Overview of Buddhism

by Rev. Ryuei
Michael McCormick

Many people who want to learn about Buddhism get very confused by the terminology and different points of view presented by various schools of Buddhism. In order to clear up some of this confusion, I offer this brief overview, beginning with the Buddhist canon, which is the source for the Buddha’s actual teachings and therefore the inspiration for all of the various schools and lineages.

The closest we are going to get to the actual life and teachings of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha and his first disciples is in the Pali Canon of the Theravadin school and the Chinese Agamas. The Agamas are the Chinese translations of the Sarvastivadin canon. The Sarvastivadins were a major school of Indian Buddhism that disappeared in the 12th century. The Agamas as a whole have not been translated into English.

The Pali Canon is called that because it is written in the Pali language which may be very close to the ancient Magadhan dialect that the Buddha may have spoken. Pali terms are slightly different than the Sanskrit terms commonly used in the Mahayana sutras and by many people here in the West. So the Sanskrit words Nirvana, Dhamma, and sutra are Nibbana, Dhamma, and sutta in Pali. After discussing the Pali Canon I will use the Sanskrit terms simply because they are more widely known - but I want to acknowledge that the Pali Canon does use a different dialect.

There is substantial agreement between the Pali Canon and the Agamas relating to the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Twelvefold Chain of Dependent Origination, the Thirty-Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, and even a significant overlapping in the precepts (the Vinaya) for monks and nuns. This material encompasses the bedrock of Buddha Dharma in all the schools. It is the foundation or base for all that is found in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools as well.

The basic teachings of Buddhism which all schools hold in common can be found in the English translations of the Pali Canon which are being made available in new updated translations by Wisdom publications. The Pali Text Society has the entire Tripitika translated and these can be ordered from the Pariyattai Book Service (pariyatti.com). Much of Pali Canon is available at accesstoinsight.org. That sight also has some excellent material giving an overview of Buddhism from the Theravadin perspective.

The Pali Canon as a whole is called the Three Baskets or Tipitika in Pali (Tripitika in Sanskrit) because it contains three major sections, or “baskets.” The Three Baskets are:
I. The Sutta-pitika (or Sutra-pitika) which contain all the sermons or talks given by the Buddha. The Sutta-pitika is further broken down into five collections (nikayas):
1. The Digha-nikaya or Long Discourses

2. The Majjhima-nikaya or Middle Length Discourses

3. The Samyutta-nikaya or Connected Discourses

4. The Anguttara-nikaya or Numerical Discourses

5. Khuddaka-nikaya or Short Collection. This collection actually consists of a number of short works, some of which are very well known all by themselves such as: the Dhammapada, the Itivuttaka, the Udana, the Sutta-nipata, the Therigatha, the Theragatha, and the Jataka tales.
II. The Vinaya-pitika consists of the monastic precepts and related stories and material. The Vinaya is divided up as follows:
1. Suttavibhanga - which is the analysis of the precepts. This is broken down into the Mahavibhanga or Great Analysis which looks at the precepts for monks, and the Bhikkhunivibhanga or Nun's Analysis which analyzes the precepts for nuns.

2. The Khandhaka - which provides a wealth of material about the life of the early Sangha and highlights of the Buddha's teaching career. It also provides those rules pertaining to the organization and life of the Sangha as a whole. This part is divided into the Mahavagga or Great Section, and the Cullavagga or Small Section.

3. Parivara or Accessory - which is another presentation of the precepts in a very terse form for memorizing.
III. Finally there is the Abhidhamma which contains the systematic analysis of the teachings found in the sutta and vinaya collection. This is divided into the following works:
1. Dhammasangani - Explication of Dhamma

2. Vibhanga - Division

3. Dhatukatha - Discourse on the Elements

4. Puggalapannatti - Description of Persons

5. Kathavatthu - Subjects of Discourse

6. Yamaka - Pairs

7. Patthana - Causal Relation
This is an enormous amount of material that would fill a bookcase. The Abhidhamma and huge sections of the Vinaya make for extremely dry technical reading. Even the suttas can be very technical and repetitive. And yet there are gems to be found in all parts of the Pali Canon, and together it presents the unique worldview and way of life taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.

Before getting into the Mahayana sutras one must know something about the Oral Tradition which all these sutras (or suttas) are supposedly based on. After the Buddha's death (perhaps in the 5th or 4th century BCE), it is said that 500 of the Buddha's enlightened disciples came together and recited all the sermons (sutras) and precepts (vinaya) that the Buddha had taught. Ananda, the Buddha's attendant, recited all the sutras he had heard (which is why all the sutras open with Ananda saying, "Thus have I heard..."). Upali, who was known for his scrupulous attention to the precepts, recited the vinaya. All the monks there endorsed what had been recited by Ananda and Upali. The Vinaya account of this event, however, does admit that there were other enlightened monks (arhats) who were not part of this gathering who had their own seperate recollection of the sutras and vinaya. So there was some recognition that others may have remembered things differently. Anyhow, this recitation was passed down as an oral tradition until the first century BCE when the Pali Canon was first recorded in Sri Lanka. At about the same time, the first Mahayana sutras were recorded in Sanskrit.

Now at this point there were already divisions within the monastic community over variations in the precepts the different regional communities (or Sanghas) followed. There were also different schools of thought regarding the Abhidharma (the third basket of the Tripitika which systematized the teaching of the sutras). Out of this arose the more conservative monastic centered Buddhism which still exists in Sri Lanaka and SE Asia and is now known as Theravadin Buddhism. They are the ones who have preserved the Pali Canon and they follow those teachings exclusively and do not recognize the Mahayana sutras as the teaching of the Buddha.

The Mahayana followers, however, began to inscribe their own sutras which in many ways critiqued what they saw as the naive realism and self-indulgent spirituality of the Abhidharma scholars. They called themselves the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) because they believed that instead of becoming an arhat (someone who is liberated from birth and death) one should instead become a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a compassionate being who voluntarily remains in the world of birth and death until achieving buddhahood so they can then save others by teaching the Dharma. The bodhisattva way is like a "great vehicle" because it aims to carry along all people to enlightenment without leaving anyone behind. They used the deragatory title “Hinayana” or "Small Vehicle" to lable their more conservative opponents who allegedly taught that enlightenment can only be achieved by the individual through his or her own unaided efforts. It must be pointed out that while Buddhists in Mahayana countries such as Tibet, China, or Japan will identify themselves as Mahayana Buddhists, Theravadins will rightfully take offense at being referred to as Hinayana Buddhists. Truthfully, Mahayana and Hinayana are terms used only within Mahayana Buddhism that should be applied to attitudes and not to schools or individuals.

Mahayana monastics also originated devotional practices which exalted the Buddha or inspired people with stories of Buddhas and bodhisattvas who transferred their merits to others and whose Pure Lands one could go to after death. These practices dovetailed with the needs of the laity who were involved in the worship of holy relics enshrined in stupas. Devotion and worship was also directed at the sutras themselves, which were believed to have a mystical power to protect their devotees, bring good fortune, and even lead one to enlightenment simply through revering them.

Now the Mahayana sutras may not literally be the word of the historical Buddha (and in fact it is not always the historical Buddha who is presented as teaching in them). However, Mahayana Buddhists claim that these sutras better express the heart and spirit of the Buddha by using myth and poetry and paradox than the Pali Canon or the Agamas which give a more straightforward presentation of what the Buddha did and said. The devotional exuberance and paradoxical insights of Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism all have their source in these Mahayana sutras.

The Mahayana movement may never have been all that popular in India itself, and along with the rest of Buddhism in India it disappeared in the 12th century due to a variety of historical factors (with the Islamic invasion of India providing the coup de gras). However, it was the Mahayana form of Buddhism which was successfully imported into China, Korea, and Japan, and eventually into Tibet.

Now the basic teachings that all Mahayanists agree on are the ones contained in the Tripitika as taught in the Pali Canon and/or Agamas. But above and beyond that, Mahayana teachings also include teachings about emptiness (which is a deeper way of understanding Dependent Origination), the way of the bodhisattva (including the six perfections which are really an expanded restatement of the Eightfold Path), and the Three Bodies of the Buddha (which is another expansion of ideas found in a seed form in the Pali Canon).

There are, however, many Mahayana sutras, and in China different schools of monks concentrated their study and practice on different sutras depending on their interests and needs. These schools then went into Korea and Japan. Here is a brief summary of the major ones:
The T'ien-t'ai (Tendai in Japan): This school upholds the Lotus Sutra as the highest teaching, but also taught the emptiness philosophy of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Their main practice is called Concentration & Insight meditation, but this school also practices chanting the Name of the Buddha (Amitabha Buddha), and various ceremonial forms of devotion.

The Hua-yen (Kegon in Japan): This school upholds the Flower Garland Sutra as the highest teaching. In terms of practice, it also focuses on meditation and chanting. One of its early Chinese patriarchs was also a Zen Master and there has long been a connection between the theoretical Hua-yen teachings and the practice oriented Zen school - esp. in China and Korea.

The Chen-yen (Shingon in Japan): This school follows the esoteric (aka tantric) practices of early Vajrayana Buddhism. It did not last long in China but became very powerful in Japan.
These schools virtually disappeared in China due to the persecution of Emperor Wu in the 9th century. They were too dependent on large monasteries and scholasticism and never had a popular appeal. They did however, leave a legacy of creative synthesis of the teachings and practices of Mahayana Buddhism from India which still exists within Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Buddhism to this day. So what did survive in China? And what will you find in a Chinese temple today?

Two other schools of Chinese Buddhism survived the persecution of the 9th century. These two schools did not require massive monasteries or vast scholarly or ritualistic resources. These two schools did have a broader appeal (or at least the first one did).
Pure Land Buddhism - this form of Buddhism focuses on the Pure Land Sutras wherein Amitabha Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life) makes a series of vows in order to create a perfect Pure Land wherein those who call upon his name can be reborn and attain enlightenment. This salvation by faith in the Buddha is the most popular and widely spread form of Buddhism throughout all of East Asia. It's most extreme/developed(?) forms are found in Japan, but more on that later.

Ch'an (Zen in Japan, Son in Korea) is the Buddhism that is most well known in the West. This is the Buddhism of the legends of Bodhidharma, Hui-Neng, and others. Two main subschools have survived into recent times:
The Tsao Tung (Soto in Japan) which focuses on the practice of "serene-reflection" meditation, otherwise known as "just sitting." Dogen was a 13th century Japanese teacher of this tradition in Japan.

The Lin Chi (Rinzai in Japan) which focuses on koans (which means "public case") which are stories or seemingly meaningless riddles which are used to help the Zen practitioner achieve a breakthrough and attain enlightenment. Hakuin was a 17-18th century teacher of this tradition in Japan.

In China, Korea, and Vietnam the Lin Chi school is the main representative of Zen. In Japan, Soto is the largest Zen school, but the Rinzai school has a strong cultural influence beyond its small numbers.
In Japan, the Pure Land and Zen schools are very distinct. But on the continent, in China, Korea, and Vietnam, the Pure Land and Zen schools are taught in the same monasteries by the same teachers. The two have long since been blended and harmonized. So in a Chinese temple today, you will find that the laypeople for the most part practice Pure Land, as do the devout monks and nuns. The monks and nuns, however, also follow the precepts of the vinaya, study the philosophy of T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen, and may even learn a little Chen-yen or esoteric Buddhism as well. Truly dedicated lay and monastics will practice Zen as well.
Buddhism first came to Japan in the 6th century. The first schools to be established were called the six schools of Nara, which was the capital of Japan at that time. They were:
The Ritsu school which teaches the vinaya, or monastic precepts of the Tripitika.

The Jojitsu and Kusha schools which study different versions of the Abhidharma.

The Sanron school which studies the Emptiness teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras using commentaries by the great Indian Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna and his disciple Aryadeva. In fact, the name of this school means "Three Treatises" and refers to two works by Nagarjuna and one by his disciple Aryadeva.

The Hosso school which studies the Consciousness Only teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, specifically as translated and taught by the Chinese pilgrim/adventurer/translator/monk Hsuan-tsang. Hsuan-tsang, incidentally, was the actual historical basis for the story of Monkey which is a very popular fantasy/myth in East Asia.

The Kegon School which studies the Flower Garland Sutra. This is the Japanese version of the Chinese Hua-yen school.
Of these six schools, the first three were considered Hinayana because they focused on the non-Mahayana sutras and teachings of the Tripitika. The last three are all Mahayana schools.

In the 8th century two more schools were brought in:
The Tendai school was brought over by Saicho who had gone to China to study the T'ien-t'ai teachings. In Japan he set up a precept platform on Mt. Hiei for bestowing the specifically Mahayana precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra. Saicho (aka Dengyo Daishi) also brought over some esoteric teachings, Pure Land practices, and Zen practices. This school is very comprehensive - though it gradually came to be dominated by esoteric practices.

The Shingon school is the premiere esoteric school of Japanese Buddhism and it was founded by Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi). Kukai had gone over to China with Saicho, but he received the transmission to teach Buddhism from the Chen-yen school.
By the late 12th and the 13th century the Tendai and Shingon schools had become the established religions of Japan under the patronage of the aristocracy. The other schools became subordinate to these and were mainly relegated to scholastic teaching. However, these schools were not responsive to the needs of the masses who needed simple and easy practices suitable for busy samurai and uneducated (and very busy) peasants. Into this vaccuum came the Kamakuran reformers - Honen, Shinran, Dogen, Nichiren and others.
Honen pioneered the Pure Land movement in Japan by teaching that one only needed to recite “Namu Amida Butsu” (Devotion to Amitabha Buddha) to be reborn in the Pure Land and that all other Buddhists teachings and practices were superfluous and in fact an obstacle to simply practicing the Nembutsu (reciting the Name of the Buddha). Honen's exclusivistic teachings were censured by the Tendai school and the shogunate and he and many of his disciples were exiled (two were actually executed for various improprieties). But his movement would eventually become so popular that eventually even the other schools gave in to it and promoted the practice of Nembutsu.

Shinran was a disciple of Honen and he took things even further and thus became the founder of the Jodo Shinshu (the True Pure Land School) which is more or less the mainstream of Japanese Buddhism today. Shinran taught that it is by faith alone that one attains rebirth in the Pure Land, and that even the chanting of Nembutsu and the faith-mind itself is a gift of Amitabha Buddha.

Dogen founded the Soto School - which is ironic because he denounced even using the name Zen let alone the even more sectarian designation Soto Zen. Dogen had gone to China and studied Buddhism under Master Rujing. As far as he was concerned he was not teaching a sectarian form but Buddhism itself. He felt that the Nembutsu practice was little better than frogs croaking in a pond. Dogen had little patience for the scholasticism and ritualism of the other school, but he also condemned other Zen teachers for being anti-intellectual and for neglecting the sutras and true discipline of Zen life as he had experienced it under his master in China.

Nichiren was a Tendai monk who felt that the problem with Buddhism in Japan was that people had neglected the Lotus Sutra and original teachings of the T'ien-t'ai school. At first he tried to reform Tendai and bring it back to its original inspiration, but eventually he felt that there was an even deeper meaning in the Lotus Sutra that had not been brought out in even traditional T'ien-t'ai. Nichiren felt that he had been given the mission to spread this deeper meaning by Shakyamuni Buddha himself. This teaching revolves around the direct practice of the Lotus Sutra through faith and rejoicing in its teaching by reciting “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” (Devotion to the Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra). This was both Nichiren's way of responding the popularity and simplicity of the Pure Land movement, and also a way of bringing people back to what he felt was the true intention of Shakyamuni Buddha which was only expressed in the Lotus Sutra (ie the One Vehicle whereby all beings are potential buddhas; and the revelation of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha whereby the Buddha is still present in and as our lives as the fully actualized buddha.)
These different movements were quite exclusivistic in their ideology and practices. However, in recent times, members of all the schools have begun to see that they do more harm to the Dharma by engaging in polemical debate and that each of the schools and their founders have things that are worth giving a respectful hearing. So in my experience both with the adherents of these schools in America and with their followers in Japan, I have found in most a willingness to learn and share with one another.

Buddhism entered Tibet much later than it entered East Asia. Whereas Buddhism is said to have entered China in the first century, and in Japan in the 6th, Tibet didn't begin receiving Buddhism from India until the 9th century. In betweem the 6th and the 9th centuries the tantric or Vajrayana movement within Mahayana Buddhism had blossomed in India. Now mandala visualizations, mantras, and symolic hand gestures called mudras were being ceremonially imparted (through empowerments or initiations) by tantric masters so that disciples could attain awakening in a more expeditious way. In addition, Buddhist logic had also flowered and Nagarjuna's teachings about emptiness and relinquishing views were further refined by his successors. All these tantric practices and highly sophisticated forms of Buddhist logic and dialectic (which did not enter into East Asia - but I should note that East Asian Buddhism continued to develop the Buddhist tradition in its own unique ways and is thus not necessarily superior or inferior to this late Indian transmission) are what were brought into Tibet by teachers like Atisa, Padmasambhava and others. There these teachings blended or in various ways accomodated the native shamanistic tradition called Bon.

Eventually, Tibetan Buddhists formed four distinct schools:
The Nyingma - this is the earliest school and is very tantric in orientation. The highest teaching of this school is called Dzogchen.

The Kagyu - a later school which also focuses on tantra. It's most famous teacher is Milarepa. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a Kagyu teacher. The highest teaching in this and the other schools is called Mahamudra.

The Sakya - a later school named after its main monastery (not Shakyamuni Buddha). It's teachings have not been propagated to any great extent outside Tibet.

The Gelug - this is the latest school in the sense that its most modern form is a reformed and revitalized verion of the older Kadam school. Sometimes the Gelugs are called the New Kadampa (pa means school). The reformer Tsongkhapa is one of the most widely known teachers of the Gelug school. This school is very monastic and scholastic in orientation, and prefers that one mature in basic Hinayana and Mahayana teachings before moving on to Vajrayana. The Dalai Lama is the head of this school, and for several centuries the political leader of Tibet (the Mongols had set the Dalai Lamas up in that position in, I believe, the 17th century).
In the 19th century a movement called Rime came into being. Rime was an attempt by several monks of various traditions to create a more ecumenical atmosphere in which the various schools would stop fighting and start learning from one another. The Dalai Lama is also a proponent of the Rime movement.



To see the flow chart of Buddhist development, click the thumbnail below.

Diagram copyright by Max Guernsey, used with his permission


Here are several books that I have found to be very helpful and would recommend to others who want to learn more:

The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin. (An excellent non-sectarian survey of Buddhism which I only found after writing this overview. I highly recommend it. It would make an excellent text book for a college course on Buddhism.)

Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience by Donald W. Mitchell. (Another excellent non-sectarian survey which is a little more detailed than Gethin's book, especially in regard to Buddhist developments and schools in different countries and also in its treatment of contemporary issues. This book also has quotes from various contemporary Buddhist teachers which give an inside glimpse of the different teachings and schools. This book is the one to pick if you are teaching a college or even a graduate level course on Buddhism.)

The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Nanamoli. (This one I feel is really essential reading.)

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. (Aside from the accesstoinsight.org websight this book is the best starting point for learning about Theravadin Buddhism.)

It's Easier Than You Think by Sylvia Boorstein. (This is a very good beginners book and is also coming out of the Vipassana-mindfulness practices of Theravadin Buddhism.)

Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield. (An excellent anthology of short snippets from a variety of Buddhist scriptures including Mahayana sutras.)

Dhammapada: The Sayings of Buddha translation and commentary by Thomas Cleary. (The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings and aphorisms by the Buddha. It is a very good starting point for new Buddhists, and also for longtime Buddhists who have been badly taught. Cleary's commentaries bring in a Mahayana perspective and are also very critical of modern and not so modern misuses of Buddha Dharma.)

Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul William. (This book is a lot heavier going than the others, but it is the best overview of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism that I have come across.)

Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey by Kenneth Ch'en. (This is also probably a graduate level book, but it does give good overview of the development of Chinese Buddhism and the different schools that arose).

The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master by the Venerable Yin-shun. (This book also brilliantly covers the ins and outs of modern Chinese Buddhism from the perspective of a practitioner.)

Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen - Traditions and Teachers by Mu Soeng Sunim. (I would be remiss if I left out a good overview of Korean Buddhism. Though it says it is about Korean Zen, it does touch upon the other schools of Korean Buddhism.)

Foundation of Japanese Buddhism: The Aristocratic Age in two Volumes by Alicia and Daigan Matsunaga. (These are the books to read if one wants a comprehensive overview of the development of Japanese Buddhism and the teaching of its different schools.)

Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism by Reginald A. Ray
Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet by Reginald A. Ray
(These two books are the best introduction to the history, teachings, and practices of the various Tibetan schools that I have yet come across.)

Lotus Seeds: The Essence of Nichiren Shu Buddhism.
(This book is put out by and only available from the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple, so email me privately if you are interested in getting a copy. It is $10, and covers general Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra, and Nichiren's life and teachings.)
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2001, 2002.
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