In order to clarify the variations between the many different schools and traditions of Buddhism, the schools are often divided into the three Yanas, meaning ‘Vehicles’ or ‘Paths’. These three are: the Hinayana, Mahayana and Tantrayana. Within the various vehicles, much variation can still exist, which is further explained in the pages that deal with the traditions, like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.
A major reason for this development of different schools within Buddhism may be that the Buddha taught for decades. Given the vast amount of teachings it is not easy to unanimously decide what the exact interpretation of all teachings should be, or even how to summarise them logically.
Depending on who the Buddha would be teaching to, the explanation would be quite different and sometimes seemingly contradictory. This can be understood as skilful means; a satisfying explanation to a learned philosopher is probably too complex for an uneducated person. On top of this, the Buddha clearly stated that he did not just intend to teach a doctrine, but intended to show the path that people can follow for their own development. This intention ultimately leads to the point where every individual has to decide which practices to follow and how to interpret the teachings, rather than adhering to a fixed doctrine.
THERAVADA AND HINAYANA: The Theravada tradition is based on the set of teachings decided by the Third Council to contain the teachings of the Buddha. Shri Lanka has played a central role in preserving the Theravada scriptures and practices. After the Third Council, the Tripitaka collection of sutras were taken to Shri Lanka. Most of these were originally in the Pali language, but some were compiled in other languages. Through the centuries however, all teachings were translated into Pali (around 35 BCE). Initially, most ordained Sangha were known as parivrajahas (wanderers).
They would assemble during the rainy season when travelling became problematic. Gradually, buildings were donated and the Sangha became more static. Just a century after the Buddha passed away, monasteries became the main mechanism for preservation of the teachings. Also extra monastic rules were introduced. Only during one short period in history Buddhism was banned in Shri Lanka, but it was later restored with teachings from Thailand which in turn had originated in Shri Lanka. The main countries where the Theravada tradition is currently alive and well in Shri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.
The teachings on the Four Noble Truths and meditation form the basis of Theravada practice.
The term Hinayana (smaller Vehicle) appeared only much later, around the first century CE, when teachings of a different nature appeared which were called Mahayana (greater Vehicle).
MAHAYANA: The Mahayana appears to have developed between the 1st Century BC to the 1st Century CE. About the 2nd Century CE Mahayana became clearly defined. Master Nagarjuna developed the Mahayana philosophy of Sunyata (emptiness) and proved that everything is Void in a small text called Madhyamika-karika. After the 1st Century CE., the Mahayanists took a definite stand and only then the terms of Mahayana and Hinayana were introduced.
Around the first century CE, teachings of a different style appeared. The terms Mahayana and Hinayana appeared in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra or the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law. Of great influence to the development of the Mahayana was Master Nagarjuna (2nd Century CE) who is known for his profound teachings on the philosophy of emptiness. About the 4th Century CE, the Masters Asanga and Vasubandhu wrote enormous amount of works on Mahayana. The Mahayana teachings were mainly written down in Sanskrit, and are now called the Mahayana Sutras.
A clear division arose between the schools following the traditional teachings and Mahayana. Although the main philosophical differences may be small, they have profound consequences for the practices involved.
The Mahayana philosophy is based on the older tradition and fully accepts these teachings, but not all traditional interpretations. One of the most important aspects is for example the traditional interpretation that Buddhahood can be achieved only by very few people. The Mahayana teaches instead that every sentient being (being with a mind) can become a Buddha, the only thing preventing our full enlightenment is the failure to improve one’s own actions and state of mind. The Mahayana tradition claims that all their sutras have been taught directly by Shakyamuni Buddha or have at least been inspired by the Buddha.
The main Mahayana motivation is to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. Liberation from cyclic existence (Nirvana) and Buddhahood for oneself are regarded simply as fortunate by-products of one’s efforts to help all beings. In fact, the only possible motivation with which one can become a Buddha is the altruistic wish to lead all sentient beings away from suffering.
This motivation is reflected in taking an additional set of vows, known as Bodhisattva vows on top of taking Refuge. The main vow is to free all sentient beings from suffering. These vows are not taken for this life only, but for all future lives as well, until this goal is achieved. The main practices of a Mahayanist are summarised in the 6 perfections: the perfection of giving, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom.
TANTRAYANA: Around the 6th. century AD, within the Mahayana tradition the tantras or tantric texts emerged. Based firmly on the Hinayana and Mahayana tradition, the actual philosophy differs only slightly from the Mahayana, but the practices can be quite different.
Prior to engaging in tantric practices, a proper understanding of the Hinayana and Mahayana philosophy is considered essential. Only then should one obtain initiation or permission from a qualified tantric master to do a specific tantric practice. Tantric practices are psychologically very profound techniques to quickly achieve Buddhahood. This is considered important, not for oneself, but because as a Buddha one has the best achievable qualities to help others. The motivation is: ‘the faster I can achieve Buddhahood, the sooner I can be of maximum benefit to others’.