The Info List - Early Buddhist Schools

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The EARLY BUDDHIST SCHOOLS are those schools into which the Buddhist monastic saṅgha initially split, due originally to differences in vinaya and later also due to doctrinal differences and geographical separation of groups of monks.

The original saṅgha split into the first early schools (generally believed to be the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghika ) a significant number of years after the passing away of Gautama Buddha . According to scholar Collett Cox "most scholars would agree that even though the roots of the earliest recognized groups predate Aśoka , their actual separation did not occur until after his death." Later, these first early schools split into further divisions such as the Sarvāstivādins and the Dharmaguptakas , and ended up numbering, traditionally, about 18 or 20 schools. In fact, there are several overlapping lists of 18 schools preserved in the Buddhist tradition, totaling about twice as many, though some may be alternative names. It is thought likely that the number is merely conventional.


* 1 Developments in history

* 1.1 The first council * 1.2 The second council * 1.3 Period between the second and third councils * 1.4 Third council under Aśoka * 1.5 Developments during and after the third council * 1.6 Mahāyāna members * 1.7 The Chinese pilgrims

* 2 The eighteen schools

* 2.1 According to the _Dipavamsa_ * 2.2 According to Vasumitra * 2.3 According to Vinitadeva * 2.4 According to the _Śāriputraparipṛcchā_ * 2.5 Twenty schools according to Mahayana scriptures in Chinese * 2.6 Hypothetical combined list

* 3 Legacy * 4 See also * 5 Notes * 6 References * 7 Sources * 8 Further reading * 9 External links



Main article: First Buddhist council

According to the scriptures (_Cullavagga _ XI.1 ff), three months after the passing of Gautama Buddha , the first council was held at Rajagaha by some of his disciples who had attained arahantship . At this point, Theravāda tradition maintains that no conflict about what the Buddha taught occurred; the teachings were divided into various parts and each was assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory.

The accounts of the council in the scriptures of the schools differ as to what was actually recited there. Purāṇa is recorded as having said: "Your reverences, well chanted by the elders are the Dhamma and Vinaya , but in that way that I heard it in the Lord's presence, that I received it in his presence, in that same way will I bear it in mind." .

Some scholars deny that the first council actually took place.


Main article: Second Buddhist council

The SECOND BUDDHIST COUNCIL took place approximately one hundred years after Gautama Buddha's parinirvāṇa . Virtually all scholars agree that the second council was a historical event. Traditions regarding the Second Council are confusing and ambiguous, but it is agreed that the overall result was the first schism in the sangha , between the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghikas, although it is not agreed upon by all what the cause of this split was.


The textual sources agree that the first split was between the Sthaviravāda and the Mahāsāṃghika. However, after this initial division, more were to follow. Some modern scholars argue that the first split occurred in the intervening period between the second and third councils, and was probably about monastic discipline . However, only two ancient sources (the Dīpavaṃsa and Bhavya's third list) place the first schism before Aśoka, and none attribute the schism to a dispute on Vinaya practice.


Main article: Third Buddhist council

Tradition largely holds that Buddhism split into 18 schools, but different sources give different lists of them, and scholars conclude that the number is merely conventional.

Theravādin sources state that, in the 3rd century BCE, a third council was convened under the patronage of Aśoka, but no mention of this council is found in other sources. Some scholars argue that there are certain implausible features of the Theravādin account which imply that the third council was ahistorical. The remainder consider it a purely Theravāda-Vibhajjavāda council. It is generally accepted, however, that one or several disputes did occur during Aśoka's reign, involving both doctrinal and disciplinary (_vinaya_) matters, although these may have been too informal to be called a "council". The Sthavira school had, by the time of Aśoka, divided into three sub-schools, doctrinally speaking, but these did not become separate monastic orders until later.

According to the Theravādin account, this council was convened primarily for the purpose of establishing an official orthodoxy. At the council, small groups raised questions about the specifics of the _vinaya_ and the interpretation of doctrine. The chairman of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book, the _ Kathavatthu _, which was meant to refute these arguments. The council sided with Moggaliputta and his version of Buddhism as orthodox; it was then adopted by Emperor Aśoka as his empire's official religion. In Pali , this school of thought was termed Vibhajjavāda, literally "thesis of a distinction".

The distinction involved was as to the existence of phenomena (_dhamma_s) in the past, future and present. The version of the scriptures that had been established at the third council, including the _ Vinaya _, _Sutta _ and the _ Abhidhamma Pitaka _s (collectively known as the " Tripiṭaka "), was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Aśoka's son, the Venerable Mahinda . There it was eventually committed to writing in the Pali language. The Pāli Canon remains the most complete set of surviving _ Nikāya _ scriptures, although the greater part of the Sarvāstivādin canon also survives in Chinese translation, some parts exist in Tibetan translations, and some fragments exist in Sanskrit manuscripts, while parts of various canons (sometimes unidentified), exist in Chinese and fragments in other Indian dialects.


Whatever might be the truth behind the Theravādin account, it was around the time of Aśoka that further divisions began to occur within the Buddhist movement and a number of additional schools emerged, including the Sarvāstivāda and the Saṃmitīya . All of these early schools of Nikāya Buddhism eventually came to be known collectively as "the eighteen schools" in later sources. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Theravāda, none of these early schools survived beyond the late medieval period by which time several were already long extinct, although a considerable amount of the canonical literature of some of these schools has survived, mainly in Chinese translation. Moreover, the origins of specifically Mahāyāna doctrines may be discerned in the teachings of some of these early schools, in particular in the Mahāsānghika and the Sarvāstivāda.

During and after the third council, elements of the Sthavira group called themselves Vibhajjavādins. One part of this group was transmitted to Sri Lanka and to certain areas of southern India, such as Vanavasi in the south-west and the Kañci region in the south-east. This group later ceased to refer to themselves specifically as "Vibhajjavādins", but reverted to calling themselves "Theriyas", after the earlier Theras (Sthaviras). Still later, at some point prior to the Dipavamsa (4th century), the Pali name Theravāda was adopted and has remained in use ever since for this group.

The Pudgalavādins were also known as Vatsiputrīyas after their putative founder. Later this group became known as the Sammitīya school after one of its subdivisions. It died out around the 9th or 10th century CE. Nevertheless, during most of the early medieval period, the Sammitīya school was numerically the largest Buddhist group in India, with more followers than all the other schools combined. The Sarvāstivādin school was most prominent in the north-west of India and provided some of the doctrines that would later be adopted by the Mahāyāna. Another group linked to Sarvāstivāda was the Sautrāntika school, which only recognized the authority of the sutras and rejected the abhidharma transmitted and taught by the Vaibhāṣika wing of Sarvāstivāda. Based on textual considerations, it has been suggested that the Sautrāntikas were actually adherents of Mūlasarvāstivāda. The relation between Sarvāstivāda and the Mūlasarvāstivāda , however, is unclear.

Etienne Lamotte divided the mainstream Buddhist schools into three main doctrinal types:

* The “personalists”, such as the Pudgalavādin Vātsīputrīyas and Saṃmittīyas * The “realists ”, namely the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda Ābhidharmikas * The “nominalists ”, for instance, the Mahāsāṃghika Prajñaptivādins, and possibly non- Abhidharma Sthaviravadins .

Between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, the terms "Mahāyāna" and "Hīnayāna" were first used in writing, in, for example, the _ Lotus Sutra _.


Although the various early schools of Buddhism are sometimes loosely classified as "Hīnayāna " in modern times, this is not necessarily accurate. According to Jan Nattier, Mahāyāna never referred to a separate sect of Buddhism (Skt. _nikāya_), but rather to the set of ideals and doctrines for bodhisattvas. Paul Williams has also noted that the Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate vinaya or ordination lineage from the early Buddhist schools, and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to an early school.

Membership in these _nikāyas_, or monastic sects, continues today with the Dharmaguptaka nikāya in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya in Tibetan Buddhism . Therefore, Mahāyāna was never a separate rival sect of the early schools. Paul Harrison clarifies that while Mahāyāna monastics belonged to a nikāya, not all members of a nikāya were Mahāyānists. From Chinese monks visiting India, we now know that both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna monks in India often lived in the same monasteries side by side. Additionally, Isabella Onians notes that Mahāyāna works rarely used the term _Hīnayāna_, typically using the term _Śrāvakayāna_ instead.

The Chinese Buddhist monk and pilgrim Yijing wrote about relationship between the various "vehicles" and the early Buddhist schools in India. He wrote, "There exist in the West numerous subdivisions of the schools which have different origins, but there are only four principal schools of continuous tradition." These schools are namely the Mahāsāṃghika nikāya, Sthavira, Mūlasarvāstivāda and Saṃmitīya nikāyas. Explaining their doctrinal affiliations, he then writes, "Which of the four schools should be grouped with the Mahāyāna or with the Hīnayāna is not determined." That is to say, there was no simple correspondence between a Buddhist monastic sect, and whether its members learn "Hīnayāna" or "Mahāyāna" teachings.


During the first millennium , monks from China such as Faxian , Xuanzang , and Yijing made pilgrimages to India and wrote accounts of their travels when they returned home. These Chinese travel records constitute extremely valuable sources of information concerning the state of Buddhism in India during the early medieval period.

By the time the Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yijing visited India, there were five early Buddhist schools that they mentioned far more frequently than others. They commented that the Sarvāstivāda/Mūlasarvāstivāda, Mahāsāṃghika, and Saṃmitīya were the principal early Buddhist schools still extant in India, along with the Sthavira sect. The Dharmaguptakas continued to be found in Gandhāra and Central Asia, along the Silk Road.


It is commonly said that there were eighteen schools of Buddhism in this period. What this actually means is more subtle. First, although the word "school" is used, there was not yet an institutional split in the _saṅgha_. The Chinese traveler Xuanzang observed even when the Mahāyāna were beginning to emerge from this era that monks of different schools would live side by side in dormitories and attend the same lectures. Only the books that they read were different. Secondly, no historical sources can agree what the names of these "eighteen schools" were. The origin of this saying is therefore unclear.

What follows are the lists given by each of the different sources.


This list was taken from the Sri Lankan chronicles, _ Dipavamsa _ (3rd-4th century CE) and _ Mahavamsa _ (5th century CE).

* Sthaviravāda /Vibhajjavāda / Theravāda

* Mahīśāsaka - First schism

* Sarvāstivāda - Third schism

* Kāśyapīya - Fourth schism

* Sankrantika - Fifth schism

* Sautrāntika - Sixth schism

* Dharmaguptaka - Third schism

* Vatsīputrīya - First schism

* Dharmottarīya - Second schism * Bhadrayānīya - Second schism * Sannāgarika - Second schism * Saṃmitīya - Second schism

* Mahāsāṃghika

* Gokulika - First schism

* Prajñaptivāda - Second schism * Bahuśrutīya - Second schism

* Ekavyahārikas - First schism * Caitika - Third schism, according to Dipavamsa, but in the Mahavamsa it is said to have arisen from the Pannati and Bahussutaka

In addition, the Dipavamsa lists the following six schools without identifying the schools from which they arose:

* Hemavatika (Sanskrit: Haimavata) * Rajagiriya * Siddhatthaka * Pubbaseliya * Aparaseliya (Sanskrit: Aparaśaila) * Apararajagirika


This list was taken from _Samayabhedo Paracana Cakra_, the author of which was Vasumitra (died 124 BCE), a Sarvāstivādin monk.

* Sthaviravāda

* Haimavata - First schism; referred to by Sarvāstivādins as "the original Sthavira School", but this school was only influential in the north of India.

* Sarvāstivāda - First schism

* Vatsīputrīya - Second schism

* Dharmottarīya - Third schism * Bhadrayānīya - Third schism * Saṃmitīya - Third schism * Sannāgarika - Third schism

* Mahīśāsaka - Fourth schism

* Dharmaguptaka - Fifth schism

* Kāśyapīya - Sixth schism * Sautrāntika - Seventh schism

* Mahāsāṃghika

* Ekavyahārikas - First schism * Lokottaravāda - First schism * Gokulika - First schism * Bahuśrutīya - Second schism * Prajñaptivāda - Third schism * Caitika - Fourth schism * Apara Śaila - Fourth schism * Uttara Śaila - Fourth schism


Vinitadeva (c. 645-715) was a Mūlasarvāstivādin monk.

* Sthaviravāda

* Jetavaniya * Abhayagirivasin * Mahaviharavasin

* Sammatiya

* Kaurukullaka * Avantaka * Vatsīputrīya

* Sarvastivadin

* Mūlasarvāstivādin * Kasyapiya * Mahisasaka * Dharmaguptaka * Bahuśrutīya * Tamrasatiya * Vibhajyavadin

* Mahāsāṃghika

* Purvasaila * Aparasaila * Haimavata * Lottaravadin * Prajñaptivāda


The _Śāriputraparipṛcchā _ is a Mahāsāṃghikan history.

* Sthaviravāda

* Sarvāstivāda

* Mahisasaka * Dharmaguptaka * Suvarsa

* Vatsīputrīya

* Dharmottarika * Bhadrayaniya * Sammatiya * Sannagarika

* Kāśyapīya * Sutravadin * Samkrantika

* Mahāsāṃghika

* Vyavahara * Lokottaravāda * Gokulika * Bahuśrutīya * Prajñaptivāda * Mahadeva * Caitika * Uttarashaila


Sthaviravāda (上座部) was split into 11 sects. These were: Sarvāstivādin (説一切有部), Haimavata (雪山部), Vatsīputrīya (犢子部), Dharmottara (法上部), Bhadrayānīya (賢冑部), Sammitīya (正量部), Channagirika (密林山部), Mahisasaka (化地部), Dharmaguptaka (法蔵部), Kāśyapīya (飲光部), Sautrāntika (経量部).

* Sthaviravāda , later Haimavata

* Sarvāstivādin

* Vatsīputrīya

* Dharmottara * Bhadrayānīya * Sammitīya * Channagirika

* Mahisasaka

* Dharmaguptaka

* Kāśyapīya * Sautrāntika

Mahāsāṃghika (大衆部) was split into 9 sects. There were: Ekavyahārika (一説部), Lokottaravādin (説出世部), Gokulika (鶏胤部), Bahuśrutīya (多聞部), Prajñaptivāda (説仮部), Caitika (制多山部), Aparaśaila (西山住部), and Uttaraśaila (北山住部).

* Mahāsāṃghika

* Ekavyahārika * Caitika * Lokottaravādin * Aparaśaila * Gokulika * Uttaraśaila * Bahuśrutīya * Prajñaptivāda


* Sthaviravāda

* Pudgalavāda ('Personalist') (c. 280 BCE)

* Vatsīputrīya (during Aśoka ) later name: Saṃmitīya * Dharmottarīya * Bhadrayānīya * Sannāgarika

* Vibhajjavāda (prior to 240 BCE; during Aśoka )

* Theravāda (c. 240 BCE) * ( Kāśyapīya (after 232 BCE))

* ( Mahīśāsaka (after 232 BCE))

* ( Dharmaguptaka (after 232 BCE))

* Sarvāstivāda (c. 237 BCE)

* ( Kāśyapīya (after 232 BCE))

* ( Mahīśāsaka (after 232 BCE))

* ( Dharmaguptaka (after 232 BCE))

* Sautrāntika (between 50 BCE and c. 100 CE) * Mūlasarvāstivāda (3rd and 4th centuries) * Vaibhāṣika

* Mahāsāṃghika

* Ekavyahārikas (during Aśoka )

* Lokottaravāda

* Gokulika (during Aśoka )

* Bahuśrutīya (late third century BCE) * Prajñaptivāda (late third century BCE)

* Caitika (mid-first century BCE)

* Apara Śaila * Uttara Śaila

Noted Canadian Buddhist scholar A.K. Warder (University of Toronto) identifies the following eighteen early Buddhist schools (in approximate chronological order): Sthaviravada , Mahasamgha, Vatsiputriya , Ekavyavaharika , Gokulika (a.k.a. Kukkutika , etc.), Sarvastivada , Lokottaravada , Dharmottariya, Bhadrayaniya, Sammitiya , Sannagarika, Bahusrutiya , Prajnaptivada , Mahisasaka , Haimavata (a.k.a. Kasyapiya ), Dharmaguptaka , Caitika , and the Apara and Uttara (Purva) Saila. Warder says that these were the early Buddhist schools as of circa 50 BCE, about the same time that the Pali Canon was first committed to writing and the presumptive origin date of the Theravada sect, though the term 'Theravada' was not used before the fourth century CE (see Ajahn Sucitto, "What Is Theravada" (2012); see also A.K. Warder, _Indian Buddhism,_ 3rd rev. ed. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000), chapters 8 and 9).


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The Theravāda School of Sri Lanka , Burma , and Thailand is descended from the Sthaviravādin and (more specifically) the Vibhajjavāda School. It underwent two more changes of name. In the Indian accounts it is sometimes called the "Tāmraparnīya" (translation: Sri Lankan lineage), but there is no indication that this referred to any change in doctrine or scripture, while it is very obvious that it refers to geographical location. At some point prior to the _Dipavamsa_ (4th century) the name was changed to "Theravāda", probably to reemphasize the relationship to the original "Sthaviravāda ", which is the Sanskrit version of the Pāli term "Theravāda".

The Theravāda school is the only remaining school which is exclusively aligned with the philosophic outlook of the early schools. However, significant variation is found between the various Theravādin communities, usually concerning the strictness of practice of _vinaya_ and the attitude one has towards _abhidhamma_. Both of these, however, are aspects of the Vibhajjavādin recension of the _Tipiṭaka_, and the variation between current Theravāda groups is mainly a reflection of accent or emphasis, not content of the _Tipiṭaka_ or the commentaries. The _Tipiṭaka_ of the Theravāda and the main body of its commentaries are believed to come from (or be heavily influenced by) the Sthaviravādins and especially the subsequent Vibhajjavādins .


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_India _

Early Sangha


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_ Tibetan Buddhism _







_East Asia _

Early Buddhist schools and Mahāyāna (via the silk road to China , and ocean contact from India to Vietnam )


Nara (Rokushū)



Thiền , Seon






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Silk Road Buddhism

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= Various / syncretic

The legacies of other early schools are preserved in various Mahāyāna traditions. All of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism use a Mūlasarvāstivāda _vinaya _ and study the Sarvāstivādin _abhidharma _, supplemented with Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts. Chinese schools use the _vinaya_ from the Dharmagupta school, and have versions of those of other schools also. Fragments of the canon of texts from these schools also survive such as the _Mahāvastu _ of the Mahāsānghika School.

Discussion on the difference in their views includes Kathāvatthu and the Chinese or Tibetan translation of Samayabhedoparacanacakra (異部宗輪論), Abhidharmamahāvibhāsā-śāstra (大毘婆沙論), Abhidharmakośa-śāstra (俱舍論)Abhidharma-nyāyānusāra(順正理論), Abhidharma-kośa-samaya-pradīpikā (顯宗論) etc.


* Atthakavagga and Parayanavagga * Buddhist Councils * History of Buddhism * Nikaya Buddhism * Rhinoceros Sutra * Schools of Buddhism * Timeline of Buddhism


* ^ _A_ _B_ _C_ _D_ _E_ _F_ According to Buswell and Lopez, the _Kāśyapīya_ and _Mahīśāsaka_ were offshoots of the Sarvastivadins, but are grouped under the _Vibhajjavāda_ as "non-sarvastivada" groups.


* ^ _Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories on Existence_. by Collett Cox. The Institute for Buddhist Studies. Tokyo: 1995. ISBN 4-906267-36-X pg 23 * ^ Hoiberg, Dale; Indu Ramchandani. "Early Buddhist schools" entry in _Students' Britannica India_, p. 264. Popular Prakashan, 2000. ISBN 0-85229-760-2 . * ^ Williams, _ Mahayana Buddhism_, Routledge, 1989, page 6 * ^ "Buddhist council." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008. * ^ Skilton, Andrew. _A Concise History of Buddhism._ 2004. p. 47 * ^ _Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism_ * ^ Shi huifeng: “Dependent Origination = Emptiness”—Nāgārjuna’s Innovation? * ^ Nattier, Jan (2003), _A few good men: the Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra_: p. 193-194 * ^ Williams, Paul (2008) _ Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations_: pp. 4-5 * ^ Guang Xing. _The Concept of the Buddha: Its Evolution from Early Buddhism to the Trikaya Theory._ 2004. p. 115 * ^ Williams, Paul (2000) _Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition_: p. 97 * ^ Isabelle Onians, "Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm," D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 72 * ^ Walser, Joseph (2005) _ Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture_: pp. 41 * ^ Walser, Joseph (2005) _ Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture_: pp. 41-42 * ^ _Encyclopedia of Buddhism_. edited by Edward Irons. Facts on File: 2008. ISBN 978-0-8160-5459-6 pg 419 * ^ Elizabeth Cook. _Light of Liberation: A History of Buddhism in India_. Dharma Publishing, 1992. p. 299 * ^ Buswell Lopez, Donald S. (2013), _The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism_, Princeton University Press


* Coogan, Michael D. (ed.) (2003). _The Illustrated Guide to World Religions_. Oxford University Press. ISBN 1-84483-125-6 . CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link ) * Dhammananda, K. Sri (1964). _What the Buddhist Believe_ (PDF). Buddhist Mission Society of Malaysia. ISBN 983-40071-1-6 . * Gethin, Rupert (1998). _Foundations of Buddhism_. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-289223-1 . * Gunaratana, Bhante Henepola (2002). _ Mindfulness in Plain English_. Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-321-4 . * Lowenstein, Tom (1996). _The vision of the Buddha_. Duncan Baird Publishers. ISBN 1-903296-91-9 . * Thich Nhat Hanh (1974), _The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching_, Broadway Books ISBN 0-7679-0369-2 . * Thurman, Robert A. F. (translator) (1976). _Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: Mahayana Scripture_. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-00601-3 . * Walpola Rahula (1974), _What the Buddha Taught_, Grove Press ISBN 0-8021-3031-3 . * Yamamoto, Kosho (translation), revised and edited by Dr. Tony Page. _The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra _. ( Nirvana Publications 1999-2000). CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link ) * Yin Shun , Yeung H. Wing (translator) (1998), _The Way to Buddhahood: Instructions from a Modern Chinese Master_, Wisdom Publications ISBN 0-86171-133-5 .


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