There are many forms of Buddhism in practice by Buddhists around the world which are typically part of the existing “big three” branches of Buddhism:

  • Mahāyāna (56%)
  • Theravāda (38%)
  • Vajrayana or “Tibetan” (6%)

You’ll also find various sects or types of Buddhism within these, for example “Pure Land” and “Humanistic Buddhism” is part of Mahāyāna.

Why So Many?

So this brings us back to our main question as to why there is so many different types.  Buddhism is a very adaptive religion so it can adapt to the different cultures and societies it grows in.  This way, it can be relevant to it’s practitioners.

But Isn’t That Watering it Down?

Not at all, because each branch or school of Buddhism still has at it’s core the teachings of the Buddha such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and certain scriptures common to all schools.

In addition, Buddhism is a growing religion that takes in new scripture and teachings all the time.  It is not restricted to just the teachings of the Buddha 2,600 years ago (but those are the core and primary teachings).  These teachings must conform to what is known as the “Three Dharma Seals” in order to be considered a genuine Buddhist teaching.

So What’s Different?

  • Each branch or school may focus more on certain texts.  For example in Mahāyāna, the Eight Realizations of a Bodhisattva Sutra is one of the primary sutras that defines Mahāyāna.
  • Some schools and branches may wear different clothing (for monastics), practice meditation in different ways, or teach in a different manner.
  • Another aspect that is different is how a practitioner wants to achieve enlightenment or progress in Buddhism.  For example in Mahāyāna, all practitioners can follow the “Bodhisattva path”.  Whereas in Theravāda, practitioners (non-monastics) are considered less likely to attain any true growth or enlightenment (Theravāda is a primary monastic tradition, compared to Mahāyāna which encompasses laity and monastic).

Because there are so many different ways (or “paths”) to practice Buddhism, there is a literally a path for everyone.  The end of the path, however, is the same for everyone…just everyone enjoys different ‘scenery’ and teachers to get there.

You can learn more about Theravada and Mahayana (and which one is best for you) here: http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/understanding-mahayana-theravada/