Four Schools of Buddhism

Solitary TreeAn understanding of how Buddhist philosophical systems evolved allows us to see the ever-growing subtlety and refinement of view. As typically occurs both historically and logically, one school grew from another, and different views emerged gradually. Four schools of Buddhism are covered as follows:

The first two schools, the Vaibhashika (Great Exposition) school and the Sautrantika (Sutra) school, searched for the basic building block of the universe, and because these basic particles were seen as truly existent, these two schools are known as realist schools. These two schools assert only the selflessness of persons, not the selflessness of phenomena.

With the third school, the Chittamatra (Mind Only) school, the intrinsic reality of external objects is questioned. It is argued that whereas the mind is real, the objects perceived by the mind cannot have independent existence because of that very reliance on the mind to ascertain them.

Finally, there is the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, the fourth and “highest”, or most subtle school. The Madhyamaka view is the “middle way” because its position lies between what it sees as the eternalism of the first two schools that sees objects as existing from their own side, and the nihilism of the Chittamatra school that asserts that things and events have no reality at all.

The four schools are divided into the non-Mahayana schools of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika and the Mahayana schools of Chittamatra and Madhyamaka.

Source: Excerpted from Tsering, Geshe Tashi. Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth (The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 2). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008. (Page 13.)


A PDF file entitled Evolution of Buddhist Thought covers the following areas:

      • The Three Wheels of Buddhism – Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel
      • Buddhism in India – Three Stages
      • The Buddha’s Teachings – Three Baskets or Pitakas
      • The Four Buddhist Schools
      • Buddhism in Tibet – Two Disseminations

A PDF file entitled Four Schools of Buddhism and Four Tibetan Schools covers the following areas:

      • The Four Schools of Buddhism – Non-Mahayana and Mahayana
      • The Four Tibetan Schools – Nyingma School, Sakya School, Kagyu School, and Gelukpa School