This could be a relatively scholarly article, with translations from the Pali and lots of end notes and references, but I’m lazy, and furthermore I need to write several articles by the end of the month, as I intend to be in retreat during December, won’t be writing then, and need four articles to be posted automatically by Google’s artificial intelligence while I am occupied. So following will be some relatively unscholarly reflections, based mainly on memory, of some very early Buddhist history. It’s still well worth reading though, probably.
According to the Pali texts, the first schism in Buddhism occurred during the Buddha’s lifetime, and was instigated by his cousin and brother-in-law Devadatta. Theravadin tradition portrays Devadatta as a murderous villain, considerably worse than the archetypal Christian villain Judas Iscariot, as Devadatta allegedly attempted to murder the Buddha more than once, and, after impressing Prince Ajātasattu of Magadha with his jhanic psychic powers, persuaded the Prince to murder his own father and become King himself. Yet ironically, the schism in the Sangha is said to have arisen over Devadatta’s insistence upon greater strictness in monastic discipline. He insisted upon five points, namely:
1. That all monks should be forest dwellers, with staying in a village being considered wrong;
2. That monks should not accept invitations for meals, but should eat only alms food collected by (silent) begging;
3. That monks should not accept donated robe cloth, but should wear only robes made from cast-off rags that they had picked up and sewn together;
4. That monks should not live under a roof, but only under trees; and
5. That monks must be vegetarian.
The Buddha replied that all of these are optional practices for members of the Sangha, but would not be made obligatory. Allegedly, Devadatta knew in advance that the Buddha would disagree, and insisted on these five points only as a pretense to make himself look good. Then he talked 500 monks into becoming his followers and left the presence of the Buddha with them in tow. When the 500 soon afterward went back to the Buddha, Devadatta is said to have become so frustrated and mortified that he vomited hot blood, dropped dead, and plunged straight into hell.
So the attempted schism was presumably an abortive one. But the details provided by tradition may not be very reliable, partly because it is hard to believe that Devadatta could be so monstrously evil as portrayed in the texts, and partly because his sect or “reform movement” may have continued for centuries. I remember long ago reading an account of one of the Chinese Buddhist monastic pilgrims who traveled to India may centuries after the time of the Buddha; and he claimed that near the Jetavana monastery there was a monastery of monks who professed to honor all Buddhas except Gotama, and that the founder of their movement was Devadatta. But even if this is true, Devadatta’s sect never amounted to very much in the history of Buddhism, and it eventually died out.
Devadatta allegedly attempting to murder the Buddha
The first big schism in the Buddhist Sangha, the one that really got the schismatic ball rolling, is said to have occurred about one hundred years after the Buddha disappeared from this world. It is associated with the second Buddhist great council, the details of which are given in the same book—the Vinaya Cullavagga—that describes Devadatta’s most egregious attempts at stirring up trouble. I have read that other ancient schools of Buddhism, some of whose texts still survive, also gave similar accounts of this council.
The Theravadin version of the story gives the account of a monk named Yasa from the western districts, who was traveling through the region of Vesālī farther east. He happened to come to a monastery where the monks collected monetary donations from laypeople; and when they tried to give him his share of the “take,” he refused, stating, in the presence of the laypeople, that handling money was improper and against the rules of monastic discipline. This naturally outraged the Vesālī monks, so they conducted a formal act of reconciliation against him (a formal act which, as far as I have ever heard, has not been conducted in Burma for centuries, if ever), requiring him to apologize to the laity for speaking so offensively. So the monk Yasa went to the laypeople and made things even worse by explaining the rules of discipline to them, including a little poem attributed to the Buddha, but, as far as I know, not found in any Pali sutta:
Some philosophers and priests are defiled by lust and aversion,
Men enveloped in ignorance, delighting in pleasing forms;
They drink ale and wine, they indulge in sexual relations,
And they consent to silver and gold, the ignoramuses.
Some philosophers and priests live by wrong livelihood;
These are called defilements by the Buddha, kinsman of the sun.
Some philosophers and priests, defiled by these defilements,
Are not bright; they do not shine—they are impure, dirty animals.
They are wrapped in darkness, slaves to craving, led on by their own inclinations;
Their sole fulfillment is an awful one—the cemetery—and they take yet another existence.
The result of this debacle should be easily predictable: The outraged monks of Vesālī decided to conduct a much more severe formal act against him, an act of suspension from the Sangha. So Yasa ran away before they got the chance, went back to the west, and told the stricter monks there about what had happened. Representatives of the two factions, east and west, convened to settle this controversy, and the meeting became known as the second great Buddhist council.
The primary issue was the legality of monks handling money, although other, less serious matters of monastic discipline were also addressed, such as whether or not it is allowable for a monk to keep salt for the sake of seasoning his food, and whether it is allowable to use a sitting cloth without a proper border. The western, proto-Theravadin side reportedly got its stricter way on all counts, and I have read that some records, at least, on the other side agreed that the western faction won the debate, although of course they didn’t cast as dim a light on their own side as the Pali authors did for them. (I do consider it somewhat ironic, or like dark comedy, that the descendants of the victorious stricter side mostly handle money nowadays, not to mention keeping salt to season their food.)
But recently I read that some non-Theravadin texts, especially a text of the Mahā Sanghikas (descendants of the eastern faction) called the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, claim that the westerners were innovators trying to add new Vinaya rules to the ones already established, with the eastern side actually being the conservatives. The fact that the easterners were the larger faction (hence the name Mahā Sanghika or “of the Great Sangha”), situated in the traditional homeland of Buddhism, and the alleged fact that the Mahā Sanghika Vinaya contains fewer rules and appears to be more primitive, would seem to lend some circumstantial support to this claim. Also it is fairly obvious that the rules of the Theravada Buddhist Vinaya do not all date to the first council. They were added in layers, so to speak, with essentially two different sets of rules: the Pāṭimokkha, and everything else. And some rules in the “everything else” category even prescribe the proper conduct with regard to monks of other sects of Buddhism, which of course didn’t exist at the time of the first council, or even the second—unless we assume that Devadatta’s sect was intended.
The details of exactly what happened around the time of the second council are unclear, and some scholars claim that the council took place only about seventy years after the time of the Buddha, with the schism itself occurring approximately thirty years after that. This would explain why some eastern texts admit that the westerners won the debate at the council. It would also make more plausible the textual claim that a former disciple of the venerable Ānanda attended the council. In fact some accounts by the descendants of the eastern Buddhists say that the actual split occurred over matters of Dharma, not Vinaya—with the most famous issue of contention being the question of whether or not an Arahant could backslide and become unenlightened again. (I also seem to remember something about arguments over whether or not an enlightened being could have a wet dream.) The eastern side said Yes, and “our side” said No. If this is true, then it is a little sad that only one hundred years after the time of the Buddha they could already no longer find an Arahant and just ask him or her.
Disagreements over monastic discipline apparently had something to do with the breakup, or sanghabheda, between the Mahāsāṁghika Nikāya in the eastern homeland of Buddhism and the Sthavira Nikāya, or proto-Theravada, located mainly farther west, in districts more recently converted to Buddhism. In fact nowadays scholars theorize that Pali is an ecclesiastical language which developed as proto-Theravada moved westwards across northern India, picking up elements of western dialects as it was gradually displaced farther east. So pretty obviously geography was also a significant factor in determining the schism. Travel and communications were slower and more difficult in those days, and thus the cultural evolution of Buddhism moved in different directions largely as a result of isolation of various groups, and slightly different emphases taking precedence and growing into major distinguishing tenets. This kind of isolation serves as a factor in the evolution of religious organizations as well as in the evolution of species of biological organisms.
The breakup continued within both of the original factions, so that within three centuries of the time of Gotama Buddha there were said to be 18 different sects of Buddhism. One of the more influential and well-known on the Sthavira side were the Sarvāstivādins, who may have been the “non-Buddhist heretics” allegedly purged from the Sangha in the Pali commentarial account of the third great council, conducted during the time of the emperor Asoka.
Despite the disagreements, it is heartening that the ancient Buddhists evidently did not abandon their peaceful ideals, as I am unaware of any sectarian violence erupting between the followers of different sects at this time. If it happened it didn’t make history. In fact, monks of different sects could be found studying together and debating at the same monastery compounds and Buddhist universities, although they did carry out their formal acts of the Sangha separately. Sometimes the debates could grow vitriolic, but there is no comparison with what happened in Western Christianity a few centuries later, with blood flowing in the streets from violent altercations over, say, whether Christ had two natures, divine and human, or only one, or whether the Holy Spirit emanated directly from the Father, or from the Father but through the Son.
Vinaya and geography may have been the original factors catalyzing the division of the Sangha, but by the time of the “18 Schools” the primary source of disagreement had become philosophical theory. The two main groups, Sthavira (Sanskrit for Thera) and Mahāsāṁghika, including their respective subgroups, began moving philosophically into practically opposite directions in certain respects, which resulted in an interesting polarity arising to distinguish the two. In fact it is this polarity which is actually the main reason why I wanted to write about this in the first place.
The monks of the Great Sangha and associated schools tended toward absolutism, or an emphasis on a transcendental Ultimate Reality. They also stressed the importance of the intuition of the individual, and favored elaboration of philosophical views, including the view of No View. Mahayana arose mainly from this side of the fence, with one of its high points being manifested in the Prajnaparamita literature, the “Perfection of Wisdom.”
The Sthaviras or “Elders,” on the other hand, favored philosophical conservatism, and adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy. They also tended to favor the view that Ultimate Reality is not so transcendental that it cannot be understood intellectually. This latter tendency reached its zenith in the various Abhidharma literatures of the various schools. Rather than mystical monism they preferred objective pluralism, with arguably the most extreme school in this regard being the Sarvastivadins, who were extreme atomists. They considered the elemental atom, or individual dharma, to be the ultimately real unit of samsaric reality, being itself unconditioned and eternal, with only the combinations of these atoms being subject to impermanence—or so I have read. Various sects of the “Elders,” including Theravada, came up with their own philosophical elaborations in the form of some kind of Abhidharma, but after this phase of getting everything suitably explained they adhered rigidly to their explanations, making minor adjustments here and there but disapproving of innovation.
Thus Buddhism diverged, very generally speaking, toward the two polar extremes of traditional dogmatism vs. progressive “liberalism” of thought and intuition, which polarity forms two horns of a dilemma. But the dilemma is compounded if one considers that each of these two poles—traditional dogma and subjective intuition—bears its own dilemma of mutually negating positive and negative aspects. I have observed before that a strength tends to carry its own weakness, as a flip side of the same coin; and this observation tends to be borne out if one observes the paths taken by the two main branches of ancient Buddhism.
Which is better: spiritual conservatism or spiritual liberalism? Well, as the Bible says, “The letter killeth, the Spirit maketh alive.” And there can be little doubt that in traditional Theravada there is quite a lot of killeth. The established tradition has ossified to such an extent that even explaining some aspect of Dhamma in one’s own words, instead of the words of an authorized text, may be seen as Wrong. The notion that an intellectual system really can explain Reality, and even be the only correct explanation, has resulted in some famous Theravadins, for example the English monk Nyanavira and the Burmese Pah Auk Sayadaw, asserting that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation is so wrong as to have no hope of liberation. On the other hand, a common illustration of a fool in the Pali suttas is one who says, “Only this is true! Anything else is wrong!” But a dogmatist would reply that the fool says it with regard to a pernicious Wrong View, but that saying it with regard to orthodox dogma is Right. So spiritual conservatism can result in adherence to dead words and abstract concepts replacing genuine, living inspiration.
On the other hand, “progressive” freedom of interpretation may result in the seeker wandering away from the main point entirely, as arguably could be said of the Pure Land traditions that arose in some of the Great Sangha schools at the beginning of the Mahayana movement. Freedom from dogma is certainly no guarantee of wisdom; and without that wisdom one may throw away any valid guidance contained in the dogmatic tradition. (Dead words definitely have their limitations, but, like a dead hammer or saw, if used as a tool may not be entirely useless.) Consequently, Mahayana has diverged to the extent of being all over the map, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime; and although Theravada has its own fair share of ridiculous as well as sublime, still it seems to have remained consistently closer to the original message. Mahayana over the centuries may have had more living inspiration, but it has also had more of everything else, with the inspiration often being overwhelmed in the flood.
So a limitation of conservatism is that one may become attached to somebody else’s words, and fail to move beyond them into one’s own genuine realization of the Way. A limitation of liberalism is that one may wander completely off the track and wind up in La-La Land. Both approaches have their strengths and their weaknesses. It’s a multiple dilemma.
But of course, Buddhist Dharma teaches a Middle Way, so one good solution would be to steer a middle course between relying on a map (without mistaking it for the terrain) and trusting one’s own intuition, inspiration, and experience (without disdainfully dismissing the map).
Another way of looking at it is to consider that strengths and weakness inevitably cancel each other out, so that the universe can remain in some semblance of a stable balance. Anything with strengths and corresponding weaknesses is a samsaric phenomenon which negates itself; and true Dharma is neither positive nor negative. It is purely neutral, and beyond strengths or weaknesses. It cannot really be negated, or confirmed either. So let the pluses and minuses cancel each other out, attaching to neither, and keep your heart and mind as wide open as possible. Be wide awake, be careful, follow your deepest sensitivity, respect teachers regardless of whether they teach anything you can use, and know that the blessings of gods and saints are upon you. And good luck.