Mainstream Buddhist Schools

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By several centuries after the death of the Buddha, the itinerant mendicants following his way had formed settled communities and had changed irrevocably their received methods of both teaching and praxis. These changes were inevitable, a consequence of the growth and geographic dispersion of the practicing communities. Confronted with new challenges and opportunities in an increasingly organized institutional setting, monks expanded and elaborated both doctrine and disciplinary codes, created new textual genres, developed new forms of religious praxis, and eventually divided into numerous sects or schools.

The character of mainstream Buddhist schools

Unfortunately, sources for this period, including documents, inscriptions, and archaeological evidence, are poor. Inscriptions and archaeological finds, while providing a priceless contemporaneous record, are limited in detail. Documentary sources, including chronicles, doxographies, translator records, narrative sections of canonical texts, lists of teachers or school lineages, and the diaries of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who visited India from the fifth to seventh centuries c.e., provide greater detail, but postdate the emergence of schools by several centuries. As themselves products of the sectarian fragmentation that they describe, these documentary sources are colored by sectarian agendas. Nevertheless, they furnish valuable insight into the values and objectives of the developing Buddhist tradition.

A picture of the history of Buddhist schools depends upon reconstruction of the major events in the early history of Buddhism in India: the life of the Buddha; the communal recitations or councils; the so-called first schism; and the fragmentation of the monastic community after this initial schism. Also important are more general questions concerning the criteria by which various groups were distinguished from one another and the notion of what constituted a sect or school within the tradition. It is unclear whether the school names mentioned in traditional sources were intended to refer to independent groups distinguished on similar grounds. Nor is it clear whether the notion of what constituted a sect or school remained consistent in sources of different periods. For example, certain school names corresponded to separate communities of practitioners distinguished by distinct ordination lineages and collections of monastic disciplinary codes. Other names, especially those that appear in the doctrinal scholastic texts and later doxographical treatises, appear to have been used not to mark distinct communities of practitioners, but simply for heuristic purposes, to represent differences in doctrinal perspective or teaching lineage. As a result, different source texts emphasize different factors that contributed to sectarian fragmentation. These contributing factors include geographical separation, language differences, doctrinal disagreements, selective patronage, the influence of non-Buddhists, lineage loyalties to specific teachers, the absence of a recognized supreme authority or unifying institutional structure, varying degrees of laxness regarding or active disagreements over disciplinary codes, and specialization by various monastic groups in differing segments of Buddhist scripture.

Further, the image of a harmonious early community from which distinct sects or schools emerged through gradual divergence in practice and in teaching must be questioned. Traditional sources attest to discord among the Buddha's disciples even during his lifetime, and relate that at the Buddha's death one monk, Subhadra, rejoiced since his followers would now be free to do as they liked. Similarly, accounts of the first communal recitation or council held soon after the Buddha's death record that one group of practitioners led by Purāṇa rejected the consensual understanding of the Buddha's teaching and preferred instead to transmit it as Purāṇa himself had heard it. Whether literally true or not, these stories affirm that the later traditions conceived of their own early history as involving both consensus and dissent.

The first schism

Virtually all later sources agree that the first schism within the early Buddhist community occurred with the separation of the MahĀsĀṂghika school, or "those of the great community," from the remaining monks referred to as Sthaviras, or the "elders." Complex and inconsistent, these traditional sources postdate the first schism by several centuries and reflect the biases and viewpoints of separate transmission lineages. Hence, the actual circumstances for the first schism remain obscure and tied to other roughly contemporaneous events that later traditions connect with possibly three additional early councils. The first of these events, recorded in the monastic records of virtually all later schools, is the council of Vaiśālī, which most sources date to approximately one hundred years after the death of the Buddha. Monastic records suggest that this council was convened in response to a disagreement over certain rules of monastic discipline, but do not state that the council resulted in a schism. Later Pāli chronicles and the records of Chinese pilgrims and translators explicitly link the first schism with the outcome of either the first council immediately after the death of the Buddha or this second council of Vaiśālī. They relate that some participants would not accept the communal recitation of the teaching at the first council or the decisions concerning the rules of monastic discipline rendered at the second council. These dissenters, who constituted the adherents of the "great community" (mahāsaṃgha), recited a textual collection of their own and formed a separate Mahāsāṃghika school.

Other northern Indian Buddhist sources, all postdating the second century c.e., associate the first schism with yet another council, claimed to have been held at Pāṭaliputra during the mid-third century b.c.e. As a reason for this council, they cite discord over a doctrinal issue, specifically five points concerning characteristics of a "worthy one," or arhat. These five points suggest that arhats are subject to retrogression from their level of religious attainment or to limitations such as doubt, ignorance, various forms of assistance from or stimulation by others, or the employment of artificial devices such as vocal utterances in the practice of the path. Although these points have been interpreted in traditional and many modern sources as an attempt to downgrade the status of the arhat in general, it is possible that they reflect an attempt primarily to distinguish and to clarify specific stages in religious praxis. The later textual sources of the northern early Buddhist schools relate that the supporters of the five points were more numerous and hence were referred to as the Mahāsāṃghikas, "those of the great community"; the minority opponents were then referred to as the "elders," or Sthaviras.

Finally, Pāli sources record yet another council held in the third century b.c.e. at Pāṭaliputra under the auspices of King AŚoka. According to these accounts, after years of discord within the monastic community, Aśoka convened a council under the direction of the Buddhist monk Moggaliputta Tissa in order to rectify monastic conduct and to root out heretical views. After questioning by Aśoka, sixty thousand monks were expelled from the community, and a select group of some one thousand monks were charged to set down the contents of the Buddha's true teaching. Moggaliputta Tissa is said to have recorded both the heretical views and their refutation in the Pāli scholastic text, the Kāthavatthu (Points of Discussion). Pāli sources also relate that at the conclusion of the council, Aśoka promulgated an edict inveighing against future divisions within the community and sent missionaries to spread the Buddha's teaching throughout his kingdom and beyond.

This particular account of a council at Pāṭaliputra, found only within Pāli sources, may reflect a conflict limited to the predecessors of the later TheravĀda school. However, the so-called schism edict promulgated during the reign of King Aśoka provides additional evidence of concern about discord within the Buddhist monastic community during the third century b.c.e. that was sufficient to warrant secular intervention. Despite differences in the scholarly interpretation of certain directives presented within the edict, it clearly condemns formal division within the monastic community (saṅghabheda) and declares that the community of monks and nuns should be united. Thus, this edict implies the presence of or at least the threat of divisions within a community that ideally should be united and stable.

Hence, the traditional sources do not paint a coherent picture of the reasons for the first schism, but instead offer two radically different possibilities, each reflected in later sectarian accounts. The Theravāda and Mahāsāṃghika sources cite differences in the monastic disciplinary code, and the Sarvāstivāda sources, differences in doctrinal interpretation. The former possibility finds support in the oldest Mahāsāṃghika account of the schism, the Śāriputraparipṛccha (Questions of Śāriputra). Here the Mahāsāṃghikas object to an attempt to tighten discipline through an expansion of the monastic disciplinary code and prefer instead to preserve the more restricted disciplinary rules as they stood.

Scholarly consensus also prefers the view that the earliest distinct Buddhist groups emerged not through disagreements over doctrine, but rather through differences in their lineages of ordination (upasampadā) and in monastic disciplinary codes (vinaya). While variety in doctrinal interpretation certainly existed even in the early period, the definition of formal division within the monastic community, which was eventually to be accepted by all groups, specifies monastic discipline as the key factor in the formation of independent groups. If this was indeed the case, then the names of schools reflecting differences in doctrinal interpretation, which are preserved in the later scholastic and commentarial literature, cannot automatically be assumed to denote independent monastic communities, additionally defined by different ordination lineages and monastic disciplinary codes. These doctrinally distinguished school names may instead have functioned simply as heuristic labels, meaningful within the context of doctrinal interpretation, scholastic debate, and teaching lineages, but having limited significance in the life of the monastic community as a whole. Such an interpretation would be consistent with the reports of Chinese pilgrims that monks of different doctrinal persuasion resided together within the same monastery, where they were presumably unified by the same ordination lineage and monastic disciplinary code. Distinct monastic disciplinary codes (vinaya) of only six schools have been preserved: Mahāsāṃghika, MahĪŚĀsaka, Dharmaguptaka, Theravāda, SarvĀstivĀda and MŪlasarvĀstivĀda. Therefore, at the very least, these six school names denote independent groups with distinct lineages of authority and separate monastic communities. In general, relations even among schools distinguished on the basis of monastic disciplinary code were generally not hostile. All practitioners were to be accepted as disciples of the Buddha, and to be treated with courtesy, regardless of differing disciplinary or doctrinal allegiances.

Traditional mainstream schools

Traditional sources maintain that eighteen schools emerged following the first schism, but since more than thirty school names are recorded, the number eighteen may have been chosen for its symbolic significance. The variety of names points to different origins for the schools, including a geographical locale (e.g., Haimavata, "those of the snowy mountains"), a specific teacher (e.g., Vātsīputrīya, "those affiliated with Vātsīputra," or Dharmaguptaka, "those affiliated with Dharmagupta"), a simple descriptive qualification (e.g., Mahāsāṃghika, "those of the great community," or Bahuśrutīya, "those who have heard much"), or a distinctive doctrinal position (e.g., Sarvāstivāda, "those who claim that everything exists," or Vibhajyavāda, "those who make distinctions," or SautrĀntika, "those who rely upon the sūtras"). The later doxographical accounts, each of which is colored by its own sectarian bias, do not agree on the chronology or on the order in which the schools emerged, but instead give temporal primacy to the particular group or school with which they were affiliated. They do, however, tend to agree on the basic filiation of the schools with either the Sthavira or the Mahāsāṃghika branch and generally concur that the additional schools were formed within a century or two of the first schism.

The Mahāsāṃghika branch. From the Mahāsāṃghika branch, according to tradition, initially arose three major groups, each of which was associated in later accounts with additional school names. One group, the Kaukkuṭika, may have derived its name from the Kukkuṭārāma Monastery in Pāṭaliputra. The name of a second group, the Ekavyavahārika (or Lokottaravāda) refers to "those who make a single utterance." Later sources interpret this name as reflecting the view that all phenomena can be described by one utterance, namely, the fact that all entities exist merely as mental constructs or provisional designations. However, the name could also be interpreted as referring to the distinctive doctrinal position of this school that the Buddha offers only one utterance, namely, a transcendent utterance. This interpretation would be consistent with an alternative or possibly later name for this group, Lokottaravāda, or "those who claim that (the Buddha and his utterance) are transcendent." Such a concern with the character of the utterance of the Buddha is also evident in the views associated with the schools that emerged from the first group of the Kaukkuṭika: namely, the Bahuśrutīya, who claimed that the Buddha offered both transcendent and ordinary teachings, and the Prajñaptivāda, or "those who offer provisional designations," which might also imply the claim that the Buddha utilized not simply transcendent utterance or absolutely true language, but also provisional designations or relative language.

Thus, the original Mahāsāṃghika branch appears to have been divided, at least in part, on the basis of a difference of opinion concerning the fundamental character of the Buddha's teaching, either as exclusively transcendent or as both transcendent and provisional. A third group emerging from the Mahāsāṃghika branch, the Caitya, centered in the region of Andhra in southern India, were presumably named in accordance with their practice of worship at shrines (caitya). They were also associated with a teacher, Mahādeva, who adopted and possibly reworked the five points concerning the characteristics of a "worthy one" that were cited by northern Indian Buddhist sources as the reason for the first schism between the Mahāsāṃghikas and the Sthaviras.

The Sthavira branch. Later accounts record as many as twenty or more schools that trace their origin to the Sthavira branch. Despite inconsistency in these accounts, the first to emerge was probably the Vātsīputrīya (or Saṃmatīya), also referred to as the PudgalavĀda, or "those who claim that person(hood) (pudgala) exists." The Pudgalavādins were attacked vociferously by other Buddhists schools for violating the most basic of Buddhist teachings, namely, that no self is to be found (anātman). The opponents of the Pudgalavādins argued that animate beings exist only as a collection of components or skandha (aggregate), which are conditioned and impermanent. Any unifying entity such as personhood exists only as a mental construct or a provisional designation, which has no reality in itself. For the Pudgalavādins, this view was tantamount to nihilism. They saw a unifying entity of some type as a necessary basis for the notion of mutually distinct animate beings and for the continuity of their experience. Otherwise, the phenomena of moral action, rebirth, and religious attainment accepted by all Buddhists would be impossible. Consistent with this position, the Pudgalavādins also maintained the existence of an intermediate state (antarābhava) after death, a transition state that links the aggregates of one lifetime with those of the next. Pudgalavāda positions that are presented and criticized in extant textual sources suggest that the Pudgalavādins did not simply defend the existence of personhood, but also used a distinctive method of argumentation that challenged the growing rigidity of stringent Buddhist scholastic analysis. Pudgalavāda arguments employ a sophisticated method of negative dialectics that continues certain tendencies in the earlier sūtra dialogues and stands in sharp contrast to their opponents' more straightforward, positivist methods.

Sarvāstivāda. Apart from the Pudgalavāda, the Sthavira branch was further divided into two groups: the Sarvāstivāda and the Vibhajyavāda. Evidence for an initial threefold split within the Sthavira branch among the Pudgalavādins, Vibhajyavādins, and Sarvāstivādins comes from two early scholastic treatises, the Kathāvatthu of the Theravādins and the Vijñānakāya (Collection on Perceptual Consciousness) of the Sarvāstivādins. Traditional sources date the Kathāvatthu to the period of King Aśoka (third century b.c.e.), but the presence in the Kathavatthu of doctrinal positions associated with each of these three groups does not prove that adherents of these views formed separate schools at that time. The earliest inscriptional references to the name Sarvāstivāda, found in the northwestern regions of Kashmir and Gandhāra as well as in the north central region of Mathurā, date from the first century c.e. Both regions are connected by tradition with prominent early Sarvāstivāda teachers and later became strongholds of the Sarvāstivāda school.

Much of the Sarvāstivāda version of the Buddhist canon is preserved in Chinese translations, including the complete monastic disciplinary code (vinaya), a portion of the dialogues (sūtra), and the complete collection of scholastic treatises (abhidharma), as well as many other postcanonical scholastic texts and commentaries. The presence of certain texts in multiple recensions confirms that the Sarvāstivāda school was not homogeneous, but was rather a vast group distinguished by regional, chronological, doctrinal, and other differences. This was most likely true of all early Buddhist schools. In the case of the Sarvāstivāda school, these internal distinctions are clearly demarcated in their scholastic texts by the attribution of distinct doctrinal positions to Sarvāstivāda groups of different regions.

Intragroup differences within the Sarvāstivāda school also may have led directly to the emergence of a MūlaSarvāstivāda school, whose separate monastic disciplinary code survives in Sanskrit, and to whom can probably be attributed other assorted sūtra dialogues and miscellaneous texts preserved in Chinese translation. The precise identity, however, of the Mūlasarvāstivādins remains elusive, and their relation to the Sarvāstivādins a point of scholarly disagreement. Some suggest that the Mūlasarvāstivādins represent merely a later phase in the development of the Sarvāstivāda sectarian stream. Others see the distinction as reflecting both geographical and chronological differences within the Sarvāstivāda school, which was widespread throughout northern India and Central Asia, and in particular in the northwestern region of Kashmir and Gandhāra and the north central region of Mathurā. In this latter view, when the Sarvāstivāda school of the northwest declined in prominence, the Sarvāstivādins of Mathurā became more significant and adopted the name MūlaSarvāstivāda (root Sarvāstivāda) to proclaim their status as the original Sarvāstivādins.

The Sarvāstivādins of northwest India were renowned for their scholarly study of Buddhist doctrine or abhidharma. From compiling voluminous treatises called vibhāṣā, commentaries on the most significant of their canonical abhidharma scriptures, those in the Kashmiri Sarvāstivāda branch eventually came to be called Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika. The last and best known of these vibhāṣā treatises is called the Mahāvibhāṣā (Great Exegesis). The later Sarvāstivāda summary digests and pedagogical manuals of abhidharma contain detailed discussions of all manner of doctrinal issues from ontology to religious praxis. The most controversial of these issues is the position from which the name Sarvāstivāda is derived: namely, sarvam asti or "everything exists," referring specifically to the existence of conditioned factors (dharma) in the three time periods of the past, present, and future. This assertion was motivated by the need to provide a basis for the commonly perceived efficacy of past and future causes and conditions. If past actions are accepted as conditions for the arising of present events, and past or future entities function as objects of recollection or presentiment, these past and future actions or entities must, the Sarvāstivādins claim, be admitted to exist. Attacked for violating the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, the Sarvāstivādins responded with an elaborate ontology that attempted both to delimit the specific manner in which past and future factors exist and to preserve their conditioned and hence impermanent character.

Most prominent among the critics of this hallmark Sarvāstivāda position were the Sautrāntikas or Dārṣṭantikas. The original meanings and referents of these names as well as their relationship to one another remain the subject of scholarly disagreement. Since no evidence survives of a separate Sautrantika or Darstantika monastic disciplinary code, they would appear to represent a particular doctrinal perspective, most likely the same doctrinal party within the Sarvāstivāda school. Proponents of this group may have used the term Sautrāntika (those who rely upon the sūtras) self-referentially, and their opponents among the Sarvāstivādins may have labeled them pejoratively as Dārṣṭāntika (those who employ examples). The Sautrāntika/Dārṣṭāntikas criticized orthodox Sarvāstivāda ontology as thinly veiled permanence and instead argued for a doctrine of extreme momentariness. They rejected unequivocally the existence of past and future factors, and equated the existence of present factors with an instantaneous exertion of activity. In contrast to the complex array of existent factors proposed by the Sarvāstivādins, the Sautrāntika/Dārṣṭāntikas claimed that experience is best described as an indistinguishable process. The name Sautrāntika, "those who rely upon the sūtras," also indicates a rejection of the authority that the Sarvāstivādins bestowed upon their separate canonical abhidharma collection.

Vibhajyavāda. The connotation of the term Vibhajyavāda has also been the subject of prolonged scholarly disagreement, largely because of the variety of senses in which the term was used over time. In the early sūtras, Vibhajyavāda occurs as a descriptive term for the Buddha, who, in reference to various specific issues, is said to "discriminate" carefully rather than to take an exclusivist position. In their accounts of the council at Pāṭaliputra, later Pāli sources use the term Vibhajyavāda to describe the correct teaching of the Buddha, and within Pāli materials the name continues to be used as one among several names for the Theravāda sect. A third-century c.e. inscription links the term Vibhajyavāda with the Sthaviras located in the regions of Kashmir, Gandhāra, Bactria, Vanavāsa (i.e., Karnataka), and the island of Sri Lanka. This connection between the Vibhajyavādins and the northwestern regions of Kashmir, Gandhāra, and Bactria clearly indicates that Vibhajyavāda was not simply another name for the Theravāda school. The Mahīśāsakas, Dharmaguptakas, and the Kāśyapīyas, attested in inscriptions from the Northwest, are all connected by later sources with the Vibhajyavādins. As a result, the name Vibhajyavāda might be best characterized as a loose umbrella term for those, excluding the Sarvāstivādins, who belonged to the original Sthavira branch.

A review of the many specific doctrinal views explicitly attributed to the Vibhajyavādins in the scholastic literature of the Sarvāstivādins supports this interpretation. These viewpoints do not form a coherent group, but rather are unified simply by virtue of being opposed to respective Sarvāstivāda positions. For example, the Vibhajyavādins are said to support that: thought is inherently pure; form (rūpa) occurs even in the formless realm (ārūpyadhātu); a subtle form of thought remains in states claimed to be without thought; pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination) and the path (mārga) are unconditioned; there is no intermediate state (antarābhava) between rebirth states; clear comprehension (abhisamaya) of the four noble truths occurs in a single moment; worthy ones (arhat) cannot retrogress from their level of religious attainment; and finally, that the time periods (adhvan) are permanent in contrast to conditioned factors, which are impermanent. Various doctrinal positions attributed to the Mahīśāsakas, Dharmaguptakas, Kāśyap yas, or the Dārṣṭāntikas are also assigned to the Vibhajyavādins, but each of these schools is characterized by views distinct from the others. For example, the Mahīśāsakas and the Dharmaguptakas disagreed on whether or not the Buddha should be considered as a part of the monastic community and on the relative merit of offerings to each. The Mahīśasakas saw offerings to the community, which included the Buddha, as more meritorious, and the Dharmaguptakas advocated offerings to the stŪpa as representing the unsurpassed path of the Buddha, who is distinct from and far superior to the community.

Also associated with the Vibhajyavādins, the Theravāda school became dominant in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia and survives there to the present day. The connection of the Theravāda school to the original Sthavira branch is clearly indicated by its Pāli name thera, which is equivalent to the Sanskrit, sthavira, and by close ties to the Mahīśāsaka school suggested by both textual and doctrinal similarities. Traditional sources claim that Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by the missionary Mahinda, either after the death of Buddha's direct disciple, Ānanda, or during the reign of Aśoka in the mid-third century b.c.e. By the fourth century c.e., the Theravāda school had divided into three subgroups, distinguished by their monastic centers: the Mahāvihāravāsins from the Mahāvihāra founded at the time of the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka; the Abhayagirivāsins, dating from some two centuries later; and finally the Jetavanīyas, dating from the fourth century c.e.

The Theravāda textual collection, including both canonical and extensive extracanonical and commentarial texts, is the only early Buddhist collection extant, in toto, in an Indian language (Pāli). Theravāda doctrinal positions often accord with those attributed to the Vibhajyavādins, in opposition to those of the Sarvāstivādins. For example, like the Vibhajyavādins, the Theravādins claim that thought in its fundamental state is pure, that there is no intermediate state (antarābhava) between rebirth states, that clear comprehension (abhisamaya) of the four noble truths occurs in a single moment, and that worthy ones (arhat) cannot retrogress from their level of religious attainment. Perhaps the most distinctive view adopted by the Theravādins is that of a fundamental and inactive state of mind (bhavaṅga), to which the mind returns after each discrete moment of thought, and by which one rebirth state is connected with the next. Further, regarding the Sarvāstivāda claim that factors exist in the past and future, the Theravādins adopt the position that only present factors exist. However, on some positions the Theravadins agree with the Sarvāstivādins (e.g., that there are five possible rebirth states; that all forms of defilement are associated with thought), and on still others, they differ from both the Vibhajyavādins and the Sarvāstivādins (e.g., that nirvĀṆa is the only unconditioned factor). Thus once again, a doctrinal picture of the various early Indian Buddhist schools reveals a complex mosaic of both shared and distinctive doctrinal positions.


The development of the MahĀyĀna must also be viewed in the context of the mainstream Buddhist schools. Differing scholarly opinions attempt to locate the origin of Mahāyāna variously within the confines of a particular mainstream Buddhist doctrinal school, in ascetic movements within mainstream Buddhist monasteries, or among lay religious practitioners. Although it is doubtful that any particular mainstream Buddhist school can lay claim to the Mahāyāna, it is clear that later Mahāyāna practitioners adopted the monastic disciplinary codes of mainstream Buddhist schools. Further, key doctrinal positions later associated with Mahāyāna can be traced to mainstream Buddhist doctrinal works: for example, the religious ideal of the bodhisattva; the six pĀramitĀ (perfections) that are the cornerstone of Mahāyāna religious praxis; the theory of multiple forms of the Buddha; and a fundamental, subtle form of thought. But in more general terms, the methods of philosophical argumentation, areas of doctrinal investigation, and modes of communal religious life and praxis that were established in mainstream Buddhist schools determined the course of Buddhist inquiry and practice in India for some one thousand years.

See also:Buddha, Life of the; Councils, Buddhist


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Collett Cox