Three fundamental schools of Buddhist practice have arisen since the enlightenment of Siddartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha. These traditions, or Vehicles as they are commonly referred to, are Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. There are further subdivisions of each, though this article overviews the primary schools alone.
Theravada is the first of the three Vehicles and is known as “The Teachings of the Elders”. This tradition is found largely in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. It is considered the most orthodox of Buddhist schools. It focuses on the original teachings, or Sutra, of the Buddha. Eighty-four thousand lessons were conveyed to Buddha’s disciples before his death at age 80, whom later compiled his teachings in the Pali canon. This school does not deify Siddhartha, rather they regard him as a human who attained Nibbana through human means. Practitioners of this tradition regard a monastic life as the superior path to achieving enlightenment when compared to lay-practitioner, a person who is not ordained. Its ultimate goal is to reach and become an Arhat, a person who has achieved enlightenment with no intent of returning as a Buddha or otherwise.
Mahayana is the second vehicle to arise and is referred to as “The Great Vehicle”. Its sizable geographical home radiates out from India and throughout East Asia. This tradition expands greatly upon the original teachings of Siddhartha. It acknowledges the enlightenment of further Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. A Bodhisattva is defined as “a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others and is worshiped as a deity in Mahayana Buddhism,” which is a principal to its path towards enlightenment. Both monastic and lay-practitioners are believed capable of reaching high levels of attainment, though ordained members are thought to hasten more measurable results given their devout vows. Its goal is to develop a person’s potential Buddha-nature and eventually allow a person to reach Nirvana.
Vajrayana is the third vehicle and has come to be called “The Diamond Vehicle”. This is the predominant school of Buddhism within Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, along with some adjacent regions. Vajrayana focuses largely on Tantric teachings, a more ritualized form of Buddhist studies and practices. Through these practices, adherents are believed to be afforded quicker results where attainments are concerned, thus allowing for the achievement of Nirvana in as little as one lifetime. Four fundamental Tibet schools fall within this tradition; Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. The Dalai Lama is, himself, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Gelugpa school. Vajrayana maintains that all sentient beings possess innate Buddha-hood, an enlightened mind, and through the practice of ultimate truths can become that enlightened being within.
All three schools, with the addition of some less recognized Buddhist traditions, encompass an estimated five-hundred million followers worldwide. With the recent expansion of Buddhism into the West, the scope of the aforementioned traditions has increased, as have their convocations. Furthermore, these schools continue to evolve within the melting pot of all modern cultures thus allowing for greater access to the core teachings of all three primary schools of Buddhism.