The Oldest Buddhist Scripture

The Philosophy of No Philosophy
Arhant and Bodhisattva
The Deathless
The Way of the Trans-dual
The World Is Void
Planes of Existence
The Cosmic Buddha
Beyond Good and Evil

Talk presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, October 1, 2016.


text5aAny tradition that attributes a special authority to one or more founders faces the same problem of documentation: how do we know what the original teachings were and, once we identify them, how are we to understand their meaning? The latter ranges from the problem of translation to the problem of understanding the meaning of meaning itself, while the former also relates to the problem of preservation. This aspect of Buddhism is like any other religion. Islam has the Qu’ran, Christianity the Gospel, the Jews the Torah; Hindus have the Vedas, the Taoists have the Tao Te Ching. The historicity of some of these texts is ambiguous; in the case of traditions that emphasize an historical teacher, the hermeneutical problem is intensified. In the case of Buddhism, the primary historical source represents a developmental period of 375 to 387 years (404 BCE–29 or 17 BCE, following Wynne). Even if we reject the naïve hermeneutic that a later text is automatically invalid, identifying the historical core of the original teaching is interesting, subject to the proviso that we cannot conflate “earliest” with “literally identical to the words of the Buddha.” In addition, we may assume that there were many other texts of the same provenance that were lost.

e31893d200174081e1ccf93bcd9b1a00Even more vexed is the question whether originality even matters? Are the literal words of the Buddha necessarily definitive? The Buddha, like all historical phenomena, existed in a relative and contingent samsaric context, and therefore all of his manifestations and appearances are karmically conditioned, including whatever insights concerning dharma that the Buddha bestowed directly upon his contemporaries and upon those of us who hear them indirectly. Even if we accept the archaic claim that the Buddha was omniscient in some sense, we may question the omniscience of his disciples. Theravadins, anticipating this problem, insist that the arhants were infallible, but even this leaves open the questions of unknown teachings, lost texts, and subsequent misinterpretations by non-arhants. The evidence of the texts themselves is that the Buddha tailored his teachings to his audience. The true object of study in Buddhism is not the person or circumstances of the historical Buddha, it is what the Buddha himself indicated in his thoughts, words, and actions, i.e., the dharma, at which he pointed like the famous finger pointing at the moon. The Pali Canon says that the Buddha de-emphasized leadership and directed his followers to understand the dharma directly for themselves. Thus, Buddhology is based on a false premise. Any study of the oldest Buddhist scripture must have for its objective the revelation of the one true object of study, the dharma itself. This is a significantly larger study than historicism or linguistics can comprehend. The Pali Canon says that the Buddha hesitated to teach, and finally only agreed to teach after being petitioned by God himself; he said that he knew much, much more than he taught; he taught different truths to different people, based on their circumstances and needs, including religion to the householders, meditation to the monastics, and wisdom to the arhants. Dharma is protean and adjusts itself continuously to the circumstances of the time. For this reason alone, fundamentalism is fatuous.

Stratification in the Pali Canon has been a special subject of study for a century now, largely based on the linguistic studies of Pali specialists, but most of the progress in the field was made by the time that Pande published the first edition of his Studies in the Origin of Buddhism (1957), which he updated till his recent death in 2011. In that book, he cites a theory of stratification proposed by the great early 20th century Buddhist translator T.W. Rhys Davids. Law’s elaborate critique only reinforces Rhys Davids’s conclusion, with a few changes that do not affect our argument here. According to both Rhys Davids and Law, the first (i.e., oldest) four items in the list are:

  1. The simple statements of Buddhist doctrine now found, in identical words, in paragraphs or verses recurring in all the books.
  2. Episodes found, in identical words, in two or more of the existing books.
  3. The Silas, the Parayana, the Octades, the Patimokkha.
  4. The Digha, Majjhima, Anguttara, and Samyutta Nikayas.

Despite being written in elegant verse, its location in the Khuddaka Nikaya (generally considered to consist of more recent texts), and having none of the ordinary signs of oral transmission (e.g., turgid repetitiousness, stock phrases and lists, etc.), according to no less authorities than Rhys Davids and Law, the oldest extant doctrinal parts of the Pali Canon, setting aside the non-doctrinal ethical precepts and the rules of training, are the Parayanavagga (‘chapter of the final goal’)  and the Octades (Atthakavagga, ‘groups of eight’). This is confirmed by H. Saddhatissa, whose translation of the Sutta Nipata is used by Bhikku Bodhi in his lectures on the Sutta Nipata (Saddhatissa adds I.3 as contemporary with the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas),[1] and by K.R. Norman, amongst others. Paradoxically, these are now found in the Sutta Nipata in the Khuddaka Nikaya, which is demoted to number five in Rhys Davids’s list. Although a few more potentially archaic texts have been suggested, e.g., the Udanas, Itivuttaka, etc.,[2] the consensus view seems to be that the fourth and fifth chapters (vaggas) of the Sutta Nipata, denominated the Parayanavagga and the Atthakavagga,[3] are amongst the oldest if not the oldest canonical texts to survive today. It is therefore interesting to examine the teachings of these texts, considering the possibility that they are close to, if not identical with, the original teachings of the historical Buddha. According to Lebkowicz, Ditrich, and Pecenko, they are pre-monastic. Fausböll says that “we see here a picture not of life in monasteries, but of the life of hermits in its first stage. We have before us not the systematizing of the later Buddhist church, but the first germs of a system, the fundamental ideas of which come out with sufficient clearness.” Since Buddhist monasticism was founded by Gotama Buddha himself, and the lands and buildings had already begun to be donated and built during his lifetime, this must have been very early indeed, when many monastics still lived or wandered solitary or in small groups. Alexander Wynne, citing the Atthakavagga, suggests that “much of what is found in the Suttapiṭaka is earlier than c. 250 B.C., perhaps even more than 100 years older than this,” i.e., circa 350 BCE at least. This is 54 years after the parinibbana, for which Wynne accepts Gombrich’s date of 404 BCE. If we allow a margin for error of about twenty years, this is 30 to 80 AB approximately. In the Christian tradition, this would correspond to the late canonical period (approx. 60–110 CE).[4]

The Atthaka and the Parayana vaggas constitute the fourth and fifth chapters of the Sutta Nipata in the Minor Tradition (Khuddaka Nikaya). The Sutta Nipata (lit. ‘falling down suttas’) consists of mixed verse and prose in five sections. The Atthakas and Parayanas consist of sixteen and seventeen short suttas or sutta-like texts, thirty-three in all. In English translation, it consists of sixty-eight pages, approximately thirteen thousand words, somewhat longer than the Tao Te Ching (10,000 words) or Q (6,000 words). They do not appear to have been nearly as edited as the nikayas, probably because they are written in verse (Pande notes that verse form is more conservative in the Pali Canon though he rejects the assumption that verse must be automatically older than prose in the same text). The terminology and conceptual structures seem to be pre-nikaya and still in a process of formation (e.g., an interdependent origination consisting of seven nidanas instead of ten or twelve, with similar but more protean terminology, while ignorance is referred to but in a somewhat different way). The syntax is fresh and lively, full of vitality and enthusiasm. The tone is positive, even heroic. It is exciting to think that this may be the oldest surviving sutta collection, a literal remnant of the Buddha himself and one of the original seeds of the suttas of the Pali Canon.

For this talk, I have used the English translation of V. Fausböll, published in 1881 in Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East series. Although there are more modern and poetical translations of the Sutta Nipata, Fausböll’s literal translation has the virtue of adhering closely to the Pali as far as I can see so that there is less danger of misconstruing an interpretation of a modern translator for an original view of the Buddha. I have also compared several other translations (see References), especially that of K.R. Norman.

The Atthakavagga addresses such basic concerns as desire, attachment, philosophy, mindfulness, detachment, the nature of Buddhahood (referred to as “the Muni,” or Sage, similar to the Tao Te Ching, and “Bhagavat,” Lord), and the path.  The suttas emphasize the importance of independence and disdain philosophizing and seeking salvation through others. We must save ourselves. The Buddha opposes the doctrine of self-purification through the cultivation of inward peace to the doctrine that one is purified by the practice of philosophizing based on speculation and argument. Even at this early date, we see the Buddha celebrated and even worshipped as a descendent of the Sun, a Muni, an Isi, and a Sambuddha (‘perfectly or self-enlightened’). The Buddha is said to have been reborn from the Tushita (‘satisified’) heaven, associated with the bodhisattva doctrine. The Buddha is described as having the thirty-two marks of a great man and as having the psychic power of telepathy. The realm of the deities (devas), including earthbound devas and Mara, are also referred to. The path is described as both gradual and instantaneous. The Buddha prohibits some of the same superstitious practices, especially prognostication, that he criticizes in the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Net of Confusion (Brahmajala Sutta). As observed by Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids, asceticism is deemphasized. Pain is observed, but not cultivated. The liberated person is free from attachment and revulsion and sees happiness everywhere. They are friendly and tolerant to all, much like the sage of Laozi. These texts, especially the Parayanavagga, introduce the same question and answer format that structures almost all of the suttas, suggesting that this may have been the major teaching method used by the historical Buddha.


The study of the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas provides a window into the archaic dharma of the Buddha. It gives us an opportunity amongst other things to test the rationalist assumptions of the so-called modern or secular Buddhist movement.[5] In these vaggas one recognizes a broad range of doctrinal topics, including a system of epistemological, soteriological, ontological, cosmological, Buddhological, and ethical world views that anticipate similar doctrines that we find more thoughtfully worked out in the nikayas. 

In the following sections I will summarize the world views implicit in these texts in broad outline.

1 Epistemology

The Buddha affirms that the only eternal or ultimate truth is consciousness, and that truth is unitary. Thus, it is trans-dual. For this reason, the Buddha rejects sectarianism, scholasticism, asceticism, rationalism, dogmatism, and debate, and proposes a philosophy of no philosophy, which is identified with wisdom.

2 Soteriology

For there to be salvation there must be a fall. Thus, the Buddha identifies ignorance and desire as the primary binary that binds us to “reiterated existence” (rebirth) in time. He repudiates desire, grasping, and the body and stresses the inferiority of the body, existence, and the householder life of possessiveness, territoriality, and war. The Buddha rejects self-purification by knowledge, actions (i.e., karma, as in Jainism), tradition (Brahmanism), sacrifice, or by following others. He proposes that one must purify oneself through the progressive practice of detached indifference, the cultivation of inner peace (tranquility) and mindfulness or “thoughtfulness,” sitting in secluded meditation in the wilderness, at the foot of a tree, in a cemetery, or in a cave on a mountain. The Buddha posits a mode of knowledge by which one is purified, which is unitary and trans-dual and can be realized by the practice of mental concentration. By these means, a transcendent state of realization is progressively induced that leads to the perfect, immortal, and timeless security of nirvana, in which desire itself is extinguished. Elsewhere meditation is described as the realization of emptiness, nothingness, or the void, which corresponds to the fundamental ontological state. Nirvana is a state beyond consciousness itself. Those who attain this state are described as “men who have crossed the stream.” The realization of nirvana itself is instantaneous, immediate, and uncharacterizable.

3 Ontology

Existence is described as suffering and impermanent. Beings are trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth, but the very impermanent and temporary nature of existence implies that it is possible to escape into non-rebirth by transcending the whole sevenfold system of interdependent origination by which name and form (individuality) lead to “touch” (contact), decay and origin, pleasure and pain (feeling), will (intention), grasping, and finally suffering (ignorance is mentioned elsewhere as “the head”). We recognize here a primitive form of the familiar doctrine of paticcasamuppadda (lit. ‘following from anything as a necessary result with coming into existence’). The law of cause and effect (kamma) driven by mental activity (sankhara) is the essential kinetic principle. At the same time, the world is described as essentially illusory, empty, and void.

4 Cosmology

220px-rhino_from_nepal_3080551876The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas allude to the familiar elements of Buddhist cosmology, including other worlds, deities or devas, Mara, and the Tushita heaven (IV. 16. 1), the latter the heaven from which the Buddha-to-be was reputedly reborn. This corresponds to the bodhisattva idea, whereas the rhinoceros (of the Rhinoceros Sutra) is a symbol associated with the pratyekabuddha. The rhinoceros is as unlike the contemporary image of the monastic as one can imagine.

5 Buddhology

The Buddha is referred to by his family or clan name of Gotama and described as a man, as well as by the mysterious term “tathagata,” ‘he who having come this way has thus gone that way to suchness.’ He is described as wise and great, a World Teacher, as well as being omniscient, that is, he has perfect understanding. He is distinguished by the thirty-two marks of a great man, and is identified as a descendant of the Sun and symbolically with both the sun and the moon.

6 Ethics

The Buddha advocates an ordinary ethical life of moderation and self-restraint.

Although it would be a logical error to infer that because this is the oldest surviving text, it necessarily is complete and therefore exclusive of all other texts – many other similar texts were presumably lost or subsumed into later texts – what the text does say is of more than passing interest since this is the closest we can get to what the Buddha actually taught, composed perhaps no later than a single generation (twenty years?) after his death. The text has a fresh and lively voice and originality of diction that radiate the vigour and vitality of beginnings. In particular, it appears as a virtual hologram of the doctrines found in the nikayas, including such advanced concepts as trans-duality, the unity of truth, the philosophy of no philosophy, gradual and instantaneous realization, rebirth, karma, Mara, devas, other worlds, the Tushita “heaven,” and the transcendent nature of Buddhahood itself. Far from being late ideas, these doctrines are clearly inherent in the fundamental substrate of the Buddhist oeuvre. This contrasts sharply with the modern secularist view that the historical development of Buddhist doctrine represents a degeneration from an original ideal devoid of “superstitious” elements. The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas are extremely sophisticated philosophical documents, comparable to the Tao Te Ching.

A close evaluation of the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas discovers allusions to trans-dualism; trans-rationalism; rebirth (which some modern or secular-minded modern Buddhists would like to abandon); ethical indifference (very like Yeshua’s injunction not to judge); individualism; the nirvana element or “realm”; emptiness; instantaneous enlightenment; the planes of existence; and the omniscience and perfection of the Buddha, including the thirty-two “supernatural” marks of a great man.  The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas do not support the view that these doctrines are later accretions. Rather, the whole oeuvre appears to inhere in its historical ground. To say that they do not originate with the Buddha is therefore a dogmatic and unprovable assumption.


Prologue of the Parayanavagga


The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas consist mostly of direct teachings of the Buddha or short question and answer sessions with individuals with little or no additional historical or biographical details. The single exception is the Prologue to the Parayanavagga, called the Vatthugatha (lit. ‘story in verse’). Because of its singular nature in the context of these texts, I am going to summarize it here. Both Rhys Davids and Law place the Parayanavagga before the Atthakavagga, but Law specifically excepts the Prologue, suggesting that it is later, though he does not mention it elsewhere in his scheme. It may, therefore, be the oldest Buddhist historical account.

6e776bc36d8dea0fc858eae1dbad41f8The story is situated south of Savatthi, the capital of Kosala, where many of the later suttas are also located. Bavari, a brahmana, whose name means “enemy of worldly existence,” dwelled near Alaka, on the banks of the Godhavari, a river in the territory of Assaka, ”wishing for nothingness.” Assaka was the most southern mahajanapada. The Godavari river is the second longest river in India, after the Ganges, and runs from west to east across central India. Like many ascetics of the time, including the Buddha, Bavari lived outside a village where he could obtain the requisites, including enough money, apparently, to hold a  great sacrifice. After this, another brahmana arrived, “with swollen feet, trembling, covered with mud, with dust on his head,” who immediately demanded five hundred pieces of money! Bavari treated the other brahmana with the utmost courtesy and respect, but apologetically explained that, having spent all of his money on a great sacrifice, he had no money left to give to the brahmana. Offended, perhaps even enraged, the brahmana proceeded to curse Bavari, declaring that after seven days his head would cleave into seven pieces. This was a common curse that one finds repeated elsewhere in the Pali Canon.

Bavari became sorrowful and began to waste away taking no food, but at the same time he continued to delight in meditation. After some time the benevolent deity of the place, presumably a benign earthbound deva, appeared to Bavari and explained to him that the other brahmana, now departed presumably, is a hypocrite and an impostor, knowing nothing about heads or head splitting, thus rather strangely segueing into the topic of the story and indeed of the vagga. Thus, the Parayanavagga is in fact a precis of the salvific wisdom of the dharma itself.

Bavari asks the deva to explain to him about heads and head splitting, but the deva does not know anything about it, saying that this knowledge is limited to buddhas. Bavari asks the deva who he can approach for an explanation, and the deva tells Bavari that a World Ruler, a descendent of King Ikshvaku (Skt. Okkaka), the first king of the Ikshvaku or solar dynasty, has gone out of Kapilavatthu, the capital of the Shakyans. This identification of the Buddha as a descendent of the righteous and glorious king Ikshvaku suggests the descent of Yeshua from King David. The solar dynasty is also important in Jainism, since twenty-two out of twenty-four of the Jain tirthankaras belonged to this dynasty, and to Hindus, whose culture hero, Rama, of the Ramayana, also belonged to the solar dynasty. According to the Buddhist texts the founder of the solar dynasty was Mahasammata, the first king of the current age, who was democratically elected (approximately ten trillion years ago according to the Sinhalese and Burmese chronicles). The deva describes the Buddha as “light-giving”: “He is, O Brahmana, the perfectly enlightened (Sambuddha); perfect in all things, he has attained the power of all knowledge, sees clearly in everything; he has arrived at the destruction of all things, and is liberated in the destruction of the upadhis,” referring to the “fuel of life” that precipitates rebirth. “He is Buddha, he is Bhagavat in the world; he, the clearly-seeing, teaches the Dhamma” (V. 1. 17). Bhagavat means “the Adorable One,” and in Hinduism is a term for Krishna or God. This passage again alludes to the salvific knowledge or “power of truth.”

Bavari, his spirits revived, asks the deva where he might find this chief of the world, the first of men, so that he might go there and worship him. Referring to the Buddha by the Jain term Jina, “Victorious One,” and as a “bull of men,” the deva tells Bavari that the Buddha is staying in Savatthi. Bavari then goes to his sixteen brahmana disciples, including the great isi (rishi) Pingiya, to go to Savatthi to see the Buddha for themselves. His disciples ask Bavari how they will recognize him. Bavari tells them that the hymns, referring presumably to the Vedas, refer to thirty-two marks of a great man, and that they can recognize him by these signs. Interestingly, no such hymn has ever been identified. Bhikku Sujato has suggested that the marks might be Babylonian in origin.[6] Whatever their origin, their presence in the Prologue of the Parayanavagga clearly indicate their archaic origin. Bavari tells his disciples that such a one will either become a peaceful and just World Ruler or a saintly Sambuddha who will remove the veil from the world. Bavari also tells them that they will also know the Buddha because he will answer the questions that are in their mind without asking.

93-034-04Bavari’s dsiciples travel north to Savatthi to find the Buddha, along with a large number of their own students. Bavari’s disciples are described as advanced philosophers and meditators, with matted hair or dreadlocks and wearing animal hides. They travel through a succession of cities, including Savatthi, but finally they find the Buddha at the top of a mountain near Vesali, Magadha, in the Barabar Hills north of Gaya (Dhammika), called the Rock Temple (pasanaka cetiya, lit. ‘stone tope’), southeast of Savatthi. Here the Buddha was teaching dharma to the monastics, “like a lion roaring in the forest.” Ajita, apparently the leader, beholds the Buddha as a sun or a moon, and perceives all of the thirty-two marks of a great man on his body. Asking the questions concerning Bavari in his mind, the Buddha tells him that Bavari is 120 years old; his name; that he has three of the marks of a great man (long tongue, tuft of hair between the eyebrows, and a sheathed penis), and that he is perfect in the three Vedas. Satisfied, Ajita gets to the point, and asks the Buddha about the head and head splitting. The Buddha tells Ajita that the head refers to ignorance, and that knowledge cleaves the head, along with belief, thoughtfulness, meditation, determination, and strength.

This metaphorical identification of ignorance with the head and head splitting – the destruction of ignorance – with knowledge is exceptionally interesting, and proves amongst other things that the Buddha’s criticism of “philosophizing” clearly does not extend to a rejection of knowledge or wisdom as such. The implication rather is that knowledge or wisdom is the salvific principle, as we have discussed elsewhere. Ignorance of course becomes the root or “head” of the doctrine of interdependent origination.[7] Ajita puts his animal hide on one shoulder, falls down before the Buddha, and “salutes him with his head,” perhaps kneeling before the Buddha and touching his forehead to the ground in an act of prostration. Ajita apparently has Bavari’s warrant to act on his behalf, for he tells the Buddha on behalf of Bavari and his disciples that they pay homage to the Buddha’s feet (perhaps Bavari was too old to make this long journey himself, despite his former expression of his wish to do so). The Buddha wishes Bavari and Ajita, described as a young man, well. Wishing them happiness and long life, the Buddha then invites Ajita and the disciples to ask him whatever questions they wish. Ajita and the other disciples then ask the Buddha a series of philosophical and soteriological questions in the next sixteen suttas, which make up the Parayanavagga.

Now I will take a closer look at nine specific topics of the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas in greater detail. These explanations represent a collation of the relevant references in these texts and follow the texts closely, with a minimum of interpretation, which I will leave for the Conclusion.

The Philosophy of No Philosophy

I’m going to start with epistemology, the study of knowing, first, because of the weight that these two vaggas put on what I have chosen to call “the philosophy of no philosophy.” Philosophy, philosophizing, and/or philosophers are discussed in no less than eight suttas of the Atthaka vagga (IV. 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13). In IV.3, the Buddha says, “the dogmas .of philosophy are not easy to overcome.” On the other hand, the independent one, i.e., the follower of the Buddha, “has shaken off every (philosophical) view.” One is reminded of the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Brahmajala Sutta, where the Buddha disdains philosophizing as a “base art.” Ironically, this discussion of conflict avoidance breaks out into an open argument between Magandiya and the Buddha (IV. 9.6, 7). The Buddha makes it quite clear that “if a man’s purification takes place by (his philosophical views), or he by knowledge leaves pain behind, then he is purified by another way than the ariyamagga, i.e., the noble way” (IV. 4). The Buddha considers that philosophizing creates division and discord (IV. 5.1), Therefore a bhikku “does not depend even on knowledge. He does not associate with those that are taken up by different things, he does not return to any (philosophical) view” (IV. 5. 5). The Pasurasutta (IV. 8) includes an extensive description of philosophical debates that we find elsewhere described in the Pali Canon. “Seeing this,” says the Buddha, “let no one dispute, for the expert do not say that purification (takes place) by that” (IV. 8. 7). Nevertheless, the Buddha acknowledges that philosophy can take one part of the way (IV. 8.11, V. 14.3), and appears to distinguish between understanding and “philosophical views” (IV. 9. 13). In antithesis to the view that philosophical knowledge is salvific the Buddha declares that the truly salvific thing is a state of inward peace and outward indifference. Only this state confers true wisdom and happiness, yet wisdom is also praised (IV. 16.15; V. 12. 1; V. 17. 13, 15, 17); “inward peace” itself is referred to as “truth” (dharma), and trans-rationalism or the trans-linguistic (V. 7.6-8). He also asserts that the sage does not reject anything (IV. 9.5) and is liberated by knowledge (V. 1. 51). Clearly, the relationship between knowledge and wisdom is subtle and complex.  This notion of the true sage being indifferent to formal learning or formal academic knowledge is strongly reminiscent of the Tao Te Ching.


sealgifBuddhism is not merely or even primarily a theory. The Buddha says that he understood the theory of emancipation prior to his enlightenment, but it was not until he understood the praxis of emancipation that he became enlightened and began to teach others. Therefore, it is of special interest to know what the Buddha said about meditation in the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas.

The Buddha advises his followers to “cultivate the mind of a recluse.” Instead of seeking salvation through philosophical argument, knowledge, virtue (ethics), or “holy works” (merit), the Buddhist should seek salvation through the cultivation of “inward peace” and tranquility, and the cultivation of an attitude of perfect tolerance, neither accepting nor rejecting anything. The Buddha identifies three types of consciousness that are not conducive to liberation, including “natural consciousness,” insanity, and unconsciousness, the latter being an error that is identified in later suttas as leading to rebirth in the Asanna satta, the realm of unconscious beings, just below the Five Pure Abodes, the place where non-returners and arhants with residue are reborn interestingly. Thus, the Buddha makes it clear that a type of superconsciousness, for lack of a better term, characterizes the attainment of nirvana, also referred to as the “cessation of consciousness,” but it is clear from the text that cessation of consciousness does not imply unconsciousness. Rather, it seems to refer to the absence of sensation (V. 14.7) of a “dispossessed mind” (V 16.26). Once again, we see the importance of collating all relevant texts to avoid misunderstandings. The Buddha advises his followers to be still, without desire; to be meditative; watching; and to sit down quietly. One is to “drive off the agitations of the mind” with an equanimous, calm, composed mind; thoughtful, with mind liberated; intent on a single object (concentrated).

The Buddha appears to equate meditation with “wishing for nothingness” or “having in view nothingness,” neither grasping nor rejecting anything. Interestingly, the Parayanavagga says that the knowledge of “heads and head-splitting” is only found in buddhas, the head being equated with ignorance and head splitting with the abolition of ignorance. Ignorance of course became the root of the interdependent origination in later texts: “Ignorance is the head, know this; knowledge cleaves the head, together with belief [faith], thoughtfulness [mindfulness], meditation [concentration], determination [resolution], and strength [energy]” (V. 1. 51). Clearly, therefore, the Buddha is making a distinction between philosophical argument and another sort of knowledge (“having been delivered in the highest deliverance by knowledge”), characterized as wisdom, and referred to as the Divine Eye (ajna chakra). A passage in V. 10. 4 seems to allude to the yogic doctrine that one stops breathing in advanced stages of meditation (jhana), which one also finds in Patanjali. The culmination of meditation is nibbana, the “extinction” of desire. Yet even the Buddha meditates, the text tells us, a fact reiterated in the later suttas.

Arhant and Bodhisattva

bodhisattvabudaarhatiluminacic3b3nsalvacic3b3nThe Atthaka and Parayana vaggas make a clear distinction between those who live in the cave, rather strikingly anticipating Plato’s parable of the cave (Fausböll equates the cave with the body) and those who have crossed the stream (gone to the other shore). This then is the fundamental soteriological project of Buddhism.

Those who have liberated themselves from “reiterated existences” (samsara, ‘rebirth’ but also time) are called muni (‘sage’), brahmana (‘knower of the Absolute or Ultimate Reality’), isi (‘seer,’ a Vedic rishi), and “men who have crossed to the other shore.”

The Buddha too is referred to as Muni, Brahmana, and Isi, but is also associated with a separate set of specialized terms, including Bhagavat (‘holy,’ ‘fortunate one’), Gotama (the reputed family name of the Buddha, meaning ‘one whose brilliance dispels darkness’), “kinsman of the Adiccas” (‘solar dynasty’), Buddha (‘awakened’), Sakka (‘able,’ the name of the Buddha’s clan), “the light-giving,” Sambuddha (‘omniscient’ or ‘self-enlightened’), “clearly-seeing” (“all-seeing one”),  “chief (naga) of the world,” “perfectly enlightened,” “first of men,” Jina (‘conqueror,’ ‘victor,’ a Jain term),  “bull of men,” Tathagata (‘he who has thus come and gone to that’), noble (‘naga’), “thou with the born eye (of wisdom),” as well as hero, divine, exemplary, supreme, and lord.

Brahmanas are reputed to be perfect buddhas (V. 15. 4) (alternatively, the Buddha declares himself a perfect brahmana; unlike the Brahman caste of the later suttas that are criticized for their worldliness, these brahmanas are holy men).[8] The  brahmana Bavari defers to the Buddha and refers his students (described as youthful) to the Buddha and recommends that they go to visit him (V.1. 23). Posala and Pingiya both become followers of the Buddha, despite being described as a brahmana and an isi respectively themselves. Interestingly, there are no references in these texts to arhants. Moreover, the venerable Pingiya says, “There is only one abiding dispelling darkness, that is the high-born, the luminous, Gotama of great understanding, Gotama of great wisdom” (V. 17. 13), thus affirming the primogeniture and singularity of the Buddha, who is self-enlightened, and credits the Buddha for teaching him, a rishi, the dharma (V. 17. 14; cf. V. 17).

The superiority of the Buddha is, therefore, implicit in these texts. Moreover, the texts also imply that the Buddha is referring back to an ancient tradition that underlies Brahmanism itself as a sort of “spiritual Brahmanism.” While the bhikkhu who succeeds in the Buddhist project is clearly emancipated from samsara, his attainment is distinguished from that of the Buddha, who is omniscient, all-seeing, chief of the world, perfectly enlightened, first of men, and supreme. Moreover, the texts refer to the Buddha’s having been reborn from the Tushita heaven, which is later identified in the Pali suttas with the place from which bodhisattvas are reborn. Thus, while we do not find the words “arhant” or “bodhisatva” in these texts, the same distinction that underlies these terms is clearly implied. There is therefore no evidentiary or necessary logical basis for the dogma that the distinction between the arhant and the bodhisattva is not original.

The Deathless

chinese-raft3The Buddha talks about crossing the stream and going to the other shore, but what does this mean? Is salvation only psychological, or is it also ontological? The Buddha raises this issue when he asks the question, putting it in the mouths of the greedy, “What will become of us, when we die away from here?” The Buddha’s answer is clear insofar as the wicked are concerned: desire for reiterated existence leads to rebirth in unfortunate states. But what of those who liberate themselves from sensual desire? What sort of future state do they experience? The Buddha makes it clear that salvation does not imply rebirth in any other world, because all worlds are subject to the same suffering. Therefore, the liberated muni (‘sage’) neither longs for rebirth nor is reborn in any state. Does this mean that they, not being reborn, cease to exist in any sense? Is the Buddha here teaching some sort of mystical nihilism? The muni is beyond designation, because they do not cling to any philosophical view. They are uncharacterizable, because they do not cling, neither accepting nor rejecting anything. “Having gone to the other shore, such a one does not return” (IV. 5. 8).

The Buddha says that “only the name (nama) remains undecayed of the person who has passed away” (IV. 6. 5). According to the PED, this nama is the immaterial aspect of namarupa, “name and form,” that constitutes the individual. Nama itself consists of four mental factors: vedana (‘feeling’), sanna (‘sensation’), sankhara (‘mental activity’ or thinking), and vinnana (‘consciousness’ or intuition), corresponding neatly to the four Jungian functions of the psyche.  Therefore, nama = psyche. The implication of this passage for the muni is obscure, however, because the muni is said to be nameless. The Buddha may simply be referring to the continuity of rebirth, in the context of the post-mortem survival of the human personality (cf. IV. 6. 4), or even ironically to the memory of one’s heirs and descendants, so this passage is ambiguous.

The Buddha says that the muni “does not enter time, being delivered from time” (IV. 10. 13; cf. 13. 17). He neither belongs to time, nor is he dead (IV. 13. 20). The Buddha also says that consciousness is an eternal truth (IV. 12. 9). This implies that consciousness itself persists in an eternal “now-state.” For the muni there is no death and no rebirth (IV. 13. 8).  He goes to the immortal [deathless] region (IV. 16. 6).[9] The ‘deathless’ is one of the main tropes of the Pali Canon, referred to by the Buddha frequently.

The Way of the Trans-dual

Whether the Buddha taught the doctrine of the trans-dual is one of the most hotly debated questions in Buddhist studies. Bhikku Bodhi commits Theravada to a dualistic view in his essay, “Dharma and Non-duality” (1998).[10] Therefore my defence of trans-dualism (not, note, nondualism; trans-dualism includes both nondualism and dualism, including the dualism of nondualism and dualism itself, with trans-dualism as the fourth point of the quaternary or “tetralemma”) in this context is bound to be controversial. However, I see no other context in which to interpret the transcendence of good and evil (IV. 4.3), the non-existence of “notions” or concepts such as equality, lowness, and distinction or equality and inequality (IV. 5.4, 9.9, 10.8, 13), “no desire for both ends” (i.e., extremes) (IV. 6), “single truths” (the context makes it clear that the Buddha is referring to mutually exclusive or contradictory statements, i.e., to the law of contradiction) (IV. 8.1), the binary character of dharma (11.7), “name and form” (namarupa) (11.11, V. 2.6, 12.5), “the truth is one, there is not a second” (IV. 12.7), the “double dhamma, truth and falsehood” (the implication being that the true dhamma is transcendent) (12.9), and ultimate (eternal) and relative truth (relative truth is dualistic, and eternal truth is trans-dual) (12.9), as well as numerous additional references in the later suttas. There is in fact only one eternal or absolute truth, mind or consciousness itself, which is trans-dual and inherently empty yet infinitely differentiating itself in samsara by means of the illusion of difference (= atta, self-identity or ego), driven by the ultimate kinetic principle (will or intention) expressed in the law of cause and effect (karma).

This is moreover the synthetic positon, reconciling all other views. It comes as no surprise to discover the theme of the trans-dual in the Atthakavagga and Parayana vaggas. The identification of realization with the trans-dual and the essential nothingness, emptiness, or voidness of all extremes is a universal feature of all wisdom traditions everywhere and therefore a part of the perennial philosophy (= the ancient tradition). If the lock is complex and the key fits, then the key is the truth. The doctrine of voidness (see below) also implies the trans-dual because it is empty yet all-inclusive (0 = 1, the primary binary in unity or the yabyum of existence, the cosmic egg).

Any paradox essentially indicates the trans-dual.

The World Is Void

The Buddha says that “the world is completely unsubstantial” (IV. 15. 3; “look upon the world as void” (V. 16. 4). The realization of the impermanent, insubstantial, illusory, ephemeral, and mirage-like nature of the world corresponds to the experience of the void, nothing, nowhere. Thus, the void, nothing, nowhere become designations of the ultimate nature of the world of samsara, the ground of which is reality itself.

The Planes of Existence

dda565ba7cf3ea3ab6826b1adde46660Samsara is represented by an equilateral cross with a central point (V.5.7, 6.8, 13.3). This symbol is a universal archetype, similar to the swastika, the Ethiopian cross, and the central symbol of the Rosicrucian Order, amongst others. The horizontal plane represents the ordinary world of three-dimensional extension,[11] which Buddhists and Taoists describe as the ten thousand worlds – the infinitely differentiated and differentiating order of stars, galaxies, and universes. The vertical vector or ray represents the extraordinary world of vertical extension, ranging from lowest frequency or vibration (the material or sensual polarity referred to as the kamaloka) to the highest (the spiritual polarity referred to as the arupaloka). The central point is the individual point of view, the mind stream, which is not a “self” but rather a trans-temporal sentient continuity that has no extension and therefore no self-identity yet is the root of differentiation itself, without which samsara itself is inexplicable.

The complete Buddhist cosmology of thirty-one planes of existence divided into various worlds and groups of worlds is not found in the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas. However, there are tantalizing references to other worlds, devas, Mara, and especially the Tushita heaven, the only world to be specifically named in these texts. The Tushita or “satisfied” world is four realms above the human world, third of the sensual realm and 23rd in the realm of samsara. The Tushita devas include the bodhisattvas, who according to tradition are born here prior to their final birth as a human being. It is intriguing that this specific world is the only one named in these texts and that the Buddha is specifically mentioned to have been reborn in the human world after having resided in the Tushita realm.

The Cosmic Buddha

the_victory_of_buddhaThe Buddha is referred to by a number of honorifics, including Muni (‘sage’), Bhagavat (‘holy’, a follower of Vishnu; the Hindus regard the Buddha as an avatar or emanation of Vishnu), Jina (‘Victorious, also a Jain term), supreme Buddha (‘awakened’), Gotama (‘the one who dispels darkness by brilliance,’ the reputed family name or clan name of the Buddha), samana (‘recluse’), kinsman of  the Adiccas (‘sun’), “the Isi (‘seer’ or  rishi, a direct allusion to the Vedic tradition) of exemplary conduct,” Sambuddha (‘one of clear or perfect knowledge’), Shakyan (‘able’, referring to the Buddha’s people), Tathagata (‘one who having come thus has gone to suchness’), master, teacher, bull of men, the man of excellent understanding, the all-seeing one, “hero free from lust,” “thou with the born eye (of wisdom),” “he who shows the past,” “a perfect, accomplished Brahmana,” and “this man who sees what is good.”

The Buddha himself is characterized as venerable, light-giving (luminous), perfectly enlightened, clear-sighted (clearly seeing), first of men, best of men, chief of the world, of great understanding (of excellent wise knowledge or great wisdom), “unyoked,” free from passion, “skilled in head-splitting” (i.e., dispelling ignorance, located in the head), accomplished, cultivated, houseless (homeless), free from commotion, “liberated, who leaves time behind,” doubtless, accomplished in all things, aware of past shapes, leaderless, “knowing all the faces of consciousness,” divine, famous, “darkness dispelling,” high-born, and free from harshness.

Thus, the Buddha is described as extremely wise or even omniscient; ecstatic; transcendent or god-like; virtuous or self-controlled; noble; and enlightened or luminous.

The Buddha is clearly distinguished from the “men who have crossed the stream” by a significant number of superlative qualities.

Beyond Good and Evil

The monastic should not desire extremes. The one who clings not abides in a state of “inward peace;” they do not grasp or reject anything. The brahmana does not cling to virtue or holy works, either to their presence or to their absence. They are not led by holy works. The dharmic sage does not prefer anything. They are indifferent and tolerant. The “philosophizers” call what they devote themselves to “good” (the irony is palpable). Fools make their own views the truth, therefore they hold others be fools (IV. 12. 5). Therefore the brahmana does not cling to virtue, holy works, merit, good, or evil (IV. 4. 3). He lets it all go. This view is the opposite of the view of the moralizer, and allows for moral ambiguity of the type that we see for example in the Angulimala Sutta, which was highly developed by the Tibetans.


Barring a major new discovery, the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas are as close as we can get to the actual utterance of the historical Buddha. At the same time, they are interpretations developed over the course of the first few decades after the Buddha’s death, presumably in all sincerity based on an oral transmission that there is no reason not to believe began soon after the parinibbana. Once we recognize that the true object of Buddhist studies is not the Buddha but the dharma, the historical problem becomes less significant since the person of the Buddha, himself merely one of a series if we believe the Pali Canon, becomes less significant. Contrast this with Christianity, for which the central fact of the resurrection assumes preëminent importance since without this magical act humanity is doomed to damnation. According to the vaggas, the Buddha encouraged independent inquiry, denied that anyone could save another, and referred all spiritual seekers to their own judgments. He rejects salvation by philosophical argument, ordinary knowledge, good works, merit, or others. The Buddha encouraged his followers to be tolerant and appreciate different points of view, for the dharma is transrational, translinquistc (see Norman, V.7.1076), and experientially and ultimately individual, though it can also be understood (being transdual) as a collective phenomenon too. Nonsectarianism and the rejection of fundamentalism both follow logically from these premises, and the Buddha strongly emphasizes the futility of dogmatism, philosophical debate, and argument. In later texts the Buddha is portrayed as one who seeks out common ground, is compassionate and concerned, and addresses the individuality of those who came to him for guidance. The dharma is not reducible to a formula. It is an active search for the meaning of the transcendental object translated into the four dimensions of human experience which are always changing. The dharma is a wheel that turns forever and cannot be stopped. Thus, today we might understand the omniscience of the Buddha as perfect metaphysical understanding through the actual experience of the clarity of enlightenment, whereas those of earlier ages had another understanding such as that of the Jains. The universe overall may be ultimately entropic, but the introduction of the transcendental object creates negentropic patterns and equations that also have the capacity to disseminate themselves across space and time. This is the definition of a “dharma age.”

The concurrence between the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas and the nikayas, which constitute the next stratum of development in the Rhys Davids/Law chronology, is remarkable, showing the care with which the originators of these texts assimilated earlier material. The development of the Pali Canon is not haphazard, accidental, or arbitrary, and we see many of the same tropes that we have identified in this talk repeated and expanded in subsequent suttas. From this perspective we may regard the Pali Canon itself as a continuous meditation on the original teachings of the Buddha. There also appear to be many similarities between these ideas and those of the legendary Laozi in the Tao Te Ching, a book that must be earlier than the earliest known text which has been dated to the late fourth century BCE. According to tradition these teachings go back to the sixth century BCE. Thus, even though the Buddha may or may not have been influenced by this text specifically, it is possible that he was influenced by the same pan-Himalayan wisdom centre[12] that the compilers of the Tao Te Ching drew on as well. In this context the speculation that the Buddha was of mixed Aryan-Mongol race, suggesting the possibility of a Mongol or even Chinese influence on Buddhism, is fascinating. Taoist tradition makes Laozi and the Buddha contemporaries, which need not be historically factual to allude to a symbolic truth.

The Atthaka and Parayana vaggas present a comprehensive worldview, including theories of knowledge, salvation, the nature of being, the universe, the Buddha, and ethics, remarkably similar to recent developments in modern philosophy and quantum physics, including the centrality of the act of observation (reality of consciousness), wave-particle duality (the trans-dual), and quantum entanglement (interdependent origination). The Buddha rejected sectarianism, dogmatism, and intolerance, affirmed the primacy of consciousness and the value of the human individual, saw the central problem of human beings as their ignorance of the nature of reality, and called upon us as individuals to wake up and to take personal responsibility for the implications of our thoughts, words, and actions; we must each save ourselves through radical realization. In particular, the Buddha articulated the mechanics of ethics – the Law of Karma – whereas Western philosophy has fallen into ethical nihilism in the wake of the “death of God.” The Buddha saw that religion, with its exoteric reliance on dogmas, rites, and rituals, completely fails to solve the human problem.

Unlike the poetic mysticism of the Tao Te Ching, with which the Atthaka and Parayana vaggas exhibit many other affinities, the Buddha expounds a rational spirituality that is articulate, profound, clear, and explicit yet leads beyond rationality and mysticism alike to the direct experiential realization of the Absolute. Against those who would like to eliminate rational inquiry altogether, the Buddha spent the last forty-five years of his life engaging in question and answer sessions with all those who came to him seeking answers. Not merely a mystic, he was also a philosopher and a political and ethical activist, though he disdained argument and debate and realized that reason leads beyond itself to something greater. Thus he criticized, realized, and transcended religion, both in his person and in his teachings.


[1] This is the Khaggavisanasutta, the famed Rhinoceros Sutra, which advocates the life of a homeless wanderer, “as a beast unbound in the forest goes feeding at pleasure,” free of emotional involvements.

[2] Not accepted as early by Rhys Davids or Law. Law put these works at #7 out of 10, more recent than the nikayas and even the Jatakas. Gombrich seems to place the composition of most of the nikayas in the mid-fourth century CE, about 55 years after the parinibbana. Rupert Gethin thinks that they are somewhat more recent. However, Gethin’s own statement that they are the product of the “first few generations” after the Buddha’ death places them no later than about 300 BCE. See

[3] The Atthakavagga also survives in Chinese translation as an independent work.

[4] For comparison, the Christian canonical period extends from 30 to 160 CE. This period includes many non-canonical texts as well, especially after 95 CE. Q, the original Christian scripture (reconstructed), is dated to 40–80 CE.

[5] See Wikipedia, Buddhist Modernism,, and Secular Buddhism, Some other cognate terms are secular Buddhism, agnostic Buddhism, “ignostic” Buddhism, atheistic Buddhism, pragmatic Buddhism, modern Theravada, progressive Theravada, original Buddhism, core Buddhism, mainstream Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, British Buddhism, and academic Buddhism.

[6] “On the 32 Marks,” Coincidentally, there are thirty-two base pairs that define the sixty-four codons of the human genetic code.

[7] Ignorance is also described as a shroud that covers the world in the Parayanavagga.

[8] Presumably these were orthodox Brahman recluses contemporary with the Buddha. Norman simply refers to them as “brahmans.”

[9] Gaccato amatam disam, lit. ‘goes to the ambrosial quarter.’ Pali amatam refers to amrita, a.k.a. soma, the psychedelic drink of the gods that confers deathlessness or immortality in Indian tradition, the recipe for which has been lost.

[10] “The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali Canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha’s discourses.”

[11] The possibility that the universe that we experience is a three-dimensional projection of a two-dimensional diffraction pattern or hologram at the event horizon of a black hole is a serious theory of modern science.

[12] Centred on the sacred Kunlun Mountains in eastern Tibet. According to Tibetan tradition Bon came from Laozi.



Allen, C. The Buddha and Dr. Führer. London: Haus Publishing, 2008.

Bodhi. “Dharma and Non-duality” (1998).

Dhammika. “Footprints in the Dust: A Study of the Buddha’s Travels.”

Early Christian Writings.

Fausböll, V., trans. The Sutta-Nipata: A Collection of Discourses, Being One of the Canonical Books of the Buddhists. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881.

Gethin, R. “Gethin on Gombrich, ‘What the Buddha Thought.'”

Law, B.C. “Chronology of the Pali Canon.”

Lebkowicz, L.F., T. Ditrich, and P. Pecenko, trans. The Way Things Really Are: A Translation of Book IV of the Sutta-Nipata. N.p.: Buddha Dharma Education Association, n.d.

Mills, L.K., trans. Sutta Nipata. N.p.: Sutta Central, 2015.

Norman, K.R., trans. The Group of Discourses. 2nd ed. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2001.

Pande, G.C. Studies in the Origin of Buddhism. 1957; rev. ed. Motilal Banarsidass, 1995.

Pannobhasa, trans. The Atthakavagga. N.p.: Path Press Publications, 2012.

Perimeter Institute. “Physics of Information: Quantum Entanglement, Black Holes and Holographic Universe” (YouTube video/CBC Radio broadcast).

Saddhatissa, H.R., trans. The Sutta-Nipata. 1985; rpt. Abbingdon: Curzon Press, 1998.

Wikipedia. Kunlun Mountain (Mythology).

Wynne, A. “How Old Is the Suttapitaka?”


The Early Buddhist Schools

Talk presented to the members of the Riverview Dharma Centre on Saturday, August 27, 2016.

The Eighteen Schools

The Five Points of Mahadeva

Views on Arhantship

The Forty-Eight Doctrines of the Mahasamghikas

Theravadin Claim to Primacy


The Eighteen Schools

z_p-37-sambuddhatva-02Even before he died, the question of how best to preserve the dharma of the Buddha was already being debated. One group wanted to enshrine the Buddha’s teachings in a kind of formalized textual transmission similar to the Vedas, but the Buddha declared that the teachings should be transmitted in the common language of the people.[1] The Pali Canon shows that Ananda was consciously memorizing the Buddha’s talks, and there is even evidence of a power struggle that emerged in the wake of the death of the Buddha’s two chief disciples, Sariputta, the disciple foremost in wisdom, and Moggallana, the disciple foremost in psychic powers, who was brutally murdered (it is not clear whether his killers were rival monastics or robbers). The Buddha himself had been the object of an abortive murder attempt by his cousin Devadatta, who thought that the rules of the sangha were too lax, an accusation that dogged the Buddha throughout his life. Toward the end of his life the Buddha seems to be dissatisfied with the sangha, and when Ananda suggested that he appoint a successor, the Buddha refused to do so, stating that the dharma itself should be the leader and the teacher of the sangha after his death (parinibbana).

After the parinibbana, a faction arose within the Buddhist order (sangha) declaring that now that the Buddha was gone, the monastics could do what they pleased. At least this is the Theravadin interpretation. However, since the Buddha himself said that the minor rules of the Vinaya might be abolished after his death, it seems possible that this is also a politicized account by conservative monastics who were attached to the rules of the Vinaya and a more liberal group who wanted to institute a more liberal Vinaya based on the Buddha’s statement. In any case, Mahakassapa, the disciple foremost in asceticism, convened a meeting of the sangha at which all of the rules of the Vinaya were upheld, including apparently intentionally discriminatory rules for female monastics.[2]  Whether this was due to Mahakassapa himself is unclear, since Mahakassapa had declared that the number of monastic rules is inversely proportional to the spiritual development of the sangha, implying that the rules are in fact a symptom of degeneration and not the reverse (this is the opposite of the common view today that the Vinaya rules themselves are a sort of spiritual training). This view also corresponds to the historical development of the sangha. Nonetheless, the First Buddhist Council instituted a rigorous Vinaya that was also explicitly misogynistic and which led ultimately to the disappearance of the female monastic order, the bhikkhunisangha.[3] I have discussed this in detail in other talks. All of this can be documented in the Pali Canon.

The Buddha emphasized the importance of the ideological unity of the Buddhist community and to this end he established rules by which future Buddhist teachings might be evaluated as well as a legal requirement of consensus or, failing that, majority rule in the context of respect for elders. This is set out in the Vinaya itself. Of course, sustaining such a democratic structure as the sangha expanded and diversified became increasingly difficult in a time when travel and communication were difficult to impossible. The sangha was actually unified for only about a century. During the Second Buddhist Council, a minority reformist group of elders advocated a new arrangement of the rules of the Vinaya, which included new rules – something that the Buddha himself expressly forbade – and when unsuccessful they broke away from the majority Mahasamghikas to found the Sthavira nikaya. Thus, the first schism was not a matter of doctrine but of monastic discipline and organization. 

The next three hundred years saw the emergence of numerous schools and sects, many geographically based, splitting off from the original two, traditionally referred to as the Eighteen Schools. Different authorities present different lists of these schools, often referring to the same or similar schools by different names, including the Sri Lankan Dipavamsa (3rd-4th cent. CE); Mahavamsa (5th cent. CE); the Samayobhedo Paracana Cakra, a Sarvastavadin work attributed to Vasumitra; Vinitadeva, a Mulasarvastivadin monastic of the 7th–8th centuries CE; the Sariputraparipriccha, a Mahasamghikan history; and various Chinese Mahayana sutras. For the purpose of this talk I have utilized a list based on noted University of Toronto Buddhologist A.K. Warder in chapters 8 and 9 of his book Indian Buddhism (3rd rev. ed., 2000), consisting of eighteen schools presented in approximate chronological order. Interestingly, he says that this list of eighteen schools corresponds to the status quo circa 50 BCE, the approximate date when the texts of the Pali Canon were first committed to writing and the beginning of the emergence of the Mahayana literature as a distinct genre, beginning with the Prajnaparamita literature of the first century BCE. However, whereas Warder simply discusses these schools as they arise in his book, with numerous side references and repetitions, I have organized them into a chart to make the derivation of the schools clear, which Warder did not do. The diagram itself is therefore my original work. I strongly suggest that you follow along using this chart throughout the talk so you can situate what I am saying in the context of the progressive development of the early schools of Buddhism for the 350-year period from c. 400 BCE to c. 50 BCE.


Keep in mind too that although I will allude to the Mahayana, none of these schools is Mahayanist. They are in fact all “Hinayana” schools, although of course that term is not appreciated by everyone, for which reason I refer collectively to the term “the Eighteen Schools” in my book, Conversations with the Buddha, instead of using the terms hinayana or sravakayana. After discussing the schools, I will conclude with some interesting implications and observations.

If you are keen, you might notice that the names of the schools on the chart, which follows Warder, differs slightly from the names of the schools in the corresponding sections of the talk. The reason for this is that I have used the equivalent Wikipedia headings where they differ from Warder in order make it easier for students to look them up. I have also included additional resources in the references at the end of the paper. As with all Buddhist scholarship, opinions vary. In general, I have followed Warder and sought to effect a broad synthesis wherever possible.

1. Sthavira nikāya

(4th cent. BCE)

The Sthaviravada, literally, “the sect of the elders,” precipitated the first Buddhist schism by splitting away from the Mahasamghikas during the Second Buddhist Council (circa 334 BCE). Contrary to the last teachings of the Buddha according to the Pali Canon, the Sthaviravadins wanted to add new rules to the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code of discipline, against the will of the majority. Scholars now agree that the Mahasamghika Vinaya, which has fewer rules than the Sthavira Vinaya, is the oldest.

The Sthaviravadins split up into the Sarvastivada, Vatsiputriya, and Vinbhajyavada schools.

The Vatsiputriya split up into the Dharmottariya, Bhadrayaniya, Sammitiya, and the Sannagarika schools.

The Vibhajyavada split up into the Mahisasaka, Dharmaguptaka, Kasyapiya, and the Tamraparniya schools. The Tamraparniya school became known as the Theravada in the fourth century of the common era, and is the immediate precursor of the modern Theravadin school of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere. As you can see, the Theravada is nine schools removed from the original presectarian Buddhism, through the Sthavira which it claims as its own origin, and therefore cannot possibly be said to be identical with original Buddhism as claimed by its proponents, nor can the modern Theravada be accepted as a proxy for the Eighteen Schools of the Hinayana, which did not originate from the Theravada as we shall see.

2. Mahāsāṃghika

(3rd cent. BCE)

Mahasamghika, “the Great Sangha,” originated in Magadha, where the Buddha spent much of his time. It is regarded as the precursor of Mahayana Buddhism. The numerous suttas situated in Rajagaha (especially the Digha Nikaya) originated here. Several cave temples are associated with them. A Chinese account of the second century states that they wore yellow robes. A Tibetan source says that the robes bore the emblem of an endless knot or a conch. The doctrines of the Mahasamgha included:

  • Ultimate and conventional truth
  • The trans linguistic character of dharma
  • The conventional nature of language
  • Emptiness
  • The nature of bodhisattvas
  • The fallibility of arhants, making arhantship in effect an advanced stage of the path
  • The reification of Buddhahood
  • The infinity of the number of Buddhas
  • Intentional rebirth

The Mahasamghikas regarded the Abhidhamma as non-canonical.

Since the Mahasamghikas were the majority and the Sthaviaravada the breakaway minority, it is clear that the Mahasamghika must be regarded as the original post-sectarian Buddhist school with the Sthaviravadins as the schismatics. It is important to make this distinction from the perspective of Buddhist law, which seeks consensus, supports majorities, and shuns schismatics. In fact, to form a schism is a violation of the Vinaya, entailing initial and subsequent meetings of the community until the schism is resolved.

3. Pudgalavada

(3rd cent. BCE)

The Pudgalavada includes the Vatsiputriyas and the Sammitiyas. The Personalist school separated from the Sthavira about 280 BCE. The essential doctrine of this school was the reality of the person. The Theravada, Sarvastivada, and Madyamaka schools opposed this doctrine.

4. Ekavyāvahārika

(3rd cent. BCE)

The “single unified transcendent meaning school,” the Ekavyavaharika separated from the Mahamsamghika during the reign of Ashoka.

According to the Samayabhedoparacanacakra of Vasumitra, the Ekavyavaharikas, Kukkatikas, Lokottaavadins, and Mahasanghikas held forty-eight theses in common. The 48 views they held in common are connected with the nature of the Buddha, the bodhisattva, the arahants, and the stream entrants; mind and mental states; dormant passions and their outbursts; and the unconditioned. They also held that arhants are imperfect and fallible. They also held nine divergent views enumerated by Vasumitra concerning causation by self, others, and both and the coexistence of discrete thoughts.

5. Kukkuṭika (Gokulika)

(2nd-3rd cent. BCE)

The Kukkutika originated in the place-name of a major center of the Mahasamghikas. The name means “cinder,” and alludes to the universality of suffering. They held views similar to the Ekavyavaharika, Kukkutika, and Lokottaravada schools. Their center was in Varanasi in eastern India. According to an Indian source, the Kuklkutikans did not accept the Mahayana sutras as the word of the Buddha, the Buddha vacana. They disappeared between the fourth and ninth centuries of the common era. 

6. Sarvastivada

(3rd cent. BCE)

The Sarvastivadins – lit. “the theory that all exists” – believed in the reality of the Three Times. They split from the Sthavira during the reign of Ashoka. The Sarvastivada influenced Buddhism for a thousand years, and were a major school. A Chinese source states that they wore dark red or black robes. They believed in three Buddhist vehicles – the way of the hearers, the way of the solitary buddhas, and the way of the bodhisattvas. They did not take refuge in the historical Buddha, but in the dharmakaya, the “truth” or “reality body.” Like the Mahsamghikas, they regarded arhants as fallible and imperfect. They also contested the view of the Mahisasakas that women are spiritually inferior. A nearly complete Sarvastivadin canon has recently been discovered in Afghanistan, the study of which should greatly add to our understanding of the early Buddhist canon.

7. Lokottaravāda

(circa 200 BCE)

Lit. “those who follow the transcendent teachings,” the Lokottaravada emerged out of the Mahasamghika. They flourished in the northwest. The Lokottaravadins accepted the Mahayana sutras as Buddhavacana. Most of their canon has been lost, except for the Mahavastu, an early biography of the Buddha. The Infinite Life Sutra also owes much to their influence. The Ekavyavaharikas, Kukkutikas (aka Gokukkas), and the Lokottaravadins were doctrinally indistinguishable and were largely geographic rather than doctrinal in character. They distinguished two kinds of emptiness, emptiness of self and emptiness of phenomena. They upheld the Mahasamghika views concerning the transcendent nature of buddhas and bodhisattvas, the fallibility of arhants, and the Three Vehicles and provided special instructions for bodhisattvas, including the ten foundations (bhumis).[4] There are an infinite number of pure lands, Buddhas, and tenth-stage bodhisattvas. All buddhas are equal in attainment. One thousand buddhas will follow the historical Buddha, including Maitreya, the Future Buddha of the Pali Canon.

8. Dharmottariya 

(2nd cent. BCE)

Warder says that little is known of this school. It appears to have split from the Vatsiputriya along with the Bhadrayaniya, Sammitiya, and the Sannagarika during the second century BCE. He says that they were centred on the Aparanta region on the coast of Maharastra at the great port of Surparaka the capital. Their doctrines are similar to those of the Mahasamghikas from which they derived.

9. Bhadrayaniya

(2nd cent. BCE)

The Bhadrayaniyas were located on the edge of the Maharastrian plateau behind the great port of Surparaka, called Nasika.

10. Saṃmitīya

(2nd cent. BCE)

The Sammitiya split from the Vatsiputriya school in the Sthavira tradition. According to Buddhologist Etienne Lamotte, the Sammitiya were the largest non-Mahayana sect in India. They affirmed the reality of the person. They were reputed to be extremely narrow-minded and intensely anti-Mahayana, destroying both texts and statues of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist schools.

11. Sannagarika 

(2nd cent. BCE)

No information.

12. Bahuśrutīya

(3rd cent. BCE)

Lit. “well learned,” the Bahusrutiya split off from the Mahasamghika school. It was founded by Yajnavalkya about 200 BCE. According to an Indian source, Yajnavalkya founded the Bahusrutiya school in order to promote a more profound discourse than that of the Mahasamghika, based on the idea of a superficial and profound meaning (conventional and ultimate truth). The Bhusrutiyas accepted both Hinayana and Mahayana teachings. Specifically, impermanence, suffering, emptiness, non-self-identity (anatta), and emancipation (nirvana) were considered to be ultimate truths, whereas the other teachings are mundane truths. They also believed that arhants are fallible. The Tattvasiddhi Sastra may have been influenced by this school.

13. Prajñaptivāda

(3rd cent. BCE)

The Prajnaptivada school, reputedly founded by Mahakatyayana, seceded from the Bahusrutiya.  They flourished in Magadha until the tenth century of the common era. Their main doctrine was that phenomena are the product of conceptualization. They distinguished between conventional and ultimate truth and between reality and mere concepts. Conditioned phenomena suffer because they are mere concepts or notions. They denied that suffering inheres in the skhandhas or the five elements, contrary to the Sarvastivadins. The Noble Eightfold Path is eternal, immutable, and indestructible. The path cannot be cultivated through contemplation, but only through the cultivation of “all-knowledge” and the accumulation of merit. All attainments are the result of karma and merit. The Buddha’s teachings are nominal, conventional, and causal. Therefore, they are only provisional. The Prajnaptivadins adhered to the two-truths doctrine, articulated the relationship between skillful means and wisdom, and may have influenced the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. The Bahusrutiyans and the Prajnaptivadins are particularly associated with the rise of the Mahayana.

14. Mahīśāsaka

(4th cent. BCE)

Founded by the monastic Purana, the Mahisasaka originated in the Vanti region of India during the Second Buddhist council in the fourth century of the common era.  They spread northwest and down to southern India including Sri Lanka, where they coexisted with the Theravada before they were absorbed by the latter. According to a Chinese source, the Mahisasakans were said to wear blue robes. They were said to be deeply involved in the practice of meditation, especially meditation on the Four Noble Truths. They held that everything exists in the present moment. A gift given to the sangha is more meritorious than a gift given to the Buddha. Early on, they rejected the doctrine of the intermediate state, but subsequently they came to accept it. The Infinite Life Sutra was composed by Mahisaskan monastics. The Mahisasakans were misogynists who believed that women could not become buddhas, a view that one also finds expressed in the Pali Canon. Because women cannot change the nature of their minds or bodies, they will cause Buddhism to decline.

15. Kāśyapīya (Haimavata)

(circa 190 BCE)

This school was named after Kasyapa, one of the missionaries of  Ashoka sent to the Himalayan region. They split off from the Vibhajyavadin school in the second century BCE. They survived to the seventh century CE. According to a Chinese source they are described as wearing magnolia robes. They were an eclectic school and although nominally in the Sthavira tradition, they adopted doctrines from the Mahasamghikans. They believed that past events exist in the present in some form. They believed in the fallibility of arhants; because they have not completely eliminated desires, their perfection is incomplete and it is possible for them to relapse. The Gandhari Dhammapada may belong to this school. The Chinese canon also preserves an incomplete translation of the Samyutta Nikaya that may belong to this school.

16. Dharmaguptaka

(2nd cent. BCE)

The Dharmaguptakas split off from the Mahisasakas. Their Vinaya became the basis of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese monasticism. Their name means “preserver of the dharma.” They believed that the Buddha’s teachings are superior to those of the arhants by virtue of his status as separate from the sangha. Therefore, venerating buddhas generates more merit than venerating the sangha (the opposite of the Mahisasaka view). They also advocated the merit of venerating stupas. They distinguished between the path of a hearer and the path of a bodhisattva. Thus, although formally in the Sthavira tradition, the views of the Dharmaguptaka are similar to those of the Mahasamghikas. They rejected the Sarvastivadin monastic rules on the grounds that the original teachings of the Buddha have been lost. According to a Chinese source, they wore black or deep red robes. Originating in Aparanta, the Dharmaguptakas flourished in northwest India in the first century CE. Some scholars believe that they may have been founded by a Greek Buddhist monastic. They made major inroads in Iran, Central Asia, and China. Their Vinaya is still followed in China, Vietnam, and Korea. A Dharmaguptaka version of the Digha Nikaya is also extant in Chinese translation. It consisted of four less suttas than the Theravadin version. A Dharmaguptaka Anguttara Nikaya is also extant, as well as a Dharmaguptaka Abhidharma. A sixth century CE Indian monastic named Paramartha identifies the Dharmaguptaka with the Mahayana.

17. Caitika

(1st cent. BCE)

The Caitika or Caityaka school flourished among the mountains of southern India, centred on Andhra, whence they derived their name. Led by Mahadeva, they emerged out of the Mahasamghika in the first or second century BCE. They are reputed to have owned the Great Stupa of Sanchi, commissioned by Ashoka in the third century BCE. They are also associated with the Ajanta Caves and the veneration of anthropomorphic Buddha images. They valued the path of the bodhisattva above that of the hearer, and they regarded arhants as fallible and subject to ignorance. They emphasized the transcendent character of the Buddha. A.K. Warder suggests that the Caitikas were the immediate precursor of the Mahayana. It has also been proposed that the great Prajnaparamita literature arose out of this school. They also elaborated the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha, related to the Buddha-nature or Buddha-principle. They were also the reputed compilers of the ancient collection of Mahayana sutras entitled the Sutra of the Heap of Jewels (Maharatnakuta Sutra), consisting of forty-nine texts of varying lengths. The Caitika held that the Buddha’s actions and speech were transcendent, but that some might only perceive the conventional or mundane interpretation. 

18. Sailas

(1st cent. BCE)

The Apara Saila and Uttara (or Purva) Saila schools split from the Caitika around the Andhra city of Dhanyakataka, where the Caitikas also originated. The Madhyamaka Mahayana philosopher Candrakirti quotes the Purva Saila tradition in support of his doctrine that principles do not originate and cease in reality, so that the doctrine of Dependent Origination is a conventional teaching only. The oldest parts of the Ratnakuta collection are also attributed to the Purva Saila school  by various authorities.

The Five Points of Mahadeva

Mahadeva is a somewhat mysterious figure who, according to the Theravadin account, declared Five Points about thirty-five years after the Second Buddhist Council, circa 300 BCE. However, some modern scholars have suggested that Mahadeva was actually the founder of the Caitaka school about two hundred years later, i.e., in the first century BCE. Although the historicity of this account is somewhat controversial, there is no doubt that the Five Points refer to an important controversy to do with the perfection of arhants on which the schools were thoroughly divided. These points or theses were:

  1. Male arhants can have nocturnal emissions.
  2. Arhants can be ignorant.
  3. Arhants can doubt.
  4. Arhants need guidance.
  5. Arhants may attain the path by means of a verbal ejaculation [sic].

The gist of the first four of these points is that arhants are imperfect and fallible and therefore cannot represent the highest stage of the Buddhist path. As we have seen, the schools were divided on this question, including several Sthavira schools. The oldest Sthavira school to hold this view of the imperfection and fallibility of arhants was the Sarvastivada. The Sarvastivada also criticized the Mahisasaka view concerning the inferiority of women. In both of these respects, the Sarvastivada exhibits similarities to the Mahasamghika school, despite being a school in the Sthavira line. Warder dates the secession of the Sarvastivada from the Sthavira during the reign of Ashoka (third century BCE).

Views on Arhants

9e7ea4282d8bb7d8035ce2be9a4daab4One of the interesting things that emerges out of the foregoing study is the position of the early schools (all pre-Mahayana, remember) on the status of arhants. We are accustomed to think of arhansthip as the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, based on the Pali Canon, the only surviving complete early Buddhist canon, preserved by the Theravada school, yet the picture appears very differently when we catalog the positions of the early Buddhist schools on this question.

The Sarvastivada, Kasyapiya, Dharmaguptaka, Mahasamghika,Ekavyāvahārika, Lokottaravāda, Bahuśrutīya, Pajñaptivāda, and the Caitika schools all regarded arhants as imperfect in their attainment compared to buddhas and therefore fallible, despite being emancipated. I think that this ambiguity or paradox has to do with the doctrine of Dependent Origination (paticcasamuppada), as I have explained in previous talks,[5] as well as the historical fact of the primogeniture of the Buddha. Significantly, three of these schools fall under the conservative Sthavira, the same school with which the Theravadins identify themselves. Even the Mahisasakas – another Sthavira school – also appeared to believe that women could become arhants, but not buddhas, implying that arhantship is inferior to buddhahood. Clearly, there was no consensus on this point. We are accustomed to thinking of the arhant as the ultimate goal of the Buddhist path, although the Pali Canon itself clearly considers Buddhahood to lie beyond arhantship, because this is the view of the Theravadins, the only early Buddhist school to survive today.

The Buddha also prescribed different spiritual strategies for different people, based on their personal predilections and stages of development, including intentional rebirth, deva rebirth, and rebirth in the Brahma worlds, which are clearly not the highest goal according to the Buddha. There is even an arhant rebirth (in the Pure Abodes). The metta or loving kindness meditation, which is often mentioned throughout the Pali Canon, by itself does not lead to arhantship. As we have shown in this paper, the Theravadin claim to be identical with presectarian or original Buddhism is historically false. On the other hand, the doctrine, associated with Mahadeva, that arhants are imperfect and fallible explains certain difficulties with the arhant concept in the Pali Canon, including the fact that it is a non-Buddhist concept generally (but not universally) associated with an intermediate samana stage (e.g. by the Jains) and the Buddha’s statement and the evidence of the Pali Canon that it could be achieved relatively easily, in as short a time as one to seven days depending on the text, which seems an awfully short time to achieve the complete transcendent self-perfection that the Buddha took eons to develop, even with the aid of the Buddhavacana.

The Forty-eight Doctrines of the Mahasamghikas 

When Martin Luther decided to challenge the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church in November 1517 he summarized his “disputation” in ninety-five theses, which he nailed to the front door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Similarly, the  Doctrines of the Different Schools (Sama-yabhe-dopa-racana-cakra)  of Vasumitra records forty-eight special theses attributed to the Mahāsāṃghika, Ekavyāvahārika, Lokottaravāda, and the Gokulika schools. Vasumitra was a monastic who led the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir about the second century and helped to compile the Great Commentary of the Abhidhamma. Whether this is the same Vasumitra who wrote the Doctrines of the Different Schools is unclear. The book exists in English translation under the title Origins and Doctrines of the Early Indian Buddhist Schools. These are summarized on pages 18 to 32. Many of these propositions correspond to insights that I have had because of my study of the suttas of the Pali Canon. I have only just begun to study these, but in simplified summary form, they are as follows: 

The Forty-eight Theses of the Mahasamghika 

  1. Buddhas are transcendent.
  2. The Tathagata is undefiled.
  3. Tathagatas preach the righteous law.
  4. The Buddha can expound all of the doctrines in a single utterance.
  5. The speech of the Buddha is always true.
  6. The sambhogakaya or “energy body” of the Buddha is infinite.
  7. The divine power of the Tathagata is infinite.
  8. The Buddha is immortal.
  9. The Buddha never tires of enlightening beings.
  10. The Buddha neither sleeps nor dreams.
  11. There is no hesitation when the Buddha answers a question.
  12. The realization of the Buddha is trans-linguistic.
  13. The Buddha understands everything at once.
  14. The wisdom of the Buddha is infinite.
  15. Buddhas know that they have extinguished all defilements and will not be reborn.
  16. Bodhisattvas are not gestated in the normal way.
  17. The bodhisattva’s final birth is indicated by the appearance of a white elephant.
  18. Bodhisattvas are born by Caesarian section. Caesarian section was known in India as early as 1500 BCE, which also might explain the reason for Maya’s reputed death seven days after the Buddha’s birth.
  19. Bodhisattvas do not harbour thoughts of greed, anger, or harming others.
  20. Bodhsivattvas may be reborn in good or bad states to help others.
  21. One who has realized truth can meditate on all of the aspects of the Four Noble Truths simultaneously.
  22. The five sense consciousnesses conduce to both passion and dispassion.
  23. Beings in the form and formless worlds all possess all six sense consciousnesses.
  24. The five sense organs in themselves are impercipient.
  25. One can speak even in a meditative state.
  26. Perfected beings are unattached.
  27. Stream entrants know their own state.
  28. Arhants are subject to temptation, ignorance, doubt, are dependent on others, and the path is realized by utterances.
  29. Suffering leads one to the path.
  30. The words of suffering can help one to realize the path.
  31. By wisdom, one annihilates suffering and experiences bliss.
  32. Suffering is a kind of food.
  33. One can remain in a meditative state indefinitely.
  34. A Buddhist in an advanced state of realization can still retrogress.
  35. A stream enterer can retrogress but an arhant cannot (because he has no passions).
  36. There is no worldly right view or right faith.
  37. Everything is good or bad. Nothing is morally neutral.
  38. A stream enterer has destroyed all of the bonds.
  39. Stream enterers cannot commit matricide, patricide, murdering an arhant, causing a schism, or cutting a Tathagata.
  40. All Buddha sutras are inherently perfect.
  41. There are nine ultimate or absolute things: extinction realized by wisdom, extinction not realized by wisdom, ordinary space, infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, neither perception nor non-perception, karma, and dharma.
  42. Mind is inherently pure.
  43. Subconscious passions are neither mental nor do they become conscious.
  44. Conscious and unconscious passions differ.
  45. Past and future are not real.
  46. Mental objects can be known or understood.
  47. There is no intermediate state of existence between death and rebirth.
  48. Stream enterers are capable of meditation. 

Theravadin Claim to Historical Primacy 

The earliest reliable historical accounts situate the origin of the Theravada – the “doctrine of the elders” – in Sri Lanka about 200 BCE, two hundred years after the parinibbana.[6] According to tradition they were founded by Mahinda, the son (or brother) of Ashoka, who became a Buddhist monastic. Originally, they were called the Tamraparniya, “the Sri Lankan lineage.” Warder does not include either the Tamraparniya or the Theravada in his list of the Eighteen original Schools. Warder does not refer to either of these schools in his book, Indian Buddhism. Disputes concerning doctrine and practice caused the school to divide into three sub-schools, the Mahavihara, Abha-yagiri-vihara, and the Jata-vana-vihara, each of which was named after its associated monastery. These schools were reunited in the 12th century by the Sri Lankan king, under the guidance of two forest monastics of the Mahavihara school. Thus, Theravada Buddhism became associated with nationalism and even fascism.

The Tamraparniya/Theravada is an offshoot of the Vibhavyavada school, which derived from the Sthavira minority that split off from the Mahasamghikas, through six intermediate schools (see chart).  As I have already explained, this schism was illegal under Buddhist ecclesiastical law and thus all subsequent developments were also illegal. The Theravadins clearly have no direct succession from original or presectarian Buddhism, contrary to their dogmatic claim to represent the original teachings of the Buddha. Moreover, the term “Theravada” did not come into use before the fourth century of the common era, when it was used in the Dipavamsa to designate the national spiritual heritage of Sri Lanka. According to a Chinese source, Mahayana Buddhism was also practiced in Sri Lanka in the seventh century. The Mahayanists were associated with the Abhayagiri monastery, whereas the “Hinayana” Buddhists were centred on the Mahavihara monastery. As I have mentioned, Sri Lankan Buddhism itself was not unified until the twelfth century. Theravada doctrine was codified by Buddhaghosa in the fifth century of the common era. Thus, the Theravada is one of the latest of the so-called “early” schools.

Theravadins consider buddhas and arahants to have reached the same level of spiritual development; thus, arhants must be perfect and infallible. As I have shown, this view was by no means universally accepted by the early schools. Since the arhants of the First Buddhist Council and the Pali Canon itself are clearly misogynistic, this commits modern Theravadins to the view that women are spiritually inferior to men, a position still held in Thailand.  The bhikkunisangha died out in Sri Lanka during the thirteenth century. Some scholars (e.g., Melford Spiro, Buddhism and Society) consider Theravada Buddhism to be a composite of many separate traditions, overlapping but still distinct. The Theravadin Vinaya, with 227 rules for monks and 311 for nuns, both enshrines the misogyny of the First Buddhist Council and preserves a larger number of rules than the Mahasamghika, for which reason the Mahasamghika Vinaya is considered the oldest Vinaya extant (and also invalidates all other Vinayas). According to Mahakassapa, a larger number of rules indicates degeneracy, not spiritual superiority, which also corresponds to the historical account of the Pali Canon.


poderesunidos-allan-bennett_6According to Ajahn Sucitto, a British-born Theravada Buddhist monastic,

It wasn’t originally a counterpoise to Mahāyāna, although it became subsequently defined, and has defined itself, as such. In fact, the terms ‘Mahāyāna’ came into being around the first century, long before the term ‘Theravāda’ was applied to a ‘school’ of Buddhism. The German scholar, Hermann Oldenberg referred to ‘Theravada’ to describe the Pali Vinaya texts he was translating – and published in 1879, but it wasn’t until the early years of the twentieth-century that the term ‘Theravāda’ was employed (by the English bhikkhu, Ven Ananda Metteyya) to describe the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Burma and S.E. Asia. Even then the term was not officially used in the Asian homelands until the gathering of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Colombo in 1950.

Theravada Buddhism has been characterized by a series of collapses and revivals. Each time, the tradition became more consolidated, which of course also implies a loss of diversity. This phenomenon of simplification over time is well-known to students of hermeneutics. According to Ajahn Sucitto, the Sri Lankan sangha disappeared during the eighteenth century and had to be revived from Thailand. This is the oldest lineage in Sri Lanka today – a mere three hundred years old.

David Chapman, in his essay, “Theravada Reinvents Meditation,” notes that

in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely, or almost completely, lost in the Theravada world. Either no one, or perhaps only a handful of people, knew how to do it. Vipassana was reinvented by four people in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  They started with descriptions of meditation in scripture. Those were vague and contradictory, so the inventors tried out different things that seemed like they might be what the texts were talking about, to see if they worked. They each came up with different methods. Since then, extensive innovation in Theravada meditation has continued. Advocates of different methods disagree, often harshly, about which is correct. …

In the mid-1800s, these texts were revered because supposedly they showed the way to nirvana. However, the way they were practiced was for groups of monks to ritually chant the text in unison. This is like a bunch of people who don’t know what a computer is reading the manual out loud, hoping the machine will spring to life, without realizing you need to plug it in. …

In the 1880s, there is no evidence that anyone in Sri Lanka knew how to meditate. One biography of [Anagarika] Dharmapala [a Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist and writer] says flatly that “the practice had been neglected and then forgotten.” It’s possible that there were a few monks somewhere who still practiced vipassana, but there is no evidence for that. We do know that he travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, and “in spite of all his enquiries he never succeeded in finding even a single person, whether monk or layman, who could instruct him in… meditation practices.

Chapman makes two further points that are of interest here:

  • Asian Theravada repeatedly reinvented meditation under the influence of Western ideas. Chapman is doubtless thinking of Theosophy here.
  • “Guys” [males] who were “into” extreme asceticism, which the Buddha expressly forbade, reinvented Theravada meditation. This fascination with asceticism continues in Theravada today.


Chapman, David. “Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

Dhammika, S. Broken Buddha: Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism.

Natier and Prebish. “Mahasamghika Origins: The Beginning of Buddhist Sectarianism.”

New World Encyclopedia.  “Theravada Buddhism.”

Sucitto, Ajahn. “What is Theravada?”

Sujato. “Bhikkuni Sangha and the Authenticity Project.”

Sujato and Brahmali. “Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts,”

Vasumitra. Origin and Doctrines of Early Indian Buddhist Schools. Trans. Masuda.

Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism.



[1] This is the prevailing modern interpretation. However, some scholars interpret the Pali in the opposite sense.

[2] Many modern scholars doubt the story that Ananda had to convince the Buddha to admit women to the sangha based on his reluctance to ordain his stepmother, Mahapajapati, based on contrary evidence in the canon that a nun’s order (bhikkunisangha) already existed when Mahapajapati presented herself to the Buddha. The account also makes no “theological” sense, since it implies that the Buddha was irresolute and did not know his own mind. The overall evidence of the canon is that the Buddha did not discriminate against women and ordained women on an equal basis with men. It is, however, possible that the Buddha delayed creating the bhikkunisangha for a time due to social prejudice.

[3] The eight “heavy rules” (garudhammas) for nuns include inconsistent textual references that indicate that it was not instituted by the Buddha, including references to a probationer ordination that did not exist at the time of Mahapajapati’s purported ordination.

[4] The bhumis are characterized by the realization of joy, elimination of defilements, illumination, wisdom, meditation, emptiness, cessation, arhantship, dharma realization, and finally self-perfection.

[5] To recap, the chain of “interdependent origination” (paticca + sam + uppada) includes two links (nidanas), craving (tanha) and ignorance (avijja), which are subject to intention, thus two points where the chain can be broken, resulting in liberation. Contact comes at the approximate midpoint of the chain, resulting from feeling and giving rise to clinging (desirous attachment), and is reversed through the practice of dispassion. Ignorance is the first link and therefore the root or “first cause” of the chain, resulting from birth, ageing, suffering, and death (interpreting the diagram as a cycle or “circle”) and giving rise to “constructive activities” (sankharas), and is reversed through the practice of wisdom, which is both the beginning and the goal of the path (Right View). Wisdom is the essential salvific principle, from which dispassion automatically follows. Interestingly, these two accomplishments, dispassion and wisdom, correspond exactly to the two stages of emancipation, the arhant and the Buddha respectively, with the Buddha preeminent due to the singular role of ignorance in the chain, which we see reflected in the primogeniture of the Buddha and the dependence of the arhants upon him.

[6] 344 years if one accepts the traditional Theravadin date of the parinibbana of 544 BCE.

Did the Buddha Prohibit the Consumption of Drugs?

tumblr_o77n7y5jf81t2p3goo1_500In sutta 17 of the Digha Nikaya, the Buddha summarizes the full fivefold set of precepts plus one in his story of King Mahasudassana. Maurice Walshe translates this as: “Do not take life. Do not take what is not given. Do not commit sexual misconduct. Do not tell lies. Do not drink strong drink. Be moderate in eating” (DN 17.1.9, ii.175). However, in sutta 32 Walshe has the Buddha teaching “a code of refraining from taking life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from lying speech, and from strong drink and sloth-producing drugs ” (DN 32.2). This comes after sutta 31, in which the Buddha refers to “strong drink and sloth-producing drugs” as a way of wasting one’s substance (31.7, iii.183), immediately following the fourfold restraint, consisting of not taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, and lying speech, without any reference to drinking alcohol or anything else.

In the corresponding translation of the Rhys Davids’s, in sutta XXXII, they have “intemperance” instead of “strong drink and sloth-producing drugs.” However, in the previous sutta Rhys Davids have only “intoxicating liquors.” There is no reference to drugs, and in sutta XVII, they refer only to “maddening drink.”

The foregoing comparisons lead one to ask the question: What is the basis in the Pali for Walshe’s reference to “sloth-producing drugs” in suttas 31 and 32?

In order to make this comparison I referred to the Burmese Chattha Sangayana edition of the Pali Canon online. The key word here is Surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-(ṭṭhānā)-nu-yogo in the phrase “Surāmerayamajjappamādaṭṭhānānuyogo kho, gahapatiputta, bhogānaṃ apāyamukhaṃ” (CS 3.8.247), which we may parse as follows (note the word plays)::

  • sura (m): intoxicating or distilled liquor or brewage
  • meraya (nt): fermented liquor, rum
  • majja (nt): liquor, intoxicant
  • [jappa]: greed, desire, lust
  • [pa]: preposition indicating leading toward or intensification
  • pamada (f): remissness, negligence, carelessness
  • [mada]: pride, intoxication, sexual excess
  • nu: a
  • yoga (m): endeavour, effort
  • kho (ind): indeed, really, surely
  • gahapati (m): commoner, householder, head of the household
  • putta (m): son, child
  • bhoga (m): possession, wealth, enjoyment
  • apayamukha (nt): cause of ruin

I have bolded the three critical words in this sentence: sura, meraya, and majja. Checking these words in the Pali-English Dictionary, there is no allusion to drugs. Rather, the threefold formula seems to approximate to the English “beer, wine, and spirits” – but not “drugs”! The whole passage might be rendered, “Truly, addiction to drink, which leads to sin, will be the downfall of the householder and his heirs.” The same principle may or may not apply to drugs, but that is not what the Buddha says. The essential objection appears to be to the loss of self-control that results from imbibing alcohol, which was used in the Ayurvedic medicine of the time as an anaesthetic. We should also remember that the Buddha himself did not consider drinking to be a matter of much importance until the sangha was embarrassed by the behaviour of a single monastic during a time of famine, eight years after the founding of the sangha. It is these sorts of details that often get overlooked in the religious fundamentalist synthesis.

Similarly, the very same word appears in CS 3.9.276; there is no difference. The conclusion is that Professor Walshe’s translation, unlike the Rhys Davids’s, is loose, and that the Buddha does not refer to drugs in these passages, with all the redolence of that word in contemporary English, probably because the Buddha had no conception of drugs in the modern (non-medical) sense at all. The Buddha does of course permit the consumption of medicinal drugs, and even allows the rules of the Vinaya to be bent or broken in the service of treating illness or preserving health.


Crowley, Mike. Secret Drugs of Buddhism. Published Sept. 10, 2014. Accessed July 21, 2016.

Pinchback, Daniel. “The Link Between Buddhism and Psychedelics.” Sept. 8, 2015. Accessed July 21, 2016.

Redmond, Geoffrey. “Buddhism and Psychedelics: Zig Zag Zen.” Accessed July 21, 2016.

Rhys Davids, T.W. and C.A.F., trans. Dialogues of the Buddha: Translated from the Pali of the Digha Nikaya. 4th ed. Part II. Sacred Books of the Buddhists. Ed. T.W. Rhys Davids. Vol. III. 1959; rpt. London: Pali Text Society, 1977.

———-, trans. Dialogues of the Buddha: Translated from the Pali of the Digha Nikaya. Part III. Sacred Books of the Buddhists. Ed. T.W. Rhys Davids. Vol. IV. 1921; London: Pali Text Society, 1977.

Walshe, Maurice, trans. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. The Teachings of the Buddha. 1987; rpt. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.