The Three Ways of the Buddha Dharma

Much like any other organised philosophy or religion, the Buddha Dharma can be divided into subgroups. And here we can name and discuss the three major schools of thought. Of the three ways or vehicles, the most well known and practised are Theravada the way of the elders and the Mahayana the great and/or middle way. The lesser known way of Vajrayana or diamond or thunderbolt vehicle is sometimes mentioned as a part of the Mahayana but is different enough that many of its practitioners feel it is a way of its own. It is said that the Buddha gave 84000 teachings during his over 40 years of teaching. That would be way too many for any one individual to follow all in good conscience. So it is best if one approaches this vast array of teachings like a pharmacy. One takes only what one needs at the time as it would not be advisable to take everything at once. In this way, we can see the three ways not as being better or superior to one another but as being different ways for different people or different ways at different times in one’s practice or life.


The Theravada school or the way of the elders is very likely the most conservative of the three and was up until the 1950s known as Hinayana. This is a mistake as the Hinayana was a smaller school that was one of the 18 schools who were wiped out during the Muslim invasion of India in roughly year 600. The Theravada school has a very high proportion of monks and nuns as it is almost impossible to practice it as a lay person. However with the reintroduction of vipassana meditation in the 1900s the monastics have started to teach lay people. This is likely due to the need for new practitioners to support the monastic community or the school risks dying out or loosing relevance in our modern age. The major tenants of Theravada Buddhism include avoidance of negative behaviour, the four noble truths, and the eightfold path. Its foundation is the sutras written in the Pali Cannon. Theravadans take Refuge in the three jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as one begins the path to liberation. It is worth mentioning two things here, that liberation or the small enlightenment and enlightenment or Nirvana are not necessarily the same thing as an Arhat and Bhodisattva differ significantly. Secondly one can say that the Theravada path to enlightenment may take aeons of aeons because only practicing the avoidance of negative actions does not clear up the negative impressions in mind as fast as the merit one gains along the bhodisattva path.

Mahayana Buddhism spread mostly to the west of India to Afghanistan and North through Tibet to Mongolia and into Japan, there is also some evidence of it as far south as Indonesia. The Mahayana school maintains all of the Theravada teachings and adds Bhodisattva activity on top. Here one realises that he is only one, and the others are many. On the path of the Bhodisattva, we develop a vast intention to care for the happiness and well being of all sentient beings and begin our work centred on others. On must have a good surplus to do this. On the Mahayana path, full enlightenment is the goal, however not just for the individual practitioner but for all beings. With the powerful motivation of focusing on all beings, enlightenment may only take several lives.

Vajrayana or sometimes called Tantrayana or Mantrayana Buddhism spread north into Tibet, Mongolia and onto Japan. It is of great importance to note here that Tantra is not the exotic sexual path sold in the sixties by hippies and money hungry gurus. Tantra actually means to weave, one must weave ALL the teachings of the Buddha into one’s life during work rest and play. On this path, one requires great confidence and a firm foundation of the other two paths. The confidence one requires is that if the Buddha, also a human, could reach enlightenment in one life, so can I. When one attempts this path a very close relationship with a lama is a must. One cannot travel this path alone, or it is at least not recommended to do so even without a sangha. Refuge in the Vajrayana school is expanded to include the three roots of Lama, Yidam, and Protectors. Lama or teacher is clear as one needs an exemplary example to follow. The Yidam is Tibetan for mind bond or that which ties us to or reminds us of mind and all its unlimited enlightened qualities. Here one meditates on a Buddha form that is understood to be an archetypal symbol of these qualities and merges and mixes with it until the qualities are realised or woven into one’s life. The protectors are the energies that ensure the best conditions with which to practice and develop as fast as possible for the benefit of all beings.

At the beginning of my Buddhist path, I met a Theravada practitioner who told me that the Vajrayana path that I was on did not even exist. The Tibetans say that you cannot see the peak of a higher mountain from a peak of a lower mountain. It is further said that the aeons and aeons of practice that a Theravada practitioner needs to reach enlightenment means that they will likely never be enlightened.

Most depictions of the three schools I have seen tend to place Vajrayana on the top with Mahayana in the middle and Theravada on the bottom. This reflects the growth in teachings and a natural progression from one to the many as in Arhat to Bhodisattva. Funnily enough, I have a good friend whose father is a Theravaden monk who explains it like this. Vajrayana is on the bottom because they need the Lama who is actually the mother who tells them all what to do. This is the starting point. When the practitioner progresses to Mahayana they begin to be independent and can practice with others. It is only when one reaches the Therevaden level that one is qualified to practice on there own. This is a debate that has been going on for over 2000 years, and it proves that even Buddhists can have disagreements. 🙂 However, I firmly believe that these three schools are best seen as a flexible package and or a system of personal growth. One can start in one and finish in another and move around as one wants if needed. Although digging deeply in one spot is always a good idea. Even as a Vajrayana practitioner it is useless to have an amazing roof for a house with no walls or foundation to hold it. Neither of the three paths are superior to one another only that the individual practitioner has a better understanding or personal access to one or the others. One path might not even exist without the others by itself. They are continuity in and of itself.



6 thoughts on “The Three Ways of the Buddha Dharma”

  1. Hi QP I definitely will not delete it, you have some really interesting thoughts and I really appreciate your posts. I have just read your post on the 3 schools and found it really informative. I think as you say, Theravada has a definite place still, and I too believe that each school of thought supports the other. I became a Theravada nun for a very short period in Thailand at a Lop Bhuri Monastery. There you can robe for 1 month or 3 months etc so I have first hand experience of this kind of life. The Theravada monks/nuns are mainly only concerned with developing themselves to be spiritually clean if you like. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I’m not passing judgement as this is still very much their way. Theravada Buddhism as you know, was called the way of the Elders & Mahayana I believe emerged basically because Theravedan monks started to get bored and realised there were other important things in the world. They began questioning, but the elders believed only one way is possible. That’s when some started to split from the elders to set up new groups (Mahayana)
    Mahayana taught about kindness & compassion to others and how it can ripple out across the world like a stone thrown into water. Mahayana began to teach about developing compassion and getting rid of all the negative poisons that keep us stuck in Samsara. Theraveda school of Buddhism however, still believes it has remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha, but it doesn’t really over-emphasise the status of these teachings in a fundamentalist way. The Buddha’s teachings are seen more as tools to help people understand the truth, and not as having merit of their own.
    You mention, at the beginning of your Buddhist path, a Theravada practitioner told you that the Vajrayana path you were on did not even exist. I understand what he meant by that and feel it’s true you cannot see the peak of a higher mountain from a peak of a lower mountain. The issue of the Theravada is they were or are hesitant to climb higher and explore other views. Maybe things are progressing now but I still see the Theravada as very old school with little room for flexibility. That’s not to say they don’t have a place, they most definitely have much to contribute still. Julie

    Original comment


    1. Thank you for that it’s so interesting that were a nun for a while. Now I have even more questions, :). Is it true that for instance refuge is taken only for oneself, while for me in vajrayana maybe also in Mahayana refuge is taken for all beings? What would you say to someone who said that Theravada Buddhism is basically selfish?
      Do you think that the two remaining schools have an intact transmission? During the Muslim invasion of India 18 Theravada schools were wiped out that’s a very significant proportion of the tradition.


  2. Hi QP
    I’ll try to answer your questions in the best way I can with the experience I have. Firstly yes a person takes refuge mainly for their own purpose, journey & enlightenment. If someone told me that Theraveda was selfish, I would say Therevada is what it is – a mind orientated way of being. Theraveda is simply a different path from Mahayana no more no less. In fact we need to develop our mind in order to thrive well in life, but for me Mahayana gives that development a wider purpose. We can change lives by serving all beings. Some would argue however, the purpose of Mahayana has no more benefit than fully developing the mind. In relation to the 2 remaining schools, yes I believe they have intact transmissions. You’re absolutely right, during the Indian invasion, a substantial portion of Theraveda schools were wiped out, but the issues between Elders and younger more inquisitive monks started long before. It was really the Elders who felt Theraveda practice was the only real way to achieve enlightenment and they couldn’t see beyond that. Personally I feel Theraveda has a real place when it comes to mind development. Interestingly when I’ve frequented the Dalai Lama’s Monastery I’ve often sat with Theraveda monks and nuns who came for teachings.


    1. I’ll give you some background information, a very good friend of mine is leaving my tradition for a Theravada one, he says he does not understand anything. I can see his point, partly. I don’t really really know much myself either or I would be the lama. But anyway we are really having some great insights and discussions. I think I always had in inclusive approach to Buddhism as a whole but it is now becoming holistic. Let me explain. If it’s true that Mahayana builds on Theravada and that vajrayana on Mahayana then one must not only focus on peak of the mountain one must start on the path and keep an eye on the trail in front of him before one reaches the goal. In my school we talk a lot about surplus, a surplus that arises out of the meditation and practice in general. This surplus is then used for the others, as bhodisattva activity. Even in times of deficit the practice continues to focus on future surplus by planting the karmic seeds for more. An example would be taking refuge for the benefit of all beings or repeating the Boddhisattva vow every day. When one wishes to help others the conditions will arise. But there are times when things are really tough or even in the beginning of ones practice where you do practice or focus on your own development. Here an example would be my three year old is throwing another temper tantrum and I have to leave the room. I cannot transform my anger (vajra), I cannot practice compassion for her (maha), I have to go before I loose it myself (Thera). The only thing I do not not compromise on is the meditation, my Yidam and Ngondro practices work end of story. This is tantra the weaving of the practice into my life. It’s like climbing up a ladder sometimes I get up too high and need to take a step down or two but I always try to move up and on. Is this what you meant by wider purpose or do you know what I mean?
      Can you remember the refuge prayer you learned as a nun? I would be interested in reading it. It is true the the issues with the elders and the inquisitive ones started long before. Nagarjuna is a really good example as is his teacher Saraha, as here is when Mahayana really gained traction, there must have been others before.
      Theravada monks and nuns coming for teachings very inspiring! Tell me more please.



  3. Hi there, Thank you once again for your lovely feedback. I believe we’re always on a learning journey in life, so I can understand the frustration but discussion and debate is always key to our learning so it’s great this is taking place. I’m sure your friend understands a lot more than he realises however exploring a different way of teaching is always a good thing I feel. I understand also what you’re saying here about “If it’s true that Mahayana builds on Theravada and that vajrayana on Mahayana then one must not only focus on peak of the mountain one must start on the path and keep an eye on the trail in front of him before one reaches the goal.”
    I don’t necessarily believe Mahayana builds on Theravada or that Vajrayana builds on Mahayana though, but more they all simply contribute to and complement each practice. With these beliefs I must also ask why cant we let the journey simply unfold before us without too much focus on the end result? To me it’s a little bit like thoughts in meditation, they come & they pass. The peak of that mountain is the ultimate achievement but the journey to it is what matters.
    Now about your 3 year old – oh do I get that!! I’m a. Mum myself 😂 There’s nothing to test your patience like a 3 year old. It’s interesting what you say however, about not being able to transform anger or practice compassion for her at that very moment, obviously because you’re in the middle of it – so you remove yourself from the problem temporarily. This gave me some food for thought about your friend because he seems to have done the exact same thing with his learning path. These are only my thoughts so please don’t take them as criticism they really aren’t intended this way. It’s just when a situation becomes unbearable, this is a great tool for self development. My example is when my husband was murdered, his killer became my greatest teacher in developing compassion and forgiveness. Without him I couldn’t have worked on my own development the way I have. I could have decided on a more convenient & less painful path of plotting the ultimate revenge but then I’d have missed some great lessons. I do know exactly what you meant by climbing the ladder etc and you describe the experience well.
    You mention Nargajuna – one my most admired teachers. As you may know, he was often called “the second Buddha” by Tibetan and East Asian Mahayana Buddhists. Even though he was Indian by birth, Nargajuna was very critical of Brahminical and Buddhist philosophy. This is what I love about Nargajuna, the fact he simply didn’t conform.
    Now about the Theravada Refuge prayer – There’s a universal prayer that I recited when I ordained as a nun. Of course it was recited in Thai and I can’t remember that I’m afraid as it was repeated after the Ajahn. The same Refuge prayer is offered no matter which school you follow.
    “Till my enlightenment I take refuge in Buddha, all Enlightened beings and my own Buddha Nature;
I take refuge in the Dharma, the universal truth and the path towards enlightenment;
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of those who are ahead of me on the path.”
    In the Gelugpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism we take refuge in the 3 jewels twice daily (three times each)
    Yes it’s true, the Dalai Lama’s monastery is frequented by lay people, scholars & practitioners from all over the world. It isn’t unusual at all to see Theraveda monks & nuns attending teachings there. Nor is it unusual to see Chinese students there taking teachings. In fact I had a lovely lunch & wonderful conversation with a Theravada monk from Cambodia whilst I was there. Julie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am sure he understands or knows more that he thinks. Some things need a chance to sink in. But he says he likes the simplicity of Theravada “all the Buddha forms and all the different things to focus on are simply too much for me” he said. I can see what he is getting at but regardless of what path one takes you can make Buddhism as simple or as complicated as you wish. That’s the beautiful thing about the Buddhadharma it is so multifaceted and approachable from any angle. But you are right he has removed himself from some stressful situations not just in his practice. But his practice is still good he says so I’ll trust him and be happy for all that he learns and does. You could not be more correct that one develops the most in tough situations. I certainly have had several situations where I almost lost it, but you know my practice was the only constant thing I had, it got me through. You certainly sound like you transformed things surrounding the murder of your husband. It’s living proof the dharma works.

      I can see how the schools complement one another and how they build on each other. Moreover that one passes through phases that might resemble the schools. I just read the other day that there are some Theravada tantric (did you know about that?) practices that are kept very secret but that some people are now talking about them because of the inspiring success our schools have had with them. It’s hopefully more than a sales trip. But every organization needs to sell itself to operate dreams alone are not enough.
      Focus on the end goal is important if I personally did not have a goal I might not do anything at all and just wondering gets you no where. It’s good to know there is a plan with a path and that there are those who have gone before and succeeded. Thanks for the info on the refuge prayer. That sounds right to me.


      Liked by 1 person

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