Yellow on the map.
Theravada Buddhism is also known as the doctrine of the elders, Southern Buddhism or Ancient Teaching. The main text used by this school is the Pali Canon. The main area of influence includes the following countries: Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma (Myanmar). They have about 100 million followers and are gaining ground in Singapore, Vietnam and the Western world.
This form of Buddhism is characterized by its orthodoxy. They are considered to be the closest to the teaching of Buddha and the text they use- the Pali Canon- is the oldest surviving Buddhist text.
Their beliefs are that each individual can attain enlightenment by himself and the best way to do this is by joining the monastic way of life as it allows for an ideal setting to dedicate one's life to the Dharma. Lay people have a role to play also and it is partly comprised of Merit Making actions including:
Monks gain merit by practicing mindfulness, meditation, and chanting.
In the Pali Sutra, the Buddha instructs the followers to follow concentration as it is a tool he used to attain nirvana. Thus, the Theravada Buddhist practice these form of meditation:
(Green and white on the map)
(Green and white on the map)
Mahāyāna is also called the Great Vehicle, Bodhisattvayāna or the Bodhisattva Vehicle. It is the larger of the two major traditions of Buddhism existing today, the other being that of the Theravāda school. It is also the origin of the Vajrayana form.
It is mostly popular in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia and spread very widely in the west. Major traditions of Mahāyāna Buddhism today include Zen (Chán), Pure Land, Tiantai,(Tendai in Japan) Nichiren, and Esoteric Buddhism (Shingon, Tibetan Buddhism (although we further separate them below)).
The beliefs: Mahayana Buddhism prones liberation of suffering for all sentient beings. Where Theravada focuses on individual enlightenment, Mahayana preaches that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are here to help us attain collective illumination.
Thus they believe in supernatural bodhisattvas who devote themselves to the perfections, ultimate knowledge, and the liberation of all sentient beings. The Buddha is seen as the ultimate, highest being, present in all times, in all beings, and in all places, and the bodhisattvas come to represent the universal ideal of altruistic excellence.
It is difficult to talk about an unified canon for the Mahayana tradition as it is often assimilated by local beliefs and traditions. In Japan, it has incorporated some local Shinto beliefs and some Shamanism. Thus, when observed under this angle, it becomes incorrect to refer Buddhism as a non-religion in the Mahayana tradition because of the gods that were later added and all the powers attributed to the different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
Vajrayana is in fact part of the Mahayana school but because its emphasis on tantrism, it is often cited as a different school. It is also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayāna, Lamaism, Mantrayāna, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism and the Diamond Vehicle. It is mostly active in Tibet and Japan, and in China, to some extent.
Vajrayana is a school of esoteric knowledge, secret rituals, mudras and mantras. It teaches that in order to access esoteric knowledge, the practitioner requires initiation from a skilled spiritual teacher or guru.
Rituals are an important part of the Vajrayana Buddhism. They substitute meditation as they are focused and with purpose. Esoteric Buddhism is often associated with magic as many of their rituals entail working with the supernatural, manipulating the laws of nature with the help of the entities of the Buddhist pantheon.
In this form of Buddhism, like in Mahayana, the ultimate goal of the practitioner is to become a Buddha. Vajrayana teaches that the Vajrayana techniques provide an accelerated path to Buddhahood. But, Reginald Ray writes that "If these techniques are not practiced properly, practitioners may harm themselves physically and mentally. In order to avoid these dangers, the practice is kept "secret" outside the teacher/student relationship. Secrecy and the commitment of the student to the vajra guru are aspects of the samaya , or "sacred bond", that protects both the practitioner and the integrity of the teachings."
It is then difficult for westerners to study this path as it often entails speaking the language (ibetan and Japanese) and being accepted in a monastery by a master. In Japan, in particular, Koya-san accepts some foreigners but the path is difficult and they often suffer from some form of subtle racism as the Japanese people feel that Buddhism can only be understood by Japanese.