Pali for "school" is "Nikaya" -- now that you mention it

(Maybe this has been aired here before, but is new to me; will delete if redundant.)

Continuing some research on metta, specifically the ideas of V. Analayo, and seeing (in an article by “Piya Tan”) mention of his birth name (Theodor P Steffens), I reviewed Analayo’s Wikipedia bio, noticing there the spec:

“Religion - Buddhism
School - Theravada
Sect - Amarapura Nikaya

Apparently this format is not standard. Analogous specs being, for instance:
Bhikkhu Thanissaro:
"Religion Theravada Buddhism
Lineage Thai Forest Tradition"
Ajaan Brahm:
“Religion - Buddhist
School - Theravada”

Anyway, the point being seeing that the idea of “Nikaya” as a school or sect sort of thing is in some sense still alive and well in the modern age. (Recently here I’d asked V. Sujato for the Pali term for his usage of “school”, which turned out to be “Nikaya”.)

Further, checking out the article on “Amarapura Nikaya”, there turned-up mention of a “Siam Nikaya”, from 18th-century Sri Lanka, which in turn has/had some 21 “sub-orders”, all called “Nikaya-s”. And there’s a third Sri Lankan school – a “Rāmañña Nikaya”.

Wondering if this is all an historical side-show, or if this sense of Nikaya is still meaningful in any broader sense today.

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A better translation for nikaya in this context could be fraternity.

In Thailand it is a very relevant thing. The monks from Dhammayut fraternity are usually stricter in regards to not touching money, while Mahanikaya temples tend to be more ecumenical in regards to altars and shrines.

The Thai Forest tradition nevertheless is an umbrella term for what is usually practiced in forest monasteries belonging to both fraternities. Ajahn Chah belonged to Maha Nikaya and Ajahn Mun to Dhammayut Nikaya.

So we have also “fraternity”, which is less formal, but has unfortunate associations in English (at least American).

Then too “order” (appearing in gnlaera’s citations), which one will recognize from the analogous usage in, for instance, Christian clerical organizational traditions.

(These two, actually, come together in the tradition of European Christian monasteries which specialize in producing beer – notably in German-speaking countries – and spirits – ostensibly"medicines", as in “Benedictine”. That is to say, an affinity for taking refuge in alcohol, as in American collegiate “fraternities”.)

This is likely irrelevant, my apologies if so, but does this indicate ‘Theravāda’ as an exonym? Given the high status Pāli has within the tradition.

The assumption being if it were not an exonym it would be something like Sthavirāṇām Nikāya (obv my guess is terrible)?

Interesting new terms – exonym / endonym. Thanks.

It would seem a matter of varying perspectives.

Theravada’ is widely used (perhaps as exonym) in contrast with “Mahayana”, but also, as seen in the two Wikipedia bios in the OP, by some monks as identifying their own (as endonym) school or sect.

On the other hand, there are also critiques from within that (viewed as exonym?) branch of tradition, for instance, V. Sujato, in his “Sects and Sectarianism” (as well as in “A History of Mindfulness”), pointing-out narrower implications of ‘Theravada’ that might limit its application.

Related perhaps is the wide-spread identification of ‘Theravada’ with the Visuddhimagga school, so to speak, which is problematic in some circles.

Interesting anecdote: Once, in a day-long talk ( by John Peacock, the noted British scholar, he asserted that the Visuddhimagga virtually defines Theravada, and he expressed a rather negative attitude towards Buddhaghosa. On the other hand, throughout the rest of the day, when referring to, quoting various ideas from that author, he seemed to be largely in agreement with them.

The word nikāya means “group, body, collection.” Hence, why it is used for different parts of the Sutta Piṭaka, as well as for different Buddhist sects (such as the Mahānikāya and Dhammayuttika Nikāya sects in Thailand).

Nikāya [Sk. nikāya, ni+kāya] collection (“body”) assemblage, class, group; 1. generally (always — °): eka° one class of beings DhsA 66; tiracchāna° the animal kingdom S iii.152; deva° the assembly of the gods, the gods D ii.261 (60); M i.102; S iv. 180; A iii.249; iv.461; PvA 136; satta° the world of beings, the animate creation, a class of living beings S ii.2, 42, 44; M i.49 (tesaṁ tesaṁ sattānaṁ tamhi tamhi s. — nikāye of all beings in each class); Vbh 137; PvA 134. — 2. espe- cially the coll. of Buddhist Suttas, as the 5 sections of the Suttanta Piṭaka, viz. Dīgha°, Majjhima°, Saṁyutta°, Angut- tara° (referred to as D.M.S.A. in Dictionaryquotations), Khud- daka°; enumd PvA 2; Anvs p. 35; DhA ii.95 (dhammāsanaṁ āruyha pañcahi nikāyehi atthañ ca kāraṇañ ca ākaḍḍhitvā). The five Nikāyas are enumd also at Vism 711; one is referred to at SnA 195 (pariyāpuṇāti master by heart). See further details under piṭaka. Cp. nekāyika.

Source: PTS Pali-English Dictionary

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Yes, there does seem to be some confusion in all this.

If we just look at the use of nikāya in the sense of “school, sect, group” rather than “body of texts”, then in the old days it was used for what we call the “18” schools of Buddhism. However, the meaning of these “18” schools is not as clear as one might think. There seem to be overlapping usages:

  1. Doctrinal: a more loose grouping corresponding to certain philosophical characteristics.
  2. Vinaya: apparently more precise, corresponding to the allegiance to one particular set of Vinaya texts and one monastic lineage found in one monastery or clearly defined group of monasteries.

Thus one “doctrinal” nikāya might encompass a number of Vinaya nikāyas. The smaller Vinaya nikāyas might nominally be said to have minor doctrinal differences, but I doubt how reliable this is: there has never been a monastery where even two monks agreed about every point of interpretation.

So much for the old days. What about now? I’ll leave aside the Chinese and Tibetan traditions, as I don’t know much about them.

In the modern Theravada, which might be called the Theravāda-nikāya, there is ostensibly only one canon in Pali and only one Vinaya tradition. It’s not quite that simple, because some canonical books are not universally accepted, and there are differences between various canons as passed down in Thailand, Mynmar, and Sri Lanka. But still, this is a reasonable approximation, and importantly, all the monastics in the “Theravada” regions perceive themselves as belonging to the “Theravada”. They might agree or disagree as to whether the Milinda should be included in the canon, but they don’t see this as a schismatic issue. This is in notable contrast to the old days, where in the Dipavamsa for example, such differences definitely were grounds for schism.

Now, within the Theravada, there are a number of formally constituted nikāyas in each country. Some of the main ones are already mentioned above. These are not distinguished by doctrine, textual canon, or Vinaya, but by administrative group, to some extent based on ordination lineage.

It is true, the different nikāyas might have different Vinaya practices, but this is not what defines the nikāya. Historically, for example, the Dhammayuttika Nikāya is often said to have a stricter policy than the Mahā Nikāya when it comes to handling money. But I am Mahā Nikāya, and I don’t use money at all, while many Dhammayuttika monks, probably the majority, do. In fact, even prominent members of the Dhammayuttika have in recent years claimed that there is no longer any real difference in Vinaya practice between these two groups. As another example, in Sri Lanka, the Siam Nikāya does ordination based on caste, which the other Nikayas reject. Yet not all Siam Nikaya monks base ordination on caste.

So any Vinaya difference is at the most a broad generalization.

The origins of these nikāyas depend nominally on ordination lineage. Thus the Siam Nikaya is the lineage re-introduced to Sri lanka from Thailand. The Rāmañña Nikaya hails from Burma, as does the Dhammayuttika.

But once again, these things are not clear cut. In Thailand, for example, the Dhammayuttika arose gradually in the 19th century as a result of the reforms introduced by King Mongkut. When he was a monk, he doubted the validity of his ordination, believing that so many of the monks had committed expulsion offences that there was no way to have a valid ordination. He sought a trustworthy source of ordination from the so-called kalyāṇī sīmā tradition in Burma, and this became the origin of the Dhammayuttika. But there are obvious problems with this procedure, not least of which that he himself apparently served as preceptor at ordinations while still not having enough vassas to qualify. Nevertheless, to this day the Dhammayuttika for the most part refuses to perform acts of the Sangha with Maha Nikaya monks (though this itself is against the Vinaya), and they treat us as sāmaṇera (novices). But this depends on the individual, and not everyone follows this.

Anyway, so the Dhammayuttika gradually came to perceive itself as a distinct nikāya, and at a certain point this became legally recognized. The rest of the monks were called Mahā Nikāya.

But what is Mahā Nikāya? So far as I can tell, this idea did not exist at all before the Dhammayuttika, and is nothing more than a negative definition: monks who are not Dhammayuttika. In his book on Thai ordination lineages published in the early 70s, Somdet Nyanasamvara—soon to become chief patriarch—investigated the history of Thai ordination lineages and concluded that there must have been so many comings and goings and different traditions that it was impossible to say anything with certainty. For hundreds of years, monks and nuns must have been coming to Thailand from different parts of India, Bangladesh, Burma; from parts east, Indonesia, Vietnam, and so on; and from the then-diverse schools in Sri Lanka. There must have been all sorts of ordinations with all sorts of combinations of monks in different parts. In the north, for example, the cult of Upagupta is strong, suggesting a close connection with north India schools such as the Mulasarvastivada, whose monks may well have traveled overland to northern Thailand—then a separate nation—quite distinct from what was happening in the south.

So the Mahā Nikāya is not really an “ordination lineage” in any recognizable sense. It is just a generic term for the multiple different, largely unknowable, ordination lineages that existed in Thailand before the 19th century.

Really these groups are primarily administrative categories. They are loosely organized “fraternities”. And don’t neglect the word “loosely” here. In all my time in Thailand, I had hardly any contact with a representative of any of the administration. For the most part, monasteries just get on with what they are doing.

What is the purpose of these administrative groupings? From what I can see, the primary aim is not Buddhist education or monastic training, but the acquisition and control of real estate.

In addition to these “formal” groups, there are of course multiple overlapping informal hierarchies. The “Forest Tradition” is one such. At some points in history, the Forest Tradition was a recognized nikāya, and there have been calls to reintroduce this in modern Thailand. Certainly the forest monks of whatever nikāya have more in common with each other than they do with the city monks. Yet “Forest Tradition” is another problematic term: many monks under this umbrella have never, in fact, lived in the forest. Many “Forest Monasteries” have no forest, and are little more than tourist traps.

Again, within these are more local, teacher-based lineages. Occasionally these become very large, like the Ajahn Chah tradition, but mostly they make up a small circle of monasteries, maybe one main one, a couple of branches, and a retreat spot or three. Relations between these groups may be as fluid or as circumscribed as the monks wish.

And finally, moving within and through all these traditions are monks and nuns who think all of this is kind of silly and stay away from it.


During the time I lived in Sri Lanka (2008-2015) I got the impression that differences between the three schools (Siyama Nikaaya, Amarapura Nikaya, and Ramanya Nikaya) are real, not just historical.

Amarapura is a town near Mandalay in Upper Burma (dry zone), which was the royal capital under two kings of the last royal dynasty . Upper Burma is named “Maramma” in the Pali chronicle Saasana-va.msa, written there.

Ramanya is the Pali name for Lower Burma, which was a separate kingdom ruled by Mons (“Rmen”) with the capital Hamsavati (= Pegu or Bago), a little north of Yangon. This kingdom was destroyed (conquered) only in the middle of the 18th century.

There is a definite difference in the historical Buddhist tradition between these two parts of modern Myanmar. … In modern Sri Lanka this seems to reflect in a more open attitude of the Amarapura Nikaya, compared to the Siyama Nikaya.

This Nikaya is the only one introduced by the native rulers of the kingdom of Kandy. It is in charge of the highly revered tooth relic temple of Kandy, and quite traditional in its outlook. The other two Nikayas were founded after 1815, when the whole island was already a British colony.

Buddhist Nikayas of Myanmar have not been discussed so far. But they exist. Most widely distributed is the Sudhamma Nikaya, which may be comparable to the Mahanikaya of Thailand (?). More strict in their Vinaya observance is the Shwe-kyin Nikaya (named after his founder). It was founded only about 150 years ago as a reform movement in the reign of King Mindon, who reigned in Mandalay 1852-1878, when Lower Burma and the coastal regions were already under British rule. (King Mindon also held the “Fifth Buddhist Council” and engraved the whole Pali canon on stone slabs).
There are further schools centred in Lower Burma, like Cetiyangana Nikaya, etc.

Within each of the Theravada countries the differences between these Nikayas are relevant, but on an international level, they may not be important.

The name “Theravada” was first propagated by the first British monk ordained in Burma at the beginning of the 20th century.

So there is a vast difference between the “Theravada Nikaya” of the pre-Christian era, and modern “Theravada Buddhism”. The modern form can hardly be regarded as a “Nikaya”…

It seems desirable, that Theravada Bhikkhus alive today, should find a standardized way of describing their affiliations. But there may be reasons for a certain degree of vagueness.

There seems to be two typing errors in earlier posts:
a) Dhammayut Mikaela (?)
b) “Vissuddhimagga” should read “VISUDDHI-”


Thanks. Fixed.

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The Elder’s school’s school!

Forgive my juvenile humour, please.