Early Buddhism

The term Early Buddhism can refer to two distinct periods, both of which are covered in a separate article:


The period of "Early Buddhism" in the sense of pre-sectarian Buddhism is considered by scholars such as Paul J. Griffiths and Steven Collins to be from the time of the historical Buddha to the reign of Ashoka (c. 268 to 232 BCE).[2][3] Lamotte and Hirakawa both maintain that the first schism in the Buddhist sangha occurred during the reign of Ashoka.[4][5]

The various splits within the monastic organization went together with the introduction and emphasis on Abhidhammic literature by some schools. This literature was specific to each school, and arguments and disputes between the schools were often based on these Abhidhammic writings. However, actual splits were originally based on disagreements on vinaya (monastic discipline), though later on, by about 100 CE or earlier, they could be based on doctrinal disagreement.[6] Pre-sectarian Buddhism, however, did not have Abhidhammic scriptures, except perhaps for a basic framework, and not all of the early schools developed an Abhidhamma literature.

Pre-sectarian BuddhismEdit

Pre-sectarian Buddhism,[7] also called "early Buddhism",[8][9] "the earliest Buddhism",[10][11] and "original Buddhism",[12] is the Buddhism that existed before the various subsects of Buddhism came into being.[web 1]

Some of the contents and teachings of this pre-sectarian Buddhism may be deduced from the earliest Buddhist texts, which by themselves are already sectarian.[note 1][note 2][note 3]

Early Buddhist schoolsEdit

The early Buddhist schools are those schools into which the Buddhist monastic saṅgha initially split, due originally to differences in vinaya and later also due to doctrinal differences and geographical separation of groups of monks.


The original saṅgha split into the first early schools (generally believed to be the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghika) a significant number of years after the death of Gautama Buddha. According to scholar Collett Cox "most scholars would agree that even though the roots of the earliest recognized groups predate Aśoka, their actual separation did not occur until after his death."[14] Later, these first early schools split into further divisions such as the Sarvāstivādins and the Dharmaguptakas, and ended up numbering, traditionally, about 18 or 20 schools. In fact, there are several overlapping lists of 18 schools preserved in the Buddhist tradition, totaling about twice as many, though some may be alternative names. It is thought likely that the number is merely conventional.[citation needed]


After the Sangha split into the various early Buddhist schools and the Mahayana, there appeared further elaborations and interpretations of the preserved teachings, and various new doctrines, scriptures and practices. They were composed and developed by the monastic communities, concerning issues deemed important at the time.[note 4]

Ideological differencesEdit

The schools sometimes split over ideological differences concerning the "real" meaning of teachings in the Sutta Piṭaka, and sometimes over disagreement concerning the proper observance of vinaya. These ideologies became embedded in large works such as the Abhidhammas and commentaries. Comparison of existing versions of the Suttapiṭaka of various sects shows evidence that ideologies from the Abhidhammas sometimes found their way back into the Suttapiṭakas to support the statements made in those Abhidhammas.[citation needed]


Some of these developments may be seen as later elaborations on the teachings. According to Gombrich, unintentional literalism was a major force for change in the early doctrinal history of Buddhism. This means that texts were interpreted paying too much attention to the precise words used and not enough to the speaker's intention, the spirit of the text. Some later doctrinal developments in the early Buddhist schools show scholastic literalism, which is a tendency to take the words and phrases of earlier texts (maybe the Buddha's own words) in such a way as to read-in distinctions which it was never intended to make.[note 5]

Preservation of older ideasEdit

The later Mahayana schools may have preserved ideas which were abandoned by the "orthodox" Theravada, such as the Three Bodies doctrine, the idea of consciousness (vijnana) as a continuum, and devotional elements such as the worship of saints. [16][17][note 6]

Newly introduced conceptsEdit

Some Buddhist concepts that were not existent in the time of pre-sectarian Buddhism are:

Newly composed scripturesEdit

In later times, the arguments between the various schools were based in these newly introduced teachings, practices and beliefs, and monks sought to validate these newly introduced teachings and concepts by referring to the older texts (Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka). Most often, the various new Abhidhamma and Mahayana teachings were bases for arguments between sects.[citation needed]


As the last major division of the canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka has had a checkered history. It was not accepted as canonical by the Mahasanghika school[18][19] and several other schools.[note 9] Another school included most of the Khuddaka Nikaya within the Abhidhamma Pitaka.[18] Also, the Pali version of the Abhidhamma is a strictly Theravada collection, and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools.[20] The various Abhidhamma philosophies of the various early schools have no agreement on doctrine[21] and belong to the period of 'Divided Buddhism'[21] (as opposed to Undivided Buddhism). The earliest texts of the Pali Canon (the Sutta Nipata and parts of the Jataka), together with the first four (and early) Nikayas of the Suttapitaka, have no mention of (the texts of) the Abhidhamma Pitaka.[22] The Abhidhamma is also not mentioned at the report of the First Buddhist Council, directly after the death of the Buddha. This report of the first council does mention the existence of the Vinaya and the five Nikayas (of the Suttapitaka).[23][24]

Although the literature of the various Abhidhamma Pitakas began as a kind of commentarial supplement upon the earlier teachings in the Suttapitaka, it soon led to new doctrinal and textual developments and became the focus of a new form of scholarly monastic life.[note 10][25] The various Abhidhamma works were starting to be composed from about 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha.[note 11]

Traditionally, it is believed (in Theravadin culture) that the Abhidhamma was taught by Buddha to his late mother who was living in Tavatimsa heaven. However, this is rejected by scholars, who believe that only small parts of the Abhidhamma literature may have been existent in a very early form.[note 12] Some schools of Buddhism had important disagreements on subjects of Abhidhamma, while having a largely similar Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka. The arguments and conflicts between them were thus often on matters of philosophical Abhidhammic origin, not on matters concerning the actual words and teachings of Buddha.

One impetus for composing new scriptures like the Adhidhammas of the various schools, according to some scholars[who?], was that Buddha left no clear statement about the ontological status of the world – about what really exists.[note 13] Subsequently, later Buddhists have themselves defined what exists and what not (in the Abhidhammic scriptures), leading to disagreements.

Parts of the Khuddaka NikayaEdit

Oliver Abeynayake has the following to say on the dating of the various books in the Khuddaka Nikaya:

‘The Khuddaka Nikaya can easily be divided into two strata, one being early and the other late. The texts Sutta Nipata, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, Therigatha (Theragatha), Udana, and Jataka tales belong to the early stratum. The texts Khuddakapatha, Vimanavatthu, Petavatthu, Niddesa, Patisambhidamagga, Apadana, Buddhavamsa and Cariyapitaka can be categorized in the later stratum.’[26]

The texts in the early stratum date from before the second council (earlier than 100 years after Buddha’s parinibbana), while the later stratum is from after the second council, which means they are definitely later additions to the Sutta Pitaka, and that they might not have been the original teachings by the Buddha, but later compositions by disciples.

The following books of the Khuddaka Nikaya can thus be regarded as later additions:

and the following three which are included in the Burmese Canon

The original verses of the Jatakas are recognized as being amongst the earliest part of the Canon,[22] but the accompanying (and more famous) Jataka Stories are purely commentarial, an obvious later addition.


The Parivara, the last book of the Vinaya Pitaka, is a later addition to the Vinaya Pitaka.[27]

Other later writingsEdit


Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (c. 450 BCE – c. 1300 CE)

  450 BCE[note 14] 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE[note 15]







Early Buddhist schools Mahāyāna Vajrayāna






Sri Lanka &
Southeast Asia










Tibetan Buddhism








East Asia


Early Buddhist schools
and Mahāyāna
(via the silk road
to China, and ocean
contact from India to Vietnam)


Nara (Rokushū)




Thiền, Seon
Tiantai / Jìngtǔ









Central Asia & Tarim Basin





Silk Road Buddhism


  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE
  Legend:   = Theravada   = Mahayana   = Vajrayana   = Various / syncretic

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Leon Hurvitz: "... stressed that the written canon in Buddhism is sectarian from the outset, and that presectarian Buddhism must be deduced from the writings as they now exist."[7](quote via Google Scholar search-engine)
  2. ^ J.W. De Jong: "It would be hypocritical to assert that nothing can be said about the doctrine of earliest Buddhism [...] the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas."[11]
  3. ^ A.K Warder: "...a reconstruction of the original Buddhism presupposed by the traditions of the different schools known to us."[13]
  4. ^ "By several centuries after the death of the Buddha, the itinerant mendicants following his way had formed settled communities and had changed irrevocably their received methods of both teaching and praxis. These changes were inevitable, a consequence of the growth and geographic dispersion of the practicing communities. Confronted with new challenges and opportunities in an increasingly organized institutional setting, monks expanded and elaborated both doctrine and disciplinary codes, created new textual genres, developed new forms of religious praxis, and eventually divided into numerous sects or schools."[15]
  5. ^ "I would also argue that unintentional literalism has been a major force for change in the early doctrinal history of Buddhism. Texts have been interpreted with too much attention to the precise words used and not enough to the speaker's intention, the spirit of the text. In particular I see in some doctrinal developments what I call scholastic literalism, which is a tendency to take the words and phrases of earlier texts (maybe the Buddha's own words) in such a way as to read in distinctions which it was never intended to make." How Buddhism Began, Richard F. Gombrich, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997, pp. 21–22
  6. ^ See also Atthakavagga and Parayanavagga
  7. ^ "Theravada Buddhism, in texts such as Cariyapitaka, Buddhavamsa, and Dhammapadatthakatha, postulates the following ten perfections", Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, p. 632
  8. ^ "It is evident that the Hinayanists, either to popularize their religion or to interest the laity more in it, incorporated in their doctrines the conception of Bodhisattva and the practice of paramitas. This was effected by the production of new literature: the Jatakas and Avadanas.' Buddhist Sects in India, Nalinaksha Dutt, Motilal Banararsidass Publishers (Delhi), 2nd Edition, 1978, p. 251. The term 'Semi-Mahayana' occurs here as a subtitle.
  9. ^ "several schools rejected the authority of abhidharma and claimed that abhidharma treatises were composed by fallible, human teachers." in: Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004), p. 2. (A similar statement can be found on pp. 112 and 756.)
  10. ^ "Although begun as a pragmatic method of elaborating the received teachings, this scholastic enterprise soon led to new doctrinal and textual developments and became the focus of a new form of scholarly monastic life."
  11. ^ "Independent abhidharma treatises were composed over a period of at least seven hundred years (ca. third or second centuries B.C.E. to fifth century C.E.).", MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, p. 2
  12. ^ "These similarities (between the Abhidhammas of the various schools) suggest either contact among the groups who composed and transmitted these texts, or a common ground of doctrinal exegesis and even textual material predating the emergence of the separate schools.", MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, p. 2
  13. ^ "If I am right in thinking that the Buddha left no clear statement about the ontological status of the world – about what 'really' exists – this would explain how later Buddhists could disagree about this question." How Buddhism Began, Richard F. Gombrich, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997, p. 34
  14. ^ Cousins, L.S. (1996); Buswell (2003), Vol. I, p. 82; and, Keown & Prebish (2004), p. 107. See also, Gombrich (1988/2002), p. 32: “…[T]he best we can say is that [the Buddha] was probably Enlightened between 550 and 450, more likely later rather than earlier."
  15. ^ Williams (2000, pp. 6-7) writes: "As a matter of fact Buddhism in mainland India itself had all but ceased to exist by the thirteenth century CE, although by that time it had spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia." [29] (Originally 1958), "Chronology," p. xxix: "c. 1000-1200: Buddhism disappears as [an] organized religious force in India." See also, Robinson & Johnson (1970/1982), pp. 100-1, 108 Fig. 1; and, Harvey (1990/2007), pp. 139-40.


  1. ^ Schmithausen (1987) “Part I: Earliest Buddhism,” Panels of the VIIth World Sanskrit Conference Vol. II: Earliest Buddhism and Madhyamaka, ed. David Seyfort Ruegg and Lambert Schmithausen, Leiden: Kern Institute, pp. 1–4.
  2. ^ Griffiths, Paul J. (1983) “Buddhist Jhana: A Form-Critical Study”, Religion 13, pp. 55–68.
  3. ^ Collins, Steven (1990) “On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon”, Journal of the Pali Text Society 15, pp. 89–126.
  4. ^ Lamotte, Étienne (1988) History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era, translated from the French by Sara Boin-Webb, Louvain: Peeters Press
  5. ^ Hirakawa, Akira (1990), A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahāyāna, tr. Paul Groner, University of Hawaii Press
  6. ^ Harvey,Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 74
  7. ^ a b Hurvitz 1976.
  8. ^ Nakamura 1989.
  9. ^ Hirakawa 1990.
  10. ^ Gombrich 1997, pp. 11–12.
  11. ^ a b Jong 1993, p. 25.
  12. ^ Warder 2000.
  13. ^ Warder 1999.
  14. ^ Disputed Dharmas: Early Buddhist Theories on Existence. by Collett Cox. The Institute for Buddhist Studies. Tokyo: 1995. ISBN 4-906267-36-X p. 23
  15. ^ MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, p. 501
  16. ^ Lindtner 1997.
  17. ^ Lindtner 1999.
  18. ^ a b "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  19. ^ Buddhist Sects in India, Nalinaksha Dutt, 1978, p. 58
  20. ^ "Buddhism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  21. ^ a b Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature – A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, p. 415
  22. ^ a b Kanai Lal Hazra, Pali Language and Literature – A Systematic Survey and Historical Survey, 1994, Vol. 1, p. 412
  23. ^ I.B. Horner, Book of the Discipline, Volume 5, p. 398
  24. ^ The Mahisasaka Account of the First Council mentions the four agamas here. see http://santifm1.0.googlepages.com/thefirstcouncil(mahisasakaversion)[permanent dead link]
  25. ^ MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, p. 1.
  26. ^ A textual and Historical Analysis of the Khuddaka Nikaya – Oliver Abeynayake Ph.D. , Colombo, First Edition – 1984, p. 113.
  27. ^ This work (the Parivara) is in fact a very much later composition, and probably the work of a Ceylonese Thera. from: Book of the Discipline, vol. VI, p. ix (translators' introduction)
  28. ^ would throw the earliest phase of this literature (the Mahayana Sutras) back to about the beginning of the common era., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, p. 493
  29. ^ Embree 1988.


Printed sourcesEdit

  • Buswell, Jr., Robert E. (ed.) (2003). Encyclopedia of Buddhism (MacMillan). ISBN 0-02-865718-7.
  • Cousins, L.S. (1996). "The Dating of the Historical Buddha: A Review Article" in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3, 6.1 (1996): 57–63. Retrieved 29 Nov 2008 from "Indology" at https://www.webcitation.org/5vDULzfTE?url=http://indology.info/papers/cousins/
  • Embree, Ainslie T. (ed.), Stephen N. Hay (ed.), Wm. Theodore de Bary (ed.), A.L. Bashram, R.N. Dandekar, Peter Hardy, J.B. Harrison, V. Raghavan, Royal Weiler, and Andrew Yarrow (1958; 2nd ed. 1988). Sources of Indian Tradition: From the Beginning to 1800 (vol. 1). NY: Columbia U. Press. ISBN 0-231-06651-1.
  • Gombrich, Richard F. (1988; 6th reprint, 2002). Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo (London: Routledge). ISBN 0-415-07585-8.
  • Gombrich, Richard F. (1997), How Buddhism Began, Munshiram Manoharlal
  • Harvey, Peter (1990; 15th printing, 2007). An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). ISBN 0-521-31333-3.
  • Hirakawa (1990), History of Indian Buddhism, volume 1, Hawai'i University Press
  • Hurvitz, Leon (1976), Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, Columbia University Press
  • Jong, J.W. de (1993), "The Beginnings of Buddhism", The Eastern Buddhist, 26 (2)
  • Keown, Damien and Charles S Prebish (eds.) (2004). Encyclopedia of Buddhism (London: Routledge). ISBN 978-0-415-31414-5.
  • Lindtner, Christian (1997), "The Problem of Precanonical Buddhism", Buddhist Studies Review, 14: 2
  • Lindtner, Christian (1999), "From Brahmanism to Buddhism", Asian Philosophy, 9 (1)
  • Nakamura (1989), Indian Buddhism, Motilal Banarsidas
  • Robinson, Richard H. and Willard L. Johnson (1970; 3rd ed., 1982). The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing). ISBN 0-534-01027-X.
  • Williams, Paul with Anthony Tribe (2000). Buddhist Thought (London: Routledge). ISBN 0-415-20701-0. Retrieved 29 Nov 2008 from "Google Books" at https://books.google.com/books?id=v0Rpvycf1t0C.
  • Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools, Santi Forest Monastery, 2006 by Bhikkhu Sujato


External linksEdit