Buddhism, Schools of: Early Doctrinal Schools of Buddhism

views updated


The term Hīnayāna refers to the group of Buddhist schools or sects that appeared before the beginning of the common era and those directly derived from them. The word Hīnayāna, which means "small vehicle," that is, "lesser means of progress" toward liberation, is pejorative. It was applied disdainfully to these early forms of Buddhism by the followers of the great reformist movement that arose just at the beginning of the common era, which referred to itself as the Mahāyāna, or "large vehicle," that is, "greater means of progress" toward liberation. Indeed, the adherents of the Mahāyāna charged those of the Hīnayāna with selfishly pursuing only their own personal salvation, whereas they themselves claimed an interest in the liberation of all beings and vowed to postpone their own deliverance until the end of time. In other words, the ideal of the practitioners of the Hīnayāna was the arhat (Pali, arahant ), the saint who has attained nirvāa, while that of the Mahāyāna was the bodhisattva, the all-compassionate hero who, resolving to become a Buddha in some far-distant future, dedicated the course of his innumerable lives to saving beings of all kinds. It would be more correct to give the name "early Buddhism" to what is called Hīnayāna, for the term denotes the whole collection of the most ancient forms of Buddhism: those earlier than the rise of the Mahāyāna and those that share the same inspiration as these and have the same ideal, namely the arhat.

Although it is directly descended from the earliest Buddhismthat originally preached by the Buddha himselfthis early Buddhism is distinguished from it by the continual additions and reformulations of its adherents and teachers in their desire to deepen and perfect the interpretation of the ancient teaching. This constant, and quite legitimate, effort gave rise to many debates, controversies, and divisions that resulted in the appearance of a score of sects or schools. The actual, original teaching of the Buddha is accessible to us only through the canonic texts of these schools, texts that were set down in writing only about the beginning of the common era and reflect the divergences that already existed among these sects. Moreover, only a very small part of this vast canonic literature has survived, either in its original Indian language or in Chinese or Tibetan translation, and for this reason our knowledge of the doctrine taught by the Buddha himself still remains rather vague and conjectural. We do not possess all the documents necessary to recover it with certainty: even by compiling all the doctrinal and other elements common to the canonic texts we do have, we can reach, at best, only a stage of Buddhist doctrine immediately prior to the divergence of these schools. Their texts have been preserved for us by the mere chances of history.

The Indic word, both Sanskrit and Pali, that we translate here as "school" or "sect" is nikāya, meaning, properly, "group." In our context, it refers to a group of initiates, most likely monks (bhikus ) rather than laymen, who sincerely profess to be faithful disciples of the Buddha but are distinguishable from other similar groups in that they base their beliefs on a body of canonic texts that differs from others to a greater or lesser extent. These differences between canonic texts involve not only their wording or written form but also a certain number of doctrinal elements and rules of monastic discipline. Despite the disaggregative pressures to which they were exposed (the same pressures, indeed, that created them), despite their geographical expansion and sometimes considerable dispersion, and notwithstanding the vicissitudes of history, which often posed new problems for them, most of these groups preserved a remarkable internal cohesiveness throughout several centuries. Still, schisms did occur within many of them, leading to the formation of new schools. Moreover, to judge from the documents we havethough these are unfortunately very scarceit seems that relations among these various groups were generally good. Their disputes remained at the level of more or less lively discussion and degenerated into more serious conflicts only when involving questions of economics or politics.

Several factors account for these divisions and for the formation of these sects or schools. First of all, the Buddhist monastic community (sagha ) never knew a supreme authority, imposing its unity by powerful and diverse methods, as was long the case in Christianity with its papacy. If we believe some canonic texts that seem to faithfully reflect reality, the Buddha himself was probably faced with several instances of insubordination on the part of certain groups of his monks and was not always able to overcome them. The oldest traditions, furthermore, agree that he did not designate a successor to head the community but only counseled his followers to remain faithful to his Doctrine (Dharma). This was a fragile defense against the forces that tried to break up the community once it was "orphaned" by the death of its founder.

For at least five centuries, the Buddha's teaching was actually preserved by oral transmission alone, very probably in different, though related, dialects. This, and the absence of an authoritative ecclesiastical hierarchy in the sagha, constitute two obvious sources of progressive distortion and alteration of the message left by the Blessed One to his immediate disciples. Furthermore, this message was not entirely clear or convincing to everyone it addressed, leading Buddhist preachers to furnish explanations and interpretations of the teaching. Finally, the teaching given by the Buddha was far from a complete system containing solutions to all the problems that might occur to the minds of people as diverse as those it was destined to reach. Thus, monks and lay disciples, as well as people outside Buddhism but curious and interested in its doctrinebrahman opponents, Jains, and otherseasily found numerous flaws, errors, and contradictions in the teaching. These troubled the sagha but pleased those who were determined to refute or discredit it. Although the Buddhist preachers who improvised answers to these varied questions and objections were guided by what they knew and understood of the Buddha's teaching, their attempts expanded upon the original teaching and at the same time inevitably created new causes for differences and disputes within the heart of the community itself.

According to some eminent scholars, we must distinguish Buddhist "sects" from "schools." Sects, under this interpretation, were invariably born from serious dissent over issues of monastic discipline. Such dissent resulted in a fracturing of the community, a saghabheda, or schism, the participants in which ceased to live together or carry on a common religious life. By contrast, schools were differentiated by divergences of opinion on doctrinal points, but their dissension in these matters never gave rise to actual schisms or open hostility. This interpretation is certainly attractive, but it must be mitigated somewhat by the recognition that the actual situation prevailing between the various communities of the early church was somewhat more complex and variable than that indicated by the theory advanced here.

Origin and Relationship of the Sects and Schools

All the documents from which we can draw information about the origin of the early Buddhist groups were written after the beginning of the common era and are therefore unreliable. Nevertheless, since the oldest of these texts generally agree on the main points, we can attempt to restore with a certain amount of confidence the common tradition from which they derive. This should provide a fairly accurate reflection of the true interrelationships among the sects and schools.

The first division of the community probably occurred toward the middle of the fourth century bce, some time after the council of Vaiśālī but having no direct connection with this event, the claims of the Sinhala (Theravāda) tradition notwithstanding. The schism was probably caused by a number of disagreements on the nature of the arhat s, who, according to some authorities, retained imperfections even though they had attained nirvāa in this world. Because they were more numerous, the supporters of these ideas formed a group called the Mahāsāghikas, "those of the larger community"; their opponents, who claimed to remain faithful to the teaching of the Buddha's first disciples and denied that the arhat could retain any imperfections, took the name Sthaviravādins, "those who speak as the elders" or "those who teach the doctrine of the old ones."

Each of these two groups were then, in turn, divided progressively into several sects or schools. Although we are in little doubt about their origins as Mahāsāghikas or Sthaviravādins, we often do not know precisely how these subsequent sects were linked with the first two groups, nor do we know the circumstances or time in which they appeared. We are particularly bereft of information about the sects and schools that arose directly or indirectly from the Mahāsāghika.

Among the groups that developed from the Mahā-sāghika were the Ekavyāvahārika, then the Gokulika, and finally the Caitika schools. The Ekavyāvahārika probably gave rise, in turn, to the Lokottaravādins, but it may be that the Lokottaravādins were simply a form taken by the Ekavyāvahārikas at a particular time because of the evolution of their doctrine. From the Gokulikas came the Bahuśrutīyas and the Prajñaptivādins. At least a part of the Caitika school settled in southern India, on the lower Krishna River, shortly before the beginning of the common era. From them two important sects soon arose: the Pūrvaśailas and the Aparaśailas, then a little later the Rājagirikas and the Siddhārthikas. Together, the four sects formed Andhraka group, which took its name from the area (Andhra) where they thrived during the first few centuries ce.

The Sthaviravāda group seems to have remained united until about the beginning of the third century bce, when the Vātsīputrīyas, who maintained the existence of a quasi-autonomous "person" (pudgala ), split off. A half century later, probably during the reign of Aśoka (consecrated c. 268 bce), the Sarvāstivādins also separated from the non-Vātsīputrīya Sthaviravādins and settled in northwest India. This time the dispute was over the Sarvāstivādin notion that "everything exists" (sarvam asti ). In the beginning of the second century, the remaining Sthaviravādins, who appear to have taken at this time the name Vibhajyavādins, "those who teach discrimination," to distinguish themselves from the Sarvāstivādins, found themselves divided once again. Out of this dispute were born the Mahīśāsakas and the Dharmaguptakas, who opposed each other over whether the Buddha, properly speaking, belonged to the monastic community and over the relative value of offerings made to the Blessed One and those made to the community. At an unknown date about the beginning of the common era four new groups sprang from the Vātsīputrīyas: the Dharmottarīyas, the Bhadrayānīyas, the aagarikas, and the Sammatīyas. The Sammatīyas, who were very important in Indian Buddhism, later gave rise to the Avantaka and the Kurukulla schools. One group broke from the Sarvā-stivādins: the Sautrāntikas, who can be identified with the Dārāntikas and the Sakrāntivādins.

Some of the Vibhajyavādins settled in southern India and Lanka in the mid-third century bce and seem to have maintained fairly close relations for some time with the Mahīśāsakas, whose presence is attested in the same area. Adopting Pali as a canonical language and energetically claiming their teaching to be the strict orthodoxy, they took the name Theravādins, a Pali form of the Sanskrit Sthaviravādins. Like the Sthaviravādins, they suffered from internal squabbles and divisions: some years before the common era, the Abhayagirivāsins split from the Mahāvihāras, founded at the time of the arrival of Buddhism in Lanka; later, in the fourth century, the Jetavanīyas appeared.

Finally, three sects derived from the Sthaviravādins present some problems regarding their precise relationship and identity. The Kāśyapīyas, whose basic position was a compromise between those of the Sarvāstivādins and the Vibhajyavādins, apparently broke from the latter shortly after the split that created the Sarvāstivāda and Vibhajyavāda nikāyas. More mysterious are the Haimavatas, about whom the facts are both scarce and contradictory. As for the Mūlasarvāstivādins, or "radical Sarvāstivādins," they appeared suddenly at the end of the seventh century with a huge "basket of discipline" (Vinaya Piaka) in Sanskrit, much different in many respects from that of the earlier Sarvāstivādins. It is impossible to determine exactly what connection the Mūlasarvāstivādins had with the Sarvāstivādins.

Except for a few of the more important of these sects and schoolssuch as the Theravādins, who left us the treasure of their celebrated Sinhala chronicleswe know nothing of the history of these different groups. Their existence is nevertheless assured, thanks to the testimony of a fair number of inscriptions and other substantial documents. To judge from the information given by Xuanzang and Yijing, by the time they made their long visits to India in the seventh century, most of the sects had already disappeared. Of all the many groups descended from the original Mahāsāghikas, only the Lokottaravādins were still numerous and thriving, but only in a very specific location, Bamian (Bāmiyān, in present-day Afghanistan).

Here arises an important question, one whose answer is still uncertain: what connections existed between these early Buddhist sects and schools, known as Hīnayāna, and the groups formed by the followers of the Mahāyāna? Were any of themin particular those of Mahāsāghika originconverted in large numbers to the Mahāyāna, or did they perhaps give birth to it through the natural evolution of their doctrine? Should we interpret in this sense the expression Mahāyāna-Sthaviravādin, which Xuanzang used to refer to numerous Buddhist communities he encountered throughout India, and deduce from it that their followers were Sthaviravādins converted to the Mahāyāna? Or did believers of both groups live together, without mingling, in the areas where they were found? This second interpretation strikes one as more satisfactory; nevertheless, the first cannot be rejected definitively.

Geographical Distribution

Two types of records inform us about the geographical distribution of the sects and schools: inscriptions and the reports of a number of Chinese pilgrims who came to India. Numbering only a few tens and ranging in time between the second century bce and the sixth century ce, the inscriptions that mention early sects give us only spotty and very insufficient data. Although they may actually attest to the presence of a given group in a specific place at a particular date, they leave us completely ignorant about the presence or absence of this sect in other places and at other times. The information supplied by the Chinese travelers, principally Xuanzang and to a lesser extent Yijing, is incomparably more complete, but it is valid only for the seventh century, when their journeys took place.

The study of these two kinds of sourceslike that of the Sinhala chronicles, which are concerned mostly with Sri Lankan Buddhismreveals some important general features about the early Buddhist schools. None of the groups was present everywhere throughout India and its neighboring countries; on the other hand, no area was the exclusive domain of any one group. For reasons that unfortunately nearly always escape us, certain groups were in the majority in some places, in the minority in others, and completely absent in still others but, as far as we can tell, coexisted in varying proportions with other groups wherever they were found. For example, in a number of placesespecially those that history or legend made holy in the eyes of Buddhist devotees and were important places of pilgrimagethe monks of various sects lived together in neighboring monasteries and often venerated the same sacred objectstopes (stūpas ), bodhi trees, and others. This was the case not only in the holy places in the Ganges Basin, where the major events in the Buddha's life occurred, but also far from there, in Sāñchī, Karlī, Amarāvatī, Nāgārjunikoa, and elsewhere. In Sri Lanka, the three great monasteries that became the centers of the three subsects of the Theravāda, the Mahāvihāra, the Abhaya-giri, and the Jetavana, were located on the outskirts of the island's ancient capital, Anuradhapura.

All of the sects and schools seem to have been present in the middle Ganges Basin, which is easily understandable since the principal places of pilgrimage were located there. The more important ones, which originated in both the Mahāsāghika and Sthaviravāda groups, also appear to have coexisted in eastern India, Bengal, and nearby areas, at least in the seventh century, as reported by both Xuanzang and Yijing.

The Theravādins always dominated most of Sri Lanka and still do today. In the eleventh century, they also largely converted the Burmese, followed a little later by the people of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, where they continue to exercise religious dominion today. In the seventh century, the Vibhajyavāda Sthaviravādins, who were very close, if not identical, to the Theravādins, likewise controlled all the Tamil country, the part of India nearest to Sri Lanka, and were also extremely numerous in the coastal region north of Bombay and near Buddhist holy places on the Ganges from which people embarked on journeys to Lanka and southern India.

Very little is known about the location of the sects most closely related to these. The presence of the Mahīśāsakas is recorded both in the Indian northwest, on the banks of the Krishna, and in Sri Lanka; that of the Dharmaguptakas in the Indian northwest only; and that of the Kāśyapīyas mostly in the Indian northwest but also around Bombay. The Sarvāstivādins were clearly in a majority over all of northwest India, from the upper Ganges Basin to Kashmir, from the mid-third century bce to at least the seventh century ce.

In the seventh century, the Sammatīyas formed the sect comprising the largest number of monks and generally controlled all of western India, from the middle Indus Valley to southeast of Bombay. They were also very numerous throughout the Ganges Basin and in eastern India. Several inscriptions testify to the presence, at the beginning of the common era, of Dharmottarīyas and Bhadrayānīyas in the area of Bombay.

Data concerning the Mahāsāghika proper, and most of the sects that developed from it, are rare and widely scattered. We know for certain that the Mahāsāghika existed in northwestern India, around Bombay and on the banks of the lower Krishna. Caitikas also inhabited these last two areas but primarily the second, where Bahuśrutīyas also resided. By the seventh century, the Lokottaravādins had made Bamian, in the heart of present-day Afghanistan, one of the main centers of Buddhism in the Indo-Iranian realms and were still very numerous there, as Xuanzang reports. The Pūrvaśailas, Aparaśailas, Rājagirikas, and Siddhārtikas prospered during the first centuries of the common era in the lower Krishna Valley, which they covered with magnificent monuments, but by the beginning of the seventh century they had almost disappeared.

Major Doctrinal Differences

We are well acquainted with the principal doctrinal differences that gave rise to many of these schools, the basic ideas that distinguish them, and the reactions and rebuttals the various sects offered each other. In most cases, though, and particularly with regard to the apparently less important sects, our information is unfortunately too vague, and sometimes even contradictory or nonexistent, to tell us anything about the specifics of their doctrine.

Although many questions divided all or some of the schools, they did not provoke the formation of new sects. These debates were sometimes very important for the evolution of Buddhism as a whole. Often, various of the early sects that we might expect to hold similar views given their genesis in fact adopted doctrinal opinions at great variance with one another. Thus, there often came about, among schools with similar opinions on specific questions, entirely different regroupings from those one would expect in light of their traditional relationships. Let us first examine the fundamental ideas that appear to have brought about the formation of the principal sects.

The Mahāsāghikas probably separated from the Sthaviravādins over the belief that certain arhat s, although they had attained nirvāa in this world, could be subject to nocturnal defilements as a result of erotic dreams; that they still harbored vestiges of ignorance; that they had areas of doubt on matters outside Buddhist doctrine; that they could be informed, indeed saved, by other people; and, finally, that they utter certain words when they meditated on the Path of Liberation. The Sthaviravādins denied these five possibilities, arguing that the arhat is completely free of all imper-fections.

The Vātsīputrīyas and the schools that later developed from them, the Sammatīyas and others, believed in the existence of a "person" (pudgala ) who is neither identical to the five aggregates (skandhas ) that make up the living being nor different from them; neither within these five aggregates nor outside them. Although differing from the Brahmanic "soul" (ātman ), denied unanimously by Buddhist doctrine, this "person" lives on from one existence to the next, thus ensuring the continuing identities of the agent of an act and of the being who suffers its effects in this life or the next. All the other schools rejected this hypothesis, maintaining the logical impossibility of conceptualizing this "person" and seeing in it simply a disguised form of the ātman.

The Sarvāstivādins claimed that "everything exists" (sarvam asti ), that is, that the past and the future have real and material existence. This belief enabled them to explain several phenomena that were very important to Buddhists: the act of consciousness, which is made up of several successive, individual mental actions; memory or consciousness of the past; foresight or consciousness of the future; and the "ripening" (vipāka ) of "actions" (karman ), which takes place over a longer or shorter span of time, often exceeding the length of a single life. For the other sects, however, it was perfectly clear that what is past exists no longer and that what is to come does not yet exist.

The Kāśyapīyas, also called Suvarskas, maintained a position between these two, namely, that a past action that has not yet borne fruit exists, but the rest of the past does not. This approach, however, satisfied neither the Sarvāstivādins nor their critics.

The Sautrāntikas distinguished themselves from the Sarvāstivādins insofar as they considered the canonic "basket of sermons" (Sūtra Piaka) to be the only one to contain the authentic words of the Buddha, whereas the "basket of higher teaching" (Abhidharma Piaka) is the work of the Blessed One's disciples. According to some of our sources, the Sautrāntikas were also called Sakrāntivādins because they held that the five aggregates (skandhas ) constituting the living being "transmigrate" (sakrānti ) from one existence to the next; probably this should be understood to mean that, in their view, four of these aggregates were absorbed at the moment of death into the fifth, a subtle consciousness. It also seems that the Sautrāntikas can be identified with the Dārāntikas, who were often criticized in the Sarvastivada writings and apparently gained their name because of their frequent use of comparisons or parables (dātas ) in their discussions.

An important disagreement separated the Mahīśāsakas from the Dharmaguptakas. For the former, the Buddha is part of the monastic community (sagha ); hence a gift given to the community produces a "great fruit" (māhaphalam ), but one directed specifically to the Buddha does not. The Dharmaguptakas, on the other hand, held that the Buddha is separate from the community, and as he is far superior to itsince it is composed only of his followersonly the gift given to the Buddha produces a great fruit. These two opposing views had considerable influence on the religious practices of early Buddhism.

The Lokottaravādins differed from other Mahāsā-ghika schools in holding that the Buddhas are "otherworldly" (lokottara ), a word having several very different senses but which they employed loosely to attribute an extraordinary nature to the Buddhas. According to them, the Buddhas are otherworldly not only because their thought is always perfectly pure but also because they remain outside and above the world. Thus it would seem to be among the Lokottaravādins that we should seek the origin of Buddhist docetism, that is, the distinction between the real, transcendent, and infinite Buddha, the "body of doctrine" (dharmakāya ), and the apparent Buddha, the "body of magical creation" (nirmāakāya )a kind of phantom emanating from the real one. To rescue beings, the nirmāakāya becomes incarnate, taking on their form and thus seeming to be born, to grow up, to discover and preach the doctrine of enlightenment, and to finally die and become completely extinguished. The Lokottaravādins must have also extolled the extraordinary character of the bodhisattva, undoubtedly on account of their supernatural conception of the Buddhas. These singular notions lead one to believe that this sect played an important part in the formation of the Mahāyāna, whose teaching adopted and developed similar ideas.

As their name seems to indicate, the Prajñaptivādins were probably distinguished from the other schools that arose from the Mahāsāghika group because they taught that all things are mere products of linguistic convention (prajñapti ) and, hence, are devoid of actual existence. One might see here the origin of the famous theory of the universal "void" (śūnyatā ), which is one of the basic elements of the Mahāyāna doctrine and is the main theme, reiterated with the greatest insistence, of its oldest works, the first Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras.

Unfortunately, we do not know the basic premises of the other schools, whether they arose from the Sthaviravāda group or the Mahāsāghika. The data that have come down to us concerning a few of them, such as the Gokulikas (also called Kukkuikas), the Bahuśrutīyas, the Sammatīyas, and some others, are very doubtful, vague, or extremely obscure, even contradictory. For others, we possess no information at all.

As noted above, hundreds of controversies also set the various schools apart from one another without provoking new divisions of the community. Most of these debates apparently concerned only two or three sects and lasted for a short timeunless this impression is due solely to our lack of information. On the other hand, certain of these arguments affected, and even impassioned, a large number of schools for long periods, sometimes for centuries, as evidenced by the treatises and commentaries on canonic texts that have come down to us. In these more important controversies the distribution of the sects between the two opposing camps is often independent of their derivational connections. It may be that relations of good neighborliness and, hence, ties based on geographical distribution favored such doctrinal alliances. In any case, I will point out the most significant of these divergences of opinion, which are important features in the history of early Buddhist thought.

The Sarvāstivādins, the Sammatīyas, and the Pūrvaśailas firmly believed in an "intermediate existence" (antarābhava ) that linked death and rebirth. This concept was rejected by the Theravādins and the Mahāsāghikas. The latter, along with the Andhakas and the Sarvāstivādins, maintained that the bodhisattva may be born in the so-called evil existences (durgati), even in the various hells, to lighten the sufferings of the beings who live in them. The Theravādins denied that this was possible because, in their view, of the automatic retribution consequent upon all actions, a retribution that completely determines the circumstances of rebirths. According to the Vātsīputrīyas, the Sammatīyas, the Sarvāstivādins, and the Pūrvaśailas, the arhat s could backslide in varying degrees and even lose nirvāa, but the Theravādins, Mahāsāghikas, and Sautrāntikas refused to accept this idea. The Theravādins, the Sarvāstivādins, and the Dharmaguptakas agreed that it was possible for the gods to practice the sexual abstinence (brahmacarya ) of ascetics, whereas the Sammatīyas and the Mahīśāsakas judged this impossible. For the Theravādins and the Sarvāstivādins, there were only five fates (gatis ), namely, those of gods, men, animals, starving ghosts (pretas ), and the damned, but the Andhakas and the Vātsīputrīyas added another, that of the asuras, the superhuman beings who were adversaries of the gods (devas ) yet were not devils in the Christian sense.

The Mahāsāghikas, the Theravādins, and the Mahīśāsakas taught that the clear understanding (abhisamaya ) of the four noble truths (catvāry āryasatyāni ) was instantaneous, whereas the Andhakas, the Sarvāstivādins, and the Sammatīyas believed that it happened gradually. So important was this dispute that it was still the central theme of the council of Lhasa (held in the eighth century), where Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist teachers opposed each other in doctrinal debate. The Sarvāstivādins seem to have been alone in denying that "thought" (citta ) is inherently pure and contaminated only by accidental impurities, a belief held by the Mahāsāghikas, the Theravādins, and the neighboring schools.

The Theravādins, the Vātsīputrīyas, and the Sammatīyas recognized only one absolute, or "unconditioned" (asaskta ) dharma, namely, nirvāa, but the majority of schools also considered empty space (ākāśa ) an unconditioned dharma. Several of them taught that "dependent origination" (pratītya-samutpāda ), the path (mārga ) of enlightenment, and sometimes other entities as well, in particular the "suchness" (tathatā ) or "permanence" (sthitatā ) of things, were equally absolute and unconditioned. Thus, the ideas of these schools were quite close to those of the Mahāyāna.

Several important debates centered on the nature of the passions, more specifically, latent passions or tendencies (anuśaya ) and active passions or obsessions (paryavasthāna ). The Mahāsāghikas, the Andhakas, and the Mahīśāsakas set up a very precise distinction between them, while the Theravādins and Sarvāstivādins chose to see in them only two aspects of the same passions. For the Theravādins and the Sarvāstivādins, tendencies and obsessions alike were connected, or cofunctioned, with thought (cittasaprayukta ), whereas for the Mahāsāghikas, the Vātsīputrīyas, the Sammatīyas, and the Mahīśāsakas, tendencies were unconnected, did not cofunction, with thought (cittaviprayukta ), while obsessions were connected with it. As for the Andhakas, they held that obsessions and tendencies were equally separate from thought.

According to the Sarvāstivādins and the Vātsīputrīyas, ascetics of other, non-Buddhist beliefs (tīrthika ) could, through their efforts, obtain the five lesser supernatural faculties (abhijñā ) and thus work various miraclesperceiving the thoughts of others, recollecting their past lives, seeing the rebirths of creatures as conditioned by their past actions, and so forth. The Mahīśāsakas and the Dharmaguptakas, however, declared that the five supernatural facultieslike the sixth, the cleansing of impurities, that is, the attainment of nirvāa could be acquired only by Buddhist ascetics treading the Path of Enlightenment.

The relation between "matter" (rūpa ) and the mechanism of the ripening (vipāka ) of actions (karman ) also gave rise to disagreements. For the Theravādins, matter is independent of the ripening of actions, and it is not the fruit of this ripening. It is morally neither good nor bad but inherently neutral. In contrast, the Sarvāstivādins, Sammatīyas, and Mahīśāsakas taught that matter can be good or bad when it participates, through the body of man, in a good or bad act. Matter is also the fruit of ripening when it becomes the bodybe it handsome or ugly, robust or sicklyreceived by a person at birth as a consequence of past deeds.

According to the Sarvāstivādins, the five forms of sensory perception are always associated with passionate desires (rāgas ). The Mahāsāghikas and the Mahīśāsakas thought that they were sometimes associated and sometimes unassociated with them, while the Vātsīputrīyas rejected both these possibilities, declaring that the five forms of sensory perception are morally neutral by nature and thus can never be either good or bad.


The literature of early Buddhism must have been very important in extent and interest because what has been preserved for us, even though it represents only a small part of the whole, is considerable. The great majority of this literature vanished with the sects that produced it; let us recall that only one, the Theravāda, still flourishes today in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Most of the schools have left us nothing, save perhaps a few fragments, isolated sūtras, and other brief works in the original Indian language or more often in Chinese translation. Which sects they belonged to nearly always remains undetermined.

Roughly half of what has been handed down to us is in the original Indian language, in a more or less "hybrid" Sanskrit, in various Middle Indic dialects, and above all in Pali. It is in Pali that the body of Theravāda literature, which we possess practically in its entirety, was written. The remainder, of approximately the same size, has come down to us only in Chinese or Tibetan translations. The scope of what was preserved in the Tibetan version, as far as the Hīnayāna in particular is concerned, is much more limited than that of the Chinese translation and, moreover, is confined almost solely to works of the Sarvāstivādins and Mūlasarvāstivādins. In Mahāyāna literature, in contrast, the enormous amount of material translated into Tibetan is virtually equal to what was translated into Chinese.

Thus, it seems that a greater proportion of the canonical literatureproperly speaking, that which belonged to the Tripiaka ("three baskets")than of the postcanonical literature has been passed on to us. It comprises, primarily, the complete Pali Tipiaka, made up of its Sutta Piaka ("basket of sermons"), its Vinaya Piaka ("basket of discipline"), and its Abhidhamma Piaka ("basket of higher teaching").

The Sutta Piaka, in turn, is composed of five Nikāyas, or "groupings," bringing together the "long" (dīgha ), "medium" (majjhima ), and "grouped" (sayutta ) sermons; those arranged according to number of categories (aguttara ); and, lastly, the "minor" (khuddaka ) sermons, the longest and most varied section of all. The Khuddaka Nikāya assembles the legends of the former "births" (jātaka ) of the Buddha, legends recounting the "deeds" (apadāna ; Skt., avadāna ) of the great disciples, didactic stanzas (gāthā ) attributed to them, a famous but anonymous collection of other instructional stanzas called the Dhammapada, and ten or so other equally varied works.

Like the other Baskets of Discipline that have survived, the Pali Vinaya Piaka essentially contains three parts. These provide detailed definitions and explanations of the numerous rules of discipline imposed on monks (bhikkus ), those to be observed by nuns (bhikkunīs ), and specific rules concerning the material life of both: the correct use of objects they were allowed to own, ceremony, sentencing of offenders, settling of disputes, and so on.

The Pali Abhidhamma Piaka consists of seven different works, in which the doctrine set forth in no particular order in the sermons (suttas ) is reorganized, classified systematically, and fleshed out at numerous points. One of these seven books, the Kathāvatthu (Points of controversy), refutes more than two hundred opinions held by other Buddhist schools and in the process reveals the doctrines peculiar to the Theravāda.

Sadly, we do not possess a complete Tripiaka from any other early sect, but more or less significant parts of several of them have been preserved. Thus, five Vinaya Piakas have come to us intact: those of the Mahāsāghikas, Mahīśāsakas, Dharmaguptakas, Sarvāstivādins, and Mūla-sarvāstivādins, all in Chinese translation, plus more or less extensive fragments of the last two in the original Sanskrit. We have an entire Tibetan translation of the Mūlasarvāstivādins Vinaya Piaka, which is much more voluminous and written later than the others. In addition, we have a detached portion of the Lokottaravāda Vinaya Piaka under the name Mahāvastu (Great Tale) in Hybrid Sanskrit. This is actually a traditional and partial biography of the Buddha, heavily encrusted with legendry.

The non-Theravāda sects used the term āgama ("tradition") for the four or five parts that made up their Sūtra Piakas, which correspond to the Pali Nikāyas. Five of these Āgamas, evidently complete, have survived in Chinese translation: the Dirghagama of the Dharmaguptakas; the Madhyamagama of the Sarvāstivādins; the Samyuktagamas of the Sarvāstivādins and the Kāśyapīyas; and, finally, an Ekottarāgama that most probably belongs to a sect derived from the Mahāsāghikas but different from the Lokottaravādins. There are also more than 150 isolated sūtras, nearly all preserved in Chinese and a few in their original Indian language, but it is generally impossible to determine what school they come from. No collection corresponding to the Pali Khuddaka Nikāya survives, but we do have the Chinese translations of some seventy works similar to those that make up the Theravāda collection, as well as the Indian originals of a number of others.

Two complete Abhidharma Piakas have survived in Chinese translation: that of the Sarvāstivādins (one part of this also exists in Tibetan) and one entitled Śāriputra-abhidharma, which seems to have belonged to the Dharmaguptakas but was perhaps also influenced by the Mahāsāghika. Like the Abhidharma Piaka of the Theravādins, that of the Sarvāstivādins comprises seven works, but its overall structure is very different, as is its doctrine, although there are notable similarities between some parts of the two works. The Śāriputra-abhidharma, which is made up of four main sections, differs even more from the Theravādins text. For the most part these three collections definitely postdate the first appearance of the sects that composed them and defended their own positions in them. The teaching given by the sermons in the various Nikāyas or Āgamas of the Sūtra Piakas, in contrast, presents a truly remarkable consistency, whatever their school of origin, and, thus, a great fidelity to the common early Buddhist base, predating the community's division into sects. The same is true for most of the monastic rules contained in the various Vinaya Piaka, which are distinguished mainly by details of secondary or minor aspects of the ascetic life.

The postcanonical literature was undoubtedly very important, but even less of it remains than of the canonic material, and it is more unevenly distributed. Luckily, we possess in Pali the greater part of what was written by the Theravādinscommentaries on the canonic texts, treatises on doctrine, collections of legends, and devotional poems. We have also the principal Sarvāstivāda treatises, several commentaries on these works and on the major portion of their Abhidharma Piaka, as well as a few other late works. Unfortunately, the postcanonic literature available to us from all the other schools is limited to a half-dozen works.

The whole series of commentaries in Pali on the Theravāda canonic texts was composed in the fourth and fifth centuries ce by Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosa, and Dhammapala, who made use of ancient commentaries, now lost, in Old Sinhala. We also owe to Buddhaghosa, the wisest and most renowned of all the Theravāda masters, a substantial treatise entitled Visuddhimagga (The path of purity), in which the Mahāvihāra school's entire doctrine is set forth. Another famous treatise is the Abhidhammatthasangaha (Collection of interpretations of the higher doctrine), written by the Sinhala monk Anuruddha about the eleventh century. Other, less important treatises of the Mahāvihāra school were composed by various authors between the fourth and fifteenth centuries. Each of these works was the subject of one or more commentaries, most of which have not survived. Only one non-Mahāvihāra Theravāda workstrangely, in Chinese translationis extant: a large treatise called Vimuttimagga (The path of liberation), attributed to Upatissa, who must have lived some time before Buddhaghosa and was probably a master of the Abhayagiri school.

To the treatises may be added the Lokapaññatti (Description of the world), a fourteenth-century adaptation by the Burmese monk Saddhammaghosa of a lost Sanskrit work, and especially the well-known Milindapañha (Questions of King Milinda), likewise inspired by a lost work. This seems to have been a little Buddhist propaganda manual aimed at the Greeks and Eurasians, such as King Menander (Milinda), who lived in northwestern India in the second century bce. Besides the Pali version, there are two Chinese translations of the Milindapañha that rather differ from each other and even more so from the Theravāda text.

The postcanonic Theravāda literature also includes instructional poems and collections of legends in verse or prose. Among the instructional poems are the Anāgatavasa (History of the future), in which the monk Kassapa recounts the life of the next Buddha, named Metteyya, and the Jinacarita (Story of the conqueror), Medhakara's account of the miraculous life of the historical Buddha. The Rasavāhinī (Transportress of flavors), translated into Pali by Vedeha from an Old Sinhala poem, is a collection of some one hundred legends meant to encourage a life of piety.

However, it is its famous chronicles, a genre almost entirely abandoned in ancient India, that make Theravāda literature stand apart from that of the other sects. The series of the Dīpavasa (History of the island), Mahāvasa (Great history), and Cūavasa (Lesser history) records in verse the whole history of Sri Lanka, from its beginning to the end of the eighteenth century, from the very specific point of view of the "elders" (theras ) of the Mahāvihāra, the principal Sinhala Theravāda school. Other chronicles recount, in grandiose verse style, the stories of sacred relics: the Bodhivasa tells the story of the bodhi tree, the Thūpavasa that of the principal mound of Anurādhapura, and the Dāhāvasa that of the Buddha's tooth.

The main works of the Sarvāstivādin postcanonic literature have generally survived in Chinese or Tibetan translation. Complete or partial Sanskrit originals of several of them have also been found.

Only two commentaries on the postcanonic literature of the Sarvāstivādins have come down to us. One concerns the rules of monastic discipline and is entitled Sarvāstivāda-vinaya-vibhāā ; the other, called Abhidharma-mahāvibhāā, comments on the Jñānaprasthāna, the principal work of the Abhidharma Piaka of this sect. This Mahāvibhāā (Great commentary) is an immense summation of the doctrine of the Sarvāstivādins or, more precisely, of their most important school, known as the Vaibhāika, "supporter of the (Mahā -) Vibhāā." It is one of the most voluminous works in all Buddhist literature.

The Sarvāstivādins left several treatises written in Sanskrit during the first few centuries of the common era. The principal and best known is the Abhidharmakośa (Treasury of higher doctrine), written by Vasubandhu in the fifth century and the subject of numerous commentaries, many of which are extant in the Sanskrit original or in Chinese or Tibetan translation. Vasubandhu was accused of holding Sautrāntika views by his contemporary Saghabhadra, a strictly orthodox Sarvāstivādin. Saghabhadra refuted these views in a large treatise entitled Abhidharma-nyāyānusāra (Consistent with the logic of the further doctrine) and in a long commentary on the didactic stanzas (kārikās ) of the Abhidharmakośa. The Sarvāstivādins also composed a Lokaprajñapti (Description of the world) according to Buddhist ideas, which has survived in Chinese and Tibetan translations.

The other schools have left only Chinese translations of a few treatises and commentaries, often very short and of unknown origin. Among the commentaries, which all correspond to complete or partial Vinaya Piakas, we may mention the Vinayasagraha (Collection of Discipline) by the Mūlasarvāstivādins Viśeamitra and the Vinayamātkā (Summary of discipline), the sectarian affinity of which is uncertain.

All that remains of the literature of the Vātsīputrīyas and related schools, which must have been considerable, are the Chinese translations, sadly inferior and obscure, of two small treatises summarizing their teaching. The most important of these is entitled Sammatīya-nikāya-śāstra (Treatise of the Sammatīya sect).

Two other works of the same type have also survived in Chinese translation, but although they are better translated and are much longer, their sectarian origin presents some difficulty. One, called Satyasiddhi (Realization of the truths), written by Harivarman around the third century ce, teaches and defends the doctrine of a Mahāsāghika-derived school, probably the Bahuśrutīyas. The other is the Vimuttimagga, mentioned above, whose author, Upatissa, probably belonged to the Sinhala Abhayagiri school; its Pali original was recently rediscovered.

The literary genre of devotional legends in verse or prose was also a great inspiration to authors of all sects, most of whom remained as anonymous as those of the canonic texts. Some of these works recounted the life of the historical Buddha, embellishing it with numerous miracles for the sake of greater glory. Two of the three most famous were preserved by chance in their Indian originals. These were composed in Hybrid Sanskrit, which is to say greatly influenced by the Prakrit dialects: the Mahāvastu (Great tale) and the Lalitavistara (Account of the sport), both important sources for the development of the Buddha legend. The first is a detached portion of the Lokottaravāda Vinaya Piaka, but in scope, as well as in specific subject matter, it can be considered a distinct and, moreover, rather late work. The Lalitavistara was first compiled by the Sarvāstivādins but later revised by followers of the Mahāyāna. In contrast with these two, the Buddhacarita (Story of the Buddha) was written in classical Sanskrit by one of the greatest Indian poets, Aśvaghoa, who lived around the second century ce; only half of the Sanskrit text has been recovered, but the Chinese translation is complete.

The collections of legendary material recounting the edifying deeds of Buddhist saints, or the previous incarnations of these or the future Buddha, are numerous, whether in Hybrid Sanskrit originals or in Chinese versions. We shall mention here only the best known, the Avadāaśataka (Hundred exploits) and the Divyāvadana (Divine exploits).

Notable Personalities

Be they Buddhists, brahmans, or otherwise, the Indians of ancient times had practically no interest in history as we understand it, with its concern for the exact recording of events, dates, names, and biographies of important figures in order to preserve a precise record of them. This is especially true for the history of Indian Buddhism and the lives of its great masters. With very rare exceptions, to us the masters are only names attached to one or more literary works or, much less often, to an important item or event in the history of Buddhismsuch as an idea that was declared heretical, a dispute, or a council. Nearly always, we know nothing whatever of the lives of these people, including the regions where they were born or lived and the centuries in which they were active. Moreover, the scant information that tradition has preserved about them is either vague, contradictory, or obviously distorted by legend, obliging us to make use of it with great skepticism. Even the biographies of the principal Sinhala elders (theras ) of the Theravāda sect, whose history is told at length and in detail by the chronicles of Sri Lanka, are hardly better known to us than those of the masters of other groups and schools of early Indian Buddhism. In any case, we possess infinitely less detail about the lives of these theras than about those of the kings, princes, and generals who studded the history of Sri Lanka and protected the island's monastic community for two thousand years. Nonetheless, these chronicles permit us to know the names of a much larger number of these Sinhala Theravāda elders than of the masters of other sects, and thanks to them we are generally informed with some precision about the time and place in which many of them lived.

Among the most noteworthy figures of the Theravāda, we must first point out the three great scholars to whom all of the commentaries on the Pali canon and several important treatises on doctrine are attributed. The most famous is certainly Buddhaghosa, author of the Visuddhimagga. According to tradition, Buddhaghosa was an Indian brahman from Bihar who converted to Buddhism, then probably came to live in the Tamil country and afterward in the Sri Lankan capital, Anurādhapura, during the reign of Mahānāma (409431). Buddhadatta, who was, it seems, a little older than Buddhaghosa, was probably born in the Tamil country, on the banks of the Kāverī, and spent most of his life there, but he probably sojourned in Anurādhapura as well. Finally, Dhammapāla was probably also a Tamil, born in Kāñcīpuram in the late fourth century, and most likely lived mainly in his native land but also journeyed to Lanka. Thus, it would seem that in the early fifth century, Tamil India was an important seat of Buddhistor, more precisely, Theravādaculture, on a par with Sri Lanka and perhaps even more active.

The reign of Parakkamabāhu (Parakramabāhu) I (11531186), an especially prosperous epoch for the Sinhala Theravādins, was made illustrious by a number of scholar-monks. The most famous was Sāriputta, a pupil of Kassapa of Udumbaragiri, who had played a pivotal role in the reform of the community ordered by the king and was himself a great scholar. Sāriputta turned his residence, the new monastery of Jetavana at Polonnaruwa, into the major center of knowledge and Buddhist learning of his time. Author of several authoritative subcommentaries on canonic texts, highly esteemed grammarian and poet, he was as well versed in Sanskrit as in Pali and composed his works in both languages. Several of his many students became learned monks and authors of valued literary works, notably Dhammakitti, Sagharakkhita, Sumagala, Buddhanāga, Medakara, and Vācissara.

In modern times, mention must be made of one first-rank figure whose influence on the evolution of Theravāda Buddhism was both decisive and extensive. Prince Mongkut, the youngest son of the Siamese king Rama II, became a monk and, during the quarter-century that he spent in yellow robes, undertook a great reform of the community in his country. In particular, he founded a new monastic order, the Thammayut, which observed the rules of discipline more strictly than did its contemporaries, but he also kept abreast of the social realities of Siam and enthusiastically studied the culture and religions of the West. Becoming king on the death of his elder brother, he ruled under the name Rama IV (18511868), completing his work and transforming his country into a modern state largely open to trade and external influence. He is one of the principal architects of the great reform of Theravāda Buddhism that took place after the mid-nineteenth century not only in Siam but also in the neighboring kingdoms and in Sri Lanka. This movement was characterized by a return to the sources of the religion, namely the Pali Tipiaka, and also by a necessary and rational adaptation to modern circumstances.

The best-known figure of the Sarvāstivādins is certainly Vasubandhu, the author of the Abhidharmakośa. Unfortunately, our information about this great master is suspect and seemingly contradictory, so that his life remains a subject of debate. Is Vasubandhu the Sarvāstivādin identical with Vasubandhu the Yogācāra, the brother of Aanga? Did he live in the fourth or the fifth century of our era? Was he born at Purusapura (present-day Peshawar) into a brahman family? Did he live in Kashmir, and then Ayodhya (present-day Faizābād), where he probably died? No agreement has been reached on these or other, lesser points of his biography.

We know even less about his principal adversary, Saghabhadra, except that he was Vasubandhu's contemporary, a Kashmiri, and a staunch defender of Vaibhasika Sarvāstivāda orthodoxy. As for other great teachers of this sect, to whom are attributed various interpretations of the notion of sarvam asti or the treatises that have come down to us in Chinese translation, they are hardly more than names to us: Vasumitra (one or several?), Kātyāyanīputra, Dharmaśrī, Ghoaka, Upaśānta, Dharmatrāta. Indeed, the Sarvāstivāda's founder, Madhyāntika, who probably settled with his disciples in Kashmir during the reign of Aśoka, seems himself to belong more to legend than to history.

The founders of other schools are also nothing but names to us, and even these have been handed down: Mahādeva for the Mahāsāghikas, Vātsīputra for the Vātsīputrīyas, Uttara for the Sautrāntikas, and so on. We only know two or three other masters, whose names have been preserved by chance, such as Śrīlāta of the Sautrāntika and Harivarman, the author of the Satyasiddhi. Of Śrīlāta we know nothing more than his opinions, as these were criticized in Sarvāstivādin tracts. Harivarman was probably a brahman from the middle Ganges Basin, who most likely lived around the third century ce and was converted to Buddhism as a follower of one of the Mahāsāghika sects, probably the Bahuśrutīya, to judge from the study of his long treatise.

Expansion of the Schools Outside of India

Owing to the pious zeal of the emperor Aśoka, from the mid-third century bce Buddhism began to expand outside of India proper, southeastward into Sri Lanka and northwestward into what is now Afghanistan. Numerous important epigraphic and archaeological monuments show that it soon prospered in both these areas. From this evidence and from the Sinhala chronicles we know that the Theravādins very quickly became, and remained, the dominant group in Sri Lanka, but we do not know exactly which sects flourished at the same timeduring the last three centuries bcein the mountainous areas of the northwest, then called Gandhara and Kapiśa. It seems, however, that the Sarvāstivādins, traditionally believed to have originated in nearby Kashmir during the reign of Aśoka, began the conversion of these lands to Buddhism and were joined somewhat later by schools of the Mahāsāghika group.

A few very scarce inscriptions, but especially the reports of the famous Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yijing, as well as the numerous discoveries of Buddhist manuscripts in Central Asia, provide information on the presence of various early sects outside India. Sects were found in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Central Asia, and China in the first few centuries of the common era, especially in the seventh century.

At this same time, the Theravādins had found their way into Indonesia, where the Sarvāstivādins or Mūlasar-vāstivādins were a strong majority. These two groups were extremely numerous and nearly alone in all of Central Asia, and they also flourished in southern China, where the Mahīśāsakas, Dharmaguptakas, and Kāśyapīyas prospered as well. These last three sects thrived in Indonesia, and Dharmaguptakas were also found in eastern China as well as in Shensi province. As for the Sammatīyas, they were in the majority in Champa, in the center of present-day Vietnam. Such is the information provided by Yijing.

The Chinese translations of three different works of early Indian Buddhist sects formed the basis of an equal number of distinctively Chinese schools, which were introduced shortly afterward into Japan. The oldest is known by the name Chengshi, which is the title of Kumārajīva's Chinese translation (411412) of Harivarman's Satyasiddhi. The main doctrine of this treatise, which attracted and held the attention of its Chinese followers, distinguishes two truths: a mundane or relative truth and a supreme or absolute truth. It teaches that all things are empty of substance, not only the individual person made up of the five aggregates of phenomena, but also the whole of the external world. Thus, the teaching of this work would seem to lie between those of the Hīnayāna and the Mahāyāna or, more precisely, the Mādhyamika. The Chengshi school was in fact founded by two direct disciples of Kumārajīva, Sengdao and Sengsong, who each headed a different branch, one centered in Anhui and the other in Jiangsu. These two masters and some of their disciples composed many commentaries on the Satyasiddhi or, more exactly, on its Chinese translation, which helped make it widely known throughout southern China. The leaders of the Chinese Mahāyānist Sanlun sect, who were faithful followers of the Mādhyamikas, vigorously combatted this teaching, insisting that its concept of the void was mistaken. Their attacks resulted in the decline of the Chengshi school in the mid-seventh century and in its disappearance shortly afterward. Still, in 625, a Korean monk introduced the Chinese translation of the Satyasiddhi and its teaching to Japan, but the sect, which received the name Jōjitsu (after the Japanese pronunciation of Chengshi), found less success there than in China and was quickly absorbed by the rival school of Sanron, the Japanese form of San-lun.

The second sect was called Jushe, a transliteration of the Sanskrit kośa, because it was based on the famous Abhidharmakośa of Vasubandhu, translated into Chinese by Paramārtha in 563567 and by Xuanzang in 651654. The Sarvāstivāda realism expounded in this treatise was not very successful in China, where Mahāyāna doctrines were then dominant; consequently, the Jushe school died out in the late eighth century, when it was absorbed by the Chinese form of Yogācāra known as Faxiang. Previously, as early as 658, two Japanese monks, Chitsu and Chitatsu, had introduced the sect to Japan, where it bacame known as the Kusha. There it had less success and longevity as an independent school than in China, for Chitsu and Chitatsu themselves were followers of Faxiang, called Hossō in Japan. Hossō had already attained considerable importance, and it soon absorbed the Kusha school.

The third and final Chinese school derived from early Buddhism was quite different from the other two. Called Lü ("discipline"), it was established in the mid-seventh century by the eminent monk Daoxuan as a reaction against the doctrinal disputes that preoccupied Chinese Buddhists of the time. He maintained that moral uprightness and strict monastic discipline were much more necessary for the religious life than empty intellectual speculations. Consequently, he imposed on his followers the well-defined rules in the Sifen lü, a Chinese translation of the Vinaya Piaka of the Dharmaguptakas made by Buddhayaśas and Zhu Fonian in 412. Although his school never had many adherents of its own, it had a clear and lasting influence on Chinese Buddhism. Thanks to the school's activities, the Sifen lü became, and remains, the sole collection of disciplinary rules to be followed by all Chinese Buddhist monks regardless of their school, including followers of the Mahāyāna. The school was introduced to Japan in 753 by the Chinese monk Jianzhen (Jpn., Ganjin), who was welcomed with open arms at the court of Nara. Known by the name of Ritsu (not to be confused with a homophonous branch of the Shingon sect), it is still active in Japan today (it also existed in China early in this century) but no longer has many adherents.

However, the only early Buddhist sect to thrive after spreading outside of India is the Theravāda. Its lasting success (it still flourishes today) can be explained by the fact that it was established well before the common era in Sri Lanka, a relatively isolated region, and that it has almost always maintained a strongly preferential relationship with the island's political authorities and has known how best to profit from it. Much less certain was the extension of this phenomenon to a compact group of countries of mainland Southeast Asia from the eleventh century, a time when Buddhism, especially the early, so-called Hīnayāna Buddhism, was dying out throughout India itself. At that time, Hīnayāna Buddhism could claim only a very few followers, scattered among small and failing communities, in the whole vast territory of India. We can understand how the effect of such a happy chance could have seemed miraculous to Buddhist devotees.

This process began in Burma, in the mid-eleventh century, when Anorātha, who ruled the central and northern parts of the country, conquered the southern, maritime region, where Theravāda monks had recently converted the ruler. Anorātha, too, soon adopted the Buddhist faith of the Theravādins. Driven by religious zeal, he compelled all of his subjects to follow his example. From that time on, Theravāda has remained the religion of the majority of the Burmese people.

Two centuries later, when the Thai descended from the mountains to the north and took control of the entire country known today as Thailand, the same process took place. Their king converted to the Theravāda and exercised all his authority to promote its extension to the whole of the population.

In the following century, under circumstances that are still poorly known, neighboring Cambodia, where Mahāyāna Buddhism and Hinduism had flourished until then, became completely Theravādin in a short space of time and has remained so to the present day. The petty kingdoms of Laos, stretched out along the middle Mekong, were not long in following suit.

In contrast to what had happened in India, this distribution of Theravāda Buddhism among a number of different countries, which were (except for Sri Lanka) in close proximity to each other, helped ensure the sect's lasting prosperity. Indeed, when a monastic community in one of these countries found itself in difficulty or in decline, which happened a number of times here and there, the pious Buddhist king would ask for and receive help from another country's ruler, who would then send him a group of knowledgeable, respected monks to resolve the problems in question and restore the Theravāda to its full value and strength. Similarly, whatever reforms and progress were made in one country quickly spread to the Theravāda communities in others. Such was the case in the last century, when the prince-monk Mongkut, who became King Rama IV of Siam, instituted great transformations that allowed the Theravāda to adapt to the modern world at the same time that he carried out a return to its distant canonic sources.

See Also

Arhat; Buddhaghosa; Buddhism, articles on Buddhism in India, Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Buddhist Books and Texts; Buddhist Philosophy; Councils, article on Buddhist Councils; Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas; Eightfold Path; Four Noble Truths; Ganjin; Karman, article on Buddhist Concepts; Mahāsāghika; Missions, article on Buddhist Missions; Mongkut; Nirvāa; Pratītya-samutpāda; Sagha, overview article; Sarvāstivāda; Sautrāntika; Sinhala Religion; Soteriology; Southeast Asian Religions, overview article; Vasubandhu.


Aung, Schwe Zan, and C. A. F. Rhys Davids, trans. Points of Controversy (1915). London, 1969. A translation of the Pali Kathāvatthu, a text treating the doctrinal controversies between the various Hīnayāna sects from the Theravāda point of view.

Bareau, André. Les sectes bouddhiques du Petit Véhicule. Publications de l'École Français d'Extrême-Orient, vol. 38. Saigon, 1955. An exhaustive survey based on all available documents.

Bechert, Heinz, and Richard Gombrich. The World of Buddhism. London, 1984. This excellent work includes a discussion of schisms on page 82.

Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China; a Historical Survey. Princeton, 1964. See pages 129131 and 301303 for information on the Hīnayāna-derived Chinese sects.

Demiéville, Paul. "L'origine des sectes bouddhiques d'après Paramartha." In Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques, vol. 1, pp. 1564. Brussels, 1932. A masterfully annotated French translation of one of the principal documents on the subject.

Dube, S. N. Cross Currents in Early Buddhism. New Delhi, 1980. Interesting study of doctrinal disputes among early sects, but based primarily on the Kathāvatthu.

Dutt, Nalinaksha. Buddhist Sects in India. 2d ed. Calcutta, 1978. Good general description of the history and, especially, the doctrines of the Hīnayāna sects.

Fujishima Ryauon. Les bouddhisme japonais: Doctrines et histoire de douze sectes bouddhiques du Japon (1889). Reprint, Paris, 1983. This old book is the most complete description in a Western language of Japanese Buddhist sects, particularly the three derived from the Hīnayāna.

Hajime, Nakamura. Indian Buddhism: A Survey with Bibliographical Notes. Hirakata, 1980. This large work brings into focus our knowledge of the whole of Indian Buddhism and contains an extremely rich and up-to-date bibliography. A long chapter concerns the Hīnayāna sects (pp. 90140).

Lamotte, Étienne. Histoire du bouddhisme indien: Des origines à l'ère Saka. Louvain, 1958. A large part (pp. 571705) of this excellent work discusses early sects, their origins and distribution, Buddhist languages, and the sects' doctrinal evolution.

La Vallée Poussin, Louis de, trans. L'Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu (19231931). 6 vols. Reprint, Brussels, 1971. This French translation of the famous treatise includes copious notes and a very long introduction by the great Belgian scholar. It is rich in information on the doctrinal controversies that concerned the Sarvāstivādins.

Law, Bimala Churn. A History of Pali Literature. London, 1933. Complete, very detailed description of Theravāda literature.

Masuda Jiryo. "Origins and Doctrines of Early Indian Buddhist Schools." Asia Major 2 (1925): 178. English translation, with notes, of the Samayabhedoparacanacakra, an account of the Hīnayāna sects and their main tenets.

Renou, Louis, and Jean Filliozat. L'Inde classique. Paris, 1953. Volume 2, pages 315608, deals especially with the Hīnayāna sects, their literature, and doctrines. The collaboration of the Sinologist Paul Demiéville and the Tibetologist Marcelle Lalou is invaluable.

Shizutani Masao. Shōjō bukkyōshi no kenkyū; Buha bukkyō no seiritsu to hensen. Kyoto, 1978. The most recent work on the origin and evolution of the Hīnayāna sects. Detailed and complete study of literary and epigraphic sources.

Takakusu Junjirō, trans. A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago (a.d. 671695) (1896). Reprint, Dehli, 1966. English translation of Yijing's account of his pilgrimage to South and Southeast Asia.

Warder, A. K. Indian Buddhism. 2d rev. ed. Dehli, 1980. Treats Hīnayāna sects at length, offering interesting solutions to the problems they pose.

Watters, Thomas, trans. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India, 629645 a.d. 2 vols. London, 19041905. English translation of numerous extracts from the accounts of Xuanzang's journey, with excellent commentary correcting most of the many errors of earlier translations (those of Stanislas Julien, Samuel Beal, etc.), which are today unusable.

New Sources

Cohen, Richard S. "Discontented Categories: Hinayana and Mahayana in Indian Buddhist History." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1995): 125.

Egge, J. R. Religious Giving and the Invention of Karma in Theravada Buddhism. Richmond, 2001.

Hoffman, F. J., and M. Deegalle, Pali Buddhism. Richmond, 1996.

Holt, J., J. N. Kinnard, and J. S. Walters. Constituting Communities: Theravada Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia. Albany, 2003

Hsüan, T., and S. Ganguly. Treatise on Groups of Elements; The Abhidharma-dhatukaya-padasastra: English Translation of Hsüan-tsang's Chinese Version. Delhi, 1994.

Ray, N. An Introduction to the Study of Theravada Buddhism in Burma: A Study in Indo-Burmese Historical and Cultural Relations from the Earliest Times to the British Conquest. Bangkok, 2002.

Soda, K. Theravada Buddhist Studies in Japan. Calcutta, 1998.

Thien, C. The Literature of the Personalists of Early Buddhism. Delhi, 1999.

Weber, C. Wesen und Eigenschaften des Buddha in der Tradition des Hinayana-Buddhismus. Wiesbaden, 1994.

AndrÉ Bareau (1987)

Translated from French by David M. Weeks
Revised Bibliography

About this article

Buddhism, Schools of: Early Doctrinal Schools of Buddhism

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Buddhism, Schools of: Early Doctrinal Schools of Buddhism