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.

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.

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 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 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.