During the centuries after the Buddha's death following doctrinal splits and developments Buddhism began to divide into various sects. From the 1st century AD to around the 7th century AD this process gave birth to three main branches of Buddhist belief which continue to exist in different regions of Asia today:
The oldest Buddhist teachings based on instructions attributed to the Buddha himself and to his early followers. These teachings stress the quest for individual salvation by the overcoming of desire and hatred, also known as the path of the Early Disciples sravaka and Lone Buddhas (pratyekabuddhas). An important and enduring legacy of this school are the rules for monastic life which continue to form the foundation of Buddhist communities throughout Asia. Theravada Buddhism remains strong today in Sri Lanka, Mayanmar (Burma) Thailand and Cambodia.
Mahayana translates as the 'Great Way' and is differentiated from older teachings by the addition of the concept of the bodhisattva. This is an enlightened being who rather than passing into the ultimate state of nirvana or liberation chooses instead continual re-births on the earth with the aim of leading others towards salvation. From the 1st century AD onwards Mahayana Buddhism was to travel along the northern Silk Road leading to the founding of Buddhist communities in Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. It remains the predominant form in Vietnam and China and forms the core of Tibetan Buddhism.
Vajrayana or the 'diamond path' is named after the vajra or 'diamond sceptre' a symbol of the ultimately indestructible nature of the enlightened state. Vajrayana developed in northern India and was both a product of the great monasteries of the region and of lone, wandering ascetics. The advanced meditation techniques practices of such yogis or Mahasiddhas combined the use of mantras or powerful ritual prayers with breath control and visualisation to form a powerful, fast, but potentially dangerous path to enlightenment. It was the Tibetan achievement to integrate this path, sometimes also called Tantric Buddhism, into a monastic setting and to merge it with earlier Theravada and Mahayana teachings.