The Three Existing Schools of Buddhism
The Theravada (”teaching of the elders”) school upholds the Pali Canon or Tipitaka Sutta and Vinaya portion of the Tipitaka shows considerable overlap in content to the Agamas, the parallel collections used by non-Theravada schools in India which are preserved in Chinese and partially in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tibetan, and the various non-Theravada Vinayas. Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide, and in recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West and in the Buddhist revival in India.
Mahayana (the “Great Vehicle”) is a vast religious and philosophical structure. It constitutes an inclusive faith characterized by the adoption of new, Mahayana sutras. The fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine were based around the possibility of universal liberation from suffering for all beings (hence “great vehicle”) and the existence of Buddhas and Bodhisattva embodying transcendent Buddha-nature (the eternal Buddha essence present, but hidden and unrecognized, in all beings).
The Vajrayana ( the “Diamond Vehichle”) is often viewed as the third major ‘vehicle’ (Yana) of Buddhism, alongside the Theravada and Mahayana. According to this view, there were three ‘turnings of the wheel of dharma’. In the first turningShakyamuni Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi which led to the Hinayana schools, of which only the Theravada remain today (although they object to the term ‘Hinayana’). In the second turning the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were taught at Vulture’s Peak and led to the Mahayana schools. The teachings which constituted the third turning of the wheel of dharma were taught at Shravasti and expounded that all beings have Buddha Nature. This third turning is described as having led to the Vajrayana.
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