The Origin, History and Claim of the Theravada

cAccording to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha passed on (attained parinibbana) near the small town of Kushinagar, near the Hiranyavati River, on the border of present-day India and Nepal. Modern scholars place this event about 400 BCE. Here the Buddha laid down how the Buddhist community (sangha) should be organized after his death. In accordance with the democratic model of the Vajjian confederacy, on which he modelled his sangha, that included women’s rights, the Buddha set out rules that, he predicted, would lead to the sangha’s success:

1. that it should meet frequently and in large numbers;

2. that it should meet and disperse peacefully and make its decisions cooperatively based on consensus;

3. that no new rules should be made;

4. that no existing rules should be abolished, with the exception of the lesser and minor rules, which the Buddha specifically allowed may be abolished;[1]

5. that they should respect the elder bhikkhus;

6. that they should live in seclusion in the forest;

7. that they should share their possessions; and

8. that each individual should seek out their own salvation in and for themselves.[2]

Elsewhere, the Buddha says that the sangha should not be under the direction of a single successor, but rather that the monks and nuns (for the Buddha freely ordained both men and women) should take the dhamma itself as their head.

Almost immediately after his death, however, the sangha departed from the Buddha’s declared desire and intention by appointing Mahakassapa, and subsequently Ananda, as their leader; instituting a Vinaya that discriminated against the Buddhist nuns and eventually led to the virtual disappearance of the bhikkhunisanga in most Buddhist countries; deciding not to abolish the lesser and minor rules, but rather clinging to a rigid codification (the Vinaya); and establishing a vertical ecclesiastical dictatorship that continues, virtually unchanged, to this day.

Subsequently, the sangha continued in their attachment to views, which the Buddha also warned against, and entered into ongoing disputes that led to the Second Buddhist Council in Pataliputra about 300 BCE. The result of the council was a schism between the Sthaviravada and the Mahasamghika that effectively ended the unity of the sangha, and therefore the sangha itself. Today, many Buddhist organizations call themselves a “sangha,” in the purely profane, legal sense of a “society,” but the Buddhist community, as a unified, cooperative commonality has not existed for nearly 2,400 years. Strictly speaking, no Buddhist organization today can claim to be the “sangha” in the proper Buddhist sense of the word.

The word “Sthaviravada” means “Teaching of the Elders.” The schism was the result of the majority (Mahāsaṃgha) refusing to accept the addition of rules to the Vinaya by the minority (Sthaviras). The Mahāsāṃghikas saw the Sthaviras as a schismatic group that was trying to change the original Vinaya in favour of a more rigid monasticism, similar in fact to the efforts of the heretic and would-be murderer Devadatta during the Buddha’s lifetime. The Mahāsāṃghika account is supported by the fact that the Vinaya texts associated with the Sthaviras do in fact contain more rules than those of the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya. It is also consistent with the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, which is the oldest surviving account of the schism, and for this reason is the prevailing view today.[3]

The Sthaviras subsequently split into several additional schools, including the Sarvāstivāda school and the Vibhajjavāda (Sanskrit: Vibhajyavāda). The Vibhajjavāda also gave rise to several schools, including the Tāmraparnīya (later called Theravāda, the Pali for “Teaching of the Elders”).

History owes a great debt of gratitude to the Theravadins, whose famous conservatism led to their tenacious preservation of the Pali Canon, the only ancient canon to survive intact. Due to the efforts of the Pali Text Society and others, almost all of the Pali Canon is now available in good English translations. Recently, much of the Sarvastivadin canon has been discovered in Afghanistan, but it has yet to be translated into English. Nonetheless, most scholars now believe that the Pali suttas, preserved in the second part of the Pali Canon, are substantially similar to the pre-sectarian suttas that also survive (in part) in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese translations.

However, it is impossible to accept the somewhat militant contention of contemporary Theravadins that they alone represent the only authentic survival of the original teachings of the historical Buddha, for at least seven reasons:

  1. Historically, the Theravada is only one of several divisions of the Vibhajyavāda school, which is in turn only one of five divisions of the Sthaviravada. Thus, there is no direct or exclusive lineage from the Buddha to the Theravada.
  2. Moreover, there is no historical evidence that the Theravāda school arose until about two centuries after the Third Buddhist Council. The Third Council is believed to have occurred around 250 BCE. Therefore, the Theravada cannot claim to have existed as such prior to about 50 BCE – around the same time that the Pali Canon was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka.
  3. Even if one accepts the extremely doubtful Theravadin self-identification with the Sthaviravada at the Second Buddhist Council, their’s was the minority view and therefore contrary to the Buddha’s explicit declaration that the sangha should be governed by consensus and that no new rules should be made.
  4. The Theravada sangha also actively discriminates against Buddhist nuns, contrary to the declared intention of the Buddha, who accepted both monks and nuns. In Thailand, for example, it is actually illegal for a nun to “impersonate” a Buddhist monastic, and perhaps in other Theravadin countries as well.[4]
  5. The Theravada cannot claim to be identical with the Hinayana either, since there were 18 or 20 Hinayana schools. All of these schools shared a similar sutta tradition, but all had different Abhidhammas, none of which can be attributed to the Buddha. The Theravadin view of dhamma is largely based on their Abhidhamma rather than the suttas.
  6. Nor can the Theravada claim any primacy in terms of Vinaya, since at least six different Vinaya traditions are known. Modern scholarship agrees that the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya is the oldest of these.
  7. By the mid-19th century, the Theravada was moribund, and had completely forgotten the original teachings of the Buddha concerning meditation, which had to be reconstructed from textual sources in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, all of the Theravadin meditation traditions taught today are only about 100 years old.[5]

The Mahasamghika led directly to the formation of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. Today, the Theravada has approximately 150 million adherents, compared to about 400 million adherents of the Mahayana. A clear majority of Buddhists adhere to the Mahayana. Therefore, based on the Buddha’s clear and explicit commitment to the liberal democratic principle of consensus, and in the context of the previous arguments, it is clear that the true dhamma heirs of the Buddha today must be regarded as the Mahayana, not the Theravada, from a strictly legal and historical perspective. It is also worth noting that, contrary to popular perception perhaps, the Mahayana does not reject the Hinayana. Thus, the Mahayana is the inclusive view, in accordance with the dictum of the Buddha that in “theological” discussions the correct approach is to find common ground.

Notes:

1. The Vinaya rules developed over the course of the Buddha’s life, and were formulated and adopted in response to specific situations. At first, there was no Vinaya. Because the rules are geographically and historically contingent, the apparent paradox of preserving the tradition by abolishing the minor and lesser rules can be understood. If one reads the Patimokkha, it is clear that many of these rules have outlived their usefulness. Other rules, on the other hand, have permanent and enduring, universal spiritual significance. It is the latter that the Buddha intended the sangha to keep, realizing that in accordance with the law of change (anicca) the former would become progressively irrelevant. Thus, by deciding not to abolish the minor and lesser rules, the First Buddhist Council actually undermined its own position. When one analyzes the Vinaya in this way, one discovers that there are only about ten essential rules. According to tradition, the First Buddhist Council consisted entirely of arhants. The clearly dysfunctional character of this council, in which Ananda was attacked for “convincing” the Buddha to agree to ordain women, raises serious “theological” issues for Buddhism concerning the status and nature of the attainment of arhants, which resurfaced in subsequent councils, and appears to justify the Mahasamghika position that arhants are not perfect in wisdom or equal in attainment to the Buddha himself –  unless one is prepared to accept the restoration of Indian misogyny as a “view.”

2. Compare the Buddha’s Seven Principles of Social Stability. See http://www.vesakday.mcu.ac.th/vesak49/article/pdf/Buddhist_Society.pdf.

3.  Charles Prebish, “Saiksa-Dharmas Revisited: Further Considerations of Mahasamghika Origins.”

4. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, The History of the Bhikkhunisangha. Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on bhikkuni ordination from the 11th United Nations Day of Vesak 2014 is merely the most recent confirmation of the misogyny of Theravada Buddhists. See “Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on nuns was a spectacular own-goal.” Note that restoring bhikkuni ordination does not restore gender equity between men and women, since the Buddhist formula of ordination for bhikkunis is inherently discriminatory.

5. David Chapman, Theravada reinvents meditation. Chapman notes that men who embraced “extreme asceticism,” a practice that the Buddha rejected as useless prior to his enlightenment, undertook the Theravadin reinvention of meditation. See also S. Dhammika, Broken Buddha: Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism.

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