- by David N. Snyder, Ph.D.
- (author note: This is just one historical analysis and interpretation. There are other views and interpretations which vary from this one. It is recommended for those interested to review the literature in the References and make their own conclusions.)
Original Buddhism, also called early Buddhism, earliest Buddhism, and pre-sectarian Buddhism is the Buddhism that existed before the various subsects of Buddhism came into being. 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.
Original Buddhism may refer to the earliest Buddhism, the ideas and practices of Buddha (Gotama) himself. It may also refer to early Buddhism as existing until about one hundred years after the Parinirvana of the Buddha, until the first documented split in the Sangha.
Contrary to the claim of doctrinal stability, early Buddhism was a dynamic movement. Original Buddhism may have included or incorporated other Śramaṇic schools of thought, as well as Vedic and Jain ideas and practices.
The first documented split occurred, according to most scholars, between the second Buddhist council and the third Buddhist council. The first post-schismatic groups are often stated to be the Sthaviravada and the Mahasamghika. Eventually, 18 to 20 different schools came into existence. 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.
Why the study of what is Original Buddhism matters
The study of what is and is not Original Buddhism matters, for academic purposes and for the study of history and especially for Buddhists interested in following a Path that is as close as possible, if not identical to what the historical Buddha taught. There are traditions which have added teachings and practices, which may not be Original Buddhism, but these are simply added features and this study in no way suggests that they are not Buddhists or following an inferior path. All Buddhist traditions have the core principles of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Middle Path. Those who follow other traditions which have added teachings from later teachers and traditions can be seen as a skillful means for those practitioners; practices that suit their temperaments.
Brief history of Buddhism
The historical Buddha (Gotama) was born in 563 BCE and according to Buddhist accounts was fully enlightened in 528 BCE. The Buddha attained parinirvana in 483 BCE.
At the time of the Buddha's parinirvana around 483 BCE, the community of Buddhists was very cohesive with no major differences in doctrines and is known as the pre-sectarian period. Beginning with the Second Buddhist council there were disagreements, especially in regard to the monastic Vinaya rules. By the time of the Third Buddhist council in 250 BCE, Buddhism was spread out across about 20 different early schools.
Each school of Buddhism had their texts and versions of the Tipitaka, many of which have been lost, especially of those schools no longer existing in modern times. We have the largest available Tipitaka in full translations from the Theravada Pali Canon. This tradition remained oral and was passed down until being put into writing starting around 100 BCE. Therefore, the Pali Canon, although complete is not necessarily historically one hundred percent accurate when you consider that there were other schools of Buddhism in existence and simply don't have their full texts around any more. There is always the possibility, the potential that we must consider that one of the other early schools of Buddhism, no longer existing -- had it right in the accurate Buddhavacana (words of the Buddha).
The Pudgalavada school established around 280 BCE as did the Mahāsāṃghika school. The Mahāsāṃghika school might be the precursor to the Mahayana, according to many scholars. The Theravada was established as we know it today, around 250 BCE. At the Third Buddhist council the Kathavatthu was included in the then incomplete Pali Tipitaka with the orthodox Theravadins discussing the Pudgalavada views, indicating that the Pudgalavada school was already in existence. So if we go by a strict historical analysis, the Pudgalavada and the Mahāsāṃghika began earlier than the Theravada. Of course every sect claims that they are originated from the Buddha and represent a continuation of the teachings and it is just the name / label of the school that changes, but outside of meditative insights which cannot be independently verified, all we have is a historical analysis and based on that, the Pudgalavada and Mahāsāṃghika have equal footing with the Theravada in any claims they might make to being original Buddhism.
The earliest Buddhist schools that we know of were the Sthaviravāda and Mahāsāṃghika. These two schools then branched off to about 18 additional schools. Since all Buddhist schools can be sourced to one of these two schools, we can look to these two schools for the potential Original Buddhism. The teachings under the Buddha were simply known as "Dhamma-Vinaya" referring to the Buddha's discourses and the rules for monastics. It was not until after the Second Buddhist Council that we then enter the sectarian period and all future schools of Buddhism are derived from these two schools. Not much is known about the Sthaviravāda school, except for the fact that they differed with the Mahasamghika school over Vinaya (monastic rules) and not doctrinal issues. The Sthaviravāda broke into other schools including the Pudgalavada and later to the Theravada. The Mahasamghika broke off into other schools and is considered a precursor to the Mahayana.
Historians and scholars agree that original Buddhism, led by the historical Buddha included a monastic code (Vinaya) and included alms round mendicants who visited the homes of lay people for the lunch meals or received the lunch meals from the lay people at their monasteries. This is identical with the practice of Theravada to this day. The Pali Canon of the Theravada is one of the most complete, large compilations of Buddha's discourses across all traditions, consisting of about 40 volumes in total and was put to writing starting around 100 BCE. This does not prove in any way that the Theravada is original Buddhism, but the practices at the temples and monasteries does appear to be similar if not identical to original Buddhism.
However, the doctrines of Theravada are not necessarily one hundred percent accurate to original Buddhism, as noted above since there were two other schools equally as old or even older and their doctrines have just as much right to make claim to being original Buddhism, from a historical analysis. A sketch of the major early and later schools of Buddhism and their roots from Original Buddhism, known as Dhamma-Vinaya:
Doctrines of Original Buddhism
Scholars who have studied the historical texts, the grammar of the texts have been able to identify similar patterns in text and grammar, allowing them to make judgments as to which discourses are older and which were later. Another method has been locating which texts are common across most or all traditions, thereby likely being part of the original teachings. Most of the schisms of early Buddhism were over monastic issues, i.e., Vinaya rules. Fortunately, the disagreements were not so much over doctrinal issues and therefore, it is not too difficult to piece together common grounds across schools and locate an Original Buddhism. The vast majority of all Buddhists have been lay people, where differences over Vinaya issues are of lesser importance. There is consensus among scholars that the Sthaviravada split from the Mahasamghika and then broke off into other schools including the very early schools of Pudgalavada and Theravada over Vinaya issues, not doctrinal issues. The Mahasamghika, Pudgalavada, and Theravada schools all originated around 250 BCE or earlier, the closest time to pre-sectarian Buddhism and therefore, we can pay special attention to the doctrines of these schools for finding Original Buddhism.
Based on an analysis of the texts, scholars have been able to conclusively remark that the first four Nikayas are Buddhavacana (words of the Buddha) and part of original Buddhism. They are known as the Early Buddhist Texts (EBT). This also includes the equivalent books found in the East Asian (Chinese) Tripitaka which has many parallels to the Pali Canon, especially in the first four Nikayas. In addition to this the Patimokkha (rules for monastics) are also part of original Buddhism.
The scholar monks Bhante Sujato and Bhante Brahmali have written the book The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts and they are in agreement that the first 4 Nikayas and some of the Khuddaka Nikaya are Buddhavacana (words of the Buddha / original Buddhism).
The three universal characteristics of Dukkha (suffering), Anicca (impermanence), and Anatta (not-self) are certainly part of original Buddhism, found in all past and present schools of Buddhism. However, some scholars have suggested that the Anatta doctrine of the Theravada, suggesting an almost nihilism in the view of some followers, is not original Buddhism. Bronkhorst, Gombrich and other scholars have stated that original Buddhism was not adamant in an extreme no-self doctrine and likely accepted a provisional or impermanent self. The Pudgalavada school of Buddhism accepts Anatta, but refers to an impermanent self to account for karma and rebirth and is not nihilistic in regard to parinirvana. Another early school of Buddhism, the Sarvāstivāda, which originated around 230 BCE literally means "all exists" and held everything empirical is impermanent but dharma factors are eternally existing realities.
The scholar-monk Bhikkhu Dr. Analayo has written on the gandhabba and notes that in numerous places the Buddha talks of literal rebirth and states that the correct translation of the Pali term gandhabba is that of a 'being to be reborn' which not only suggests a possible intermediate state between births, but also that there is a continuity, a series that continues with rebirth. We need not call this a soul or permanent self, but perhaps something along the lines of either an impermanent self, a consciousness not directly related to the aggregates or some other interpretation. Bhikkhu Analayo notes that in the suttas, it refers to a consciousness 'descending' into the womb, when rebirth is taking place. (see: Rebirth and the Gandhabba).
The 9 points unifying Theravada and Mahayana
The 9 points unifying Mahayana and Theravada are core beliefs and principles found in all schools of Buddhism and therefore, also appear to be part of original Buddhism.
- The Buddha is our only Master (teacher and guide)
- We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha (the Three Jewels)
- We do not believe that this world is created and ruled by a God
- We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom (panna) leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth
- We accept The Four Noble Truths, namely dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the path leading to the cessation of duḥkha; and the law of cause and effect
- All conditioned things (saṃskāra) are impermanent (anicca) and dukkha, and that all conditioned and unconditioned things are without self (anatta)
- We accept the 37 factors of enlightenment as different aspects of the Path taught by the Buddha leading to Enlightenment.
- There are three ways of attaining bodhi or Enlightenment: namely as a disciple (śrāvaka), as a pratyekabuddha and as a sammasambuddha (perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha). We accept it as the highest, noblest, and most heroic to follow the career of a Bodhisatta and to become a sammasambuddha in order to save others.
- We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.
In keeping with the original name for Buddhism given by the Buddha himself of "Dhamma-Vinaya" the Abhidhamma and Commentaries can be considered later additions and not part of original Buddhism. The Mahasamghika school did not accept the Abhidhamma as part of their scriptures. Even according to the Theravada, the Abhidhamma was not added to the Tipitaka until the Third Council or shortly thereafter.
Summary of Original Buddhism
Based on the above and the research done by Buddhologists and other scholars, the major tenets of Original Buddhism:
- The Early Buddhist Texts (EBT): The first four Nikayas of Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya, Anguttara Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya of the Pali Canon plus the following books from the Khuddaka Nikaya: Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Sutta Nipata, Theragatha, and Therigatha; and the Patimokkha from the Vinaya. Plus the Mahayana pre-cursor parallels to the Pali Canon EBTs: Dirgha-agama (Dharmaguptaka; Chinese), Madhyama-agama (Sarvastivada; Chinese), Samyukta-agama (Sarvastivada; Chinese), Ekottara-agama (Mahasamghika; Chinese)
- An impermanent self as taught by the Pudgalavada school and some Modern Theravada and Mahayana teachers accounting for karma, rebirth and in keeping with a teaching that is not nihilism.
- The idea of a (Ālāya-vijñāna) consciousness as a continuum, including a store-house consciousness to account for karma and rebirth, found in Pudgalavada and Mahasamghika and later in Chan / Zen traditions.
- As taught by Mahasamghika and other early schools, a Dhamma Vinaya scriptures that excludes Abhidhamma, Abhidharmakośakārikā and other later Commentaries.
- Practice includes Dharma text studies, but emphasis is on meditation and reaching higher states including jhanas and enlightenment experiences as found in Theravada and Chan/Zen and other forms of Buddhism.
Therefore, Original Buddhism is basically a combination of Theravada, Pudgalavada, Mahasamghika, and Chan/Zen with the bulk of the teachings coming from the Theravada, especially Modern Theravada (which is the "modern" movement of getting back to the earliest teachings in the Suttas). If percentage estimations were made; it would be about:
- 60% Modern Theravada
- 20% Pudgalavada
- 20% Mahasamghika/Mahayana/Chan/Zen
For a detailed explanation of how Modern Theravada differs from Classical Theravada, see the excellent booklet by Bhante Sujato: How early Buddhism differs from Theravada.
The above showing the roots of all future schools from this original form of Buddhism and meaning that all schools of Buddhism today can trace their origins to at least some parts of the Original Buddhism.
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