An Outline of Buddhist Traditions

Because there are a number of different types of Buddhism, it may be helpful to sketch a general outline of the Traditions. Most generally we speak of three types of Buddhism in America – the Theravada, the Zen and the Tibetan Traditions…


The Historical Buddha was born 2,500 years ago in what is now Nepal. He was enlightened at the age of 32 and spent the next 40 years teaching ways to liberate the mind, and to benefit self and others. In his first talk, the Buddha stated the fundamental propositions of his teaching. These are called the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight-fold Path. In Buddhism, these are not thought of as dogma, simply to be accepted. Rather they are taught as an invitation, and with encouragement ‘to see for oneself’, to verify what is true for oneself.

The Four Noble Truths he set forth are:

1.That un-enlightened living is suffering;

2.That the cause of this suffering is ignorance, manifesting as ego 

grasping and afflictive emotions;

3.That suffering can be ended; and

4.That the way to end suffering is this Eight-fold Path, consisting 


Right View

Right Thought

Right Speech

Right Action

Right Livelihood

Right Mindfulness

Right Effort, and

Right Concentration

What is called the Theravada Tradition (The School of the Elders) is practiced in South East Asian countries – Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. This tradition has preserved the methods of meditation and freeing the mind based on what the  Historical Buddha taught – mindfulness, calm and insight practices. Although they occasionally make reference to other lineages and teachers, their main reference is to the Historical Buddha’s teachings.

At this point in discussing the world’s Buddhist traditions there is a change in emphasis.  By contrast we find that the Historical Buddha’s teachings, as they’ve come down to us, emphasize personal freedom from suffering, while the later schools give more of a central place to compassion and dedicating ourselves to helping others.

It’s my feeling that because the methods of the Theravada work, what came to be known as the Mahayana, with its emphasis on compassion, and the aim of benefiting all beings, came into existence.

In Tibetan Buddhism they say that the teachings of the Historical Buddha, the Theravada teachings are like the foundation of a house; that the Mahayana teachings are like the walls, doors and staircases – the interior of the house; and that the specifically Tibetan teachings, called tantra are like the roof of the house.

What they are pointing out is that there is an organic process going on here.

The Mahayana means ‘The Great Way’ – including all, in the sense of working for all, and dedicating our lives to benefiting and liberating all sentient beings. There are two ways the Mahayana can be entered.  The first is when we reach a point in our practice when we have more room for others. Because we are not as caught in our own suffering, we can respond to them, take their needs into account, and actually work to benefit them in some way, great or small.

This turning point is described in a text called the Lotus Sutra.  In one scene early in the book, the Buddha is talking to a group of accomplished practitioners, and telling them how wonderful it is that they have followed his teachings so well, and gotten such fine results. He then goes on to say that, as great as it is that they have freed themselves, this is not the end of the path, that they must now go on and help others in need.

It is not enough if it is only you who escapes this circle…

This may be a poetic way of saying that at some point, out of our own having some freedom, our compassion awakens.

They reflect in the Tibetan tradition:

What use is it if I accomplish even the heights of well being and bliss, if all my mothers still struggle, and must endure such sufferings…

When we hear the cries of the world, we must be engaged…


I must work to benefit them, in every way that they need…

The other way of entering the Mahayana is to immediately give rise to the altruistic intention, no matter where we are in our life and practice.

In Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, it says:

Even those fettered and weak
in the jail of cyclic existence,
the moment an awakening mind arises,
they will be born into the family of Buddhas,
and honored by men and gods of this world…

This is sometimes a way to get out of being caught by our own suffering and confusion – to think of others and their needs and to dedicate ourselves to them.  At other times, even the word ‘others’ we will not be able to hear – the thought of others might seem too remote, or that it is just a concept, whereas our own difficulty is what is right in front of us…

It’s my feeling that we need both of these paths to compassion to give birth to the altruistic Mahayana spirit.

If we maintain our practice, over the course of our lives there will be times when we awaken the motivation to benefit others out of our responsiveness to the needs in the world. Then at other times there will be some deep intuition and aspiration that flashes through our own struggles. And it’s not that this happens once. Not at all, from what I can observe.  In fact, I would propose that both of these ways of generating the altruistic motivation will be used many times throughout our life. This is if we keep practicing, of course.

We practice for each other – for that self that includes others, and offer the best that we have to give.

If we are able to maintain compassion for others, then there will naturally be produced in our mind a certain kind of intention for our whole life.

What is called in the tradition bodhicitta, or bodhimind, or the awakening mind, is the whole-function, powerful intention to liberate our own mind from confusion and suffering, and to actualize or bring forth all beneficial, necessary qualities, so that we can best serve others.

In traditional terms, bodhicitta is made of love and compassion, and is the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. That mind itself, that thought, is a holy mind, a holy, profound and sacred thought, bringing only good into the world.

A person who lives to serve others is called a bodhisattva.  Whatever other elements there are in such a person’s mind, they have this ardent wish to live in a certain way and so help others as much as they possibly can.

Praise of the holy mind of bodhicitta, and verses to generate this in our mind are the themes of much of the bodhisattva poetry in the collection, An Anthology of Buddhist Prayer.

What is called the Bodhisattva Vow is the dedication that we have in us to helping others.  This can be there with or without words, or it can be taken formally and re-affirmed. It is the commitment of our whole life energy to helping others as much as we can, and in as many ways as we can, to alleviate their suffering and to support their health and happiness. This Vow is the central principle of the Mahayana Path.

In Buddhism, The Mahayana Tradition includes the Zen, Tibetan and Pure Land Traditions

Once we arrive at the Mahayana , with its strong central motivation to serve all beings, and to liberate all living beings, historically, and in our own practice, then I like to think that ‘all bets are off’.  We will utilize every resource, we will do anything to communicate the Dharma, take any form to meet people’s needs, to benefit them, to speak in a way they can understand, and lead them step by step to freedom. This is the very nature of the Mahayana’s history, and our present and future attitude.

A diversity of forms arose out of this motivation to benefit self and others.  What is referred to in Buddhism as upaya, creative skillful means, develops out of compassionate need, and it is the overriding reason for not to be attached to any one way of doing things, or saying things. As long as we keep to essential principles, then it is Buddhist Dharma.  Skillful means are just what is necessary to help and to reach people.

The Sakya Trinzin, in ‘Mo – The Tibetan Divination System’ says the following:

In Buddhism, especially in the Mahayana Tradition, it has been taught that the highest good is to benefit other living beings… Numerous scriptures tell us that a bodhisattva should not hesitate to use any method that would bring relative and ultimate happiness to others. The bodhisattva has been enjoined to assist others by giving them spiritual teachings, material objects such as medicine and food, fearlessness, loving kindness and advice on how to deal with the travails of worldly existence.

There is a figure in the Chinese Mahayana, and the Tibetan Tradition called Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is sometimes shown with one thousand arms reaching out to help people. Of course ‘a thousand’ means ‘limitless’ in Eastern Traditions.  Sometimes ‘myriad’ and sometimes ‘Ten-thousand’ are used – all these terms have the same meaning.

In the more visible hands in the iconography one can see various implements, a vase, a rosary, The Wheel of Teaching the Dharma, and so on.  The meaning is that Avalokiteshvara, and our own compassionate nature has the ability to take many forms to benefit others.

We can see at this point why it is so important then to understand the basics of Buddhist teachings. What makes Buddhism Buddhism. What makes the Dharma Dharma. Without this clear sense of what is essential, a teaching can be called Buddhism without it accomplishing anything that moves toward the aim of all true Buddhist teaching, which is to encourage liberation through insight into our nature, and the result of this insight, which is acting compassionately in the world.

The Zen Tradition comes from China and Japan and is known for its focus on the cultivation of Wisdom. There is less philosophy offered, less prayer, and more of an emphasis on quiet sitting meditation.

The Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, of the three main Traditions, has the biggest range of teachings, practices and prayers. There are may Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, beings dedicated to the well being of all that lives, and Lineage Gurus, and these are prayed to in different ways. Sometimes they are seen as outside, sometimes as inside, and sometimes as representing our own nature.

A fourth Buddhist School is sometimes mentioned, that of the Pure Land School. This Tradition is found mainly in China and Japan.  By sheer numbers, this is the Buddhist school with the most adherents. It is relatively unknown in the West, and the branches of this tradition that have made their way here have less interaction with the other Schools.

In Pure Land Buddhism,  practice focuses on Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light, with prayers and mantras, or sacred words of power recited to invoke His blessings, and to be reborn in His Pure Land.

The emerging Western Buddhism will certainly have elements of more than one Tradition. This seems to be in our character, to fairly judge things, and to take what works. In fact, because of the great sufferings and needs that are here, we must search until we find the methods that work for us, and that are effective in helping others.