The Lineages and History of Buddhism

The Buddha Shakyamuni taught, or "turned" the wheel of, the dharma three times.

Hinayana ---The First Time, he taught about the relative reality of the world, about Karma and reincarnation, and how to overcome negative actions. 

Mahayana ---The Second Time, he taught about the emptiness of all existence and the self. 

Vajrayana ---The Third Time, he clarified all misunderstandings which arose from the previous teachings and taught that we each are already perfect Buddhas "inside."

There are three paths which lead to either complete or a partial state or nirvana, that are included in the Buddha’s teachings.  The first path is the path of a Listener (Sravaka) of the Buddha’s teachings, who aims to become a saintly Arhat.  An Arhat is a being who has extinguished almost all external impurities and desire, however their goal does not include the benefit of others.  The second path is that of a Solitary Buddha who arises in the world when Buddhism does not exist.  A Solitary Buddha attains realization but does not teach Buddhism to others.  The third and most supreme path is that of a Bodhisattva, someone who wishes to attain Buddhahood or strives for enlightenment in order to benefit others.  The Buddha’s disciples were actually Bodhisattvas who appeared as Arhats in order to aid sentient beings.

After the Buddha's passing, his teachings were preserved and passed down through many generations.  Some schools, sects or lineages focused on certain teachings, some carried them all, while others tried to organize the teachings through various systems.

What follows on this webpage is a presentation of the schools of Buddhism and their history, including the Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana and Theravada.  Please refer to the Basics section and the Glosarry to understand the terms and Buddhism's teachings. The following Mahayana schools listed directly below are present lineages of Buddhism with separate webpages detailing their beliefs and history:

Ch’an or Zen
T’ien T’ai (Tendai)
Pure Land School
<Click above to find out more about these present schools of Buddhism>

The Buddha's doctrine is divided into the Three Baskets (the Tripatika):

1) The Sutras: consist of the esoteric and exoteric teachings taught by the Buddha. The Buddhist Tantras, although sometimes considered a separate classification, are said by Sakya Chogyal Phagpa to be classified under the Sutras.

2) The Vinaya: the collection of the Buddha's advice and rules on monastic discipline. The Theravada School records 227 rules, while the Mahayana school records about 250 rules.

3) The Abhidharma: formulated later on, it is a collection of the Buddha's teachings on the nature of the mind.

Other important parts of the Buddhist canon include the:

1) Commentaries (shastras), or works by later Masters and Bodhisattvas, including works by Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga, the Questions of King Milinda, among many others.

2) The Jataka Tales: are the stories of the Buddha's former lifetimes.

The First Council (teaching by Thrangu Rinpoche)

After the Buddha passed away, his teachings were preserved without any alteration or without any loss by means of three great councils.

The Buddha didn’t speak from books that he had written and he didn’t write anything down. Instead people came and asked him questions and voiced their doubts and their uncertainties. The Buddha would answer these questions, so that the teaching of the Buddha were actually answers to various people’s questions and doubts. These questions would become the opportunity for expounding the truth, for speaking of the true nature of everything.

We may ask, “Well, if everything was just said by the Buddha and nothing was written down, how come things didn’t get lost or altered or modified as time went on?” The reason this did not happen was that many of those who were receiving the Buddha’s teaching were monks totally dedicated to the path of the Buddha.

When they listened to the teaching, they did it with all their heart and immediately put the teachings into practice so they realized the fruition of the path extremely quickly, allowing all the qualities of intelligence to rapidly blossom in them. Among other things, they achieved the power of perfect memory which means each word the Buddha said was engraved very deeply in their memory so that every word was kept in their minds and nothing was lost.

After the Buddha's passing away, one of the his most important monks named Mahakashyapa gathered Five Hundred Arhats for a great council to keep all the teachings intact. The meeting took place in the great Banyan cave, which was on the bank of a hot springs close to the Vulture Peak near Rajagriha. It was presided over by three Arhats in particular: Ananda, Mahakashyapa, and Upali. They recited every word of the Buddha that they had heard and each of these three expounded on particular aspect of the teaching of the Buddha.

So Upali expounded the Vinaya teachings (those on monastic discipline), Ananda the Sutras (the oral teachings), and Mahakashyapa the Abhidharma (teachings on the mind and other advanced subjects). They would begin by saying, “Thus have I heard" or "This is how the Buddha spoke.” Each of these three Arhats would recite everything they had heard. In this way, they established very clearly and formally what the Buddha’s teachings were, so that from that point onwards all the teachings were classified into these three groups.

The purpose of this First Council was to make sure that all the immaculate words of the Buddha would be preserved in their purity and wouldn’t be lost. For instance, if even one part of a sutra had been lost, then the whole teaching of the Buddha would have lost some of its meaning. That is why they wanted to keep everything intact.

But, of course, it is possible that some of us will have doubts about this. We may feel that since there were no books to record the teachings of the Buddha, then maybe the sutras are not complete or maybe some of them have been made up by his followers. However, we do not need to entertain these kinds of doubt because the Arhats were very great beings who respected the Buddha’s teaching so deeply; they wanted to keep the teachings very pure, as they had been delivered originally by the Buddha.

Mahayana and Vajrayana Councils

Some time after the passing away of the Buddha, one million bodhisattvas met together under the leadership of the three great bodhisattvas Vajrapani, Maitreya and Manjushri on the top of mount Vimalasvabhava, which lies south of Rajagriha in southern India.

All the teachings of the Buddha were also collected in the three same sections of Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma. The bodhisattva Vajrapani recited the Sutras. The bodhisattva Maitreya recited the Vinaya, and the bodhisattva Manjushri recited the Abhidharma. So in this meeting they also collected all the teachings of the Buddha and classified them into these three main categories.

A similar thing took place with the Vajrayana teachings. The Buddha taught four categories of tantras: the kriya tantra, the carya tantra, yoga tantra, and anuttarayoga tantra.

With the lower three tantras, i. e. the kriya tantra, the carya tantra, and yoga tantras there was a special meeting of all the bodhisattvas in the Tushita realm to gather all of these teachings led by Vajrapani. For this reason, in the Vajrayana tradition he is known as “the Lord of Secrets,” with secrets referring to the secret mantra, that is, the Vajrayana. How did he come to be the Lord of Secrets? First he was the one who requested the Buddha to turn the profound Dharma wheel of the tantras and then when it was turned, he was the most prominent of the disciples. Later when there was this meeting of all the bodhisattvas to collect all the lower tantras, Vajrapani was the leader of this gathering and it is through his action that the tantras have been preserved up to now.

As far as the anuttarayoga tantras, the father tantras and mother tantras were mostly requested and received by dakinis such as Vajrayogini, and it was also the wisdom dakinis who collected and preserved these teachings. The Hevajra Tantra was transmitted mostly to the bodhisattva Vajragarbha. He later on gathered the teaching and transmitted them in their integrity.

The Kalachakra Tantra was transmitted mostly to the Dharma King Sucandra. He was actually an emanation of Manjushri. He was the one who also kept the teaching, collected them, and passed them on.

The Four Schools of Indian Buddhism

The schools of Indian Buddhism are the Hinayana schools of the Vaibhasika and Sautrantika, and the Mahayana schools of the Madhyamika and Yogacara.

The Hinayana or Lower Vehicle

Hinayana Buddhist believed that nirvana, the freedom from suffering, can be equally attained by either an Arhat, Solitary Buddha or Supreme Buddha (like Shakyamuni).  The Hinayana school does not emphasize the necessity to achieve Perfect Buddhahood or the vows of a Bodhisattva.

An Arhat, of course, gains a certain degree of freedom from suffering and achieves a limited nirvana, which does include the ground of selflessness and realization of the impermanence of phenomena.  According to the Hinayana view, selflessness is the voidness of the mind’s ego.  The understanding that all dharmas are empty and the concept of “how to” achieve Buddhahood are not fully developed within the Hinayana Schools.

Vaibhasika school and Sautrantika school are two schools rooted in Hinayana Buddhism which were present in India.  They mainly emphasized the vehicle of the Arhat.  Both were fairly similar, except for some commentaries and slight canonical differences. 

These two schools divided into many others, including: 

The Sarvastivada school questioned the perfection of the Arhat. It believed in the reality of the outer world.  They believed that Arhats are not fully enlightened, and therefore not fully perfected.  They also used Sanskrit language for their scriptures.

The Mahasanghika was formulated in the 4th Century B.C.E and questioned the authority of the Vinaya. The Mahasanghika only recognized 119 of the Vinaya rules and did not include the Abhidharma or the Jataka tales in their canon. In the Second Council, most of their ideas were confirmed to be against the teachings of the Buddha.

The Vibhajyavada school emphasized a dualistic approach to debate, which classified phenomena as existent or non-existent.  They also brought together the views of the Mahasanghikas and the Sarvastivadas.

These schools such the Mahasanghika and Sarvastivada are historically and doctrinally different from the present Mahayana and Theravada schools.

The Second Council (teaching by Thrangu Rinpoche)

The First Council was intended to make sure that all the teachings of the Buddha were kept intact and wouldn’t be lost. This happened after the death of the Buddha. Its main function was gathering all the teachings together and keeping each category of teaching (the Sutras, Vinaya, and Abhidharma) very clear and very well defined. Each sutra was kept complete and each chapter was kept clearly separate so that nothing would get mixed up or altered. In this way, the First Council established what the teaching of the Buddha really were and under which form it had been presented.

Later, the Second Council (sometimes called the intermediate council) took place 110 years after the Buddha had passed away (in the year 376 B.C.E.).

At that time there had been a greater number of new monks joining the sangha and some of them started thinking that some of the rules of discipline laid out by the Buddha were too strict. This group of monks called themselves the Mahasanghika. They also tried to establish ten new rules. These new monks tried to say that these new rules were actually made up by the Buddha.

Threfore, this Second Council had to be convened to make sure that the teachings wouldn’t become modified because of these people’s initiative.

One example of what that these new monks wanted to introduce was: If you had done some negative action, then it would be sufficient to fold your hands to the heart and to say something like “hulu, hulu” and then it would be purified and you wouldn’t need to do anything else.

Another rule they wanted to introduce was that if a monk had done something wrong, that went against the discipline of the monastery, then all he would need to say was, “I’m going to confess this.” Another monk would say, “Oh, that’s very good” and that would be enough and everything would be purified. (Other such new rules included begging for gold and taking intoxicants under the pretense that it is for medical purposes).

So these monks were trying to introduce a lot of simplifications and easy ways of doing things.

During this time, there was a very exceptional being, an arhat called Yashah. He saw this happening and realized that if nothing was done, the teachings of the Buddha would be altered and perverted. To prevent this from happening, he convened this Second Council with several other famous arhats.

Where did the trouble originate about these new monks trying to create new rules? At the time in India, there were six main cities, and the group of monks who wanted to start these new rules all came from Vaishali.

The arhat Yashah invited seven hundred arhats to meet for the council in Vaishali. He led the meeting by saying, “Well, now we have these ten new items that these monks are trying to introduce. The questions we should ask ourselves are whether these ten items can be found in the Sutras or in the Vinaya or in the Abhidharma.” He asked all of the arhats that were present where these could be found and all of the arhats replied that they couldn’t be found in any of these works.

Then Yashah asked, “Are these items in contradiction with the teachings of the Buddha; of the Sutras, the Vinaya, and the Abhidharma?” And the conclusion was that they were in contradiction with the works of the Buddha.

As a result, they decided that these rules should be rejected because they didn’t agree with what the Buddha had taught and certainly were not part of the teaching of the Buddha.

It was decided that this attempt to introduce new rules should be stopped and that these ten rules should be eliminated. Then the council took advantage of this positive situation to define once again very clearly what the teachings of the Buddha were so that there was a new, complete reading of the whole of the sutras, the whole of the Vinaya, and the whole of the Abhidharma to make sure that these teachings were the only ones to be recognized as the Buddha’s teaching.

The Theravada or Way of the Elders

During the Second Buddhist Council, held one hundred years after the Buddha’s demise, the issue of the Vinaya dominated the assembly. The Theras, or elder monks, affirmed that all the 227 rules of the Vinaya should be kept intact. Many other monks, the Mahasanghikas, did not believe so and instead accepted only 119 rules.

The Theras came to feel that the Mahasanghikas were violating the Vinaya because they stored food and accepted money, and also because the Mahasanghikas openly rejected parts of the Vinaya.

Historically this is the beginning of where the term Theravada came from, although the history behind it is very detailed. This school mainly studies the Pali Canon, which is the core collection of the Buddha’s teachings. The Pali Canon contains the Agama Sutras and the rest of its category, and also the Vinaya code and the Abdhidharma. Years later, other sayings and teachings of the Buddha were also added into the Pali Canon, along with writings of certain masters.

Deep reflection on the teachings, such as the Twelve Links of Interdependency, The Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, are highly stressed. The Theravadin tradition maintains that all three paths of the Bodhisattva, Arhat and Solitary Buddha exist, and that Buddhahood is the supreme attainment.

Flourishing of the Theravada and Mahayana

Mahayana Buddhism (explained below) exists mainly in Northern Asia such as Tibet, China and Japan. The Theravada exists mainly in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Although, the Mahayana and Vajrayana had strong lineages in Indonesia centuries ago which died out due to the Muslim invasions.

The Theravada tradition has 227 Vinaya rules and the Mahayana tradition has about 250 Vinaya rules; both traditions accept the Abdhidharma and Jataka tales. The Sutra collection of the Mahayana is larger because it includes the Buddha's extensive teachings on the Bodhisattva vehicle and the Buddhist Tantras on the expedient means to enlightenment (as explained below in the Vajrayana section).

Today, it has been reviewed and explained by both the present Theravada and Mahayana traditions that the monastic Vinaya code laid down by the Buddha was not a set of laws or commandments, but instead a collection of advice the Buddha gave through the course of his many years of teaching when certain circumstances arose. For example, the Vinaya codes states that a nun must sleep an armspan away from another nun, which is simply a means to protect her safety. Likewise, the Buddha gave advice on numerous circumstances over the course of many years, which was collected and recited at the First Buddhist Council.

The Mahayana or Great Vehicle

Mahayana Buddhism stresses the importance of the Bodhisattva and affirms that Buddhahood is supreme enlightenment, a goal which every being should aim to attain.  Its literature also includes the Buddha’s teachings on Bodhisattvahood and the Mahayana path, along with the basic Canon.

Madhyamika or the Middle Way doctrine was formulated mainly by Nagarjuna in the First to Second Century C.E.  It is the basis for Mahayana Buddhism.  The Middle Way doctrine rejects dualism when referring to the ultimate nature of the Buddha, that is extremes of existence and non-existence, cause and effect, right and wrong.  Therefore, although relatively phenomena exists, its ultimate nature is described by Nagarjuna’s presentation to be beyond explanation.

Nagarjuna’s presentation of this truth is known as Emptiness or
Shunyata.  According to this presentation, the ultimate nature of the Buddha is beyond conceptual words.  The Madhyamika describes the unreality of the mind’s perceptions, but also the very emptiness of the mind itself.

Yogacara or Cittamatran doctrine was developed by Asanga.  It emphasized that all external phenomena are a projection of the mind’s consciousness.  Since it is due to the mind’s own perception and interpretation which “create” phenomena, phenomena can be said to be empty like an illusion.  The Cittamatran doctrine states that everything is from the “Mind Only,” whether it be the phenomena we perceive or own ultimate Buddha nature.

The Shengtong and Rangtong views were developed in Tibet and elaborated on these Indian presentations. 

The Rangtong view describes the basis of the emptiness of phenomena.  It mainly emphasizes what is not the path, rejecting all views until one is finally left with the reality of phenomena.  Therefore, the Rangtong view is an analytical way of pointing out enlightenment. It is the empty of self school, since it points out reality by stating that the self is devoid of true existence.

The Shengtong view states that since we all inherently have the Buddha Nature, phenomena in its ultimate nature is already empty.   Our own inherent nature, which is pure and indestructible, is the reality of all existence.  The Shengtong view, therefore, brings together the sutra and tantra.  It brings an understanding to the sutra view of emptiness and the tantra view of using appearances (and deities) to achieve enlightenment, which is because we are trying to discover our Buddha nature.  All phenomena which is perceived is empty and the nature of the mind is emptiness.  But, the Shengtong view makes it clear that the mind is not empty of its own nature.  Therefore, the Shengtong view is more a direct and meditative way of pointing out enlightenment. It is the empty of other school, since it points out reality by stating that other than the mind's true nature, everything thing else is empty of true existence.

The Mahayana developed into the following schools in China:

Ching-tu or Pure Land School, which devoted itself to the Buddha Amitabha, was formulated by the Chinese master Hui Yuan during the 4th Century CE.  Its was based on the Sutras of the Buddha and Commentaries of the Indian masters.

San-lun or Madhyamika School of Nagarjuna was transmitted by the Indian master Kumarajiva in the 5th Century to four main disciples in China.  It was formulated in the 6th
Century by Falang.

Satyasiddhi based itself on a commentary by Harivarman of the 4th century C.E, which was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva in the 5th century

Ch’an School of Meditation was transmitted by the Indian master Bodhidharma to disciples in China in the 6th Century CE. 

T’ien T’ai school was formulated by the Chinese master Chih I in the 6th Century CE based mainly on the Lotus Sutra.

Kosa School was based on the Abhidharma-kosa-sastra by Vasubandhu and introduced to China from India by Shuan-chuan during the Tang dynasty.

Hua Yen School was formulated by the Chinese Master Tushun during the 7th century CE based on the Avatamsaka Sutra and its divisions of the teachings.

Fa-hsiang or Yogacara School of Asanga was transmitted by the Indian Masters  to the Chinese Master Hsuan-tsang of the 7th Century CE.

Lu-tsung or Vinaya School was formulated by the Chinese master Tao-shun in the 7th Century, who believed that through following the monastic code strictly one could achieve enlightenment.

The Vajrayana or the Vehicle which is Indestructible like a Diamond

Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as the Tantrayana or Mantrayana, is a form of Buddhism which is grounded in the Mahayana.  It spread directly from India to Tibet and to East Asia.  Its transmission in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Cambodia, died out centuries ego.

Vajrayana Buddhism is based most directly upon the Shengtong view of phenomena, although not exclusively. Appearances can be used and transformed in order to recognize one’s Buddha nature and the emptiness of the mind.  Rituals, ceremonies, dances, chanting, mantras, sacred implements and meditations are used in order for the practitioner to identify themselves with their own Buddha nature which is inherently within them. 

Vajrayana Buddhism brings together the sutra and tantra teachings of the Buddha.  The sutra teachings were mainly from the First and Second Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, while the tantra was mainly from the Third Turning.  The Tantras, which mean continuum, are simply another classification of the Buddhist Canon concerning the teachings which transmute outer phenomena and reality into its ultimate nature.  They are the last teachings of the Buddha, often transmitted to only the high Bodhisattvas and disciples.

An essential component of the Vajrayana is the usage of an empowerment (abeisheka).

An empowerment is the actual blessing and power of a deity, which already resides within us, to be invoked.  An empowerment causes the purification of Karma, which otherwise according to the Hinayana view would take eons to purify.  An empowerment generally consist of the Vase Empowerment in which the Nirmanakaya of the Buddha through the vase filled with sacred water nectar is transmitted, the Secret Empowerment in which the Sambhogakaya of the Buddha through the mantra recited on the rosary is transmitted, the Wisdom Empowerment in which the Dharmakaya of the Buddha through the dorje or another symbol is transmitted, and the Word empowerment in which the essence of our mind is pointed out by the Lama.

The necessity of a Lama is stressed in Vajrayana Buddhism.  But also, a spiritual guide is essential to follow all Buddhist paths.  As Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, supreme holiness of the Nyingma Dudjom Tersar Lineage, explained: “The essence and root cause of Buddhahood is within everyone.  However, without the necessary condition of meeting a teacher who has the wisdom and blessing of the lineage (which stems down from the Buddha), this essence of buddhahood will never blossom.  For example, even if a seed is planted in the earth, without the necessary conditions of warmth, moisture or fertilizer, the seed with not grow.  It will only grow with these good circumstances.  The essence of buddhahood is like this seed, and when the connection occurs between this seed (our Buddha Nature) and the teacher who has the wisdom and blessing (to bestow the empowerment), buddhahood blossoms.”

Click here to learn about the History of Buddhism in Tibet.

Nyingma, or Old School, Lineage was transmitted from the Persian/Indian master Padmasambhava to numerous disciples during his visit in Tibet, in particular Twenty-five masters, of whom the most excelled was the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal. Numerous Tertons (treasure finders) throughout the centuries have revealed the teachings of Padmasambhava.

What followed the Nyingma lineage were the New Schools, or Sarma lineages.

Kadampa Lineage was transmitted from the Indian master Atisha to Tibetan disciples such as Gyalway Jungney, Geshe Potowa, Puchungwa and Chengawa. This school gathered together the Buddha’s teachings into a system of gradual stages(lamrim). It also emphasized the Buddhist precepts.

Kagyu Lineage was transmitted from the Indian masters Naropa and Maitripa to the Tibetan translator Marpa, and also from the Indian female master Niguma to the Tibetan Khyunpo Naljor.

Sakya Lineage has been passed down through a divine hereditary line of a religious beings.  Its transmissions were received by Drogmi Sakya Yeshe from the Indian master Virupa.  These were then transmitted to Khon Konchog Gyalpo of the Sakya line of descendants.

Chod, or cutting through the ego, Practice Lineage was established by the Tibetan female master Machig Ladron who combined the meaning of the paramitas and that of the tantras.

Jonangpa Lineage specialized in the profound Shengtong view and also preserved the Chakrasamvara, Hevajra and Kalachakra tantras.  Its masters included Dolpo Sherab Gyaltsen and Taranatha. 

Shijey Lineage was transmitted by the Indian Siddha Dampa Sangye to numerous disciples in Tibet. 

Bodong Lineage was transmitted by the Tibetan Chogley Namgyal, but is very rare presently.

Gelugpa Lineage was started by the Tibetan master Tsongkhapa who combined the teachings of the Sarma schools, especially those of the Kadampa, Kagyupa and Sakyapa. 

Mitsung school was transmitted to China by the Indian masters Subhakarasirnha, Vajramati and Amoghavajra during the 7th and 8th Centuries CE, and is based on the Tantric principles of the Mudras, Mantras and Mandalas.  It later
on spread to Japan and today is known as the Shignon School.

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