Over centuries the Buddha’s teachings spread through India and from there to the north and south. The northern schools developed in Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and parts of Vietnam and followed the approach of Mahayana Buddhism. While the southern schools through Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos followed the traditional Theravadin approach.
A common theme in the Theravada is an ethic of disciplined restraint from self indulgence and causing harm, while the Mahayana schools were characterised by an altruism seeking the awakened state of enlightenment as the means to bring greatest benefit to all beings. A subset of the Mahayana developed an esoteric system of divine transformation to bring about enlightenment most rapidly, and this Vajrayana became most popular in Tibet.
Of the unique form of Buddhism which flourished in remote and geographically isolated Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has referred to it as a ‘complete form’ of Buddhist practice. It contains elements of all the various forms – the discipline of the Theravada, the beneficial wish for Enlightenment of the Mahayana and the transformative yogas of the Vajrayana, in all their various cultural expressions.
Over time Tibet’s monasteries became the greatest seats of Buddhist learning in the world and four main schools developed: Nyingma, Kargyu, Sakya and Gelug. The most recently formed school, the Gelug (literally the Virtuous Lineage), had the most adherents and is that primarily taught by His Holiness the Dalai lama. This school has a rigorous scholastic system based on vigorous debate. The scholar-monks spend as much as thirty years studying, meditating and debating the five major fields: Logic, Perfection of Wisdom, the Middle-way Philosophy, Metaphysics and Discipline (the ethical conduct of the ordained). Successfully completing this and the attendant examinations leads to the revered title of Geshe.