Buddhism: Mahāyāna

Social Structure and Institutions

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Branches of Mahāyāna Buddhism

The phrase ‘Mahāyāna Buddhism’ is often used as an umbrella term referring to numerous schools of Buddhism that generally accept the same doctrinal innovations. These include concepts such as the bodhisattva ideal, emptiness (śūnyatā) and buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha). Differences among schools are usually on the basis of organisational structure, rituals, meditation practices and techniques, as well as regional influences. For instance, Daoism and Confucianism have been influential in some of the traditions. Additionally, the different schools and traditions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There are many subsects and variations of schools, and some schools are a fusion of different elements from other schools. The following list contains some of the major schools that originate from East Asia.


The term ‘ch’an’ is Chinese for the Sanskrit term ‘dhyāna’ (meditation). This school of Buddhism is often known as ‘Zen' (the Japanese pronunciation of Ch'an). The terms ‘Ch'an' and ‘Zen' do not refer to a specific tradition, but rather various schools of meditation. It is also known as ‘Seon' in Korea and ‘Thien' in Vietnam.

Ch'an schools typically view themselves as focusing on cultivating a experience of enlightenment. The teacher-pupil relationship also plays an important role in many Ch'an schools. Different Ch’an/Zen schools place emphasis on different aspects of practice. For instance, the Japanese Zen tradition of Sōtō places a large focus on quiet sitting meditation (known as shikantaza), while the Japanese Zen tradition of Rinzai often focuses on koans.


Nichiren Buddhism is a Japanese school named after its founder, Nichiren. It is one of the major schools of Japanese Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhism emphasises faith in the power of the Lotus Sutra. This faith is expressed by the devotional practice of reciting or chanting the ‘daimoku’: “namu myoho rengekyo” (”I take refuge in the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Dharma”). There are various subsects of Nichiren Buddhism, such as Soka Gakkai – a lay organisation that has gained popularity around the world.

Pure Land 

Pure Land Buddhism greatly emphasises faithful devotion to the buddha named Amitābha. Pure Land schools generally hold the belief that rebirth into Amitābha’s Pure Land (known as ‘Sukhāvatī’) is ensured for all devoted followers who sincerely invoke his name. Thus, a common practice in Pure Land Buddhism is the mindful invocation of Amitābha name (usually the phrase “Homage to Amitābha Buddha” in the local language).


The Buddhist school of ‘Tiantai' (China) or ‘Tendai' (Japan) treats the Lotus Sutra as the most important Buddhist teaching. The idea that all beings possess buddha nature, as well as various meditative and esoteric practices, play a major role in the Tiantai/Tendai schools. The Japanese school is also marked by with teachings from various other Buddhist schools and Shintō teachings. The Tiantai/Tendai school is also found in Korea as ‘Cheontae' and Vietnam as ‘Tien Thai’.


Vajrayāna (‘Thunderbolt Vehicle’ or ‘Diamond Vehicle’) Buddhism is a form of Tantric Buddhism that developed in India and neighbouring regions, especially Tibet, China and Japan. The primary texts of Vajrayāna are the tantras, which generally contain esoteric teachings that are often ascribed to various buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Vajrayāna tradition is sometimes considered to be a separate distinct branch from Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Vajrayana Buddhism has various distinctive techniques to assist in rapidly accomplishing the goal of enlightenment. For example, the school teaches special kinds of meditation (sādhanā) practices and techniques. These practices include drawing sacred circular diagrams (maṇḍala), various visualisations (mudra), chanting sacred sounds, syllables and phrases (mantra), and developing or ‘retaining’ (dhāraṇī) high levels of mindfulness and wisdom. The aim of such practices is to transform or unify the individual with a particular divine, consequently leading to enlightenment.

Another distinctive characteristic of Vajrayāna Buddhism is the great importance placed on the guru(teacher) and receiving instructions and initiations for the meditation practices and techniques from the guru.

Social Structure

Generally, there is no specific social structure that underpins a Mahāyāna Buddhist. This means that many may use services and may reside anywhere they wish. In countries with large Buddhist populations, there may be Buddhist specific institutions that someone may use (such as a hospital or school). However, this is usually determined by personal preference.

Organisational Structure

There is some difficulty in generalising Mahāyāna Buddhism's organisational structure. This is because structures vary depending on the region and school. While some are strictly hierarchical or have central governing bodies, others may run similar to a family business. The main distinction is between monastics and . However, these distinctions are not always rigidly defined, as people can become monastics for short periods of time and return to the .


The term ‘monastic’ refers to those who live under a religious vow to commit themselves to their religious practice. Such people in Buddhism are generally referred to as ‘monks’ (male) or ‘nuns' (female). In some traditions, some features that distinguish monastics from the are their shaved heads, donned robes and practice of celibacy. These features are generally considered natural steps taken in one’s training as they focus and progress towards enlightenment (nirvāṇa). Typically, there is some within the monastic community based on one's experience, age or accomplishment.

There are set rules and expectations governing monastic life explicit in Buddhist texts. However, interpretations and applications of monastic discipline vary widely. Some focus more on the teacher-pupil relationship (such as Zen), while others may be more devotional (such as Pure Land). Nonetheless, it is common for monastics to undertake the bodhisattva vow, follow a vegetarian diet, and undertake meditation practices and/or training across various Mahāyāna traditions.

While the majority of monastics are monks (i.e. male), female monastics are particularly numerous in some countries. For example, South Korea and Taiwan have some of the largest nun orders in the world. In South Korea, approximately half of all Buddhist monastics are women, and in Taiwan, the vast majority of monastics are female.


The term ‘’ refers to lay or ordinary people who are not part of the formal religious order. In Buddhism, a is someone who is not a monastic, yet undertakes certain religious vows. These vows are usually in the form of taking refuge in the Triple Gem and attempting to live according to particular moral precepts. It is common for laypeople to have a shrine in their home that contains an image of a buddha or bodhisattva as well as offerings (e.g. candles, incense and flowers).

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