Derivation and Early Schools

Right from its beginning, Buddhism saw a lot of diversity among those who called claimed the name of "Buddhists." It is said (e.g. by Dasgupta) that there existed probably about eighteen, perhaps as many as twenty, different schools of Buddhism during the first few centuries after the Buddha passed on. One has to use such qualified language because it is pretty much impossible to make an inventory of all of them. There are a number of reasons for the imprecision:

Model of Buddhist congregation
  1. It is clear that most of these schools no longer exist.
  2. Most scholars believe that the only early school that has remained intact significantly is the one that was called "Sthaviravada" at the time, and which we now call "Theravada." 
  3. Some of the early schools may have merged with one or more others and eventually become a part of the Mahayana movement.
  4. We may simply not have the names of some schools, and whether one school went by two different names.
  5. We may not know what the members of some schools believed.
  6. In the light of the previous two points, it is difficult to ascertain to what extent there may have been some schools with different names and virtually similar beliefs, or whether a school became known by a different name later on in its existence while maintaining its original teachings.
  7. It is also possible that the members of a school changed their beliefs over time. If the vast majority of the membership was a part of that development, then we could be confronted with an asymmetry between the school's name and its beliefs again. If only a portion of the membership changed their beliefs, two different points of view may have been expressed in the name of the same school for a time, after which it may have split, creating further questions for us try to recognize the connections between the names and the teachings.

I should think that you get the picture; you should be aware that, when encyclopedias speak dogmatically about these schools, they may be as likely to advance a theory as a historically verified fact. It is not that we have no information, and that any kind of reconstruction is impossible. But it is the case that we don't have enough information to reconstruct the entire early history with assurance.

As far as we can tell, for the lack of a better term, the "main stream" of the earliest Buddhism formed itself in the following way.

Obviously, the original source of Buddhist teachings was Sakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama) himself.

During Sakyamuni's lifetime, one of his disciples, named Sariputra, systematized the Buddha's concepts and created a coherent scheme in order to aid his own understanding and in order to help some of the other disciples to come to a consistent understanding of what the Buddha taught. So, other people understood Sakhyamuni's teachings the way that Sariputra understood them. Sariputra died before Sakyamuni.

The Buddha had a personal attendant, by name of Ananda, who was a highly intelligent and rational person. In fact, his hyper-rationality stood in the way of his finding enlightenment until after Sakhyamuni died. He finally attained the goal, thanks to Mahakasyapa, another one of the Buddha's favorite disciples, and supposedly the first patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism.

When Sakyamuni died, the Buddha's disciples gathered under Mahakasyapa's leadership. He organized the first Buddhist council, whose main purpose was to start collecting the Buddha's teachings in writing. The best asset for that effort was Ananda, who had a highly accurate memory, and had finally attained enlightenment on the night before the council. His repetition of the Buddha's various sutras begin with his saying, "This is what I heard."
From there, Buddhists dispersed into different parts of India, forming associations along the way, and--sometimes--comcomittantly finding themselves agreeing on matters that would be at odds with the thoughts of those who were in attendance at the First Council. However, the differences would not become a clear issue until the Second Council, when they discovered how deeply some of the differences were running.

Let us remind ourselves as we move on that "Hinayana" is not a synonym for Theravada, but is a collective term to refer to the early Buddhist schools prior to "Mahayana."





PAGE 1: Introduction

PAGE 2: Derivation and Early Schools
PAGE 3: Contrast to the Mahasanghikas
PAGE 4: Patronage of King Ashoka
PAGE 5: Contrast to the Sarvastivadins
PAGE 6: Contrast to the Pudgalavadins
PAGE 7: Theravada Basics
PAGE 8: Life of Bikhus
PAGE 9: Life of the Laity
PAGE 10: The Laity and the Temple
PAGE 11: Theravada Beliefs
PAGE 12: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 13: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 14: A Brief Christian Response