Yāna Classification

Buddhism, like all religions, has naturally proliferated into many sects.  I don’t use “sect” pejoratively at all, but instead as a religious-studies term.  Christians invented the pejorative connotation with “sect” and thus don’t refer to their own sub-groups as “sects” but instead uses the term “denominations”.  Buddhists have various ways of describing their own sects.    Likewise Buddhists also have a special term for their sects.   The “3 Classic Yāna” taxonomy below illustrates a common classification of the sects.  See my diagram here to see how Buddhist sects fall into these three Yānas.

But as a commentor has rightly pointed out, the use of “Yāna” has other uses.  A Yāna is also a “path” or an “approach” to a practice and thus any given sect could incorporate any of the various, more detailed, A Yānas listed in the “9 Secondary A Yāna” list.  My diagram below illustrates the Nyingma classification scheme next the the “Classic 3 Yāna” scheme.  More specifically, this is the  Aro understanding.  The chart also shows how Aro sees functions and principles relating to their taxonomy of the Yānas into yet another 3-grouping: Drogchen, Tantra Yāna, and Sutra Yāna.  I hope people find this diagram helpful.

I look forward to feedback from those who can correct my mistakes.


  1. Your diagram seems mostly right (unlike the one from BuddhaNet).

    The base for Sutra is “revulsion for samsara“, or recognition that there’s something wrong with the strategy of trying to fix external conditions. It’s not just suffering per se (or else non-human animals would be at the base).

    “Theravada” does not really correspond to “Hinayana” as “Hinayana” is understood in Tibet. There’s a complicated history to this, which is politically sensitive.

    The third 9-yana-system yana is “Mahayana” or “Bodhisattvayana”, not “Pratyeka”.

    Dzogchen is ambiguously counted as sometimes part of Inner Tantra and sometimes not.

    The BuddhaNet diagram is comprehensively wrong. With respect to Vajrayana, it started in India (probably around 500 for Outer Tantra and 700 for Inner). It also exists (or has existed for substantial periods) in almost every other country on the list (Sri Lanka is the only possible exception).

    The history of Buddhism before the Common Era is purely mythical, as far as I can determine. It’s possible that it started in 600 BCE, as the chart has it, but there is zero evidence of that, and I personally consider it highly unlikely.

    Mahayana (as well as Vajrayana) was found in SE Asia in the past. Mahayana almost certainly reached Tibet before Vajrayana did.

    And so on and so forth.

  2. Thank you David. I made the corrections in the chart (I think that does it, no?). I deleted the Buddha Net diagram if it is that inaccurate. But leave the link here if someone wants to understand your criticisms.
    Thanks — so much to learn!

  3. Nice diagram – would you mind if I printed it for my students next time I teach yanas? One point about the text. A yana does not co-respond to ‘a sect’. A yana is an approach to practice – which you have shown very nicely. Any sect can practice more than one yana – it depends where the practitioner is at. In the Aro gTer we largely practice Tantra and Dzogchen, but do utilise sutric methods when needed.

  4. @She-zer
    Yes, indeed “yāna” is used as you say. But it is also used as a sect classification method in some writings I think. I have updated the post to incorporate your correction. If you get a chance, let me know if you agree with this rewording.

    Yes, of course you may use the diagram for teaching — I am honored. I’d be even better if you could link them to this post!! Sorry, some unabashed self-advertising– very unbuddhist, eh?

  5. @She-zer
    BTW, I just got another e-mail this morning telling me that a University professor in England is using another of my diagrams to teach New Testament studies. I’m going to be famous — ooops, I write under an alias. Oh well!

  6. Michelle

    Thank you for mapping it out so well. I’ve tried to make up my own diagrams to help while studying Tibetan Buddhism and have such a hard time even knowing where to begin to organize all the info. any other diagrams you’ve created and want to share are welcome by me!

  7. Michelle,
    You are welcome. Thank you for the appreciation.

Let me know what you think:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: