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3 Traditions of Buddhism

Theravāda (“Teaching of the Elders”), also called “Southern Buddhism,” mainly dominant in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. This tradition generally focuses on the study of its main textual collection, the Pali Canon as well other forms of Pali literature. The Pali language is thus its lingua franca and sacred language. This tradition is sometimes denominated as a part of Nikaya Buddhism, referring to the conservative Buddhist traditions in India who did not accept the Mahāyāna sutras into their Tripitaka collection of scriptures. It is also sometimes seen as the only surviving school out of the Early Buddhist schools, being derived from the Sthavira Nikāya via the Sri Lankan Mahavihara tradition.

East Asian Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”), East Asian Buddhism or “Eastern Buddhism,” prominent in East Asia and derived from the Chinese Buddhist traditions which began to develop during the Han Dynasty. This tradition focuses on the teachings found in Mahāyāna sutras (which are not considered canonical or authoritative in Theravāda), preserved in the Chinese Buddhist Canon, in the classical Chinese language. There are many schools and traditions, with different texts and focuses, such as Chan (Japan: Zen) and Pure Land.

Vajrayāna (“Vajra Vehicle”), also known as Mantrayāna, Tantric Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism. This category is mostly represented in “Northern Buddhism,” also called “Indo-Tibetan Buddhism” (or just “Tibetan Buddhism“), but also overlaps with certain forms of East Asian Buddhism (i.e. Shingon). It is prominent in Tibet, Bhutan, and the Himalayan region as well as in Mongolia and the Russian republic of Kalmykia. It is sometimes considered to be a part of the broader category of Mahāyāna Buddhism instead of a separate tradition. The main texts of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism are contained in the Kanjur and the Tenjur. Besides the study of major Mahāyāna texts, this branch emphasizes the study of Buddhist tantric materials, mainly those related to the Buddhist tantras.