Buddha’s teaching from word of mouth to the Pali Canon 

After Buddha died, his teachings were passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth. During his lifetime the Buddha started the Sangha, an order of monks and nuns that passed his teachings to others. The Sangha still exists today.  

Buddha’s cousin and personal assistant, Anand, spent his life at Buddha’s side. He had committed all the Buddha’s life teachings to memory. After Buddha’s death, Anand and 500 monks from the Sangha gathered to recite all that they could remember. For this reason, most of the Buddha’s teachings begin with the words “Thus have I heard”.  

The Buddha called his religion the Dhamma-Vinaya. This means the “doctrine and the discipline”. The Dhamma or truth is what he taught to people as a path to find release from suffering. The discipline or Vinaya set out rules and ideal behaviors for his followers.  

The Pali Canon 

It was nearly five hundred years before the Buddha’s teachings were recorded in the Pali Canon. This was the work of Sri Lankan monks, who spoke the Pali language. The Pali Canon was written in the First Century CE. It is part of the Tipitaka a set of texts that contain the rules for disciplined living in monasteries.   

Three Main Forms of Buddhism 

Over 2500 years since Buddha taught his followers, Buddhism has spread across Asia. Along the way it has adapted according to the cultures that it encountered.  

While the teachings between the Buddhist schools are similar, in practice they differ. 

There are three main Buddhists types. Each Buddhist tradition has its own texts that guide adherents to a good life. All three branches have their origins in India. The three main forms of Buddhism include: 

    • Theravada 
    • Mahayana  
  • Vajrayana 

Zen Buddhism, which developed in Japan, is derived from Mahayana.  

Theravada Buddhism 

Based on the original Pali Canon, this is the oldest form of Buddhism still practiced.  The Pali Canon contains the oldest recorded teachings of Buddha. It is the only complete Buddhist canon written in the ancient language of India. This is the sacred language of Theravada Buddhists.  

Theravada is the only remaining school of the 18 that existed following Buddha’s death. The other 17 did not survive the invasion of the Muslims into India in the 12th Century.  

Theravada means the “Ways of the Elders”. It is practiced in continental South East Asia and Sri Lanka. Because it is most prevalent in the south of Asia it is sometimes referred to as Southern Buddhism.  

In recent years this form of Buddhism has started to spread to Western countries. Theravada monasteries are now found across Europe and North America.  There are more than 100 million Theravada Buddhists around the globe. It is the most conservative form of Buddhism and the most orthodox. It has up to fifty sacred texts. Theravada Buddhists believe that only monks can reach Nirvana. 

The beliefs of the Theravada 

Theravada recognizes the inherent goodness in Buddha. They know him as an exemplary human being. Monks who seek enlightenment must follow closely in his footsteps. Theravada Buddhists believe that self-liberation is self-driven. Adherents must abstain from evil. They must think pure thoughts and do good deeds.  

The Theravada believe that their teachings are closest to the original teachings of Buddha. These teachings are not seen as having merit in their own right. They are viewed as a tool to help people to reach enlightenment.  

The Theravada closely follow the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the last of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths explain the cause of man’s suffering and path of redemption. The Theravada is also guided by the principle of the “Middle Way”. This cautions that the path to enlightenment is one of neither self-indulgence nor self-denial.  

The Theravada believe that there is only one Buddha per Age. An Age is a very long time as the next Buddha will appear only after all trace of the current one has disappeared.  

Mahayana Buddhists 

The largest Buddhist school in the world, Mahayana means the “Greater Vehicle”. The word “vehicle” refers to the fact that Buddhists regard Buddhist teachings as a ship or raft. The ship or raft carries the followers across the sea of suffering.  

The word “Greater” underlines the fact that the Mahayana believe their school as superior to the Theravada school. They often describe Theravada Buddhism as the “Lesser Vehicle”. Mahayana Buddhism includes Zen Buddhism in Japan. It is also found in China, Tibet, Korea and Vietnam.  

The beliefs of the Mahayana 

Mahayana Buddhists believe that all men can achieve salvation. Since life is impermanent, humans should limit their earthly possessions to the bare minimum. Adherents should live good lives and work to keep their minds pure. They pursue ethical living and wisdom. Meditation is an important part of life. Their ultimate aim is freedom from the cycle of life and death. This they can achieve only through enlightenment.  

Mahayana Buddhists believe in delaying their own release from suffering. Choosing instead to help others to set themselves free from the bonds of suffering. They believe that they can achieve enlightenment only through direct experience. The teachings of Buddha are a guide to enlightenment. 

Only the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path will get them to the point of self-realization. The basis of their beliefs is the Four Noble Truths. These Truths, as taught by Buddha, cover the problem, the cause, the solution and the path to enlightenment.  

The goal of Maharana Buddhists is to become a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be). Bodhisattva’s have reached a level of enlightenment that enables them to help others to meet this state of grace. They believe that all humans can achieve this enlightenment. Bodhisattva’s postpone their own liberation into Nirvana to help others. They consider that all human live in suffering. The Bodhisattvas take a vow to save all living creatures from this suffering. They must end all evil thoughts and learn the truth. This they must teach others and lead all living beings to Buddhism. 


Vajrayana translates into the “Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”. It is also known as Tantric Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is often seen as another aspect of Mahayana Buddhism rather than a school of its own.  

It developed between 500 and 600 CE. It is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, but it includes many rituals which define it as different. These traditions trace some of their origins back to ancient Vedic and Hindu traditions. This school of Buddhism is practiced mostly in Tibet, Mongolia and in parts of China and Russia. 

The beliefs of the Vajrayana 

Vajrayana Buddhists seek enlightenment in this lifetime. They do this through the direct experience of esoteric practices, meditation and by using magical energy. Esoteric rituals are practiced for the achievement of physical, mental and spiritual development. Many of the rituals are secret and initiates work closely with a guru to learn the traditions of the school.  

Tantric or traditional spiritual techniques are practiced in the belief that they will help the monks to meet enlightenment. The Vajrayana believe that the tantras can help them to reach Nirvana in a single lifetime. In this way, there is no need for several reincarnations. The main vehicle to enlightenment is prayer and meditation. Only those initiated into the religion are taught the tantras. Tantras are said to be difficult and even dangerous. The initiated are sworn to secrecy. This is why this school if Buddhism is shrouded in mystery. Not much is known about their practices. 

The similarities and the differences 

All Buddhists agree that Buddha was the founding father of the philosophy. They all follow the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. 

Where they differ is in the attainment of nirvana. The Theravada see Buddha as unique. Only monks can attain Nirvana. While the Maharana believe that all creatures will eventually reach nirvana. Because of this all people, monks and lay people. Who adhere to Maharana Buddhism must meditate and pray. While for the Theravada only monks need to meditate and laypeople pray.  

The Theravada has remained traditional and orthodox. By contrast, the Maharana and Vajrayana have included rituals and chants in their religious ceremonies. 

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