What were the wedge issues that caused the splits that created the early Buddhist sects?

What were the wedge issues that caused the splits that created the early Buddhist sects? I am talking about those that emerged within two or three hundred years after the buddha. Not differences that emerged long after the splits.

Bhante @sujato , Wrote an essay on differences between Theravada Buddhism and the EBTs that I think was comparing the EBTs to what is essentially modern Theravada Buddhism. Correct me if I am wrong. I am asking a different question, though the answers may overlap.

PS. I considered making this a question, but I think this may be too big a question for a simple answer by one person.

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First you should read Sect and Sectarianism by bhikkhu Sujato
(Google it!)

Next this essay

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Bareau’s The Buddhist Schools of the Small Vehicle is a handy reference that documents a lot of information for each of the known early Buddhist schools. We really only know their name on many cases because none of their texts survived the collapse of Buddhism in south and central Asia. But he details the doctrinal positions on the wedge issues when they can be surmised.

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Thanks Charles. I just ordered it.

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Let me make a brief summary of my findings!

All the ancient sources are sectarian documents which act as origin myths explaining how their school came to be (and why it is the best one!) None of them should be accepted uncritically, but they should be seen together and tacit agreement between conflicting parties is most likely to be true.

There are three reasons given for the initial split between the Sthaviras (ancestral Theravādins) and the Mahāsaṅghika.

  • The nature of the arahant
  • Strictness of Vinaya
  • Purity of the texts

Of these, the nature of the arahant appears to be the actual issue. It was probably driven by a personal crisis where a community leader was believed to be an arahant yet exhibited unsuitable behaviors, specifically, nocturnal emissions. This began the doctrinal development of elevating the Buddha (and later, bodhisattvas) while downplaying the arahant.

This happened in the century following Ashoka. There was no split and no separate schools in the time of Ashoka. He only mentions a unified Sangha and says that differences have been reconciled. This detail is supported by those accounts that have proven historical origins in the Ashokan period, especially the “mission story” found in the Vinaya commentary in Pali and Chinese, which contains details that have been verified by modern archeology.

  • The idea that Vinaya differences drove the split is inferred from the canonical accounts of the Second Council, but these accounts unanimously say that the differences were reconciled.
  • The idea that textual corruption drove the split is a backdating of the then-contemporary (2nd–4th century CE?) competition between the Theravādins and the Mahāsaṅghika in Andhra-pradesh. The textual corruption in question refers to the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit preferred by the Mahāsaṅghika.

Both these ideas are supported by the Pali Dīpavaṁsa, which has been treated as a reliable source by many modern scholars, but which in this regard is the latest and least reliable of the ancient sources. The Dīpavaṁsa and Mahāvaṁsa are generally reliable for history in Sri Lanka, but not so much for earlier history in India.

Concurrently, a range of doctrinal issues were being interpreted in different ways in different communities of the Sthavira branch and encoded in their separate Abhidhamma texts. These ultimately hardened into different schools.

  • Sarvāstivāda: all dhammas—past, present, and future—“exist” (sabbaṁ atthi), but they are only functional in the present. This is an attempt to reconcile impermanence with continuity.
  • Puggalavāda: the “person” (puggala) exists and cannot be reduced to the aggregates. This is an attempt to reconcile not-self (anattā) with personal identity.
  • Vibhajjavāda*: rejects all the above views and asserts that:
    • The arahant is fully pure and cannot decline.
    • Only the present exists and continuity is explained through causality.
    • The “person” is only a convention and personal identity is explained through memory and perception.

Together with the Mahāsaṅghika, these make up the “big four”, the main schools with significant doctrinal differences. Each of these developed a number of sub-schools, which were basically local establishments with only trivial doctrinal differences.

The term Vibhajjavāda is a convenient label for a group of schools, although it is unclear if it was used in this sense in ancient times. Prominent among those schools were:

  • Mahāvihāravāsins: “the dwellers in the Great Monastery” at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, the ancestors of the modern Theravada.
  • Mahīśāsaka, who were probably based around Mahissati.
  • Dharmaguptaka, in the Greek regions to the north-west.

These schools and sub-schools make up the so-called “eighteen” early schools (or nikāyas). Of these, three are of special importance since they still exist as Vinaya lineages.

  • The Mahāvihāravāsins, after subsuming their rivals in Sri Lanka in the 12th century, and later coming to dominate throughout south-east Asia, became the Theravada we know today.
  • The Dharmaguptaka became standardized as the Vinaya lineage for China and other east Asian schools (Korea, Japan, Vietnam).
  • The Mūlasarvāstivāda (the Mathuran branch of Sarvāstivāda) became the Vinaya lineage of Tibet and other central Asian schools (Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mongolia).

In a curious twist of fate, both of these existing Vinaya lineages have interesting historical connections with the Theravada.

The Dharmaguptaka was probably founded by a Greek monk called Dhammarakkhita, who was present at the founding of the great stupa in Anuradhapura, and who was consulted on Abhidhamma by Sri Lankan monks.

The Mūlasarvāstivāda descends from the community of Śaṇavāsin and his student Upagupta who founded a famous forest monastery outside of Mathura. It was there that Moggaliputtatissa—the author of the Pali Kathāvatthu and the founder of the Theravāda—was staying when he was called by Ashoka to reconcile the divisions in the community and organize the missions. Upagupta remains popular in the folk Buddhism of Myanmar, north and north-east Thailand, and Laos, a remnant of the northern Buddhism that spread through that region before their aforementioned conversion to Sri Lankan Theravāda after the 12th century.

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Bhante @sujato, With regard to written records from the time of Ashoka, I have always read that only the stone edicts are extant, is that true or are there other court or administrative records as well?

That’s correct, there are only stone edicts. However in this case the Buddhist records (Samantapasadika and it’s Chinese translation) confirm important details of names and places and supplement the edicts.

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The first schism of the Sangha into two main branches (Mahasanghika and Sthavira) arose mainly out of differences over certain Vinaya rules, not about the Buddha’s teachings under the headings of Sutra/Sutta or Dharma/Dhamma (teaching). It occurred not long after the second council.
Pages 2-7 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (440.2 KB)

This is the conventional wisdom. In Sects and Sectarianism I explain why it is incorrect.

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for reference:

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Do we know of the reasons why the Mahāsamghikas died out? Is it just due to them not sending missions out of continental India, and Buddhism slowly fading into extinction there? It’s interesting that we have so little of their texts, seemingly, and no surviving lineages connected to them (AFAIK) despite them being the other half of the picture of Early Buddhism.

It seems so. I don’t know of any accounts of them having settlements outside of greater India. IIRC the Mahasanghika Vinaya was sourced from Pataliputta, and I believe one of their selling points was that they were based in the original middle country.

The Puggalavada are even less attested!

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A post was split to a new topic: Ashoka and the relationship with Brahmans

Cf.:

As I said above, I understand that the conventional wisdom says that there was a schism after the second council. It is incorrect.

Simply put:

  • Every Vinaya says the dispute at the Second Council was resolved. These are our only canonical sources for the event and the modern story directly contradicts them.
  • Ashoka speaks of a unified Sangha. In fact, all the historically verifiable evidence from the Ashokan period speaks of a unified Sangha with no mention of schools.
  • The idea that the Second Council resulted in a split is mostly derived from the Dipavamsa, which scholars have relied on because it is usually reliable on history in Sri Lanka. But on pre-Sri Lankan history, it is the latest and least reliable source. It doesn’t even agree with the more reliable account in the Samantapasadika.
  • The earliest Indic account of the split is the Sariputrapariprccha, a Mahasanghika account which sets the events after Ashoka.
  • Multiple other Indic accounts also say the split was after Ashoka.
  • Of the issues that are said to cause the split, the only one that is accepted as a defining point of sectarian difference by all sides of the dispute is the status of the arahant.

And incidentally, it is inaccurate to refer to the split as a “schism”, since schism usually translates saṅghabheda, but the ancient accounts almost always avoid using that word. There is no evidence that a formal saṅghabheda as defined by Vinaya ever occurred.

No-one wants to be on the side that’s going to hell.


BTW, the Wikipedia article on the Second Council is extremely inaccurate: almost everything it says is wrong, or at least disputable. It relies on the work of Skilton, who I guess wrote some short history of Buddhism, to say things like:

After unsuccessfully trying to modify the Vinaya, a small group of “elderly members”, i.e. sthaviras, broke away from the majority Mahāsāṃghika during the Second Buddhist council, giving rise to the Sthavira sect.

This is sheer fantasy.

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He did. It’s a pop history and most of the stuff he puts forth on early/pre-sectarian are either based on bad minority opinions or relying on info that is half a century or more out of date

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It seems the issue of the status of the arahant (“specifically, nocturnal emissions”) was also a matter of rules, behaviors of the Sangha (i.e. the Vinaya issues).

I am unable to see why the status of the arahant could be the main issue that caused the split of the unified Sangha after the second council.

Regarding “the doctrinal development of elevating the Buddha (and later, bodhisattvas) while downplaying the arahant”, this is one of the Mahayana ideas developed in the early Mahayana sutras. Cf.: SN 22.58 = SA 75:
Pages 67-70 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (279.5 KB)

There is the discussion in this in Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism

Read more in the book

No, not at all.

In the Vinaya a bhikkhu commits no transgression if he has an emission of semen while sleeping. Therefore the question of whether or not this can happen to an arahant is a disputed point of Dhamma (i.e., one involving competing claims about the nature of an arahant), not a disputed point of Vinaya.

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As I keep saying, the Sangha was not split after the Second Council.


The question of whether an arahant emits semen has been actively discussed in modern Thai Buddhism. It is even today a controversial issue.

Why? Because it cuts to the heart of the question of what it means for an arahant to be beyond worldly desires. And precisely this question that was one of the key issues in driving early sectarian Buddhism: how pure is the arahant?

I give more comprehensive references in Sects and Sectarianism, but for the Theravada take on this, see Kv 2.1.

Indeed, thanks.

For those who are mystified as to how such matters become public knowledge, it is common for the robes of senior monks to be washed by novices or junior monks. They would obviously notice if there had been an emission. And if they weren’t careful, everyone else would, too, because the method of washing robes in boiling water has the rather awkward side effect of fixing protein stains as a permanent mark. And since robes were not easy to get, once it is stained it would be worn for quite some time.

Thanks! William’s discussion gets it partly right, but he confuses the issue by referring to “Theravada accounts” of the Second Council. In fact the primary sources for the Second Council are the Vinayas of all schools, including Theravada, which on relevant issues tell a similar story.

The “Theravada accounts” he refers to means primarily the Dipavamsa, followed by the Mahavamsa. It’s misleading to simply mention “Theravada accounts” in this way, because the other primary source of Theravada history for this period is the Samantapasadika, which unlike the Dipavamsa enjoys corroboration with archeological findings. It says nothing of these events, depicting the Sangha as unified until after Asoka.

Moreover, the Dipavamsa does not, as he suggests, attribute the split to a relaxation of Vinaya rules, but to lax, expanded, and inaccurate texts.

Let’s take a minute to look at what the Dipavamsa actually says (with thanks to Anandajoti for his excellent edition!). This is a rather poorly-edited and not very coherent book, which was later tidied up for the Mahavamsa. According to Oldenberg, it could not have been written before 302 CE, which is the last date it records, and it is probably some time after that. That is to say, on the Second Council it was written around 600 to 800 years after the events. (The primary northern sources are all older than this.)

The fourth chapter tells the story of the First and Second Councils, and finishes with the unifying of the Sangha.

The next chapter then jumps back in time to the Parinibbana. It then tells the story of the First Council again, and then the Second Council again. Whereas the first version of this story stuck to a summary of the canonical record, now we are told that there were 12,000 heretical Vajjians and no fewer than 1,200,000 genuine monks (jinaputta). (Note that in this account, “Asoka” was king at Pataliputta; this is not the famous Asoka, but the son of Shishunaga sometimes called Kālasoka.)

It adds the detail that it after completing the Vinaya discussions, they then undertook a recital of the canon, which took “eight months” to complete. It further says that the Vajjian monks were expelled, which is not the case in the Vinaya; rather, there the procedure was agreed on by all parties and carried out in harmony.

Next it says that the Vajjians formed another party with many folk who spoke against the Dhamma. The whole tone is extreme and polemical, calling them “evil”.

Now so far the text-historical situation could hardly be clearer. The Dipavamsa preserves an old poetic retelling of the Second Council, which serves as a handy summary of the Vinaya. At some later date, a new chapter was composed, which retold all those events in a far more elaborate and polemical style. There was no attempt to reconcile the two versions: they just sit there side by side.

Obviously the second telling should be regarded as an unreliable sectarian account. As is normal in such matters, it is not really about what it pretends to be about. Legendary “histories” are written for a reason, and that reason is invariably some issue that the contemporary community is facing. In this case, we know that the Sri Lanka Mahavihara had a strong and somewhat bitter competition with the contemporary Mahasanghika school; both schools had major establishments in Andhra Pradesh (and probably Bodhgaya). And we know that the Mahasanghika is characterized by rejecting a number of the new texts and doctrines of the Theravada, composing their own, and putting their texts in Hybrid Sanskrit, a language that appears weird and confusing from a Pali perspective.

All of which puts the next passage in a historical light. The “evil” party held a new recital they called the “Great Council” (Mahāsaṅgīti) (which funnily enough is the name of the edition used by SuttaCentral!). The group is here called the Mahāsaṅgītika, which we assume is the same as the Mahasanghika. Here is what the Dipavamsa says about them.

The Bhikkhus of the Great Council settled a doctrine contrary (to the true Faith). Altering the original redaction they made another redaction.

They transposed Suttas which belonged to one place (of the collection), to another place; they destroyed the (true) meaning and the Faith, in the Vinaya and in the five Collections (of Suttas).

Those Bhikkhus, who understood neither what had been taught in long expositions nor without exposition, neither the natural meaning nor the recondite meaning, settled a false meaning in connection with spurious speeches of Buddha; these Bhikkhus destroyed a great deal of (true) meaning under the colour of the letter.

Rejecting single passages of the Suttas and of the profound Vinaya, they composed other Suttas and another Vinaya which had (only) the appearance (of the genuine ones).

Rejecting the following texts, viz.: the Parivāra which is an abstract of the contents (of the Vinaya), the six sections of the Abhidhamma, the Paṭisambhidā, the Niddesa, and some portions of the Jātaka, they composed new ones.

Forsaking the original rules regarding nouns, genders, composition, and the embellishments of style, they changed all that.

Despite the polemics of the Mahavihara, the Dipavamsa depicts the Mahasanghikas as being accurate textual critics. The texts they reject as late are in fact late products of the Theravada school. As for the recomposition of the Vinaya, again this seems accurate, as the Mahasanghika Vinaya has in fact undergone a significant reorganization, which occurred significantly later than the Second Council (it seems to refer to Ashoka, for example). They also, like every school, composed new texts, which were sometimes taken to be buddhavacana.

And finally the description of forsaking of grammar rules is exactly what you’d expect from a Pali speaker reading Hybrid Sanskrit. Hybrid Sanskrit, of course, is a later language and it took time for texts to be adapted into it. It would be cruel to dwell on the irony of the fact that this critique comes from the pages of perhaps the most poorly edited and composed book in Pali, one whose compositional incoherence is comparable to the Mahasanghika’s own Mahavastu.

So this is an accurate description of the Mahasanghika, but one that can only apply to a much later period, not immediately after the Second Council. It must stem from the experiences of the Mahavihara monks in the early centuries CE.

Hence the second of the two accounts of the Second Council in the Dipavamsa should be rejected as a historical record. It includes no new relevant information that is historically plausible, and much that is implausible. There is no evidence to support the contention that it preserves any genuine independent historical information. Rather, it echoes a much later dispute between the Mahavihara and the Mahasanghikas of Andhra.

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