You are here:

Buddhists/Buddhism (Eastern Thought)


Hi Laurie,

I'm a high school student taking an online course called Eastern and Western thought. Right now we're studying Buddhism, and have been asked to interview an expert. I just have some questions I've always wanted to ask (even before this course)!

I was wondering how many different sects of Buddhism there are. Are there some which drastically differ and others with only minute differences? If so, what are they?

Is the Dalai Lama seen by all Buddhists as the living head of Buddhism? Is there any other monk (living or non living) who has the same notoriety?

Finally, where could one go if they wanted to learn the teachings of Buddhism but have no concept where to start?

Thank you for taking time to read this. I really look forward to your response.
Sincerely, Lauren.

Hello Lauren,

Thanks so much for letting me answer your questions.

Your first question is about how many different sects of Buddhism there are.

As for your first question, I am afraid I am not an expert in the history of Buddhism.  I can tell you that Buddhism spread into a lot of countries after leaving India, including Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, Western Europe and America – and I know I am missing some countries.

Tibetan Buddhism alone has between 4-6 or possible a couple more schools of Buddhism.  The number varies depending on to whom you speak.  Originally, I  believe there were 18 schools of Buddhism in India before it started to spread to different countries.  If you want a good answer on how many different Buddhist sects there are,  I suggest Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia – I think between those two you would get a good answer.

What I can tell you is that although the teachings stayed the same, each time Buddhism moved to another country, it adapted to the customs of that country.  So, within a country like Tibet, the different sects are pretty similar except mainly for their understanding of emptiness and to what degree the “I” exists.  

But if you look at how Tibetan Buddhism is practiced as opposed to how Zen Buddhism is practiced it is very different.  Tibetan Buddhism is full of color and iconography and music and prayers and not always a lot of meditation.  Whereas Zen Buddhism is much quieter, sparser, and tends to use meditation much more frequently than Tibetan Buddhism.  (These are generalizations of course) Both of these kinds of Buddhism as I mentioned teach Buddhism the way Buddha taught it, but the look and feel very different.

So the more subtle and minute differences come in how we interpret what Buddha said and the big differences are in how they are practiced from country to country.  The one caveat to this is that there are two overall major types of Buddhism – the Pali tradition and the Sanskrit tradition – or commonly but not necessarily correctly called Hineyana (Pali) and Mahayana (Sanskrit) traditions.  

The Pali tradition’s main aim is to use Buddhism for individual liberation or nirvana.  And the Sanskrit tradition’s main aim is to use Buddhism to reach enlightenment so that we become a Buddha in order to help all other sentient beings also reach enlightenment. So there are things that the folks who follow the Pali Cannon do that the folks that follow the Sanskrit Cannon don't do and visa versa.

As far as His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, he is the spiritual head of Tibet – not of any other country.

You ask if there is another monk living or dead with the same notoriety. There are so many monks in the past who are now dead who have spread Buddhism – here is a list of ones that I know about – N.B. These are the ones I know about – there are probably at least hundreds of other names that could go in this list.  And a second N.B., I am pretty sure all of these men were monks.

Anada, Atisha, Sariputra, Candrakirti, Dharmakirti, Garab Dorje, Kamalasila, Nargajuna, Padmasambhava, Lokaksema, Bodhidharma, Gampopa, Dolpopa, Sherab Gyaltsen, Longchempa, Pabongka Rinpoche, Milarepa, Nicheren, Mun Bhuridatta,  Suziki Roshi, Ajahn Chan, Je Tsongkhapa, all the previous Dalai Lamas, including the 5th and the 13th, the Karmapas, Sakya Trison and my favorite, Shantideva.  

If you are speaking of His Holiness’ notoriety as a Lama and a teacher who is alive today, I think it would be wrong to only think of monks – as there are a great many nuns who are doing a marvelous job teaching the dharma and I would not limit myself to only those in robes as there are a great many lay people who also spread the dharma and are wonderful teachers any lamas.  Here is my SHORT list – N.B. again this is just my list – on no specific order.

Chogyam Trungpa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Ven. Thubten Chodren, Jack Kornfield, Tsultrim Allione, Roshi Joan Halifax, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, Ven, Robina Courtin, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Brahm, Rev. Heng Sure and Bikkhu Bodhi.

If you want to learn the teachings of Buddhism but do not know where to start, I would suggest reading some basic Buddhist books such as Buddhism for Dummies which is co-written by a teacher of mine, John Landaw.  Or Buddhist Scriptures edited by Edward Conze, or The Buddha and His Teachings edited by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn and What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. These 4 books are overviews of Buddhism and the many flavors of Buddhism that are available.  And I have not even suggested any books on meditation or what kind of meditation practice there are.

There are many flavors of Buddhism and if I were just getting started, I would first read up and study the different kinds and then narrow it down to one or two I would focus on.  Eventually I would pick one as going back and forth between more than one I have noticed can become confusing and then also reduce the strength of the one you have chosen – That said, Buddhism is somewhat unique in the fact that we do not ask you to give up your own religious to embrace parts of Buddhism. So that is why there are many folks who practice Christianity or Judeism at the same time as Buddhism.  

Here are the flavors of Buddhism I am aware of – Same N.B. applies as above.  

Dzogchen, Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, Zen, Chan, Thai Forest, Pali/Therevaden, Vipassana, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelugpa, Shambala.

I hope this helps in a small way.  I wish I was a better scholar of the history and personage of Buddhism but it takes all my time just to try to practice the teachings of Buddhism as much as I can.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to let me know.

I wish you much success with this project and your spiritual path.

Take care - Laurie


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Laurie McLaughlin


I can answer questions about basic Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and meditation especially how the Buddha's teachings can help us in day to day living.


I have been studying Mahayana Buddhism and meditation since 2001. I have lead meditation classes and retreats for over 5 years. I have lived at a Buddhist retreat center for over 4 years and am currently ordained as a novice Buddhist nun. My nun name is Gyalten Yanghchen.

I hold a BA degree in technical theatre from the University of South Florida.

©2016 All rights reserved.