Mahasamghika = Mahayana, Sthavirava = Theravada? The Origin of the Split

Tradition starts the history of the Mahāsāṃghika (Mahāsāńgika/Mahasamghika/Mahasanghika) school of Buddhism with the so-called Buddhist Council of Vaiśālī (present-day Besarh in the northwest of Bihar state), held about a hundred years after the demise of Śākyamuni Buddha. This council is reported to have introduced the first schism in the Buddhist community, when the famous king Aśoka (reigned c. 270–c. 230 BCE) intervened in a dispute among the monastics and decided in favor of the majority, whence the name “Mahāsāṃghika” (“Great Community,” Chinese name “dazhong bu,” 大眾部, as an alternative for the transliteration “Mohesengqi bu,” 摩訶僧祇部). The other group involved in the dispute became known as the Sthaviravādins (“the Elders”), of whom the present-day Theravādins are the only successors…

Although the Mahāsāṃghikas no longer exist as a separate Buddhist school, their doctrinal and cultic developments have been important for the development of the Mahayana, the general name for what was originally known as “bodhisattvayāna.”

Is this an accurate presentation of history, that Theravada originated from a small splinter group from the broader Buddhist community, and that Mahayana eventually developed from the Mahasamghika majority?

Not accurate, Mahayana emerged about 5 BE, long after the first schism which splits the Sthaviravada and Mahasanghika, and Theravada is just a sub of Vibhajjavada group of Sthaviravada emerged in Sri Lanka. You can read more about this on Bhante Sujato’s Sects and Sectarianism


Did the Mahasanghika ultimately evolve into the Mahayana?

The earliest traces of Mahayana ideas arose with the division of the Buddhist sangha into two vadas or schools of thought around 410 b c., some 110 years after the Buddha’s death, at the Second Council of Vaishali. This Council was called to condemn certain practices of some monks which were contrary to the Vinaya or Monk’s Code of conduct. Although the majority of monks succeeded in excommunicating the erring monks, the remaining monks disputed the rules and certain aspects of the Dharma. One group, opposed to any change whatever, came to be known as the Sthaviravadins (Theravadins) who followed what was believed to be the original teaching as agreed at the first Council following the passing of the Buddha. These Sthaviravadins followed a realist line, stating that all phenomena exist and are unstable compounds of elements. They taught that it is necessary for all humans to strive for Arahantship or release from the constant round of rebirth (Samsara). They taught that Buddhas are men - pure and simple, rejecting any notion of their being transcendental. The other group, which were in the majority, were known as the Mahasanghikas, which means followers of the great or major group of clergy. Like the Sthaviravadins, they accepted the fundamental doctrines as taught by the Buddha, such as: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the doctrine of Anatta or no soul, the law of karma or causation, Paticca Samupada or dependent arising and the stages of spiritual advancement or sainthood. They differed in believing that Buddhas are supramundane and transcendental, they have no defiling elements, their lives and powers are unlimited. They also believed that the original nature of the mind is pure and that it is contaminated when it is stained by passions and defilements. It was from the Mahasanghikas that the Mahayana was to evolve.

Why not use Paul Williams’ book on the Mahayana to answer these questions? I recall it’s a favorite of yours. From page 38:

Hence the Sarvadharmapravrttinirdesa Sutra allows us to hypothesize that as time passed the Mahayana, which probably originated among antisocial forest hermits with the idea of returning to what was seen as the ascetic spirit of the Buddha himself, eventually became itself institutionalized in relationship precisely to and with the wider lay society that it originally renounced. And it may be precisely at this time, several hundred years after its origins, that Mahayana began to have a more visible impact ‘on the ground’ in India. To quote Schopen (2004b: 494–5):

At this point we can only postulate that the Mahayana may have had a visible impact in India only when, in the fifth century, it had become what it had originally most strongly objected to: a fully landed, sedentary, lay-oriented monastic institution – the first mention of Mahayana in an Indian inscription occurs, in fact, in the record of a large grant of land to a Mahayana monastery. In the meantime the Mahayana may well have been either a collection of marginalized ascetic groups living in the forest, or groups of cantankerous and malcontent conservatives embedded in mainstream, socially engaged monasteries, all of whom continued pouring out pamphlets espousing their views and values, pamphlets that we now know as Mahayana sutras.

Doesn’t look like it.

Doesn’t look like it.

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Thank you for your response.

I’ve found a few passages from Paul Williams’ book suggesting that the Mahayana had its doctrinal roots in the Mahasanghika:

It has also been suggested that the tathAgatagarbha (‘Buddha Nature’) teachings
– and therefore the TathAgatagarbha SEtra – may have had something in origins to do
with the Mahasatghika sect…

The Buddha is said to be omniscient, never to sleep but in reality always to be in meditation. Such an exaltation of the Buddha among the Mahasatghikas
is perhaps one with moves in some circles towards playing down (by comparison) the Arhat.
At least, the two moves are compatible. There can be no doubt that at least some early
Mahayana setras originated in Mahasatghika circles. In the lokottaravAda supramundane
teachings we are getting very close to a teaching well-known in Mahayana that the Buddha’s
death was also a mere appearance; in reality he remains out of his compassion, helping suffering
humanity, and thence the suggestion that for those who are capable of it the highest
religious goal should be not to become an Arhat but to take the Bodhisattva vows, embarking
themselves on the long path to a supreme and totally superior Buddhahood…

The Mahayana treatment of the Buddha’s physical body, on the other hand, in terms of
our tripartite model stresses more and more the magical dimension of the Buddha’s being,
a response to the apparent physical death of Siddhartha Gautama on the one hand, and
an encounter with the Buddhas of visionary experience on the other. Physical becomes
magical transformation – an unsurprising development given the philosophy of both
Madhyamika and Yogacara. One impetus for this treatment of the Buddha’s physical body
lay perhaps with the supramundane teachings of the Mahasatghikas, which we examined
in the first chapter…

. With
the rise of the idea of the Bodhisattva and his career to perfect Buddhahood, and the
suggestion that there could be a multiplicity of those pursuing the supreme path of a
Bodhisattva, where could these Bodhisattvas become Buddhas? It was posited that at least
some of the other-world realms may be inhabited by a Buddha. This gave rise to the concept
of Buddha Fields, with the likelihood of Buddhas existing contemporaneously albeit
in different Buddha Fields. Hence it became realistic to think of a Bodhisattva becoming
a Buddha somewhere else even now. Such ways of thinking were criticized by some, such
as the Theravadins and Sarvastivadins, but accepted by, e.g., the Mahasatghika and
Lokottaravada traditions…

Some of the above words may have been jumbled up when I cut and pasted them.

The book also has a section detailing the causes of the split between the Mahasanghika and the Sthavirava.

My goodness, this history is so garbled. Ashoka was at the Second Council? :face_with_monocle: This is why you can’t rely on Buddhist scholarship, even if it appears under the “Oxford” name.

To reiterate what others have said:

No. There is precisely zero evidence for this.

Mahasamghika were not a majority, and the Mahayana didn’t develop from them.

These ideas stem from certain fancies among scholars, fancies that have been roundly dismissed by other (better) scholars, but persist because they make a neat narrative. The basic fallacy here is thinking that the names sthavira and mahāsaṅghika actually tells us something meaningful about the schools. But this is simply not the case. Every school of Buddhism regards itself as preserving the “teaching of the elders”, and every schools regards itself as a “great Sangha”. In Christianity you have the Benedictines (the blessed), the Dominicans (followers of the Lord), the Jesuits (followers of Jesus) and so on. Any of these names could have been applied to any of the others. Rhys Davids pointed this out long ago in Buddhist India, and as so often, less wise voices have failed to heed his caution.

It is true that certain aspects of Mahasanghika ideas were influential in the much later formation of the Mahayana. But so too, were aspects of the Sarvastivada, and other schools as well. Mahayana emerged as a reform or reaction against multiple aspects of the early schools as they existed around 500 years after the Buddha. It didn’t stem from any one school. In terms of Mahayana philosophy, the greats such as Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Nagarjuna are much more closely linked to Sarvastivada than Mahasanghika.

We have more than six ancient accounts of the Second Council at Vesali, all of which say that the Sangha was unified and there was no schism. These “histories” are built out of phantoms.

This is romantic, to say the least. Yes, a certain strand of thought in some early Mahayana sutras expresses these ideas. But there are lots of other sutras that say lots of other things, too. The origins of the Mahayana were complex, and are inferred from their own texts, which are focused on establishing their own credibility as an independent source of Buddhist doctrine. What better way of doing this than to claim to be forest ascetics? There are many alive today who do exactly the same thing, calling themselves “forest tradition” without the inconvenience of the whole “living in a forest” thing.


Thank you for your response. What were the historical reasons for the split between Mahasamghika and Sthavirava? Also, are you saying it’s untrue that the Sthaviravans were the smaller faction compared to the Mahasamghika?

Not only this, but was the Mahasanghika ultimately absorbed into the Mahayana, due to their similarities, including certain Mahayana scriptures having an origin in the Mahasanghika?

The origin of the dispute was the so-called “five points”, which were a disagreement on the nature of the arahant. Essentially, the Mahasanghikas believed an arahant might be subject to certain foibles.

Yes. There is no evidence to support this. On the contrary, in all periods of Indian Buddhism, the Mahasanghika were a minority, and there is no reason to think this was not the case from the start.

There’s no evidence that any of the early schools were “absorbed” into the Mahayana. So far as we know, the early schools continued alongside the Mahayana. The Mahayana grew up inside the early schools—literally inside the same monasteries—and only much later was established as an independent school or set of schools with its own monasteries and so on.

Schools don’t get merged together because of doctrinal similarities. In Canberra, for example, there’s a Sri Lankan temple right next to a Laotian temple. They’re both “Theravadin”, so share (at least in theory) the same doctrines and scriptures. They get along fine, and join each other for ceremonies and the like. But there’s no suggestion that they should somehow merge and become one. They are distinct traditions, and remain such.


Since at least the Meiji period in Japan, some scholars of Buddhism have looked to the Mahāsāṃghika as the originators of Mahāyāna Buddhism.[44] According to Akira Hirakawa, modern scholars often look to the Mahāsāṃghikas as the originators of Mahāyāna Buddhism.[45]

According to A.K. Warder, it is “clearly” the case that the Mahāyāna teachings originally came from the Mahāsāṃghika branch of Buddhism.[46] Warder holds that “the Mahāyāna originated in the south of India and almost certainly in the Āndhra country.”[47] Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that “historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra.”[48]

André Bareau has stated that there can be found Mahāyāna ontology prefigured in the Mahāsāṃghika schools, and has offered an array of evidence to support this conclusion.[49] Bareau traces the origin of the Mahāyāna tradition to the older Mahāsāṃghika schools in regions such as Odisha, Kosala, Koñkana, and so on. He then cites the Bahuśrutīyas and Prajñaptivādins as sub-sects of the Mahāsāṃghika that may have played an important role in bridging the flow of Mahāyāna teachings between the northern and southern Mahāsāṃghika traditions.[49]

André Bareau also mentions that according to Xuanzang and Yijing in the 7th century CE, the Mahāsāṃghika schools had essentially disappeared, and instead these travelers found what they described as “Mahāyāna.” The region occupied by the Mahāsāṃghika was then an important center for Mahāyāna Buddhism.[49] Bareau has proposed that Mahāyāna grew out of the Mahāsāṃghika schools, and the members of the Mahāsāṃghika schools also accepted the teachings of the Mahāyāna.[49] Additionally, the extant Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya was originally procured by Faxian in the early 5th century CE at what he describes as a “Mahāyāna” monastery in Pāṭaliputra.[50]āsāṃghika#Relationship_to_Mah.C4.81y.C4.81na

I’m sorry if I’m presenting inaccurate views of history.

Most of these scholars are simply pointing out a connection between Mahayana and Mahasanghika doctrines, which no-one denies. Obviously since there is such a connection, it would be expected that leading Mahayana figures would have stayed in some Mahasanghika monasteries.

What this narrative excludes, though, is that most of the major works of the prominent Mahayana philosophers are based squarely on the Sarvastivada tradition. This continues to the present day, as it is Sarvastivada philosophy and Vinaya that is used in Tibet, not Mahasanghika. In China, too, early Buddhist philosophy is more often based on Sarvastivada than other schools. Asanga, on the other hand, is sometimes said to have been Mahisasaka before converting to Mahayana. And of course the Chinese Sangha follows Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, not Mahasanghika. This is crucially important, as sectarian affiliation is most clearly defined by the Vinaya you follow, not the texts you study. If Mahasanghika really “became” Mahayana, why do no Mahayanists follow Mahasanghika Vinaya?

The fact that Faxian found a Mahasanghika Vinaya in a supposed “Mahayana” monastery is no more significant than the fact that the very same Vinaya is found today in monasteries following Dharmaguptaka Vinaya throughout Asia, and also in so-called “Theravadin” monasteries like Santi or Bodhinyana. Monks would have been carrying manuscripts to and fro all the time.

The statements attributed to Zuangzan and Yijing are interesting, but there is no reference, so I can’t assess them. Does anyone know if translations are available online?


It’s really interesting if what ultimately became accepted as Mahayana doctrine can be traced back to before the first Buddhist schism, maybe not in the sense of the Mahayana and the Mahasamghika being exactly the same, but instead in the sense of what ultimately became accepted as Mahayana doctrine being traceable to early Buddhism.

If there are Mahayana doctrines which Theravada Buddhism today doesn’t accept, but were promulgated by a very early Buddhist school like the Mahasamghika, that’s remarkable from a historical perspective.

No, AFAIK, one of the trigger factor for emerging Mahayana is Abhidharmic doctrine from Sarvastivadin which says all dharmas (phenomena) has it’s intrinsic nature of their own (svabhava) and this is opposed by Mahayanist with their sunyata philosophy which is based on Sarvastivadin Abhidharma. Another factor is the emphasis of individualistic practice based on monastic life in the early sects which neglect social life around it; this cause the emerging of new idealism of altruism based on the Bodhisattva practice…

I’m sure there were more factors besides or in addition to the ones you’ve described.

A few things to note here about the Mahasamghikas.

First, even when there was the rise of Mahayana texts within the Mahasamghikas, this led to doctrinal schisms within the school on whether to accept these texts. It seems, according to Paramartha, that section of the Mahasamghika called the Kukkutikas did not accept the Mahayana sutras as buddhavacana.

Also, there is a great book on the Mahasamghikas called “Buddhism in the Krishna River Valley of Andhra” which I will refer those who want to learn more about the Mahasamghikas.

Particularly interesting to me is Chapter six which is “Two Mahåyåna Developments along the Krishna River” by Barber. It’s main focus is “two different but related Mahåyåna developments that have originated in whole or part, in the Krishna River Valley of Andhra: the tathågatagarbha (hereafter tathagatagarbha) movement and the darsana-based practices that were codifi ed in the tantras”.

Of course he notes that Alex Wayman had already estalished that the Mahasamghika and the Tathagathagarbha literature were closely related in his seminal paper “The Mahåsåmghika and the Tathå-
gatagarbha (Buddhist Doctrinal History, Study 1)”.

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That’s interesting. The Mahayana doctrine I’m most interested in possibly tracing to early Buddhism, at least in seed form, is the concept of Tathagathagarbha or Buddha-nature.

Oh yea? Cool. Any leads?

Yes please do show us where in the EBTs it mentions Buddha-nature.

I know of the visit that the scholar is referring to, but I am not sure about the way it is being presented. Here is what I am more familiar as an account what I think is the same journey:

H. Berchert and R. Gombrich, The World of Buddhism (New York: Facts on File, 1984), 84:

(P.S. do we need to put trigger warnings before the word ‘Hīnayāna’? Is it considered ‘that bad’?)

The nearest thing we have to a census of monks and monasteries in ancient India is the record compiled by Xuanzang between 630 and 644 C.E. He listed them by area. India for him included Sri Lanka, what is now Bangladesh, much of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a bit of modern Nepal. If we exclude Sri Lanka (with 20,000 monks) his totals come to about 115,000 Hīnayāna and 120,000 Mahāyāna monks, however about half of the latter also studying Hīnayāna. The Hīnayāna had about 22,000 monasteries and the Mahāyāna about 2,500." See also E. Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism (Louvain-La-Neuve: Institut Orientaliste de Université Catholique, 1988), 539-545, for a detailed and informative discussion of sects.

(a footnote from Sally Wriggins’s The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang)

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Thanks for that, it looks really interesting.

Another important aspect of Buddhism in the Andhra region is that most of the arguments in the Kathavatthu are contesting views of the Andhra Mahasanghika communities. It seems that the Sri Lankan Theravadins had a branch there, and close trade connections, so the local Mahasanghikas were the main competition and doctrinal nemeses.

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I don’t think so!

These texts have been translated to English by Samuel Beale. It turns out they’re on the internet archive:

Vol 1:

Vol. 2:

One of the reasons I am cautious about accepting arguments based on these is that they sometimes use names for schools that seem odd and are hard to interpret. For example Xuang-zang refers to “Mayahana-sthaviras”, and no-one really knows what this means. The same thing happens in the Theravada texts as well; they refer to Vetulyavada, which seems to be a derogatory term for Mahayana, but it is not really clear. So anyway, I just wanted to check the context first.