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, this may also be 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 “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.” 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.

18 schools

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.

As with all Buddhist scholarship, opinions vary. In general, I have followed Warder and sought to effect a broad synthesis wherever possible.

1. Mahasamghika (“Great Congregation”)

It is now generally conceded that the Mahasamghika was the original majority Buddhist school with the oldest extant Vinaya, from which the Sthavira minority split during the Second (some say Third) Buddhist Council (Andrew Skilton, Concise History of Buddhism, p. 48). The Mahasamghika Sariputrapariprccha is the earliest account of the schism. They originated in Magadha. This group opposed adding new rules to the Vinaya and may have denied the infallibility of the arhants. The Mahasamghikas adumbrated the idealistic ontology and buddhology of the Mahayana, especially the theory that everything, absolute and conditioned, nirvana and samsara, mundane and supermundane, is a mental projection, nominal and insubstantial. The Mahasamghikas considered the Buddha’s body and mind to be supermundane and perfectly pure. Thus, he inheres transcendentally, beyond the world. The Mahayana idea of a supermundane, transcendent Buddha is based on this idea. The Mahasamghikas saw the Buddha’s body, power, and life as unlimited. He is omniscient and immortal. Mahasamghikas held that a bodhisattva can be intentionally born in lower states of existence to benefit inferior beings, expound the dharma, and awaken the factors of enlightenment is lower beings. The Ajanta, Ellora, and Karla caves are associated with the Mahasamghika. A Chinese work identifies the Mahasamghika as wearing yellow robes, embroidered with the endless knot or conch, symbols of oneness and dharma respectively. The Mahasamghikas focused on the true or interior meaning of the sutras as the source and centre of the dharma, and may have rejected the canonical authority of the Abhidharma. Ultimate realization is trans-linguistic. The Samayabhedoparacanacakra  attributes forty-eight special theses to them and their derivative schools (see below). 

2. Sthaviravada (“School of the Elders”)

Until recently the Sthavira were considered to be the original Buddhist school, from which the Mahasamghika split over their desire to be more lax in matters of discipline, but more recent Vinaya studies seem to indicate that the Mahasamghika Vinaya is the oldest and that it was the Sthavira conservative minority who split from the more liberal Mahasamghika majority at the Second Buddhist Council because of the latter’s refusal to add new rules to the Vinaya, which the Buddha forbade. These included storing salt in a horn, eating after midday, eating more than one meal per day, holding different uposatha ceremonies in the same district, carrying out official acts without a quorum, following one’s teacher’s practices in preference to the larger sangha, eating sour milk after midday, consuming unfermented wine, using a rug of the wrong size or type, and using money. The status of an arhant may also have contributed to the crisis, as several schools began to question whether arhants are actually infallible. 

3. Vatsiputriya (Pudgalavada, “Personalism”)

The Vatsiputriya split off from the Sthavira in the third century BCE. Also known as the Pudgalavada, the Vatsiputriya is the most unorthodox early Buddhist school. Its founder, Vatsiputra, was a Brahman Sthavira who posited an ineffable person or individuality that is neither the same as nor different from the five aggregates. The person is the basis of rebirth, the subject of karma, and continues to exist in nirvana. Although the school was popular, it encountered a lot of monastic resistance, who thought that the doctrine of the person was too similar to the Indian doctrine of the atman, self or soul, the existence of which the Buddha denied.

4. Dharmottariya 

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.

5. Bhadrayaniya

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

6. Saṃmitīya

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.

7. Sannagarika 

No information. 

8. Sarvastivada (“Teaching that All Exists”)

The Sarvastivada split from the Sthavira between the reign of Ashoka and the first century CE. The name of the school alludes to its principal doctrine, that past, present, and future coexist (this doctrine has been revived because of the new physics). It flourished in Kashmir and Gandhara. The Sarvastivadin canon was composed in Sanskrit. The Sarvastivadins believed in a radical pluralism that denies the reality of a self as a substance or soul, but affirms the reality of momentary entities called dharmas. The Sarvastivada posited seventy-five distinct dharmas, which were seen as final, indivisible, and real. Conditioned and unconditioned dharmas were distinguished. The conditioned dharmas are matter, consciousness, psychological processes, and qualities. Unconditioned dharmas include space and nirvana. The Sarvastivadins held that conditioned dharmas have always existed and alternate between latent states of potentiality and actual states of manifestation. It follows from the foregoing that everything exists together in a simultaneous past-present-future state. The Sarvastivadins also emphasized body, speech, and mind as well as Maitreya, the Future Buddha. The Sarvastivadins accepted the reality of the intermediate or “bardo” state between life and death. The figure of 49 days, which one finds in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, also appears in the Sarvastivadin view of the post-mortem state.

 9. Mahis(h)asika

The Mahisasika originated in the second century BCE. They denied the existence of the past and future, but affirmed the reality of the present moment. They denied the intermediate state (bardo), but affirmed the survival of a subtle mode of the five aggregates that continues and constitutes the basis for the next rebirth. They also affirmed that the Buddha is a member of the sangha.

 10. Kasyapiya (“Followers of Kasyapa”)

The Kasyapiya were also known as the Haimavata, after the Himavant country, where they originated, derived from the Sthaviravada in the second century BCE. A remnant survived to the seventh century. According to a Chinese source, they wore magnolia robes. They expanded as far south as Sri Lanka, where they founded the Mahavihara (Great Abode), in Anuradhapura, the capital of Sri Lanka. They held that an arhant is not perfect. The doctrines of the Kasyapa are closest to the Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka schools, including: the existence of past karmas that have yet to bear fruit, the present moment, and some of the future; all compounded things are destroyed instantly; the cause of the compounded exists in the past, while the cause of the uncompounded exists in the future. According to Vasumitra, they were an eclectic school, sharing doctrines of the Sthaviras and Mahasamghikas.

 11. Dharmaguptaka (“Adherents of Dharmagupta”)

Between the late third and early first centuries BCE the Dharmaguptaka, founded by Dharmagupta, split from the Mahisasaka. The Dharmaguptaka originated in Aparanta. An old centre of the Dharmaguptaka was the Swat valley, otherwise known as Uddiyana, the reputed home of Padmasambhava! They flourished in northwest India in the first century. They agreed with the Sthaviravada on the incorruptibility of the arhants. The Dharmaguptaka made many successful efforts to spread Buddhism outside India, to Iran, Central Asia, and China. The Dharmaguptaka became the basis of Chinese Buddhism, where their Vinaya is still practised. There is scriptural evidence of their continued existence into the seventh century. The Dharmaguptaka had two extra canonical divisions, a collection of bodhisattva doctrines and practices (the Bodhisattva Pitaka) and a collection of mantras (the Mantra Pitaka). Their doctrines include that a gift given to the Buddha is more meritorious than a gift given to the sangha because the Buddha is self-ordained; the first three characteristics of compounded things (origination, maturation, and decay) are conditioned, whereas the fourth, extinction, is unconditioned; the path of the buddhas and bodhisattvas is not the same as the path of the disciples (sravakas); non-Buddhists cannot obtain the five kinds of superknowledge; and the body of an arhant is free from the taints. The Dharmaguptaka believed that offerings made to a stupa accrue great merit. The Four Noble Truths are known altogether. Some of the Prajnaparamita literature is believed to be associated with the Dharmaguptaka.

 12. Ekavyavaharika (“Those Who Make a Single Utterance”)

The Ekavyavaharika split from the Mahasamgha school for a time during the reign of Ashoka (third century BCE). They accepted the Mahayana sutras as the word of the Buddha. They believed that all principles are cognized in a single instant, and that the Buddha speaks with a single, unified, and transcendental meaning. Sentient beings are endowed with a fundamentally and originally pure mind that is essentially the same as that of the Buddha, but which has become obscured and burdened by suffering.

13. Lokottaravada (“Teaching of Transcendence”)

Warder thinks that the Lokottaravada school arose out of the Ekavyavaharika. Their chief contribution was an unorthodox Vinaya text, the Mahavastu, in which all the biographical traditions of the Buddha were collected together for the first time. According to the Mahavastu, the Buddha is transcendent, including his body. His actions appear conventional but do not reflect any real need. Buddhas never feel fatigue, although they lie down. No dust can stick to them, but they wash their feet. Everything about them is transcendent. Thus, the Buddha remains in a continuous state of meditation. The Lokottaravada was centred on north-central or northwest India. They continued to flourish up to the time of the Turkish conquest of the Pala Empire. The distinguishing doctrine of the Lokottaravada is that the Buddha articulated all of his teachings in a single utterance that is transcendental or supermundane. They also taught that all phenomena are mental constructions, with merely provisional reality. They appear to have originated sometime after 200 BCE. The Infinite Life Sutra is strongly influenced by the Lokottaravada school, having many elements in common with the Mahavastu. The Lokottaravadins believed that only two things are real: the emptiness of self and the emptiness of phenomena, referred to as the “twofold view of emptiness.” The Mahavastu refers to Three Vehicles, including the path or vehicle of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva’s progress toward enlightenment consisted of ten “grounds” or stages. There are innumerable pure lands with innumerable buddhas and tenth-stage bodhisattvas. The Mahavastu say that the future Buddha, Maitreya, will be one of a thousand buddhas to appear in the current age in the future.

14. Gokulika (“Cinder”) 

The Gokulika (a.k.a. Kukkutika, Kukkulika, Kaukkutika, Kaurukullaka split from the Mahasamgha in the third or late second century BCE. They specialized in abhidharma, emphasizing logical analysis. According to the Sthaviravadins they believed that there is no happiness. Bhavaviveka says that they held that thought is intrinsically pure and radiant and cannot be defiled and that at enlightenment all principles are cognized in a single moment. They also held that all principles are merely labels or conceptual constructs. Unlike the Lokottaravada and Ekavyavaharika, with which they are otherwise associated, they did not accept the Mahayana sutras as the word of the Buddha. They remained centred on Varanasi, and had a presence in Pataliputra. Warder says they flourished until the time of the Turkish conquest of the Pala Empire (Taranatha says fourth to ninth centuries).

 15. Bahusrutiya (“The Great Learning”)

The Bahusrutiya split from the Gokulika over a point of abhidharma in the third century. They were active in Kosala, Gandhara, Andhra, and northwest India. A monk named Yajnavalkya, who held as a special doctrine that meditation could prolong life indefinitely, founded them. They held that all experiences are suffering and all principles are false, with the sole exception of nirvana. The five aggregates and suffering itself are ultimately real. The five aggregates are impermanent, not-self, and empty. Even the thought of emptiness ceases in nirvana. Vasumitra says that the school held that the Buddha had a transcendental teaching that has the power to generate the way. This teaching is summed up in five words: impermanence, suffering, emptiness, not-self, and nirvana. Everything else he taught is worldly or mundane. They distinguished between ultimate and concealed truths. According to Warder the great Buddhist poet Asvaghosa was probably a follower of the Bahusrutiya school. The Tattvasiddhisastra (3rd cent. CE) summarizes the Bahusrutiya abhidharma, including the nonexistence of past and future principles and actions, the inherent impurity of thought, the nonexistence of the person, the reality of “unmanifest materiality,” and the nonreality of an intermediate post-mortem state or bardo. Thus, they adopt a middle position between the extremes that “everything exists” and “nothing exists.” Their abhidharma is closest to the Sthaviranikaya and Sautrantika schools.

16. Prajnaptivada (“Teachings of Designations”)

The Prajnaptivada split from the Bahusrutiya in the third century BCE, led by Mahakatyayana, over the “two truths doctrine,” that real ultimate principles should be distinguished from merely imputed, provisional, conceptual, superficial, or apparent words, names, or labels. Thus, reality is trans-linguistic. Phenomena are the product of conceptualization. Because all phenomena are mere concepts or notions, they are suffering.  The Prajnaptivada believed in two levels of statement in the sutras, ultimate and concealing. Therefore, the teachings of the Buddha are nominal, conventional, and causal. All teachings are provisional and cannot contain ultimate truth. There is evidence that Nagarjuna was influenced by this doctrine. Suffering, however, is ultimately real. The Noble Eightfold Path is eternal and immutable and cannot be lost or destroyed. However, the path cannot be cultivated through contemplation, but only through wisdom and merit. Everything is the result of merit and karma. The Prajnaptivada school arose and remained in the Himalayas, in northeast India, Bengal, and Nepal, and continued to flourish in the Pala Empire up to the time of the Turkish conquest.

17. Caitika (“The Stupa Worshippers”)

The word caitya means “shrine.” The Caitika, Caitiya, Chaitya, or Caityaka school split from the Mahasamgha under the leadership of a successor to the original Mahadeva in the country of Andhra. Andhra corresponds to the modern India state of Andhra Pradesh. Pali texts also refer to them as the Andhaka. Dates range from second century BCE to early second century CE. Some scholars believe that the Prajnaparamita literature arose out of the Caitikas, which would put them no later than the first century BCE. The dispute was over a legal point of Vinaya about admission to the sangha. The Mahayana also arose in this region. Mahadeva revived the original Five Points of Mahadeva (see below). According to Warder, the Caitikas anticipated the Mahayana. The Andhra schools held that the discourse of the Buddha is inherently transcendental, ultimate, or supermundane, beyond words, but that some may only perceive the conventional or mundane meaning; the power of the Buddha or his disciples enables them to effect whatever they wish, even against the laws of nature (i.e., miracles); and the Bodhisattva was born in unfortunate circumstances, including as a hell-being, animal, ghost, or demon, of his own free will rather than as the result of karma. The Caitikas considered the path of the bodhisattva to be superior to the path of the arhant, who are believed to be fallible and inferior. They are also associated with the inception of the tathagatagarbha doctrine. The Caitikas seemed to believe in the prescriptive truth of the Jataka stories. According to the Sarvastivadins, the Caitikas split from the Bahusrutiya school. They owned the Great Stupa of Sanchi, and appear to have been associated with the Ajanta Caves, especially Cave 10.

 18. Saila

The Apara and Uttara (Purva) Sailas split from the Caitika school. One of their doctrines was that the Bodhisattva is born certain of attaining enlightenment.

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 most 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 spiritual attainment compared to buddhas and therefore fallible, despite being emancipated. I think that this ambiguity or paradox has to do with the doctrine of Interdependent 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 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 seem to 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 week, which seems an awfully short time to achieve the complete transcendent self-perfection that the Buddha took eons to attain, 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. Bodhisattvas 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. 

The Tamraparniya/Theravada is an offshoot of the Vibhajyavada school, which derived from the Sthavira minority that split off from the Mahasamghikas, through six intermediate schools. 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 pre-sectarian 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 extremely 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 (the original Vinaya is believed to consist of only 152 rules). According to Mahakassapa, a larger number of rules indicates degeneracy, not spiritual superiority, contrary to popular thinking today, 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.
  • Men who were “into” extreme asceticism, which the Buddha expressly forbade, reinvented Theravada meditation. This fascination with asceticism continues in Theravada today, which (it is quite clear) has unfortunately also become associated with religious fascism, especially in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. 


Since writing the foregoing Hajime Nakamura’s exceptionally valuable book, Indian Buddhism (1980), has come to my attention, including his summaries of Original and Early Buddhism (op. cit., pp. 57-82). Although Nakamura gives no specific dates, Original Buddhism may be identified with pre-sectarian Buddhism, whereas Early Buddhism may be identified with the Early Buddhist Schools, say, after the Second Buddhist Council circa 283 BCE to Ashoka’s death circa 232 BCE . I have summarized his synopsis of Original Buddhism in my essay on “The Oldest Buddhist Scriptures.” Here I will summarize his material on Early Buddhism to complement the foregoing. This is the most accurate and succinct synopsis I know of.


  1. Metaphysical questions were forbidden.
  2. The Buddha had no desire to compete polemically with other sects.
  3. There is a concept of “meaninglessness statement” in the Pali nikayas.
  4. The first problem Buddhism took up was suffering, defined as “things not working as one wants them to.”
  5. Buddhism was empiricist.
  6. Nothing is permanent. There is no permanent metaphysical substrate. All things are temporary existences that are changing always. [My note: This is an extraordinary insight that presages process philosophy, which did not come into its full flowering until the 20th century (e.g.,  Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Thomas Nail, Alfred Korzybski, R. G. Collingwood, Alan Watts, Robert M. Pirsig, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Charles Hartshorne, Arran Gare, Nicholas Rescher, Colin Wilson, Tim Ingold, Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze)].
  7. The doctrine of non-self – the attitude of not assuming anything as Self except one’s Self – eliminates selfish desires. It is enlightenment itself. Buddhism did not deny the Self as such. Paradoxically, Buddhism aimed at establishing existential subjectivity or individuality by the negation of the ego. The realization of the True Self was striven for. The practice of Buddhism can be interpreted as the formation of the True Self.[7]
  8. Atman is often referred to with – compared to – light, as in the early Upanishads.
  9. Buddhism assumed the reality of transmigration. The existence of the subject of transmigration was assumed. [My note: despite the apparent desire by some so-called modern or Western Buddhists to discard the theory of  rebirth].
  10. Dharma is the fundamental conception of Buddhism. The Buddha sees dharma. Dharma denotes a norm and whatever is regulated by the norm. Dharma replaces the Upanishadic concept of Brahman. Even defilements were regarded as dharmas.
  11. Human existence was divided into corporeality (matter or its attributes), feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.  The ego is nowhere found.
  12. The problem of the subconscious was very important. Nakamura compares it to depth psychology (Jung).
  13. The Four Noble Truths represented the first systematized teaching.


  1. The practical implication of the First Noble Truths is the Middle Way or the Noble Eightfold Path, which begins with seeing the dharma (Right View).
  2. The Middle Way is the basis of ethics, which avoids attachment to the extremes of asceticism or hedonism. [My note: Here we see the root of the doctrine of non-duality or trans-duality, pace Bhikku Bodhi.] The basis of Buddhist ethics was universal loving kindness or benevolence (metta). Buddhism held that the value of moral conduct can be determined by the motive (intentionality) of the actor [My note: as distinct from the Jain emphasis on action].
  3. Various formulas of Interdependent Origination appear in the early Buddhist scriptures. The interdependence between discriminative consciousness and volitional activities is the basic nexus of all subject-object relationships. It reveals the inner working of the mind, through which conversion from ignorance to enlightenment becomes possible. The twelve-link formula resembles Samkhya-Yoga and Jainism. The essential purport of the theory is causality (the law of karma). Sickness is inherent in human existence.
  4. Ignorance is fundamental, but can be annulled by knowledge or cognition, resulting in enlightenment.
  5. The concept of bodhicitta appears in  Pali as annacitta (“the thought of gnosis, the intention of gaining arhantshp”). 
  6. Nirvana is absolute nothingness and perfect peace. The distinction between nirvana and parinirvana came later. The concept of void is a key point for early Buddhism. Deliverance is freedom.
  7. Early Buddhists refrained from defining ultimate reality. Everything is provisional.
  8. Buddhist doctrine was not systematic. The teaching and method of teaching, including the use of parables and similes oriented to lay people, differed according to the mental ability of the individuals addressed.
  9. Buddhist cosmology was systematized gradually.
  10. Buddhism held the idea of three evil realms of hells, hungry ghosts, and animals, but there was no concept of eternal damnation.
  11. Mahayana ideas, including void, consciousness, and thought (cittamatra) are found in the Pali scriptures.
  12. Early Buddhism was not closely organized.
  13. The leader of Buddhism was not always regarded as Gotama. E.g., the Jains regarded Sariputta, who emphasized compassion and opposed severe austerity, as the leader of Buddhism.
  14. The early sangha existed by the 2nd century BCE. Buddhist nuns existed by 300 BCE, earlier than Jainism.
  15. The original Vinaya consisted of 152 rules, regarded as a sort of education. The Vinaya for nuns came later.
  16. Early Buddhism advocated the equality of men and women.
  17. Early Buddhist monastics lived alone, simply, in remote dwellings, and avoided worldly entanglements.
  18. There were many solitary ascetics in early Buddhism, called paccekabuddhas (as in Jainism). They lived in forests, caves, deserted places, and hermitages, and practised meditation, consisting of various kinds of jhanas and samadhis. Monastics recited sacred phrases in ceremonies as a form of meditation [My note: mantra yoga, pace Bhikku Sujato]. The goal of meditation was nirvana, defined as mental stillness and understanding things as they are, including the fundamental impurity of the body (meditation on the body as a corpse). Mystical powers were ascribed to advanced monastics, but the magical practices were strictly forbidden. The primary samadhi was meditation on the Buddha.
  19. Monastics wore three yellowish-red robes, a common colour of samanas’ robes at the time.
  20. Buddhism repudiated animal sacrifice.
  21. There were only Four Precepts originally. The consumption of alcohol was added later. Buddhists did not prohibit meat eating. Onions were also prohibited.
  22. Some scriptures asserted that lay people or householders could attain arhantship/nirvana, but the question was controversial.
  23. Circumambulation was practised [My note: cf. walking meditation.]
  24. Lay practice focused on giving alms, observing precepts and expecting to be reborn in a higher world or dimension (“heaven”), especially by means of altruistic philanthropy. Altruistic philanthropy directed to holy people was especially efficacious.  Donation of things and properties was practised by lay people and monastics (?). [My note: How, if they were vowed to poverty?]
  25. Diseases could be cured by medicine, sometimes in combination with “magical formulas” [My note: mantra yoga again!]. It was also believed that diseases could be cured by the Buddha’s mercy or meditation on  the Buddha.
  26. Buddhism originally had no gods. Nagas were regarded as as demigods, part serpent and part god.
  27. Some monastics rebelled against the discipline of the Buddha and even defied the authority of Gotama. [My note: Thus it appears there were competing groups of Buddhists. See also my summary of Original Buddhism, Point 11.]


Chapman, David. “Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

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

Nakamura, Hajime. Indian Buddhism: A Survey with Bibliographical Notes. Japan, 1980; rpt. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987.

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 they were 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 or gnosis 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.

[7] “Early Buddhists believed that by the attitude of not assuming anything except one’s Self as Self, one could get over sufferings. Paradoxically speaking, Buddhism aimed at establishing the existential subjectivity or individuality by the negation of the  ego. The realization of the true Self was striven for. Buddhism did not deny the self as such, contrary to the general assumption by many scholars who tend to regard the theory of Non-Self as a sort of nihilism.” (Nakamura, Indian Buddhism, pp. 63f.).