Contrast to the Sarvastivadin Schools

. . . unless, of course, it had already been considered, or if it would not be considered until some time in the future. Scholarship is highly uncertain about 1) when the Sarvastivadin school arose, 2) when it became apparent that their philosophy was different from that of the Sthaviravadins (Theravadins) 3) when the two groups officially split, and 4) when they split geographically. At some time, most likely still in the B.C. era, the  Sarvastivadins  trekked to North-East India, all the way up to Kashmir, to establish themselves there. Their historical attestations go back to approximately 200 B.C., which is subsequent to the Third Council, but we don't know which phase in the life of a Buddhist school they had attained by that particular point in time. Thus, to return to the thoughts on the previous page, it is likely that they were a serious object of discussion during the Third Council, convened by Ashoka. 

Let's face it, if this material is brand new to you, you may find yourself getting pretty confused with terminology, particularly in keeping the 

Sarvastivadins     and the     Sthaviravadins 

separated in your mind. 


Place in this Discussion


Alternate Names

Later Forms and Offshoots

Eventual Fate



"Tradition of the Elders"

Vibhajjavada ("Doctrine of Analysis"


Still exists.


Offshoot, topic of this page

"Everything exists."

Vaibashika, from  Mahavibasa Shastra, "Textbook of Explanation"


Disappeared, assimilated into Mahayana

On this page--and this page only--I shall present the two names, and the names of schools directly associated with them (viz. their successors or branches), with different colors so that you can keep them apart.)

Sthaviravada . . . . . . . . . . . .Sarvastivada

But you won't find such a crutch in too many places, so, if you're serious about studying Buddhism, you do need to learn them. Maybe you can think of some other mnemonic device:  Try

ST comes alphabetically before SV.
ST is earlier than SV.
SThaviravada is earlier than SarVastivada.


There were practical differences once again. Unlike the Mahasanghikas, the Sarvastivadins did have a "third basket," the Abidhamma Pitaka, filled to the brim with rules and explanations of the rules. It appears that they were stricter in their monasticism than the Mahasanghikas. They also shared some of the ideas of the  Mahasanghikas (or the  Mahasanghikas shared some of theirs), including the notion that an arhat (a "holy man," viz. a bikkhu who had attained enlightenments) is fallible. Assuming that the later Mahayana philosophy grew out of the roots of the early Hinayana schools, it is reasonable to infer that Sarvastivadin philosophy contributed to Mahayana thought just as much as Mahasanghika did. In particular, the philosophical branch called "Yogacara" (as opposed to "Madhyamaka") could be considered to be an extension of parts of Sarvastivadin philosophy.

The name "Sarvastivadin" consists of three Sanskrit words brought together:

  • sarva--which means "everything,"
  • asti--a form of "to be" or "exist," and
  • vada--which comes from "to speak" or "say." Thus, the Sarvastivadins were those who "say that everything exists."

    So, the Sarvastivadins believed in the existence of everything. Does that sound un-Buddhist to you? Aren't Buddhists supposed to believe that nothing exists? Well, we need to make some serious qualifications of what this idea that "everything exists" actually means.

    1. First of all, not all Buddhists say that nothing exists or is real. The Sthaviravadins (Theravadins) believed in anatman, the unreality of a substantial personal self, but not in the total non-existence of the world. The full-blown notion of Sunyata, the Emptiness, or Void, is actually a Mahayana idea. In Theravada, the crucial point is the impermanence of things, as we shall explain further below in the course of depicting this contrast.
    2. The Sthaviravadins believe that anything that exists does so only for the briefest of moments, just long enough for one to be able to say that it has existed. This is impermanence taken as far as one can take it. And, in fact, Sarvastivadins,  though having a slightly different explanation actually do not provide you with any more stability in understanding the external world.
    3. The idea that "everything exists" is not only collective of all "things" in the universe, it also stretches across time. "Everything exists eternally, or all at once" would convey the message more accurately, perhaps.
      • As is the case in other religions, with their vocabulary, a lot of times a word does double-duty, and for the adherent, the context clarifies the matter, but the learner from the outside may get confused.  Here, for example, we need to use the word dharma to refer to each of the individual moments of experience as they present themselves to us, but I think that this setting is unique enough to alleviate any fear of mixing it up with dharma, as the "rules" or the "way to enlightenment."
      • Dependent Origination
      • The Sthaviravadin view is that in the everlasting web of "dependent origination," one dharma causes the next one, which, in turn, causes the subsequent one, and so forth, with no single "First Dharma" or "First Cause" for the entire chain, nor any end in sight. And, of course, even though I have pictured it as a chain, it is actually a web, with many simultaneous interactions coming and going. This conviction that everything is caused by something else, but that everything temporary is, of course, the reason behind the first and second of the Four Noble Truths, namely that attaching yourself to anything in the material world (tanha, trisha) causes pain or suffering (dukha).
      • Now, the Sarvastivadin view does not provide any more permanence; it just explains the impermanence differently. According to their philosophy, all of the dharmas exist all at once, (encompassing all those that one might classify as past, present, or future). Still, they certainly do not present themselves to the mind all at once. The mind "admits" (see below) the dharmas as they appear, but their actual appearance is just as brief and momentary as in the Sthaviravadin view. Thus, the effect is the same. The question in regard to attachment is whether you are attaching yourself to dharmas-that-are-about-to-vanish or to dharmas-that-are-about-to-vanish-from-your-experience. Either way, you are grasping at something that is about to be nothing.
    4. At this point, we need to acknowledge a paradox in the Sarvastivadin view. If a dharma exists in your consciousness for a moment, only to perish into nothing, it would appear that we have to choose between one or the other conclusion: either it is false that everything exists, or "nothing" must have some form of existence as well. Sarvastivadin philosophy chooses the second option. It also ascribes real existence to such phenomena as "absence," "cessation," or "non-existence." So, I can actually say that the absence of the first dharma has existence, just as everything else does. "Nothing exists" is a highly paradoxical, but not just metaphorical, statement refering to an existent dharma, whose nature is the absence of the dharma. 
    5. Now, in  Theravada, which accepts a far more linear view of time and causes with their effects, in any given time era of history, there can be only a single main Buddha. However, we see that for Sarvastivada,  there are no absolute time restriction, since everything exists all at once, though not necessarily in our consciousness. Thus, all of the Buddhas of all of their eras also already exists, and so we must recognize, even at this point in time, the simultaneous existence of all Buddhas and bodhisattvas. But if these Buddhas exist eternally, rather than sequentially, they cannot just be human beings; they must have some intrinsically divine attributes. So, they cannot just be more human beings who have attained perfection, but they must be different from us; they must be some sort of divine being. This notion would be developed further over the centuries and is one aspect that, along with Mahasanghyka, had the long-range consequence in establishing the large collectives of Buddhas in Mahayana. 

      Dependent Origination 

      Dependent origination in Sautrantika Sarvastivada. There is only the present moment with whatever dharma the mind projects and then treats as object.

    6. I used the expression "the mind admits certain dharmas" several times above. In the process of filling out the meaning of this term, we encounter a division within the Sarvastivada school, which probably occurred pretty early within its existence. (In fact, remember that there were eighteen or so early schools of Hinayana Buddhism, so there were more divisions than the ones I'm describing, but we are limiting our reconstructions here to those that may have affected later developments.) The majority of the Sarvastivadins was called the Vaibashikas, named after a text called the Mahavibasa Shastra, roughly translated as "the textbook of explanation." My description of Sarvastivada above essentially applies to the Vaibashikas. In reference to them, when I say that the "mind admits" the dharmas, they are thinking of an encounter between the existent dharmas on the one hand, and the mind on the other.
    7. The other group to emerge out of the Sarvastivadins are the Sautrantikas, whose name is intended to express the notion that they rely on the Sutras alone, and not on any Abhidarma. In fact, their teaching differs from that of the Vaibashikas in many respects; the main thing that they appear to have in common with them is to ascribe to the human mind a more active role in experiencing the dharmas than Sthaviravada does. The Sautrantikas disagreed with the Vaibashikas on the nature of time and the existence of things. Fearing that the Vaibashika notion of the simultaneous existence of everything--past, present, and future--does not do justice to the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of the impermanence of everything, they restricted the time span of the existence of anything to the present moment. There is nothing but an immediate present.
    8. By the way, this is an interesting philosophical question, which is not limited to Buddhism, though the answers will vary drastically. The present exists; sure enough. Most people would agree on that much, though clever people no doubt could find some self-referential conundrums, even in this plain statement. Does the past exist? That question gets more difficult. If we are inclined to answer "yes," we need to qualify that the past exists as the past, and then we would have to be able to explain what "existence as the past" means, but that can be done. The really tricky question is whether the future exists. Can we say that future events already have reality, though only as future occurrences. The Vaibashikas did, but probably more as an assumption than as a conclusion to an argument. I will show my hand here: It seems to me that the only way in which we can argue that the future already exists, even though it has not happened yet, is if it is already foreknown by an omniscient being. The Vaibashikas obviously would not share my opinion.

    9. Since the explanation of human experience as the encounter between a mind and the various dharmas presupposes the existence and duration of the dharmas, the Sautrantikas for whom neither past existence nor duration was viable, could not follow the Vaibashikas with it. Instead, the Sautrantikin position was that there are no dharmas to be encountered "out there," that they are all actually phases of consciousness produced by the mind on its own. Or, to put it another way, the experiences that we have of the external world, are really perceptions within our minds.

    Even though the Sautrantika school in its early "Hinayana" phase, was apparently not very large or widely accepted, when Vasubandhu, one of the early Mahayana philosophers, compiled his system, the Yogacara school, it was to a great extent an elaboration of the Sautrantika version of Sarvastivada.

      The Sarvastivada school no longer exists, most likely because its teachings became slowly integrated into the great melting pot of Mahayana philosophy. It persisted in India as long as other schools of Buddhism, but when Buddhism dried up in India, there was no place for it to go where its teachings had not been aborbed and expanded within Mahayana thought. In other words--and this is true for most of the Hinayana groups--they could not establish their own identify outside of India in competition with Mahayana Buddhism. Still, together with Mahasanghika, Sarvastivada had a great amount of historical influence.

      And then there was one. As we said at the outset of this story, Theravada turned out to be the only one of the early schools, the so-called Hinayana schools, to persevere. --- Or was there?  Actually, not for a while yet. There was another large school of Buddhism, contemporary to Hinayana and Mahayana, which is frequently left out of the story. So, in order to do justice to Theravada's beginnings and persistence, we need to look at the Vatsiputriya school and its off-shoot, the Sammitiya school, first.




      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