How many types of sects like Mahayans, Hinayans,Vajrayana are there in Buddhism? How did they come into Buddhism? To my knowledge Buddha never talked about any sort of 'yans'.

Who created these 'Yans'? What was the necessity of creating these 'Yans'?

5 Answers 5


The Buddha lived 2500 or more years ago. That is relevant: humanity has had 2500 years to think about his teachings and disagree about them. Or more kindly put: in trying to live by his teachings, people have thought about them and come at different interpretations.

The main schools are - as you note:

Theravada - the only living 'hinayana' school. It preserved the Pali canon and as the only living representation of early Buddhism, many people consider it the most 'pure' school. However - it is still only one out of about two dozen schools that existed around the time of Christ.

Mahayana is usually translated as'great vehicle', in opposition to Hinayana 'small vehicle'. This translation is obviously derogatory and offensive to the only early Buddhist school still in existence: Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana can actually also be translated as 'great path', that is: a path for every being. Hinayana would then mean: small path, or path only for monks actively striving to become arhats. source

Mahayana - everything else, including Vajrayana. Mahayana started in India around the time of Christ - not in China as one answer here suggests. It is true though that Chinese and Japanese Buddhism are dominated by the Mahayana approach. It could be said that the Mahayana approach came about through the need for a more explicit compassion in Buddhist teaching and practice. The Bodhisattva ideal filled that hole. The Bodhisattva ideal:

May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Mahayana Buddhism includes Zen as well as Tibetan Buddhism.

Vajrayana is a form of Mahayana Buddhism, but it takes individual Buddhas as their main object of meditation. One theory about why it became popular is that it is a practice that helps a lot in times of uncertainty. It became the main form of Indian Buddhism in the centuries before Islam came to India - it was a time when Hinduism became prominent again and Buddhists were on the defensive.

Do note that it is difficult to be sure about the history of Vajrayana, because its practitioners are traditionally vowed to secrecy about their practice.

Vajrayana is prominent in Tibetan Buddhism, but it also survives in Japanese Buddhist ritual.

  • Beware that, according to more than one discussion on this site, there are Theravadins who don't like being described as "Hinayana". As such it may be a useless or counter-productive epiphet to apply.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 2, 2017 at 15:24
  • That is why I put 'Hinayana' between quotes - but the OP wanted history. The label 'Hinayana' can't be avoided in those circumstances. I have clarified with a quote. Jun 2, 2017 at 15:28
  • Mahayana started in India around the time of Christ, as I posted. 4th Buddhist council in Kashmir was during the lifetime of Christ, if he survived the crucifixion using supernormal power. Jun 2, 2017 at 21:45
  • 1
    The word 'hina' is used in the Buddha's 1st sermon to mean 'inferior' or 'low'. The word is derogatory. It does not mean 'small'. That said, I am a practitioner, do not take offense to it & take it to be an intrinsic tenant of the Mahayana doctrine that differentiates Mahayana from Pali Buddha-Dhamma. With metta Jun 2, 2017 at 21:48

I can't answer you by its history, for a large part is lost, and I fear that many of the scholastic articles are false information.

I tend to take a "conspiracy theory" perspective. I think there is some underlying motive to move the world to one direction, and religion/spirituality is one of their targets - to create a world religion that fits their goal. The rise of popularity or sudden trending of certain religious sect is a sign of caution. The Theosophical Society had and still has influence in Southeast Asia, particularly countries which once fell under colonial rule. A respectable Thai scholar turned monk advocating Thai Buddhist reform was under Theosophic influence; so was the Japanese Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki (his wife was a Theosophist). Sri Lanka was a lucrative English colony: a famous monk is also a politician, elite locals who were able to receive higher education or even migrated to Western countries, and thus had good English, were often the lineages the left-behind byproducts groomed by the colonial rulers to establish their rules. In China the popular monk Jing-kong, who teaches Namo-Amitabha as the one and only fix-all method to be reborn in Sukhavati: some evidence indicated he was once a spy, and was used by NSA to promote the 2012-GIG. Many are learning the interpretation of Sutta/Sutra from them, instead of learning directly from the Sutta/Sutra: this is worrying. Anyone with independent mind reads history, searches for the truth buried under history (or Hi[s]-Story) knew what Theosophical Society is, and how it participated in the World Wars. Those popular monks should be read with caution, are they searching for enlightenment, or, carrying a hidden agenda? (Note 1 and more notes if needed)

Now laying clear of above, what are these schools? You are right, Buddha didn't create schools. Since no one is as completely enlightened as the Buddha those students had different understandings of his teachings, all are incomplete, especially one schooled by the schools. To summarize these schools, I would instead differentiate on what their paths lead to:

A) Hinayana: for self-liberation, the highest goal is Nirvana/Nibbana, Arahat.

B) Mahayana: for Buddha-hood. To realize Buddha-hood a practitioner adopts the Bodhisattva Path to cultivate wisdom and merits, to reach perfection of Prajna and untainted conducts. This could take for many Kalpas. After realizing self-liberation a Bodhisattva arose from Nirvana reborn in the Samsara to further wisdom quest and helping others to realize The Path. The apex is attaining Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

C) Vajrayana: nowadays represented by Tibetan Buddhism, for immediately realizing Buddha-hood by mastering the subtleties of the human body or, energy (an not exact term). These [must at the final stage] involve Tantric practice (the learnt should know what is Tantra Yoga), and the mouth-to-ear transmission of secret teachings from Guru to disciple. I have to declare my understanding maybe partial. There may be some other teachings but what I stated is valid too.

Theravada vs Hinayana, The Pali Suttas

Although the modern Theravadist footnote 1 tries to decline the relation to Hinayana it seems their final goals are the same: i.e. Self-liberation & Nibbana. Because the Theravadist has only the Pali Canon, in which the Suttas are the four Nikayas, and the rest are Abidhammas (treatises written by Bhikkhus not directly Buddha's teachings) their canon don't include teachings about how to reach Buddha-hood, nor what is Buddha-hood. Instead of asking whether there may be missing teachings in their Suttas, some conventional Theravadists disparage the Sutras of other schools, saying that they not from the Buddha but composed by some later monks. I think it's worth investigating how the Pali Canon originated: obviously Buddha didn't visit the island of Sri Lanka. I read in this forum Soumen quoted a claim that it was bought there by some monks sent by Mahendra: these monks took what they only could have at that time. However, even the Mahinda/Mahendra legend is suspected a pure Sri Lankan invention due to the obvious fact of lacking any historical artifacts left behind of such supposed important event. footnote 2

The latest discovered fragments of a Mahayana Sutra dated 75CE are almost identical with the Chinese version. In contrast, the Chinese Classical Sutras have as background that Bhikkhus went to India (i.e. "The West") to obtain them, or that Bhikkhus of India went to China (The Middle Kingdom or Middle Earth, 中土) taking with Sutras with them. The Chinese Sutras kept complete teachings related to almost all the schools; the Vinayas are a collection of different schools kept separately in their original formats, not combined to produce any defined monastery rules. Many of the modern Sanskrit Sutras are back-translated from Chinese, since these Sutras were lost in India. However conventional Theravadists, allied with some modern Western scholars (Edward Conze was an old Theosophist), and some Western Theras (monks), claim (unjustly, in my opinion) that the Pali Canon is the "only" Buddhavacana, the oldest and purest, and discredit the rest of the Buddha's teachings recorded in other Sutras. Some Theravadists adopt Western scholars' interpretations of the Suttas, instead of understanding in original Pali by tradition: a lot of the English translations of Pali Canon are of doubtful accuracy.

In this sense the conventional Theravadist is indeed not the same as Hinayana. "Hinayana" means someone taking an immediate mean to liberate himself, reaching Arahat-hood. Hinayana doesn't label Sutras other than Agamas fake, but just that they don't see the Bodhisattva Path is feasible. Agama Sutras, which are equivalent to and cover the entirety of the Pali's Nikayas (Suttas), are among the many to be studied. Agama Sutras recorded only fragments of the teachings and very repetitive, instead those most centred in meditation techniques and how to transform the Vijnanas to free from the grip of the Four Greats - the body are studied footnote 3. The Sutras for the path of Hinayana are also collected in the Chinese Tripitaka; whilst the traditional (old) Theravadist may have to rely heavily on the Abidhammas such as the Visuddhimagga written by Buddhaghosa footnote 4 to practice meditation for self-liberation.

I expect that some may disagree with my answer, but I thank you for letting me voice it here.

footnote 1 ^The reason to give emphasis on modern is, according to historical records and scholastic studies some sub-divisions of original Theravada practiced Mahayana Doctrines.

footnote 2 ^In the accounts of Ashoka, Mahendra his son a Bhikkhu never mentioned, it was missing in all the Ashoka edicts.

footnote 3 ^For Hinayana practitioners: 《正法念處經》(highly recommended for those have the taste of the Nikaya/Agama style),《成实论》,《俱舍论》... etc.

footnote 4 ^Buddhaghosa originally was a Brahmin scholar, his commentries shown he was influenced by Mahayana and Yogacara. He might have visited China at his time when China was the capital of Buddhism, but due to his old age he didn't set foot Canton instead returned on the same boat.

  • +1 because I think it's good to introduce the paths' goals. Thank you for taking the time to answer.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 3, 2017 at 15:26
  • Mahayana views and doctrines are welcome. It's only the disparaging of other schools (e.g. Theravada), and/or other users, that would be unwelcome ... but I suppose that disparaging other schools and arguing with other users is never really necessary, and so I hope that isn't much of a restriction. I suppose I recommend you write (I would welcome you to write) more about the Mahayana that you know, and add that in contrast you shouldn't generally feel much need to write about Theravada.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 3, 2017 at 15:38
  • @ChrisW thx the editing earlier, I do try as much to incorporate ur suggestions when I re-editing and adding links. I agree with and appreciate the open-mindness the rightful aiming at learning what really benefit us. Jun 4, 2017 at 4:10
  • @ChrisW when I first registered late last year I held no bias of any teachings, I was curious to know about the Pali Canon and the new name Theravada, in fact I was keen to read the links to the Suttas provided by other users since it was new knowledge... until I was completely irritated by some. then I start to research the Pali Canon and found out the facts. Jun 4, 2017 at 4:44
  • I'm sorry that you have been "completely irritated". Please post on Meta, whenever there are specific answers or comments which irritate you (maybe we could discuss how to improve that content); or "flag" the content for moderator attention; or edit the content to improve it; and/or suggest new policy (on Meta) if you think existing policies are inadequate.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 12, 2017 at 17:10

There's a Wikipedia article, Yana (Buddhism), which introduces the term Yana and various historical origins/usages of this word.

I think of "Mahayana" as identifying schools of Buddhism which passed through China (so, Japan as well). Or if "China" isn't a fair way to summarize it in one word (it's more related to the Geography and/or the History of Buddhism than the practice or the teaching of Buddhism), maybe think of it as Bodhisattvayāna.

"Vajrayana" is I think Tibetan: historically Tibetan were able to adopt (or be influenced by) Buddhism from India or China, see for example Moheyan.

Some people (rightly or wrongly) consider "Hinayana" to be rude or belittling, and use the term "Theravada" instead (other people, who use the term "Hinayana", say that it isn't used to refer to Theravada at all). But anyway, Theravada rather than Hinayana is the name of one of the two (or three) biggest classifications/sects.

There are many ways to classify schools, see e.g. Schools of Buddhism.

I don't know "what was the necessity of creating these 'Yanas'". Actually someone on this site wrote that the term "Buddhism" is questionable, that -ism is a Western or English-language construct; I suppose they mean it's better to use words like Dhamma or Dharma and so on.

  • Mahayana Buddhism originates in India - there is plenty of evidence for it. For instance, Santideva - an Indian teacher who went to Tibet - wrote the Bodhicharyavatara – The Way of the Bodhisattva. Jun 2, 2017 at 15:21
  • When I wrote "passed through China" I meant that it comes to us (in this century) via China: not that it "started" there ... see e.g. this map.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 2, 2017 at 15:25
  • Neither of the two main mahayana teachers of this century - The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh - are Chinese or Japanese. So even if you are talking only about modern Buddhism - which wasn't the question - it is misleading to say that Mahayana Buddhism came through China. Jun 2, 2017 at 15:27
  • I think that, historically speaking, Vietnamese Zen too arrived there via China.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 2, 2017 at 18:46
  • Vietnamese Buddhism is a mix of various types of Buddhism, including Theravada and Chan via China. [Chan Buddhism became Zen Buddhism in Japan]. This is visible in Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings too, both in day-to-day practice and in his books. It is definitely Mahayana Buddhism. It is NOT the same as the Zen that got exported from Japan to the West. Jun 3, 2017 at 13:16

My 3rd attempt to answer this question.

I once attended talks by a Tibetan lama about Medicine Buddha and Yellow Jambala.

The Tibetan lama himself said these Vajrayana deities were adaptations of existing Hindu deities and were adapted to a Buddhism as a Mahayana doctrine because it was suitable to certain audiences of people & because Buddhism was declining in society due to increasing unpopularity.

In Hindu mythology, Jambhala is known as Kubera. Jambhala is also believed to be an emanation of Avalokitesvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There are five different wealth Jambhala, each has their own practice and mantra to help eliminate poverty and create financial stability.

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Vajrayana itself (as taught to me by a Tibetan geshe) is a 'relationship or (Hindu) tantric practise' where the devotee establishes a personal relationship with a deity or a guru that manifests the qualities of a deity (such as metta).

Other adapted Hindu deities include Tara & Avalokiteśvara (who lectures Sariputra in the Mahayana Heart Sutra).

Whether the Tārā figure originated as a Buddhist or Hindu goddess is unclear and remains a source of inquiry among scholars. Mallar Ghosh believes her to have originated as a form of the goddess Durga in the Hindu Puranas. Today, she is worshipped both in Buddhism and in Shaktism as one of the ten Mahavidyas. It may be true that goddesses entered Buddhism from Shaktism (i.e. the worship of local or folk goddesses prior to the more institutionalized Hinduism which had developed by the early medieval period (i.e. Middle kingdoms of India). Possibly the oldest text to mention a Buddhist goddess is the Prajnaparamita Sutra (translated into Chinese from the original Sanskrit c. 2nd century CE), around the time that Mahayana was becoming the dominant school of thought in Indian and Chinese Buddhism. Thus, it would seem that the feminine principle makes its first appearance in Buddhism as the goddess who personified prajnaparamita.

The name Avalokiteśvara combines the verbal prefix ava "down", lokita, a past participle of the verb lok "to notice, behold, observe", here used in an active sense; and finally īśvara, "lord", "ruler", "sovereign" or "master".

According to the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, the sun and moon are said to be born from Avalokiteśvara's eyes, Shiva from his brow, Brahma from his shoulders, Narayana from his heart, Sarasvati from his teeth, the winds from his mouth, the earth from his feet and the sky from his stomach.

For example, the term 'īśvara' is found in the Pali AN 3.61, where it is stated:

yaṃ kiñcāyaṃ purisapuggalo paṭisaṃvedeti sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā aduk­kha­ma­su­khaṃ vā sabbaṃ taṃ issara­nim­mā­na­hetū

There are other ascetics and brahmins who hold such a doctrine and view as this: ‘Whatever this person experiences—whether pleasure, pain, or neither-pain-nor-pleasure—all that is caused by God’s creative activity.’

If we examine Vajrayana writings, such as Tantra in Tibet (by Dalai Lama), we will find many Hindu concepts used such a 'tantra', 'yoga' & 'mantra' which are not characteristic of older Buddhism.

For example, in his 1st sermon, the Buddha used the word 'yoga' in a negative sense, where he said to not be 'devoted to' or 'bound to' sensuality or self-mortification.

In short, Mahayana arose to create a broader variety of teachings to appeal to a broader audience & often adapted Hindu methods & ideas.

That is why Mahayana is the 'Great Vehicle'. 'Maha' does not mean 'better' but means 'broader'.

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  • 1
    I have never heard any Buddhist teacher admit that Buddhist deities (aka Buddhas) were adapted from Hinduism. It is true that it is one of the theories about the topic in the scientific community. Jun 3, 2017 at 15:12

Good question!

The Buddha never talked about "yanas," but was the Buddha even a Buddhist!? Was Jesus a Christian!??! Was Marx a Marxist, Freud a Freudian ...

So who declares "Buddhism" when there's no central authority, no Vatican, to Buddhism. Answer: It's for each to see for her or himself.

Similarly, on a larger level of scale and organization, it varies according to cultures of geographic regions. Original Buddhism (aka Theravada and Vipassana) is found in SouthAsia and SouthEastAsia. (Hinayana by the way is not really an apt word, because it can be perjorative, but that's another story).

As the big boat of Buddhism travelled East and was received and adopted and adapted in China, Korea, Japan, there emerged schools under a semantic umbrella called Mahayana: Zen, Pureland, Lotus Sutra, etc. As it travelled north, (Ladakh, Mongolia, Tibet, etc), the Vajarayana traditions evolved.

So, for instance, when China first heard about the teachings of the Buddha, they said, "Hey, this sounds like our guy, Lao-tse! He went East and was never heard from again. Sounds like he attained Enlightenment." So the first translations were done in terms of Taoism.

In Tibet, the teachings mixed with native Bon traditions. This included transforming wrathful deities into protectors of the Dharma.

Now, in 21st globalized societies, the segregation of Buddhism into national schools and traditions is becoming more permeable to cross-fertilization.

"One Dharma."

For a longer answer, I've published Various Paths, One Dharma. And even longer is my humble guide book, whose first part goes into greater detail about four major schools, so you can glimpse the big forest by looking deeply at diverse trees.

That said — the ultimate answer to this question might be ... Rajiv-yana!

Namasté. (())

  • I'm not sure that "Rajiv-yana" is compatible with anatta.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 7, 2017 at 23:27

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