How many Buddhism sects are created over time?

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Buddhism sects before and after the Buddha’s parinirvana attract much attention of the Buddhists. In fact, the Buddhism Dharma is only one and Nirvana is the highest level of cultivating Buddhism. No matter whichever Buddhism sects we choose, they all lead us to Nirvana. However, a variety of approach to Buddhism Dharma had created various Buddhism sects over the time. It is the main reason that makes the Buddhist community feel a little confused while discovering Buddhism’s history. Thus, we will shed light on the various Buddhism sects are created over time.

From the fairly early time of Buddhism history, the Buddha taught the thirteen practitioners. They are all well-known with their own specific transcendental talent and methods of cultivation. It can be said that thirteen Buddha’s students are the practical examples for the diversity of Buddhism sects. Throughout more than 2500 years of Buddhism history, Buddhism had been spread from India to Vietnam, Chinese, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Myanmar, etc. At each country, Buddhism itself had changed to adapt to the indigenous culture and created new Buddhism sects. In the panoramic view, Buddhism covers a large of sects from all around the world.

In short, we can divide the history of Buddhism into two big periods: The first period happened while the Buddha was alive – it was the establishing period of basic Buddhism. And, the second period began after the Buddha’s Parinirvati (Parinirvana) – this was the developing period of Buddhism.


Top Buddhism Sects Are Created Over Time

First of all, let us discover the top five biggest Buddhism sects created in India.

  1. The Theravada or the Ancient Teachings (Lasting from the 6th BCE to the 5th BCE). It can be understood as the first period of Buddhism.
  2. The Mahāsāṅghika and Sthaviravada (Started about 100 years after the Buddha’s Parinirvati (Parinirvana) – entering into Nirvana).
  3. The Mahayana or the Great Vehicle (From 150 years BCE to the year 100 AD).
  4. The Hijayana or the Smaller Vehicle (Lasting from the first century to the fifth century.)
  5. The Vajrayana or Diamond Vehicle, and the Zen Buddhism. (Started from the fifth or sixth century to the eleventh century)
  6. The modern era of Buddhism was in the last 1000 years.

The first sect belonged to the first period in the Buddhism’s history. And the others were in the second period. In fact, all of the Buddhism sects are divided into smaller sects. And, nowadays, we are in the modern era of Buddhism.

The Buddhism sects follow by the steps of the Buddhists and monks.
The Buddhism sects follow by the steps of the Buddhists and monks.


Overview about The Peculiarities of The Buddhism Sects

1.The Theravada or The First Period of Buddhism

In this period, the Buddha presented Dharma talks to his students, so the only form of Scriptures is the verbal language. Thus, there was a lack of trustworthy documents that can be saved until nowadays. Until the end of this period, the Scriptures were written down. Because of the flexibility of verbal communication, it is counted that there were eighteen sects of Buddhism in this period. It was really an interesting fact because eighteen sects were established by the Buddha’s first sixty practitioners. After becoming Arahant, the practitioners had come everywhere to transmit the Buddha’s Dharma. By this fact, we can say that this was the basis of the variety of Buddhism sects in the next generations.

The Core Basic Doctrines of Theravada

The basic doctrines of Theravada are also the core value of Buddhism throughout the history, no matter how much changes that every sect had made with their approach.

The first core doctrine in Buddhism in general and in Theravada, in particular, is the theory of salvation. It means Buddhism was born to help the humanity to get escape from all the human suffering permanently, so as to attain enlightenment and come to Nirvana.

Then, the second core doctrine is the respect to the “Tree Treasures” or “Tree Jewels” which include “The Buddha”, “The Dharma”, and “The Sangha”.


2. The Mahāsāṅghika and Sthaviravada after the Buddha’s Parinirvana

About 140 years after the Buddha’s Parinirvati (Parinirvana), the first schism was born by the Arhat named Mahadeva, created Mahāsāṅghika and Sthaviravada. And the biggest difference between these sects is all about the Dharma.

After the Buddha's Parinirvana, the first Buddhism schism was born.
After the Buddha’s Parinirvana, the first Buddhism schism was born.


The Core Basic Doctrines of Mahāsāṅghika and Sthaviravada

The Sthaviravada means “The Pathway of the Elders” and the most ancient Buddhism sect that are still available until today. For centuries, Sthaviravada had played the most important religion in Sri Lanka as well as most of South East Nations. Nowadays, there are more than one – hundred Sthaviravada‘s Buddhism practitioners all over the world. In recent years, it is popular in Western countries.

From the Sthaviravada’s perspectives, the monks have to abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify the mind. So as to do these disciplines, the monk needs to practice three things called “sila (commandments), samadhi (meditation) and prajna (wisdom)”. An ordinary householder must abstain from murder, theft, falsehood, wrong sexual behavior, and all intoxicating drinks. To become a monk, one must live a life of celibacy, observe complete “sila”, practice meditation, and cultivate prajna.

On the other hand, Mahāsāṅghika ‘s doctrines claimed that all of the terms are a pseudonym, no matter whatever the Nirvana or the Samsara/Reincarnation, etc. According to Mahāsāṅghika, all of these words are not real or the permanent facts. As a result, they were absolutely in contrast to the Sthaviravada’ doctrines.


3. The Mahayana or the Great Vehicle

The Mahayana also meant “the Great Vehicle” that was closely related to the Christian era taking shape in Buddhism. It developed in North-West India and South India, the two regions that Buddhism was most influenced by the foreign factors like Greek arts, Iranian world, and the Mediterranean. Because of the harmony with foreign influences, the Mahayana transmitted to outside India easily. As time goes by, the Great Vehicle had really traveled a great distance to Nepal, Tibet, China, North-Korea, Japan, and Mongolia.

The Core Basic Doctrines of The Mahayana

The main goal of the Mahayana is to become the “Bodhisattva”. In the Sanskrit words, Bodhi means “enlightenment” and sattva means “being” or “essence”. In order to attain enlightenment, the monk must understand the nature, the forces, and the meaning of life. And the highest level of enlightenment is the great compassion without distinctions, the savior of all. Of course, the Buddhist monk cannot complete the journey of becoming the Bodhisattva in one life. Thus, it takes the Buddhism monks to cultivate themselves in many lives to shorten the distance between the inside “natural self” and the transcendental perfection of the supreme Bodhisattva. And the methods to become Bodhisattva is to practice six “perfections”: the perfections of giving, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom.

buddhism sects, bodhisattva
Chinese honor the Three Bodhisattvas because they believe the Bodhisattva will save their lives from suffering.

4. The Hijayana or the Smaller Vehicle

The Hijayana (Hinayana) is the “Smaller Vehicle” or “Southern Buddhism”. It was popular in Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, etc.

The Core Basic Doctrines of The Hijayana (Hinayana)

The Hijayana (Hinayana) just approved the Pali Literature and believed that these teachings were closest to the Buddha’s verbal talks. That is the reason why people also call Hijayana (Hinayana) is the ancient Buddhism.

According to the Hijayana (Hinayana), the ultimate goal of the Buddhism cultivators is the liberation from the circle of samsara and becoming the Arahat. They look forward to attaining enlightenment and liberation for themselves, instead of all of the humanity. Thus, people call the Hijayana (Hinayana) as the “Smaller Vehicle” because they can’t carry everyone in the cultivating journey. In fact, both “Great Vehicle” and “Smaller Vehicle” are the terms that the Great Vehicle’s community use. However, the Hijayana call their sect as Theravada or the ancient teaching.

Another peculiarity of Hijayana is the practice of daily alms of Buddhism cultivators. Daily morning, they go out and beg for food. They just have one meal each day and can eat whether vegetarian food or else, depending on what they receive. On the contrary, the monks from the Great Vehicle can eat three vegetarian meals a day.

Nowadays, we can easily see the Hijayana Buddhists make alms daily morning, especially in Thailand.

buddhism sects, Theravada monks
The monks make alms in the morning.


5. The Vajrayana or Diamond Vehicle and the Zen Buddhism

 Overview about The Vajrayana

The Vajrayana is from Mahayana. It transmits to Tibet, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia. One of the mysteries of the Vajrayana is the Highest Tantra Yoga in Tibet. And Tibet is the dreamland of the Vajrayana or “Diamond Vehicle”. People often compare the Diamond Vehicle to the vertical steep slope because of its transcend as well as complex in philosophies and practices.

The Basic Doctrines of The Vajrayana

The Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra (Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra) explains the core value of the Vajrayana clearly. The other important sutra in the Vajrayana is Avatamsa (The Ring-Shaped Ornament Sutra). Another is the doctrine that teaches the psychology of the eight consciousnesses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, mind, Mana, and Alaya). The world of Diamond Vehicle is the harmony between the transcendental philosophies and the practices of mudras, tantra, mantra. Nowadays, people know about the Vajrayana is mainly through the mystery cultivation methods such as “Tantra”, “Mantra”.


Overview about The Zen Buddhism

The Siddhartha Gautama was the most ancient ancestor of the Zen Buddhism. Then, the 28 consecutive Patriarchs had spread Zen Buddhism outside India. And, the Bodhidharma was the last Patriarch of Indian Zen Buddhism as well as the first Patriarch who transmitted the Zen Buddhism into China. Later, Zen Buddhism spread to Japan in the thirteen century.

Buddhism sects - Bodhidharma is famous for Zen Buddhism.
Bodhidharma is famous with Zen Buddhism.

The Basic Doctrines of The Zen Buddhism

The prominent term of Zen Buddhism is “emptiness” or “sunyata”. For more details, the doctrines of the Zen Buddhism is “No such a doctrine”. It also means the core philosophy of Zen Buddhism is the human’s mind, not scripture, mantra, or letters. Literally, Zen Buddhism did not approve of any doctrines, because the letters in doctrines may prevent the cultivators from understanding the Dharma exactly. The most important thing in Zen Buddhism is the witness within or self-realization. Therefore, each Zen Buddhist must make effort by themselves to attain the enlightenment.


Conclusion About Buddhism Sects

The above information is just the first –step in each Buddhism sects. In sum, we can say that Buddhism is not invariant. In contrast, Buddhism is really the universal religion that keeps on changing and getting familiar with the local culture.

Buddhism is a more than 2500-year history religion. People say that Buddhism sects are not religion, but the culture, the lifestyles. No matter whoever a Buddhist or non-Buddhist, they can find the meaningful lessons from Buddhism and practice them in their life. Buddhism sects, to some extents, are the practical examples of the development and changing of Buddhism throughout its journey to relieve the human sufferings. That’s the reason why no matter how many Buddhism sects are created over time, Buddhism still plays the main role in the spiritual life of millions of people around the world for thousands of years.

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