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An Historical Sketch

Part 1

The first period in the history of Buddhism extends from the death of the founder to the death of Asoka, that is to about 232 B.C. It had then not only become a great Indian religion but had begun to send forth missionaries to foreign countries. But this growth had not yet brought about the internal changes which are inevitable when a creed expands far beyond the boundaries within which it was a natural expression of local thought.

An intellectual movement and growth is visible within the limits of the Pali Canon and is confirmed by what we hear of the existence of sects or schools, but it does not appear that in the time of Asoka the workings of speculation had led to any point of view materially different from that of Gotama.

Our knowledge of general Indian history before the reign of Asoka is scanty and the data which can be regarded as facts for Buddhist ecclesiastical history are scantier still. We hear of two (or including the Mahâsangîti three) meetings sometimes called Councils; scriptures, obviously containing various strata, were compiled, and eighteen sects or schools had time to arise and some of them to decay. Much doubt has been cast upon the councils[1] but to my mind this suspicion is unmerited, provided that too ecclesiastical a meaning is not given to the word.

We must not suppose that the meetings held at Râjagaha and Vesâlî were similar to the Council of Nicaea or that they produced the works edited by the Pali Text Society. Such terms as canon, dogma and council, though indispensable, are misleading at this period. We want less formal equivalents for the same ideas. A number of men who were strangers to those conceptions of a hierarchy and a Bible[2] which are so familiar to us met together to fix and record the opinions and injunctions of the Master or to remove misapprehensions and abuses.

It would be better if we could avoid using even the word Buddhist at this period, for it implies a difference sharper than the divisions existing between the followers of Gotama and others. They were in the position of the followers of Christ before they received at Antioch the name of Christians and the meeting at Râjagaha was analogous to the conferences recorded in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

The record of this meeting and of the subsequent meeting at Vesâlî is contained in Chapters XI. and XII. of the Cullavagga, which must therefore be later than the second meeting and perhaps considerably later. Other accounts are found in the Dîpavaṃsa, Mahâ-Bodhi-Vaṃsa and Buddhaghosa's commentaries.

The version given in the Cullavagga is abrupt and does not entirely agree with other narratives of what followed on the death of the Buddha[3]. It seems to be a combination of two documents, for it opens as a narrative by Kassapa, but it soon turns into a narrative about him. But the clumsiness in compilation and the errors of detail are hardly sufficient to discredit an event which is probable in itself and left an impression on tradition. The Buddha combined great personal authority with equally great liberality.

While he was alive he decided all questions of dogma and discipline himself, but he left to the Order authority to abolish all the minor precepts. It seems inevitable that some sort of meeting should have been held to consider the position created by this wide permission. Brief and confused as the story in the Cullavagga is, there is nothing improbable in its outline—namely that a resolution was taken at Kusinârâ where he died to hold a synod during the next rains at Râjagaha, a more central place where alms and lodgings were plentiful, and there come to an agreement as to what should be accepted as the true doctrine and discipline.

Accordingly five hundred monks met near this town and enquired into the authenticity of the various rules and suttas. They then went on to ask what the Buddha had meant by the lesser and minor precepts which might be abolished. Ânanda (who came in for a good deal of blame in the course of the proceedings) confessed that he had forgotten to ask the Master for an explanation and divergent opinions were expressed as to the extent of the discretion allowed.

Kassapa finally proposed that the Sangha should adopt without alteration or addition the rules made by the Buddha. This was approved and the Dhamma and Vinaya as chanted by the assembled Bhikkhus were accepted. The Abhidhamma is not mentioned. The name usually given to these councils is Sangîti, which means singing or chanting together. An elder is said to have recited the text sentence by sentence and each phrase was intoned after him by the assembly as a sign of acceptance.

Upâli was the principal authority for the Vinaya and Ânanda for the Dhamma but the limits of the authority claimed by the meeting are illustrated by an anecdote[4] which relates that after the chanting of the law had been completed Pûraṇa and his disciples arrived from the Southern Hills. The elders asked him to accept the version rehearsed by them.

He replied,

"The Dhamma and Vinaya have been well sung by the Theras, nevertheless as they have been received and heard by me from the mouth of the Lord, so will I hold them."

In other words the council has put together a very good account of the Buddha's teaching but has no claim to impose it on those who have personal reminiscences of their own.

This want of a central authority, though less complete than in Brahmanism, marks the early life of the Buddhist community. We read in later works[5] of a succession of Elders who are sometimes called Patriarchs[6] but it would be erroneous to think of them as possessing episcopal authority. They were at most the chief teachers of the order. From the death of the Buddha to Asoka only five names are mentioned.

But five names can fill the interval only if their bearers were unusually long-lived. It is therefore probable that the list merely contains the names of prominent Theras who exercised little authority in virtue of any office, though their personal qualities assured them respect. Upâli, who comes first, is called chief of the Vinaya but, so far as there was one head of the order, it seems to have been Kassapa.

He is the Brahman ascetic of Uruvelâ whose conversion is recorded in the first book of the Mahâvagga and is said to have exchanged robes with the Buddha[7]. He observed the Dhutângas and we may conjecture that his influence tended to promote asceticism. Dasaka and Sonaka are also designated as chiefs of the Vinaya and there was perhaps a distinction between those who studied (to use modern phrases) ecclesiastical law and dogmatic theology.

The accounts[8] of the second Council are as abrupt as those of the first and do not connect it with previous events. The circumstances said to have led to its meeting are, however, probable. According to the Cullavagga, a hundred years after the death of the Buddha certain Bhikkhus of Vajjian lineage resident at Vesâlî upheld ten theses involving relaxations of the older discipline. The most important of these was that monks were permitted to receive gold and silver, but all of them, trivial as they may seem, had a dangerous bearing for they encouraged not only luxury but the formation of independent schools.

For instance they allowed pupils to cite the practice of their preceptors as a justification for their conduct and authorized monks resident in one parish to hold Uposatha in separate companies and not as one united body. The story of the condemnation of these new doctrines contains miraculous incidents but seems to have a historical basis. It relates how a monk called Yasa, when a guest of the monks of Vesâlî, quarrelled with them because they accepted money from the laity and, departing thence, sought for support among the Theras or elders of the south and west.

The result was a conference at Vesâlî in which the principal figures are Revata and Sabbakâmi, a pupil of Ânanda, expressly said to have been ordained one hundred and twenty years earlier[9]. The ten theses were referred to a committee, which rejected them all, and this rejection was confirmed by the whole Sangha, who proceeded to rehearse the Vinaya. We are not however told that they revised the Sutta or Abhidhamma.

Here ends the account of the Cullavagga but the Dîpavaṃsa adds that the wicked Vajjian monks, to whom it ascribes wrong doctrines as well as errors in discipline, collected a strong faction and held a schismatic council called the Mahâsangîti. This meeting recited or compiled a new version of the Dhamma and Vinaya[10]. It is not easy to establish any facts about the origin and tenets of this Mahâsangîtika or Mahâsanghika sect, though it seems to have been important.

The Chinese pilgrims Fa Hsien and Hsüan Chuang, writing on the basis of information obtained in the fifth and seventh centuries of our era, represent it as arising in connection with the first council, which was either that of Râjagaha or some earlier meeting supposed to have been held during the Buddha's lifetime, and Hsüan Chuang[11] intimates that it was formed of laymen as well as monks and that it accepted additional matter including dhâraṇîs or spells rejected by the monkish council.

Its name (admitted by its opponents) seems to imply that it represented at one time the opinions of the majority or at least a great number of the faithful. But it was not the sect which flourished in Ceylon and the writer of the Dîpavaṃsa is prejudiced against it. It may be a result of this animus that he connects it with the discreditable Vajjian schism and the Chinese tradition may be more correct. On the other hand the adherents of the school would naturally be disposed to assign it an early origin.

Fa Hsien says[12] that the Vinaya of the Mahâsanghikas was considered

"the most complete with the fullest explanations."

A translation of this text is contained in the Chinese Tripitaka[13].

Early Indian Buddhism is said to have been divided into eighteen sects or schools, which have long ceased to exist and must not be confounded with any existing denominations. Fa Hsien observes that they agree in essentials and differ only in details and this seems to have been true not only when he wrote (about 420 A.D.) but throughout their history. In different epochs and countries Buddhism presents a series of surprising metamorphoses, but the divergences between the sects existing in India at any given time are less profound in character and less violent in expression than the divisions of Christianity.

Similarly the so-called sects[14] in modern China, Burma and Siam are better described as schools, in some ways analogous to such parties as the High and Low Church in England. On the other hand some of the eighteen schools exceeded the variations permitted in Christianity and Islam by having different collections of the scriptures. But at the time of which we are treating these collections had not been reduced to writing: they were of considerable extent compared with the Bible or Koran and they admitted later explanatory matter.

The record of the Buddha's words did not profess to be a miraculous revelation but merely a recollection of what had been said. It is therefore natural that each school should maintain that the memory of its own scholars had transmitted the most accurate and complete account and that tradition should represent the successive councils as chiefly occupied in reciting and sifting these accounts.

It is generally agreed that the eighteen[15] schools were in existence during or shortly before the reign of Asoka, and that six others[16] arose about the same period, but subsequently to them. The best materials for a study of their opinions are afforded by the text and commentary[17] of the Kathâ-vatthu, a treatise attributed to Tissa Moggaliputta, who is said to have been President of the Third Council held under Asoka. It is an examination and refutation of heretical views rather than a description of the bodies that held them but we can judge from it what was the religious atmosphere at the time and the commentary gives some information about various sects.

Many centuries later I-ching tells us that during his visit to India (671-695 A.D.) the principal schools were four in number, with eighteen subdivisions.

These four[18] are

  1. the Mahâsanghika,
  2. the Sthavira (equivalent to the old Theravâda),
  3. the Mûlasarvâstivâda and
  4. the Sammitiya,

and from the time of Asoka onwards they throw the remaining divisions into the shade[19].

He adds that it is not determined which of the four should be grouped with the Mâhâyana and which with the Hînayâna, that distinction being probably later in origin. The differences between the eighteen schools in I-ching's time were not vital but concerned the composition of the canon and details of discipline. It was a creditable thing to be versed in the scriptures of them all[20].

It is curious that though the Kathâvatthu pays more attention to the opinions of the six new sects than to those held by most of the eighteen, yet this latter number continued to be quoted nearly a thousand years later, whereas the additional six seem forgotten. It may be that they were more unorthodox than the others and hence required fuller criticism. Five of their names are geographical designations, but we hear no more of them after the age of Asoka.

The religious horizon of the heretics confuted in the Kâthavatthu does not differ materially from that of the Pitakas. There are many questions about arhatship, its nature, the method of obtaining it and the possibility of losing it. Also we find registered divergent views respecting the nature of knowledge and sensation.

Of these the most important is the doctrine attributed to the Sammitiyas, that a soul exists in the highest and truest sense. They are also credited with holding that an arhat can fall from arhatship, that a god can enter the paths or the Order, and that even an unconverted man can get rid of all lust and ill-will[21]. This collection of beliefs is possibly explicable as a result of the view that the condition of the soul, which is continuous from birth to birth, is stronger for good or evil than its surroundings.

The germs of the Mahâyâna may be detected in the opinions of some sects on the nature of the Buddha and the career of a Bodhisattva. Thus the Andhakas thought that the Buddha was superhuman in the ordinary affairs of life and the Vetulyakas[22] held that he was not really born in the world of men but sent a phantom to represent him, remaining himself in the Tusita heaven.

The doctrines attributed to the Uttarâpathakas and Andhakas respectively that an unconverted man, if good, is capable of entering on the career of a Bodhisattva and that a Bodhisattva can in the course of his career fall into error and be reborn in state of woe, show an interest in the development of a Bodhisattva and a desire to bring it nearer to human life which are foreign to the Pitakas.

An inclination to think of other states of existence in a manner half mythological half metaphysical is indicated by other heresies, such as that there is an intermediate realm where beings await rebirth, that the dead benefit by gifts given in the world[23], that there are animals in heaven, that the Four Truths, the Chain of Causation, and the Eightfold Path, are self-existent (asankhata).

The point of view of the Kathâ-vatthu, and indeed of the whole Pali Tripitaka, is that of the Vibhajjavâdins, which seems to mean those who proceed by analysis and do not make vague generalizations. This was the school to which Tissa Moggaliputta belonged and was identical with the Theravâda (teaching of the elders) or a section of it.

The prominence of this sect in the history of Buddhism has caused its own view, namely that it represents primitive Buddhism, to be widely accepted. And this view deserves respect for it rests on a solid historical basis, namely that about two and a half centuries after the Buddha's death and in the country where he preached, the Vibhajjavâdins claimed to get back to his real teaching by an examination of the existing traditions[24].

This is a very early starting-point. But the Sarvâstivâdins[25] were also an early school which attained to widespread influence and had a similar desire to preserve the simple and comparatively human presentment of the Buddha's teaching as opposed to later embellishments. Only three questions in the Kathâ-vatthu are directed against them but this probably means not that they were unimportant but that they did not differ much from the Vibhajjavâdins.

The special views attributed to them are that everything really exists, that an arhat can fall from arhatship, and that continuity of thought constitutes Samâdhi or meditation. These theses may perhaps be interpreted as indicative of an aversion to metaphysics and the supernatural. A saint has not undergone any supernatural transformation but has merely reached a level from which he can fall: meditation is simply fixity of attention, not a mystic trance.

In virtue of the first doctrine European writers often speak of the Sarvâstivâdins as realists but their peculiar view concerned not so much the question of objective reality as the difference between being and becoming. They said that the world is whereas other schools maintained that it was a continual process of becoming[26]. It is not necessary at present to follow further the history of this important school. It had a long career and flourished in Kashmir and Central Asia.

Confused as are the notices of these ancient sects, we see with some clearness that in opposition to the Theravâda there was another body alluded to in terms which, though hostile, still imply an admission of size and learning, such as Mahâsanghika or Mahâsangîtika, the people of the great assembly, and Âcâryavâda or the doctrine of the Teachers.

It appears to have originated in connection with some council and to embody a popular protest against the severity of the doctrine there laid down. This is natural, for it is pretty obvious that many found the argumentative psychology of the Theravâdins arid and wearisome. The Dîpavamsa accuses the Mahâsanghikas of garbling the canon but the Chinese pilgrims testify that in later times their books were regarded as specially complete.

One well-known work, the Mahâvastu, perhaps composed in the first century B.C., describes itself as belonging to the Lokuttara branch of the Mahâsanghikas. The Mahâsanghikas probably represent the elements which developed into the Mahâyâna. It is not possible to formulate their views precisely but, whereas the Theravâda was essentially teaching for the Bhikkhu, they represented those concessions to popular taste from which Buddhism has never been quite dissociated even in its earliest period.

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- Footnotes:


Especially in R.O. Franke's article in the J.P.T.S. 1908. To demonstrate the "literary dependence" of chapters XI., XII. of the Cullavagga does not seem to me equivalent to demonstrating that the narratives contained in those chapters are "air-bubbles."


The mantras of the Brahmans were hardly a sacred book analogous to the Bible or Koran and, besides, the early Buddhists would not have wished to imitate them.


E.g. Dig. Nik. XVI.


Cullav. XI. i. 11.


Especially in Chinese works.


Upâli, Dasaka, Sonaka, Siggava (with whom the name of Candravajji is sometimes coupled) and Tissa Moggaliputta. This is the list given in the Dîpavaṃsa.


Sam. Nik. XVI. 11. The whole section is called Kassapa Saṃyutta.


They are to be found chiefly in Cullavagga, XII., Dîpavaṃsa, IV. and V. and Mahâvaṃsa, IV.


The Dîpavaṃsa adds that all the principal monks present had seen the Buddha. They must therefore all have been considerably over a hundred years old so that the chronology is open to grave doubt. It would be easier if we could suppose the meeting was held a hundred years after the enlightenment.


They are said to have rejected the Parivâra, the Paṭisambhidâ, the Niddesa and parts of the Jâtaka. These are all later parts of the Canon and if the word rejection were taken literally it would imply that the Mahâsangîti was late too. But perhaps all that is meant is that the books were not found in their Canon. Chinese sources (e.g. Fa Hsien, tr. Legge, p. 99) state that they had an Abhidhamma of their own.


Buddhist Records of the Western World, vol. II. pp. 164-5; Watters, Yüan Chwang, pp. 159-161.


Cap. XXXVI. Legge, p. 98.


See I-tsing's Records of the Buddhist Religion, trans. by Takakusu, p. XX. and Nanjio's Catalogue of the Buddhist Tripitaka, nos. 1199, 1105 and 1159.


An exception ought perhaps to be made for the Japanese sects.


The names are not quite the same in the various lists and it seems useless to discuss them in detail. See Dîpavaṃsa, V. 39-48, Mahâvaṃsa, V. ad in., Rhys Davids, J.R.A.S. 1891, p. 411, Rockhill, Life of the Buddha, chap, VI., Geiger, Trans. of Mahâvaṃsa, App. B.


The Hemavatikas, Râjagirikas, Siddhattas, Pubbaselikas, Aparaselikas and Apararâjagirikas.


Published in the J.P.T.S. 1889. Trans, by S.Z. Aung and Mrs Rhys Davids, 1915. The text mentions doctrines only. The names of the sects supposed to hold them are supplied by the commentary.


They must not be confused with the four philosophic schools Vaibhâshika, Sautrântika, Yogâcâra and Mâdhyamika. These came into existence later.


But the Vetulyakas were important in Ceylon.


See Paramârtha's Life of Vasabandhu, Toung Pao, 1904, p. 290.


See Rhys Davids in J.R.A.S. 1892, pp. 8-9. The name is variously spelt. The P.T.S. print Sammitiya, but the Sanskrit text of the Madhyamakavritti (in Bibl. Buddh.) has Sâmmitîya. Sanskrit dictionaries give Sammatîya. The Abhidharma section of the Chinese Tripitaka (Nanjio, 1272) contains a śâstra belonging to this school. Nanjio, 1139 is apparently their Vinaya.


Kern (Versl. en Med. der K. Akad. van Wetenschappen Letterk. 4. R.D. VIII. 1907, pp. 312-319, cf. J.R.A.S. 1907, p. 432) suggested on the authority of Kashgarian MSS. that the expression Vailpulya sûtra is a misreading for Vaitulya sûtra, a sûtra of the Vetulyakas. Ânanda was sometimes identified with the phantom who represented the Buddha.


It is remarkable that this view, though condemned by the Kathâ-vatthu, is countenanced by the Khuddaka-pâṭha.


The Kathâ-vatthu constantly cites the Nikâyas.


Pali Sabbatthivâdins.


Cf. the doctrine of the Sânkhya. For more about the Sarvâstivâdins see below, Book IV. chap. XXII.

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