Evolution of Buddhism

Why study the history of the evolution of Buddhism? Why not just stick to the suttas and vinayas and not learn about history?

When people ask questions about the current forms of Buddhism, it makes most sense only when one has a rough idea at least of the history of how they arise. It also could affect the amount of faith one would place in this or that form of Buddhism one sees today.


There was a race of people called the Aryans who are likely the people who originated the Indo-European languages including Sanskrit, Pali (Malay and Singhalese borrowed many words from Pali), English, Germanic languages, Latin etc. Yes, these are the same Aryans which the Nazi identified themselves with, and now the terminology to call them is Indo-Iranian.

In ancient India, before the Buddha’s time, there was Zoroastrianism. In that religion, Ahuras are the good gods, Daevas are the bad gods. Karen Armstrong in her books described that it’s because the Aryans who migrated into northern India was a bunch of raiders, pillagers, nomads. They prefer war, and their gods are the daevas. The ones being stolen from are the agriculturists who worked hard on the land and cattle.

It’s only later on that the Aryans settled down and established the caste system in India with them at the top castes, and the natives of India at the bottom rank. So their gods became the devas of Buddhism and the opposition ahuras became the asuras. A role reversal of the devas being the good gods now and the asuras being the demons. For the secularists, do note that even with such historical trace of the evolution of devas, there could still be possible that there does exist such beings as gods and demons, which is a standard faith for Buddhists.

Brahmanism is the mainstream religion of India back in Buddha’s time, along with 6 heretical teachers. They represent the doctrines of Jainism, Agnosticism, Fatalism, Amoralism, Materialism, Eternalism.

Hinduism evolves out of Brahmanism’s interaction with Buddhism, and they absorbed the figure of the Buddha into one of the avatars of Vishnu. But the doctrines of the right view is not imported into Hinduism, so as to close as Hinduism and Jainism are to Buddhism superficially, due to them not having the right view of no-self, they are not considered a path that will lead to Nibbana according to Buddhism.

Of the 6 heretical teachers above and Brahmanism, let’s divide them into camps based on their acceptance of rebirth or kamma.

Accepts rebirth: Jainism, Brahmanism, Fatalism (Makkhali Gosala).

Doesn’t accept rebirth: Materialism of Ajita Kesakambali

Not easily analyzed: eternalism/atomism of Pakudha Kaccayana, Agnosticism of Sanjaya Belatthiputta, amoralism of Purana Kassapa.

Doesn’t accept kamma: eternalism/atomism of Pakudha Kaccayana, amoralism of Purana Kassapa, Materialism of Ajita Kesakambali,

Wrong views of kamma: Jainism, Brahmanism

Not easily fit into above: Fatalism (Makkhali Gosala), Agnosticism of Sanjaya Belatthiputta

Fatalism itself is a doctrine that is rejected based on the right view of kamma, however, for those who have the wrong view of kamma that everything we do now is based on past kamma, and past kamma alone determines all future kamma falls into determinism and thus fatalism. It could be seen as a wrong view of kamma or rejection of kamma.

Based on the analysis of the schools above, the secular Buddhists might find themselves leaning more towards one or the other of the many positions up there. All rejected by the Buddha(in this case, Ananda in MN76), being views that don’t bring fruits to the spiritual life or negate the spiritual life.

So it’s clear from the outset that Buddhism is aware of the various philosophical positions which don’t affirm kamma and rebirth and it’s by no means due to pressure from the crowd that the Buddha had taught kamma and rebirth. The 6 heretical teachers are out of mainstream Brahmanism as is the Buddha. They could advocate their views openly, so too did the Buddha. The only reason why the Buddha really did teach kamma and rebirth is that they are truly the way things work in samsara, not due to any kind of social pressure factors.

Buddhist Councils

The first Buddhist council held only 3 months after Buddha’s death recited the sutta and Vinaya by Ananda and Upali respectively. The oral tradition continues for centuries down the line and is only written down after the split into many schools of Buddhism. Therefore the comparative studies of the texts from different schools reveal the suttas with parallels to be likely the earliest suttas, which stands the best chance to be the original Buddhism.

The second council held 100 years later had a minor Vinaya argument, but then the true split happens afterwards, which is largely motivated more from Dhammic doctrinal differences rather than Vinaya. The Vinaya of the Mahayana monastics nowadays is closer to the Theravada Vinaya rather than the 10 relaxed rules which motivated the convening of the second council. None of the 10 relaxed rules is codified in the Vinaya of the various schools preserved in Mahayana.

Buddhism splits into 18 or more schools (the full list of names is more than just 18), of which many of them had gone extinct since. The Theravada school won out in the 3rd council during king Asoka’s time 58 years later, which establishes Theravada as orthodoxy and disrobed monks of many other schools. The point of controversy book, Kathāvatthu

is one of the main sources of knowledge about other schools. It is complied to be one of the 7 books of the Theravada Abhidhamma, consisting of the 3rd basket along with the sutta and Vinaya. So the Tipitaka terminology appears from here onwards.

It’s due to the various Abhidhamma or lack thereof of the many schools which causes their split and doctrinal differences. The suttas and Vinaya largely remain the same across the early schools. Suttacental contains Abhidhamma from 3 schools. Although the Dharmaguptaka school there in the link is basically empty.

It’s from the Sarvastivada Abhidhamma which serves as the Hinayana doctrine to the development of Mahayana, not Theravada. Therefore it’s inappropriate to label Theravada as Hinayana. It’s also said that to fully understand Mahayana, one should study Sarvastivada Abhidhamma. Which (in my opinion) is best done after one had studied the suttas, and have good teachers on the Theravada Abhidhamma as a basis to properly understand the otherwise more dry (and boring) detailed listings in Abhidhamma.

The 4th Council of Theravada happened in Sri Lanka where famine almost wiped out the monastics and thus the doctrine was preserved in their minds via oral tradition. Thus a project of writing it down happened. The 5th and 6th councils happened in Myanmar in recent years.

Monks between the countries of Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka had at many points in their history imported the ordination lineage from each other.

Development of the Buddhist schools

Part of the 18 schools is Sautrāntika, who rejected the Abhidhamma of other schools as they are written later. The spirit of this school is recently revived in the Early Buddhism movement mostly within Theravada. This could be a reaction to the Mahayana critique of Theravada that they also contain later works, not just Mahayana itself. Also, it’s an internal consistency issue, eg. the suttas suggest that in-between states exist between death and rebirth, whereas the Theravada orthodoxy maintains that rebirth is immediate. Based on AN4.180, whatever is claimed to be the words of the Buddha, should be compared to the sutta and Vinaya, if they are found there, then it can be accepted, or else rejected. Suttacentral is one of the leading projects in the Early Buddhism movement including parallel comparative studies. Many other scholars and monks mainly focus on the Pali canon itself, for there are some assurances from those who do the comparative studies that most of the Pali canon is found in the parallels.

Theravada was developed further by Buddhaghosa, Dhammapala and other great commentators. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) was written by Buddhaghosa during the 5th century CE.

Mahayana developed in India first, with major figures like Nagarjuna (second turning of the wheel), whose work of the middle way school is to counter the tendency of the Sarvastivada Abhidharma people to take the ultimate breaking down of elements of mind and matter as ultimately existing. They go further into saying that ultimately it’s all empty, bringing back the doctrine of dependent origination and middle of the Buddha. There are many schools that developed across the centuries, with many travellers from China collecting sutras from India back into China, including Xuan Zhang, who was made famous in Journey to the west novel.

The doctrine of Buddha-nature (third turning of the wheel), later on, developed to counter the nihilistic tendencies of the middle way school which focuses on emptiness which was seen as too close to nothingness. Buddha-nature is the same meaning as emptiness, just used in a positive language, one has to be careful not to mistake Buddha-nature as self, or true self too, or it introduces the direction too far into eternalism again.

The main schools that managed to travel or develop into China are:

  1. Pureland
  2. Chan (Zen in Japan) Same word for Jhāna (Dhyāna) in Pali (Sanskrit)
  3. Lüzong (Vinaya school)
  4. Sanlun (Mādhyamaka)
  5. Weishi (Yogācāra)
  6. Tiantai
  7. Huayan
  8. Zhenyan (Esoteric)

The list is incomplete, please refer to Wikipedia

for more.

Buddhism in Japan developed a new school called Nichiren, of which the biggest impact now would be the organization called Soka Gakkai (which is now broken off from the tradition), which many may have encountered before.

Buddhism also spread to Tibet and most prominently the Vajrayana school, which also spread to Japan as Shingon Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism has esoteric, tantra practises which can promise the attainment of Buddhahood within one lifetime, as opposed to many lifetimes of the normal Bodhisattva path.

The Vinaya of the Mahayana in China, Korea, Vietnam follows the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, and Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, Nepal, Ladakh follows the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya.

When Buddhism spreads to the west, there are many teachers who soften Buddhism and tailor market Buddhism to reduce the emphasis on kamma, rebirth and other supernatural stuff which the western worldview informed by science has not found or is not able to verify. While this is a skilful means, it inevitably leads to some amongst the western converts who are still too attached to their own worldview of materialism/physicalism and cannot see that it’s different from science, unsupported by science (as a method of investigating the world and collection of facts and best theories about the world).

It’s quite ok to have faith gradually develops as one practice, not having to take rebirth and kamma on with blind faith. It’s another thing to reject the core doctrine of the Buddha and claim that Buddha didn’t mean to teach kamma and rebirth, showing ignorance of Buddhist history as elaborated above, and the suttas. It’s due to the attempt to rewrite Buddhism by some secular Buddhists, that the whole terminology secular Buddhism becomes a dangerous ideology promoting wrong views and is not fit to be labelled as part of Buddhism. While it is clear that the project of trying to show that Buddha was secular (doesn’t believe in literal rebirth and kamma across lifetimes) is already a non-starter failure, it is not clear to many beginners who start off with secular Buddhism and haven’t read the suttas, developed much faith or practised much. So it’s the task of Buddhists to help usher them into Buddhism as secular Buddhism while it is a nice door to come into Buddhism, the door itself is not Buddhism, one shouldn’t stop at the door.


Ultimately, what seems to separate the various Buddhisms is what do you believe. Right at the two extreme ends of the scale, we have secular Buddhism which due to the rejection of kamma and rebirth is not properly considered a Buddhism, and at the other end, we have Vajrayana Buddhism, which contains special tantra teachings not shared with the others.

In the middle, we have Early Buddhism who believes in the suttas and vinayas (ideally with comparative studies), next, the Theravadas, who also take on board the Theravada Abhidhamma, the commentaries, Visuddhimagga, etc, and finally, the Mahayana who takes on board the Mahayana sutras like Amitabha sutra, not found in Theravada.

Without practice, it’s all just faith based on what do you believe. The more texts one believe, the more one needs supernatural powers to be able to verify the many claims of the texts, or just more faith. For the secular transition into Buddhism, one need not rely on the recollection of past lives superpower alone, rebirth evidence here can help. https://www.reddit.com/r/Buddhism/comments/dktouv/buddhists_should_repost_rebirth_evidences_more/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

The three in the middle can look to the left and right of the scale. And from there can appreciate why the ones to the left, who believe fewer doctrines hold onto their views as they do by seeing to the right (believing in more texts), and ask themselves, why don’t I believe what they believe? This could be a good reflection to promote harmony amongst the various schools.

r/Buddhism - Evolution of Buddhism

Scales of Buddhism


I would like to dispute this

The Theravada school won out in the 3rd council during king Asoka’s time 58 years later, which establishes Theravada as orthodoxy and disrobed monks of many other schools.

  1. To say that the school that won out during Asoka reign is the Theravada is incorrect.
    Rather, Theravada was descended from that school, and thus claim to be the orthodox one.
    But i think, also history prove, that all school actually descended from that.
    Actually many schools record about Asoka and praise him for his support of Sangha. There is no school that straight out saying he is evil king, which is what I would do if he outcast my school.

  2. Is there really a recitation of dhamma vinaya and codification of canon during Asoka reign? So far, the only source that mention it is Dipavamsa, written around 400 CE, while Asoka reign around 268-232 BCE.

Many other text record about Asoka, but nobody else said about Sangha council.
What was happening, supposedly, is that many fake monks appear because Asoka is too generous to buddhist monks, so many ascetics from other religion pretend to be buddhist monks, and Asoka invite a prominent figure to clean up.

  1. If Asoka really outcast all other school, why is that Theravada is just a minor school among 18 schools? Those 18 schools developed well even after Asoka period, which is unlikely to happen if the king publicly declare them to be heretical

  2. Sarvastivada later make their own Sangha Council in Kashmir. In their own words, they said it was “the third council”. If Asoka sponsor Sangha Council, this should be the 4th.
    Of course one could argue that they were excluded by Asoka and Mogaliputtatissa, but this is unlikely. Sarvastivada text is full of praise and legend about Asoka.

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Theravada is Tamrasatiya/Tamraparniya, one of the Vibhajyavada schools.

Both Sarvastivada and Vibhajyavada schools belong to Sthavira branch. Another main branch is Mahasanghika.
Pages 2-7 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (440.2 KB)

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