Buddhist traditions: introduction

As Buddhsim spread through Asia, the teachings came to be interpreted in different ways, and distinct practices became associated with the different "schools" that evolved. Although the schools found today do reflect unique beliefs and practices, they all share a xxx with the fundamental teachings of the Buddha as outlined in the Fundamentals section of DharmaNet's Learning Center.

It is common to see the Buddhist traditions presented as three main "schools"– Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayan (Tibetan Buddhism). Although these categories have a useful purpose, they also oversimplify the distinctions between traditions and obscure the connections between all the traditions. With that caveat in mind, we present an introductiom to Buddhist traditions using this formula.

DharmaNet's introduction to Buddhist traditions

Brief introductions to the Buddhist traditions

Mahayana, Hinayana, and Theravada Compared
Ron Epstein


One factor that distinguishes Theravada from the other Buddhist schools is the importance it places on the preservation of the original Dharma. From the time of Mahakassapa, the Theravadans have emphasized the importance of preserving the Dharma in its most authentic form possible.


Theravada emphasizes the practice of mindfulness meditation, often called Vipassana meditation (or Insight meditation). Through observing our experience, from moment to moment, in the here and now, without immediately reacting to it or getting absorbed into it, we learn to develop mindfulness and awareness. This clear seeing gets us in touch with our mental, physical and emotional processes. Meditation is a journey of self-discovery and developing a capacity to be realistic, to be in touch with our experience of what is real here and now, and to see the true nature of that reality. Through practising vipassana we learn to relate to the suffering of ourselves and other beings in a more skilful way, not getting overwhelmed by it, nor becoming indifferent to it.

Introduction to Insight Meditation

What Meditation Isn't
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

What Meditation Is
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Mindfulness Meditation as a Buddhist Practice
Gil Fronsdal


Theravada also teaches meditations on love and compassion– metta or lovingkindness meditation. Metta meditation was taught by the Buddha as a way of protecting ourselves from internal and external dangers. Cultivating metta means opening our heart and relearning loveliness, thereby releasing ourselves from the internal chronic critic that often is sabotaging our commitment to waking up. Metta is an antidote to fear, and it helps to overcome anger, hatred and resentment. Practising metta is about befriending ourselves and others in an unconditional way. Through the force of metta we begin to loosen the boundaries we have created around ourselves, and we experience the interconnectedness of all beings. What unites us is our wish to be happy, and in practising metta meditation we give expression to this wish for happiness and well-being, our own and that of other sentient beings.

Facets of Metta
Sharon Salzberg

The Four Noble Truths

All the diverse teachings of Buddhism fit together into a single unifying frame, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha compared the Four Noble Truths to the footprints of an elephant. Just as the footprint of an elephant can contain the footprints of any other animal, the footprints of tigers, lions, dogs, cats, etc. So all the different teachings of the Buddha fit into the single framework of the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha made it clear that the realization of the Four Noble Truths coincides with the attainment of enlightenment itself. The special purpose of the Dhamma is to make known the Four Noble Truths and the special aim of those treading the path to enlightenment is to see for themselves the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths are:
1. The truth of Dukkha
2. The truth of the origin of Dukkha
3. The truth of the cessation of Dukkha
4. The truth of the path, the way to liberation from Dukkha

The word 'Dukkha' has often been translated as suffering, pain and misery. But 'Dukkha' as used by the Buddha has a much wider and a deeper meaning. It suggests a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence, all forms of life, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. The term, dukkha, indicates a lack of perfection, a condition that never measures up to our standards and expectations.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Four Noble Truths 
Access to Insight

The Four Noble Truths
Ajahn Sumedho

The Nobility of the Truths
Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Eightfold Path

Dukkha, its origin, its cessation, and the way to its cessation—these are the Four Noble Truths, the "elephant's footprint" that contains within itself all the essential teachings of the Buddha. It might be risky to say that any one truth is more important than the others. since they all hang together in a very close integral unit. But if we were to single out one truth as the key to the whole Dhamma it would be the Fourth Noble Truths, the truth of the way, the way to the end of Dukkha. That is the Noble Eightfold Path, the path made up of the following eight factors divided into three larger groups:


1. right view
2. right intention

Moral discipline

3. right speech
4. right action
5. right livelihood


6. right effort
7. right mindfulness
8. right concentration

We say that the path is the most important element in the Buddha's teaching because the path is what makes the Dhamma available to us as a living experience. Without the path the Dhamma would just be a shell, collection of doctrines without inner life. Without the path full deliverance from suffering would become a mere dream.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering
Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Noble Eightfold Path
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The Brahma-Viharas

The four "sublime states"

  • Metta — caring, loving kindness displayed to all you meet.
  • Karuna — compassion or mercy, the special kindness shown to those who suffer.
  • Mudita — sympathetic joy, being happy for others, without a trace of envy.
  • Uppekha (Upeksa) — equanimity or levelness, the ability to accept others as they are.

"They are so important in the practice of Vipassana meditation that they are included in the second step of the Noble Eightfold Path. In fact, no concentration is possible without these sublime states of mind because in their absence the mind would be filled with hatred, rigidity, worry, fear, tension and restlessness." Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity
Nyanaponika Thera


The Mahaya movement which began 2000 years ago led to a wide range of practices, and the Mahayana schools of today are known by the traditions that evolved in places such as Tibet, China and Japan, rather than as "Mahayana." This section introduces the major themes of the Mayahana; for specific Mahayana traditions see the sections on Zen and Pure Land schools.

The bodhisattva

Mahayana practitioners seek to follow the bodhisattva path. Central to a bodhisattva's practice are:

  • Development of bodhicitta, the 'thought of enlightenment,' which inspires one to become a bodhisattva in order to save others.
  • Cultivation of compassion (karuna). From bodhicitta and an understanding of emptiness (shunyata) arises a profound compassion for the suffering of others and a determination to free others from suffering.
  • Cultivation of the paramitas, the perfections of generosity, virtue (morality), patience (tolerance, forbearance), energy (diligence, courage, enthusiasm, effort), meditation (absorption, concentration, contemplation), and transcendental wisdom.
  • The bodhisattva vow, the intention to save all beings by leading them to
    nirvana, regardless of how long it takes.

Although it is common today for people to talk about acting "like a bodhisattva," in the Mahayana schema a potential bodhisattva is already well-advanced on the path, with a deep understanding of the teachings such as dependent arising, karma, rebirth and emptiness. Some bodhisattvas are said to have already become buddhas and then chosen to practice as bodhisattvas. Others are said to have postponed their own enlightenment to be bodhisattvas of compassion. Fundamentally a bodhisattva is a buddha to be, motivated by altruistic compassion.

Bodhisattva archetypes

The Mahayana spawned a plethora of Bodhisattva archetypes, bodhisatvas who had reached the highest stages of compassion. These great bodhisattvas such as Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Maitreyacame came to be visualized as enormously powerful beings–celestial bodhisattvas.

See the Ashoka course Bodhisattas of Compassion.

The historical Buddha was not an archetypal bodhisattva but was, rather, a human being, one whose life had a profound impact on human history. The dramatic story of his life as Siddhartha Gautama, prior to his becoming the Buddha, or Awakened One, in a sense establishes the basic archetype for all bodhisattva practice.

Shunyata - emptiness

With the rise of the Mahayana, the teaching of no-self (Anatman) becomes the concept of Shunyata ('Emptiness'). This emptiness is not pure nothingness, of course; nor is it a kind of transcendental something. Rather it is a medicine to remedy the compulsive illusion-making habits of our minds, particularly their tendency to think of persons and things as separate, self-created and self-sustaining. Shunyata indicates, therefore, not the presence of something but rather a resounding lack or void, specifically a lack of inherent existence or 'own nature' (svabhava). This goes as much for dharmas, those ultimate essences of the world-process, as it does for people and things. In Abhidharma there is a general tendency to think that dharmas are somehow real, though not to the extent of posses, sing atman. In the Mahayana, however, dharmas are decreed unequivocally to be empty, along with everything else. Even Emptiness is ultimately empty! Buddhism, John Snelling

Mahayana sutras

Central to the rise of the Mahayana was the new "technology" of the written word.

With the development of the Mahayana in the beginning of the Christian era came a new body of scriptures. Mahayana Buddhists believe that the Mahayana sutras, with the possible exception of those clearly of Chinese origin, are an authentic account of teachings given during the Buddha's lifetime. However, Theravada Buddhists believe them to be later inventions of monks striving to change the original teachings of Buddha, and consider the Mahayana sutras apocryphal. Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures were composed from the first century CE onwards, with some of them having their roots in other scriptures, composed in the first century BCE.

Regardless of their authenticity as the teachings of the Buddha, these sutras came to have great authority because they seemed visionary and inspired. With these new sutras came a new Buddhist cosmology. And with this cosmology, which included planes above the human, came the notion that the Mahayna sutras emanated from the Buddha's wisdom, even if not from his earthly life.

Prajnaparamita - "Perfection of Wisdom"

One of the earliest Mahayana sutras–and one of the most important and enduring–is the Prajnaparamita ("Perfection of Wisdom) sutra, which came to exist in many versions, from 100,00 lines to the short Heart Sutra.

At first sight, The Perfection of Wisdom is bewildering, full of paradox and apparent irrationality. Yet once one accepts that trying to unravel these texts without experiencing the intuitions behind them is not satisfactory, it becomes clear that paradox and irrationality are the only means of conveying to the reader those underlying intuitions that would otherwise be impossible to express. Edward Conze succinctly summarized what The Perfection of Wisdom is about, saying, 'The thousands of lines of the Prajñāparamitā can be summed up in the following two sentences:

1. One should become a bodhisattva (or, Buddha-to-be), i.e. one who is content with nothing less than all-knowledge attained through the perfection of wisdom for the sake of all beings.
2. There is no such thing as a bodhisattva, or as all-knowledge, or as a 'being', or as the perfection of wisdom, or as an attainment. To accept both of these contradictory facts is to be perfect.'

The central idea of The Perfection of Wisdom is complete release from the world of existence. The Perfection of Wisdom goes beyond earlier Buddhist teaching that focused on the rise and fall of phenomena to state that there is no such rise and fall — because all phenomena are essentially void. The earlier perception had been that reality is composed of a multiplicity of things. The Perfection of Wisdom states that there is no multiplicity: all is one. Even existence (samsara) and nirvana are essentially the same, and both are ultimately void. The view of The Perfection of Wisdom is that words and analysis have a practical application in that they are necessary for us to function in this world but, ultimately, nothing can be predicated about anything.

Within this context of voidness, The Perfection of Wisdom offers a way to enlightenment. It represents the formal introduction to Buddhist thought of a practical ideal — the ideal of a bodhisattva. Unlike an arhat or pratyekabuddha, beings who achieve enlightenment but cannot pass on the means of enlightenment to others, a bodhisattva should and does teach. A bodhisattva must practice the six perfections: giving, morality, patience, vigour, contemplation and wisdom. Wisdom is the most important of these because it dispels the darkness of sensory delusion and allows things to be seen as they really are. The Perfection of Wisdom, R.C. Jamieson (Penguin Viking - 2000

The Middle Way School

Along with the new sutras came commentaries that laid out the philosophical basis of Mahayana beliefs. Of all the commentators, Nagarjuna is the most celebrated. (In fact, he is often referred toas the second Buddha.) Nagarjuna is said to have systematized the Prajnaoparamita teachings and to have founded the Madhyamaka or "Middle Way" school.

He used the traditional concept of the 'middle way' in a sophisticated dialectical manner, and in so doing pushed the implications of certain of the early teachings to their logical conclusion. When discussing . . . the doctrine of origination-in-dependence, the early Theravada scholastic tradition, known as the Abhidhamma ('higher dharma'), had understood this doctrine as referring to the origination and destruction of real elements, which they termed 'dharmas'. Dharmas were thought of as the building-blocks of which all phenomena were composed. They were conceived of as impermanent, but none the less real. On this basis, objects such as tables and chairs were analysed as compounds of elements rather than as entities having an enduring nature of their own. A chair, for example, might be seen as consisting only of legs, a seat, and a back: there is no 'chair' over and above these parl~s.

Nagarjuna, however, interpreted the doctrine of origination-in-dependence in a more radical way. He taught that dharmas were not just impermanent, but lacked any inherent reality at all. He summed this up by saying that all phenomena - tables, chairs, mountains, people - are simply empty of any real being. The Madhyamaka argued strongly, however, that this was not a doctrine of nihilism: the teaching does not claim that things do not exist, merely that they do not exist as independent realities in the way people normally assume. It claimed that the true status of phenomena is something midway between existence and non-existence, and it was from this interpretation of the 'middle way' that the school derived its name.

This line of thought had another important implication, namely that there can be no difference between nirvana and the realm of cyclic rebirth (samsara). If everything is void of real existence, Nagarjuna reasoned, then in a profound sense everything is on the same footing, so on what basis can the distinction between nirvana and samsara be made? No difference can be found in things themselves since they are all ultimately 'empty;' the difference, therefore, must lie in our perception of them.

The example is given of the person who mistakes a coil of rope for a snake at twilight and becomes terrified. When he realizes his mistake his fear subsides and his desire to run away disappears. What is needed for liberation, then, Nagarjuna reasoned, is essentially correct vision - to see things as they really are - rather than to embark on a flight from one supposedly imperfect reality (samsara) to a better one (nirvana). Nirvana is thus reinterpreted by the Madhyamaka as a purified vision of what is seen by the ignorant as samsaraIt follows that nirvana is here and now if we could but see it. The removal of spiritual ignorance and the realization that things are empty destroys the fear—or craving—we have for them. Nagarjuna and his followers called this complex of ideas "the doctrine of emptiness" (Sunyavada) and it has been the inspiration of Mahayana thought down the centuries. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Damien Keown (Oxford U. Press - 1996)

Transcendental Buddha

With the Mahayana sutras came a new vision of Buddhist history and the essential nature of Buddha. The Theravadan idea of the Buddha achieving enlightenment in one human lifetime was replaced with the vision of the Buddha as a being who had had been enlightened for endless aeons who compassionately took birth as Siddhartha Gautama in order to assist the humans beings of our era. Being eternal and omnipresent, this transcendental Buddha could apprear in different forms at different times and could reveal different aspects of the Dharma at different times and to different people.

Mahayana and Theravada

None of the Buddha's early teachings is rejected by the Mahayana, although they are sometimes reinterpreted in radical ways. The Mahayana saw itself as recovering their true meaning which, it claimed, had been lost sight of by the early tradition. Indeed, much of what is found in the Mahayana is not new. For example, the notion of selfless compassion—which finds expression in the bodhisattva ideal—was already evident in the Buddha's life of service to others. The doctrine of emptiness can be seen in embryonic form in the teachings on impermanence and no-self. Finally, the meditator's experience of the mind in the higher trances as luminous and pure, could easily foreshadow the conclusion that consciousness itself is the underlying reality.

The areas where the Mahayana was most innovative were in its revamped Buddhology and the devotional cults which sprang up around the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. . . On balance it is most likely that devotionalism—along with . . . other innovations . . .—was an autonomous development which arose naturally at a certain cycle in the evolution of Buddhism as ideas implicit in the early teachings were worked out. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Damien Keown (Oxford U. Press - 1996)

For another presentation of the Theravada/Mahayana development process, see:

The Origins of the Mahayana Tradition
Peter Della Santina


Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana
Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana are usually lumped together and often confused. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in Tibet and the Himalayan region beginning in the 8th century C.E. It combines Mahayana philosophy, meditation, tantric symbolic rituals, Theravadan monastic discipline and the shamanism of Bon, the indigenous religion. Tibetan Buddhism is, then, a form of Mahayana Buddhism that inorporates the practice of tantra (Vajrayna).

Tibetan Buddhism derives from the convergence of Buddhism and yoga which started to arrive in Tibet from India briefly around the late eighth century and then more steadily from the thirteenth century onwards. Indian Buddhism around that time had incorporated both Hindu yogic and tantric practices along with the classical teachings of the historical Buddha who lived around 500 BC. It acknowledged that there were two paths to enlightenment ( complete transcendence of identification with the personal ego ).

One path was that taught in the sutras according to the historical teachings (the sutrayana). The heart of sutra practice was based on morality, concentration, and wisdom ( not identifying with the personal ego ).
The other path, which has become the cornerstone of Tibetan variations, was tantric. This practice blended the sutra teachings with techniques adapted from Hindu systems of yoga and tantra.
It is very important to understand that the core teachings of the Theravada tradition embodied in the Pali scriptures are the foundation of the Buddha's teachings. Beginning with these teachings, one can then draw on the insights contained in the detailed explanations of the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition. Finally, integrating techniques and perspectives from the Vajrayana texts can further enhance one's understanding. But without a foundation in the core teachings embodied in the Pali tradition, simply proclaiming oneself a follower of the Mahayana is meaningless.

If one has this kind of deeper understanding of various scri-tures and their interpretation, one is spared from harboring mis-taken notions of conflicts between the "Greater" versus the "Lesser" Vehicle (Hinayana). Sometimes there is a regrettable tendency on the part of certain followers of the Mahayana to disparage the teachings of the Theravada, claiming that they are the teachings of the Lesser Vehicle, and thereby not suited to one's own personal practice. Similarly, on the part of followers of the Pali tradition, there is sometimes a tendency to reject the validity of the Mahayana teachings, claiming they are not actually the Buddha's teachings.

As we move into our examination of the Heart Sutra, what is important is to understand deeply how these traditions complement each other and to see how, at the individual level, each of us can integrate all these core teachings into our personal practice.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Heart Sutra


Tantric practices are psychologically very profound techniques to quickly achieve Buddhahood. This is considered important, not for oneself, but because as a Buddha one has the best achievable qualities to help others. The motivation is: 'the faster I can achieve Buddhahood, the sooner I can be of maximum benefit to others'.

Depending on the class of tantra, extra vows may need to be taken on top of the Refuge and Bodhisattva vows. Also, specific commitments may be required like doing a specific retreat, daily recitation of mantras or a daily meditation practice. (For more details see the page on Tantra.)

In the 8th. century, the Mahayana and Tantrayana (or Vajrayana) traditions of (North) Indian Buddhism were introduced into Tibet. In fact, only in Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia a virtually complete set of tantric teachings was preserved. The Tibetan tradition can also be found in the Himalayan range of Ladakh (Northwest India), Sikkhim (Northeast India) and Nepal, and in Mongolia (which is virtually identical to the Tibetan tradition). In China and countries like Korea and Japan, remnants of Vajrayana can be found.

The term Sutrayana is used within the Mahayana to indicate the non-tantric Mahayana teachings.
The Origins of the Vajrayana Tradition
Peter Della Santina

The three yanas
In tibetan Buddhism the path is described as being made up of three vehicles:

In Buddhist writings many different systems of belief and tradition are explained. These are referred to as vehicles, the vehicles of divine beings and human beings and the low vehicle (Hinayana), the great vehicle (Mahayana), and the vehicle of Tantra. The Dalai Lama

The Three Vehicles
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The schools of Tibetan Vajrayana
As Vajrayana Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and then throuhout Tibet, various schools or sects developed over time. Although there is and has always been communication between and overlap of these traditions, Tibetan Buddhism today still consists of several schools, each with its own distinct set of practices and its own description of the path.

DharmaNet introduction
The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

Introduction to the Five Principal Spiritual Traditions of Tibet
H.H. The Dalai Lama

For study resources on Tibetan Buddhism see the Learning Center's Study section.


See the Study section for Zen learning resources.

What is Zen, and how does it differ from other schools of Buddhism?

Through the centuries, Indian Buddhism gradually spawned hundreds of sects and sub-sects, and thousands of scriptures, and tens of thousands of commentaries on those scriptures. When Buddhism spread over Central Asian trade routes to China, all this material came at once. The Chinese were blasted with a cacophony of religious insight that was exotic, extravagant and, most importantly, foreign. The Chinese had long cherished their own twin traditions of Confucianism and Taoism and were resistant to ideologies introduced by barbarians from beyond the borders of the "Middle Kingdom." There was also a severe linguistic challenge for the Chinese in digesting the Buddhist message from abroad. The Sanskrit language was so different from Chinese in sensibility and syntax that translation was almost impossible.

Gradually, Indian and Central Asian Buddhism began to be reshaped by its encounter with Chinese culture. This reshaping eventually led to the creation of Zen, an entirely new school of Buddhism. (The word "Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese "Ch'an," which means "meditation." Here we use "Zen" because it is the word generally used in the West. Ch'an, though, did not come to Japan and become "Zen" until around the eighth century.)

Bodhidharma is the legendary founder of Zen in China. He is said to have arrived in China about 520. (Buddhism had by then been known in China for about 400 years.) He was soon summoned to the emperor, who had questions for him. "According to the teachings, how do I understand the merit I have accrued in building temples and making donations to monks?" the emperor asked. Bodhidharma, usually depicted as a scowling, hooded, bearded figure, shot back, "There is no merit." "What then is the meaning of the Buddha's Holy Truths?" the emperor asked. "Empty, nothing holy," Bodhidharma replied. Shocked, the emperor imperiously asked, "Who addresses me thus?" "I don't know," Bodhidharma replied, turned on his heel and left the court, to which he never returned.

He repaired to a distant monastery, where, it is said, he sat facing a wall for nine years, in constant meditation. A single disciple sought him out, and to test the disciple's sincerity, Bodhidharma refused to see him. The disciple stood outside in the snow all night long. In the morning he presented Bodhidharma with his severed arm as a token of his seriousness. The monk become Bodhidharma's heir, and thus began the Zen transmission in China. So, at least, the story goes.
This legend illustrates Zen's style and values. Zen is a pithy, stripped-down, determined, uncompromising, cut-to-the-chase, meditation-based Buddhism that takes no interest in doctrinal refinements. Not relying on scripture, doctrine or ritual, Zen is verified by personal experience and is passed on from master to disciple, hand to hand, ineffably, through hard, intimate training.

Just don't seek from others,
Or you'll be far estranged from Self.
I now go on alone;
Everywhere I meet It:
It now is me; I now am It.
One must understand in this way
To merge with thusness.
Dongshan Liangjie

Though Zen recognizes-at least loosely-the validity of normative Buddhist scriptures, it has created its own texts over the generations. Liberally flavored with doses of Taoism and Confucianism and Chinese poetry, and written in informal language studded with Chinese folk sayings and street slang, Zen literature is built on legendary anecdotes of the great masters. Buddha is barely mentioned, and when he is he is often playfully reviled. "Old man Shakyamuni," the saying goes, "is only halfway there."

Although the Zen school created controversy at first in all the countries it spread to, it eventually became by far the most successful school of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. By the mid-1980's, the Zen traditions of all these countries had been transmitted to America.

Zen Methods
Although Zen eventually developed traditions of study and ritual, its emphasis on personal experience has always made it a practice-oriented tradition. The practice is meditation. "Sitting Zen" (Japanese: zazen) has, as Bodhidharma's legend shows, always been central in Zen training centers, where monks rise early each morning for meditation practice and do long retreats consisting of many, many silent unmoving hours on the cushion. Zazen is an intensely simple practice. It is generally taught without steps, stages or frills. "Just sit!" the master admonishes, by which he or she means, sit upright in good posture, paying careful attention to breathing in your belly until you are fully alert and present. This sense of being present, with illumination and intensity, is the essence of zazen, and although there are many approaches to Zen meditation, they all come back to this. Life's secret, life's essence, and the truth and power of Buddhist liberation all come down to this intense and illuminated presence which is beyond words and concepts. Though it cannot be explained, it can be experienced and expressed through the daily actions of a Zen life.

Because the practice of intensive zazen is so central, Zen practice is essentially monastic. That is to say, it depends on a life that allows for long periods of concentrated meditation. In the Zen monastery, life is entirely organized around sitting in the meditation hall. But zazen is also understood to be something more than this sitting. It is conceived of as a state of mind or being that extends into all activities. Work is zazen; eating is zazen; sleeping, walking, standing, going to the toilet-all are zazen practice. In Soto Zen, the Japanese school practiced extensively in the West, there is an especially strong emphasis on this "moving Zen."

Zen schools are more or less divisible into those that emphasize a curriculum of verbal meditation objects-like koans-and those that do not. Emphasizing daily life practice as zazen, Soto Zen centers generally do not work with a set koan curriculum and method, though koans are studied and contemplated. Because of this, Soto Zen has traditionally been criticized by the koan schools (the best-known koan school is the Rinzai school of Japan) as dull, overly precious and quietistic, in contrast to the dynamic and lively engagement of the koan path. But the koan way also has its critics, who see the emphasis on words, meaning and insight as working against real non-conceptual Zen living. Koan training systems also have the disadvantage of fostering competition and obsession with advancement in the system.

To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget oneself is to be actualized by myriad things.
When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.
Dogen Zenji

In koan Zen, contemplation of a koan begins with zazen practice. The practitioner comes to intense presence with body and breath, and then brings up the koan almost as a physical object, repeating it over and over again with breathing, until words and meaning dissolve and the koan is "seen." This practice is done in the context of an intensive retreat led by a qualified Zen koan teacher. Like all systems, the koan system can degenerate into a self-protective and self-referential enclosure. It's the teacher's job to see that this doesn't happen, but sometimes it is not preventable. There are many different systems of koan study, but most of them emphasize humor, spontaneity and openness. The koan method is, at its best, a unique and marvelous expression of human religious sensibility.

Zen Schools
Zen has had a long and varied history in several different Far Eastern cultures. Each culture has produced a tradition that is recognizable as Zen, but differs slightly from all the others. Vietnamese Zen is the one most influenced by the Theravada tradition. It tends to be gentle in expression and method, to emphasize purity and carefulness, and to combine Zen with some Theravadin teaching and methodology. In China, Zen eventually became the only Buddhist school, inclusive of all the others, so contemporary Ch'an includes many faith-based Mahayana practices that existed initially in other Buddhist schools, especially faith in and repetition of the name of Amida Buddha, the savior Buddha who will ensure rebirth in an auspicious heaven to those who venerate him. Korean Zen is the most stylized and dramatic of the Zen schools, and also the most austere. Korean Zen includes prostration practice (repeated, energetic full-to-the-floor bows of veneration) and intensive chanting practice, and has a hermit tradition, something virtually unknown in Japanese Zen.

Within each of the Asian Zen traditions there are several schools, and within schools the styles of individual teachers often differ greatly. Still, it is remarkable how essentially similar the various teachers within a particular Zen "dharma family" can be in personal style and mode of expression, even though, paradoxically, each one is quite distinctive and individualistic. This uncanny fact-radical individuality within the context of shared understanding-seems to be an indelible feature of Zen.

Lineage and Teacher
A key Zen story, shared by all the schools: Once Buddha was giving a talk on Vulture Peak. In the middle of the talk he paused and held up a flower. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile. Buddha then said, "I have the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the ineffable mind of Nirvana, the real form of No Form, the flawless gate of the Teaching. Not dependent on words, it is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust it to Mahakasyapa."

This story, however historically unverifiable, represents the beginning of the Zen transmission, said to start directly with the Buddha. The story tells us two things: first, although the Buddha taught many true and useful teachings and techniques, the essence of what he taught is simple and ineffable. Holding up a flower is one expression of this essence. Second, the very simplicity and ineffability of this essential teaching requires that it be handed on from master to disciple in mutual wordless understanding. While wordless understanding seems a bit mystical and precious, it may not be as strange as it seems. We are all familiar with the transformation that takes place in apprenticeship and mentorship relationships, processes that involve a wordless give and take between individuals, and in which something quite hard to define is passed on. feel it.

While Zen practice can be done without benefit of a teacher, having a teacher is important, and, in the end, crucial if one is to realize the depth of Zen practice and make it completely one's own. Although the Zen teacher must embody Zen and express it in all his or her words and deeds, a Zen teacher is not exactly a guru, a Buddha archetype at the center of a student's practice. To be sure, respect for and confidence in the teacher is essential if one is to undergo the transformation in consciousness that Zen promises. But the Zen teacher is also an ordinary, conditioned human being, simply a person, however much he or she has realized of Zen. This paradox-that the teacher is to be appreciated as a realized spiritual adept and at the same time as an ordinary individual with rough edges and personality quirks-seems to go to the heart of Zen's uniqueness. Through the relationship to the teacher, the student comes to embrace all beings, including himself or herself, in this way.

Taking the Path of Zen in the West
In the West, however, most Zen practitioners are not monastics. While this may seem strange, it is not at all strange if we consider "monastic" to be an attitude and a level of seriousness, more than a particular lifestyle. Unlike Zen laypeople in Asia, whose main practice is to support the monastic establishment, Western Zen lay practitioners want to understand Zen deeply and to practice it thoroughly, regardless of what their life circumstances may be. In this sense, all Western Zen students are "monastic," regardless of their life circumstances. All of them do some form of monastic-style training within the context of their lay lives. They sit meditation regularly, either at home or at a local temple, attend retreats and live their daily lives with full attention (or at least coming as close to this as they possibly can). They take lay or priest vows, and even sometimes enter monastic training at one or more Zen centers for periods of time.

Norman Fischer, "Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer"

Soto and Rinzai Zen
The two main contemporary schools of Zen, Soto and Rinzai, have their roots in the Chinese Caodong and Linji schools of a thousand years ago. These two branches of Zen were transmitted to Japan around 1200.

The distinctions between the schools goes back to to teachers, Shitou and Mazu. While Shitou's style was gentle and harmonious emphasizing the skillful use of words, Mazu's demeanor was stern and uncompromising, often using shouts and blows. This difference in style was carried through their descendants until the founders of the Rinzai and Soto schools, Linji (J. Rinzai) and Dongshan (J. Tozan).taught ( Ch. Ts'ao, J. So).

Soto's style of practice can be traced back to Shitou (700-790) whose poem "The Harmony of Difference and Sameness" (Sandoaki) is an important early expression of Zen Buddhism and is chanted in Soto temples to this day. Two masters in Shitou's lineage, Dongshan and his disciple Caoshan,are so closely associated with each other that heir names were used together to form the name of their Zen school, Caodong (which became Soto in Japan).

One of Donshan's poems "The Song of the Jewel Mirror Awareness" is also still chanted in Soto temples. Another set of poems on the Five Positions of Absolute and Relative is important as a set of koans used in the Rinzai school.

It was Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200-1253). who transmitted Caodong Zen to Japan. Dogen Zenji is probably the most revered figure in all Japanese Zen. Yet only recently has he become read and studied in the West, perhaps because that great popularizer of Zen in the West, D. T. Suzuki, followed the Rinzai school and managed to essentially ignore Dogen throughout his voluminous writings.

But it was Dogen who first insisted on intensive meditation, who produced the first Japanese writings explaining Zen practice, and who constructed the first real Zen monastery in Japan, establishing a set of monastic rules still observed. Moreover, the strength of his character has inspired many Zen masters to follow.

RInzai Zen is said to be founded by Linji (J. Rinzai). Linji is known for his dramatic and iconoclastic style which is recorded in The Record of Linji.

Although Eisai is credited with bringing Rinzai to Japan, it was Hakuin Zenji who reformed and gave Rinzai Zen its impetus, formulating Japanese Rinzai koan practice and reviving Rinzai Zen in Japan. Endowed with enormous personal force and spirit, Hakuin was a rarity among Zen Masters and a lion among men. He was an accomplished artist and calligrapher and a voluminous author—he left a written legacy that is arguably the most extensive of the masters of the Chan or Zen, traditions. His caustic tongue and pen were legendary, and his words still breathe fire today. Yet his compassion was equal to his fire, and he was beloved by the common folk of his time and remains a favorite among lay practitioners of Zen. Hakuin single-handedly transformed the moribund Rinzai school into a tradition focused on arduous meditation and koan practice. Essentially all modern practitioners of Rinzai Zen use practices directly derived from the teachings of Hakuin.

Although hybrids schools like the Harada-Yasutani line of Zen are not part of the Rinzai lineage, these lines comprise the greater part of Western Zen; and, some of these teachers were, in fact, Rinzai Dharma heirs. Teachers, like Roshi Robert Aitken were at one time students of Rinzai Teachers.

How different?
Shitou jousted with Mazu, and they often swapped students, Mazu sent his pupils on their way with a wink and the advice that Shitou was "slippery."

Much has been made about the differences between Rinzai and Soto Zen. Writers and teachers often emphasize Rinzai's emphasis on kensho (seeing into one's self nature) and Soto's emphasis on zazen, but this has lead to the misconception taht Soto rejects the concept of enlightenment and Rinzai practitioners don't practice zazen. There also seems to be misinformation regarding koan practice or study. Koans are examples drawn from the awakening of past practitioners and often seem to be illogical or intuitive. But they are not puzzles to be solved or intuited. They are expressions of awakening.

Both Rinzai and Soto Zen Buddhists study koans and practice zazen. The differences are of a more subtle nature. To even say Rinzai "stresses" koans over zazen would be inaccurate. It is accurate to say that Soto Zen continues to consider the practice of zazen to be the sole means of realization. But Soto Zen has never discarded the koan. Soto teachers lecture on koans and their students study koans outside the practice of zazen. Soto Zen practices zazen as awakening itself to the already realized koan. In Rinzai Zen practice, a koan is examined while sitting in order to deepen insight.

Isshu Miura says that the difference of the Rinzai Zen school from Soto is that "zazen is, first of all, the preliminary practice by means of which mind and body are forged into a single instrument for realization. Only the student who has achieved some competency in zazen practice is, or should be, permitted to undertake the study of a koan. Proficiency in zazen is the basic ground for koan study. During the practice of zazen the koan is handled. To state that it is used as the subject of meditation is to state the fact incorrectly. The koan is taken over by the prepared instrument, and, when a fusion of instrument and device takes place, the state of consciousness is achieved which it is the intent of the koan to illumine and in this instant the koan is resolved." He also writes: "When the koan is resolved it is realized to be a simple and clear statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken."

Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer
Norman Fischer

See the Study section for Zen learning resources.


Chan Buddhism has been practiced in China since around the 6th century C.E. and, when exported to Japan around the 11-12th century, became the source of "Zen." This section of the Learning Center presents modern-day Chan as practiced in China and Taiwan, as well as in the West.

For an introduction to Chan, see the Ashoka online course The Legacy of Chan.

What is Chan?
Master Sheng Yen

For an introduction to history of Chan and Zen , see the Ashoka online course The Story of Zen.

Ch'an & Sudden and Gradual Debates in China and Tibet

The teachings of the masters
Faith in Mind: A Guide to Ch'an Practice
Master Sheng Yen on Sengcan's Xinxinming

Writings of the Chan Patriarchs
Ron Epstein

Contemporary Zen teachings
The Principles of Chan
Dharma Drum Mountain

Teachings of Chan Patriarch Hsuan Hua

Web sites with extensive teachings
From Dharma Drum Mountain: Chan Magazine, Chan Newsletter and Master Sheng Yen's Dharma talks.

Chan and Zen Buddhism: Writings of the Chan Patriarchs

Pure Land & Jodo Shinshu

Pure Land and Shin Buddhism
In the West there is a tendency to focus on the do-it-yourself nature both of Shakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment and his guidance to us to work towards liberation though our own effort.

Buddhists in the West often downplay (or reject) the role of faith and devotion. Yet these components of have been a part of Buddhsim from the beginning, as we can see in the practices of bowing to Buddha, bodhissatvas , monks and teachers, lighting insence, reciting (and copying) sutras, and decorating monasteries and temples with sculpture and paintings.

From early on devotional practices such as "Recollecting of the Buddha"—bringing the Buddha to mind, reciting his name, and by visualizing his image and/or his Pure Land or field of activity—were common. With the advent of the mahayana and its cults of divine buddhas and bodhisattvas, bodhisattas such as
 Avalalokiteshvara, Maiijushri, Maitreya and Kshitigarbha each had
 his (or her) own Pure Land.


Pure Land Buddhism is described as the Path of Serene Trust, or faith. One has serene trust and confidence in the power and wisdom of Buddhas, or one has the firm conviction that the Bodhisattva Vow made by all Buddhas, namely, to lead all sentient beings to Enlightenment, has been or will be fulfilled.

Praising a Buddha's virtues and keeping a Buddha in mind at all times has been practiced since the earliest days of Buddhism. Indeed, the act of taking refuge in the Buddha means to put one's trust in the Buddha as an honored teacher.

The object of Pure Land Buddhism is rebirth into the Realm of Bliss. This may be seen as literal rebirth into the Buddha-realm called Sukhavati and/or as experiencing the direct realization of the realm of the Purified Mind, in which a person becomes one with the limitless Compassion and Widsom which are the prime characteristics of Buddha Amitabha (Amida in Japanese). Pure Land Buddhism rests on:


Aspiration or the Vow for rebirth

Practice—single-minded effort aimed at Buddha Remembrance Samadhi (Buddhanusmrti in Sanskrit). "Staying mindful of the Buddha" has been a central practice of Pure Land Buddhism since its beginnings, as has the recitation of the Buddha's name.

While the Japanese Pure Land schools became characterized as "faith-only" schools (see below), classical Pure Land Buddhism continued to relie on the tripod of faith, aspiration and practice as expedients.

Key Concepts
In order to understand Pure Land Buddhism it is helpful to be familiar with some specific aspects of Buddhist teaching:

Merit and its transfer
There are benefits to be derived from the non-attached practices of Wisdom and Compassion; these practices include the Buddhist Precepts which are guidelines for enlightened living. These benefits, or "merit," may be accumulated and subsequently transferred to any or all sentient beings for their benefit (transpersonal) or rededicated so as to transform it into a benefit for one's self (personal).

Other Buddhas
Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha of our age, is not the only Buddha to ever have existed. Indeed, all beings have the nature to become totally awakened to the Truth of the Universe. One of the first Buddhas other than Shakyamuni to be mentioned in the Buddhist tradition was the Buddha Maitreya, the next Buddha who will appear in our own world-system which is known as the Saha World.

Buddha-realms, buddha-fields
Buddhas spread their influence over a system of worlds in which they teach Dharma and exert their benevolence. Shakyamuni is the Buddha of our own world system. Buddha-realms may be seen as both literal and metaphorical.

A bodhisattva's relationship with a buddha
Bodhisattvas are "Enlightenment Beings" who are on the path toward Nirvana, the end of suffering, the realm of Perfect Peace. They work not only for their own Enlightenment, but also for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. Once Bodhisattvahood is attained, the Bodhisattva is instructed by a Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha's teacher was the Buddha Dipamkara; in turn, Shakyamuni Buddha is the teacher of the Buddha to come, Maitreya.

Self-power, other-power
Self-power refers to to methods we practice on our own, the power of our own mind. Other-power refers to the power of the vows of Amitabha Buddha which facilitate rebirth in the Realm of Bliss, as well as the manifestation of these vows through the transference of Amitabha's own merit to us.

In classical Pure Land Buddhism, self-power and other-power work together. Through recitation, meditation and visualization practices, vowing to be reborn and manifesting the mind of faith, we attain Buddha Remembrance Samadhi, uniting one's Self-Power with the other-power of Buddha Amitabha, the essence of Universal Compassion and Wisdom.


The Ch'an Pure Land tripod of faith, aspiration and practice was modified in 12th century Japan. Both Jodo-Shu and Jodo-Shinshu arose at a time when many believed that enlightenment was no longer attainable through personal effort (jiriki) alone. With the intervention of Amida—through reciting Amitabha's name—one could be reborn in the Pure Land.

In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism there is an exclusive reliance on other-power (as opposed to self-power). Reciting the Buddha's name with faith is all that is necessary, and other-power practices are seen as essentially useless. A person is totally reliant on the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha; essentially, the saying of the Buddha's name arises solely from the power of Amida's vows. This causes Japanese Pure Land to be more of a salvation-based form, unlike the classical Pure Land Buddhism that originally developed in China.

Aspects of Shin Buddhism
For Shin Buddhists, the true nature of things is a lively wisdom and compassion that resonates in the lives of ordinary people. This wisdom and compassion takes form as Amida Buddha.

To ordinary people, especially those who were unable to follow him in his monastic way of life, Shakyamuni Buddha explained how Amida Buddha could bring everyone, without exception, to Buddhahood, which is the highest level of human fulfillment.

The final objective for Buddhists is to become a Buddha because Buddhas have perfect understanding, are completely free of attachments and therefore always act in ways that are genuinely beneficial. This objective meets the highest aspiration of the human heart. We remain spiritually and morally immature and ill-at-ease until we are fully developed and perfected Buddhas, full of love, kindness and freedom from fear and anxiety - transcending the thrall of birth and death.

In the Larger Sutra on Immeasurable Life, Shakyamuni explained how a monk called Dharmakara ('Dharma Treasury') made vows to lead all beings to enlightenment by creating a Pure Land, a realm that is free from the misleading ignorance that hinders our progress to Buddhahood, and how he would enable us all to be born there. Furthermore, Shakyamuni explained that Amida has attained enlightenment in the deep boundless past and has achieved his purpose for us.

Amida also made vows in relation to us, people stranded in the realm of ignorance. These are the vows of infinite light and infinite life.

Light is wisdom, and life is the compassion that results from perfect wisdom. Amida Buddha's understanding is so complete that when he thinks of us he knows us exactly as we are and, indeed, accepts us as we are because of his perfect wisdom.

The primary focus for Shin Buddhists is Nembutsu, the Name of the Buddha, Namu Amida Butsu, which means, "I take refuge in Amida Buddha". Amida vowed that his Name would be heard "throughout the ten directions," (Larger Sutra 7) that is, everywhere, and that those who say his name, entrusting themselves to him, will be born in the Pure Land and attain Buddhahood.

Although the names of ordinary people can have immense power, Amida Buddha's Name has limitless power. The name of someone we love may evoke fond memories and longing but the Name is Amida Buddha - active in our lives and our consciousness. All of Amida Buddha's virtues, his Life and Light, are embodied in his Name.

Namu Amida Butsu is the Japanese pronunciation of the original Sanskrit phrase, Namo'mitabhaya buddhaya, which was also transliterated into Chinese characters and pronounced Namo 'mito fo. The six Chinese characters are still the main written form of the principal image in Shin Buddhist temples and home shrines. Indeed, the correct iconic representation of Amida Buddha is really his written Name: Namu Amida Butsu. In Shin Buddhism, if statues and pictures of Amida Buddha are used, these are actually graphic representations of the Name.

Nembutsu people live in the Light and Life of Amida Buddha and see their own reality as distinctly different from his. Because Amida is fully enlightened, we become ever more deeply aware of our own profound ignorance: a kind of blindness, which is a sense of being trapped and unable to overcome the evil oppression of our egocentricity.

Although we may practice meditation and seek to control our desires in order to free ourselves, we begin to become aware of the intractable nature of our karmic evil and of our bondage to self-centeredness. Even the good we do can become a source of spiritual pride and arrogance that may frustrate any progress we make. Shin Buddhism encourages us to heed the bidding of Shakyamuni in the Larger Sutra, and to relinquish all of our spiritual needs to Amida Buddha. In so doing we accept the Vow (will, mind or intention) and the Name of Amida ("Namu Amida Butsu") and, therefore, our ultimate destiny - Buddhahood, Nirvana. When this happens, our life becomes a joyful adventure, characterized by a sense of indebtedness.

The difficulty many of us have is in accepting that we are really taken in by wisdom and compassion just as we are: unable to become good or better people. All of us have an unendurably painful dark side: deep and terrible greed and anger. Worse, we are profoundly ignorant and constantly shocked at our own insensitivity. Within ourselves, we discover the existential pain that afflicts us all in this "Last Dharma Age", the age of mappo.

The person who awakens to Amida's Mind - in other words, accepts the Primal Vow - is born in the Pure Land. However, since the time of the great Shin Buddhist master Shan-tao, who lived in seventh-century China, it has been clearly understood that the Pure Land is, in fact, Nirvana or Buddhahood - ultimate realization of transcendence; in Buddhist terms "extinction of birth and death".

A Buddha is free of all attachment and aversion and has realized the true nature of things: wisdom and compassion. For this reason, he or she understands other people perfectly and moves to free them from the delusions that keep them in suffering and anxiety. So it is that our goal does not end in self-absorbed bliss but in reaching out to others to help them as well.
From Buddhist Information of North America web site

Jodo Shinshu: A Brief Introduction
Rev. Kenryu Tsuji

Introduction to Pure Land Tradition
Dr. Alfred Bloom

Shin Buddhism
Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji

Shin Buddhism
Buddhist Churches of America (BCA)

For study resources on Jodo Shinshu Buddhism see the Learning Center's Virtual Shin  section.

Korean Buddhisn

The Korean style of Buddhism has both academic and practical components. The Avatamsaka Sutra and the Lotus Sutra have been the main focus of study in Buddhist academic study. Pure land and Zen Buddhism have been the most popular and effective forms of practice, with Pure Land Buddhism concentrating on Amitabha and Avalokitesvara and Zen Buddhism (Son or Seon in Korean) emphasizing meditation and direct experience.

Although Buddhism was first introduced to Korea during the Three Kingdoms period (?-668 A.D.), the distinctive character of Korean Buddhism emerged during both the Unified Silla (668-935 A.D.) and the Goryeo (935-1392 A.D.) periods. During these two periods Korean monks continually traveled to China to study new Buddhist ideas. After mastering their study, most of them came back and tried to introduce new Buddhist ideas to Korean culture and people.

The study of the Avatamsaka and the Lotus Sutras and the worship of Amitabha (the Buddha of Light) and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva characterized Korean Pure Land Buddhism during the Unified Silla period. Towards the end of the Unified Shilla Period, the Chan School (Son of Korean, Zen in Japanese) was introduced from China and this added a new dimension to Korean Buddhism. Meditation and direct experience were emphasized over concentration on studying the texts. Nine different schools emerged and they were known as the Nine Mountains of Son.

In the 14th century the Nine schools of Zen were unified by Master Taego under the name of Jogye, which has remained the main sect to this day.

Korean Zen (Son)
Korean Zen is both less formal and less martial than Japanese Zen. The monastic order (and the vinaya) is central to Korean Buddhism with nuns (bhikshuni) of equal status with monks. Still, Korean preserves something of the flavour of classic Chinese Chan.

Korean monastic practice incorporates the elements of study, meditation (Son) and chanting (a Pure Land element). There are separate halls for each of these activities in the monasteries, and monks or nuns are free to specialize in whichever they find most conducive. Study focuses mainly on the Zen records and Mahayana sutras, chanting on the repetition of the names of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, and meditation on sitting and koan (hwadu) practice.

Korean Buddhis has been transmitted in only limited ways to the modern West. One teacher with a profound impact was Zen Master Seung Sahn, who was called Dae Soen Sa Nim (Great Honored Zen Teacher) by his students. The 78th Patriarch in his line of Dharma transmission in the Chogye order of Korean Buddhism, he founded temples in Japan, Hong Kong and the United States.

Korean Buddhism: A Short Overview
Charles Muller

Buddhapia: Korean Buddhism Information Center

Native tradition in Korean Zen
Mu Soeng

One Dharma

Far from pressing his own brand of Buddhism upon others, Ryokan repeatedly stressed the essential unity of all Buddhist teaching. And when writing poems for friends who belonged to the Shin sect . . . he extolled such practices as the recitation of the Namu Amida Butsu . . . His religious name, Ryokan, means "Good tolerance" . . .

Burton Watson, Ryokan: Zen Monk, Zen Poet

An excerpt from One Dharma 
Joseph Goldstein