The Evolution of Buddhist Schools


4 Apr 2017 in Culture Hype Favourite Shares
by Charley Linden Thorp

published on 03 April 2017 : see original article at –

All Buddhist schools today despite their differences in ritual, doctrine, and practice are based on the original teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became enlightened at approximately the age of 35 whilst sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, northern India, about 2600 years ago. ‘Enlightenment’ is the most common translation of the Sanskrit term ‘bodhi,’ in Japanese ‘satori’ or ‘kensho,’ which means awakening and should not be confused with the western idea of intellectual enlightenment which means ‘informed, aware, knowledgeable, illuminated’ and so on. In Buddhism, enlightenment is the state that marks the culmination of the Buddhist religious path as established by Buddha Shakyamuni.

The release from human suffering and continual rebirths, known in Indian religions as the world of ‘samsara,’ is Nirvana (Skt: moksha or mukti; Pali: Nirbanna) which literally means the ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of all human cravings. This is recognised as a state of perfect quietude, freedom, and the highest form of happiness which all humans are seeking. But in Buddhism, this liberation refers to a realisation of non-self (Skt: anatta) and emptiness (Skt: shunyata) which bring an escape from samsara.


Evoltuion of Buddhist Schools


To fully understand the diversity of Buddhist schools, it is important to recognise the Dharmachakra (Skt: wheel of the law with eight spokes) which represents the Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration). This wheel turns eternally with no beginning or end and is significant because it was the theme of the very first sermon Buddha gave, ‘Setting in Motion of Wheel of Law’ (Dharmacakrapravartana Sutra) in which he sets out the Four Noble Truths (first: suffering is inevitable in human life; second: suffering arises due to attachment; third: suffering ceases with the attainment of Nirvana; fourth: the Eightfold Path described above). At this time, Buddha predicted two more turnings of the Wheel of Dharma to suit the condition of humans as time went by. The second would be Mahayana Buddhism and the third Vajrayana Buddhism.


The first turning of the wheel was Thervada. This is the oldest and most orthodox of the Buddhist schools and is known also as the ‘Teaching of the Elders or Hearers’ (Skt: Hinayana or Sthavira school). Originating in Sri Lanka, it is characterized by a strong division between monks and lay practitioners: the monks meditate, study, and teach, working for individual enlightenment, while the laity follows the basic five precepts (refraining from harming living beings, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying/gossip, and from intoxication, e.g. drugs/drinks), gives alms, makes donations, chants and offers prayers.

In summary, these teachings are plain and guide aspirants to abstain from evil, accumulate good, and purify the mind. They focus on the human Buddha and the Three Trainings: ethical conduct, meditation, and insight wisdom. The key figure in Theravada Buddhism is Buddhaghosa, and the key text is Visuddhimagga (‘The Path of Purification’). The ideal of this individual path is the arhat or worthy person, but this may take several lifetimes to achieve.

Theravada practitioners aim for a life in which all birth is at an end, holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and there is no more returning to worldly life. The texts of this Early Period, written in Pali which is thought to be the spoken language of the Buddha, are called Pali Canon, although Thervadans acknowledge all sutras from the following wheel-turnings also. Its limitations may be said to be that the figure of the Buddha is remote to practitioners, that it may take several lifetimes to become an arhat and women are, even today, thought of as inferior.

The second turning of the wheel was Mahayana, known also as the Mahayanas, (the ‘Great Vehicle’ or ‘Truth’) a movement of diverse teachings systematised by Nagarjuna c. 2nd century CE. It follows the basic Theravada structure, but the demarcation between the monks and lay practitioners is blurred because all beings can become equally enlightened. The body of Mahayana sutras, the Wisdom Sutras, has seen many cultural adaptations due to the spread of Buddhism to the north to Nepal and Tibet and east to northern and southern Asia. Stupas, depositories for relics of Holy Beings and sacred texts, appeared, maintained and patronised by lay practitioners; and ideal became the Bodhisattva, a being who served all humanity and put their own enlightenment aside. The figure of the Buddha became supernatural with many aspects or emanations. All beings can reach Nirvana within their lifetime through meditation, rituals, and chanting because all beings contain the seed of Buddhahood, Buddha Nature.


Evolution of Buddhist Schools 1

Mahayana Buddhists work towards the salvation of all who sincerely seek enlightenment, monks and laity alike, therefore, compassion and wisdom are towering values and the Bodhisattva ideal dominates all practice. Its limitations may be said to be that enlightenment is often perceived as a goal rather than a step in a much larger process and rituals and practice are so elaborate that the life of suffering may easily be forgotten and practitioners instead become attached to life.

The third turning of the wheel was Vajrayana (‘Diamond Vehicle’), an extension of the Mahayana Buddhism, also known also as Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism, which came into existence circa 700 CE. Vajra is a thunderbolt used the symbolise the imperishable nature of enlightenment. Tibet has always been isolated with its mountainous terrain, few natural resources and tiny population, but there were three diffusions of Buddhism: first, at the hand of Songsten Gampo, the first religious king who had an Indian and Chinese wife who were acquainted with Buddhism; the second, King Trisong Detsen who invited Santaraksita from India to promulgate the teachings, succeeded by Padmasambhava, a powerful guru who established the first monastery; and the third, King Relpa Chen was assassinated and succeeded by Lang Darma, but quickly followed by the great Atisha (982-1054), an Indian teacher, who perfected the Buddhist system in Tibet.


In the 20th century CE, Tibet was invaded by China, leading to the political and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fleeing to India. Over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet were destroyed. Since then Tibetan Buddhism has become an international practice led by Tibetan gurus resident in UK, US, and many parts of Europe.

Vajrayana Buddhists aspire to become Bodhisattvas, taking their innate Buddha Nature as the starting point. Employing tantric techniques, the practitioner works to attain the empty nature of the enlightened mind and to purify all perceptions so that they can see the ultimate truth. Its limitations are that Vajrayana Buddhists can be boastful and competitive and the four main schools constantly fight for supremacy. This school also tends to value myth more highly than history and the rituals are complex because of the inherited indigenous practices of Tibet (Bon and other superstitious beliefs).


After the Buddha’s death, his disciples worked hard to disseminate his teachings. In 480 BCE, the First Council meeting was held led by Mahakassyapa, Ananda, and Upali, those disciples closest to the Buddha. As a result, the teachings of Buddha were then codified and later recorded in writings known as the sutras. The Second Council was held in 350 BCE mainly to stamp out heresy which was growing among the followers. Due to unrest, this is when the first major rift appeared in the sangha (the community of monks) led by Mahadeva who protested against the arrogance of the elite, in other words, the enlightened, who still had many shortcomings but had become complacent. This is when the first and second turnings of the wheel of Dharma can be traced back to.


Madhyamaka, or the Middle School, was founded by the first great name in Buddhism, Nagarjuna c. 2nd century BCE, about whom little is known. This school, which claimed to be faithful in spirit to the original teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, advocated the Middle Way between extreme practices and theories, for example, either that ‘things exist’ or ‘things do not exist,’ believing the essence of the Dharma lay in between the extremes. Debate was popular then, so the strategy of attacking the opposite views rather than defending their own was adopted. Through this intellectual process, reality became like a film strip, each independent frame constantly giving way to the next producing the illusion of stability and continuity. Their conclusion was that the true nature of phenomena can only be described as emptiness which is synonymous with the doctrine of Dependent Origination (Skt: Pratityasamutpada) – all phenomena arise because they depend on causes and conditions and therefore lack intrinsic being, i.e. when A exists, B arises. If A does not exist, B does not arise. This reasoning is set out in the root text of this school, Mulamadhyamakakarika.

The important implication for the future of Buddhism was that if emptiness is the true nature of everything that exists, there is no difference between samsara and Nirvana and any difference that is perceived must come from ignorance or misconception. Therefore, Madhyamaka suggests there are two levels of truth: the Ultimate Truth (the view of the enlightened); and the Relative or Veiled level of Truth (the view of the unenlightened).

After Nagarjuna, his disciple Aryadeva continued to develop the school. But later there was a division in this school leading to two branches of Madhyamaka: the Svatantrika and the Prasangika. These systems were transmitted from India to Tibet and East Asia. In China, it was known as San-lun (the three treatises school), but due to its negative doctrines, it was heavily criticised by Buddhists and non-Buddhists and eventually converged with the Yogacara School.

The Yogacara School (or Yogachara), which practised yoga, emerged in the 4th century CE. This school is also known as Vijnanavada or the ‘Way of Consciousness.’ Its origins are shrouded in mystery, and its founders were Maitrayanatha, Asanga, and Vasubandhu. It flourished in India until the 8th century CE when it combined with the best elements of the Madhyamaka. It was transmitted to China through the efforts of Paramartha and Hsuan-tsang and was also introduced and widely studied in Tibet.


Evolution of Buddhist Schools 2

The key scriptures are the Sandhinirmocana Sutra, Dasabhumika Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra. Many Buddhist classics are attributed to this period, but the encyclopaedic Yogacarabhumi Sastra is perhaps the best known attributed to the three founders. Its doctrines and theories are derived from meditational experiences and focus on two themes: the nature of the mind and the nature of experience. Eight aspects of consciousness were distinguished: the afflicted mind, the six perceptual consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and thought; deluded awareness a result of self-grasping; and the all-encompassing foundation consciousness, the result of memory. Rebirth in samsara leaves a string of imprints derived from experiences and actions which will eventually ripen when the conditions are right to produce dualistic delusions of subject and object. This gives rise to the production of a false self and the potential production of more imprints. There are three natures: the imagined, the dependent, and the consummate. At enlightenment, a radical transformation occurs creating a mirror-like Awareness.

Yogacara also contributed to a refining of the Three Bodies (trikaya), the Five Awarenesses and brought to prominence the ten stages of Bodhi, that of a Bodhisattva being the most important.


Pure Land Buddhism. There are Pure Land Schools in both China and Japan. It comes from the term Buddha-land or Buddha-field, a Mahayana term describing the idea that when beings become enlightened they do not disappear but remain to help others. Each of the five Buddhas, the Five Dhyani Buddhas, was assigned a different colour, wisdom, and realm in early 19th century CE, as follows: white Buddha Vairochana in the centre; green Amoghasiddhi in the north; red Amitabha in the west; yellow Ratnasambhava in the south, and blue Akshobya in the east. In Esoteric Buddhism, these areas of the Cosmos were charted on sacred maps known as mandalas, but although outside samsara, the human world, they were not to be confused with the idea of heaven. These practices have become very popular in the west.

Zen. The Chinese word ‘Ch’an’ means meditation and is pronounced ‘Zen’ in Japanese. Zen is comprised of a number of particular religious techniques and is an umbrella term for various schools of Zen in Japan: Rinzai, Soto, Obaku, and Fuke. Zen is also used to cover the whole tradition of Ch’an in China and other countries such as Vietnam and Korea. Its main practice is seated meditation (zazen)’ and koans or riddles, brief stories or dialogues from the Ch’an tradition, which are used as the main focus of meditation. Zen is famous for austerity and aggressive teaching techniques, including shouting and beating, which shock practitioners into awakening.

Tendai. One of the major schools of Japanese Buddhism that appeared between 794-1185 CE. It was founded by the monk Saicho who brought the Chinese teachings of T’ien-t’ai to Japan and is widely eclectic embracing both Esoteric rituals, Exoteric studies in doctrine and scripture, and early forms of Zen and Pure Land. Unlike Shingon Buddhism established by Kukai at the same time, Tendai was patronised by the imperial family and became wealthy. This made it a breeding ground for new reform movements such as Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren and combined with corruption and military conflicts caused it to recede into the background. It was eclipsed by the newer schools and today is a minor sect.

Nichren-shu. Nichiren (1222-1282 CE) was the first non-aristocratic leader of a Japanese Buddhist sect which may account for his uncompromising style of religion. Ordained as a Tendai priest which championed the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, he is famous for promoting his views and openly attacking the teachings of other schools which were considered intolerant and arrogant. As a result of this behaviour, he was exiled to remote islands several times and heavily persecuted. According to him, the Daimoku mantra – ‘Namo myoho renge kyo’ – was the sole chant and only practice. There have been many divisions in this sect, and in 1937 CE, one of the most successful and controversial, Soka Gakkai International, has evolved into the third largest political party in Japan, blending politics and religion together.


Evolution of Buddhist Schools 3

The Order of Interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh, the international Vietnamese peace activist established this international order in 1966 CE. It is a mixed lay and monastic group which now has its headquarters in Plum Village, the Dordogne region of southern France. Hanh also established the Unified Buddhist Churches of France and Vietnam and coined the term ‘Engaged Buddhism,’ meaning Buddhism in action in a society promoting the non-violent solutions to conflict of the individual. He has published over 100 books, 40 of which are written originally in English. This term was inspired by a 13th-century CE king of Vietnam who abdicated his throne to become a monk and founded the School of the Bamboo Forest tradition. In 1960, Hanh was exiled from Vietnam at the outbreak of the Vietnam War, going to study comparative religions at Princeton, and eventually returned to Vietnam in 1963 to aid his fellow practitioners in non-violent peace efforts. His approach combines traditional Zen teachings with insights from other Mahayana and Theravada traditions, offering modern meditation techniques and strategies.


Today, in the 21st century CE, Secular Buddhism, which focuses on Buddhism as an applied philosophy rather than a religion, is gaining ground. This is based on humanistic values rather than religious. It looks closely at how we see the world as individuals and how to change that view.

The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.

Thich Nhat Hahn – Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment



Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.


Keown, D., A Dictionary of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Shambhala Publications, Radical Compassion (Shambhala, 2014).

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body (Parallax Press, 2003).

Thurman, R.A.F., Essential Tibetan Buddhism (HarperOne, 1996).

Tuffley, D., The Essence of Buddhism (Altiora Publications, 2013).

Williams, P., Mahayana Buddhism (Routledge, 2008).

I really recommend this free encyclopedia if you are interested in ancient history! It has just won an award for best web-site of the year.



Mahayana Buddhism



by Charley Linden Thorp

published on 15 March 2017


Mahayana Buddhism (or the Mahayanas) can be defined as a major movement in the history of Buddhism which has its origins in northern India. It is made up of many schools and reinterpretations of fundamental human beliefs, values and ideals not only those of the Buddhist teachings. The recorded starting point for Mahayana, also known as the ‘Great Vehicle’ because it embraces so much, is the 2nd century CE, but it is assumed that this tidal wave of shifts began to grow before that date, building on existing schools and systems, and it continues today. Its exact origins are still not completely understood, but in contrast to previous Buddhist aspirations, great emphasis was placed equally on the doctrines of compassion (Skt: karunã) and insight (Skt: prajñã). In addition, the Bodhisattva, the human being who devotes him or herself to the service of others, became the new model for religious practice as opposed to the Arhat (Hīnayãna-Hearer or Seeker) who is concerned only with the self-interested pursuit of liberation.

This age also represents a massive social change in the way Buddhists practised because householders, lay practitioners, ie. those who have not renounced life to become monks or nuns, became equally as important as the clergy, ie. monastic practitioners devoting their whole lives to Buddha. Also, a new body of literature is associated with this movement known as the Perfection of Insight texts (Prajñã-pãramitã Sutras) in which Buddha Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) is seen in a new light as a supernatural being (later formalized as the trikaya – three bodies) and the concept and doctrine of emptiness (Skt: sunyata) became of major importance. Today, Mahayana Buddhism is predominant in north Aisa and has been strongly influenced culturally and by existing religions there such as Taoism and Confucianism.


To clarify this complex movement of spiritual and religious thought and religious practice, it may help to understand the three main classifications of Buddhism to date: Theravada (also known as Hinayana, the vehicle of the Hearers), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. These are recognised by practitioners as the three main routes to enlightenment (Skt: bodhi, meaning awakening), the state that marks the culmination of all the Buddhist religious paths. The differences between them are as follows:

Theravada is the only remaining school from the Early Buddhist period, its central texts are in Pali (Pãli Canon), the spoken language of the Buddha; and its exclusively monastic devotees strive to become enlightened for their own liberation.

Mahayana uses Sanskrit as its main language, and monastic and lay followers work for the liberation of all sentient beings, making compassion and insight (wisdom) its central doctrines.

Vajrayana, the Diamond School, originally exclusive to Tibet (in 20th century CE the Chinese occupation of Tibet forced it out of the country), emphasizes the permanence of the Buddha’s teachings as symbolized by the vajra (thunderbolt), a ritual implement used for ceremonies, employs Tantra (techniques to reach enlightenment quickly) and focuses mainly on lay practitioners.    

The main schools of Buddhism practised today are Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Shingon, and Tendai (all Mahayanas); and Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana). It is significant that Theravada texts exclusively concern the Buddha’s life and early teachings; whereas, due to widespread propagation (spreading of the teachings), Mahayana and Vajrayana texts appear in at least six languages. Mahayana texts contain a mixture of ideas, the early texts probably composed in south India and confined to strict monastic Buddhism, the later texts written in northern India and no longer confined to monasticism but lay thinking also.  


The term Mahayana was first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (among the final teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni) at an indeterminate date between 5th and 1st century CE. However, according to recent scholarship, it may have been a mistaken term because instead of ‘yana’ meaning ‘vehicle’ or ‘cart,’ it could have been ‘mahajãna,’ ‘jãna’ meaning ‘knowing,’ therefore ‘great (maha) knowing.’ In this era, the Dharma, (Pali: Dhamma), the natural law of all existence according to Buddhism, was no longer regarded as a doctrinal element but as a medicine that would heal all worldly suffering.

In the Mahayanas, new schools started to appear such as the Madhyamaka (the ‘Middle School’, 2nd century CE), the Yogacara or Yogachara (based on the practice of yoga, 4th century CE), the Pure Land tradition in China (dates and origins uncertain but examples are T’ien-t’ai and Ch’an), and the Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism founded in 5th century CE by Padmasambhava). 


                                    Buddhist Illuminated Manuscript, Goryeo Period

Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in north Asia having spread from northern India, then to Tibet and central Asia, China, Korea, and lastly Japan. Due to the cultural influences and diversity of countries, the scope of Buddhist practice has widened even more to include the Tantric practices (Tantra meaning techniques to reach Enlightenment more quickly) and Shamanism (a shaman is an intermediary who has access to the world of spirits and healing) from central Asia; Taoism and Confucianism giving rise to the Ch’an school of contemplation in China and Korea, which developed eventually into Japanese Zen, and so on.

Notable figures of this movement are Asvaghosa who wrote The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana translated into Chinese c. 550 CE; Maitreyanatha who compiled the Mahayana path from the Yogacara perspective made up of 800 verses; Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school, born c. 2nd century CE in south India; Aryadeva, Nagarjuna’s foremost disciple; Dogen, known for his teachings on Buddha Nature in Japan; Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism; and Hua-yen for the ‘Flower Garland’ tradition in China, Korea, and Japan.


As mentioned, the main tenets of this Mahayana Buddhism are compassion (karuna) and insight or wisdom (prajna). The perfection of these human values culminates in the Bodhisattva, a model being who devotes him or herself altruistically to the service of others, putting aside all self-serving notions; in contrast, is the preceding pursuit of self-interested liberation (Hinayana or Sravakayana). Bodhisattva (Skt; Pali: Bodhisatta) means an enlightened being or one who is oriented to enlightenment. This ideal human being is inspired by the life story of Buddha Sakyamuni who began by generating the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings in the form of a vow. Then he embarked on a religious life by cultivating the Six Perfections (paramitas).


                                                            A Bodhisattva, Gandhara

Early Mahayana texts stipulate that a Bodhisattva can only be male, but later texts allow female Bodhisattvas. The term Bodhicitta is used to describe the state of mind of a Bodhisattva, and there are 2 aspects: the relative, a mind directed towards enlightenment, the ceasing of all cravings and attachments, and the absolute, a mind whose nature is enlightenment. A Bodhisattva must place themselves in the position of others in order to be selfless and embody compassion: in other words, to exchange him or herself for the other. 

With this new focus on Buddha’s life lay practitioners or householders who were in a far better position than monks or nuns to fulfil the vow of a Bodhisattva emerged and became a key element of Mahayana Buddhism. The first lay Buddhist Cunda was enlightened at the Buddha’s Parinirvana (death of a Buddha) to the indignation of the enlightened monks and Kings attending to bring final offerings. On his departure from the world as an old man, the Buddha revealed that all beings, including women, could become enlightened not only monastic devotees. From this p oint onwards, enlightenment took on new meaning.


Biographical literature of the Buddha first appeared during this Mahayana era and aided the rapid spread of Buddhism across the Silk Road to the east of India and north into Nepal and Tibet. In addition, Buddhist poets expressed their faith using literary expressions which transcended the doctrinal lines between the different schools.


The new Mahayana epoch, long after the Parinirvana of the Buddha, was accompanied by a canon of scriptures or sutras, known as the Prajñã-pãramitã Sutras (Perfection of Insight). They are characterised by the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata) which entails viewing Buddha for the first time as a supernatural being worthy of devotion. This later led to the doctrine of his nature as the trikaya, or three wheel bodies (the Dharmakaya (the enlightenment or truth body), the Sambhogakaya (the bliss or clear light body), and the Nirmanakaya, (the form body manifesting in time and space). 

The Bodhicaryavatara, ‘Entering the Path of Enlightenment,’ composed by Santideva (685-763), a Buddhist monk, poet and scholar based a Nalanda University, is one of the main texts for aspiring Bodhisattvas. It describes various steps taken by a Bodhisattva to reach enlightenment. A famous quotation from it is:

Whosoever wishes to quickly rescue himself and another he should practise the supreme mystery-the exchanging of himself and the other. (8.120). 

Compassion can be tangibly used by Mahayana practitioners in the transfer of merit to all sentient beings, which is accumulated through devotional practice. Wisdom can be used to transcend the human condition via the conviction that all beings contain the Buddha seed so can, therefore, become a Buddha. The basis of the Bodhisattva vow is the six paramitas (perfections):

  • generosity (dana)
  • morality (sila)
  • patience (ksanti)
  • courage (virya)
  • knowledge (jhana or dhyana)
  • and intuitive insight (prajna).

In early Buddhism, there were ten paramitas, and later in the Mahayana, they were increased again to ten to match the ten stages (bhumi) of a Bodhisattva’s spiritual progress. Liberating or saving those who were lost or suffering becomes the sole life-purpose of those who take this Bodhisattva vow, even today.


Another feature of Mahayana Buddhism is the presence of stupas – religious towers or domes which evolved from prehistoric burial mounds and eventually had tall spires known as pagodas, common structures found throughout Asia. The Buddha instructed that on his death a stupa should be constructed over his relics. Today, surviving stupas often contain sacred objects such as texts as well as relics or remains of revered beings. Their popularity as marking a place of worship increased as Buddhism spread to the masses who were mostly illiterate laymen. On the inside walls of stupas, pictures were inscribed and sculptures made depicting the life of Buddha and his previous lives as a bodhisattva.

display-1412                                                                                   The ‘Great Stupa’ at Sanchi


Many scholars claim that lay Buddhism was responsible for the flourishing of the Mahayanas. The centring of the movement on Buddha as the first Bodhisattva and the revelation that all beings could reach Enlightenment promoted Buddhism in everyday life rather than behind the closed doors of monasteries. There is also evidence to show that the excessive privileges and arrogance of monks was detested by householders, especially in Japan, and that the clergy looked down on lay practitioners as in other religions, notably Christianity. The Asokadattavyakarana Sutra advocated the wisdom of women and girls: the protagonist, a 12-year-old princess, refuses to salute the monks referring to them as “Hinayana jackals.” At the same time, the Vimalakirtinrdusa Sutra advocates lay Buddhism in the exploits of its hero, Vimalakirti.

Stupas were administered by lay devotees and so the importance of Buddha’s life became increasingly significant as a result. They provided not only an opportunity for a different kind of worship but also for social interaction. There was finally an alternative religious tradition for householders, some of whom became founders of new schools, e.g. Prince Shotoku of Japan who never took monastic vows though he lived out the Buddhist teachings in everyday life and also became the first Buddhist statesman to reorder Japan with a 17-article constitution. The widening of Mahayana doctrines and the universal appeal of attaining Buddhahood meant that many schools flourished outside monasteries and often focused on certain Mahayana texts. It might be said that for a long period of time monks remained cloistered hearing the Dharma, while the laity were actively working as Bodhisattvas in daily life.  


                                                                     Stupa in Ajanta

The significance of the Buddha’s physical death as only an appearance is paramount in Mahayana Buddhism. Out of his compassion, he became ever-present to help suffering sentient beings trapped in samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death that individuals must undergo until they attain ‘Nirvana‘ (enlightenment), in which they are blinded by the three roots of evil, namely greed, hatred, and delusion. Samsara, although not mentioned by name, is characterised as suffering (Skt: duhka) in the first of the Four Noble Truths. It is an ancient notion common to all mainstream Indian religions dating back to circa 800 BCE.

This striking change in attitudes to the Buddha and his teachings represents its reabsorption into the society which it had renounced and become distant from in the monasteries. This fundamentally created a new religious system and a self-awareness which is evident in the body of the Mahayana Sutras and which made such doctrines respectable. 


In the 21st century CE, it is estimated that 488 million (9-10% of the world population) people practice Buddhism. Approximately half are practitioners of Mahayana schools in China and it continues to flourish. The main countries which practice Buddhism currently are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism, due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, has been adopted by international practitioners, notably westerners, in a variety of different countries.

‘Socially Engaged Buddhism,’ which originated in 1963 in war-ravaged Vietnam, a term coined by Tchich Nhat Hanh, the international peace activist,  is a contemporary movement concerned with developing Buddhist solutions to social, political and ecological global problems. This movement is not divided between monastic and lay members and includes Buddhists from Buddhist countries as well as western converts. Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka are the major Buddhist countries (over 70% of population practising) while Japan, Laos, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam have smaller but strong minority status.

New movements continue to develop to accommodate the modern world. Perhaps the most notable are the Dalit Buddhist Movement (Dalits are a group of Indians known as the ‘untouchables’ because they fall outside the rigid caste system but who are now gaining respect and status supported by UN); New Kadampa Tradition, led by Tibetan monk Gyatso Kelsang, which claims to be Modern Buddhism focused on lay practitioners; and the Vipassana Movement, consisting of a number of branches of modern Theravada Buddhism which have moved outside the monasteries, focusing on insight meditation.



Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.