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The term Nikāya Buddhism was invented by Mahayanist scholars[1], in order to find a more acceptable (less derogatory) term than Hinayana to refer to the Early Buddhist schools.

The Early Buddhist schools are those schools of Buddhism which accept only the scriptures which correspond to the Suttapitaka, Vinayapitaka and (possibly) an Abhidhammapitaka. These schools of Buddhism do not recognize or accept the Mahayana Sutras as the word of Buddha. Examples of these schools are pre-sectarian Buddhism, the early Buddhist schools, and any possible other schools or views in which the historical Tipitaka represents the scripture with the highest authority. Some scholars use the term as excluding pre-sectarian Buddhism.

The most famous example of these historical Tipitaka texts is the Pali Canon. Other scriptures which correspond to these are the agamas and some of the Gandharan Buddhist Texts.

Hinayana or Nikāya Buddhism is distinguished from the Buddhism of the various Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna schools, which accept the authenticity of a range of other scriptures as spoken by Buddha (mainly the Mahayana Sutras). Many of the sutras corresponding to those of the Pāli Canon are accepted by every school.

Historically, there were many 'Nikāya schools', but only one still exists today in (close to) its original form: the Theravāda. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism use the ordination lineages of these schools. There were once at least eighteen Nikāya schools (for some lists see early Buddhist schools).


Hinayana and Nikaya Buddhism

Many commentors on Buddhism have used the term Hīnayāna to refer to Nikāya Buddhism. However, that term is now generally seen as flawed:

  • Hīnayāna, (literally "inferior vehicle"), is often regarded as an offensive or pejorative term.
  • Hīnayāna was coined by the Mahāyāna, and has never been used by Nikāya Buddhists to refer to themselves.
  • Hīnayāna as a technical term, indicated the vehicles of both the Savakabuddha and the Pratyekabuddha, whereas as a division of Buddhism, it refers solely to the individuals who follow the former vehicle, towards the achievement of Savakabuddhahood, while the Mahāyāna in the sense of the Bodhisattva path existed within the early schools already.
  • It is sensible to use a terms for a division of population which is ideally used by themselves, and failing that, at least not offensive to them.

According to Robert Thurman, the term "Nikāya Buddhism" was coined by Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University, as a way to avoid the usage of the term Hinayana [2]. "Nikaya Buddhism" is thus an attempt to find a more neutral way of referring to Buddhists who follow one of the early Buddhist schools, and their practice. The term Śrāvakayāna (literally, "hearer vehicle" or "disciples' vehicle") is also sometimes used for the same purpose. Other terms that have been used in similar senses include sectarian Buddhism, conservative Buddhism and mainstream Buddhism (this last might be considered derogatory by Mahayanists, as implying that they are fringe). Note that Nikāya is also a term used in Theravāda Buddhism to refer to a subschool or subsect within Theravada.

Like the term Hinayana Buddhism, the term Nikaya Buddhism focuses on the presumed commonality between the schools, and not on the actual schools themselves. This commonality is thought to be found in a certain attitude. The difference is that in 'Hinayana Buddhism' the common attitude was stated to be a certain 'selfishness', while the term 'Nikaya Buddhism' tries to shift the attention to the more neutral issue of attitude concerning the authenticity of scriptures.

Some disadvantages of the term Nikaya Buddhism

Some disadvantages of the term Nikaya Buddhism are:

  • The term is not well known.
  • The term Nikaya Buddhism isn't very clear: it's not obvious from the term what is meant by it.
  • Neither possible literal interpretation fits the coverage of the term "Hinayana":
    • If the term refers to the nikayas into which the Buddhist sangha divided, it excludes the period before these divisions (pre-sectarian Buddhism).
    • If it refers to the scriptures known as nikayas or agamas, it has just the opposite effect, excluding the schools that use Abhidhamma: such as the Theravada, Sarvastivada, Dharmaguptaka, etcetera.
  • When used, it is used by scholars only, and hasn't found adoption by any of the existing schools of Buddhism.
  • The term 'Nikaya Buddhism' is just a replacement of the term Hinayana, which keeps in place the tendency to regard the separate early schools (and their differing ideologies) as one form or type of Buddhism. The early Buddhist schools themselves never used a term to refer to all the early schools together as one type of Buddhism.
  • Conflating all the early schools as one 'type of Buddhism' originated with some proponents of Mahayana, who introduced the name "Hinayana" to distinguish their concept of the Dharma from the already existing schools. So, in some ways, the usage of the term 'Nikaya Buddhism', although neutral in import, points to a Mahayana (or Vajrayana) view of Buddhism.
  • If Nikaya is used in its proper sense of monastic grouping, then Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism are included in it, belonging to the Dharmaguptaka and Mula-Sarvastivada Nikayas respectively.

See also

Early Buddhist schools


  1. ^ Robert Thurman and Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University: "Nikaya Buddhism" is a coinage of Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University who suggested it to me as a usage for the eighteen schools of pre-Mahayana Indian Buddhism, to avoid the term "Hinayana Buddhism," which is found offensive by some members of the Theravada tradition. Robert Thurman, in The Emptiness That is Compassion (footnote 10), 1980.
  2. ^ The Emptiness That is Compassion: An Essay on Buddhist Ethics, Robert A. F. Thurman, 1980


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