General Essay On Early Buddhism
Most accounts of the earlier forms of Buddhism confuse the difference between lineages of teaching (dhamma) and lineages of monastic discipline (vinaya). Part of the reason for this is perhaps that they tended to become confused or converge at a later date in India, when some names which had been very important earlier were no longer in current use. To make this distinction clear, separate sections of Chart One are given over to each of these two lines of development.
The Buddhist Order remained united until the Second Communal Recitation (Council). Traditionally this took place about a century after the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana, but this is a round figure and it was probably somewhat earlier than this. At some point later, exactly when is not known, the first formal divisions or Nikayas arose. These do not appear to have been based so much upon doctrine as upon different approaches to monastic discipline. They probably did not affect Buddhist laity at all. Initially the division was into two: the Theravadins or 'Followers of the Original Teaching' and the Mahasamghikas or 'Adherents of the Sangha at large'. The Theravadins were concerned to reform was they saw as laxity which had developed since the time of the Buddha, while the Mahasamghikas in this period were conservatives seeking to preserve tradition as it had been handed down.
As Buddhist thought and practice developed, different schools (or Vadas) of theory and understanding formed. Later, differences of doctrine and discipline combined to bring about the formation, by the last centuries B.C., of fully fledged separate schools. Many of these, but not all, had their own disciplinary rules and their own canon of scriptures. According to some sources there were eighteen such schools, but this number is certainly symbolic in intent and should not be taken too literally. The disciplinary section of the scriptures (Vinaya) survives, wholly or in part, in at least eight recessions. At minimum one or two more must have existed; some too would have been found in recessions only slightly differing from one another. Only three have been transmitted down to the present-day as living monastic traditions, as shown in the first section of Chart One.
The second section of this Chart shows the major schools of thought. In the period after the arrival in India of pilgrims from China (from the fifth century A.D.) four major systems were distinguished as Arya Nikayas, presumably because they each preserved their own set of disciplinary rules and scriptures, with distinct traditions of commentary and ritual practice. The Mahasamghikas, originally a disciplinary school, had probably developed their own scriptural traditions by this time, but these are little known because the Mahasamghikas seem to have adopted the Mahayana en masse at an early date and no non-Mahayana branch survived to concentrate on their specific teachings. They were especially strong in Central India, but were found in various northern locations also. The Vibhajjavadins or 'Analysts' survive especially as the Theravadins of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. (Strictly speaking the two remaining groups are also Theravàdins, but they do not seem to have retained the widespread use of this name.) Alone of the schools, the Theravadins have preserved their ancient Canon in an Indic language, now known as Pali. Their main strength lay to the south, in Dravidian areas and in Ceylon, but they were also present in coastal areas of both Western and Eastern India. The Sabbatthivadins or 'Pan-realists' were influential across Northern India, especially in Kashmir and nearby areas, and spread northwards and eastwards. Most of their scriptures are preserved in Chinese translation, but parts also remain in Sanskrit and in Tibetan translation. Finally, the Puggalavadins or 'Personalists' were especially important in Western India. Although at times very numerous, no branch of this school survived the decline of Indian Buddhism. A few of their texts remain in Chinese translation and some of their teachings are summarized in sources preserved in Tibetan.