Difference between Theravada and Early Buddhism

Hi all,

I’ve been seeking answers to two questions:

  1. How is Early Buddhism different from Theravada? Is it just a question of discarding parts of the Canon that are considered later additions? Or is it a question of discarding parts that are inconsistent with the core doctrines? What role do the Agamas play in all this?

  2. In your personal practice, do you view all parts of the Canon as automatically valid for practice and internalization? Or do you believe you can “throw out” elements that are inconsistent with your observations and fruits of reason (even suttas)?


Hello there :wave:t5:

Others can and probably will give a much more detailed response, but my understanding of the main difference is that Theravada is a school of Buddhism, whereas Early Buddhism denotes a time period of Buddhism closest to the Buddha’s life—usually meant to signal the time before sectarian division. It’s a time period that has to be mostly reconstructed by studying and analyzing the earliest Buddhist texts. (These texts are often the Pali Canon and the Chinese Agamas, but the difficulty is that their current versions are already sectarian.) Bhante Sujato’s Sects & Sectarianism is pretty useful for some more investigation.

When people speak of Early Buddhist practice, it usually means practice based on an understanding of the earliest texts, judging later teachings or interpretations against the standard set in the suttas.

  1. As a school, Theravada has its own textual interpretations, rituals, norms, values, etc. that have developed over many years. It’s often considered a conservative branch of Buddhism. Traditionally, this means adherence to the Pali Canon and its commentaries (but you’ll find a diverse array of sub-schools within Theravada as well) and a certain desire to “follow the ways of the elders,” so to speak. Because of that, you’ll see some overlap with Early Buddhist philosophies and Theravada sensibilities and practice.

  2. My understanding is that the Buddha advised against an automatic acceptance or ejection of anything, as is often quoted from the “Kalama Sutta.” Our vision can often be clouded, which makes our observations and so-called reasoning cloudy as well. Instead, I approach the teachings with an open mind, initially not accepting or rejecting, but seeing what effect a certain course of action has on me and others. I talk it over with others. See what others have to say. It also helps to know not every teaching is appropriate for a particular person in a particular time and place.

  1. I’d recommend the entry in the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism (EOB) for an introduction to Theravāda. Compared to Theravāda, Early Buddhism is younger and smaller. It doesn’t even have an EOB entry. But there’s a more significant difference. Theravāda is a religion; Early Buddhism is a social science. Early Buddhism uses historical, archaeological, text-critical and philological methods to study the beginning of Buddhism. Its scholars include both academics and non-academics. It focuses on those texts which are most likely to be early (the so-called Early Buddhist Texts, or EBTs for short) or which contain early passages. The EBTs include parts of the Pāli Canon as well as Sanskrit fragments, Gandhāran Buddhist Texts, and parts of the Chinese canons. In case you’re interested, the EOB also has an entry on the Āgamas.

  2. For me, no and no. I view individual doctrinal statements found in the EBTs as “hypotheses” until corroborated by personal experience. Which means I generally don’t throw them out if I don’t understand them; I prefer to “let them be” for the time being and return to them later. However, I would caution against “strict literalism” in interpreting the texts. Large parts of the EBTs contain mythology. I take this into account when approaching them. I have heard that Bhante Sujato will give a course on Buddhist mythology this year, but in the meantime, you might be interested in this Wikipedia article.


Find here a link to Bhante Sujato’s and Ajahn Brahmali’s book on “The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts”, as well as a course they gave on the topic a few years ago.


@Robbie @Sumano [+sabbamitta, but my account is limited to 2 user mentions!] Thank you. It seems clearer now. So do I understand correctly that the Agamas are used for purposes of corroborating the early status of suttas? (“If it’s in both, it must be early.”) Is there a list of texts that are accepted as early?


You find a good overview in Bhante Sujato’s and Ajahn Brahmali’s book linked above.

But the very short version: The bulk of texts in the four main Nikayas (Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara) are early, plus some of the Khuddaka collections (Therigatha, Theragatha, Suttanipata, Itivuttaka, Udana, Dhammapada). Jatakas and other Khuddaka texts are late, as well as Abhidhamma.

This is the rough version, and there are certainly nuances to that. (And, important to note, “late” does not mean it should be simply discarded. But it should be taken for what it is, the way people would understand and interpret at their time what had been transmitted to them from earlier times.)


And that the “EBT” school of thought is itself a very much later interpretative phenomenon.


There’s no such thing as Early Buddhism, as that would be heading towards a schism and I prefer we are trying to find the original message of Buddhism, including trying to understand its various permutations in the later traditions, but not later additions.


IMO Early Buddhism is a social science like linguistics. Not a Buddhist sect or tradition.


To me early Buddhism is literally just that, the set of doctrines and practices developed during the first 500 years of the Dispensation. Some earlier than others.

As for the Theravada, the school has roots like Sarvastivada in the Sthavira Nikaya which allegedly split from the majority Mahāsāṃghikas at the time of the Second Buddhist council over matters of Vinaya.

Both Sarvastivada and Theravada (aka Vibhajjavadins) include their Abhidhamma books in the Canon. The Abhidhamma schools are therefore known by their Abhidhamma books and the later developed commentaries which are not considered canonical by these schools.

Another school worth mentioning is Sautrāntika or Sutravada, also descendant from Sthavira Nikaya but do not follow the Abhidhamma and are known as those who rely upon the Sutta alone.

Undoubtedly many modern “Theravadin Sects” do not follow or do not know the Theravadin Abhidhamma and have views which would be harshly criticized as heretical by the writers of the Abhidhamma. Therefore these views and interpretations became Theravadin by the mere virtue of ordination of an individual into a supposedly Theravadin lineage.