'I realized that the profound Truth I discovered is difficult to perceive, and difficult to understand. It is calming and sublime. It is not to be gained by mere reasoning and is visible only to the wise. The world, however, is bent on pleasure, delighted and enchanted by pleasure. Such beings will hardly understand the Sacca Dhamma. Yet there are still those whose eyes are only a little covered with dust. They will understand the Truth. Here, bhikkhus, are trees. Here are empty abodes. Meditate bhikkhus! Don’t be negligent lest you feel regret later. This is our directive to you! '(A.N the 7s)

A life in the Sangha offers to those who are inclined towards it, a unique opportunity to wipe the dust from their eyes. The Pali word Sangha means “community”.  It most often is used to refer to the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sangha. This is the monastic order of monks and nuns that practice under the training rules laid down by the Buddha himself. There is also another application of Sangha taken to mean the greater community of all Buddhists (Mahasangha) practising and living under the guidance of the training outlined in the fourth of the Salient Truths.

Types of Sangha

Bhikkhusangha – Once the Buddha had attained the enlightened state he decided to teach those who were capable of travelling the path that he had discovered. His first discourse was delivered to five ascetics with whom he had engaged in extreme practices and which he eventually rejected. At first when the Buddha approached them they were skeptical and suspicious of his intentions but they agreed to listen to what he had to say.

His first recorded discourse to them embraced all the key tenets of his teaching, particularly the Four Salient Truths and Dependent Origination which are outlined elsewhere in this site. These ascetics were so moved by the Buddha’s talk that they requested to stay with him and take dependence on his teaching. This is how the bhikkhu sangha began.

In the early years there was very little need for regulation as those early samanas were already highly attained. But as more and more wanted to join, srom all levels of society, a wider range of personalities, characters and levels of attainment had to be catered for as very few were rejected. The number of rules grew exponentially along with membership. It is known that rules continued to be added long after the Buddha had passed away. This later became a major source of conflict within the early sangha and led eventually to schism.

Problems arose and poor behaviour became more common. In order to form a cohesive community of practising samanas the Buddha began, reluctantly, to lay down rules of behaviour with penalties applying according to the seriousness of the offence. These rules and the stories of their origins became known as the Vinaya.  Twice monthly bhikkhu members of a common Sangha (at least 4 bhikkhus), come together to hear a recitation of the rules called the patimokkha. In the centuries after the Buddha's passing schisms formed and the Sangha split into many sects, each developing and adopting a version of the patimokkha. There are three versions still extant, those of the Dharmagupta, Mulasarvastivadin and the Theravadin sanghas or nikhaya (sect). The content of these three versions are fundamentally similar but with a variation in the number of rules to be adhered to. The Theravada school has the most with 227 rules recorded in its patimokkha. There are also a plethora of other regulations contained in the Khandaka consisting of two books of commentaries on the Vinaya dealing particularly with ordination, uposatha and the rains retreat period along with other matters. 

It was only when a bhikkhu committed an act that was against the spirit of Dhamma and the cohesion of the community that the Buddha composed an edict or training rule (sikkhapada). The 227 rules of the Theravada bhikkhusangha are graded from the very serious to the very trivial. The four most serious rules are called parajika and any breach results in asamvasa (exclusion from the Sangha or excommunication).

These four rules are extreme examples of the first 4 trainings embraced in the five precepts (pancasila) applicable to all practising Buddhists. If a bhikkhu kills another person, steals anything of value, has sexual intercourse with a male or female or lies about having super normal powers then he has committed a parajika and is forever after out of communion with the Sangha.

Many bhikkhus became famous in the lifetime of the Buddha and were revered teachers in their own right. Samanas such as Moggallana, Sariputta, Mahakassapa and the most loyal and loved Ananda became great examples of those who attained enlightenment following in the path of the Buddha. The Tathagata’s own son, Rahula, also joined the Sangha when he was old enough.

Devadatta was another who became famous for all the wrong reasons. He led the first schism in the Buddhist Sangha. Before the death of the Buddha, Devadatta convinced other bhikkhus to break away, form a rival monastic order and undertake variant practices. His main issue was over the eating of meat. The early schisms in the Sangha and the rise of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism are discussed later.

Bhikkhuni Sangha – Five years after the Buddha founded the bhikkhu sangha he started a similar order for women called the bhikkhunisangha.  It is said that the Buddha’s mother lobbied relentlessly for him to establish the order and give equal opportunity for women to practice. The Buddha expressed doubts as he knew it would not be easy for women in the context of their social status in the Fifth Century BC. The Buddha eventually agreed and so Suddhodana became the first bhikkhuni.

As the order grew so too did the number of rules and regulations. The Theravada women’s order eventually had 311 rules as compared to the men’s 227. Rules were only compiled as the consequence of an incident arising within the order that required addressing. Many of the extra rules for women relate to the use of cloth but there are special rules that reflect the status, attitudes and dangers that women of that time faced.  For example bhikkhunis were not allowed to wander alone as monks could. They always had to travel in a group for their protection.

Unfortunately, the rules ultimately did not protect the women’s order and over the centuries it disappeared in the Indian region due to marauding armies which came and went leaving rape and destruction in their wake. However the bhikkhuni Sangha did survive in other parts of Asia such as Taiwan and Hong Kong within the Mahayana tradition and so a form of continuous ordination of women has endured.

Because of this fact, in 2009 the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha was able to be resurrected in Australia, of all places, when Ven. Brahmavamso, a learned English Bhikkhu with forty years of experience, began female ordination. For the first time in the West women can now follow the same path to enlightenment as men under the discipline of the bhikkhuni Vinaya.

Mahasangha – There is also a wider application of the word, Sangha, to include all followers who are practising the decent way of living, the Mahasangha. The Maha or greater Sangha embraces bhikkhus, bhikkhunis and lay practitioners of the Buddha’s teaching and makes up the greater community of Buddhists.

Schisms in the Sangha

The Buddha often warned his bhikkhus to be wary of the jungle of views and the wilderness of opinions (ditthi). He urges us in the very first training in the Eightfold path to develop right view (sammaditthi). For many of those bhikkhus of the early Sangha had not realized this trap. They developed opinions on all sorts of subjects from the rules of discipline, to the interpretation of Dhamma, to the very nature of practice itself. It inevitably entangled them in disagreement and discord. Without the Buddha around to give wise council bhikkhus, old and young, began to squabble in the years after his passing. By the time three centuries had passed the original Sangha had divided into at least  twenty different schools with different canon, different doctrine interpretations and a wide range of practices all of which they attributed to the Buddha.

The first schism - The first movement to divide the sangha began during the Buddha's life. The Pali Canon records that his cousin, Devadatta, overcome with jealousy and ambition gathered a following and began teaching his own version of Dhamma and rules of discipline (Vinaya). This set the precedent for future schisms. Often a schism developed based on the opinions of one eloquent monk who convinces others that his way or his interpretation of Dhamma-Vinaya is the true way of practice. The record of this first schism is dealt with in great detail in the Theravada Tipitaka. 

Devadatta was portrayed as the epitomy of evil and the arch enemy of the Buddha. The legends say that he went to great lengths to try to murder the Buddha but to no avail. The tales go on to assert that before Devadatta's eventual death he repented his actions, took refuge in the Buddha and eventually, in another life, found liberation. There is conjecture over whether this was an historical event and it is not often regarded as the first schism as all the dissidents were reputedly reconciled and rejoined the Sangha. However there is evidence to suggest that this was not the case and that they actually founded a new sect, the Gotamikas, which endured long after Devadatta's death.

Conjecture aside, it is interesting to look at the five demands that Devadatta made to reform the Sangha during the Buddha's lifetime. He requested the Buddha to make it compulsory for monks to follow five extra rules. They were:

(i)         To dwell all their lives in the forest

(ii)       To live only on alms obtained by begging

(iii)     To wear robes made from rags collected from the dust heaps and cemeteries

(iv)     To live at the foot of trees. 

(v)       To refrain from eating fish or meat throughout their lives.

The Buddha refused the request saying, 

Enough, Devadatta. Let him who wishes be a forest dweller; let him who wishes dwell in a village. Let him who wishes be an eater of begged-for-almsfood; let him who wishes accept invitations. Let him who wishes be a refuse-rag wearer; let him who wishes wear a robe given by householders. Living at the root of a tree is allowed by me for eight months of the year, but not during the rains. I have allowed fish and meat that is pure in the three aspects – when it is not seen or heard or suspected to have been killed for one personally.” 

Having been rebuked by the Buddha, Devadatta then gathered a group of young bhikkhus who were easily persuaded to follow him in schism. According to Theravada records the schism was short lived and the recalcitrant monks returned to the fold. However there is some doubt over whether this faction was ever reconciled. Rhy Davids believed that the followers of Devadatta did in fact form another sect which became known as the Gotamaka Sect which adhered to the five stringent practices. Devadatta was from the same family as the Buddha and had the same family name of Gotama hence the naming of the sect after him.

When we look at the requests made by Devadatta they do not seem to be too outrageous and we would probably expect that these practices were standard especially in the early years. These five practices are actually contained within the fourteen ascetic dhutanga practices of a mendicant bhikkhu which, the Buddha said,  should be observed at some time during a monk's practice but not all the time as this would not constitute the middle way. Over the centuries some Buddhist sects have adopted some or all of these practices as central to their teaching. The proposed rule to abstain from the eating of meat has been a major point of contention between schools over the centuries and even today is central to several traditions. 

Even during the life of the Buddha there existed strong views and opinions as to how a samana should practice. As the Buddha and his senior disciples got older and more frail there inevitably would be some young, ambitious monks with strong opinions who would attract a following. After the parinibbana, division and sub-division of the sangha became a prominent aspect of early Buddhism. Sometimes it was just a case of a group of like minded monks going their own way, dissociating themselves with the main body and eventually forming a branch sect. Sometimes schism happened on a larger scale due to the catalyst of a major event. 


The First Council and its contribution

The first official schism in the original Sangha, or Great Schism, occurred within 150 years of the Buddha's passing. It eventually resulted, after several more centuries, in the two great schools of Buddhist doctrine, the Hinayana and the Mahayana. It didn't happen suddenly but rather gradually as groups of monks began to be separated in distance, in practice, in doctrine, in interpretation and in view. Division would be initiated by the charisma (or stubborness) of certain individual monks who were able to impose their views on a significant section of the Sangha. However, the original seed for division was sown at the First Council as it failed to determine which rules were major rules and core to the practice and which were minor rules, inconsequential to the practice and so, could be disregarded. This left the door wide open for schism. 

Several versions of the Buddhist Canon from both schools record that, soon after the Buddha's parinibbana, a first council of the Sangha was called by Mahakassapa- though what transpired is contradictory. He called it because he was alarmed at what some monks were saying now that the Buddha was no longer alive. Mahakassapa was told that a bhikkhu named Subhadra had rejoiced at the Buddha's passing by stating that it was a good thing as they now were free to do as they liked without him around to lecture them. Mahakassapa anticipated the potential for the Sangha to deviate quickly from the teachings of the master if they didn't move to consolidate and confirm what the Buddha had actually taught. The First Council was called out of anticipation and fear that a schism potentially could develop. 

Since the order was still only quite small it was relatively easy to organize and assemble some 500 bhikkhus at the caves of Rajagaha during the rains retreat, probably around 483BCE, a few months after the Buddha's death. At that council the Sangha seems to have been in accord. Its aim was to preserve the sayings of the Buddha, and to collate and agree upon the rules of Vinaya so that it was clear to all what the monks' discipline would entail. The earliest records of this Council do not mention the Abhidhamma though the records of schools formed centuries after do maintain that the Abhidhamma was recited at the First Council as well. The Ven. Ananda is said to have recited the Suttas (sayings), and the Vinaya was recited by Ven. Upali. Though the Buddha had said that, after his passing, the minor rules could be deleted, the learned bhikkhus present could not agree on which rules were "minor" and so unanimously decided to keep them all. This reluctance to change the rules, to retain petty regulations and discard none would prove to be a great contributor to future schism.

The Second Council and its contribution:

During the next century after the Buddha's parinibbana the wandering members of the Sangha ventured to the Southern, Northern and Western parts of India and established small communities of bhikkhus. Within 110 years of the First Council a Second Council was convened (circa 373 or 383BCE). A bhikkhu elder named Yasa played a prominent role in its convening. It is recorded that he travelled from the West to visit Vesali, the district where the Buddha had taught, in Magadha. He was alarmed at some of the practices that the bhikkhus of the Sangha of that area were engaged in. These monks were named Vajjiputtakas. He was particularly dismayed at the common practice of monks collecting money from lay supporters. 

Yasa drew up a list of ten contentious practices and refused to follow the practices of the vajjiputtakas (the offending group) in collecting money. Yasa began to cajole and lay blame on the lay supporters. This annoyed the monks of the Vesali sangha who charged Yasa with vilifying lay supporters. This could be construed as being a serious Sanghadisesa offence requiring the Sangha to convene and adjudicate on the matter. Yasa, in turn, defended himself by quoting passages in the Canon that condemned what he viewed as lax practices. 

Having been admonished by the Vajjian Sangha, Yasa refused to repent. This again is a sanghadisesa offence. Yasa was excluded from the Sangha at Vesali. Yasa believed this to be against Vinaya and gathered support from bhikkhus to the West and South who converged on Vesali to confront the assembly which had expelled Yasa. After much debate it was decided to settle the issue by convening a council at Vesali which, it is recorded, 700 bhikkhus attended. Once again a Council had been called either out of fear of schism or to intercept the potential for schism and reestablish A common rule of law In the Sangha.

At this Second Council a committee of eight learned monks was formed consisting of four elders (sthavira or thera) from the Western faction and four elders from the Maghadha area whose duty it was to deliberate over the ten points of contention presented by Yasa. They referred to canonical precedence and eventually decided in favour of the Western Sangha and against the Vajjiputtaka monks or so it is recorded in the Pali Canon of the Theravada. The committee of elders presented their findings to the Council and all monks unanimously agreed with them. Above all else the the Council was fearful of schism and upheld Yasa's views for the sake of harmony in the Sangha. This version of the Second Council is recorded in the canons of the Theravada, Sarvastivada and other extant versions of the Tipitaka. The records of the Council end here and nothing is said of what ensued thereafter and how schism resulted from this decision. 

Some commentaries -Theravada- say that the Vajjiputtakas were so disgruntled by the findings of the Council that their group broke away from the main Sangha. Other commentaries -Mahayana- say that it was the bhikkhus of the Western orders, being in the minority, thereafter dissociated themselves from the larger or Eastern Sangha who became identified as the Mahasanghika. The outcome was Sangha that was now split irrevocably and that these divisions in future would become the norm rather than the exception. The following is an interpretation of what is likely to have occurred and why it occurred based on a merging of records from several traditions.

The Ten Points of contention and its contribution:

According to the traditional Theravadin account, dispute arose over Yasa's 'Ten Points.' This is a reference to  specific issues that Yasa and his faction considered to have major consequences for the future of the Sangha if they weren't addressed. To some degree they also reflect the character of the instigator who, riddled with pride, sought revenge for his expulsion by the Vajjiputtakas by engaging in legalistic "nit picking". It was a trait that was to characterize one school of Buddhism to this day. The specific ten points were: 

1.        Storing salt in a horn.

2.        Eating after midday.

3.       Eating once and then going again to a village for alms.

4.       Holding the Uposatha Ceremony with monks dwelling in the same locality.

5.       Conducting official acts when the assembly was incomplete.

6.       Following a certain practice because it was advocated by one's teacher.

7.       Eating sour milk after the midday curfew.

8.       Consuming strong drink before it had been fermented.

9.       Using a rug which was not the proper size.

10.    Using gold and silver (ie. money).

The Issues involve

The Theravada Pali commentaries go into great detail about this dispute. The Vajjian monks are condemned as the cause of the problems due to their lax practices. They are portrayed as conniving and routinely denigrated. What had they done that was so threatening as to warrant a council of the whole Sangha?

 Before the Buddha's Parinibbana he told Ven. Ananda that the community may (unanimously) relinquish the minor rules of the Vinaya but at the First Buddhist Council there was uncertainty about which rules he was referring to and it was unanimously decided to keep the Vinaya as it was during the Buddha's lifetime. However, 100 years later some monks felt that certain rules could be relaxed or be open to broader interpretation. Others held the opinion the rules didn't go far enough and more should be added.

When we analyse the ten points in conjunction with the existing rules of the Sangha we realize that not all of them were rules at that time.  They fitted into four groups, one group relating to food, a second to authority in the Sangha, a third to the use of money and a fourth involving petty matters. Many of the ten points were already represented in the patimokkha and so it was indisputable that the Vajjians had breached some minor Vinaya as it probably existed at that time. But to include all ten points as breaches of Vinaya was more a strategy than a reality.  It seemed Yasa wished to force his views on the whole sangha.

Surely the issue of Yasa breaching two Sanghadisesa was of greater concern to the well being and harmony of a unified sangha? But this matter seems to have been edited out of the Theravada records and so there is greater emphasis on breaches of minor rules by the vajjiputtakas.  Some explanation of each of the points of contention is warranted in order to see it from the Vajjians point of view and how their sense of injustice lead to eventual schism. 

Most of the ten points were lesser offences classed as pacittayas which required only confession and carried no penalty. However Yasa also included in his ten points, four which were really interpretations and highly debatable as to whether they were actual rules or just his desire to make new rules. One of these related to undertaking practices which a teacher had prescribed. A second related to performing uposatha with bhikkhus residing in the same place. The third related to eating sour milk after midday. The fourth was about carrying salt in an animal's horn. Are such indiscretions really the stuff of schism? Or are they a contrivance generated by Yasa and his followers to divert the sangha's attention from his very serious infractions? 

The use of money -  Perhaps the most serious of Yasa's points is number 10, the collecting of money which, in the Patimokkha, belongs to the  Nissagiya Pacittaya class of offences that require forfeiture as a penalty. The key issue was the interpretation of the use of 'gold and silver', which was a common idiom for any kind of money. Indeed coinage did exist in those times. Whether or not a bhikkhu should carry money has been a great source of contention and dispute for centuries. Even today many monks choose to adopt a strict literal interpretation that the Buddha referred only to gold and silver as that which was not to be touched and so coinage or notes that was neither gold nor silver could be handled and collected. The monks of Vesali had adopted this view and had taken to wandering for alms with the specific goal of collecting such money, to which the visiting monk Yasa had objected. 

The carrying of money or, more importantly, the control of money by monks has great implications to the way of practice as designated by the Buddha. It had implications then and it still has particular connotation in our times of great affluence, electronic transfers and credit cards. Once the line is crossed the consequences to the practice of Dhamma-Vinaya is great. The line drawn by the Buddha was to do with the control of things of value not semantics. When bhikkhus start accepting and controlling money they also accept the consequences of this. 

The control of money and associated items reduces the need for monks to be dependent on lay support as they can now purchase their requisites themselves. It can create a false livelihood as monks seek to accumulate wealth instead of merit. It changes the very notion of leading a homeless existence. In traditional Buddhist societies the faith of lay supporters can be so great that the Sangha can become very affluent with individual monks controlling large funds of money. They begin to  own property. They start to build monasteries, plush residences, and monuments. They accumulate luxury goods, delicacies and today, mobile phones, computers and even vehicles. They start to buy land and desert the mendicant lifestyle. They become less constrained by geography and can travel independently. Being less constrained they become more reluctant to abide by some of the more inconvenient articles of the Vinaya. No doubt Yasa saw great peril in the Vajjiputtaka becoming money collectors, peril for them and peril for the future of the Sangha. He wanted to put an end to this practice. It is a shame that he didn't see the same peril intrinsic in breaches of sanghadisesa, particularly his reluctance to accept admonishment and creating schism.

Authority in the Sangha - Points 4, 5, 6 relate to authority in the Sangha. A critical  issue for Yasa was the tendency for the Vajjians to adopt the practices of their particular teacher rather than adhering to the Canon. This undermines the authority of the Sangha itself and the Vinaya in particular. Buddhism has a long history of monks becoming skilled and persuasive orators who are very good at presenting Dhamma. They teach Dhamma in their own way. Some of these bhikkhus used to and some still do digress from what is accepted as standard interpretation of Dhamma. For some schools this is seen as healthy and is encouraged. For other, more conservative sects, it is seen to generate division and reduce the authority of the elders who were regarded as the rightful holders of the knowledge of Dhamma Vinaya. Yasa saw danger in Monks adhering to an individual's teachings rather than the prevailing doctrine of the Sangha. Though it could possibly lead to schism, to follow a teacher was not a breach of the patimokkha rules and is another example of Yasa's desire to villify his oponents. 

(It is interesting at this point to note that the Yasa faction eventually did separate from the major community and adopted the name Sthaviravada  and later Theravada  which, rather ironically, places emphasis on the teachings of the Elders within the Sangha as being infallible. But at the time of the Second Council it was seen that to follow a teacher rather than the Buddha's Teaching could lead to monks travelling different paths which eventually did happen anyway. )

Yasa may also have believed there was danger of potential division in allowing monks to stay in the same place for more than a month, a period of two uposatha days. This practice could substantially change the Buddha's path  of practice which was essentially for bhikkhus to remain homeless wanderers for most of the year except for the three months of the rainy season. As some monks gave up the wandering lifestyle in favour of residing in one area, monasteries and viharas began to develop which encouraged even more bhikkhus to remain in that area and put extra burden on lay supporters.

Yasa was particularly vexed over his expulsion from the Sangha of Vesali presumably by a small sangha of Vajjian bhikkhus. So he insisted that such official acts could only be carried out in presence of the whole Sangha. Since the Sangha was still as one at that time this required the convening of the whole Sangha to undertake the task which was logistically very difficult. The infringement of a lesser rule is easily remedied and has little consequence unless those involved refuse to accept admonishment. If they are admonished on three occasions and still won't admit fault then they are in breach of sanghadisesa offence and excluded from the community of bhikkhus. This may have been what Yasa had in mind all along as he sought revenge. He was in fact in breach of what he preached. Today sanghadisesa offences are dealt with within the local sangha and do not require the convening of the entire sangha of say, Thailand, as this would be unmanageable. In this context the vajjians were not out of step with current practice and were within their rights to deal with Yasa as they had.

Food and medicine - Points 2,3,7 and 8 relate to consuming food and medicine. The issue of eating sour cow's milk, probably a form of yoghurt, during the vikala seems to be an example of splitting hairs. Bhikkhus were and still are allowed to store, for up to a week, and consume after midday the five tonics : ghee, fresh butter, oil, honey and sugar. Goat's milk extracts are allowed in the Theravada Vinaya. But it was argued that similar derivatives of cow's milk were not allowed and so the Vajjians were in effect eating in the forbidden period (vikala).

However, the Buddha had allowed, in his wisdom, dispensation for eating during that time in certain circumstances such as,

  • If the food was deemed to be medicine,
  • If a bhikkhu was ill,
  • if a bhikkhu was distressed and distracted by hunger.

We may wonder if Yasa bothered to check if the Vajjians were suffering from hunger. What this allowance means is that there can be a wide range of times under certain circumstances when eating during the forbidden period is allowed. What constitutes a medicine and what constitutes food is a particularly difficult question to determine. Yasa objected to monks eating a form of milk gruel or curd in the vikala. In some regions of India this was regarded as medicine . Today it is commonly accepted even by the strictest of adherents to Theravada Vinaya that cheese made from cow's milk does qualify and can be eaten after noon.

 Even very strict monks will today  routinely consume during the vikala, such commodities as cheese, chocolate, lollies, sugar, coca-cola, pepsi, honey, tea, coffee, coffee mate, all sorts of herbal brews, of course pharmaseuticals and even smoke cigarettes in the view that they constitute medicines. (The Thai word for "tobacco" and "marijuana" translates as "medicine"). What the Vajjians were accused of eating may in another interpretation apart from Yasa's be regarded as medicine and not constitute an offence against Vinaya at all. 

Point 8 relating to the consumption of un-fermented strong drink is difficult to analyse. It infers that fermented drink was allowed which it wasn't if it contained alcohol. The drink that the Vajjians were consuming may have been a local medicine or else a beverage with the potential to contain alcohol.

Petty points - Points 1 and 9 seem rather minor issues. One relates to carrying salt (a medicine) in the horn of an animal. This probably was seen as an offence in spirit because there was a dukkhata offence in the patimokkha which forbade carrying needles in receptacles made from animal parts. This rule as an expression of compassion did not, however, extend to forbidding the wearing of leather footwear made from the skin of an animal. The size of a rug is an important issue if the Sangha is short of cloth but generally is not serious enough to warrant sanction much less convening a Council.

Some of Yasa's points were clearly breaches of lesser rules, paccittaya and dukkhata (The major rules ofparajika and sanghadisesa being the major rules). Some others were simply interpretations and not rules per se. Some were more about authority within the Sangha and the fear of division and others were not rules at all. 

It was in this context that the committee of eight elders of the Sangha had to reach a consensus of whether to accept all ten, or reject all ten as there seems to be no attempt to discriminate by accepting some and rejecting others. The monastic Sangha is structured so that all actions and decisions must be unanimously agreed upon through consensus. It is recorded that the monks were found to be in breach these ten points. According to the Theravada records, they, in response apparently refused to be reprimanded or acknowledge fault. To fail to accept admonishment from the Sangha on three occasions constitutes a Sanghadisesa offence and requires action from the Sangha. It seems that Yasa had cleverly turned the tables on the Vajjiputtakas, out-manoeuvred them and forced them into a more serious breach of sanghadisesa.

Analysis and consequences of the decision - In some commentaries the ten points are regarded as revisions or additions. If this was the case then the Vajjian monks were justified in their resistance to sanction and Yasa and his supporters could be seen as the rebellious element trying to expand the scope of Vinaya and authority of the elders beyond what the Buddha had intended.

The interpretation of the ten points presented by Yasa was the subject of  considerable debate long after the Council dispersed. The Second Buddhist Council made the unanimous decision not to relax any of the rules, and censured the behaviour of the monks who were accused of violating the ten points. If we accept that they were already incorporated into the patimokkha at that time, they still belonged to the class of rules that the Buddha said could be deleted. A breach of such rules hardly seems worthy of the vitriolic reaction from the conservative monks of the West. There must have been greater issues at stake.

 The censured monks, perhaps justifiably, harboured resentment at what they perceived as unfair treatment from a committee that was stacked with elders of the Sangha who, they thought, were against them. The seeds of schism sown in the conduct of the First Council had germinated with the findings of the Second Council. Though the Canons record that all bhikkhus at the Council agreed unanimously with the outcomes it is obvious that this was not the case in reality. The Vajjiputtakas certainly did not agree. There was a residual resentment on both sides that would grow during the decades that followed until it reached maturity with the convocation of another Council 35 years later.

Yasa won the battle but lost the war. As the Sangha grew and dispersed to further regions it was impossible to hold together and equally difficult to invoke the will of an entire Sangha in disharmony. As divisions occurred, as the Sangha spread to new countries and remote regions legal issues were conducted more and more by the local Sangha immediately affected. There have been very few Councils of the whole Sangha held, only six or seven in 2500 years.

The Real Issue

We can argue that the real issue was about who had authority in the Sangha. Did it lie with the small group of elders or did it lie with the will of the majority? Were the rules meant to be an indelible blueprint for a life of practice or was their purpose to control members and deter dissent? 

The Buddha had set up a hierarchical monastic system wherein seniority and authority was assigned according to when a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni received ordination. A monk who received upasampada one minute before the next in line was always senior to those who came after. A junior bhikkhu bows down to one who is senior even if by only a minute. A bhikkhuni, regardless of how many vassa she has, always bows down to a bhikkhu even if he has been ordained for only a minute. This hierarchy persists to this day in the Theravada tradition and has probably been the catalyst for much of the division and sub-division of the Sangha over two millenia.

Such a system means that the social norm of respecting someone of mature age  is replaced with the obligation to pay respect to someone who has been a monk longer. For example, a 60 year old bhikkhu with 10 vassa in the Sangha will bow down to a 30 year old monk with 11 retreats. We can see the Buddha's wisdom in establishing such a system as a practice to sublimate our ego and establish a clear pecking order within a community. But it also lead to problems of jealousy and resentment within that community. It also meant that young, ambitious monks had to wait their turn to become respected teachers even if they possessed superior wisdom to a Thera who had many retreats. Another source of potential schism was undoubtedly the ego of some who were reluctant to have to wait for seniority and to have to endure the authority of elders perceived to have less wisdom than themselves.

The notion of absolute authority residing with the most senior bhikkhu or Thera became a critical issue of contention. In some schools, particularly the Theravada, a tradition had developed that a bhikkhu who has many vassa must necessarily be well advanced on the path, a receptacle of great merit, wisdom and paramitta. There was even an insinuation that an elder with many vassa must be an arahant. Seniority in the Sangha brings with it sometimes unearned reverence and adulation. Among lay followers in particular an old monk may be regarded as having special powers and may even be regarded as an arahant.

Some bhikkhus have been known to propagate this impression. Some have personally announced that they have powers  or that they are an arahant. To make such a claim and not have reached such a state is a parajika (worst of offences). But an arahant could not lie. So when a monk, particularly one with many vassa, does make such a claim, it was often accepted that it is true. During the early centuries of the Sangha it was not unusual for bhikkhus to make such announcements. Any bhikkhu who had achieved many vassa, say a minimum of 20 or more, then became known as Thera and was generally accepted as being an arahant. In the Catholic Church sainthood is bestowed by the Church hierarchy after a stringent process of meeting fixed criteria and usually long after the candidate has deceased. In the Buddhist tradition arahantship can be conferred on a bhikkhu by the general consensus of the Sangha. But it is also possible for an individual to bestow sainthood on himself whilst still living. This was most recently done by a famous Thai ajahn only a few years ago when he announced his arahantship on national television!

By the time of the Second Council the monks of the Western Sangha subscribed to the view that Thera and arahat were synonymous or at least that all Theras were tantamount to arahants and must be revered as such. The bhikkhus of the Eastern Sangha, the Mahasanghikas, did not share this view and rather resented the whole notion.  They refused to acknowledge the authority of the Theras even within their own group. This was the real point of separation between the Western and Eastern orders. This fundamental notion of where authority resides was the real issue at the heart of the Great Schism that was to occur. It heralded the great schism into Hinayana and Mahayana.

Doctrine of the fallibility of the Arahant.

About 30 years after the Second Council (circa 340BC) another schismatic monk of strong views made an appearance in Buddhist history. His name was Mahadeva. His authenticity is confusing because he is either a metaphoric character or else there were two Mahadevas. The second one appeared about 150 years later (circa 100 BC) and founded the Caitika Buddhist Sect. It is possible that these two characters may be the same person but future recollections have confused their era. At any rate a Mahadeva is credited in the Mahasamgika tradition as having called another Council of monks about 30 years after the Second Council of the Theravada tradition. It must be noted that the Theravada Canon does not record this council and denies that it ever happened. But there is sufficient evidence in other Canon (Mahasamgika) to say that it did happen and with great consequence to future Buddhist history. 

In the early Buddhist sangha there was no centralisation of power. Thus the scattered communities of monks and nuns were allowed to grow independently and free of an overriding authority such as the Pope in Catholicism. Basically all communities would have been united in veneration of the Buddha and would have been concerned about practising in their own way as they saw it. They relied on oral records of what the Buddha taught. They could not have access to all teachings as generally they lived in small nomadic groups. Those monks and nuns who lived in one place more regularly as monasteries developed would have better access to a wider range of sayings but they could not know for sure which were those of the Buddha himself and which were later additions attributed to him. It was a relatively easy matter for learned older bhkkhus to make additions to suttas and the vinaya in the name of the master.

Many of the bhikkhus of the Eastern Sangha, particularly those supporting the Vajjians were resentful of what they perceived as manipulation of the Vinaya by elders. They were also resentful of how they had been treated at the Second Council. They were also contemptuous of the growing cult of regarding elder bhikkhus with many retreats as having achieved the status of arahant. Yasa the elder had imposed his own views and opinions on the Sangha in contradiction to the will of the Buddha. 

Mahadeva (1) was a bhikkhu probably  belonging to the Vajjiputtakas group. His group had been admonished by the elders of the Vesali Council and resentment of their treatment had simmered over the years since. Mahadeva stirred up dissent and began spreading his views about the fallibility of arahants who had become synonomous with being a Thera. He called for a second Second Council at Pataliputra about 30 years after the one at Vesali. The Mahasamgika records say that 10,000 bhikkhus attended. At this council Mahadeva attacked and denigrated the concept of arahant. He sought to dilute the power  and authority of the Theras who had announced their arahantship by proposing five points characterizing the fallibility and imperfection of such arahants. By doing so he sought to diminish the prevailing concept of Buddhist sainthood in the Sthaviravada. Mahadeva's five points were:

  1. An Arahant may still have temptation
  2. An Arahant may still have ignorance as to whether he is an arahant
  3. An Arahant may have doubt on doctrinal matters
  4. An Arahant must attain Arahantship with the help of a teacher
  5. An Arahant can attain the Arahantship with by an exclamation of ‘Aho’, (How sad, how sad!)

OR perhaps this deeply denigrating rendition:

  1. allegedly some Arahants were prone to seminal emissions in their sleep (wet dreams),
  2. had nightmares,
  3. were still subject to doubts,
  4. ignorant of many things,
  5. and owed their salvation to the guidance of others (History of Buddhism, Edward Conze, 1980, 28).
(It is amazing how two translators can arrive at such a different translation).

What was Mahadeva on about that he should convene a council to promulgate such notions? Perhaps Mahadeva was just a representation of a long simmering resentment of the conduct of the Second Council at Vesali. His aim in seeking ratification of these five points was clearly to diminish the authority of the Theras particularly those who regarded themselves as arahants and thus infallible in their interpretation of Dhamma and adherence to Vinaya. He attacked and diminished the status of arahant and the aim of practice. Mahadeva held that these so called arahants could regress and so were not the ideal. This later gave rise to the Mahayana concept of the Boddhisatta as the ideal.

The Great divide into Sthaviravada and Mahasamgika.

Two centuries after the Buddha's parinibbana the Sangha had been long established in the Eastern and North Eastern parts of India. It is the land where the Buddha lived, taught and died. The population of bhikkhus was greatest in the East at that time. The more recent establishment of the Sangha in Western and Southern areas meant that bhikkhu numbers were not as great there. It is said that 10,000 monks attended the Patiliputra Council, the vast majority being from the Eastern Sangha. It may even be that many monks from other parts of India did not even know that it was being held, hence the absence of records in some Canon. Theravada tradition has expunged any reference to this Council, denies its authority, preferring instead to ignore it as if it never occurred. However the evil nature of bhikkhu Mahadeva is referred to. The reason for this most probably was that this Council did not go in favour of the Western sangha of elders (Sthvira) as the Vesali council had. Perhaps the Western faction had already gone a separate way by this time and were not in communion with the Eastern Sangha.

The vast majority of those present at Patiliputra voted for the ratification of the five points which resulted in the first official fracturing of the early Sangha. It may have been coming for a long time but it had been generally avoided until now, in the name of harmony and concensus. But the Patiliputra decision caused an irreparable rift not only within the physical Sangha but also doctrinally as the two schools began to move in distinctly different directions like a river branching before it reaches the sea.

The Patiliputra Council put a wedge between the Eastern and Western Sangha. The bhikkhus of the West maintained their tradition of reverence to the Theras, the ideal of arahantship as the aim of practice,  the adherence to Dhamma as recorded in the Suttas and their committment to expanding the rule of Vinaya. They became known as Sthviravada (Word of the Elders). 

The bhikkhus of the East saw themselves as representing the views of the majority, and adhering to the Vinaya and Dhamma as the Buddha had intended it.They advocated the right to follow a teacher who is worthy and not just follow someone because of the length of time they have been a monk. The Eastern group became known as Mahasamgika (The Major Sangha). 

It is from these two Buddhist schools of the Great schism that all future schools descended. At issue was the very goal of practice. The notion of the arahant was central to the Sthviravada. The Mahasamgika and later its branches began to develop a new ideal, the notion of the Bodhisatva as the aim of a life of practice. 

Also at issue was the belief that the suttas were the ultimate authority in matters of Dhamma and doctrine. Mahadeva advocated that it was possible for the Buddha's revelation of Truth to come at anytime and anywhere, therefore we shouldn't cling to the suttas alone as the source of Truth. In this way the authority of the suttas was diminished and it was possible for new suttas to enter the teachings as time passed. The sthviravada on the other hand, maintained that acquisition of wisdom was a gradual, slow process over many years. These remain the two central issues of doctrinal difference to this day between the Theravada and Mahayana.


The Growth of the Buddhist Schools

Over the next few centuries the Sangha began to divide and sub-divide into new schools along sectarian lines  and doctrinal difference. By the beginning of the Christian era there were 18 discernible sects. The Sthviravadans had spread to the South as far as Sri Lanka and to the North as far as Afghanistan, and to the West as far as Persia and even Syria. By this time the Sthviravada had branched into three doctrinal schools, the Puggalavada, the Sarvastavada and the Vibbhajjavada. The Puggalvada believed in the existence of an entity apart from the khandhas that gave identity to an individual and migrated from one life to another. The Sarvastavada believed that all phenomena/mind things (dhammas) exist simultaneously in the past, present and future. The Vibhajjvada focussed their minds on the analysis of phenomena. These three movements within the Sthviravada further divided into other sects advocating refinements of these three doctrines. 

The most influential of the Puggalavada sects was the Sammittiya which at one stage of history was the largest Buddhist sect in India. The most notable of the Sarvastivada sects was the Mularasarvastivada which in around the 5th Century AD established itself in Tibet and initiated the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism. Most notable of the Vibhajjavada were the Dharmaguptakas who took Buddhism to China  and the Theravada who first established themselves as a distinguishable school in the second century BC in Sri Lanka. Of the approximately 12 schools that derived from the Sthviravada and flourished in Western, Southern and Northern India only the Theravada has survived to the modern era. Its confinement to the island of Sri Lanka during the first millennia AD protected it from the Moslem invasion of India which destroyed most of the mainland Sangha in India. But not before Buddhism had established itself in far Eastern Asia, in Indonesia, in Indo China, in China, Korea and even Japan. 

Because the Theravada sect managed to survive In Sri Lanka, it was later able to spread into the Indo China peninsula with the establishment of the Kmer Empire and from there to Laos during the early part of the second millennia AD . Buddhism had already been established in central Thailand and Burma by the Morn people as early as the first century BC. History is usually written by the survivors or winners. We must bear this in mind as we study the Pali Tipitaka as recorded in the Theravada Canon. There is no other school of the Sthviravada left to challenge that account.

As for the Mahasamgikas, they followed a similar evolution. The major group began to divide into smaller sects either along doctrinal revisions or as a consequence of the appearance of credible or charismatic teachers. The Mahasamgikas spread down the Indian peninsula and began dividing into new schools usually along doctrinal lines, particularly during the reign of Buddhist convert King Asoka.

Why was the Buddhist community prone to schism?

The seeds of sectarianism were inherent in monastic life itself: Schism is advocated and regulated as a remedy to dissent.

1.      The Sangha's constitution, rules and practices were, in essence democratic and open to interpretation. Any attempt to make them dogmatic inevitably resulted in further subdivision

2.   The tradition of analysis established by the Buddha from the beginning had been tolerant of freethinking. Essentially the journey to realization is an individual undertaking, to be experienced by the individual. As such Buddhism encourages the arrival of new doctrine and teachers.

3.   No tradition of obedience in matter of faith and belief. Scepticism and questioning of opinions is not only promoted but essential.

4.      The relationship between senior and junior were of respect and reverence. When views collide it is better that the junior monk separate and go his own than cause friction.

5.     The serious rules relating to schism and their punishment actually made separation and division from the community a sensible outcome. (The notion of covering up with grass.)

6.   A dispute over a point of dhammavinaya was a ‘Vivada’ (disagreement in vada or opinion). This could be brought up for settlement before the Sangha body. A vote of majority decides the issue. Once accepted by the sangha, the point decided could not be raised again as this would constitute a grave ecclesiastical offence.

7.    A schism (sangha-bheda) can be validly initiated by the formation of a party of at least nine qualified members in a sangha. When an original sangha split up into 2 sanghas, the one with the dissident views would have to leave to a different avasa. Each sect then revised its vinaya rules and the doctrine. They might transpose suttas belonging to one place of collection to another place or omitted others. Each school also had a version of the Lord’s life and its approved Buddhology. The resident monks of a school would hold periodical rehearsals and recitations of the revised doctrine and vinaya in their own avasas

8.    Should any bhikkhu agitate for a schism in a Community in concord, or should he persist in taking up an issue conducive to schism, the bhikkhus should admonish him thus: "Do not, Ven. Sir, agitate for a schism in a Community in concord or persist in taking up an issue conducive to schism. Let the venerable one be reconciled with the Community, for a Community in concord, on complimentary terms, free from dispute, having a common recitation, dwells in peace."

9.    And should that bhikkhu, admonished thus by the bhikkhus, persist as before, the bhikkhus are to rebuke him up to three times so as to desist. If while being rebuked up to three times he desists, that is good. If he does not desist, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

10.   Should bhikkhus -- one, two, or three -- who are followers and partisans of that bhikkhu, say, "Do not, Ven. Sirs, admonish that bhikkhu in any way. He is an exponent of the Dhamma, an exponent of the Vinaya. He acts with our consent and approval. He knows, he speaks for us, and that is pleasing to us," other bhikkhus are to admonish them thus: "Do not say that, Ven. Sirs. That bhikkhu is not an exponent of the Dhamma and he is not an exponent of the Vinaya. Do not, Ven. sirs, approve of a schism in the Community. Let the venerable ones' (minds) be reconciled with the Community, for a Community in concord, on complimentary terms, without dispute, with a common recitation, dwells in peace."

11.    And should those bhikkhus, thus admonished, persist as before, the bhikkhus are to rebuke them up to three times so as to desist. If while being rebuked up to three times by the bhikkhus they desist, that is good. If they do not desist, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

12.   In case a bhikkhu is by nature difficult to admonish -- who, when being legitimately admonished by the bhikkhus with reference to the training rules included in the (Patimokkha) recitation, makes himself unadmonishable (saying), "Do not, venerable ones, say anything to me, good or bad; and I will not say anything to the venerable ones, good or bad. Refrain, venerable ones, from admonishing me" -- the bhikkhus should admonish him thus: "Let the venerable one not make himself unadmonishable. Let the venerable one make himself admonishable. Let the venerable one admonish the bhikkhus in accordance with what is right, and the bhikkhus will admonish the venerable one in accordance with what is right; for it is thus that the Blessed One's following is nurtured: through mutual admonition, through mutual rehabilitation."

13.   And should that bhikkhu, thus admonished by the bhikkhus, persist as before, the bhikkhus are to be rebuke him up to three times so as to desist. If while being rebuked up to three times he desists, that is good. If he does not desist, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

14.  The new school would have a leader known as Acariya. The schools are called acariyavada, “schools of teachers” and may suggest the rise of prominent teachers who were able to impose their views on certain communities. The names of schools could be from personal names of the acariyas, the name of places or the peculiar doctrine of the school


The Theravada school of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia has identified itself exclusively with the Sthaviravāda, as the Pali word thera is equivalent to the Sanskrit sthavira.[7] This has led early Western historians to assume that the two parties are identical.[7] However, this is not the case, and by the time of Ashoka, the Sthaviravāda school had split into the Sammitaya, Sarvāstivāda, and the Vibhajyavāda schools.[7] The Vibhajyavāda school is believed to have split into other schools as well, such as the Mahīśāsaka school and the ancestor of the Theravāda school.[7] According to some scholars there is no historical evidence that the Theravāda school arose until around four centuries after the Great Schism which occurred at the Second Council.

Estimated combined list of Buddhist schools during the first millennium after Buddha (AB)

     Future Hinayana Schools                                                                         Future Mahayana Schools

·         Sthaviravāda

·         Pudgalavāda ('Personalist') (c. 280 BCE)

·         Vatsīputrīya (during Aśoka) later name: Samitīya

·         Dharmottarīya

·         Bhadrayānīya

·         Sannāgarika

·         Vibhajjavāda (prior to 240 BCE; during Aśoka)

·         Theravāda (c.140 BCE)

·         Mahīśāsaka (after 232 BCE)

·         Dharmaguptaka (after 232 BCE)

·         Sarvāstivāda (c. 237 BCE)

·         Kāśyapīya (after 232 BCE)

·         Sautrāntika (between 50 BCE and c. 100 CE)

·         Mūlasarvāstivāda (3rd and 4th centuries)

·         Vaibhāika

·         Mahāsāghika

·         Ekavyahārikas (during Aśoka)

·         Lokottaravāda

·         Gokulika (during Aśoka)

·         Bahuśrutīya (late third century BCE)

·         Prajñaptivāda (late third century BCE)

·         Caitika (mid-first century BCE)

·         Apara Śaila

·         Uttara Śaila

    Timeline: Early pevelopment and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)                              1977.....Western Sangha

     450 BCE250 BCE100 CE500 CE700 CE800 CE1200 CE



    Early Unified





    Early Buddhist schools






    Sri Lanka &
    Southeast Asia

                       [Theravada Buddhism






    Central Asia




    Tibetan Buddhism


    Silk Road Buddhism


    East Asia

     ChánTiantaiPure LandZenNichiren




     450 BCE250 BCE100 CE500 CE700 CE800 CE1200 CE
     Legend: Theravada tradition Mahayana traditions Vajrayana traditions

    The Theravāda School of Sri LankaBurma, and Thailand is descended from the Sthaviravādin and (more specifically) the Vibhajjavāda School. It underwent two more changes of name. In the Indian accounts it is sometimes called the "Tāmraparnīya" (translation: Sri Lankan lineage), but there is no indication that this referred to any change in doctrine or scripture, while it is very obvious that it refers to geographical location. At some point prior to the Dipavamsa (4th century) the name was changed to "Theravāda", probably to reemphasize the relationship to the original "Sthaviravāda", which is the Sanskrit version of the Pāli term "Theravāda".

    The Theravāda school is the only remaining school which is exclusively aligned with the philosophic outlook of the early schools. 

    The collected teachings of the Buddha are called "sutta" (Pali) or "sutra". (Sanskrit) The compilation was first committed to a written form around 100BCE, forming what is called the Tipitaka (Pali) or "Tripitaka" (Sanskrit), or "3 Baskets". It has also come to known as the Pali Canon.