I know there are three vehicles in Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. It seems there are so many sects of buddhism. Each of these three vehicles has sub-sects, (Zen, Pureland). Do the majority of Buddhist study each in depth in order to choose which fits them best in order to study the sutras accordingly? I find comfort in reading small pieces of sutras from each sect, though I've always loved Vajrayana and Zen. Is there a large difference?

On a side note: is the eightfold path is acknowledged by all three sects?

  • The introduction to Buddhism by country -- Eastern Buddhism (Mahayana), Southern Buddhism (Theravada), Northern Buddhism (Vajrayana) -- suggests it's often a matter of which country you are in ... and, I would expect, which language you understand. I suppose that until recently (e.g. 100 years ago) it would have been difficult for most people to study from more than their own (local) sect.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:21
  • 1
    Side note: the answer to What teachings do all schools of Buddhism share? says "yes"; a few other answers e.g. here (and maybe elsewhere on this site) suggest that path is not as central in later sects. The eightfold path was explained in the first turning of the wheel of dharma.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:33
  • From biographies I've read on Wikipedia I think that usually at least the founder of each sect has studied in depth from the materials and/or other teachers available.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 8, 2015 at 10:05
  • Absolute Zen is considered the direct path. Most people shy away from it. "Too difficult" they say, when it was actually 'too simple'. Other Buddhist schools complicate the matter of Buddhism to 'entice' the neurotic mind because that is what a conditioned mind responds best to: mental objects, ideas and various theories.
    – user17652
    Jan 8, 2021 at 19:18
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    @user663837 - Ah, well, you got me there! The term 'absolute' bastardises the very essence of Zen. It's a poor term I devised to point to the meaning of Zen. The paradox is that Zen cannot be caught with words; it cannot be held down by language, concepts or theory. For that reason, people see it as difficult. That's where one should attend.
    – user17652
    Jan 10, 2021 at 13:23

6 Answers 6


Demographically the majority of Buddhists today (nearly 99%) are born in Asia into Buddhists families and would likely follow their family or local tradition.

But assuming your question is regarding those of us who have converted to Buddhism in primarily non Buddhist countries, there may still be no consensus on what the majority of these Buddhist converts do to select a tradition or sect.

One important consideration is whether one wishes to practice with a local group. If so, it might be more practical to gather information on local Buddhist centers/monasteries/temples and visit each to see where one might comfortably fit in and have an opportunity to study and practice along with other like minded local people rather than spending time learning in depth about traditions which may not be represented locally.

If one is more interested in studying and practicing alone or in online communities, the possibilities are far less limited and studying at least the basics of each of 3 major branches and the major sub sects within the major branches could give one enough information to see which branch really peaked ones interest to begin a more in depth study into a particular branch. This answer links information on the various canons used in different traditions.

Finding a teacher whom one really feels they can learn from, whether a present day teacher teaching locally, online, or through books/videos or a historical teacher teaching through their writings, can certainly influence an individual's choice of sect too. When teachings resonate, the energy to learn more grows.

Your question is interesting to me because it's the same thing I wondered when I first began learning about Buddhism. The information on the various schools seemed overwhelming. I started with a local group to make things easier for myself. Then spotted some interesting online resources which made me think beyond the local group. Then found the energy to begin to study the different branches in a basic way and eventually found the tradition that really resonates for me. But I think if I had just sat down and tried to read up on everything all at once, it wouldn't have made much sense. :)


I first was interested in Buddhism at the age of 15, but actually started meditating that year with Hindu yogis from India.

For some time, I practiced in a Japanese school of Buddhism but after seven years but I realized I had joined a cult. That was very disappointing. Not only did they never meditate, but their practice consisted solely of chanting one mantra. When I asked about emptiness, for example, they would just tell me that this was not important.

Later I found myself attending the Zen Center in my community, and then I would periodically attend the insight meditation Center in my city. The one day I met a Tibetan teacher and I realized that this was my path. There is a somewhat mystical or maybe even silly belief in the Dharma community that one finds oneself exactly where one should be.

I have found that many Catholics and Jews seem to enjoy the Tibetan practices, probably because of the ritualistic aspects. Who knows. It is not necessary to know everything about each school, for example, because the basics of Buddhism are 1, to be compassionate and loving towards all sentint and beings, and 2, a belief in awakening: that is to say that we can recognize our own true nature, the awakened state, or enlightenment.

Whichever path you choose, all you have to do is walk that path and practice. Some individuals are more cerebral, and enjoy reading, deliberating philosophy, and other "academic" endeavors, and they may find themselves enrolled in a Tibetan University for 12 years, in order for them to obtain the equivalent to a doctoral degree, called a GESHE.

As such,you may meet a Tibetan teacher who will be referred to as "Geshe-la," an honorific title which denotes that he has received a PhD in Tibetan studies. most monks and nuns in University, at least in the Tibetan system, will study for many years.

I wish you the best in your search for awakening.


Each of the sects alive today originated to suit their time and place - they were a result of the personalities of the teachers, and the receptiveness of the population. There were other sects that have since perished and faded {source}, but enlightened a great many when they were popular.

The truth of nirvana can be attained through a great many ways, and the Buddha himself never offered a single formula for all to follow.

Some find samadhi or meditation more appealing, some find sila or ethical behavior more appealing, and some best respond to philosophical inquiry or prajna. It depends on our respective past lives, past merits and available opportunities.

For some, especially those on the path of wisdom or prajna, examining several schools maybe necessary. They are cautious by nature, and are fond of extensive verification. Their quest of inquiry may take them to several teachers, and even several religions. As long as their intent is to realize the truth, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, the Buddha too was like this, and over his several lives, studied with a great many teachers.

It works best if we find a teacher or school that resonates, that changes us deeply. We use what works, discard what doesn't.

Some people have bad allergies from good medicine, it is not the fault of the medicine or the individual.

We must ultimately be very practical about our choices. If we are not too hungry, we can wait until we find a restaurant we like, but if we are really hungry, we eat wherever we get food.


Theravada is the most orthodox and conservative tradition, as it tries to stick as closely as possible to the original teachings of the historical person of Gautama Buddha. Also the Theravada monastic order tries to maintain the original monastic rules from the time of the historical Buddha, although the Buddha allowed his followers to change the minor rules. It doesn't officially recognize any other "vehicle" apart from itself. There was only one turning of the Dharma wheel, according to Theravada.

The Theravada monastic order has done a good job maintaining the Pali Canon and its commentaries for 2500 years. It's true that later Theravada writings introduced exaggerations, but in general, most of the body of writings including texts and commentaries are kept close to the original.

The teachings of the Pali Canon (especially the Sutta Pitaka and the Vinaya Pitaka), the primary text of the Theravada tradition and from Theravada's perspective, the original teachings of the historical Buddha, focuses on the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the three marks of existence and dependent origination. Its focus is empirical and soteriological, not ontological or metaphysical.

In terms of culture and practice, Theravada temples introduced new innovations in terms of rituals, idols, chants and practices possibly to cater to the lay masses in Theravada countries who are not knowledgeable of the teachings. These are entirely optional of course.

Mahayana includes Vajrayana. The Mahayana tradition positions itself as the "Greater Vehicle" that teaches the path to Buddhahood, instead of just Arahantship, and presents itself as the compassionate path calling for the liberation of all sentient beings, as opposed to the "Lesser Vehicle" which is only concerned with one's own liberation.

The Mahayana tradition also introduced the second and third turning of the Dharma wheel, introducing teachings that it presents as being more advanced to the teachings of the "Lesser Vehicle" (which is limited to the first turning of the Dharma wheel).

The second turning of the Dharma wheel introduces the Bodhisattva vow, bodhicitta and Madhyamika emptiness. The third turning of the Dharma wheel introduces Tathāgatagarbha (also known as Buddha nature), the basis-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna), the doctrine of cognition-only (vijñapti-mātra) and the "three natures" (trisvabhāva). Metaphysics was introduced into Buddhism through these, that is not in Theravada (which is strictly soteriological and empirical).

There are many more new introductions by Mahayana like the concept of non-abiding Nirvana (continued worldly existence after death, after full enlightenment), new Bodhisattvas with supernatural abilities, like Avalokiteshvara (compared to Theravada's recognition of only Maitreya) and the trikāya doctrine which says that Buddhas have three bodies, the Dharmakāya (ultimate reality), the Saṃbhogakāya (divine incarnation of Buddha), and the Nirmāṇakāya (physical incarnation of Buddha).

On top of this, Vajrayana (including Tibetan Buddhism) added tantric practices. Tibetan Buddhism also introduced the concept of tulkus (reincarnations of past teachers who are emanations of Bodhisattvas), dharma protectors, trances and mediums etc. Culturally, Tibetan Buddhism added mandalas, torma, singing bowls etc.

Some Mahayana and Vajrayana schools, like Pure Land and Nichiren, also introduced practices like mantra chanting for being reborn into Buddha realms after death or to become enlightened and so on. On the other hand, some other schools like Zen and Ch'an are focused on meditation.

Of course, the Theravada tradition does not recognize these newer teachings and practices, and sees them as departing from the original teachings of the historical Buddha. On the other side, Mahayana (including Vajrayana) sees its teachings as being more advanced, but still grounded on Theravada's teachings of the first turning of the Dharma wheel.

Which vehicle is suited to you? I suppose you can study them all and it's up to you to choose how many times you want to turn the Dharma wheel in your practice.

To understand how the Buddhist sects evolved, please read the book "Sects & Sectarianism" by Ven. Bhikkhu Sujato.


I'm going to make the natural analogy here, and talk about actual vehicles:

  • Theravada is like mounting a horse: progress is slow, steady, personal, and organic
  • Mahayana is like running a railway: You don't want the train to leave until everyone gets onboard
  • Vajrayana is like buying a sports-car or a jet: it's meant to be a fast-track process, to get one from here to there as quickly and directly as possible.

Each has its strengths and weaknesses; each has its insights and peculiarities. Which of them one chooses — assuming one isn't born into one or the other or the other — becomes a matter of focus, intention, and taste.

Sects are the evolution of cults: they are the teachings of some specific individual within one of these major tropes that have been codified over time into a system. If you are looking at a particular sect, you should know what the originator teaches, and you should use discretion: do you feel aligned with that teaching? Do the sects followers seem to follow it, or are they deluding themselves? Usually a sect arises because a particular teacher has a particular insight into how the dharma can best be taught or understood by a particular type of person. You should ask yourself whether you are that type of person, or whether this particular teaching might lead you (personally) astray. It's a difficult, self-reflective assessment, but difficult self-reflection is in many ways the nature of Buddhist practice, so even looking at and rejecting a particular sect might be an important step on your path. Just always bring it back to basics: does this teaching draw me (personally) into or away from cravings and discontentment? I'm not going to tell you you can't go wrong, because you can. But there's nothing wrong with 'going wrong' if it teaches you how to 'go right'.


Dharma provides the answer at the right time.

Advice may come from many of the well educated and the well wishers; however your path is your own and when the inspirational spark of enlightenment strikes like a bell you will know your decision - as is the nature of Dharma. It could be symbolic or it could be something more mundane, however you will know when another answer to your question is unsuitable.

Cultivate in harmony brother

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