A historical overview of Buddhism

The Three Jewels:

The Sanskrit term "triratna" (or tiratna in Pāli) literally means "Three Jewels". In Buddhism the Three Jewels (or Three Treasures) refer to the Buddha, The Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) and the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns, or more generally the community of Buddhist practitioners). The name of this domain "" reflects the contents of this website, information about Buddhism, not just one of the yānas (see below) but all of Buddhism. At present this website presents information about one aspect of Buddhism which everyone can understand and relate to - historical facts, people and their interconnections with one another. At present this site is organized according to various Buddhist "transmission lineages". In addition to lineages, historical, chronological, linguistic, and geographical resources relevant to the study of Buddhist history are provided. Later, attempts will be made to fill in more details - such as personal biographies, doctrinal explanations etc.

What is Buddhism? The Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma:


Buddhism can be considered to be all the traditions which trace their source back to Śākyamuni Buddha (ca. 563-423 BCE). Although these traditions differ widely, they all have as their basis the Four Noble Truths which Buddha Śākyamuni first expounded in the Summer of ca. 528 BCE at Isipatana (Ṛṣipatana) in Sarnath near Varanasi, India. This teaching is said to have been the first "Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma".

The present day Theravāda division of Buddhism, represented by the Buddhist Schools in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and areas directly bordering these countries, embody the principles of the "First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma". Their doctrine, based upon the Pāli Suttas (Sūtras), is quite literally what the Buddha said, and propagates the "Arhat" ideal of striving for one's personal enlightenment as the goal of meditation by means of realizing the inherent emptiness of one's own "self".

The Theravāda doctrine was systematized immediately after the Buddha's Mahāparinirvana in ca. 483 BCE and was divided into three collections - "Tripiţaka" (literally "three Baskets") - The Sutta Piţaka concerning discources, the Vinaya Piţaka concerning discipline, and the Abhidhamma Piţaka concerning higher teachings. These collections were memorized by succesive groups of monks and several hundred years later were written onto palm leaves. Most recently the entire Tripiţaka has been digitalized and are available in the the Pāli language.

The present day Theravāda is based upon the study of the Pāli language, the Suttas, and Abhidhamma. Their meditational practices are generally based upon of Samatha and Vipassanā meditation.


The "Second Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma" was first by propagated by Buddha Śākyamuni on Vulture Peak near Rajgir, India and is embodied by the Mahāyāna. The Mahāyāna is represented by numerous Buddhist Orders in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan where, during it's development Buddhism superficially incorporated traits of Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism. The Mahāyāna is a later, philosophically more comprehensive, development of Buddhism which differs from the Theravāda in several respects:

  • The altruistic bodhisattva ideal (bodhicitta) which considers one's own enlightenment to be conditional upon the enlightenment of other sentient beings.
  • An expansion of the concept of "emptiness" to include the inherent "emptiness" of all phenomenon and not just the emptiness of one's own illusory "self".
  • With the exception of Zen, the doctrinal basis of the Mahāyāna primarily relies upon Sanskrit Sūtras which the Theravādins argue are not the direct words of the Buddha. Although this is often true they do represent:
    1. Sūtras which were given by others in the Buddha's presence and therefore are considered to be sanctioned by the Buddha.
    2. Sūtras which were predicted by the Buddha in advance.
    3. Sūtras which were given by persons who were predicted by the Buddha (for example Nagārjuna).

Vajrayana or Mantrayana

The "Third Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma" refers to the Vajrayāna. The Vajrayāna is a further development of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism and is presently practiced in India/Ladakh/Sikkim, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan as well as areas directly adjacent to these countries/regions.

Generally speaking the Vajrayāna incorporates a great number of Buddhist methods and practices which originated with the Indian Mahāsiddha tradition in the 8th-13th century and which have been preserved in the Himalaya region after the virtual disappearance of Buddhism in India after the 13th century.
The four main Orders, and numerous less widely known Traditions of the Vajrayāna all preserve certain Indian practices as their core teachings and transmissions. Additionally over centuries the various Orders have all assimilated, to a varying extents, practices from the other orders/traditions, thus preserving to a large extent the medieval Indian Buddhist Mahāsiddha Tradition.
These Practices which vary from order to order include, among others: Kriya-, Carya-, Mahāyoga- and Anuttarayoga- tantric practices, as well as Mahāmudra, Dzogchen and Lam Dre. Additionally tantric practices first written or developed in Tibet, which include Lam Rim and Chöd, are also practiced by the present day Vajrayāna.

Vajrayāna practitioners also engage in the study of Theravāda and Mahāyana Sūtras, Śastras (Commentaries) as well as a variety of other subjects which were once practiced and taught at the four great Indian universities: Nālandā, Vikramaśila, Somapuri, and Odantapurī.


Theravāda Mahāyāna Zen/Ch'an Vajrayāna Resources Site Map

Last modification: 081029