Sasaki and Schism

Note: Accompanying my book Sects & Sectarianism I wrote a series of short articles on related matters. I recently came across these, tidied them up, and present them here for your enjoyment.

Shizuken Sasaki has published a series of eight papers on the state of Buddhist sects during the reign of Aśoka, constituting one of the most sustained bodies of original research on the topic. His work combines extensive translations and systematic presentations of a range of works, particularly the underutilized sources in the Chinese Vinayas, subjected to elaborate theoretical analysis. I must express particular gratitude to the author for taking the trouble to publish the articles in English for the benefit of we linguistically-challenged barbarians from the outlying border districts.

Sasaki paints a unique and detailed picture of the sectarian situation in the time of Aśoka, using sources in an entirely new way. Like all authors I have so far encountered, he takes the existence of sects in the time of Aśoka for granted, and does not seem to feel it is necessary to establish independent proof of this fact. Readers of Sects & Sectarianism will be aware that I have challenged this notion, and do not believe there is any substantial evidence for the existence of sects in the time of Aśoka. Nothing in Sasaki causes me to seriously question this conclusion, so much of his analysis must for me remain speculative.

One of Sasaki’s fundamental methodological assumptions is that in seeking to understand the situation in Aśoka’s time it is preferable to rely on sources that do not actually mention Aśoka by name. I find this assumption bizarre if not entirely self-defeating: perhaps I should avoid articles by Sasaki if I want to learn of Sasaki’s views. The practical upshot of this assumption, however, is that he relies on the canonical Vinaya sources before treating the later schismatic and legendary accounts. This is fair enough, except that the Vinayas do not mention Aśoka (which is why Sasaki investigates them). It is plausible that the Vinayas should suppress Aśoka’s name, as they wish to maintain the impression that they derive entirely from the Buddha’s time. But Sasaki is only able to pin down one passage, from the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, into the time of Aśoka.

There a ‘powerful upāsaka’ is asked to help prevent schism by encouraging schismatic monks to disrobe and guaranteeing to support their material needs as laymen. Sasaki argues that this relates to the Aśokan ‘Unity Edicts’. I find this a perfectly reasonable argument and am most willing to adopt it as a working hypothesis.

But it is slim pickings. In contrast to the Sinhalese Vinaya Commentary account of the Third Council, there are no internal details that allow us to tie this event securely to Aśoka. Not only is he not mentioned, there is no mention of any places, events, etc. associated with Aśoka beyond the bare fact of being a powerful upāsaka who was associated with expelling bhikkhus.

The Vinaya passage, of course, is phrased as an entirely hypothetical case. It is equally possible that it has nothing to do with Aśoka. Perhaps Aśoka was simply following an already-established precedent. Or perhaps later kings or wealthy supporters followed Aśoka’s precedent.

If we look at those passages that speak of making schismatic monks return to lay status, there are three contexts: the Unity Edicts, the Sinhalese Vinaya Commentary account of the Third Council, and the above-mentioned passage from the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. Sasaki follows Bechert, however, in denying any connection between the Third Council and the other sources.

For reasons I detailed in Sects & Sectarianism, I disagree, and would rather treat all three of these sources as probably referring to the same or closely related events. As I noted in Sects & Sectarianism, if we accept this correspondence, all three passages take the same side: for the unified Sangha, and against the schismatics who disrobe. But our source texts are from the opposing sides in the root schism: Mahāsaṅghika and Sthavira. It is thus unlikely if not impossible that the root schism should have taken place at this time.

Perhaps Sasaki’s most important thesis is on the changing nature of schism. He argues that the earlier conception of schism involved cakrabheda, the breaking apart of the Buddhist community as a whole on doctrinal differences. Over time this changed to karmabheda, where an individual local Sangha would split over a formal difference in legal proceedings.

The overall trend is thus from a more naturalistic conception of schism towards a more legalistic one, which is most reasonable. One strong motivation for this would have been the growing importance of the story of Devadatta and the fear of the dire consequences of schism. Adopting a more narrow legalistic definition allows the Sangha to actually split and live separately without falling into a technical schism of the go-straight-to-hell variety.

But Sasaki’s treatment of Devadatta is problematic throughout. He repeatedly asserts that Devadatta’s was a split over Dhamma, whereas it was over the 5 points of monastic conduct, i.e., Vinaya. The fact that the Vinayas consistently say that schism can be cause by either Dhamma or Vinaya should be enough for us to hesitate before making a blanket distinction on these grounds.

Sasaki tries to show that these two definitions are present in the existing Vinayas, and that the process of evolution from cakrabheda to karmabheda may be observed in the changing way these are treated. For the sake of completeness, I have checked the Puggalavāda Vinaya treatise 律二十二明了論 (CBETA, T24, no. 1461, p. 667, b10-27), which Sasaki does not take account of. This gives the standard reasons for causing a schism, listing 14 cases based on one who claims that the Dhamma taught by the Buddha is not what the Buddha taught, etc. It finishes by giving two occasions: when interrogating (a bhikkhu about his conduct) and when the Sangha is gathered (for performing saṅghakamma). This account of schism, which is presumably a summary based on a no-longer existing Puggalavāda Vinaya, does not mention uposatha and thus would come under Sasaki’s definition of cakrabheda rather than kammabheda. Although it is a later, non-canonical source, it is worth including to complete the picture of the main early schools.

(Mūla) Sarvāstivāda (Vinayas) & Puggalavāda cakrabheda only
Vibhajjavāda (and Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma) cakrabheda & karmabheda
Mahāsaṅghika karmabheda only

Sasaki argues that the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya preserves the original situation, while the Mahāsaṅghikas were forerunners in developing the new concept. The Vibhajjavāda schools are caught in an uneasy compromise.

While there is some merit in this thesis, I believe it is not completely persuasive. It seems to me that the two conceptions of schism are not incompatible or explainable away purely through historical evolution. Rather, it seems that they express two rather different sides of a Buddhist community. The idea of cakrabheda is a more informal situation, which would prevail as the actual operating environment. Kammabheda is an attempt to fix this in a definitive technical sense.

As in so many contexts, the Vinaya must struggle to make precise and unambiguous boundaries in a fluid and changing situation. The historical dilemma is that Buddhists believe that a schismatic goes to hell, and yet the community was is fact splintering. Fixing the definition of schism in a narrow sense allowed the natural process of school formation to occur without fear of the kammic retribution. The textual basis for Sasaki’s thesis is not as sound as it might appear.

Our suspicions are alerted in that the Sarvāstivādins, who are supposed to preserve the original form of cakrabheda, acknowledge in their Abhidharma both cakrabheda and karmabheda; in fact, this is where Sasaki derives this terminology from. Sasaki shows that even the canonical Vinaya, in a ‘supplement’ to the main Vinaya, clearly acknowledges both forms.

To preserve his theory, therefore, Sasaki suggests that the Sarvāstivādins preserved the earlier form of cakrabheda unchanged in their root canonical texts while the actual situation adapted to the times and is reflected in the Abhidharma. We first note that the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya, in general, is not known for being particularly early, if anything it seems to have been slightly more open to later changes. More important, the passages Sasaki quotes do not unambiguously establish the key point, that the Sarvāstivāda conception of schism did not revolve around performance of separate uposathas.

The central passage, of course, deals with Devadatta, and the more general descriptions of schism specifically refer back to this, saying the schism occurred ‘as with Devadatta’. But what actually occurred? Devadatta, while still staying with the greater Sangha, proposes his five points: for all his life, a bhikkhu must 1. Wear rag robes; 2. Live on alms; 3. Eat just one meal per day; 4. Live in the open air; 5. Eat neither fish nor flesh. He announces these three times in the midst of the assembly, and the gathered monks acknowledge their unanimous consent by taking salākas (voting sticks). But this procedure is exactly the procedure of saṅghakamma, and uposatha is just a special form of regular saṅghakamma where the rules of monastic discipline are recited each fortnight. Here Devadatta is proposing his five special rules in a manner that is clearly meant to replace or modify the existing Vinaya, and is in fact a substitute uposatha. The only difference is that this saṅghakamma is not performed on the regular fortnight, but this is no objection, for Sasaki has shown that a special samaggi-uposatha may be held outside the regular time for creating unity, so there is no reason why the same thing should not happen for schism. Furthermore, this passage follows on from the whole story of Devadatta, where we find the following:

At that time the Buddha personally admonished Devadatta: ‘Do not agitate for a saṅghabheda. Do not undertake a course of action leading to saṅghabheda. Live in harmony together with the Sangha. In harmony, rejoicing together and not disputing, with one mind and one training, mixing like water with milk, one lives happily.’

Compare with the following exhortation found at the end of the Sarvāstivāda pātimokkha (and in similar form in other Vinayas). In Pachow’s translation:

‘To these [rules of the Pātimokkha], venerable sirs, you should, amongst you, rejoice in, cherish in your heart without dispute, just as a mixture of water and milk, and observe them carefully.’1

Obviously this is the same passage as that about saṅghabheda, and it is to this, the recitation of the pātimokkha at the fortnightly uposatha, that the Buddha was referring in admonishing Devadatta. Thus Sasaki’s hypothesis rests on flimsy grounds indeed: not only do the later canonical and post-canonical Sarvāstivādin texts explicitly acknowledge both forms of schism, even the basic text, which Sasaki relies on for his basic premise, while not as explicit, is strongly suggestive of the existence of kammabheda as well as cakrabheda.

Sasaki develops an elaborate theory on the evolution of early schools. He regards it as ‘certain’ that the basic schools, including the Mahāsaṅghika, Sarvāstivāda, Puggalavāda, and Vibhajjavāda, had emerged before the time of Aśoka. Like every other writer I have seen on this topic he assumes this without giving any serious evidence, and ignores the plain fact that all textual and epigraphic evidence on Aśoka’s life (except the Sarvāstivādin tradition of Vasumitra and the Mahāvibhāṣā) completely ignores the schools.

According to Sasaki, the ‘Unity Edicts’ and the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya passage are sufficient evidence to conclude that Aśoka attempted to reconcile these schools. The legal means that made this possible was the change from cakrabheda to karmabheda. Under the conditions of cakrabheda that prevailed before Aśoka, schools with differing doctrines were not able to live together. Afterwards, they could maintain different doctrines, but as long as they performed the same uposatha there was no schism.

But the situation of the early schools is not consistent with the definitions of cakrabheda: it says that one should reject, e.g. the eightfold path. This clearly evokes the Buddha’s first sermon, the rolling forth of the ‘Dhammacakka’ where the eightfold path was first declared.

But no school of Buddhism, and certainly none of these early schools, ever thought of rejecting such basic Buddhist tenets. Their differences were of an entirely different order, conflicting opinions in how best to interpret certain teachings.

The only Vinaya to make this change systematically was the Mahāsaṅghika, and in doing so they restructured a large part of their Vinaya Skandhaka, thus largely explaining the puzzling differences between this section of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya and the other Sthavira Vinayas. (This part of Sasaki’s thesis is most valuable, and I think he does show plausibly that the section of schism is the breaking-point around which the revised Vinaya was constructed.)

Sasaki concludes, on this basis only, that the Mahāsaṅghikas were especially close to Aśoka, the Vibhajjavādins less so, and the Sarvāstivādins were antagonistic. Sasaki’s theory is like an elaborate spider web, a beautiful system constructed out of sophisticated internal connections, but with only a few slender connections anchoring it to anything else. When even one or two of these connections snaps in the wind, the integrity of the structure as a whole starts to feel very shaky indeed.

1 Pachow, 192


Dear Bhante,
Very interesting text!
Where can we find Sasaki’s papers?

Hi @tiagocarioca,

You may wish to draw Bhante’s attention to your question by using @sujato.