Category Archives: Dharma Talk

Discussion, interpretation, and speculative exegeses of the Buddhadharma from a universal, non-sectarian perspective.

The Early Buddhist Schools

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

The Eighteen Schools

The Five Points of Mahadeva

Views on Arhantship

The Forty-Eight Doctrines of the Mahasamghikas

Theravadin Claim to Primacy


The Eighteen Schools

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

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

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

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


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

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

1. Sthavira nikāya

(4th cent. BCE)

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

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

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

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

2. Mahāsāṃghika

(3rd cent. BCE)

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

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

The Mahasamghikas regarded the Abhidhamma as non-canonical.

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

3. Pudgalavada

(3rd cent. BCE)

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

4. Ekavyāvahārika

(3rd cent. BCE)

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

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

5. Kukkuṭika (Gokulika)

(2nd-3rd cent. BCE)

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

6. Sarvastivada

(3rd cent. BCE)

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

7. Lokottaravāda

(circa 200 BCE)

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

8. Dharmottariya 

(2nd cent. BCE)

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

9. Bhadrayaniya

(2nd cent. BCE)

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

10. Saṃmitīya

(2nd cent. BCE)

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

11. Sannagarika 

(2nd cent. BCE)

No information.

12. Bahuśrutīya

(3rd cent. BCE)

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

13. Prajñaptivāda

(3rd cent. BCE)

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

14. Mahīśāsaka

(4th cent. BCE)

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

15. Kāśyapīya (Haimavata)

(circa 190 BCE)

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

16. Dharmaguptaka

(2nd cent. BCE)

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

17. Caitika

(1st cent. BCE)

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

18. Sailas

(1st cent. BCE)

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

The Five Points of Mahadeva

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

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

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

Views on Arhants

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

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

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

The Forty-eight Doctrines of the Mahasamghikas 

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

The Forty-eight Theses of the Mahasamghika 

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

Theravadin Claim to Historical Primacy 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapman makes two further points that are of interest here:

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


Chapman, David. “Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

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

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

New World Encyclopedia.  “Theravada Buddhism.”

Sucitto, Ajahn. “What is Theravada?”

Sujato. “Bhikkuni Sangha and the Authenticity Project.”

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

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

Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism.



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

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

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

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

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

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

A Vajrasattva Mantra Practice

0998480a744b4460abdc561b31704139The practice of the Vajrasattva mantra is the second of the Four Special Foundations, which come after the Four Ordinary Foundations (the Precious Human Birth; Impermanence; Action, Cause, and Result; and the Shortcomings of Samsara). The practitioner must have confidence in these four, to the degree of intellectual conviction, but not necessarily to the state of absolute automaticity implied by Right View. If they have confidence in the Four Special Foundations, they are ready to practise the Four Special Foundations of Ngondro.

The Hundred Syllable Mantra of Vajrasattva follows Taking Refuge and Engendering the Enlightened Attitude. To take Refuge is to trust in the truth of the dharma as the effect of accepting the Four Ordinary Foundations. Engendering the Enlightened Attitude is the Bodhisattva Vow. Thus if they have confidence in the truth of the dharma and have formulated the bodhisattva intention, they are ready to practise the Hundred Syllable Mantra of Vajrasattva.

The repetition of the mantra purifies the psycho-somatic complex from existing negative tendencies through frequent and prolonged repetition. This practice establishes a pure basis for subsequent spiritual activity. Because negative tendencies arise continuously, this practice should be performed daily.

8a2420dc6c2172a9c3990afa1f421516The practice of the Vajrasattva mantra includes:

  1. Intellectual realization of the nature of Vajrasattva.
  2. Intellectual realization of the meaning of the Vajrasattva mantra.
  3. An emotional affinity or bias towards Vajrasattva.
  4. Proper and actual auditory repetition of the Vajrasattva mantra.
  5. Visualization of a revolving double dorje above the head, as one invokes Vajrasattva, casting beams of purifying light in all directions, purifying the body and creating a purifying atmosphere of light radiating out in all directions until it fills the universe with light. As one recites, the double dorje is energized.
  6. Formulation of the intent to free oneself from all negative tendencies, and performance of actual acts of merit.

A corrected Sanskrit text of the Vajrasattva is as follows (NOTE: this differs somewhat from the Tibetan version).

oṃ vajrasattva samayam
vajrasattva tvenopatiṣṭha
dṛḍho me bhava
sutoṣyo me bhava
supoṣyo me bhava
anurakto me bhava
sarva siddhiṃ me prayaccha
sarva karma su ca me
cittaṃ śreyaḥ kuru hūṃ
ha ha ha ha hoḥ
bhagavan sarva tathāgatavajra
mā me muñca
vajrī bhava mahā samaya sattva

According to the translation of Dharmacari Jayarava, this means:

OM. O Vajrasattva, honour the agreement! Manifest as Vajrasattva! Be steadfast for me! Be very pleased for me! Be fully nourishing for me! Be passionate for me! Grant me all success and attainment and in all actions make my mind more lucid! HUM HA HA HA HA HO. Blessed One, diamond of all those in that state, do not abandon me! Become real, O great agreement-being. AH.

According to the great thirteenth century Guru Chowong, eight hundred repetitions of this mantra in one sitting guarantees rebirth as a bodhisattva (the operative words here being “repetitions” and “sitting”). f4dc1c0c838368b7e612406e0d4624faAs one recites, one must strongly realize the identity of Vajrasattva and the Clear Light Mind, aspire to him, imagine him fully entering into and purifying your being, and becoming real in your presence. Count on a mala while seated cross-legged before an image of Vajrasattva, followed by resting in the meditative attitude, meditating on impermanence, and the transfer of merit.

111,111 repetitions (1,000 hours) of this practice constitutes the essential requirement for Ngondro, remembering that the true practice is the interior realization, not the ritual.

It is said that the proper performance of this practice will bring a sensation of lightness, wakefulness, well-being, lucidity, and insight.

Buddhism and the UFO Phenomenon

Talk presented at the Riverside Dharma Centre by Tseten Thokmey on Saturday, May 14, 2016


Before we begin tonight’s topic, I wanted to address an interesting question that was submitted to me through the suggestion box. It reads as follows, with a few minor editorial corrections:

What about the importance of superstitious elements in Buddhist texts and teachings?

As example, the “phenomena” that happened around Buddha’s death?  The “body-signs,” that allow [one] to recognize a “holy” person?

The claim about “transcendental realms.” Nobody knows such things for sure.

My standpoint here is:  It is better never to forget the scientific rule: Stay at things that every time can be proven.

(And simply to say, “Yet you did not meditate enough” for explaining why a person cannot accept some sayings is a not an acceptable answer.)

Simply to claim a bunch of things that nobody can prove is the typical sign for religion. And I think, in such a case nobody needs Buddhism in the west. There are already enough religions around.

At one side it is maybe a good idea to bring Buddhist ideas to a wider social stratum, with “popular and easy to understand ideas.”

But the negative side is: The core of the teaching is blurred into an almost useless palaver.

At least in Germany there is a saying: Give people a set of philosophical ideas, and they will make a religion from it.

This is a vexed question to be sure. The writer declares that there are superstitious elements in Buddhism and gives examples, but they don’t give a definition. The question includes a number of hidden (or not so hidden) assumptions, including that nobody knows anything about transcendental realms, that we should never forget the scientific rule [sic] that we should “stay at” things that can be proved (which they have already violated in the previous assumption; you can’t prove a negative), that saying that you need to meditate more is “not acceptable” (why not?), and that accepting things that cannot be proved (assuming of course that this is what we are doing) is the sign of a religion and thus automatically bad (there is also no explanation of why religion is bad). There is also the highly doubtful assumption that religion is just a collection of unprovable assertions, neglecting the obvious historical fact that religion emerges directly out of human experience, often involving thousands of people. The question is ultimately ethical, revealed by the use of words like “should,” “better,” and “acceptable.”

The implicit assertion is that some aspects of Buddhism are superstitious because they are not proved, and that this should not be accepted because only things based on reason, science, and evidence should be accepted.

The view implicit in this question is familiar to us. It is the perspective of Western scientific rationalism, also known, somewhat pejoratively, as “scientism.” Only science is true, therefore, only things proved by science should be accepted as true and only such truths have value. Nothing else should be accepted.  This is the literal meaning of “superstition,” literally “standing outside reason.” However, if we are going to evaluate this question, shouldn’t we ask ourselves whether the axioms and assertions on which the question itself is based are actually true? In other words, is it in fact rational for science to claim that it and it alone is rational, and that the truths that it discovers are the only truths that exist? Moreover, is reason itself self-evidently perfect and complete? In other words, is it true that scientific rationalism is the sole and exclusive standard of truth and value?

I would argue that the fundamental axiom that science alone is true is in fact false. Science may discover facts, but the fact that science discovers facts does not itself prove that science has discovered all facts, or that the facts discovered by science are the only facts, or that the scientific world view derived from these facts is in fact perfect and complete. Facts themselves are notoriously tenuous. To a 19th century Newtonian Einsteinian relativity, quantum physics, and string theory are crazy, as they still are to Randian objectivists for example, yet this difference represents only a century in the whole history of science. If the history of science is any indication – and our writer appears to want us to base our beliefs on experience, not belief – the scientific world view is not static, fixed, or absolute, but constantly changing and evolving. Therefore, how can science be set up as a standard of truth when in another hundred years it will be completely different? One thing is certain – in another million years, science will be unrecognizable to us.

New discoveries by definition are “superstitious,” in that they “stand outside reason,” therefore any view based on the notion that the prevailing scientific ethos is the standard of truth is going to reject and suppress anything that contradicts that world view. Therefore, the moment we take science as the standard of truth we kill science itself and progress ends. Aldous Huxley predicted just such a development in Brave New World.

Moreover, why should we assume that reason is the only arbiter of truth? Truth means the way things are, the nature of the world, the nature of reality itself. Even if we accept that reason and science do discover truths, how does it follow from this fact that only reason and science have this quality. If the premise of the question is true, i.e., that “nobody knows such things,” then neither can we know that they do not exist. Thus, this question contradicts and thus refutes itself at every turn. It sets up the straw man of a perfect standard of truth that neither reason nor science can actually meet. However, there is no such standard. Therefore, the whole question falls apart based on its own premises. Open mindedness rather than disbelief is the correct conclusion.

It is not hard to think of truths that fall outside the purview of science and reason. We all appreciate the truths of great art, music, literature, and philosophy, yet all of these things would be rejected by a strictly scientistic ethic of the sort that our writer is postulating. These are all unproved and unprovable things that are therefore superstitious and have no value according to our writer.  Indeed, such an ethic is discovered upon close examination to be authoritarian and anti-humanist if not fascistic. Art, music, literature, and philosophy have also often been inspired by and inspired religion. What sort of society rejects everything metaphysical, suppresses religion, and only tolerates art, music, literature, and philosophy that serves industry, reason, and science? Attempts were made in the past century to create such a world in the USSR and in Maoist China. Are these societies ethical?

The truly rational, scientific mind does not close itself off to unproven possibilities, and fully realizes that science is a human enterprise that only describes a small, although basic, fraction of reality. Reason itself can never comprehend ultimate reality because it is inherently restricted by arbitrary linguistic conventions that are rooted in human biological evolution. Why should we assume that the human brain is even capable of comprehending reality, any more than we assume that a mosquito can appreciate Bach? The fact that we can, apparently, do so is in fact a great mystery and the stuff of mysticism.

So what about superstitious elements in Buddhist texts and teachings? Since superstition “stands outside reason,” a text or a teaching only becomes superstitious when it is not understood. Science itself becomes superstitious when it is not understood, as I have shown. Therefore, there are no texts or teachings in Buddhism that are inherently superstitious. There are only texts and teachings that are not understood. They only become superstitious when used or misused in a certain way. Otherwise, they are just texts and teachings. The question then becomes, how do we understand Buddhist texts and teachings? The first example mentioned apparently refers to the tradition that the Buddha’s pyre could not be lit until Mahakassapa arrived, and that it then burst into flame spontaneously. Ok, let’s look at this story or tradition. We might doubt that this incident occurred historically, but this only makes it superstitious if we understand this story historically. There are those who would argue that only the historical frame of reference is “valid.” Once again, we have an ethical judgement masquerading as an axiomatic assertion. I think that it fails for much the same reason that assertion that science is the only valid standard of truth fails. So how else can we understand this story of the Buddha’s pyre? In fact, this story can be understood symbolically, as an expression of Mahakassapa’s importance to the sangha or even as an expression of the intensely energetic nature of the Buddha’s attainment and the extraordinary significance of the parinibbana. It might even be understood as an exaggeration of something that “actually” happened. I am thinking of a somewhat similar story about the death of Ramakrishna, that after he died his collarbone was actually hot to the touch. Truth may be communicated in many different ways, not only historically. To say that only historical truths have value is itself superstitious. Human language, history, psychology, theology, and art all attest to the extraordinary importance of symbolism and mythology in human communication.

This question further undermines itself because, in setting up science and reason as the sole standards of truth it sets up scientific rationalism as a new religion, even as it rejects religion. Thus, the question refutes itself.

The Buddha does not simply state that a bunch of things are true. Belief in the truth of a bunch of arbitrary things has no particular merit in Buddhism. The Buddha invites us to investigate the truth of the dharma and thus arrive at its truth through questioning and direct experience. Buddhist confidence is not based on faith, it is based on analysis and experience, and only when you have inquired into the dharma deeply and proved it to yourself will you or should you have confidence in it. If you want to find out about the truth of spiritual experience and the transcendental realms, you can find out for yourself. The Buddha doesn’t demand that you “believe” anything, but like all systems of knowledge, there is a degree of trust involved in the beginning. The same is true of science. The language of science is mathematics. How can one “prove” that mathematics – a human construct – is the language of reality? The fact is, one cannot. It is a faith but it works, so it is accepted. However, what this writer is advocating in his “question” is the very opposite of questioning. Rather, it based on a dogmatic belief in science and reason that does not withstand questioning, combined with an uncritical notion of what Buddhism actually is. Certainly, Buddhism can be as uncritical and naïve as the writer implies, but this does not prove that this is what Buddhism actually is or should be, but only how superstitious and religious people can use or misuse it.

So what about the importance of superstitious elements in Buddhist texts and teachings? I say, investigate them until you find their inherent merit and truth. Then they are no longer superstitious, because they have been looked into rationally. Because reason and science both indicate that not everything is subject to observation and experiment or even knowable, it is better to be open-minded about the infinite possibilities of experience and the modes of knowledge itself, including rationality, language, symbolism, and direct experiential realization. I also think that this is the authentically scientific attitude. Interestingly, it is also the attitude that an increasing number of people are taking to the UFO phenomenon, which makes a nice segue to the topic of tonight’s discussion.


In his YouTube video, “Buddhism and Alien Abductions” (April 26, 2015), the nonconformist Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who has also stirred the pot on the topic of female ordination in Thailand, broached the topic of the so-called UFO contact experience, declaring that while he has never seen a UFO he has seen garudas and nagas! Garudas are enormous predatory birds with intelligence and social organization. Nagas are snakes or dragons that live in lakes or underground streams and are said to guard treasures. A famous naga even petitioned the Buddha to become a monastic! Several Buddhist saints including Gotama himself have been identified with nagas, which can take human form at will (Brahm’s naga was an impossibly huge snake that he saw in the Asian rainforest). The Buddha himself says that the naga is a symbol of the arhant (MN 23).

No less impeccable an authority than A.K. Warder says that the statement of no less impeccable a Buddhist king than the great Ashoka himself that by the king’s conversion to the dharma the gods are “mixing” with humanity refers to an ancient UFO flap! Of course, Warder does not use this exact terminology but the implication is clear to anyone who is familiar with the UFO phenomenon. Perhaps surprisingly, it is also supported by the Pali suttas! Warder writes,

The most likely reference would appear to be to divine portents seen by men, indicating the presence of gods, such as the light and radiance said to precede an appearance of Brahma. … Perhaps Asoka was watching hopefully for the ‘wheel gem,’ … to appear in the sky, and he may have been encouraged by celestial phenomena, such as the appearance of a comet, a nova, or an exceptional display of meteors, to believe that his change of heart and of imperial policy had begun to make itself felt in the universe. That gods might appear to men was widely believed in India in this period. (Indian Buddhism, p. 239f.)

Nor is this the only UFO account associated with Buddhism. The great Buddhist reformer Nichiren avoided execution due to the appearance of a UFO that appeared in the sky like the full moon. In the 19th century, the great Chinese Zen Buddhist master Xu Yun Da Shi climbed Da Luo Peak, where he witnessed numerous UFOs, which he called “wisdom lamps.” Doubtless other examples could be found.

Human beings have described contact experiences with all sorts of mythological beings throughout history. We know these as faires, elves, pixies, gnomes, and other special terms for demigods and quasi-supernatural beings that appear infrequently and interact with humans in various ways. In ancient times, such experiences seem to have been more prevalent than they are today, but as we shall see this may not be the case. Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz made a special study of the “fairy faith” in Ireland, and concluded, based on analyzing numerous credible firsthand accounts, that such experiences are less easily dismissed than many might like to believe and that they exhibit their own internal consistency. Native Americans, East Indians, Asians, and indeed all of the peoples of the world describe similar beings, which are often said to interact with human beings, abducting people and children and leaving physical signs behind. There are even accounts of sexual relationships, both voluntary and involuntary, with such beings!

vimanaInterestingly, Buddhism also refers to such beings. In Buddhist vertical cosmology the realm, plane, world, or dimension – I will use these terms more or less interchangeably – next above our own world, and separated from us by the thinnest of veils, is the realm called the Four Great Kings. The Four Great Kings are devas or spiritual beings, described as luminous aerial beings, attributed to the four directions and to the four elements that we know as fire, water, air, and earth – a universal archetype. Thus, the realm of the Four Great Kings is an elemental nature realm. The denizens of this realm resemble the aforementioned fairies, which are also said to be luminous and aerial, including references to deva cities and extensive interactions with humans. The devas are even said to travel in “cars fit for the gods” (DN 32).

In addition to the realm of the Four Great Kings, the Buddhist texts also refer to “earthbound devas” that coexist with people. These are described as socially organized; invisible, although they can make themselves visible if they choose; telepathic and able to influence people and even governments at will; and preferring to live in ancient cities or remote wilderness areas. Earthbound devas are a distinct class of being and should not be confused with either ghosts or hell beings.[1]

Finally, the Buddhist texts refer to the asuras, another class of deva which were expelled from the higher spiritual realms and which inhabit the earth, especially the water or where earth and water meet. These are very advanced and intelligent spiritual beings but their spirituality is oriented toward self-love, power, hedonistic enjoyment, and competition – what we in the West might term “pagan.” They are very ambitious; barbaric despite their spiritual development; and jealous of the higher spiritual beings; many hate people, although the texts also make a point that some asuras honour the Buddha and may even be Buddhists! Although in appearance and behaviour they are similar to the Judaeo-Christian notion of demons, in Buddhism asuras and hell-beings or demons are also distinct classes of being. The Buddhist hells – really, purgatories – and their inhabitants occupy four levels below the human and three below the asuras, below the ghosts and the animals. The asuras are one plane, level, or dimension “below” the human realm, although they interact with human beings as well as the inhabitants of the realm of the Four Great Kings.


Even the inhabitants of the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods, next above the Four Great Kings, interact with human beings from time to time. Asuras are higher than the ghosts and the animals. One of the roles of the inhabitants of the realm of the Four Great Kings, and the Four Great Kings themselves, is to report to the Council of the Thirty-Three Gods on the progress of humanity, in a sort of cosmic hierarchy. This is all Canonical.

Similarly, UFO contactees report encounters with a wide variety of different sorts of beings, some of which resemble the inhabitants of the Four Great Kings (e.g., smallish, gnome-like beings), asuras (e.g., the so-called reptilians), and even Brahmas (divine humanoid type beings). All of these beings seem to be associated with the UFO in a kind of cosmic hierarchy. Thus, UFOs themselves do not appear to represent a singular phenomenon but rather a plurality of mutually interrelated but also distinct phenomena.

All of this may be dismissed as mythology in our age of fasco-corporatism and scientistic nihilism were it not for one singular fact, which has been extensively documented by Jacques Valee in his magnum opus, Passport to Magonia (1969, reprinted 2014), and this is the detailed and extensive similarity of the experiences associated with these beings, including descriptions of the beings themselves, with the modern UFO phenomenon, including the contact experience, as well as clear descriptions of the distinctive traits of the UFO phenomenon in the early Buddhist texts themselves. The latter confirm Vallee’s thesis, of which Passport to Magonia is an elaboration, that the UFO phenomenon, whatever else it is, is an archaic and possibly primordial human phenomenon that has been experienced and described throughout human history and that has psychological and physical aspects that clearly identify the UFO phenomenon as a real, distinct phenomenon that cannot be entirely reduced to conventional causes, including error, hoax,  optical illusions, hallucinations, and mental confusion, as is widely claimed by skeptics who have not studied the data deeply or objectively.

Unfortunately, the whole field of UFO studies has become sensationalized and popularized to the point where it is almost impossible to see it clearly. It has become the tool of an incredible variety of agendas, some of which are based on outright lies and deceptions. Even governments have become involved. Because of this confusion, the majority of the population do not take this phenomenon seriously. However, anyone who takes the trouble to study the available information objectively will quickly discover that this is a mistake. One must, however, select one’s resources carefully, since there is so much disinformation, especially on the Internet.

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert in this field or to have exhausted the available resources, but the researchers that I have personally found to be most credible, and on whose research this talk is based, include astronomer and computer scientist Dr. Jacques Vallee; astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek; psychologist Dr. Carl Gustav Jung; Harvard professor and psychiatrist Dr. John Mack; Professor Karla Turner; journalist John Keel; anthropologist Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz; and novelist Whitley Strieber. I would also mention string theorist Dr. Michio Kaku in this regard, who has hinted quite broadly that he knows something about this topic. Colin Wilson’s book, Alien Dawn, is a noteworthy popular summary of the evidence based on the research carried out by these individuals. Vallee himself claims to represent an “invisible college” of about a hundred scientists who are privately researching the UFO phenomenon in all of its aspects but do not seek publicity for obvious reasons. To summarize their research in detail goes far beyond the scope of this talk, but you can look up these experts for yourself, including many videos on YouTube and buy their books if you are motivated to do so. The main thing that you will notice about these experts is that, while their conclusions are indeed revolutionary, none of them subscribe to any of the prevailing popular theories about UFOs, including that they are extra-terrestrial in origin.

Vallee in particular has argued that if these things turn out to be extra-terrestrial, he will be disappointed. His own view seems to be that they are intelligent higher-dimensional beings with a long association with humans and the earth, possibly originating beyond the space-time continuum as we understand it. Even if they originated in our universe their civilization is potentially billions of years old, compared to a mere 10,000 years for human civilization. Vallee speculates that they may have learned to master both space and time, in which case the question of their “origin” may be factually meaningless. Since civilization grows exponentially, the qualitative difference between these beings and ourselves is clearly on the order of millions of times. Such a civilization will have harnessed the zero point energy and therefore be trans-galactic, even trans-universal or extra-dimensional in nature and not merely extra-terrestrial.

However, it is not my purpose here to argue about the ultimate nature of the UFO phenomenon, which is clearly very complex, but only to indicate that the phenomenon is real and exhibits real similarities to the Buddhist world view, confirming Vallee’s hypothesis that UFOs have appeared throughout human history. If we accept that UFOs are real, then Buddhism, along with many other religions, appears to be one of the effects of this phenomenon, at least partly, since the Buddha himself is depicted as interacting and communicating with devas or spiritual beings, to which he attributes at least some of his insights, and even appears as a UFO himself! The question that arises, therefore, and is of greatest interest to us is what the Buddhist texts themselves say about this phenomenon, and how this relates to the phenomenon that we experience today. Is there, in fact, a Buddhist theory of the UFO phenomenon?

I would also like to say that I personally did not enter into the study of the Pali Canon with any expectation that I would find any references to the UFO phenomenon. That there are such references came as a complete surprise to me, although I was vaguely aware of similar references in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. UFOlogy was a very peripheral interest of mine many years ago, but I lost interest in it until quite recently, largely because the evidence is so complex and confusing and I did not want to make UFOlogy my main concern. For the record, and in the interests of disclosure, I have seen a UFO. It was a Type IIIc experience in the Vallee classification, a daylight disc in the Hynek classification. I was not contacted or abducted; it occurred in August 1969 in King City, Ontario as best as I can recall, when I was 15 years old. The experience itself was very brief – only about thirty seconds – and is the only such experience of this type that I have ever had, but it showed me that sometimes things appear in the sky that are not easily explained.

UFO references are not incidental to the Pali Canon. One of the most extensive descriptions in the Pali Canon is the Mahasudassana Sutta in the Digha Nikaya. Interestingly, most of the UFO references in the Pali suttas appear in the Digha Nikaya, which according to Buddhist scholar A.K. Warder consists of the oldest and most authentic Buddhist texts. This sutta immediately follows the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which describes the death of the Buddha. Mahasudassana consists of maha, ‘great,’ plus sudassana, ‘easily seen,’ ‘having a good appearance,’ the proper name of the gods of the plane of the Beautiful Devas, the third Pure Abode of the Rupaloka or world of form. Walshe translates it as “The Great Splendour.” Rhys Davids has “The Great King of Glory.” The language is more than suggestive.

This sutta was spoken in the Mallas’ sal grove at Kusinara, Kosala, shortly before the Buddha’s death in the same place, and is therefore one of the last sermons of the Buddha. The occasion is that Ananda is unhappy that the Buddha is going to die here, “in this miserable little town of wattle and daub, right in the jungle in the back of beyond,” rather than in a great city where the Buddha’s funeral can be arranged by his rich followers in proper style. In response, the Buddha tells Ananda the story of King Mahasudassana, who dominated the region; Kusinara, called at that time Kusavati, was his capital. The Buddha compares Kusavati to the deva city of Alakamanda, thus asserting that devas live in cities and introducing the topic of devas into the discourse.

ezekiel-wheel-ufoThe king was clearly devout, as he went up to the verandah on the roof of his palace after washing his head on the day of the full moon, with the intention of fasting. It is of course well-known that fasting sensitizes the consciousness to spiritual matters, which is why it is prescribed at such times. At that time a “divine Wheel Treasure appeared to him, thousand spoked, complete with felloe, hub and all appurtences.” A.K. Warder clearly accepts Rhys-Davids’s contention that this refers to the disk of the sun. It is also a classic description of a UFO. The description is striking, and is clearly similar to the well-known vision that befell Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible.

The king realizes that the appearance of such an object – there is no suggestion that the wheel is anything else – is a sign that he will become a World Ruler, and he formulates the intention to become a World Ruler as an Act of Truth. Sprinkling the wheel with water, so it must have been quite small and close, the wheel then moves in the four directions, plunging in and out of the sea, and wherever the wheel goes the king travels with his army and conquers the land without bloodshed, whereupon the king establishes a peaceful dharma empire for himself based on the fundamental legal principles of pansil – do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not lie, do not drink alcohol, plus moderation in eating. Thus, he conquers all of the lands from sea to sea, i.e., the whole Indian subcontinent called Jambudvipa. Finally the wheel returns to Kusavati and hovers above the king’s palace, which also doubles as a court of justice.  Thus, the solar wheel treasure (or ‘gem’ in Warder’s translation) became a kind of omen or totem of a righteous World Ruler based on the rule of dharma.

The Sakkapanha Sutta describes another luminous aerial display in which the devas instantaneously transport themselves from the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods to Mount Vediya, where the Buddha is: “Then a tremendous light shone over Mount Vediya, illuminating the village of Amasanda – so great was the power of the devas – so that in the surrounding villages they were saying: ‘Look, Mount Vediya is on fire today – it’s burning! It’s in flames. What is the matter, that Mount Vediya and Ambasanda are lit up like this?’ and then were so terrified that their hair stood on end.”

The suttas also refer to how the devas experience time at a slower rate than human beings, suggestive of Einstein’s time dilation paradox. The devas also occupy space in a peculiar way, in that a vast number of devas can manifest in a very small space. We have already mentioned how the devas prefer wilderness areas, a characteristic shared with UFOs. UFOs also appear to have a telepathic rapport with the people who observe them, like the devas. Brahma appears as an unpredictable luminous aerial display, and the Buddha is described as a flying UFO casting off beams of light!

The great and still unresolved question of course is what are these objects? Vallee suggests that the UFO phenomenon acts like a control system, and that UFOs appear more frequently when the fundamental ideological paradigm of human civilization shifts toward scientific rationalism and materialism. Vallee also associates the appearance of UFOs with apocalyptic images and the end of civilizations. Vallee suggests that UFOs seem to be interested in convincing human beings that higher dimensional beings exist, but do so in such a way that the human social order is not unduly disrupted. That is to say, they seem to have regard for the limitations of human cognition. Since Buddhism is at least in part a result of UFO influence, and is ancient, untainted by modern influences, its explanation is of interest with the caveat that it is well-known that at some UFOs also lie, or combine truth and falsehood in various ways designed to disrupt the same expectations that they create. This suggests that they have a sophisticated agenda insofar as human beings are concerned, which is far from understood.

As I have already mentioned, Jacques Vallee hypothesized that UFOs have a long-standing historical relationship with the earth and with humanity. This alone explains the historical frequency of UFO sightings and contact experiences, their apparent interest in people, their apparent function as a control system, their ability to communicate with us at all, and the quasi-humanoid appearance of their inhabitants. Interestingly, the Aganna Sutta (the Primordial Sutta, DN 27) supports just this view.

Walshe translates the title of this sutta as “On Knowledge of Beginnings.” Rhys Davids has “A Book of Genesis.” Here the Buddha says that periodically at long intervals the world contracts. We know of course that the classical view of modern scientific cosmology is that the universe originates in a singularity, expands, and after a long period gravity forces it to contract back into the original singularity, repeating forever. According to the Buddha, when the world contracts beings are mostly reborn in the Abhassara Brahma world. The name of this world literally means “radiant” or “shining.”   This is the seventeenth plane of Buddhist cosmology, the sixth realm from the bottom of the Rupaloka, next above the Brahma realms, and twelve planes above the human realm. It is also associated with the second jhana of “thoughtless bliss.”

So, the Buddha says, “there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious – and they stay like that for a very long time. Eventually, after a very long time, this world begins to expand again. At a time of expansion, the beings from the Abhassara Brahma world, having passed away from there, are mostly reborn in this world. Here they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious – and they stay like that for a very long time.”

This passage clearly indicates the operation of karma. As the universe contracts, suffering increases, and beings degenerate, thus expiating much of their negative karma. As a result, human beings are reborn in the realm of the radiant devas as luminous aerial beings. After a long period, their good karma is exhausted and they are reborn when our universe begins to expand again, still retaining their energetic appearance. Thus, the Big Bang may be regarded as a tunnel or conduit from a higher dimensional world, through which these luminous aerial beings entered into our universe approximately 14 billion years ago. These are the spiritual ancestors of humanity, the original human beings, and therefore also our true nature, “the clear light.” Plato has a precisely similar notion when he describes human beings’ original nature as bisexual flying spheres. The Buddha also specifically states that these beings are neither male or female.

According to the Platonic world view,

in primal times people had double bodies, with faces and limbs turned away from one another. As spherical creatures who wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels (190a), these original people were very powerful. There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the “androgynous,” who was half male, half female. The males were said to have descended from the sun, the females from the earth and the androgynous couples from the moon. These creatures tried to scale the heights of Olympus and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about blasting them with thunderbolts, but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half, in effect separating the two bodies. (Wikipedia)

Plato’s description seems to associate humans with the same war in heaven that led to the expulsion of the asuras. The fact that we find this explanation of humanity in Buddhism and in Plato’s Symposium suggests that this is one of those archetypal ideas that characterize the primordial philosophy. Certainly, there are other examples too.

So brilliant were these beings, says that Buddha, that the sun, moon, and stars were invisible. However, this might also allude to the early expansion of the universe, before the stars appeared (about 200 million years after the Big Bang). However, as the universe cooled these beings’ bodies became more and more material, and as it cooled the world evolved. Over vast eons of time, the luminous beings ingested increasingly coarse and more material foods, and as a result, their bodies became more and more physical, finally developing the sexual characteristics of male and female. Out of this came all of the institutions and the vices of human society, including lust, territoriality, lying, stealing, killing, the development of the authoritarian state, social divisions, warfare, etc. 

112357991A variant of this story is repeated in sutta 26 of the Digha Nikaya. Clearly, the Buddhist symbol of the precious Wheel Treasure, the first possession of the righteous World Ruler, representing the Power of Truth and the dharma itself, is a UFO!

The Pali suttas also attest to the reality of psychic powers. Although scientism discounts such abilities, perhaps it will not surprise us at this point in the discussion to learn that the psychic powers attested to by Buddhism, including telepathic communication, astronomical visions, communication with devas, time dilation, teleportation, invisibility, the ability to pass through matter, and levitation are all attested to in the UFO literature as well as in the early Pali Buddhist suttas. Credible modern cases suggest that many of these experiences, perhaps most or even all of them, are not merely psychological, but leave physical signs and are therefore at least partly material in nature. Many UFO experiencers, especially contactees, have reported spontaneously developing many of these abilities after their UFO experiences. Clearly, reality is far more multifaceted and complex than the conventional view allows.


According to the oldest Buddhist texts, human beings originated in the Abhassara Brahma world. Literally meaning “radiant,” the Abhassara world corresponds to the second jhana, characterized by the experience of delight and joy. The Abhassara devas are given to exclamations of joy, and their bodies emit flashing rays of light like lightning. The Abhassara devas look very much alike, but have individuality. The Abhassara world transcends the periodic destruction by fire that characterizes the lower worlds at the end of each age. The Abhassara world is, however, subject to periodic destruction by water. The lifespan of these devas is two or eight mahakalpas, perhaps 3 or 10 trillion years according to one estimate.

When the universe is destroyed, beings are reborn in the Abhassara realm and when the universe reappears, beings from the Abhassara realm are the first to be reborn in our universe.

The texts describe the Abhassara devas as luminous aerial objects. According to our hypothesis, they enter into our universe at the “big bang,” which an increasing number of theorists are hypothesizing is a “white hole,” the terminus of a quantum tunnel that leads to a black hole in another universe. The Buddhist texts state that these beings appeared in the universe prior to the appearance of stars and galaxies, which refers to the first 200 million years of our 14 billion year old universe.

Over time, with the gradual cooling of the cosmic inflation (papanca), the Abhassara devas become increasing coarse and material, losing their luminous appearance as the stars and galaxies appear. This is attributed to their increasing infatuation with sensual pleasure. Ultimately, they appear as gendered human beings, who till the soil for food and develop territoriality, private property, the state, and all the vices associated with human beings – lust, greed, violence, warfare, etc.

devas2bbuddhistmyhology2bnetClearly, however, not all of the devas have lost all of their deva characteristics, and these coexist with us and interact with human beings, especially spiritually advanced human beings. The Buddhist texts refer to different sorts of such beings, especially the inhabitants of the Thirty-Three Gods, which appear as angelic beings; the inhabitants of the realm of the Four Great Kings, which appear as the nature spirits described by all human societies, and asuras, which are spiritually advanced beings that pursue a spirituality based on pride, arrogance, competitiveness, love of power and violence, etc. Nevertheless, at least some asuras, as well as other devas, are receptive to the dharma and venerate the Buddha and thus may be said to be Buddhists.

Although most devas are generally described as aerial and mobile, some devas are earthbound and live on the earth, mostly invisibly, especially in ancient human cities and remote wilderness areas. Sometimes these devas appear to human beings and even communicate with them. As higher dimensional beings, the human mind is an open book to them. They communicate telepathically and can influence human beings, including governments, on a subconscious level. These include the nagas, reptilian beings that can also take on a human appearance at will. Nagas are regarded as relatively advanced spiritual beings in Buddhism. Many advanced Buddhist practitioners have been claimed to be nagas (perhaps, reborn in human form), including the Buddha himself, and at least one naga sought to be ordained as a monastic (a request that the Buddha rejected, which is why candidates for Buddhist ordination are still asked if they are human).

This description is strikingly similar to the UFO phenomenon, including the manifestation of UFOs as luminous aerial phenomena, their apparent intentionality suggestive of intelligence, their ability to manifest physically and communicate with human beings telepathically, and the physical appearance of their inhabitants, which include similar beings of great nobility and beauty; smaller, gnome-like beings; and reptilian type entities. UFO inhabitants also manifest a great range of behaviours, from helpful and healing to positively malevolent and hostile, corresponding to devas and asuras respectively.

In addition to the foregoing, the Buddhist texts also describe a specific UFO-type manifestation called the Precious Wheel Treasure. The Precious Wheel Treasure symbolizes the power of truth and is associated with dharma. The manifestation of this phenomenon has all the characteristics typical of the UFO phenomenon, including luminosity, unpredictability, apparent intelligence, spiritual messages, and the classic “psychic powers” described in the Buddhist texts, including the ability to replicate and project multiple images of themselves, invisibility, the ability to pass through matter, and levitation or flying behaviour, as well as inducing astronomical visions and powers of healing and time dilation or “lost time.” People who have close encounters with UFOs often report developing at least some psychic abilities themselves, and often experience personal transformative experiences characterized by enhanced creativity, compassion, and spiritual and environmental concerns, as well as clairvoyance, clairaudience, astral travel, physical travel to other realms, and telepathy, also reported in the Buddhist literature.

The coincidences between the UFO phenomenon and similar descriptions in the Buddhist suttas are striking and extensive. It stretches credulity to believe that these similarities are accidental. These similarities further support Jacques Vallee’s hypothesis that the UFO phenomenon is ancient, perhaps even primordial, and has been experienced and described by human beings for thousands and probably tens of thousands of years at least.



[1] See, e.g., I.B. Horner, trans., The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), Vol. I (Suttavibhanga), p. lvii. Horner also refers to monastics having sexual intercourse with yakkhinis, paralleling similar UFO reports.


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