Although the roots of Buddhism go back to India, over the centuries the religion spread across the whole of Asia. It’s really easy to get lost between the many different schools and sub-branches of Buddhism, but most commonly it is divided into two main branches: Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Years after the death of the Buddha, the Buddhist Sangha, the monastic community split into two mainstream schools called Sthavira and Mahāsanghika, mainly due to some differences in the religious practice and the interpretation of the teaching.
The Theravāda tradition is said to be the continuation of the more orthodox Sthavira school.
The ‘Theravada’ is a Sanskrit expression which means the ‘Doctrine of the Elders’.
The Theravāda is a conservatist current in the sense that the theravādins put great emphasis on the preservation of the doctrine and the tradition in its original and most authentic form.
The main sacred language of the school is Pāli (close relative of the Sanskrit language) and the most important scripture is the Pāli Canon called Tipitaka.
The Theravāda spread mainly in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) and also had historical presence in Indonesia and Vietnam. Because of its geographical location Theravāda is also referred as Southern Buddhism. Nowadays, the number of the Theravāda followers is estimated more than 100 million.
The other significant current of Buddhism is the Mahāyāna. The word means ‘great path or great vehicle’ and it is the opposite of the word ‘hinayāna’ which literally means ‘small vehicle’. The pejorative hinayāna name was given by the devotees of the Mahāyāna to the rival non-mahāyāna schools.
It’s really important to note that the hinayāna is a pretty broad concept and, in strict sense, it’s not the synonym of the contemporary Theravāda, as the latter designates just one tradition of the non-mahāyāna schools. The hinayāna word indicates that its adherents and its ideal beings called Arhats primarily focus on their own liberation, don’t strain after aiding other beings and the hinayāna schools don’t accept the texts of the Mahāyāna tradition as authentic. In contrast, the main purpose of the Mahāyāna Bodhisattvas, the enlightenment beings, is to help other individuals to reach liberation.
Mahāyāna Buddhism has an expanded number of sutras, accepting many other sacred texts besides the Tipitaka as original words of the Buddha, and also describe an enormous pantheon of many Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Mahāyāna is now dominant mainly in East and Central Asia, for instance in China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan; for this reason it’s also called Northern Buddhism. Some classifications distinguish Vajrayāna, ‘thunderbolt vehicle’ Buddhism from Mahāyāna. The Vajrayāna or tantric Buddhism is to be found in Tibet and Mongolia, however many scholars and adherents don’t consider it a separate school.
Buswell, Robert E. (editor), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Gacl Publisher, 2003
Buswell, Robert E. and Lopez, Donald S. (editors), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press, 2013
Conze, Edward, A Short History of Buddhism, Oneworld Pubns Ltd., 1993
Skilton, Andrew, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes & Noble, 2000