Early Buddhist schools: Wikis


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Pali Canon
Gandharan texts


1st Council
2nd Council
3rd Council
4th Council


First Sangha

The Early Buddhist schools are those schools into which, according to most scholars, the Buddhist monastic Sangha initially split, due originally to differences in Vinaya, and later also due to doctrinal differences and geographical separateness of groups of monks.

The original Sangha split into the first early schools (commonly believed to be the Sthaviravadins and the Mahasanghikas) a significant number of years after the death of Gautama Buddha; according to scholar Collett Cox "most scholars would agree that even though the roots of the earliest recognized groups predate Ashoka, their actual separation did not occur until after his death."[1] Later, these first early schools split into further divisions such as the Sarvastivadins and the Dharmaguptakas, and ended up numbering, traditionally, about 18 or 20 schools. In fact, there are several overlapping lists of 18 schools preserved in the Buddhist tradition, totalling about twice as many, though some may be alternative names. It is thought likely that the number is merely conventional.

The arising of the Mahayana Buddhism (1st / 2nd century CE) went together with the writing of the new Mahayana Sutras. The Mahayana movement only very occasionally referred to those of the early Buddhist schools as Hinayana. The much more common and politically correct term used in Mahayana texts to refer to those practicing according to the original teachings of the early schools, was Śrāvakayāna.[2]

The schools sometimes split over ideological differences concerning the 'real' meaning of teachings in the Suttapitaka, and sometimes over disagreement concerning the proper observance of vinaya. These ideologies became embedded in large works such as the Abhidhammas and commentaries. When comparing the existing versions of the Suttapitakas of various sects, there is some evidence that ideologies from the Abhidhammas sometimes found their way back into the Suttapitakas, to support the statements made in those Abhidhammas.


Developments in History

The First Council

Three months after the passing of Gautama Buddha, according to the scriptures, the First Council was held at Rajagaha by some of his disciples who had attained Arahantship (Enlightenment). At this point, Theravada tradition maintains that no conflict about what the Buddha taught is to have occurred, and the teachings were divided into various parts and each was assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory.

The accounts of the Council in the scriptures of different schools differ as to what was actually recited at the Council. Venerable Purāṇa is recorded as having said: "Your reverences, well chanted by the elders are the Dhamma and Vinaya, but in that way that I heard it in the Lord's presence, that I received it in his presence, in that same way will I bear it in mind." [Vinaya-pitaka: Cullavagga XI:1:11].

Some scholars deny that the First Council actually took place.[3][4]

The Second Council

The Second Council did not cause a split in the Sangha, as is sometimes believed to be the case. The Second Council was strictly about the misbehavior of a group of monks, who changed their behaviors after the council.

Period between the Second and Third Council

Most scholars believe that the first split occurred between the second and third council, and was probably about monastic discipline. Generally, it is believed that the first split was between the Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika. However, after this initial division, more were to follow.

Third Council under Asoka

Tradition mostly says Buddhism split into 18 schools, but different sources give different lists, and scholars conclude that the number is merely conventional.

In the 3rd century BCE, Theravadin sources state that a Third Council was convened under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka, but no mention of this council is found in other sources .[5]Some scholars argue that there are certain implausible features of the Theravada account which imply that the Third Council was ahistorical. The remainder consider it a purely Theravada/Vibhajjavada council. It is generally accepted, however, that one or several disputes did occur during Asoka's reign, involving both doctrinal and vinaya matters, although these may have been too informal to be called a Council. The Sthavira School had, by the time of King Ashoka divided into three sub-schools, doctrinally speaking, but these did not become separate monastic orders until later.

According to the Theravadin account, this Council was convened primarily for the purpose of establishing an official orthodoxy. At the council, small groups raised questions about the specifics of the vinaya and the interpretation of doctrine. The chairman of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu, which was meant to refute these arguments. The council sided with Moggaliputta and his version of Buddhism as orthodox; it was then adopted by Emperor Ashoka as his empire's official religion. This school of thought was termed Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "thesis of [those who make] a distinction" as to the existence of dhammas in the past, future and / or present. The version of the scriptures that had been established at the Third Council, including the vinaya, sutta and the abhidhamma (collectively known as Tripitaka), was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka's son, the Venerable Mahinda. There it was eventually committed to writing in the Pali language. The Pali Canon remains the most complete set of Nikaya scriptures to survive, although the greater part of the Sarvāstivādin canon survives in Chinese translation, some parts exist in Tibetan translations, and some fragments exist in Sanskrit manuscripts, while parts of various canons (sometimes unidentified), exist in Chinese and fragments in other Indian dialects.

Developments during and after the Third Council

Whatever might be the truth behind the Theravādin account, it was around the time of Asoka that further divisions began to occur within the Buddhist movement and a number of additional schools emerged, including the Sarvāstivāda and the Sammitīya. All of these early schools of Nikayan Buddhism eventually came to be known collectively as the Eighteen Schools in later sources. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Theravāda, none of early these schools survived beyond the late medieval period by which time several were already long extinct, although a considerable amount of the canonical literature of some of these schools has survived, mainly in Chinese translation. Moreover, the origins of specifically Mahāyāna doctrines may be discerned in the teachings of some of these early schools, in particular in the Mahāsānghika and the Sarvāstivāda.

During and after the Third Council, elements of the Sthavira group called themselves Vibhajjavadins. One part of this group was transmitted to Sri Lanka and to certain areas of southern India, such as Vanavasi in the south-west and the Kañci region in the south-east. This group later ceased to refer to themselves specifically as Vibhajjavadins, but reverted to calling themselves Theriyas, after the earlier Theras or Sthaviras. Still later, at some point prior to the Dipavamsa (4th century), the Pali name Theravāda was adopted and has remained in use ever since for this group.

The Pudgalavādins were also known as Vatsiputrīyas after their putative founder, though this group later became known as the Sammitīya school, after one of its subdivisions, though it died out around the 9th or 10th century CE. Nevertheless, during most of the early medieval period, the Sammitīya school was numerically the largest Buddhist group in India, with more followers than all the other schools combined. The Sarvāstivādin school was most prominent in the north-west of India and provided some of the doctrines that would later be adopted by the Mahāyana. Another group linked to Sarvāstivāda was the Sautrāntika school, which only recognized the authority of the sutras and rejected the Abhidharma transmitted and taught by the Vaibhāsika wing of Sarvāstivāda. Based on textual considerations, it has been suggested that the Sautrāntikas were actually adherents of Mūla-Sarvāstivāda. The relation between Sarvāstivāda and Mūla-Sarvāstivāda is unclear.

Between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, the terms Mahayana and Hinayana were first used in writing, in, for example, the Lotus Sutra.

The Chinese Pilgrims

During the first millennium, monks from China such as Faxian, Yijing and Xuanzang made pilgrimages to India and wrote accounts of their travels when they returned home. These Chinese travel records constitute extremely valuable sources for information concerning the state of Buddhism in India during the early medieval period.

By the time the Chinese Pilgrims Xuanzang and Yi Jing visited India in the medieval period there were five early Buddhist schools that they mention far more frequently than others. They commented that the Sarvastivada/Mulasarvastivada, Mahasanghika, and Sammitya were the principal early Buddhist schools still extant in India,[6] along with the Theravada who by then had largely emigrated to Ceylon, although they were also still prominent in Kanchi. The Dharmaguptakas, who had been so influential in the early spread of Buddhism to Central Asia and China, had almost completely disappeared.

The "eighteen schools"

It is commonly said that there were eighteen schools of Buddhism in this period. What this actually means is more subtle. First, although the word "school" is used, there was not yet an institutional split in the sangha. The Chinese traveler Xuanzang observed even when the Mahayana were beginning to emerge out of this era that monks of different "schools" would live side by side in dormitories and attend the same lectures. Only the books that they read were different.[7] Secondly, no historical source can agree what the names of these "eighteen schools" were. The origin of this saying is therefore unclear.

What follows are the lists given by each of the different sources.

According to the Dipavamsa

This list was taken from the Sri Lankan chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa.

  • Mahāsaṃghika
    • Kaukutika - First schism
    • Ekavyahārikas - First schism
    • Caitika - Third schism; According to Dipavamsa, but in the Mahavamsa it is said to have arisen from the Pannati and Bahussutaka)

In addition, the Dipavamsa lists the following six schools without identifying the schools from which they arose:

  • Hemavatika (Sanskrit: Haimavata)
  • Rajagiriya
  • Siddhatthaka
  • Pubbaseliya
  • Aparaseliya (Sanskrit: Aparasaila)
  • Apararajagirika

According to Vasumitra

This list was taken from Samayabhedo Paracana Cakra, the author was Vasumitra a Sarvastivadin monk.

According to Vinitadeva

Vinitadeva (c. 645-715) was a Mūlasarvāstivādin monk.

According to the Sariputrapariprccha

The Sariputrapariprccha is a Mahasamghikan history.

Twenty schools according to Mahayana scriptures in Chinese

Sthaviravada (上座部) was split into 11 sects. These were: Sarvastivadin (説一切有部), Haimavata (雪山部), Vatsiputriya (犢子部), Dharmottara (法上部), Bhadrayaniya (賢冑部), Sammitiya (正量部), Channagirika (密林山部), Mahisasaka (化地部), Dharmaguptaka (法蔵部), Kasyapiya (飲光部), Sautrāntika (経量部).

Mahasanghika (大衆部) was split into 9 sects. There were: Ekavyaharaka (一説部), Lokottaravadin (説出世部), Kaukkutika (鶏胤部), Bahussrutiya (多聞部), Prajnaptivada (説仮部), Caitika (制多山部), Aparasaila (西山住部), Uttarasaila (北山住部).

Hypothetical combined list


The Theravāda School of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand is descended from the Sthaviravādin and (more specifically) the Vibhajjavada School. It underwent two more changes of name in the mean time. In the Indian accounts it is sometimes called the Tāmraparnīya (translation: Sri Lankan lineage), but there is no indication that this referred to any change in doctrine or scripture, while it is very obvious that it refers to geographical location. At some point prior to the Dipavamsa (4th century) the name was changed to Theravada, probably to reemphasize the relationship to the original Sthaviravada, which is the Sanskrit version of the Pali term Theravada.

The Theravada school is the only remaining school which is exclusively aligned with the philosophic outlook of the early schools. However, significant variation is found between the various Theravadin communities, usually concerning the strictness of practice of Vinaya and the attitude one has towards Abhidhamma. Both these, however, are aspects of the Vibhajjavadin recension of the Tipitaka, and the variation between current Theravada groups is mainly a reflection of accent or emphasis, not content of the Tipitaka or the commentaries. The Tipitaka of the Theravada and the main body of its commentaries are believed to come from (or be heavily influenced by) the Sthaviravadins and especially the subsequent Vibhajjavadins.

Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)

  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE







Early Buddhist schools Mahayana Vajrayana






Sri Lanka &
Southeast Asia

  Theravada Buddhism






Central Asia




Tibetan Buddhism


Silk Road Buddhism


East Asia

  Chán, Tendai, Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren




  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE
  Legend:   = Theravada tradition   = Mahayana traditions   = Vajrayana traditions

The legacies of other early schools are preserved in various Mahayana traditions. All of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism use a Mulasarvastivada vinaya and study the Sarvastivadin abhidharma, supplemented with Mahayana and Vajrayana texts. Chinese schools use the vinaya from the Dharmagupta school, and have versions of those of other schools also. Fragments of the canon of texts from these schools also survive such as the Mahavastu of the Mahāsānghika School.

See also


  1. ^ Disputed Dharmas:Early Buddhist Theories on Existence. by Collett Cox. The Institute for Buddhist Studies. Tokyo: 1995. ISBN: 4-906267-36-X pg 23
  2. ^ Isabelle Onians, "Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm," D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 72
  3. ^ Hoiberg, Dale; Indu Ramchandani. "Early Buddhist schools" entry in Students' Britannica India, p. 264. Popular Prakashan, 2000. ISBN 0852297602.
  4. ^ Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 1989, page 6
  5. ^ Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of Buddhism. edited by Edward Irons. Facts on File: 2008. ISBN 978-0-8160-5459-6 pg 419
  7. ^ Elizabeth Cook. Light of Liberation: A History of Buddhism in India. Dharma Publishing, 1992. p. 299

Further reading

  • Coogan, Michael D. (ed.) (2003). The Illustrated Guide to World Religions. Oxford University Press. ISBN 1-84483-125-6. 
  • Dhammananda, K. Sri (1964). What the Buddhist Believe. Buddhist Mission Society of Malaysia. ISBN 983-40071-2-7. http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/whatbelieve.pdf. 
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998). Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1. 
  • Gunaratana, Bhante Henepola (2002). Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-321-4. 
  • Lowenstein, Tom (1996). The vision of the Buddha. Duncan Baird Publishers. ISBN 1-903296-91-9. 
  • Thich Nhat Hanh (1974), The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Broadway Books  ISBN 0-7679-0369-2.
  • Thurman, Robert A. F. (translator) (1976). Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: Mahayana Scripture. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-00601-3. 
  • Walpola Rahula (1974), What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press  ISBN 0-8021-3031-3.
  • Yamamoto, Kosho (translation), revised and edited by Dr. Tony Page. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. (Nirvana Publications 1999-2000). 
  • Yin Shun, Yeung H. Wing (translator) (1998), The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master, Wisdom Publications  ISBN 0-86171-133-5.

External links

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