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The Three Vehicles 

In this context the word, “vehicle” is used as these traditions incorporate means to travel and move along the path of liberation. It is very important to note that these three, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajryana, are not in contradiction with each other, but are all interconnected and fundamental parts of the whole body of Buddhism and the Buddha’s teachings. 

The Theravada vehicle is synonymous with Hinayana, and is known as the “Basic” or “Foundational” tradition of Buddhism. The focus is on individual liberation, with the premise that we have to first overcome our own obscurations and difficulties before we can be of true benefit to others. 

The basis of this tradition's teachings are found in the “First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.” Emphasis is placed on renunciation, which consequently highlights the need for disciplined behaviour and ethical conduct. The Pali Canon is the main text and “loving kindness” practices are also highlighted in the reflections on the Four Immeasurables. Being the foundational level, it is considered of utmost importance to take refuge. This means to “formally” become a Buddhist and to commit to seeking direction and guidance from the Buddha and his teachings.

The Theravada tradition is predominantly practiced by monastics and lay people in the South East Asian countries of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Burma.


The Mahayana tradition is also known as the “Greater Vehicle” as this is a later development of Buddhism. Following on from the Hinayana teachings, the Mahayana is founded in the “The Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.” 


It appends the Theravada tradition with the “Path of the Bodhisattva”. A Bodhisattva is a being who has realised the nature of reality, but through a heart of pure compassion, has committed to guiding other beings to liberation from suffering; not just themselves. This notion of “Great Compassion” recognises the interdependence of all beings, and thereby awakens the desire to not rest until all beings have attained liberation. 


The Mahayana tradition is seen to be mainly practiced in areas of China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore.


Vajrayana tradition is associated with Tibetan Buddhism although it was originally developed in Northern India; hence its similarities with hindu and yogic practices. This tradition includes visualization practices that accelerate the path of the first and second vehicle, thereby being known as originating from “Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.” These methods are founded in tantras that inform the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, namely:

  1. Nyingma; the oldest that developed in the 8th century and includes the Dzogchen and Great Perfection practices.

  2. Kagyu; orginitated in the 11th Century and is led by the Karmapa line of reincarnations. 

  3. Sakya; also formed in the 11th Century. This school is renowned for study and learning.

  4. Gelug: the newest school of Tibetan Buddhism, established in the 14th Century. The Gelugs are headed by the Dalai Lama line of reincarnations. 


Tibetan Buddhism is dominantly seen to be practiced not only in Tibet, but also parts of Nepal, Mongolia, Bhutan, Northern India and Russia. 

For more information:

Therevada Tradition

Mahayana Tradition

Vajrayana Tradition

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