Every once in a while, I get someone who asks me a very particular question. It’s one that always baffles me and makes me wonder where they figure it’s a good idea to ask, but one I usually try to answer anyway. That question is, what are the different types of Buddhism? It’s not that it’s an inherently bad question, per se. It’s simply a wonder as to how I’m supposed to know about them all. It would be like asking a Catholic how many Christian denominations there are in the world. Belonging to one wouldn’t necessarily give insight to the other.
That being said, I can provide a brief answer based on what I’ve researched (and of course, what I study myself). Let’s start with the basics, shall we? Buddhism originated in India, sometime between the 6th and 4th Century BC. Given its depth of spirituality, philosophies and beliefs, it can seem like a pretty complicated religion. But it’s actually a quite simple way of life. And although it can easily be viewed as a generalization by those who have studied in-depth, Buddhism can be classified as two main branches: Mahayana and Theravada, with some sources citing one or two other branches. But I’ll leave those alone.
Both branches follow the Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path as well as The Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). But from there, the branches move away from one another in that their perspectives and sources of information, as well as how they believe nirvana can be achieved, start to differ. Each of these two main branches have multiple sects, offshoots and schools of thought.
This separation is often thought to be a result of some of the Buddha’s original followers heading out and establishing their own group of followers, following the Buddha’s death. This would without a doubt lead to some minute, almost imperceptible changes in some of the teachings as they were passed down, leading to a separation in what would have originally been Buddha’s teaching.
I, myself, for example study Zen Buddhism, which is an offshoot of a Chinese Mahayana form of Buddhism. Zen focuses heavily on meditation, awareness, equanimity and empty-mindness, which functionally speaking, works extremely well in tandem with training in traditional martial arts. Zen Buddhists believe that mental purity and ignorance block the path to enlightenment, hence the emphasis on meditation.
Equanimity is an aspect of Zen that I focus on quite a bit and usually freaks some people out. In the event that you’re too lazy or not interested enough to Google it, equanimity is a practice of composure and controlling one’s emotions while preventing any outward displays of said emotions. You could almost say that Zen Buddhists are the vulcans of the Buddhist world. It’s given me the ability to keep myself in check and maintain composure in situations where most people would have lost their proverbial shit.
There are so many details and SOOOOOO much information on this subject, that in order for me to write a composite post that would explain everything would take a greater amount of time than I actually have available to me, especially with a five-year old who hangs off my every movement! There are a number of decent websites that can provide a synopsis of what every main branch and sub-type is based on. My best suggestion would be to find some that truly interest you and to research it further.
The only warning I would provide is that while learning about any given subject is a good thing, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole and fall prey to inaccurate information. If curiosity fuels your fire, I would even suggest seeking out your nearest Buddhist temple, monastery or school and see about speaking to someone in person. I can promise it would be an enlightening experience (see what I did there?) ☯