In his 45-year teaching career, the Buddha gave teachings to a wide variety of people. Those who came to him fell into three main groups — as people also do today. Buddha gave them different teachings, which can be classified into different types of Buddhism.
Theravada (The School of the Elders)
The Theravada provides teachings about cause and effect (karma), as well as pacifying meditations to create distance from difficult thoughts and feelings. Following these teachings – also described as the Small Way (Sanskrit: Hinayana) – the understanding arises that thoughts and feelings are not personal. This gives us the opportunity to act in a beneficial way and accumulate positive karma.
The teachings spread mainly through countries in South-East Asia, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. Today, the School of the Elders (Sanskrit: Theravada), is the closest example of this type of Buddhism. Their goal is liberation from all disturbances.
Mahayana (Great Way)
Mahayana teachings attract people whose primary motivation in life is to be useful to others, also known as the Bodhisattva Attitude. The teachings and meditations of the Great Way aim to gradually increase compassion and wisdom. Supporting development on this way is the wisdom that the world is like a dream. Therefore, it can be changed through our thoughts, words, and actions. These Buddhist teachings spread chiefly through northern Asia – into Japan, Vietnam, China, Tibet, and Korea. For this reason, the Great Way (Sanskrit: Mahayana) schools are also known as Northern Buddhist schools. Their goal is to become not just liberated, but fully enlightened for the benefit of all. The Mahayana includes the Theravada teachings.
Vajrayana (Diamond Way)
Buddha’s teachings described as the Diamond Way (Sanskrit: Vajrayana) are about the mind itself. These direct teachings that Buddha gave are for those who have a special kind of confidence. They understand that they can only perceive perfection outside because they have the same innate perfection inside. In Vajrayana, the Buddha is not considered a person; rather he is a mirror to our own mind. The teachings point out mind’s perfect qualities directly. They are often known as Buddhist Tantra. When Buddhism was destroyed in its native land, these teachings survived mainly in Tibet. The Vajrayana also includes the Theravada and Mahayana teachings.