Most Buddhist schools emerged around a specific sutra or aspect of Buddha’s teaching, which the followers believed embodied his teachings. In reality, Buddha taught all the 84,000 dharmas to help beings overcome their suffering or obstacles to enlightenment. As such, they are all good and useful. It also requires different kinds of medicine or medical treatment at different stages of illness to cure it.
Hinayana Schools — The early Buddhist Schools
One of the earliest Indian schools of the Hinayana tradition, also known as the Sutra-Only school because it focused exclusively on Buddha’s discourses.
A significant early Indian school in northwestern India, also in the Hinayana tradition, whose version of Abhidharma, Mahavibhasa (The Great Book of Alternatives), provided the basis for Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-kosa, which is still studied today in Tibetan monasteries and is considered one of the five classical commentaries or treatises to be mastered.
Theravada (School of the Elders)
This form of Buddhism was transferred very early to the Southeast Asian countries of Sri Lanka (247 BC) and Burma (272-236 BC), and later to Thailand (1260 AD), Laos (14th century AD), Cambodia, and South Vietnam. It was between 25 and 17 BC when the Pali Canon or the Pali scriptures were first recorded in Sri Lanka. In the West, this is also generally known as Vipassana or insight meditation. The Theravadins form the most conservative branch of Buddhism and base their practice exclusively on the Tripitaka of the Pali Scriptures. It is the only remaining school that has evolved from the Hinayana tradition. The focus is on the practice of mindfulness, which involves cultivating awareness of one’s own thoughts, actions, and body to become aware of what one is doing and what one’s motivation is. This is a stage leading to a direct understanding of the fleeting, conditioned nature of existence. Theravadins take refuge in the Three Jewels and follow the five precepts — not to kill, not to steal, no inappropriate sexual behavior, no inappropriate speech, and no use of substances that intoxicate consciousness. Monks must be sexually abstinent and may not claim to have supernatural powers. The goal pursued on this path is to become an Arhat. It has become a widespread form of Buddhism in the United States. Some of today’s western leaders have questioned whether enlightenment is possible or even a useful goal, emphasizing more the integration of Buddhist concepts and theories with western psychology and therapy.
This major Chinese Mahayana school is based on the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hua-Yen or Flower Garland Sutra). It was founded by Ta-Shun (557-640) and Fa-Tsang (Hsien-Shou) (643-712). There are still followers of this tradition in the West within Chinese communities.
One of the two major Mahayana schools in India, based on the teachings of the second turning of the Wheel by Shakyamuni Buddha. It was founded by the great Dharma King and Mahasiddha Nagarjuna (150–250). Madhyamakavatara or the Madhyamika treatise (Guide to the Middle Way) by Chandrakirti (600-650) is a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika Treatise (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) and is also one of the five classic commentaries to be mastered. This school is also considered by some Tibetan schools to hold the highest of Buddha’s teachings on emptiness, though each of the major schools studies all four of the early Indian schools listed here. Shantarakshita merged the approaches of Madhyamaka and Yogachara to show that both were aspects of Buddha’s teachings, with one emphasizing profound wisdom and the other boundless compassion.
Just like Chan, this form of Buddhism also arose in 6th century China within the Based or Wisdom transmission lineage of Nagarjuna. This school relied on the practitioner reciting the name of the Buddha Amitabha and trusting in being reborn in the western paradise, where more favorable circumstances exist to attain enlightenment. It was based on the assumption that the conditions were not appropriate and practitioners were not capable of achieving enlightenment in this lifetime. The foundation scriptures are the various Pure Land sutras, including the Sukhavativyuha Sutra. The Pure Land school was exported to Japan in the 12th century. It was one of the first forms of Buddhism to come to America, brought by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century. The practice of Pure Land practices is also increasing in the United States.
It is said that this school tradition begins with Mahakasyapa, one of Shakyamuni’s main disciples and the convener of the “first Buddhist council”. It is reported that he was the only one who understood what the Buddha meant when he raised a flower and said nothing – that the direct experience of truth is not dependent on words or concepts. A form of Buddhist thought and practice that emerged in China. Chan cites Nagarjuna in its lineage and credits Bodhidharma from India as its founder and first Patriarch (6th century AD). Bodhidharma went to China in 526. Hui-Neng (638-713), the sixth Patriarch, was an illiterate enlightened by the hearing of the Diamond Sutra, embodying the method of this school of “sudden” enlightenment and transmission of truth outside of scriptures. However, it should be noted that Hui-Neng was a high corporeal bodhisattva. The early Zen masters focused on the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra, which expounds the “Only-Mind” doctrine but stressed meditation. Chan is a rewriting of the Sanskrit expression Dhyana, meaning meditation, while Zen is the Japanese rewriting of Chan. Chan integrated Buddhism with many of the indigenous belief systems, especially Daoism.
The golden age of Chan in China ended over a thousand years ago when it was formalized and lost much of its vibrancy. It was exported both to Japan (as Zen) and to Korea (as Son) in the 12th century, where it is still one of the major schools. Today’s practice includes extensive sitting meditation, ideally in a retreat or secluded environment. Early Chinese Chan did not promote separate sitting, but assumed that practice should be part of everyday life. The Japanese Soto School claims that just sitting, or Shikantaza, itself is enlightenment, while the Rinzai school uses Koans (Kung-an) or insoluble questions to lead to an understanding of one’s original nature. Korean Zen is less formal than its Japanese counterpart and incorporates more recitation and study of sutras into its meditation. Koans are also used. Vietnamese Zen, with its main focus on mindfulness, was popularized by the Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and other masters. All these forms are widespread in the West. However, one cannot become a Buddha simply by following the practices of these schools, as they only lead to the stage of realizing the Dharmakaya. They do not have methods for realizing the other aspects of a Buddha.
The second of the two major Mahayana schools in India, based on the teachings of the third turn of the wheel by the Buddha Shakyamuni. It was founded by the Dharma King Asanga (4th century), who was taught directly by Maitreya. With his half-brother Vasubandhu, Asanga founded the Comprehensive or Method transmission line (the Immeasurable Bodhisattva Way). It is also known as the “Mind-Only” or Cittamatra school and formed the basis for the Tiantai (Tendai) and Faxiang School in China, as well as for the “Great Perfection” and Mahamudra Dharmas in Tibet. The Samdhinirmocana Sutra is one of the main scriptures of the Yogachara school.
Another school derived from the Yogachara school was founded by Xuanzang (Hsuan-Tsang) (596-664), based on the writings of Asanga and his half-brother Vasubandhu. It is also known as the “Consciousness-Only” school. Xuanzang travelled to India from 629-645 to study Yogachara at the University of Nalanda. His journey became the inspiration for a very well-known classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West.
This Chinese school dates from the late sixth to the early eighth century and is known for its effort to integrate the entire range of Hinayana and Mahayana scriptures that came to China from India into a coherent reference system. Its founder, Chih-I (538-597), considered the Lotus Sutra to be the highest of the Mahayana Dharmas and favored the Yogachara school by Asanga. Tian-Tai was exported to Japan by Saicho (767-870) in the late eighth century where it became known as Tendai and plays a subordinate role in Japanese Buddhism. There are Tendai and Tian-Tai temples in America.
This more modern form of Buddhism was founded by the Japanese monk Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282). His practice is based on the recitation of the Lotus Sutra. The Soka Gakkai International or SGI (“Value Creation Society”) is a descendent of the Nichiren school with a larger focus on the laity. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) was the founder and first president of SGI. The current president is Daisaku Ikeda (1928 – ). These groups have many Western adherents.
Chen-Yen Tsung (Shingon)
A form of esoteric or Vajrayana Buddhism transferred to China in the eighth century, with its main enlightened being, the Sun Buddha, Mahavairocana. The venerable Subhakrasimha (637-735), who is regarded as the first patriarch of this lineage in China, was followed by the venerable Vajrabodhi (671-741) and his student, the venerable Amoghavajra (705-774), who transmitted the secret teachings to the venerable Huiguo or Hui-Kuo (746-805) who in turn passed them on to the venerable Kukai (774-835). Kukai brought them to Japan. Vajrabodhi received the Vajrayana lineage through Nagabodhi, a student of the master Nagarjuna.
This form of practice is seen as a shortcut to the usual gradual cultivation of wisdom, done alone, favored by powerful practices and empowerment by beings further evolved on the path, leading the practitioners directly to the goal of enlightenment and liberation, whereas the exoteric practices to perfection could take aeons. The strength of these practices can also be utilized for achieving longevity, healing, acquisition of wealth, elimination of obstacles, and for other required purposes to help and liberad beings. Officially recognized in China as an independent school for only approximately a century, during which time it was exported to Japan and became the Shingon school. Shingon is still active in Japan. It also migrated to the West in its two forms, the Japanese and the Chinese one.
This school is the oldest in Tibet, with roots tracing back to Guru Padmasambhava and other original transmissions in the eighth century. The great Mahasiddha and Dharma King Padmasambhava was brought to Tibet by King Trisong Detsen on the recommendation of the scholar-monk Shantarakshita. Dharma King Padmasambhava was brought to subdue the demons that were hindering the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet. With Shantarakshita, he founded the first Tibetan monastery, Samye, in 767. The six “Mother” monasteries or “Six Great Seats” that make up the significant sub-schools within Nyingma are Kathok Dorje Den (1159), founded by Tampa Deshek (Dampa Desheg 1112-1192) and rebuilt in 1656 by Rigdzin Longsal Nyingpo (1625-1682), with H.E. Zhuzha Longchen Rinpoche VI as the current head; Mindrolling (1676) founded by Rigdzin Terdak Lingpa (1646-1714) with H.H. Mindrolling Trichen (1931-2008) as the latest head; Palyul (1665), founded by Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab with H.H. Penor Rinpoche (1932-2009) as the latest head; Dzogchen (1684), founded by Dzogchen Pema Rigdzin (1625-1697) with Dharmakönig Tenzin Longdock Nyima (1974-) as the current head in Tibet and Dharmakönig Jikme Losel Wangpo (1964-) as the head in India; and Shechen (1695) founded by Rabjam Tenpe Gyaltsen with H.E. Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche (1966-) as the current head; all in East Tibet; and Dorje Drak (1610) in Central Tibet, founded by Rigdzin Ngakgi Wangpo (1580-1639) with H.E. Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (1926-2015) as the current head in India. H.H. Mindrolling was the supreme head of the Nyingma School since H.H. Penor Rinpoche retired from this position in 2001. Prior to that, H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1919-1991) and H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987) held this title. Traditionally, there was no person with the duty to serve as head, however, this position was introduced in exile in India for primarily administrative purposes.
The Nyingma School is associated with hidden texts and places greater emphasis on the supernatural and less on monastic discipline. Their supreme teaching is known as the “Dharma of Great Perfection” or “Dzogchen”, which was passed on to Dharma King Padmasambhava by Vajrasattva. Literally translated “the Ancients”, the Nyingma School is based on the “old translations” or Kama, as opposed to the “new translations” or Sama, which came later. There are many practitioners of this form of Vajrayana in the West.
In 1294, Kunpang Thukje Tsondru (1243-1313), a student of Choku Odzer and holder of the Dro lineage of the Kalachakra Tantra, settled in the mountain caves in South Central Tibet in U-Tsang at a place called “Jomonang” thus starting the Jonang tradition. The most famous scholar of this school, who developed the Shentong view of Other-Emptiness, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), arrived there in 1321. The Shentong view was first articulated in Tibet by the Kalachakra Yogi Yumo Mikyo Dorje (11th century), a student of the Kashmiri scholar Somanatha, who translated the root tantra of Kalachakra practice together with the main commentary “Immaculate Light” from Sanskrit to Tibetan and brought the Dro lineage of the Kalachakra Tantra to Tibet with the Tibetan translator Dro Lotsawa Sherab Drak.
Until recently, it was thought that this school no longer existed. The fifth Dalai Lama tried to eradicate this school, primarily for political reasons, but under the pretext of doctrinal differences, in the 17th century. After the highest head of the school, Master Jetsun Taranatha (1575-1641) died in Mongolia, the Jonang monasteries were unified with the Geluk system and many Jonang texts were destroyed or confiscated. Master Taranatha reincarnated as Bogdo Zanabazar (1635-1723), the first Jebtsundampa, and became the spiritual head of the Geluk lineage in Mongolia. However, the temples that were hidden in the mountains of the secluded areas of East Tibet remained and flourished, lying outside the influence of the central leadership. Some of the most powerful Dharma kings in today’s world belong to this school. Dharmakonig Jigme Dorje Rinpoche is the current head of the Jonang School. The 14th Dalai Lama appointed the present Jebtsundampa Khutukhtu as the representative of the Jonang tradition in India and confirmed that the earlier suppressions were based on political and not doctrinal considerations.
Although the Jonang Dharma King Ngagwang Pedma Namgyal Palzangpo has taught the Kalachakra practice in the United States, the Jonang teachings are still not very well known in the West. The Jonang School has survived and holds the highest and most complete form of Kalachakra practice.
This Tibetan school, established in 1073, has hereditary leadership within the Khon family with married lamas and leaders, yet its Buddhist roots can be traced back to the eight century to one of the seven original monks ordained by Master Shantarakshita. Their highest teachings include the “Hevajra Dharma”, transmitted from Nairatmya to the Indian Mahasiddha Virupa, the consort of Buddha Hevajra, who is the wrathful form of Buddha Akshobhya. In the 11th century, Drokkmi (992-1074) went from Tibet to India to receive these teachings, which he transmitted to the first Kohn Patriarch, Konchok Gyalpo (1034-1102). The most famous leader was Dharma King Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), who along with his nephew, Drogon Chogyal Phakpa or Choegyal Phagpa (1235-1280) were instrumental in converting the Mongols to Buddhism. The Sakya school had political influence in Tibet during the 13th and 14th centuries. Although it was the smallest of the four main Tibetan schools, it also established many groups in the West, with the main temple in Walden, New York. The leadership of the school has alternated between two branches of the Sakya clan, with the head of the other branch being, H.H. Dharma King Jigdal Dagchen Sakya (1929- ), who lives in the USA. There are two principal sub-schools, the Tsar, led by the late H.E. Chogye Trichen Rinpoche and the Ngor, led by H.E. Luding Khen Rinpoche. H.H. Sakya Trizin’s sister, H.H. Jetsun Chimey Luding, and H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya’s wife, H.H. Dagmo Kusho Sakya, also both have centers and students in North America.
Kadampa (New Kadampa)
Founded in Tibet by Indian Dharma King Atisha in the 11th century, based on the oral tradition derived from the transmitted teachings of the Buddha. Dharma King Atisha (982-1054) combined the two Mahayana transmission lineages of Nagarjuna (the profound or wisdom transmission lineage) and Asanga (the extensive or method transmission lineage) and introduced the Lam Rim system for teaching in the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. This book became the basis for the other Tibetan schools, especially the Gelugpa. Although the Kadampa school disappeared as a separate school in Tibet, its teachings were incorporated into the other schools and it became the Gelug school. It served as the basis for the New Kadampa Tradition, founded in Great Britain by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1931-2022), who opened many Dharma centers in the West. The New Kadampas maintain that the current Gelug school and especially the current Dalai Lama have deviated from the teachings of the founders of this movement.
Founded in the 16th century in Tibet, this school is the result of the efforts of Dharma King Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) to reform the monasteries and restore the true Buddha Dharma. It evolved from the Kadampa school, but also incorporated some teachings from other schools. In later years, it became the most politically active of the four main schools, with its secular head, the Dalai Lama, who has also been the secular leader of Tibet since the 17th century. Its monks are celibate and subject to strict disciplinary rules. After the death of Jonang leader, Taranatha, in 1641, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama combined the Jonang temples with the Geluk system and abolished the Jonang texts. Taranatha reincarnated as the first Jetsundhampa Khutukhutu (1635-1723) in Outer Mongolia.
The Geluk school was the largest of the four Tibetan schools with many Western followers. Many of the Geluk groups in America sprang up through the main temple of the Dalai Lama at Drepung Loseling in South India or through the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) by Lama Zorpa. The spiritual head of the Geluk school is known as the Ganden Tripa or Holder of the Throne of Ganden, the main monastery of Tsongkhapa.
The Shangpa school was founded in the 10th century by Khyungpo (Chungpo) Naijor (990-1139 or 978-1127). He went to India to receive the Dharma and studied there with many masters. The two he considered most helpful were the female masters Lady Sukhasiddhi and Lady Niguma, which was probably the older sister of Naropa. Both of these female Mahasiddhas achieved a level of realization that enabled them to receive Tantra directly from Dorje Chang Buddha. The most famous master in this tradition was Dharma King Tangtong Gyalpo, who also lived a very long time in the 14th and 15th centuries. He received direct transmissions from Lady Niguma and also from Guru Padmasambhava. The tradition almost died out, but was revived by the great first Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche (1813-1899) and others. The most well-known holder of the Shangpa lineage in modern times was Kalu Rinpoche. When Kalu Rinpoche left this world, Bokar Rinpoche (1940-2004) succeeded him as the highest head of the Shangpa-Kagyu lineage and teacher of Kalu Rinpoche’s reincarnation, Kalu Yangsi Rinpoche (1990- ).
This Tibetan school was also founded in the 11th century by Gampopa (1079-1153), a disciple of Milarepa (1052-1135). Milarepa was a student of Marpa (1012-1097) who brought the core teachings from his master, Naropa (1016-1100), from India. Naropa was the main student of Tilopa (988-1069). Master Tilopa was able to receive the tantric teachings directly from Dorje Chang Buddha. Master Gampopa had four main students: Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), who became known as the first Karmapa and began the Karma Kagyu sub-school, and three others who founded the Tsalpa Kagyu, Babrom Kagyu, and Pagdru Kagyu sub-schools. The four sub-schools became known as the four major transmission lines. From the Pagdru Kagyu, eight subordinate transmission lines were formed: Drikung Kagyu, Drukpa Kagyu, Taglung Kagyu, Yazang Kagyu, Trophu Kagyu, Shugseb Kagyu, Yerpa Kagyu and Martsang Kagyu. Only the first three of these subordinate transmission lines have survived. The Drikung Kagyu is led by its 37th Dharmaking Kyabgon Chetsang, while H.H., the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa leads the Drukpa Kagyu.
The second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, predicted that the Karmapa will assume two Nirmanakaya forms in the future: one will continue the transmission line of the “Black Crown” as the Karmapa and the other will establish the line of the “Ruby Red Crown” as the Sharmapa. The ninth Karmapa offered Tai Situ Rinpoche a second ruby red crown, who then also became one of Karmapa’s Regents. Goshir Rinpoche also received the orange crown, who became the third Regent of the Karmapas. Currently, there are two incarnations recognized as Karmapas of the Black Crowns: Urgyen Trinley Dorje and Thaye Dorje.
This school possesses an oral tradition, emphasizing more the mystical aspects of the Tantras. Their highest teachings are included in the “Mahamudra Dharma,” which the Indian Mahasiddha Tilopa received directly from Dorje Chang Buddha. There are many Kagyu practitioners in the West.
Chöd is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition founded in the 11th or 12th century by Machig Labdrön. It draws on the perfection of wisdom teachings (Prajnaparamita) of Indian Buddhism and emerged as one of many new schools arising during the second dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet from 950-1350 CE. While considered a branch of the Zhijé pacification lineage, no actual Chöd texts were found in early Zhijé sources. Machig Labdrön herself is recognized as the sole originator of the Chöd teachings and lineage.
The original Chöd teachings combined sutra and tantra elements, emphasizing understanding emptiness to cut attachments and cultivate compassion. Over time, elaborate visualization and ritual practices came to prominence. Vajrayogini is a key figure in advanced Chöd practice, manifesting in her Kalika or Vajravarahi forms.
The tradition did not establish monasteries, but was integrated into various Tibetan Buddhist schools. Its writings derive from various sources including Labdrön’s descendants, visionary experiences, and revealed treasure texts. In the 21st century, Chöd continues gaining global popularity through modern adaptations of traditional practices.
Rime is more of a movement rather than a school. The Dharma Kings and Rinpoches who began these non-sectarian efforts in the late 18th and 19th century were concerned that the various schools were becoming too narrow or biased in their focus. They could also foresee the decline of Buddhism in Tibet in the generations that followed and the need to protect and preserve the ancient teachings that were in danger of being lost. They regarded each of the schools as valuable in its approach. The Rime movement did not intend to unite the various schools through their commonalities, as is often claimed, but instead, it aimed to establish a common base, acknowledging and appreciating the different approaches of each tradition and allowing those who have a particular karmic inclination to practice with that school. Dharma King Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798) of the Nyingma school was one of the first great saints to teach in this way. Dharma King Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) of the Sakya school and Dharma King Jamgon Kongtrul (1811-1899) of the Shangpa Kagyu school were the leaders, but there were others as well. Dharma Kings Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), Trulshik Rinpoche (1923-2011), and the late 16th Karmapa (1924-1981) were also modern followers of this approach.
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(iv) Zhaxi Zhuoma
(v) H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III
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