Q. Can you help me understand all the different kinds of Buddhism? Like Christianity, it seems there are many branches, i.e., Zen, Tibetan, etc. How many are there and how are they different?
A. Here are a few big brush comparisons based on this Buddhist’s early experiences shopping around for a brand of Buddhism (and a teacher) that inspired my fidelity, the facts garnered over two decades of study, as well as friendships developed with practitioners of differing denominations.
Buddhism, like every religion, evolved, and continues to evolve, after the death of its founder, Prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. There were several attempts to unify and codify his oral teachings — all that they had at the time — after his passing, but as scholars began to make nuanced interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma, two major schools of Buddhism emerged: Theravada, the Teachings of the Elders, and Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. And naturally, with time and dispersion of the teachings to other lands, schools within these two divergences developed, and then schools within those schools. 
This map of the spread of Buddhism in Asia shows how the two branches served as foundational soil for different cultural adaptations of the Dhamma. Mahayana missionaries journeyed the Silk Road to plant the teachings throughout northeast Asia — Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. Hence, Tibetan, Vajrayana, Chan and Zen, to name a few, all developed under the big tent of Mahayana. Farther south, the Indian Emperor Asoka had previously used Theravada missionaries — including his own monastic son and daughter — as his implement of diplomacy to colonize Sri Lanka.
The oldest written Buddhist texts were penned onto palm leaves in Sri Lanka, from where Theravada missionaries journeyed to present-day Thailand and Burma. You might notice on the map that India, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, is absent from either school. The rise of Hinduism and the incursion of the Muslims depleted India of its many Buddhist temples and universities in later centuries.
What’s important to understand in distinguishing the multifarious faces of Buddhism? There are vivid distinctions in orthodoxy (beliefs) and orthopraxy (religious practices) between Theravada and Mahayana. Separate paradigms govern the two main branches of Buddhism. At its most basic, Theravada proscribes that the individual works toward her own liberation — a gradual transformation and unbinding of ignorance and suffering. The Mahayana framework incorporates this view and often includes a Bodhisattva Vow — the aspiration to free all beings from suffering before oneself. Some Mahayana practices, like Zen, also posit that sudden liberation is possible if mental obscurations are removed.
What are the differences in orthopraxy? Too many to catalogue, as are the differences in meditation methods! However, they all rest on samatha (tranquility) and viapssana (insight) practices, with variations in what’s emphasized and how. At root, the variety of denominations 2,500 or so years after the Buddha’s passing might be summed up in the realtor’s mantra: location, location, location. Mahayana territory is vast compared to Theravada, so most of the variety in Buddhism is born of the synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism with native religions.
Because Buddhism is relatively new to the West, both schools came bearing souvenirs from far-flung lands. The first Tibetan practitioners I met seemed like the Catholics of Buddhism with lots of foreign ritual and iconography. The Zennies were more like Quakers, spare and minimalist. Over time I’ve learned that each denomination of Buddhism highlights various aspects of the Dhamma and hence provides a unique prism. The Buddhism I follow falls under the Theravada tent, but is also at the forefront of a very Western adaptation of the Dhamma¬ called Secular Buddhism. One of the more well-known modern orthopraxies, Mindfulness Training, belongs to that camp too, and has made its way into American schools, hospitals and businesses.
Some of the most memorable moments in my practice have included long discussions with the Tibetan bhikkshunis (female monastics) in nearby Sravasti Abbey. Their souped-up model of the Great Vehicle looks a lot different than my rather unadorned Theravada conveyance, but our learnings are astonishingly similar. These discussions help me realize that I don’t need to defend or compare Buddhist practices: the same Dhamma treasures are available to all.
It’s important to remember that the Buddha was a phenomenologist — not an academic. He studied the nature of consciousness, and, as a doctor would, offered a cure for humanity’s suffering. His teachings are practical and psychologically rich — they aim to transform the experience of the human predicament. For Westerners, it is no longer a question of location, it’s much more a matter of inspiration: What school and what teachers inspire you? I no longer believe it’s the differences in the teachings that matter most; it’s what’s learned.
Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She's ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?
Note re the above: this Buddhist ran the first draft of the essay by the most well-read lay Buddhist she knew and changed a few things. Then she ran the next iteration by her friend, the monastic historian Venerable Ayya Tathaaloka, and the final version includes end-note corrections of my first two versions. You, dear reader, are left with a general understanding of the types of Buddhism, but also, if you know any Buddhists, you will possess a great party trick to correct their knowledge base from these endnotes. ↩
Note re the above: this might be more accurately stated, “As scholars began to make nuanced distinctions in the Buddha’s teachings, eighteen interpretive schools mapping and developing frameworks of Buddhist psychology emerged, eventually leading to a broad-scale distinction between the Vibhajjavada, the Teaching on Discernment (later known as the Theravada), and the Mahayana.” ↩
Note re the above: the 3rd century BCE Asokan Missions went in all directions, not only south. The Mahayana began to spread in all directions, including South and Southeast Asia, in the first century CE. Later the Mahayana gained predominance in North and East Asia and substantially later Theravada in South and Southeast Asia. ↩
Note re the above: the Sri Lankan Aluvihara Buddhist palm leaf text Tipitaka has never been found, so has only legendary existential status. All of the actual palm leaf Pali texts that have been found actually date much later. As far as we know, the oldest discovered early Buddhist texts are the Gandhara or Karosthi birch bark texts. These have been found relatively recently and are fragmentary; they are not an entire Tipitaka collection. Many of the texts found are quite similar to their Pali-text and Classical Buddhist Chinese, Tibetan and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit textual relatives. ↩
Note on the above: In the Pali-text sutta teachings, individuals are asked to consider and act on behalf of both self and others’ welfare and happiness. The early Theravada teachings also showcase many stories of sudden liberation placed within the context of development of the path and ripening of potential over a longer or shorter period of time. ↩
Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter,” to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.