Theravada and Mahasanghika: The Great Schism


During the lifetime of Buddha Śākyamuni in the 6th century BCE in India there was hardly any writing used:

All Buddha’s speeches, discourses, teachings were memorized by his students and passed on orally through succession of teachers (acariya-paramparā) the first 400 years.

Often serious attention was not given for the proper preservation of his actual words, not to speak about their interpretations.

Mahā Parinirvāṇa Sūtra records that Buddha himself had prophesied that his teachings might be misrepresented in the future

and recommended to his disciples to verify according to Four Authorities (Cattāro mahāpadesā) if he has actually taught that:

If somebody comes to you and tells –
- I have  heard this truth:

1. from Buddha, the Enlightened One
2. from the Community (Saṅgha) of Monks and Elders
3. from many Buddhist Elders
4. from a single Elder Monk

- don’t tell the Yeas or No, but put it along Buddha’s Discourses (Sūtras) and Discipline (Vinaya) and compare and tell – if they fit or not there in.

Buddha’s prophesy came true after his passing into Mahā Parinirvāṇa.

Hundred years after Buddha passed away, the first serious disagreements arouse between monks about the actual words of Buddha, and it was decided to hold the Second Buddhist Council.

The reasons for the Second Council are told differently in Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna sources:

Theravada related sources as The Cullavagga and the Ceylonese chronicles record that the reasons has been the breach of Vinaya rules by Buddhist monks from Vajjian sect and to examine the validity of the 10 practices (dasa vatthuni):

1. Singilonakappa—the practice of carrying salt in a horn, i. e. storing articles of food;
2. Dvangulakappa—the practice of taking meals when the shadow is two fingers broad, i. e. taking meals after midday;
3. Gamantarakappa - the practice of going to an adjacent village and taking meals there the same day for the second time;
4. Avasakappa—the observance of the Uposatha ceremonies in various places in the same parish (sima);
5. Anuma- tikappa — doing something and obtaining its sanction later;
6. Acinnakappa—the customary practices as precedent;
7. Amathitakappa—drinking of butter-milk after meals;
8. Jalogimpatum—drinking of toddy;
9. Adasakam nisidanam—use of a rug without a fringe and
10. Jatarupara/atam— acceptance of gold and silver.

The works of Vasumitra, Bhavya and Vinītadeva preserved in Tibetan and Chinese translations provides quite a different account:

According to them the Council was convened due to the differences of opinions among the monks regarding the 5 teachings propounded by Mahādeva:

1. An Arhat may commit a sin under unconscious temptation.
2. One may be an Arhat and not know it.
3. An Arhat may have doubts on matters of doctrine.
4. One cannot attain Arhatship without the aid of a teacher and
5.'The noble ways' may begin by shout, that is, one meditating seriously on religion may make such an exclamation as 'How sad!' How sad!' and by so doing attain progress towards perfection—the path is attained by an exclamation of astonishment.

Nowadays it is believed there have been actually 2 Councils:

1) The first in Vaiśālī, where some group of monks were condemned what was believed to be a minor infringements of Vinaya (monastic rules),

2) and another some 35 years later at Pāṭaliputra , under the Nanda ruler Mahāpadma , another council about fallibility and imperfection of Arhats.

The main discussion objects in councils were Vinaya rules.

Nowadays scholars believe the group known as Sthāvira (Elders) wanted to tighten monastic discipline even more as it was given by Buddha himself and add more rules:

But a large part of Buddhist community opposed to it.

The earliest surviving account of the schism the Śāriputra-paripṛcchā contains an account in which an old monk rearranges and augments the traditional Vinaya,

consequently causing dissention among the monks that required the king's arbitration and eventually precipitating the first schism.

Śāriputra-paripṛcchā says:

He copied and rearranged our Vinaya, developing and augmenting what Kāśyapa had codified and which was called "Vinaya of the Great Assembly" (Mahāsaṁgha-Vinaya). [...]

The king considered that [the doctrines of the two parties represented] were both the work of the Buddha, and since their preferences were not the same, [the monks of the two camps] should not live together.

As those who studied the old Vinaya were in the majority, they were called the Mahāsaṁghika; those who studied the new [Vinaya] were in the minority, but they were all Sthāviras; thus they were named Sthāvira.

This coincides also with chronicles of Chinese monk Faxian (337 – c. 422 CE) who travelled to India in order to procure the Mahāsaṁghika Vinaya, which was regarded as the original.

Those who were expelled continued to practice and teach Buddhism and their views became very popular and soon a new Buddhist Council was convened:

Ten thousand monks participated in it and it is known as Mahāsaṅgīti (Great Council). Monks who joined this council are known as Mahāsaṁghikas.

This way the first great schism happened and 2 groups formed –

a) Theravada (from Sanskrit name “Sthāvira-vāda” – “the Elders teaching”) and
b) Mahāsaṁghika (Great Community).

But it was not the last one. Soon Theravada was split into 12 sub-sects and Mahāsaṁghika into 6. But these different sects could not maintain their separate existence for long. Most of them either disappeared or merged with other groups soon after their origin. Only four schools of philosophy survived – Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.