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 us 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. 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 a continuity in and of itself.