Mainstream Buddhist Schools


1. Mainstream Buddhist Schools

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.

2. The first schism

Virtually all later sources agree that the first schism within the early Buddhist community occurred with the separation of the Mahāsaghika School, or “those of the great community,” from the remaining monks referred to as Sthāviras, 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 3 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 100 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

a) the communal recitation of the teaching at the First Council or
b) the decisions concerning the rules of monastic discipline rendered at the Second Council.

These dissenters, who constituted the adherents of the “great community” (mahāsagha), recited a textual collection of their own and formed a separate Mahāsaghika school.

Other northern Indian Buddhist sources, all postdating the 2nd 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 5 points concerning characteristics of a “worthy one,” or Arhat:

These 5 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 5 points were more numerous and hence were referred to as the Mahāsaṁghikas, “those of the great community”; the minority opponents were then referred to as the “elders,” or Sthāviras.

Finally, Pāli sources record yet another Council held in the 3rd 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 (ca. 327 BC – 247 BC) in order to rectify monastic conduct and to root out heretical views.

After questioning by Aśoka, 60 000 monks were expelled from the community, and a select group of some 1 000 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 Kathāvatthu (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 3rd 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 (sagha-bheda) 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 2 radically different possibilities, each reflected in later sectarian accounts:

The Theravāda and Mahāsaṁghika sources cite differences in the monastic disciplinary code, and the Sarvāstivāda sources, differences in doctrinal interpretation.

The former possibility finds support in the oldest Mahāsaṁghika account of the schism, the Śāriputra-paripcchā (Questions of Śāriputra):

Here the Mahāsaṁghikas 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 6 schools have been preserved:

1. Mahāsaṁghika,
2. Mahīśāsaka,
3. Dharmaguptaka,
4. Theravāda,
5. Sarvāstivāda and
6. Mūla-Sarvāstivāda.

Therefore, at the very least, these 6 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.

3. Traditional mainstream schools

Traditional sources maintain that 18 schools emerged following the first schism, but since more than 30 school names are recorded, the number 18 may have been chosen for its symbolic significance.

The variety of names points to different origins for the schools, including:

a) a geographical locale (e.g., Haimavata, “those of the snowy mountains”),

b) a specific teacher (e.g., Vātsīputrīya, “those affiliated with Vātsīputra,” or

c) Dharmaguptaka, “those affiliated with Dharmagupta”),

d) a simple descriptive qualification (e.g., Mahāsaṁghika, “those of the great community,”

e) or Bahuśrutīya, “those who have heard much”), or

f) a distinctive doctrinal position (e.g., Sarvāstivāda, “those who claim that everything exists,”

g) or Vibhajyavāda, “those who make distinctions,” or

h) Sautrāntika, “those who rely upon the sūtras”).

The later doxographic accounts, each of which is coloured 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 Sthāvira or the Mahāsaṁghika branch and generally concur that the additional schools were formed within a century or two of the first schism.

4. The Mahāsaṁghika branch

From the Mahāsaṁghika branch, according to tradition, initially arose 3 major groups, each of which was associated in later accounts with additional school names:

1. Kaukkuṭika
2. Ekavyavahārika
3. Caitya

One group, the Kaukkuika, may have derived its name from the Kukkuṭārāma Monastery in Pāṭaliputra.

The name of a 2nd 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 Mahāsaṁghika 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 Mahāsaṁghika branch, the Caitya, centred 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 5 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 Mahāsaṁghikas and the Sthāviras.

5. The Sthāvira branch

Later accounts record as many as 20 or more schools that trace their origin to the Sthāvira branch.

Despite inconsistency in these accounts,

the first to emerge was probably the Vātsīputrīya (or Samatīya), 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.

6. Sarvāstivāda

Apart from the Pudgalavāda, the Sthāvira branch was further divided into 2 groups:

1. the Sarvāstivāda and
2. the Vibhajyavāda.

Evidence for an initial 3-fold split within the Sthāvira branch among:

1. Pudgalavādins,
2. Vibhajyavādins, and
3. Sarvāstivādins

- comes from 2 early scholastic treatises:

a) the Kathāvatthu of the Theravādins and
b) the Vijñānakāya (Collection on Perceptual Consciousness) of the Sarvāstivādins.

Traditional sources date the Kathāvatthu to the period of King Aśoka (3rd century B.C.E.),

but the presence in the Kathāvatthu of doctrinal positions associated with each of these 3 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 north-western regions of Kashmir and Gandhāra as well as in the north central region of Mathura, date from the 1st 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 post-canonical 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 Mūla Sarvāstivāda 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 Mūla Sarvāstivādins remains elusive, and their relation to the Sarvāstivādins a point of scholarly disagreement:

Some suggest that the Mūla Sarvāstivādins 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 north-western region of Kashmir and Gandhāra and the north central region of Mathura:

In this latter view, when the Sarvāstivāda school of the north-west declined in prominence,

the Sarvāstivādins of Mathura became more significant and adopted the name Mūla Sarvāstivāda (root Sarvāstivāda) to proclaim their status as the original Sarvāstivādins.

The Sarvāstivādins of north-west 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 Mahā-vibhāṣā (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 3 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 Dārṣṭāntikas:

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 Sautrāntika or Dārṣṭāntika 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 labelled 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.

7. 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 3rd century C.E. inscription links the term Vibhajyavāda with the Sthāviras located in the regions of Kashmir, Gandhāra, Bactria, Vanavāsa (i.e., Karnataka), and the island of Śrī Lanka.

This connection between the Vibhajyavādins and the north-western 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 North-west, 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 Sthāvira 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 (arūpya-dhātu);

- a subtle form of thought remains in states claimed to be without thought;

- Pratītya-samutpāda (Dependent Origination) and the path (mārga) are unconditioned;

- there is no intermediate state (antarābhava) between rebirth states;

- clear comprehension (abhisamaya) of the 4 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, Kāśyapīyas, 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 Mahīśāsakas 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 Śrī Lanka and Southeast Asia and survives there to the present day:

The connection of the Theravāda school to the original Sthāvira branch is clearly indicated by its Pāli name thera, which is equivalent to the Sanskrit, Sthāvira, and by close ties to the Mahīśāsaka School suggested by both textual and doctrinal similarities.

Traditional sources claim that Buddhism was brought to Śrī Lanka by the missionary Mahinda, either after the death of Buddha’s direct disciple, Ānanda, or during the reign of Aśoka in the mid-3rd century B.C.E.

By the 4th century C.E., the Theravāda school had divided into 3 subgroups, distinguished by their monastic centres:

a) the Mahāvihāravāsins from the Mahāvihāra founded at the time of the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka;

b) the Abhayagirivāsins, dating from some two centuries later;

c) 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 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 4 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 (bhavaga), 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 Theravādins agree with the Sarvāstivādins, e.g.,

- that there are 5 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.

8. Mahāyāna

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 6 Pāramitās (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.