MAPPING THE THREE BRANCHES OF BUDDHISM
by A. Joseph Lynch
Buddhism traces its origins to India's Siddhartha Gautama in the fifth century BC. Upon becoming "the Buddha" (the "Awakened One") he proclaimed the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to nirvana (a state of mind in which one is awakened to the unreality of the self - and with the death of self comes the death of desire, which Buddha believed was the cause of all suffering). His first followers formed the Buddhist community (or "sanha") and took up a life of ascetic monasticism. Hinduism appropriated Buddha into its pantheon of Vishnu's many incarnations (or "avatars"), and in doing so Buddhism largely died out in the land of its birth.
Within a hundred years of Buddha's death, Buddhism divided into two sects: Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. As the way of the elders, the Theravada branch remained much closer to the original outlook of traditional Buddhism. It taught that the individual's pursuit of nirvana was paramount and that nirvana could be achieved only through one renouncing the world and embracing a life of ascetic monasticism. The more popular Mahayana (or "large vehicle") branch, however, divinized the Buddha and infused Buddhism with many religious practices that were accessible to the masses. What's more Mahayana Buddhism did not require monastic vows to attain nirvana. This branch also focused on compassion and celebrated the bodhisattva - those who put off their own nirvana in order to help others along the path before entering themselves.
A third major form of Buddhism is Tibetan Buddhism. This branch developed in Tibet during the seventh-fourteenth centuries AD, mixing Buddhism with local animistic and shamanistic practices. Religious and political leadership became united in the person of the Dalai Lama (or "big teacher"). The Dalai Lama is seen as the reincarnation of an important bodhisattva who helped many others attain the state of nirvana. Tibetan Buddhism is also known as Vajrayana (or "lightning") Buddhism as those who live it out can achieve nirvana at lightning speed - even as quickly as one lifespan without reincarnation.
As Buddhism spread outside of India, it traveled north, east, and south with each direction lending its name to each of the three major branches.
Theravada Buddhism, the oldest branch, is also known as Southern Buddhism. It is has 150 million adherents and comprises roughly 30% of all Buddhists. It is most commonly found in the southeast Asian nations of Cambodia (95% of the population), Thailand (90% of the population), Myanmar or Burma (89% of the population), Sri Lanka (70% of the population), and Laos (67% of the population). Buddhist nationalism in these nations has led Burmese Buddhists to attack and expel Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Thai Buddhists to fight an Islamic insurgency on its southern border with Malaysia, and Sri Lankan Buddhists to battle both of its Christian and Muslim minorities.
Although one would think Tibetan - or Northern - Buddhism is relegated to Tibet, its branch spread northwards to what is today Mongolia (55% of the total population) and even into Russia. It also comprises roughly 75% of Bhutan's population. With around 20 million adherents, however, Tibetan Buddhists make up less than 5% of all Buddhists. Despite its limited numbers Tibetan Buddhism receives much more attention than other branches due to the political movements surrounding the Dalai Lama and the popularity it has received through political activists, news media, Hollywood, and our modern culture's love for esoteric eastern religions. Although Tibet's unique religious-political history makes it quite unique from the rest of China, its status as both "the water tower of Asia" and also an impregnable wall against India (home of the Dalai Lama in exile) makes Tibet vital to Chinese geostrategy. Here China dabbles in religion as the Chinese government has declared its right to name the next Dalai Lama.
Mahayana Buddhism, also known as Eastern Buddhism, is by far the largest branch of Buddhism with 360 million adherents or 68% of all Buddhists. Although it is the largest of the three branches, Mahayana Buddhism does not comprise the majority faith of any nation. It's numbers are substantial, but spread out. It is found in eastern China, making up around 18% of the population, and is also popular in Vietnam (16% of the population), Taiwan (21% of the population), South Korea (23% of the population), and Japan (36% of the population). Due to its limited impact on national identity, Mahayana Buddhism has not produced the same kind of nationalist political movements as those of Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism.