Buddhism is a religion which encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on teachings attributed to the Buddha. Buddhism originated in India around 5th Century BC, from where it spread through much of Asia, where after it declined in India during the middle ages.
For nearly 500 years, the Buddha’s teachings were passed through generations of the monastic community by oral tradition. In the late first century BCE they were first written down in a collection known as the Pali Canon. Since the first century AD, variety of sects started to appear as a means for disseminating his ancient wisdom in different forms of beliefs and practices.
There are many sects within Buddhism, but most can be classified into three major branches:
• Theravada (“Way of the Elders”)
• Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”)
• Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”)
Theravada – Theravada, the most ancient form of Buddhism, is the dominant school in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos). Its name translates to “Doctrine of the Elders,” and it centres around the Pali scriptures. By studying these ancient texts, meditating, and following the eightfold path, Theravada Buddhists believe they will achieve Enlightenment. Strong emphasis is also placed on the monastic community and on heeding the advice of the wise.
Mahayana – Mahayana Buddhism developed out of the Theravada tradition around first century AD is dominant school in East Asia. Mahayana Buddhism focuses on the idea of compassion and touts bodhisattvas, which are beings that work out of compassion to liberate other sentient beings from their suffering, as central devotional figures. A number of individual schools and traditions have formed under the Mahayana school, such as: Zen, Pure Land and Tantric Buddhism
Zen Buddhism – Zen Buddhism is said to have originated in China. Zen Buddhism treats Zen meditation and daily practice as essential for attaining Enlightenment, and deemphasizes the rigorous study of scripture.
Vajrayana – Vajrayana Buddhist tradition is an esoteric sect that is predominant in Tibet and Nepal. Vajrayana was last of the three ancient forms to develop, and provides a quicker path to Enlightenment than the other two. They believe that the physical has an effect on the spiritual and that the spiritual, in turn, affects the physical. Vajrayana Buddhists encourage rituals, chanting, and tantric techniques, along with a fundamental understanding of Theravada and Mahayana schools, as the way to attain Enlightenment.