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Main Traditions - Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana


  • A piece of history
  • Differences Between Theravada and Mahayana
  • Tantra, Vadjrayana or Mantrayana
  • What can I do with all these different traditions?

A bit of background

Over the many centuries, many traditions have emerged within Buddhism because there has never been a central Buddhist 'church'. All these traditions in their own way summarize the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha gave not only many teachings during his lifetime, but also various kinds of teachings because people have different dispositions, inclinations, and interests, so that everyone can find something that suits their own mental level and personality. It is often said that the Buddha gave 84,000 teachings to suit the 84,000 types of mind.

Initially, Buddhism became known through oral transmissions to the general public and was not written down until many years after the Buddha's death. The oldest written texts are mainly in the Pali language in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist tradition based on these Pali writings is the Hinayana, or more commonly called Theravada tradition, which to this day is primarily found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma.
Around the first century CE the Buddhist Mahayana tradition appeared in India. Today, the Mahayana tradition is found in countries such as China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, and Vietnam. Within Mahayana Buddhism, several schools and sub-schools emerged, such as Zen and the Pure Land school (especially in countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam).

Around the sixth century CE, Vajrayana (or tantric) teachings appeared within Buddhism, which have since been preserved mainly in Tibet after the disappearance of Buddhism from India around the 14th century. There are also elements of Tantric Buddhism in China and the Japanese Shingon tradition.

Differences Between Theravada and Mahayana

The main difference between the Theravada (Hinayana) and the Mahayana traditions is the motivation, or end goal one sets for the spiritual path. 
In the Theravada tradition, people mainly try to achieve liberation (Nirvana) for themselves, and be freed from cyclic existence, which is always accompanied by problems and suffering (samsara). One who has achieved this is called an Arhat.
Although love and compassion are essential factors in Theravada practices, they are emphasized even more in the Mahayana tradition. In the Mahayana tradition, the ultimate goal of the practice is higher, for it is aimed at freeing all sentient beings from cyclic existence. To be able to do this, one must also first attain the highest state of Buddhahood, because only a Buddha is omniscient, and can thus help others in the best possible way. This last motivation is called bodhicitta. One who has progressed in this pursuit of Buddhahood is called a Bodhisattva and can be seen as a sort of saint within Buddhism who has an altruistic attitude to life.

The Theravada tradition is based mainly on scriptures originally written in Pali, while the Mahayana scriptures were originally written in Sanskrit. The Theravada teachings are in fact the basis for the Mahayana teachings, so Mahayana can be seen as an extension of the teachings. According to the Buddha himself, these teachings were taught by the historical Buddha, but were written down much later and then made available to the wider public.
According to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, some of the Buddha's teachings as preserved in the Theravada tradition are to be interpreted, rather than taken literally, causing considerable differences and frictions between the philosophies and practices of the two schools.

Vajrayana, Tantra or Mantrayana

The philosophical teachings of Vajrayana differ little from the general Mahayana teachings, but the main distinction is in the method of practice. In India, after the appearance of Vajrayana teachings several centuries CE, these three different schools of thought were often practiced side by side, depending on the preference of the person. For example, in the famous monastic university of Nalanda in northern India, monks who followed these three traditions were present side by side. Vajrayana is particularly notable for the lavishly used symbols and elaborate rituals, which serve to support the complex meditation techniques.

What can I do with all these different traditions?

Each Buddhist tradition emphasizes slightly different things or practices, and we can choose the approach that suits us best and feels most at home. However, it is important to keep an open mind and respect other traditions, after all, they are all based on the teachings of the Buddha. As we develop, we may suddenly understand elements from other traditions that we did not understand before, giving us a completely different perspective on that tradition. For example, the many rituals and extensive symbolism in Buddhist tantra scares many people at first. But by discovering what is actually behind these rituals and symbolism, all of the methods can suddenly become understandable and useful. In short, we practice what helps us to live a better life, and everything we do not yet understand is best set aside without definitively rejecting it.

Once we have found the tradition that best fits our personality, then we should not identify too much with it along the lines of "I am a Mahayana Buddhist, you are a Theravada Buddhist" or "I am a Buddhist, you are a Christian. "It is important to realize that we are all people who seek happiness and who want to realize the truth and that we are all trying to find a method that suits our nature.

However, having an open mind to other approaches does not mean that we can just mix everything up; our practice would then become a stew. For example, it is better not to use meditation techniques from different traditions during one's meditation sessions. It is recommended to use only one technique during one session. After all, if we take a piece of one technique and a piece of another technique and mix them up without understanding each one properly, we can easily get confused. 
It is also recommended to practice the same meditations every day. If we do a breathing meditation one day, recite Buddha's name the next, and an analytical meditation the third day, we will probably make little progress in any of these three methods because there is no continuity in our practice. 
However, an aspect emphasized in one tradition can enrich our understanding and practice of another, so we don't need to be overly concerned with studying other traditions, as long as it doesn't confuse us.

"It is particularly important to understand that the core teachings of the Theravada tradition, as found in the Pali scriptures, are the foundation of the Buddha's teachings. Starting from these teachings, one can draw upon the insights gained in the detailed explanations of the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition. Ultimately one can integrate techniques and perspectives from the Vajrayana texts to enhance our understanding. But without a foundation in the main concepts of the Pali tradition it means nothing to call oneself a follower of the Mahayana.
When one has this kind of deeper understanding of the various texts and their interpretation, one is free from holding onto erroneous opinions about contradictions between the 'greater' (Maha) versus the 'lesser' (Hina) vehicle (Yana). Sometimes there is a deplorable tendency on the part of certain Mahayana followers to belittle the teachings of the Theravada, claiming they are the teachings of the lesser vehicle, and thus unsuitable for one's own personal practice. Similarly, there are followers of the Pali tradition who sometimes reject the validity of the Mahayana tradition, claiming that they are not really the teachings of the Buddha.
As we study the Heart Sutra, it is important to understand how these traditions complement each other and see how each of us on an individual level can integrate all of these teachings into our personal practice."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the book 'The Heart Sutra'.

See further the page: Vajrayana or tantra