Is it possible that the accounts of the Five Theses, Ten Points, and Mahasamghika schism is actually a record of a different schism?

I’ve been tossing this idea around in my head for a little while, and I don’t really have much support for it, but I figure that if there’s any case that could be made for it, this community is most likely to have some answers or leads.

I’ve wondered for a while now about the some of the accounts of the Mahasamghika schism, since the scholarly consensus, promoted by Jan Nattier and Charles Prebish, is that the Mahasamghika schism was over vinaya rules and the story of Mahadeva and the status of an arhat is an anachronism.

I take a little while to build my case here (apologies for the length!), but my speculative hypothesis here (I am not a scholar, so this is just purely speculation based on some fragmented information that’s been sleuthed together) is this:

  • Both the accounts of the Five Theses and Ten Points, attributed to the Mahasamghikas as responsible for the first Buddhist schism, are in fact actually discussing (at least somewhat accurately) schisms that occurred within the Sthaviranikaya, between the Vaibhasika Sarvastivadins and either the Sautrantika Sarvsativadins or the Vibhajyavadins

The first account I’ll discuss involves a figure named Mahadeva that allegedly promoted ‘Five Theses’ on the status of the Arhat, which refers to the fallibility of an arhat. According to the above paper, this account apparently describes the schism between the Mahasamghikas, who are said to have agreed with Mahadeva, and the either the Sthaviras or the Sarvastivadins, which rejected it.

The Theravadin account specifically is over the Ten Points, where the Mahasamghika were accused of laxity in their vinaya over these ten points of controversial conduct, most important of which is handling money. In a follow-up paper by Prebish, he points out (again) that it does not look like the Mahasamghika were actually lax over these ten points, and continued to prohibit them. Two of the important Ten Points I will bring up later are the handling of money, and the drinking of fermented beverages, specifically wine.

Recently on the DharmaWheel forum, there was a discussion about different types of arhats, and quotes Vasubandhu describing the Sarvastivadin view (emphasis mine):

The schools mostly agree that an Arhat is a person whose liberation is incontrovertible <<1>>. However, the Vaibhasikas distinguish six different types of Arhats, five of whom can “fall back.” That is, although they have experienced the elimination of the coarse afflictions that can cause suffering, they may not have eliminated the subtle afflictions and, therefore, can still commit unethical acts. commit suicide, etc., and thereby lose the status of Arhat.

It’s elsewhere mentioned the Mahasamghika did not hold to a view that arhats could regress.

And in Bhikkhu KL Dhammjoti’s Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma , he wrotes that the Sarvastivadins, and only them, distinguished arhats circumstantially liberated (samaya-vimukta) who started as faith-followers (śraddhānusārin) and those non‑circumstantially liberated (asamaya-vimukta) who began as Dharma-followers (dharmānusārin).

So this suggests to me that the account of the Mahadeva’s Five Theses might actually be, perhaps, a polemical account of the five types of arhats the Sarvastivadins saw as being able to regress, but rendered into a pejorative. The issue here really would be that this account is found within Sarvastivadin literature, so… it’s somewhat difficult to parse. We do know that the Sautrantika rejected the idea that arhats can regress, so I think it may be possible the reason we see this in Sarvastivadin literature is because (assuming the Sautrantika and the Darsantika are the same school), the Sarvastivadin orthodoxy was still engaged in polemical dispute with the Darstantika/Sautrantika sub-school and this is part of a record of their competing with one another.

But this is sort of an aside, because I think there’s a stronger case for the Ten Points in the Theravadin account referring to the Sarvastivadins, rather than the Mahasamghika: money and wine. These are points that Jan Nattier and Charles Prebish, in the first linked paper, show very easily that the Mahasamghika did not permit, in spite of the account given. But there is a school for which we know permitted both of these, and that school is–you guessed it–the Sarvastivadins.

The first point is pretty simple and I won’t delve into it too much, because I don’t know how particularly strong it is, but we know through Gregory Schopen’s work on the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, particularly in the collection whose title begins Money Matters and… (I can’t recall the rest of the title off the top of my head) that the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya permitted monasteries to act as banking institutions, offering loans to aristocrats, taking collateral, etc. And while the relationship between the Sarvastivadins and the Mulasarvastivadins is unclear, I think a case could be made here that the Sarvastivadin monastics handled money. I’m a little curious to see if the Chinese version of the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya (which I’ve heard differs to many degrees) includes these banking regulations, or if other Sarvastivadin Vinayas contain it as well.

Now, the alcohol. I think most people (who study such things) are already familiar with Vasubandhu’s short line in the Abhidharmakosha:

“The Abhidharmikas maintain that strong liquor does not have the characteristic of being a transgression by its nature. A transgression by its nature is committed only by a person whose mind is defiled: now it happens that, as a remedy, one can drink strong liquor in a quantity where it is not inebriating. But the mind of one who drinks knowing that such a quantity is inebriating is defiled; the mind is not defiled when one drinks knowing that such a quantity is not inebriating.”

So this suggests that the Sarvastivadins, those that held the Abhidharma as authoritative anyway, felt that drinking a non-intoxicating amount of liquor was not a transgression.

But there’s something more! This paper by Harry Falk shows some reliefs across several Gandharan monasteries that depict monastics engaged with the production of wine.

I don’t know if anything here on its own is really much of anything, but taken altogether, it makes me feel that both of these accounts of schism are actually about the Sarvastivadins. The Five Theses, imo, was probably composed as an attack on the Vaibhasika from a Darstantika perspective, and at a later point in time may have been revised to refer to the Mahasamghikas. But this is something of a weak argument. The position I do think is more likely: that the Theravadin account of the Ten Points is actually a record of the schism between the Vaibhasikas and the Vibhajyavada, within the Sthaviranikaya, but has misidentified the original historical event it’s actually discussing.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Are there any holes here? Plausible, maybe? Or if anyone knows of any additional research here, I’m pretty curious (just to sate that curiosity). I think it’s pretty wild speculation, but it does seem to line up a little closer to what we know of the early schools’ doctrines and practices.


Bhante @sujato wrote a book on the topic few years ago. Here’s the link:

Given it will be hard for a definitive answer to be found to the many discussion questions presented at the OP I took the liberty to move this to the discussion category.


Ahh, I’m rather disappointed if that is the “consensus”, because it’s not a well-founded argument. Details in the book helpfully posted by Gabriel.

The following is from memory, so don’t trust the details! Sorry if I seem to be raining on your parade here, but there is a lot of unfounded research and baseless claims in this area. It seems to be a case where there are genuine advances in knowledge, yet the past lumbers on like a zombie.

But my conclusions, which I believe hold up today, were that:

  • the first schism happened after Ashoka
  • the primary driver of separation was geography
  • the split between Sthavira/Mahasanghika, however, was over the 5 points
  • Vinaya differences were always minor, and evolved as the communities lived separately.

No, this is not accurate. The Ten Points arose in the pre-sectarian period and did not involve any schools. All the accounts in the Vinayas, including the Mahasanghika, are compatible. The only issue is that the Mahasanghika is less clear because it abbreviates things, which led scholars to believe that it omitted the events or downplayed them. But this is, rather, a feature of the literary style of the Mahasanghika school. They took most of the narrative out of the Vinaya and kept it separately (in the Mahavastu). Thus it is normal to find narrative accounts abbreviated or elided entirely.

The dispute in the Second Council was, according to all the canonical accounts, a dispute between different factions within the original Sangha. The dispute was resolved. There is no historical connection between these factions and the schools that later emerged. Such a connection is not posited until the Dipavamsa, which is 500 years after the events, and is one of the later and less reliable accounts, as it directly contradicts the canon.

None of the reliable accounts and archeology of the time of Ashoka, which do have a historical basis, speak of the existence of different schools at that time.

Later accounts, seeking authority for their school, tended to backdate school formation to important historical figures. Such accounts of mythic origins need to be distinguished from historically grounded events, which are not sectarian, and which are supported by the archeology of both Ashoka and Sanci.

They are related, but this is ahistorical.

More likely, the Five Theses originated in a specific teacher in the century following Ashoka. Quite possibly he regarded himself as an arahant, but exhibited questionable behavior; the critical issue, embarrassingly enough, would seem to be that he had wet dreams. Questioned by his students, he said that it is merely physical (an opinion also given by some modern Theravadins including those regarded as spiritually advanced).

The details of this may be wrong, but i am pretty confident in the general picture. Mahadeva was a teacher who’s own arahant status was in question, and the Five Points stemmed from that.

The “others” at the time became known as “Sthaviras”, whereas previously everyone was just the Sangha. So we had:

  • Mahasanghika
  • Sthavrira

Not long after, the Sthaviras also splintered. In most cases, geography was a driving force, but there were also two important doctrinal theses at play, in addition to the status of the arahant.

  • impermanence: the key issue of the Sarvastivadins
  • not-self: the key issue of the Puggalavadins

The remaining Sangha evolved into a number of different schools, sometimes grouped together as the Vibhajjavadin, however without much of a clear doctrinal difference. So we ended up with four main groups of schools:

  • Mahasanghika
  • Sarvastivada
  • Puggalavada
  • Vibhajjavada

Within each group there were relatively minor doctrinal or Vinaya differences, but they were mainly differentiated geographically.

Each of the schools would have evolved its own take on at least the major doctrinal differences. And in the case of a highly sophisticated Abhidharma school like the Sarvastivada, this would have been developed to quite a subtle degree. But these details would have been largely settled after the schisms.

Correct, the canonical Vinayas are pretty much the same.

There’s no “in spite”. The apparent paradox only arises when the texts are read ahistorically. There was no Mahasanghika at the Second Council.

This applies to a much later period, roughly 500 years later. I believe that the basic rules on money and so on are the same (I’d have to check that) but the analysis effectively develops ways of working around them when developing large monasteries. Despite Schopen’s breathless tone, this is exactly what happens in every significant Theravada monastery today. Someone has to pay the bills.

In any case, it’s irrelevant to the schism formation.

I believe the Theravada would hold the same view, or at least many modern Theravadins would. This is a technical mater of Vinaya. Certain rules are regarded as being wrong by nature (eg. killing) while others are purely wrong by convention (storing medicines for seven days). The former are regarded as being impossible for an arahant to transgress, while the latter may be.

The question of alcohol is not easy to decide. The Vinaya standard, in Theravada anyway, is that if there is enough to smell or taste it, it shouldn’t be consumed. This happens quite commonly with things like cake soaked in liquor.

Now, if a negligible amount of alcohol is found in food or drink, or if it is in a medicine, it may be taken unknowingly and there is no offense. There is a belief in Theravada that an arahant is literally incapable of drinking alcohol, and if they do so unknowingly, they would vomit it right out. I haven’t seen this put to the test, though!

Now, we can check this on SuttaCentral. The rule is here:

But we don’t seem to have the Sanskrit text for any parallels showing on the site. This is a bug!

But a Mulasarvastivada parallel shows the text as follows:

surāmaireyamadyapānāt pāyantikā

Which basically the same as the Pali.

Surāmerayapāne pācittiyan

Hmm, okay, I didn’t know that. That’s troubling! But anyway, it is far away in time and place from the schism. Interesting article! But the text is Gandhari, and this suggests Dharmaguptaka, not Sarvastivada.


Ah, thank you (and Gabriel). I’ve read parts of the book before, but I’ll dive into it deeper.

Not at all. I posted this because I know I’m missing information somewhere, and given that I’ve not read anything of this kind before, I assume I am missing information somewhere. Just trying to connect together different things speculatively.

Ah, yes, this makes sense. And does explain why the Mahavastu is labeled as a Vinaya work, when it doesn’t exactly resemble one.

It also helps to explain a major problem in my proposed hypothesis: I’ve been assuming the Ten Points record post-dates the Five Theses, but this comment that it is pre-sectarian effectively shuts down the hypothesis entirely (as you mention that the Mahasamghika did not yet exist, neither can the Sthaviranikaya split when it doesn’t yet exist).

Thank you, Bhante–this has always confused me too. There are some records that do seem to trace the schism to the Second Council, but almost all of those come much later, and many other accounts do mention that the disputes within the Second Council were resolved and the first schism occurred at some later, unknown point, and yet the two are consistently connected to each other in re-tellings.

The two not actually being related makes a lot more sense.

This is the most straight-forward and coherent timeline I’ve seen written out on this matter. Most of the other sources I’ve been reading just give little snippets here and there, and I think I’ve been stitching together these disparate pieces severely out-of-order (and probably projecting the wrong spatial locations for certain parts as well).

I did not know this, thank you for sharing!

I thought so too. On the Dharmaguptaka note, I was going to say that I had thought that the Sarvastivadins and Mahasamghikas were known to have also been active in that area (acknowledging that all the texts found thus far appear to be associated with the Dharmaguptaka), but I’ve realized my basis for thinking this has to do with Vasubandhu and Asanga being in the area, some 4-6 centuries later, so that seems to be my mind messing with timelines again.

Thank you, Bhante, and Gabriel, for entertaining this silly thought experiment; I’ve learned quite a deal in this exchange. :pray:t3:


Generally yes, although Kashmir rather than Gandhara. It’s still quite possible that these findings are from different schools, but the use of Gandhari is characteristic of the Dharmaguptaka.

Not at all, I am delighted that someone is interested! makes me feel less lonely!