Early Buddhism (Fallible Arahants & Past Present Future)

I’ve been reading about early buddhist schools and sects, and I keep coming across two major points that they seemed to argue about. Whether arahants we’re infallible and could still have defilements or not, and whether dhammas only existed in the present, or in the past, present, and future. Why would these two questions even be important? The teachings seem pretty clear on the first one, and I have no idea why the second one would even come up. It’s interesting to read about what these early buddhist sects split up about, not talking about the vinaya but more the doctrinal issues and differences.

Could you please name the sect in question and your source?

Sarvastivada is the main one but I know there are others. It’s interesting to look into doctrinal issues in general regarding the early sects, like how they came to those conclusions. I assume it’s just different interpretations of the same teachings, because I can’t imagine they would disregard the Buddha’s words especially that early on when they were still fresh.

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Here’s a quote from “Counsins - The Five Points…” as a word of caution for the discussion

The earliest accounts we have of the first schism in the Buddhist order are quite late. Even by the short chronology we are speaking of sources between four and six centuries subsequent to the event. By the long chronology we could be dealing with sources no earlier than eight centuries after. The earliest source is possibly the Mahāvibhāṣā… This account claims that the first schism was the result of doctrinal controversies over the ‘Five Points’ advanced by a monk named Mahādeva. Let us note that Mahādeva is not named in this context in any other early source and is therefore not certainly named before the fifth century AD—nearly a thousand years later (by the long chronology)!

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The Sarvāstivāda have ‘more’ unconditioned dharmāḥ than just nirvāṇa. Therefore ‘more’ things have to be persistent. This involves (some) ‘things’ (dharmāḥ, or phenomena) persisting through the ‘three times’ (past-present-future) on an ‘ultimate’ level.

That is as best I can understand it at least.

If I am wrong, hopefully someone will come and correct me!

Hopefully I am not digging myself further into a hole of augmented ill-informedness, but if I may elaborate, AFAIK, both we what we can safely call “EBT” Buddhism, and contemporary Theravāda, posit the ‘one unconditioned dharma’ (Nibbāna) as persisting throughout the three times of past, present, and future, however, ‘persisting through the tree times’ is a distinctly Sarvāstivāda mode of expressing ‘unconditioned’.

If I may steal from the turn of phrase suggested as a modality of English-language expression for the Pāli amata, namely Ven @Brahmali’s ‘freedom-from-death’ rather than ‘deathless’, I think that a more ‘traditional’ way to express the ‘unconditionedness’ of Nibbāna might be “freedom from the three times” rather than “persistent through the three times”, even through both of them can potentially ‘mean’ the same thing, in this specific context particularly (only?).

Perhaps I am being a partial Sarvāstivāda apologist, though!

Mind and space, two other dharmāḥ that the Sarvāstivāda took as ‘unconditioned’, to be clear, AFAIK (and I really think, in this case, that I ‘know’, but one can never be too sure), are neither unconditioned, persistent through the three times, nor ‘free’ from the three times, in contemporary Theravāda or the Buddhadharma found in the EBTs.


Your calling of this thread “Early Buddhism ([…] Past Present Future)” also has very interesting elements to it!

The doctrine of the ‘persistence’ of multiple dharmāḥ through the three times is a doctrine of the Sarvāstivāda, who are “an ‘early’ Buddhist school” but aren’t, in and of themselves, “Early Buddhism”.

This points to an underlying ambiguity in how we refer to schools like the Sarvāstivāda, and doctrines such as the persistence of dharmāḥ throughout the three times, which is AFAIK (and I may be wrong), a product of the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and/or Abhidharmikāḥ, and as such, is not substantiated in the EBTs.

The label “sectarian Buddhism” has been suggested, as alluding to the “first schism” within the sangha and the ‘invention’ of ‘Buddhist sects’. This label, AFAIK, seems to apply to: ‘late additions’ in the sutta-layer (i.e. demonstrably later accruals to the nikāyā, the āgama parallels, etc.), all or ‘parts’ of the vinaya (the vinaya, as a whole, I will admit, is something I am woefully ignorant concerning, as such take this particular information with a grain of salt), and the various Abhidharmāḥ of “(early) sectarian Buddhist schools”.

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I discussed this at some length in Sects & Sectarianism.

Each of the central doctrinal divides in the early Buddhist schools relates to a question of interpretation of a core Buddhist teaching.

  • All dhammas exists, past present and future: this is an interpretation of impermanence of the Sarvāstivāda school. It is posited to explain how there is continuity when everything is changing. It did this by shifting the emphasis from change to existence: things always exist, but they do so in different manners, and it is this shift in manner of existence that is called impermanence. The details of how this is worked out varied within the school itself.
  • The arahant is imperfect: this is an interpretation of the nature of awakening, posited by the Mahasanghika school. It raises the question of how someone may be “perfected” and yet still live in the world.
  • There is a “person” distinct from the five aggregates: This is an interpretation of not-self, put forward by the Puggalavada. This addresses the problem of how there can be the atomic and conditioned empirical consciousness as analyzed in the aggregates, etc., yet there is still an overarching coordination and unity to personhood.

These are probably the major divisions of early schools. There are lots of other issues, and minor subschools; some of these differ in regard to important teachings—the nature of dukkha for example—while others are trivial.

Umm, no, sorry. This has certainly never been a Theravada teaching, and while some contemporary teachers may have similar ideas, most students of the EBTs, including myself, do not.


Sects and Sectarianism_The Origins of Buddhist Schools_Sujato.pdf (891.9 KB)