Why Devadatta Was No Saint


Devadatta is de­picted as the ar­che­typal vil­lain in all Buddhist tra­di­tions. Reginald Ray has ar­gued for a rad­i­cal re­assess­ment of Devadatta as a for­est saint who was un­fairly ma­ligned in later monas­tic Buddhism. His work has been in­flu­en­tial, but it re­lies on omis­sions and mis­taken read­ings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no over­lap be­tween the Mahāsaṅghika treat­ment [of Devadatta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is un­true. On the con­trary, the man­ner in which Devadatta is de­picted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly sim­i­lar to the Sthavira ac­counts. Such dif­fer­ences as do ex­ist are lit­er­ary rather than doc­tri­nal. The sto­ries of Devadatta’s de­prav­ity be­came in­creas­ingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a nor­mal fea­ture of the mythol­o­giz­ing process, and has noth­ing to do with any an­tag­o­nism against for­est as­cetics. In any case, the early sources are unan­i­mous in con­demn­ing Devadatta as the in­sti­ga­tor of the first schism in the Buddhist com­mu­nity.


In 1994 Reginald Ray pub­lished Buddhist Saints in India, a lengthy book on the ‘for­est saint’ of Buddhist lit­er­a­ture. It told of how the wild, un­pre­dictable sage of the for­est was the orig­i­nal Buddhist ideal of saint­hood, or ara­hantship, but was sup­planted by the se­date, rule-bound monas­tics of later years. This ro­man­tic tale was sup­ported by an ex­ten­sive frame­work of schol­ar­ship.

There is some­thing to this idea, and Ray was right to em­pha­size the im­por­tance of the for­est sage. The ten­sion be­tween the life of med­i­ta­tive seclu­sion in the for­est and set­tled monas­ti­cism in the city is still felt in Buddhist cul­tures to­day, and Ray does much to bring the some­times ob­scure for­est life back into fo­cus.

Nevertheless, Ray fell into the all-too-common trap of over-dramatizing his the­sis. It wasn’t enough to sim­ply high­light the role of the for­est sages; he had to re­con­struct Buddhist his­tory as a vast move­ment ded­i­cated to sup­press­ing these icon­o­clas­tic, charis­matic he­roes. Given the anti-establishment roots of Western Buddhism, such rad­i­cal no­tions will al­ways find ea­ger ears, de­spite his flawed han­dling of his­tory.

These flaws are nowhere more ap­par­ent than in his as­ton­ish­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the so-called ‘con­demned saint’, Devadatta. This meme has had a sur­pris­ing tenac­ity. It is re­peated as if it were au­thor­i­ta­tive, and is used as a ba­sis for fur­ther ar­gu­ments on any­thing from veg­e­tar­i­an­ism to the au­then­tic­ity of monas­tic life.1 But it is wrong, and I would like to show why.

Ray’s ar­gu­ment re­lies on two stud­ies, by Mukherjee and Bareau. I do not have ac­cess to these, so my crit­i­cisms are not of them, but rather of the way they have been used by Ray.

Devadatta wasn’t all bad

Ray starts by re­count­ing the tra­di­tional ver­sion of Devadatta’s story, say­ing he is de­picted as an ‘in­vet­er­ate evil­doer’. He ar­gues that the tra­di­tions’ bias against Devadatta as an as­cetic for­est saint in­flu­enced them to cre­ate ever more lurid ac­counts of Devadatta’s evil deeds. He goes on to ac­knowl­edge that Devadatta’s po­si­tion as an evil­doer is not en­tirely con­sis­tent, giv­ing a few ex­am­ples where he ap­pears in a more pos­i­tive light.

Ray seems to think that these two per­spec­tives are con­tra­dic­tory. But they are noth­ing of the sort. The story of Devadatta is not that of an ‘in­vet­er­ate evil­doer’, but of a fall from grace: a tal­ented med­i­ta­tor with psy­chic pow­ers, who be­came cor­rupted by jeal­ousy and greed, and com­mit­ted many bad deeds, be­fore fi­nally seek­ing re­demp­tion.

Devadatta’s good qual­i­ties are re­quired by the doc­trine of kamma. Power in this life can only come from good kamma in past lives. The Buddha could not have been threat­ened by a no­body. His ad­ver­sary must have been some­one whose birth was as ex­alted as the Buddha’s, who was tal­ented in the mun­dane achieve­ments of con­cen­tra­tion and psy­chic powers—but not in the stages of Awakening—someone so charis­matic he could sway a pow­er­ful king to his will. In other words, it had to be some­one like Devadatta.

If early ver­sions of Devadatta’s life con­tained no good qual­i­ties, the tra­di­tions would have had to in­vent them. So along­side the in­creas­ingly im­plau­si­ble list of crimes at­trib­uted to Devadatta, we also find im­plau­si­ble strengths. Literally: the Pali com­men­taries say Devadatta had the strength of five ele­phants.2

The real doc­tri­nal prob­lem is, why are there not more texts that show how Devadatta be­came so pow­er­ful? This is a se­ri­ous prob­lem for the doc­trine of kamma, given that Devadatta’s mis­deeds are recorded at such length in so many past lives. The prob­lem is ad­dressed at length in the Milindapañha, where King Milinda lists a mul­ti­tude of Devadatta’s for­tu­nate births, and asks Nāgasena how to ex­plain this. Nāgasena says that when Devadatta had been a ruler he had pro­tected the land, built bridges and halls, and had been gen­er­ous to as­cetics and those in need.3 The tra­di­tions were well aware that Devadatta had some good in him.

However, even though most ref­er­ences to a ‘good’ Devadatta are un­prob­lem­atic, in­deed es­sen­tial to the story, one of Ray’s ex­am­ples of the good Devadatta (1624 ) can­not be ex­plained in this way. Ray refers to a pas­sage in the Pali Udāna, which lists Devadatta along­side sev­eral great monks, call­ing them ‘brah­mans’ and, in the verse that fol­lows, claim­ing that they are ara­hants. If Devadatta was an ara­hant it would be im­pos­si­ble for him to com­mit the crimes that are at­trib­uted to him.

Ray’s source is Woodward’s out­dated trans­la­tion, based on the Pali Text Society edi­tion of the Udāna. The PTS edi­tion is, how­ever, the only mod­ern edi­tion I have found that men­tions Devadatta in this list. The Royal Thai, Sinhala Buddha Jayanthi, and Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana (Burmese) edi­tions all omit Devadatta.5 Curiously, the PTS edi­tion does not even men­tion any vari­ant read­ings. Obviously this is a mis­take. More re­cent trans­la­tions by Ireland6 and Thanissaro7 note this, and omit the ref­er­ence to Devadatta.

This is typ­i­cal of Ray’s sloppy use of pri­mary texts. He seems to have not read the texts he refers to, and his third-hand de­scrip­tions of­ten bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to what they ac­tu­ally say. For ex­am­ple, he claims, rather por­ten­tously, that in the Aṅguttara Nikāya Devadatta ‘re­veals him­self as one who has the right view and can preach the cor­rect doc­trine’. Ray gives no ref­er­ence for this star­tling rev­e­la­tion; and in fact no such text ex­ists. Devadatta does not even speak in the Aṅguttara Nikāya.8

Even when Ray gets the text right, he mis­rep­re­sents the mean­ing. He says that Sāriputta praised Devadatta’s saint­li­ness, a praise that is con­firmed by the Buddha him­self. What he omits is the con­text.9 When Devadatta’s be­hav­ior got out of con­trol, the Buddha asked Sāriputta to in­form the lay folk what was go­ing on.10 Sāriputta says that he had for­merly praised Devadatta for his great abil­i­ties; the Buddha said that that was true then, and it is true now that Devadatta has changed. This is typ­i­cal of the way Ray picks and chooses from his sources, in the process twist­ing their mean­ing so they be­come un­rec­og­niz­able.

Ray fur­ther ar­gues (163) that Devadatta ap­pears with the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a saint ‘even when the texts are openly hos­tile to him. For ex­am­ple, he is de­picted as one who med­i­tates in soli­tude.’ But the pas­sage he refers to does not de­pict Devadatta as med­i­tat­ing in soli­tude, al­though some trans­la­tions might be taken to im­ply so.11 The rel­e­vant term ra­hogatassa paṭisal­lī­nassa sim­ply means ‘in pri­vate, alone’, and has noth­ing to do with be­ing on a se­cluded med­i­ta­tion re­treat. Under this stan­dard, any­one who spends time think­ing alone in their bed­room would qual­ify as a ‘for­est saint’!

In the same para­graph, Ray says that ‘Devadatta is also a re­al­ized mas­ter and, through his awak­en­ing, is in pos­ses­sion of mag­i­cal power.’ This di­rectly con­tra­dicts the Pali text, which says that Devadatta at­tained the ‘un­en­light­ened person’s psy­chic pow­ers’.12 Ray mis­un­der­stands the el­e­men­tary Buddhist doc­trine that psy­chic abil­i­ties are not con­nected with Awakening. This is a ba­sic moral of the Devadatta story as un­der­stood by any Buddhist med­i­ta­tor: don’t be sat­is­fied with cheap tricks like psy­chic pow­ers and stop ‘half-way’ like Devadatta!

Ray sums up the open­ing sec­tion of his es­say by say­ing that: ‘This raises the ques­tion of why Devadatta is on the one hand vil­i­fied as the very em­bod­i­ment of evil and on the other de­picted as a re­al­ized saint.’ (163) As I have just shown, this ques­tion is mis­placed. The bulk of these texts of­fer a co­her­ent ac­count of a spir­i­tual fall from grace. There is only one pas­sage cited by Ray where this ex­pla­na­tion doesn’t ap­ply, and in that case Ray re­lies on a faulty text.

The six Vinayas

The next sev­eral pages of Ray’s book are de­voted to sum­ma­riz­ing the analy­sis of Devadatta’s story as pre­sented by Mukherjee and Bareau. Most of this is a dis­cus­sion of Devadatta’s leg­end as passed down in the five Vinayas of the Sthavira group of schools. Essentially he shows that the texts of the five Sthavira schools are pretty sim­i­lar, con­sist­ing of fif­teen ba­sic episodes with a few vari­a­tions in struc­ture and de­tail. This is un­prob­lem­atic, but also not par­tic­u­larly ger­mane to his the­sis, so I will pass over it.

Ray then con­trasts the treat­ment of Devadatta (169) in the Sthavira Vinayas with that in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. To ap­pre­ci­ate this part of the ar­gu­ment, a lit­tle back­ground on the Vinaya texts is in or­der.

The early Buddhist texts are broadly di­vided into doc­trine (Suttas) and monas­tic dis­ci­pline (Vinaya). While both these col­lec­tions con­tain early and later ma­te­r­ial, the Vinaya is, on the whole, some­what later than the Suttas. The story of Devadatta is pri­mar­ily the ac­count of the ear­li­est threat of schism to the Buddhist monas­tic com­mu­nity, and is there­fore told at length in the Vinaya (al­though episodes from his life are also found in the Suttas).

We are for­tu­nate to pos­sess com­plete Vinaya canons of six schools.13 These fall into two groups, based on the first his­tor­i­cal schism of Buddhism.14 This schism was be­tween the Sthavira and the Mahāsaṅghika.15 We pos­sess five com­plete Vinayas of the Sthavira group of schools, and only one from the Mahāsaṅghika. While all of these texts have many dif­fer­ences, schol­ars are agreed that the bulk of the im­por­tant ma­te­r­ial is shared by all the schools.

One of the prin­ci­ples used in text-critical stud­ies is that when two re­lated texts share com­mon ma­te­r­ial, that ma­te­r­ial is most likely to de­rive from a com­mon an­ces­tor. Of course, this is not nec­es­sar­ily the case, as com­mon ma­te­r­ial may stem from later bor­row­ing or from par­al­lel but in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ments. Nevertheless, in most cases the the­sis of a shared an­ces­tor is the sim­plest and most pow­er­ful ex­pla­na­tion.

All be­ing equal, then, if we find ma­te­r­ial in the five Sthavira Vinayas but not in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, it is likely that the ma­te­r­ial in ques­tion was added by the Sthavira tra­di­tion fol­low­ing the first schism. And this is ex­actly the line of rea­son­ing that Ray re­lies on. Later we shall see, how­ever, that mat­ters are not so clear-cut, and that un­shared ma­te­r­ial might point to some­thing quite dif­fer­ent.

All the Vinayas in­clude a sec­tion on schism. In the Sthavira group of schools, this sec­tion con­sists of a lengthy chap­ter in the part of the Vinaya called the Skandhaka.16 The Skandhaka con­sists of roughly twenty chap­ters that deal with var­i­ous mat­ters rang­ing from or­di­na­tion and dis­ci­pli­nary pro­ce­dures to build­ing stan­dards and de­port­ment. This is one of the main two di­vi­sions of the Sthavira Vinayas, the other be­ing the Vibhaṅga, which con­tains the rules for monks and nuns (pāṭimokkha), to­gether with back­ground and ex­pla­na­tions. This di­vi­sion into two sec­tions, and the rough con­tent of the two sec­tions, is com­mon to all Vinayas. However, the Mahāsaṅghika sec­tion that Ray calls the Skandhaka is not re­ally com­pa­ra­ble to the Skandhakas found in the Sthavira Vinayas, de­spite the fact that they dis­cuss many of the same top­ics. More on this later.

The questions of Upāli

The schism chap­ter of the Sthavira Skandhakas be­gins with a lengthy ac­count of Devadatta’s at­tempts to cause a schism in the Buddhist monas­tic com­mu­nity. After this is a briefer ex­change be­tween the Buddha and Upāli, the fore­most Vinaya ex­pert, on the topic of schism.

Ray points out that the schism sec­tion in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya omits the story of Devadatta and con­sists only of a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the Buddha and Upāli. He ar­gues that this must rep­re­sent an early ver­sion of the text, and that it was only later that the Sthavira schools con­nected Devadatta with schism. However, Ray’s dis­cus­sion is se­verely lack­ing. It would seem to be a mat­ter of some im­port that we have found the ear­li­est Vinaya ac­count of schism; yet he does not seem to have read the pas­sages in ques­tion; he does not con­sider the con­tent of them at all; he does not con­sider the genre of Vinaya lit­er­a­ture they be­long to; and he does not seek any grounds to in­de­pen­dently con­firm that this is, in fact, an early text. When these omis­sions are rec­ti­fied, we shall see that Ray’s con­clu­sion is un­founded.

The dis­cus­sion be­tween the Buddha and Upāli on schism is an ex­am­ple of a genre com­mon in all the Vinayas, known as the up­āli­paripuc­chā. It de­picts Venerable Upāli, the fore­most ex­pert on Vinaya, ap­proach­ing the Buddha with var­i­ous de­tailed and sys­tem­atic ques­tions on Vinaya. Such pas­sages are of­ten found to­wards the end of chap­ters in the Skandhaka; and in some schools, they were ex­tended to be­come com­plete Vinaya texts in them­selves. The ex­changes have a me­chan­i­cal, ar­ti­fi­cial qual­ity, far from the nat­ural dis­cus­sions of spir­i­tual life found in early Buddhism. They are never, as Ray says, the ‘core’ of the mat­ter (170); they are rather the Vinaya equiv­a­lent of the end­less cross-questions of the Abhidhamma, con­cerned with le­gal de­f­i­n­i­tions and cat­e­gor­i­cal niceties. The up­āli­paripuc­chā class of lit­er­a­ture, there­fore, be­longs to the later strata of canon­i­cal, and even post-canonical, text.

Given the ubiq­uity of these dis­cus­sions, we can­not as­sume, as Ray does, that the up­āli­paripuc­chās on schism in the Sthavira and Mahāsaṅghika Vinayas stem from a com­mon an­ces­tor. Unless they share signs of a com­mon de­riva­tion, they may just as eas­ily have arisen as in­de­pen­dent par­al­lel de­vel­op­ments. Let us, then, com­pare the rel­e­vant pas­sages in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya with the Pali as an ex­am­ple of a Sthavira Vinaya.

In the Pali, the dis­cus­sion be­gins with Upāli ask­ing about the dis­tinc­tion be­tween a ‘split in the Sangha’ (saṅgharāji) and a ‘schism in the Sangha’ (saṅghab­heda), as well as the one who brings har­mony to the Sangha.17 As usual in an up­āli­paripuc­chā, this is not an in­tro­duc­tion to the topic, but a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of le­gal de­f­i­n­i­tions that only makes sense to an ex­pert. The dis­cus­sion of­fers some verses,18 then pro­ceeds to ex­am­ine the ex­act con­di­tions whereby a schis­matic may or may not be des­tined to re­birth in hell. This only be­falls a monk who, with ma­li­cious in­tent to dis­tort the Dhamma and Vinaya, com­pletes a for­mal Act to di­vide the Sangha. While Devadatta is not men­tioned, this pas­sage ob­vi­ously de­rives from the fact that Devadatta was said to fall into hell fol­low­ing his at­tacks on the Buddha and his Sangha.19

Rather than the sin­gle ex­ten­sive dis­cus­sion found in the Pali, the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya con­tains two short sec­tions sep­a­rated by sev­eral pages. In the first of these sec­tions, the Buddha tells Upāli that one who causes schism may do so based on ei­ther mal­ice for the Dhamma or mal­ice for the per­son, and goes on to dis­cuss the num­ber of monks who make up a quo­rum for caus­ing a schism. It then dis­cusses the sit­u­a­tion if a ‘pow­er­ful lay fol­lower’ is in­volved.20 In the sec­ond sec­tion there is a brief dis­cus­sion of one who ei­ther breaks or brings har­mony to the Sangha, leav­ing out most of the de­tails of the Pali ac­count, such as the dis­tinc­tion be­tween the ‘split in the Sangha’ and the ‘schism in the Sangha’.21 Neither of these pas­sages fea­ture any verses.

Unfortunately for Ray’s the­sis, the Mahāsaṅghika up­āli­paripuc­chā shares lit­tle in com­mon with the Pali pas­sages. A more de­tailed study, tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the other Sthavira Vinayas, might re­veal some points in com­mon be­tween these texts. More likely the texts arose in­de­pen­dently, with sim­i­lar­i­ties due to the sim­ple fact that they adopt sim­i­lar lit­er­ary styles to ex­plain re­lated ba­sic texts. The men­tion of the ‘pow­er­ful lay fol­lower’ has been taken to re­fer to King Ashoka; if this is cor­rect, it con­firms the late­ness of the Mahāsaṅghika ver­sion. In any case, it is clear that the up­āli­paripuc­chā is not a com­mon core in the Vinaya treat­ment of schism.

Devadatta as schismatic in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya

Contrary to Ray’s claim that ‘there is no over­lap be­tween the Mahāsaṅghika treat­ment [of Devadatta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ (170), the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya de­picts Devadatta as the ar­che­typal schis­matic, in much the same way as the Sthavira Vinayas. This pas­sage is found in the dis­cus­sion of the pāṭimokkha rule on schism.22 Devadatta ap­pears as a scoundrel try­ing to di­vide the Sangha, just as in all other Vinayas.

The only rel­e­vant dif­fer­ence is the grounds he is said to base his at­tempt on. Whereas the Sthavira Vinayas say he pro­mul­gated a set of ‘five points’, by which he tried to en­force an ex­ces­sively as­cetic lifestyle on the monks, the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya omits the five points and at­trib­utes a much more com­pre­hen­sive agenda to him. He cor­rupted the en­tire cor­pus of Buddhist lit­er­a­ture, in­clud­ing the twelve su­tras,23 the var­i­ous cat­e­gories of Vinaya of­fences, and the nine class of scrip­ture (aṅ­gas). Not only did he change the texts, he taught the monks to use a dif­fer­ent script and di­verse di­alects.

This ac­count of Devadatta’s evil deeds is ob­vi­ously later than that found in the Sthavira Vinayas. Not only does the sheer length of the de­tails sug­gest this, but the whole tenor of the prob­lem has shifted from as­cetic lifestyle to tex­tual redac­tion. The di­ver­sity of di­alects is an is­sue that be­came a grow­ing prob­lem for Buddhism in the later pe­riod, as the Sangha moved across a wide range of the Indian sub­con­ti­nent. And, of course, the men­tion of writ­ing con­firms that this pas­sage is late. As usual, the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, far from be­ing an early text, is later than the Pali and per­haps other Sthavira Vinayas.

Ray is aware of this pas­sage (171–172), and ac­knowl­edges that it is much the same as the ac­count found in the Sthavira Vinayas, say­ing, ‘All the ver­sions ac­cord ma­jor re­spon­si­bil­ity for the di­vi­sion in the com­mu­nity to Devadatta.’ (171) One would imag­ine that, since this is a cen­tral text that di­rectly con­tra­dicts Ray’s ba­sic the­sis, he would have a solid ar­gu­ment for why this pas­sage is to be dis­re­garded. Surprisingly, there is no such ar­gu­ment. All he says is this:

… [Bareau] does not assume—as does Mukherjee—that the Vibhaṅga ver­sion is the ear­lier. Unlike Mukherjee, Bareau be­gins his analy­sis with the leg­end of the schism as it ap­pears in the Skandhaka, as the more au­then­tic ear­lier ver­sion. Bareau’s ar­gu­ment makes good sense, among other rea­sons be­cause the Vibhaṅga ver­sion clearly leaves the story of the schism in­com­plete and dangling—in or­der to in­ter­ject the rule that this story is sup­posed to have provoked—whereas the Skandhaka ac­count gives the story in a dra­mat­i­cally com­plete form.

So, of the two stud­ies on which Ray re­lies, Mukherjee takes the Vibhaṅga ac­count to be the ear­lier, while Bareau takes the Skandhaka to be ear­lier. This dis­agree­ment is hardly re­as­sur­ing. Leaving aside what Ray un­help­fully refers to as ‘other rea­sons’, the only ac­tual ar­gu­ment he gives for pre­fer­ring Bareau’s po­si­tion over Mukherjee is that the Skandhaka ac­count gives a more com­plete nar­ra­tive, while the Vibhaṅga only in­cludes a trun­cated ac­count as nec­es­sary back­ground for the rule.

This, how­ever, is no rea­son at all. It is far more likely that the nar­ra­tive of the Buddha’s life was orig­i­nally told as iso­lated in­ci­dents, anec­dotes shared among the com­mu­nity, which were grad­u­ally gath­ered and arranged into a com­plete leg­end, one chap­ter of which con­cerned Devadatta. This is how all sto­ries are told; they don’t start out as fully-formed bi­ogra­phies, such as that found in the Skandhaka. They evolve from bits and pieces.

In the early pe­riod, the Sangha would have been fa­mil­iar with the story of Devadatta. It would have been hot gos­sip in the com­mu­nity, so there’d be no need to spell the whole story out in every con­text. After the Buddha’s death, how­ever, as the com­mu­nity moved on and mem­o­ries grew dim, the need for a com­pre­hen­sive ac­count as found in the Skandhaka would be­come press­ing. There is, there­fore, no rea­son to be­lieve that the Skandhaka ac­count is ear­lier sim­ply on the ba­sis that it is fuller. On the con­trary, this very fact sug­gests that it can­not be early.

The Vibhaṅga treats schism un­der a pāṭimokkha rule (saṅghādis­esa 10) for one ag­i­tat­ing for a schism. This is a se­ri­ous of­fence that’s meant to de­ter any­one from try­ing to cause a schism, or to sup­port one who is caus­ing a schism. The Vibhaṅga ac­count, how­ever, is in­com­plete. It does not de­scribe what to do if the de­ter­rent doesn’t work and a group of Sangha go ahead to cause a schism any­way. This topic is taken up in the Skandhaka, which de­scribes the ex­act le­gal de­f­i­n­i­tion of a schism in de­tail, how it may be healed, and so on. This is why the Vibhaṅga ac­count does not in­clude the full nar­ra­tive of Devadatta. It has noth­ing to do with a gen­er­al­ized as­sump­tion of the rel­a­tive age or au­then­tic­ity of the Vibhaṅga over the Skandhakas or vice verse. Rather, it fol­lows di­rectly from the pur­pose and func­tion of the two texts, which are or­ga­nized as an in­ter­de­pen­dent whole.24

This mis­take is dev­as­tat­ing to Ray’s ar­gu­ment. His whole case rests on the ar­gu­ment that the ab­sence of Devadatta from the Mahāsaṅghika Skandhaka in­di­cates that it was a later ad­di­tion. This ar­gu­ment is false.

But Ray’s prob­lems do not end there, for Devadatta does in fact ap­pear as a schis­matic in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya in the por­tions that are par­al­lel to the Sthavira Skandhakas. There is a short para­graph de­pict­ing an episode of the Devadatta story, sim­i­lar to that found in the Sthavira Vinayas. It de­scribes how, in­tent on caus­ing a schism, he took 500 monks away with him, and the dis­cus­sion be­tween the Buddha and Ānanda on this prob­lem.25 Ray over­looks this pas­sage, which un­der­mines his en­tire the­sis.

There are, in con­clu­sion, two pas­sages in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya that de­pict Devadatta as the ar­che­typal schis­matic. These episodes are sub­stan­tially sim­i­lar to the de­pic­tions found in the Sthavira Vinayas, and where they dif­fer, the Mahāsaṅghika is later. These two pas­sages cor­re­spond with the sec­tions that Mukherjee iden­ti­fied as episodes 13 and 14 of Devadatta’s story—the grounds for the schism and the schism it­self. Ray ig­nores one of these pas­sages, and dis­misses the other on grounds that are both flimsy and false. Ray’s mis­take is far from in­ci­den­tal; it is the core of his the­sis.

The fact that the Devadatta leg­end, in­clud­ing its core (episodes 13 and 14) and its elab­o­ra­tion (episodes 1 to 12 and 15), is com­mon to the vinayas of the five schools de­riv­ing from the Sthavira but not found in the Mahāsāṅghika vinaya sug­gests that the leg­end arose among the Sthaviras, af­ter they split from the Mahāsāṅghika in the fourth cen­tury BCE.26

When Ray’s er­rors are cor­rected, the same logic leads to the op­po­site con­clu­sion. The fact that the Devadatta leg­end, at least the core episodes 13 and 14, is com­mon to all six Vinayas in­clud­ing the Mahāsaṅghika sug­gests the leg­end arose among the pre­sec­tar­ian com­mu­nity, and in all like­li­hood harks back to the time of the Buddha him­self.

Narrative in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya

This leaves open the ques­tion of the re­main­ing episodes of Devadatta’s leg­end, which are in­deed ab­sent from the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. Perhaps these elab­o­ra­tions are the prod­uct of the Sthavira schools fol­low­ing the schism. Indeed, the in­her­ent im­plau­si­bil­ity of many of these episodes, as well as the vari­a­tions in the tra­di­tions, make it cer­tain that they were sub­ject to a de­gree of elab­o­ra­tion.

However, even this weak­ened ver­sion of Ray’s the­sis fails. The ab­sence of elab­o­rated nar­ra­tive does not in­di­cate that the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya is early. It is merely a lit­er­ary fea­ture of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, which reg­u­larly re­moves nar­ra­tive ma­te­r­ial.

While all the Vinayas con­tain some nar­ra­tives which serve to il­lu­mi­nate the dis­ci­pli­nary code, there was a marked ten­dency to add more and more, un­til the dis­ci­pli­nary mat­ter was al­most buried un­der lay­ers of in­creas­ingly elab­o­rate sto­ry­telling. The most ex­treme ex­am­ple of this ten­dency is the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. The redac­tors of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya took the op­po­site road, re­mov­ing most lengthy nar­ra­tives and fo­cussing on the le­gal as­pects. Presumably the nar­ra­tives were col­lected else­where, per­haps in a quasi-Vinaya col­lec­tion of leg­ends such as the Mahāsaṅghika’s own Mahāvastu.

There are many ex­am­ples of this. Several of the Vinayas in­clude part or whole of the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta. In the Mahāsaṅghika, this novel-length text is sum­ma­rized in a few lines, be­gin­ning with King Ajātasattu’s ha­tred for the Vajjians, and in­di­cat­ing that the en­tire text be filled in up to the time the Buddha lay down be­tween the twin sal trees.27 Clearly the text is ab­bre­vi­at­ing an ear­lier ver­sion that con­tained the full story.

Sometimes we ac­tu­ally have the full ver­sion of the text that is ab­bre­vi­ated in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. This is be­cause there ex­ists a par­tial Vinaya of the Lokuttaravāda school, who are a branch of the Mahāsaṅghikas. This Vinaya is very sim­i­lar to the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, ex­cept that it ex­pands nar­ra­tives that are ab­bre­vi­ated in the Chinese Mahāsaṅghika text. So, for ex­am­ple, when the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya says, ‘All should be told as in the Seven Women Sutra’,28 the Lokuttaravāda Vinaya in­cludes the whole text.29

In some cases, the redac­tion of nar­ra­tive from the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya has led schol­ars down mis­taken by­ways. So, for ex­am­ple, Jan Nattier ar­gued that the Mahāsaṅghikas did not have a ver­sion of the re­quest of the Buddha’s step­mother Mahāpajāpatī for or­di­na­tion.30 She con­cluded, us­ing par­al­lel logic to Ray, that this im­plied that the story was in­vented by the Sthaviras af­ter the first schism. She ne­glected, how­ever, to take into ac­count the Lokuttaravāda Vinaya, which does in­clude the story.31 Indeed, when ex­am­ined closely, the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya in­di­cates that the story has been elided, in­struct­ing that it should be told in full.32

In all these cases we are wit­ness­ing, not a gen­uine sec­tar­ian di­ver­gence, but a mere lit­er­ary fea­ture of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya: it omits most nar­ra­tive. Such is the case, also, with the story of Devadatta. It re­quires no fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion.

Does the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya even have a Skandhaka?

The prob­lems with Ray’s analy­sis go even deeper than this. It seems that the sec­tion of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya that Ray treats as the Skandhaka is not a Skandhaka at all. To un­der­stand this, we have to re­view some of the mod­ern schol­arly work on the Vinaya.

The most de­tailed com­par­a­tive analy­sis of the Skandhakas is that of Frauwallner. He ar­gued that all the Skandhakas stemmed from a com­mon an­ces­tor, and were char­ac­ter­ized by a struc­tured ap­proach to Vinaya top­ics, em­bed­ded within the ear­li­est large-scale bi­og­ra­phy of the Buddha. His analy­sis was a pow­er­ful in­sight into the shared struc­ture of the Sthavira Vinayas, but he strug­gled to rec­on­cile these with the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, con­clud­ing that it had been sub­ject to a ma­jor later re­struc­tur­ing.33

More re­cently Shayne Clarke has ar­gued per­sua­sively that what Frauwallner had iden­ti­fied as the Mahāsaṅghika Skandhaka bears a much closer re­la­tion to an en­tirely sep­a­rate class of Vinaya lit­er­a­ture, known as the mātikā. Thus while all the Sthavira Vinayas con­sist of the Vibhaṅga plus the Skandhaka (and some sup­ple­men­tary ma­te­r­ial), the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya con­sists of the Vibhaṅga plus the mātikā.

If we ac­cept Clarke’s ar­gu­ment, as it seems we must, Ray’s point be­comes even less per­ti­nent. There is noth­ing sur­pris­ing in the fact that the story of Devadatta is ab­sent from the Mahāsaṅghika Skandhaka, be­cause it isn’t a Skandhaka at all. He is com­par­ing ap­ples with or­anges. We could take up just about any fea­ture of the Sthavira Skandhakas, es­pe­cially the nar­ra­tive por­tions, and show that they are ab­sent or very dif­fer­ent in the Mahāsaṅghika. This proves noth­ing ex­cept that these texts are not all that closely re­lated.

We should in­stead com­pare the rel­e­vant sec­tion of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya with the other texts iden­ti­fied as Vinaya mātikā (of which there are four, ac­cord­ing to Clarke).34 A cur­sory sur­vey of the rel­e­vant Sarvāstivāda and Haimavata texts in Chinese re­veals that the Haimavata Vinaya mātikā has a para­graph deal­ing with Devadatta’s five points,35 but noth­ing more than this. This is no sur­prise, since they are a strictly le­gal­is­tic type of text. It is the Skandhaka that uni­fied ju­rispru­dence and nar­ra­tive, and there is no rea­son for the mātikās to in­clude any such ma­te­r­ial.

While it seems clear enough that the Mahāsaṅghika mātikā is closely re­lated to other Vinaya mātikā texts, the im­pli­ca­tions of this are less clear, and are left open by Clarke. It is pos­si­ble that they com­prise an ear­lier type of text than the Skandhaka, clas­si­fy­ing much of the same kind of ma­te­r­ial in a more bare-bones way. It is equally pos­si­ble that they are a par­al­lel de­vel­op­ment, or a later reshuf­fling of ma­te­r­ial.

Even if the Vinaya mātikās (in­clud­ing the Mahāsaṅghika) are an ear­lier form of Vinaya lit­er­a­ture, this does not im­ply that the Devadatta story in the Sthavira Vinayas is late. It just means that the Devadatta story was added to the Skandhaka at this later date.36 There is noth­ing ex­cep­tional about this, since all the nar­ra­tive ma­te­r­ial was added at this time. This tells us noth­ing about when the ma­te­r­ial was cre­ated.

Be that as it may, I find no rea­son to think that the mātikās are ear­lier than the canon­i­cal Vinayas. They are an Abhivinaya style of sys­tem­atic sum­mary, and I sus­pect that more sober analy­sis will con­clude that they are, on the whole, de­riv­a­tive of other canon­i­cal ma­te­r­ial.37

Devadatta in other Mahāsaṅghika texts

If Ray is to be be­lieved, Devadatta was a for­est as­cetic, who was vil­i­fied in the Sthavira group of schools as part of the deca­dent ten­dency of monas­tic Buddhism. If this were the case, one might ex­pect that the Mahāsaṅghikas would proudly pre­serve the au­then­tic, saintly Devadatta as part of their tra­di­tion. But this is not what we find at all.

As we have seen, the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya it­self in­cludes an ac­count of Devadatta’s schis­matic ef­forts that is even later than the ver­sion in the Sthavira Vinayas. In ad­di­tion, the episode where he leads 500 monks astray is re­counted. But these are not the only dis­parag­ing men­tions of Devadatta in the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. The vib­haṅga to bhikkhuni pācit­tiya 87 gives a num­ber of ex­am­ples of oaths that a bhikkhuni should not make. These in­clude an oath to the ef­fect that she be charged with a crime like that of Devadatta.38 This as­sumes that we know who Devadatta is, and that he is a vil­lain.

We also find Devadatta in his ne­far­i­ous role in the Ekottara Āgama, which is usu­ally at­trib­uted to the Mahāsaṅghikas.39 While this at­tri­bu­tion is un­cer­tain, it at least sug­gests that the Mahāsaṅghikas, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple found in their Vinaya, dis­par­aged Devadatta no less than other schools.

We are on firmer ground in the Mahāvastu, a Mahāsaṅghika ver­sion of the life of the Buddha. Here, as in all other ver­sions of the Buddha’s life, Devadatta ap­pears as the vil­lain, and is mocked and hu­mil­i­ated in his var­i­ous evil en­deav­ours in past lives as well as this life.40

So it’s clear that Devadatta was the bad guy for the Mahāsaṅghikas just as in the Sthavira schools. This is the case from the early canon­i­cal texts (Vinaya, Ekottara) through to the later leg­ends (Mahāvastu). Ray of­fers no ex­pla­na­tion for why the Mahāsaṅghikas would so lightly dis­card one of their early saints.

The historical survival of Devadatta’s community

Ray con­tin­ues his ar­gu­ment by stat­ing (174): ‘There can be no doubt that Devadatta’s schism is not an event imag­ined by Buddhist au­thors, but is a his­toric fact, as shown by the ev­i­dence pro­vided by the two Chinese pil­grims, Fa-hsien and Hsuan-tsen.’

Such cer­tainty is al­ways a red flag in a his­tor­i­cal re­con­struc­tion. Descriptions of things that hap­pened 2500 years ago are rarely, if ever, so bor­ingly de­void of am­bi­gu­ity, and cer­ti­tude re­veals only the pres­ence of dogma. There are any num­ber of rea­sons why the ac­counts of the Fa-xian and Xuan-zang need not im­ply that Devadatta suc­cess­fully es­tab­lished a long-term spir­i­tual move­ment.

But what do these ac­counts ac­tu­ally say? Xuan-zang, as well as record­ing many of the usual neg­a­tive sto­ries of Devadatta, men­tions that in the Aṅga re­gion of India ‘there are three monas­ter­ies in which they do not use thick­ened milk, fol­low­ing the di­rec­tions of Devadatta.’41 This doesn’t show that there was a com­mu­nity with any his­tor­i­cal link with Devadatta, merely that some monas­tics were fol­low­ing one of the rules Devadatta had pro­mul­gated.42 To this day, if a re­form group in Theravāda ad­vo­cates veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, they will be dis­parag­ingly dis­missed as ‘dis­ci­ples of Devadatta’. Most likely the groups Xuan-zang re­ferred to were some­thing of the sort.

Fa-xian is more def­i­nite, say­ing that: ‘There are also com­pa­nies of the fol­low­ers of Devadatta still ex­ist­ing. They reg­u­larly make of­fer­ings to the three pre­vi­ous Buddhas, but not to Sakyamuni Buddha.’43 Without con­text, it is hard to know what this im­plies. A few lines fur­ther on, the text men­tions that stu­pas for the birth­places of three pre­vi­ous Buddhas were found in the vicin­ity. This ex­plains why they were wor­shipped there, but not why this was con­nected with Devadatta.

It is, of course, quite pos­si­ble that Fa-xian sim­ply made a mis­take. It does seem rather odd that none of the Indian Buddhist texts men­tion a sect of Devadatta’s fol­low­ers. There are hun­dreds of pages in Buddhist texts de­voted to re­fut­ing both Buddhist and non-Buddhist here­sies; so why did no-one so much as re­fer in pass­ing to the Devadatta group? It’s hard to set up a spir­i­tual or­der, and ex­tremely un­usual for one to last af­ter the founder’s death. In all the sprawl­ing com­plex­ity of Indian re­li­gion, there are only three or four na­tive re­li­gious or­ders that have man­aged to last. How is it that a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment passed down for a thou­sand years with only a cou­ple of pass­ing ref­er­ences in the jour­nals of for­eign trav­ellers?

I could go on with other prob­lems, but this is suf­fi­cient to show that Ray’s claim that the sur­vival of Devadatta’s schis­matic group is ‘no doubt’ a ‘his­toric fact’ is un­ten­able. The ca­sual, pass­ing ref­er­ences by the Chinese pil­grims are in­deed in­trigu­ing, and in­vite sev­eral in­ter­est­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions. No in­ter­pre­ta­tion, how­ever, can of­fer the cer­tainty that Ray as­serts.

Ray makes a ba­sic mis­take here. He starts out by con­tra­dict­ing the en­tire cor­pus of early lit­er­a­ture, in­clud­ing the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya, which de­picts Devadatta as a ma­li­cious schis­matic who ended in fail­ure. He then takes a cou­ple of lines writ­ten a thou­sand years later as ab­solute ev­i­dence for a his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity in the time of the Buddha. This is not his­tory, it’s fan­tasy.

Devadatta’s redemption

Ray’s fi­nal ar­gu­ment brings us to the ap­pear­ance of Devadatta in the Māhāyana Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra, bet­ter known as the Lotus Sutra (175–6). There, the Buddha is de­picted as telling a past life story of Devadatta as a for­est sage, prais­ing Devadatta, who is part of the as­sem­bly of monks, and then pre­dict­ing that he would be­come a Buddha in the far dis­tant fu­ture. There is no men­tion of Devadatta’s fall from grace.

Ray, while ac­knowl­edg­ing the late­ness of this text, won­ders whether this ac­count might ‘re­tain a tra­di­tion re­lat­ing to this saint that an­te­dates or is con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous with his vil­i­fi­ca­tion in the var­i­ous vinayas?’ The sec­tion of the Lotus Sutra that in­cludes this story (Chapter 11) is dated circa 200 CE, that is, 600 years or so af­ter the Buddha. The text as a whole is one of the most fan­tas­ti­cally imag­i­na­tive of all the Buddhist scrip­tures. To re­gard this kind of story as in any way con­nected with a gen­uine his­tory of the Buddha’s time is pre­pos­ter­ous.

This de­pic­tion of Devadatta, more­over, con­tains lit­tle that is not found in the early schools. We al­ready know that Devadatta, while he was still a monk of good stand­ing, was praised for his med­i­ta­tive prowess and psy­chic pow­ers. There are Jātaka sto­ries in Pali that de­pict Devadatta as an as­cetic in past lives, al­beit a cor­rupt one.44 As I ex­plained at the start of this es­say, it is es­sen­tial that he de­vel­oped good qual­i­ties in the past in or­der to have the power he pos­sesses in the present.

And the no­tion that Devadatta will be re­deemed and at­tain Awakening in the fu­ture is com­mon, and was prob­a­bly a uni­ver­sally held be­lief among Buddhists then, as to­day. Ray notes that of the canon­i­cal Vinayas only the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in­cludes a leg­end that Devadatta will be­come Awakened. But this is to be ex­pected. Just as the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya leaves out most leg­end, the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya puts it in. Stories and leg­ends con­tained in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya are of­ten found in the other tra­di­tions, but in their com­men­tar­ial or other lit­er­a­ture, not in the canons. And that is pre­cisely the case here, for the post-canonical Theravāda texts proph­esy that Devadatta will in the far dis­tant fu­ture be­come the Paccekabuddha Aṭṭhissara.45

This, too, is an es­sen­tial part of his story, re­quired by the fun­da­men­tals of Buddhist doc­trine. No bad kamma lasts for­ever, and even the most evil per­son is ca­pa­ble of re­demp­tion.


Ray’s the­sis that Devadatta was a for­est saint who was un­fairly vil­i­fied by later monas­tic Buddhists is base­less. The read­ings on which he re­lies are ei­ther mis­taken or wrongly in­ter­preted. This is not a mat­ter of sub­jec­tive judge­ment; he just gets his texts wrong. When his mis­takes are cor­rected it all falls apart.

Devadatta was a promis­ing young monk, a tal­ented rel­a­tive of the Buddha, who fell prey to the all-too-human weak­nesses of jeal­ousy and con­ceit. His fall from grace was dra­matic, but there was still the hope of re­demp­tion. This story is told con­sis­tently through all the Buddhist tra­di­tions. Like all the pop­u­lar episodes in the Buddha’s life, it has been sub­ject to all man­ner of ex­ag­ger­a­tion. In this process, the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of Devadatta has be­come ob­scured as if by a deep fog. The meth­ods of tex­tual crit­i­cism of­fer some hope in dis­tin­guish­ing the more or less plau­si­ble as­pects of his leg­end, and giv­ing a glimpse of the man be­hind the leg­end.

In Ray’s hands, how­ever, this glimpse is lost and we are left with just an­other car­i­ca­ture. In place of the car­toon­ish vil­lain of the tra­di­tions, so hope­lessly fool­ish and doomed, we have an equally car­toon­ish hero, a flaw­less re­al­ized saint, trag­i­cally mis­un­der­stood, whose every fail­ing is ar­bi­trar­ily at­trib­uted to the crooked mo­ti­va­tions of monas­tic pro­pa­gan­dists. The life of Devadatta―his com­plex, nu­anced, elu­sive, frag­ile, tor­mented soul―is still hid­den.


BAREAU, A. Étude du boud­dhisme. Annuaire du Collège de France, 1988–89.

―――. ‘Devadatta and the first Buddhist Schism.’ Buddhist Studies Review 14, 1997, pp. 19–37.

BEAL, Samuel. Si-yu-ki. Buddhist Records of the Western World―Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsang (AD 629). Digital Edition by Marcus BINGENHEIMER (Version 2.0). http://mbingenheimer.net/tools/beal/indexBeal.html

CLARKE, Shayne. ‘Vinaya Matṛkā​—​Mother of the Monastic Codes or Just Another Set of Lists?’ Indo-Iranian Journal, 2004, pp. 77–120.

HIRAKAWA, Akira. Monastic Discipline for Buddhist Nuns (An English trans­la­tion of the Chinese text of the Mahāsāṁghika Bhikṣuṇi-Vinaya). K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1999.

IRELAND, John. The Udāna and the Itivuttaka. Buddhist Publication Society, 1997.

LEGGE, James. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1886.

MUKHERJEE, Biswadeb. Die Überlieferung von Devadatta, dem Widersacher des Buddha, in den kanon­is­chen Schriften. Munich, 1966.

NATTIER, Jan. Once Upon a Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

RAY, Reginald. Buddhist Saints in India. Oxford University Press, 1994.

―――. ‘A Condemned Saint: Devadatta.’ Pages 162–178 of the above, avail­able at: www.leighb.com/Devadatta.pdf.

ROTH, Gustav. Bhikṣuṇī Vinaya. K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, 1970.

WALSER, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context. Columbia University Press, 2005.


1 For un­crit­i­cal ci­ta­tions of Ray’s ar­gu­ment about Devadatta see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devadatta, http://nichirenscoffeehouse.net/Ryuei/Devadatta_Story.html, and http://fraughtwithperil.com/ryuei/2010/06/30/devadatta’s-ambition/. Several re­views of Buddhist Saints are listed on Ray’s own Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reginald_Ray).

2 Saṁyutta Nikāya Commentary 1.62.

3 Milindapañha 4.4.7 (PTS pp. 200ff.): de­va­dat­topi, mahārāja, is­sariye ṭhito jana­padesu ārakkhaṁ deti, se­tuṁ sab­haṁ puññasālaṁ kāreti, samaṇabrāh­maṇā­naṁ ka­paṇad­dhikavaṇib­bakā­naṁ nāthānāthā­naṁ yathā­paṇi­hi­taṁ dā­naṁ deti.

4 In this es­say, brack­eted num­bers in the text re­fer to page num­bers in the dig­i­tal edi­tion of Ray’s es­say on Devadatta. This dif­fers slightly from the print edi­tion.

5 The list oc­curs at Udāna 1.5 Brahmaṇa. Thanks to Bhikkhu Ānandajoti for help with the var­i­ous Pali edi­tions.

6 IRELAND, p. 15, note 8.

7 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.1.05.than.html.

8 Possibly the ori­gin of this no­tion was Aṅguttara Nikāya 9.26, which, how­ever, con­cerns a dis­cus­sion be­tween Sāriputta and a monk called Candikāputta re­gard­ing what Devadatta taught, and makes no claim by or about Devadatta him­self.

9 Ray does tell the fuller story later on, p. 167.

10 Pali Vinaya 2.189.

11 Pali Vinaya 2.184.

12 Pali Vinaya 2.183: de­va­datto pothu­j­janikaṁ id­dhiṁ ab­hinip­phādesi.

13 Mahāvihāravāsin in Pali (the school known to­day as Theravāda); Mahāsaṅghika, Sarvāstivāda, Mahīśāsaka, and Dharmaguptaka in Chinese trans­la­tion; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda in com­plete Tibetan, and par­tial Chinese and Sanskrit ver­sions. In ad­di­tion to these com­plete Vinayas there are a va­ri­ety of smaller or par­tial texts.

14 This was prob­a­bly about 200 years af­ter the death of the Buddha.

15 The term sthavira (mean­ing ‘el­der’) is the Sanskrit ver­sion of the term bet­ter known to­day in its Pali ver­sion thera, as in Theravāda, the ‘Teaching of the Elders’. The orig­i­nal Sthaviras, how­ever, are by no means iden­ti­cal with the mod­ern school called Theravāda. Rather, the Sthaviras are the an­ces­tor of a group of re­lated schools, one of which is the Theravāda.

16 This is the Sanskrit spelling; it is khand­haka in Pali.

17 Pali Vinaya 2.203–2.212.

18 Cf. Itivuttaka 18 and Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.39.

19 Hell is, of course, tem­po­rary. He gets out even­tu­ally, and will, ac­cord­ing to the tra­di­tions, be­come Awakened in the fu­ture.

20 T № 1425, pp. 440 c19–441 a26. For the pas­sage on the ‘pow­er­ful lay fol­lower’, see my Sects & Sectarianism, 1.52–59.

21 T № 1425, p. 489 c9–25.

22 Mahāsaṅghika saṅghādis­esa 10 at T № 1425, pp. 281 c12–283 b14. The rel­e­vant pas­sage is trans­lated in WALSER, pp. 102–3. It can be read on­line on Google Books.

23 It is un­clear what this refers to. It may be the twelve-fold aṅ­gas, but the text just be­low refers to the nine aṅ­gas. Perhaps the text is merely in­con­sis­tent.

24 This also ex­plains why Mukherjee’s episodes 13 and 14 (the five points and the split­ting of the Sangha) are shared in com­mon be­tween the Skandhaka and the Vibhaṅga. There is no rea­son to con­clude on this ground alone that these are the ear­li­est parts of Devadatta’s leg­end.

25 T № 1425, pp. 442 c29–443 a26.

26 RAY, p. 170.

27 T № 1425, pp. 489 c26–490 a1: 爾時阿闍世王韋提希子。與毘舍離有怨。 如大泥洹經中廣說。乃至世尊在毘舍離於放弓杖塔邊捨壽。向拘尸那城熙連禪河側力士生地堅固林中雙樹間般泥洹.

28 T № 1425, p. 519 a6: 如七女經中廣說.

29 ROTH, pp. 111 §145ff.

30 NATTIER, pp. 30–32.

31 ROTH, pp. 4 §2ff.

32 T № 1425, p. 471 a26–27: 如線經中廣說.

33 FRAUWALLNER, pp. 206–7.

34 These are the Haimavata Vinaya mātikā (毘尼母經) at T № 1463; Sarvāstivāda ver­sions as part of their Vinaya the 十誦律 at T № 1435 and a closely re­lated text in the 薩婆多部毘尼摩得勒伽 at T № 1441; and part of the ut­tara­grantha sec­tion of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in Tibetan.

35 T № 1463, pp. 823 a17–26.

36 In my opin­ion, the Skandhakas were in the main com­posed fol­low­ing the Second Council, a hun­dred years af­ter the Buddha.

37 One of the rea­sons for this is the fact, noted above, that in sev­eral cases the nar­ra­tive ma­te­r­ial has been re­moved from the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. More de­tailed study is nec­es­sary be­fore any con­clu­sion can be reached.

38 T № 1425, p. 532 a18. English trans­la­tion in HIRAKAWA, p. 279.

39 For ex­am­ple, he in­cites Ajātasattu to mur­der the Buddha at T2, № 125, p. 590 a8–p. 591 a7 (trans­la­tion at http://santifm.org/santipada/2010/ekottara-agama-18-5/).

40 For ex­am­ple, Devadatta is called a ‘bad man’ at Mahāvastu 1.128 (kalipu­ruṣo de­va­dat­taḥ), 1.131 (kupu­ruṣade­va­datto), and 1.132 (asat­pu­ruṣeṇa de­va­dat­tena).

41 BEAL’s trans­la­tion from BINGENHEIMER’S edi­tion.

42 Refraining from milk is one of Devadatta’s five points ac­cord­ing to the (Mūla)sarvāstivāda.

43 LEGGE, chap­ter 20.

44 Eg. Tittira Jātaka (№ 438).

45 Dhammapada Commentary 1.125, Milindapañha 4.1.3 (PTS p. 111).


Great essay bhante @sujato !

One question, I can recall loosely reading somewhere a claim that there have been, maybe for the first years or centuries of the early Sangha, an almost clandestine monastic community which identified as disciples of Devadatta well after his death, Gotamakas they called themselves I think…

Is there any truth in that or it is just a false memory I created?


This is addressed in the essay. There’s no real evidence for such a community. There are a couple of remarks by Chinese pilgrims. What they probably refer to is some marginal groups who defined themselves as vegetarians or some other practice. Such groups, even in modern Theravada, are dismissively referred to as “disciples of Devadatta”.


The Nichren’s Coffee House and Fraught with Peril websites are now both defunct. These are snapshots to the two versions of Rev. McCormick’s article.




A-ha! Now I understand what you meant here. Few more questions arise.

Who came up with the “gotamaka” name?

I can recall the term is used to describe a type of snake in one of the paritta chants and also a very famous shrine in the time of the Buddha, right?


P.S.: maybe bhante @Dhammanando may be able to help with the above? :crossed_fingers:

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Though slightly tangential to this thread, there is a further fact about Devadatta’s ultimate destiny that all Indian Buddhist traditions failed miserably to predict.

In 1859, two and a half millennia after the earth swallowed Devadatta, an entomologist, folklorist and polymath by the name of William Forsell Kirby decided that the Tetraneura argyoides, discovered in Singapore twenty years earlier, needed to be reclassified and assigned to a family and genus of its own.

As it was quite the fashion in those days for British entomologists to name Asian insects after Hindu gods or ancient Indian eminences, Kirby decreed that the new family name for Tetraneura argyoides would be Devadattidae and its genus Devadatta. And so it came about that Tetraneura argyoides was renamed Devadatta argyoides and the Buddha’s errant disciple achieved entomological immortality by having both a family and a genus of Southeast Asian damselflies named after him.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Odonata
Suborder: Zygoptera
Superfamily: Calopterygoidea
Family: Devadattidae
Genus: Devadatta
1859 - D. argyoides (= Tetraneura argyoides 1839)
1933 - D. multinervosa
1934 - D. basilanensis
1934 - D. podolestoides (= D. filipina, 1939)
1969 - D. ducatrix
2003 - D. glaucinotata
2006 - D. cyanocephala
2015 - D. aran
2015 - D. clavicauda
2015 - D. kompieri
2015 - D. somoh
2015 - D. tanduk
2015 - D. yokoii

D. ducatrix


Nice! Well that is one of the most obscure bits of trivia to remember for a Buddhist trivia quiz. Do you have any idea why Devadatta specifically was chosen?


I’m afraid not. Perhaps it was because all the other names that a mid-Victorian Englishman would be likely to know had already been taken.

Ānanda, for example, had been used for the dark Pierrot butterfly (Tarucus ananda), Indra for the plain puffin butterfly (Appias indra), Sitā for the Ceylonese stripe-headed threadtail (Prodasineura sita), Drona for the broad-bordered grass-yellow butterfly (Terias drona) etc., etc.


The Dabbias mallaputta firefly, perhaps?


I mentioned this to a Buddhist zoologist friend who before his retirement was in charge of public education at London Zoo. Just got his reply:

“I’m sorry to report that in the Elateroidea superfamily Dabba the Mallian is not presently represented even among the bioluminescent click beetles, let alone the fireflies. On the other hand, in the sphere of popular (rather than taxonomic) names he has achieved a certain accidental renown in the family Agamidae as the Malian dabb lizard (Uromastyx maliensis) and in the the family Anatidae as the dabbling mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).”


I am often curious to see how the concepts, practices, and beings that an individual values affects or correlates with how they live their life.
I can’t imagine that there is absolutely no correlation between the way he seems to glamorize and glorify Devadatta as a misunderstood, solitary genius and his own actions in real life…

Reginald “Reggie” Ray (born 1942) is an American Buddhist academic and teacher accused of spiritual and emotional abuse by a number of long-time students.
He was accused of spiritual and emotional abuse by a group of former staff and students in an open letter, and Dharma Ocean was set to close and suspend operations.
In October 2019 Reggie Ray was accused of spiritual abuse and emotional abuse by former senior students. Accusations of abuse and manipulation were leveraged by students who began studying with Reggie Ray since the early stirrings of what would become the Dharma Ocean Foundation. In November 2019 all remaining Dharma Ocean board members either resigned or were fired by Reggie. Dharma Ocean Foundation publicly announced in November 2019 that it would be dissolving.


After reading this, I think D&D should switch to the Medium model of likes and let us like posts up to 50 times.


Holy molly, I had no idea!

As a scholar, I studiously avoid any reference to the personal life of the people on whose work I comment. What matters is the evidence and the ideas. But when faced with a case like this, well, our academic and personal lives are not as distinct as we thought. It’s insidious, isn’t it?

These ideas, clearly driven by a deeply twisted personal agenda, become couched in quasi-academic, quasi-progressive language, and too many people are willing to jump on board the train of the latest fad. And then, due to a lack of vigor or critical rationality, the ideas circulate in the mainstream, where they subtly influence attitudes and behaviors. In a very real sense, this is the re-emergence of Devadatta’s own corruption. He, as the personification of the dark side of Buddhism, is overthrown. But somehow like seeks out like, and those of an element will find each other.

When I read Ray’s book, as a forest monk I was inclined to see it favorably. It was right up my alley! However, as I looked into the details I could see how thin and overblown much of it was. I went from cautiously favorable, to skeptical.

Then when I did the detailed research I realized it was just a nothingburger. The scholarship was sloppy, handling of sources was misleading and unreliable, and the thesis was overblown if not entirely incorrect.

Nevertheless, his thesis on Devadatta gained a lot of influence. Even after I had shown it to be baseless, some teachers are still promoting it.

Honestly, this is one of the reasons I lost faith in academic work, especially in the US. The quality is so shoddy, there’s no serious acceptance of actual factual research, and even disproven ideas get repeated again and again.

It’s one thing for inquiry to be informed by one’s beliefs, it’s quite another thing to blithely ignore facts.

As an addendum, I note that Ray’s mentor at university was Mircea Eliade, who had a long history of sympathy for extremist rightwing thinkers. These include the fascist and misogynist Julius Evola who was a decisive influence of the philosophy of the eccentric scholar-monk and self-reported sotapanna Ñāṇavīra, who committed suicide because of his unremitting erections. In Buddhism, Ray’s teacher was Chögyam Trungpa, a drunkard and womanizer, who died of cirrhosis from alcohol, but whose followers nevertheless piously insisted that he was in a pure state of samadhi for 5 days after his death. Trungpa’s appointed Dhamma heir, Ösel Tendzin, was a rapist who abused his position as teacher to have sex with multiple men over several years, all the while knowing that he was HIV positive, resulting the the death by AIDS of at least one student.


Your assessment seems relatively completely spot-on.

I used to think this way because I grew up interested primarily in math and science, in which work usually speaks for itself and personal life is kept separate so as not to muddy the clear and accurate representations of ultimate truth.

But I think it was after I got into Buddhism and I realized the Buddha seemed to quite literally embody the Dhamma that he taught, that I somehow began trying to assess both myself and others both by their work and their personal life/a sum total of all of their actual actions.

I think the danger with compartmentalization between personal and professional life is definitely very evident in the US, where it is possible to elect a president on the basis of his professional life, even if it means ignoring his blatantly problematic personal life. Obviously, it is a lot easier to see this in others - it’s a lot harder say, to hold myself up to this same standard.

Anyway, this is why I try to look all all the information/evidence I can about each individual, because I think I learned from the Buddha’s example, that it is actually somehow possible for there to no discrepancy between the two (and in a good way, say not that they preach something harmful and then act accordance with it too lol).


Can you let me know what I can do to learn from the mistakes made especially in American academic work in Buddhist Studies so that I avoid making those very same mistakes in any of my attempts at undertaking academic work?


Well, now you’re talking! Here goes a list off the top of my head:

  • Suspect dramatic theses and radical reinventions. They almost always turn out to be overblown or just plain wrong.
  • Facts are sacred. Your values shape the kinds of questions you want to ask, but the facts shape the kinds of answer you get.
  • Learn to enjoy changing your mind. It’s growth!
  • Scholarship has nothing to do with publishing cool-sounding articles. It should serve some actual benefit for humanity, else it is a waste of time.
  • The most powerful method is empirical. Stay as close as possible to the facts, whether they be the text, the history, or whatever it is you’re studying, and cautiously infer from them. The further you infer, the less confident the conclusion.
  • When the work of scholars faces valid criticism, the criticism should be accepted and the work either withdrawn or changed. When you see scholars who don’t correct mistakes, don’t take them seriously.
  • Academics love turf wars and personal vendettas. Never get drawn into them.
  • When you see what is popular and faddish, do something else. It’s quite possible, and even common, for theories and ideas to prevail for decades in academia while lacking any real foundation. See: string theory, behaviorism, monetarism …
  • Buddhist studies is in its infancy, and lacks a huge amount of foundational work, such as the lack of complete translations of canonical texts, or a good and complete Pali dictionary. Theory has displaced serious work, but the field will not advance until the foundations are solid.
  • Postmodernism is boring and ran its course years ago. Articles with unconventional plurals in the title (“Buddhisms”) were cool in the 70s, but then, so were flares.

This topic and thread is just wonderful. Masterful scholarship, as we have come to expect from Bhante Sujato. And then, with some excellent input from our spiritual friends here, we start to strip away the sometimes fraudulent veneer that has developed in American “Buddhisms.”

I feel like a grumpy curmudgeon sometimes, as I have followed some American “Buddhist” for-profit teachers on Facebook just to see what rubbish they are promoting, or what book or seminar they are selling, so as only to irritate myself. I read the laudatory name dropping of Trungpa and other miscreants. I see the assemblies of Buddhist teachers with known charlatans or abusers, or with various for-profit teachers that worship their own gurus that are now known to be abusers, in one case of children. With this grubby veneer, naive Americans glom onto these teachers, and spend millions of dollars each year on seminars and books that bring none of them any closer to the actual teachings of the Buddha.

Perhaps with the case of Reginald Ray, the allure of power, influence, fame and money is more powerful than honesty, modesty, and integrity. He’s just one of many in American Buddhism operating this way, and is a frequent featured guest (paid or unpaid) on Tricycle and other western “Buddhist” publications.

So, many thanks to our Forest monks and nuns. I guess, after reading this thread, this refrain needs to be echoed over and over again. Thanks to many of our Forest monastics who are the true sons and daughters of the Buddha, and who give us this scholarship, this honesty, and this integrity, and ask for nothing in return.


When I was getting my bachelor’s in history I was trained to dig into the biographies of authors while doing historiographies so that I could find any and all biases in their works. The idea was to find out what ideologies influenced their work and give you a great since of clarity where their ideas came from. Then you should go on and acknowledge your own biases if you want to be a thorough academic.

I’ve recently discovered that this idea is relatively new to political science (where I’m now getting my degree in) and is called “positionality” which sounds less harsh than calling it “personal bias” as used in the study of history. Perhaps this self-analysis would also be good to incorporate into Buddhist studies to give others a strong foundation on where the scholarship is coming from?


Understanding where a person is coming from should be an act of empathy and compassion. It needs to be a stepping out into the shoes of the other, an imaginative attempt to experience reality from their point of view, with their values.

If our object of study, though, is, in this case Buddhism (or any other field), I honestly couldn’t care less what a person’s background is. I look for the facts. If I don’t know them, I check them. If they are saying something meaningful that I want to explore, I look into that thing.

I think it’s super-conceited to imagine that we can psycho-analyze people based on their supposed demographic or history, or that we can reduce the totality of a person to the few tiny scraps of their humanity that we get to glimpse.

Indeed, and in my work I have always been very forward about what my position and values are. I don’t expect everyone to agree with them. But I am capable of distinguishing between my beliefs and the facts, and I do expect that others are equally capable.


Thank you for this essay I apreciate it!

Not an answer/a comment on the nice essay, but an information for a nice additional audio: for the german understanding people I recommend that talk of Alfred Weil (2015 in the Tibet-Haus, Frankfurt) which is really nice and easy to listen to. A. Weil composes a lively “reportage” from texts in the suttas and vinayas. The last half hour is q&a with listeners of this talk. Disclaimer: I cannot say (nor guess) whether everything is right (or rightly framed), maybe some more experienced one here can comment on this.

The download is a mp3 in a zipfile here (zip-file).
A. Weils main-page is at (index) and the page pointing to media is (media)

Alfred Weil has many years been (or is still?) a honor-president of the german buddhist union, and has retired a couple of years ago because of age.