A Short History of the Buddhist Schools

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published on 01 May 2013


Like any other religious tradition, Buddhism has undergone a number of different transformations that have led to the emergence of many different Buddhist schools. Analyzing the major Buddhist traditions, we find a great number of topics ranging from moral concerns (which seems to have been originally the number one concern of the Buddha) to doctrinal interpretation, metaphysics, meditation technics and philosophical debates just to name a few.

Today, the four major Buddhist branches are Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism. This classification is simply one of the many we find in the scholarly literature and by no means is it set in stone. By using this classification as a general framework it will be relatively easy to approach the long history of the various Buddhist schools.

Early fragmentation of Buddhism

How the different Buddhist schools developed over time after the death of the Buddha is a challenging topic obscured by the lack of sufficient sources: written documents, inscriptions and archeological evidence are simply too scarce for the initial phase of Buddhism. One of the few sources about this early period is the diaries of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who visited India from the 5th to 7th century CE and which are written in great detail. Unfortunately though, all these sources postdate the emergence of the Buddhist schools by several centuries and cannot be considered fully reliable.

To write about changes in Buddhism during a couple of centuries is to actually write about changes that are somehow artificial from the viewpoint of the early Buddhist communities. In reality it is a gradual shift rarely experienced, rarely lived through, by any one person. A series of gradual, almost imperceptible changes, from the perspective of those who read about many centuries in one glance, could be actually a massive change which no monk or lay person ever actually experienced. This could account for the reason why specific first-hand records on this matter are virtually non-existent.

There is a simplistic view that is often held: the idea of a united and harmonious early Buddhist community from which, after many generations, different sects and schools emerged as a result of gradual fragmentation. This image is challenged by what traditional sources tell us about disagreements among the Buddha disciples even during his lifetime. After the Buddha’s death, tradition says, a disciple named Subhadra rejoiced at the fact that the Buddha’s followers would now be free to do as they liked. There are also accounts of the first council held soon after the Buddha’s death, where a group of early Buddhists led by Purana rejected the consensual understanding of the teachings of the Master and insisted on transmitting the teachings as Purana himself had heard it. It is quite probable that these accounts are not literally true, but what seems to be clear is that the element of dissent was present in the Buddhist community from a very early stage.

What is known for sure is that for several centuries after the death of the Buddha, those who followed his teachings had formed settled communities in different locations. The growth and geographical dispersion led to inevitable changes in their methods of both teaching and practices. As the number of members grew, the institutional organization increased its complexity, monks expanded and elaborated both doctrine and disciplinary codes, created new textual genres, developed new forms of disciplines, and eventually divided into a number of different schools. Geographical separation, language difference, doctrinal disagreements, selective patronage, the influence of non-Buddhist schools, loyalties to specific teachers, the absence of a recognized overall authority or unifying organizational structure and specialization by various monastic groups in different segments of Buddhist scriptures are just some examples of factors that contributed to sectarian fragmentation.

The Spread of Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism

The term Mahayana is a sanscrit word which literally means “Great Vehicle”. It is an umbrella term given to a group of Buddhist schools. Its origin can be found probably around 100 BCE in northern India and Kashmir, and then it spread east into Central Asia, East Asia and some areas of Southeast Asia. The term Mahayana was originally used by only a small movement (perhaps the least significant one at that time) in opposition to the formal, scholastic approach to Buddhist practice. Its formative period is not totally clear and equally unclear is when this Mahayana label was actually used outside of texts to designate this self-conscious, independent Buddhist movement. It can be said with certainty that the Buddhist schools embedded in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan belong to the Mahayana tradition.

It is challenging for scholars to present a general characterization of Mahayana Buddhism. In part this is because Mahayana Buddhism is not one thing, but rather, it seems to be a mixture of Buddhist visions, sometimes overlapping and contradictory. In part, too, scholars no longer accept the traditional account of Mahayana history. The Mahayana development used to be presented as a suspiciously simple straightforward chain of events. It was held that the Buddha’s teachings were originally organized, transmitted and more or less developed into what was referred to as early Buddhism. This Early Buddhism was referred to as Hinayana, Theravada or simply “monastic Buddhism”. Around the beginning of the common era, a Mahayana historical account said, this early form of Buddhism was followed by the Mahayana tradition, which was considered a major break in the development of Buddhism. This account left the impression that Mahayana replaced the earlier Buddhist traditions, which is clearly not true. The emergence of the Mahayana was a far more complex affair than this linear model suggests, and the so-called early Buddhism or Hinayana (which in strict terms should be referred to as mainstream Buddhism) not only persisted, but also flourished, long after the beginning of the common era.

The diversity that prevents scholars presenting a general characterization on Mahayana Buddhism as a whole, is not seen as a scandal by Mahayanists, but rather, as a strength to be proud of. Mahayanists see this as a sign of adaptation, as a virtue that is unique among religious traditions, which enables the teachings to be adapted to the needs of the hearers, and thereby, indicating the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. Scholars, on the other hand, insist that this looseness and adaptability of its doctrinal base is a weakness in Buddhism, contributing to its eventual absorption by other traditions, as happened in India, where Buddhism was eventually absorbed by Hinduism. However, even the danger of being absorbed does not seem to bother Mahayanists. Walpola Rahula offers an explanation to this issue using a paradoxical statement which is difficult to challenge:

The label is immaterial. Even the label ‘Buddhism’ which we give to the teachings of the Buddha is of little importance. The name one gives it is inessential. What is a name? That which we call rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
(Rahula, W. p.5)

There is another good point made by Paul Willams, a Mahayanist author:

[...] negative assesment of Buddhist diversity reflects perhaps the inherent Western tendency to adopt a view of truth which requires an exclusive correspondence of certain statements with an objective reality. The fist lesson for the student of Buddhism is a constant mindfulness and wariness of his or her own cultural presuppositions. (Williams, p.2)

In spite of the doctrinal diversity in Mahayana Buddhism there is a relative unity and stability in the moral code. We could say Mahayana has a doctrinal diversity, but a moral unity.

A rock cut image of the Buddha

The Hinayana term

The term Hinayana is a pejorative sanscrit word which literally means “Lesser Vehicle”. It is a word usually found in many texts that must, nonetheless, be approached with caution, especially after we read about its origin. Mahayana literature uses this term to refer to non-Mahayanist schools, including the Theravada, Sarvastivada, Mahasamghika and some fifteen other Buddhist schools. An increasing number of scholars prefer to use the term “mainstream Buddhist schools” instead of Hinayana, which is clearly a Mahayanist derogation.

Mahayana adherents considered their version “great” and all non-Mahayanist schools to be lesser forms of understanding. The so-called Hinayanists ignored the Mahayana and their distinctions. Non-Mahayanist schools do not recognize the term Hinayana except as a questionable label given to them by other Buddhists traditions. From a scholarly perspective, the term Hinayana has very practical application but it is important to clarify it since the term is still found in many sources.

Theravada Buddhism

During the pre-Mahayana period several Buddhist schools developed. The only one of these schools that has survived to this day is the Theravada school. Traditionally, the number of pre-Mahayanic schools is claimed to be eighteen, although we know that there were more than that, probably around twenty five.

Theravada literally means “Teaching of the Elders”. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism in Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Historically, it was also important in South India and had a wider presence in South and Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. Its origin can be traced back as far as the 3rd century BCE and it derives from a Buddhist school no longer existent named Sthaviravada. Theravada tradition claims that a group of Buddhist missionaries inspired by Emperor Ashoka himself introduced the Sthaviravada school in Sri Lanka about 240 BCE.

In modern times, the Theravada school has expanded worldwide and it seems likely to be universalized rather than culturally specific. There are an estimated 100 million Theravada Buddhists worldwide. One of the key features of this Buddhist school is the use of Pali as a sacred language and the Pali Buddhist canon (also called Tipitaka) as the highest scriptural authority, which was written around the first century BCE.

Tibetan Mandala

Vajrayana Buddhism (Tantric Buddhism)

Vajrayana means “The Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”. This Buddhist school developed in India around 900 CE. It is grounded on principles of the Mahayana tradition, but they have added esoteric elements to it and a very complex set of rituals compared with the rest of the Buddhist schools. There is a particular focus on the role of the master, who uses different tools including breathing techniques and many forms of yoga exercises in order to help the disciples to gain enlightenment. They also use Mandalas, which are ritual images designed to facilitate different psychophysical practices such as meditation.

This school believes that achieving enlightenment by the traditional methods requires a very long time, even many lifetimes, while the methods used in Vajrayana can deliver the same result in just a single lifetime.

Sometimes we find the Vajrayana school listed as part of the Mahayana schools. We can also find Vajrayana as a synonym of Tibetan Buddhism, which is not entirely correct. Tibetan Buddhism is part of the Mahayana tradition and has incorporated many esoteric elements of Vajrayana.

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism entered Japan from China (where it was known as Chan Buddhism) around the 7th century CE. It focuses almost entirely on a specific form of meditation that claims to lead to a higher level of awareness or enlightenment. One of the core ideas of Zen Buddhism is that everyone has the potential to become enlightened and that the way to achieve such a goal is through meditation, which explains why the emphasis on meditation is the most distinctive feature of this Buddhist tradition. Preconceptions and attachments are obstacles for achieving enlightment and meditation helps to wipe them away. In other words, the pure original Buddha nature is present in everyone but we are polluted by ignorance and mental impurities. The role of meditation is so important in Zen Buddhism that the attention to rituals, scriptures and other doctrinal material is of very little importance.

There are records of a ruthless persecution against this Buddhist tradition in China about 845 CE (where it was still called Chan at that time), under the rule of Emperor Wuzhong (r. 841-846 CE). It was probably motivated by the increasing popularity and great wealth of this Buddhist order. Clergy was laicized and monasteries confiscated. Around this period a new technique to achieve enlightenment entered Zen: the koan (gong’an in Chinese). Koans are riddles designed to confound the intellect and lead the mind of the Zen student to make intuitive jumps toward realization of truth.

How can the eye see itself without a mirror?

How can you clap with one hand?

If we have attained this birth due to our karma (deeds) in our previous births, then how did we get our first birth?

These riddles are not metaphors, they are simply nonsense, and that is the point. Intellect, Zen claims, is not the road to enlightenment.

About the Author

Cristian Violatti
Cristian Violatti is a freelance writer, currently studying Archaeology at the University of Leicester, England. He is a regular contributor and one of the editors of Ancient History Encyclopedia.

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