sometimes called Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Vajrayana Buddhism includes practices that make use of mantras, mudras, mandalas and the visualization of deities and Buddhas. Vajrayana Buddhism also places great emphasis on rituals and repetitive speech.
These unique spiritual techniques are employed to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible, and even very difficult for non-practitioners to understand Vajrayana Buddhism.
Vajrayana Buddhism also put much emphasis on the practice of compassion.
Vajrayana Buddhism is practiced today in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Japan (Shingon tradition).
If you're seeking to explore Zen or Buddhism more deeply, here is a list of my favourite Buddhist books that you can use to learn more about this ancient tradition.