Pre-sectarian Buddhism

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Template:Clone Template:See also Template:Early Buddhist Schools

Pre-sectarian Buddhism,Template:Sfn also called early Buddhism,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn the earliest Buddhism,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn and original Buddhism,Template:Sfn is the Buddhism that existed before the various subsects of Buddhism came into being.[web 1]

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.Template:RefnTemplate:RefnTemplate:Refn


Various terms are being used to refer to the earliest period of Buddhism:

Some Japanese scholars refer to the subsequent period of the early Buddhist schools as sectarian Buddhism.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn


Pre-sectarian Buddhism may refer to the earliest Buddhism, the ideas and practices of Gautama Buddha himself. It may also refer to early Buddhism as existing until about one hundred years after the parinirvana of the BuddhaTemplate:Sfn until the first documented split in the sangha.Template:Sfn

Contrary to the claim of doctrinal stability, early Buddhism was a dynamic movement.Template:Sfn Pre-sectarian Buddhism may have included or incorporated other Śramaṇic schools of thought,Template:SfnTemplate:Refn as well as Vedic and Jain ideas and practices.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn

The first documented split occurred, according to most scholars, between the second Buddhist council and the third Buddhist council.Template:Sfn The first post-schismatic groups are often stated to be the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghika.Template:Refn Eventually, eighteen different schools came into existence.Template:Sfn The later Mahayana schools may have preserved ideas which were abandoned by the "orthodox" Theravada,Template:Sfn such as the Three Bodies doctrine, the idea of consciousness (vijñāna) as a continuum, and devotional elements such as the worship of saints.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Refn

Earliest Buddhism and the Śramaṇa movement

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File:Fasting buddha at lahore museum.jpg
Siddartha Gautama depicted in Greco-Buddhist style during his extreme fasting prior to be "Awakened", 2nd-3rd century, Gandhara (modern eastern Afghanistan), Lahore Museum, Pakistan

Pre-sectarian Buddhism was originally one of the śramaṇic movements.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn The time of the Buddha was a time of disruption in Indian society, and saw the growth of the śramaṇas, wandering philosophers that had rejected the authority of Vedas and Brahmanic priesthood,Template:Sfn intent on escaping saṃsāraTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn through various means, which involved the study of natural laws, ascetic practices, and ethical behavior.Template:Sfn

The śramaṇas gave rise to different religious and philosophical schools, among which pre-sectarian Buddhism itself,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Yoga,Template:Sfn Jainism, Ājīvika, Ajñana and Cārvāka were the most important, and also to popular concepts in all major Indian religions such as saṃsāra (endless cycle of birth and death) and moksha (liberation from that cycle).Template:SfnTemplate:Refn Nevertheless, despite the success that these wandering philosophers and ascetics had obtained by spreading ideas and concepts that would soon be accepted by all religions of India, the orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy (āstika) opposed to śramaṇic schools of thought and refuted their doctrines as "heterodox" (nāstika), because they refused to accept the epistemic authority of Vedas, denied the existence of the soul and/or the existence of Ishvara ("Supreme God").

The ideas of saṃsāra, karma and rebirth show a development of thought in Indian religions: from the idea of single existence, at the end of which one was judged and punished and rewarded for one's deeds, or karma; to multiple existences with reward or punishment in an endless series of existences; and then attempts to gain release from this endless series.Template:Sfn This release was the central aim of the Śramaṇa movement.Template:Sfn Vedic rituals, which aimed at entrance into heaven, may have played a role in this development: the realisation that those rituals did not lead to an everlasting liberation led to the search for other means.Template:Sfn

Contents and teachings of earliest Buddhism


Scholarly positions

According to Schmithausen, three positions held by scholars of Buddhism can be distinguished regarding the possibility to extract the earliest Buddhism:Template:Sfn

  1. "Stress on the fundamental homogeneity and substantial authenticity of at least a considerable part of the Nikayic materials;"Template:Refn
  2. "Scepticism with regard to the possibility of retrieving the doctrine of earliest Buddhism;"Template:Refn
  3. "Cautious optimism in this respect."Template:Refn

Textual comparison

Information on the contents and teachings of the earliest Buddhism cannot be obtained from the existing Buddhist schools, nor from the early Buddhist schools, since they were sectarian from the outset.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

One method to obtain information on the oldest core of Buddhism is to compare the oldest extant versions of the Theravadin Pāli Canon, the surviving portions of the scriptures of Sarvastivada, Mulasarvastivada, Mahīśāsaka, Dharmaguptaka and other schools,Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn and the Chinese āgamas and other surviving portions of other early canons.Template:RefnTemplate:Refn Early Mahayana texts which contain nearly identical material to that of the Pali Canon such as the Salistamba Sutra are also further evidence.[1]

The oldest recorded teachings are the texts of the four main nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka,Template:Refn together with the main body of monastic rules, the Vinaya Pitaka.Template:Citation needed Scholars have also claimed that there is a core within this core, referring to some poems and phrases which seem to be the oldest parts of the Sutta Pitaka.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

Resolving inconsistencies

The reliability of these sources, and the possibility to draw out a core of oldest teachings, is a matter of dispute.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn According to Tillman Vetter, the comparison of the oldest extant texts "does not just simply lead to the oldest nucleus of the doctrine."Template:Sfn At best, it leads to Template:Quote

According to Vetter, inconsistencies remain, and other methods must be applied to resolve those inconsistencies.Template:Sfn Exemplary studies are the study on descriptions of "liberating insight" by Lambert Schmithausen,Template:Sfn the overview of early Buddhism by Tilmann Vetter,Template:Sfn the philological work on the four truths by K.R. Norman,Template:Sfn the textual studies by Richard Gombrich,Template:Sfn and the research on early meditation methods by Johannes Bronkhorst.Template:Sfn

Dhyana and insight

A core problem in the study of early Buddhism is the relation between dhyana and insight.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn The Buddhist tradition has incorporated two traditions regarding the use of dhyana (jhana).Template:Sfn There is a tradition that stresses attaining insight (bodhi, prajñā, kensho) as the means to awakening and liberation. But it has also incorporated the yogic tradition, as reflected in the use of jhana, which is rejected in other sutras as not achieving the final result of liberation.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn The problem was famously voiced in 1936 by Louis de La Vallee Poussin, in his text Musila et Narada: Le Chemin de Nirvana.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

SchmithausenTemplate:Refn notes that the mention of the four noble truths as constituting "liberating insight", which is attained after mastering the Rupa Jhanas, is a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn Schmithausen discerns three possible roads to liberation as described in the suttas,Template:Sfn to which Vetter adds the sole practice of dhyana itself, which he sees as the original "liberating practice":Template:Sfn

  1. The four Rupa Jhanas themselves constituted the core liberating practice of early buddhism, c.q. the Buddha;Template:Sfn
  2. Mastering the four Rupa Jhanas, whereafter "liberating insight" is attained;
  3. Mastering the four Rupa Jhanas and the four Arupa Jhanas, where-after "liberating insight" is attained;
  4. Liberating insight itself suffices.

This problem has been elaborated by several well-known scholars, including Tilman Vetter,Template:Sfn Johannes Bronkhorst,Template:Sfn and Richard Gombrich.Template:Sfn

Schayer - Precanonical Buddhism

A separate stance has been taken by Stanislaw Schayer, a Polish scholar, who argued in the 1930s that the Nikayas preserve elements of an archaic form of Buddhism which is close to Brahmanical beliefs,Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn and survived in the Mahayana tradition.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Contrary to popular opinion, the Theravada and Mahayana traditions may be "divergent, but equally reliable records of a pre-canonical Buddhism which is now lost forever."Template:Sfn The Mahayana tradition may have preserved a very old, "pre-Canonical" tradition, which was largely, but not completely, left out of the Theravada-canon.Template:Sfn


Schayer searched in the early texts for ideas that contradict the dominant doctrinal positions of the early canon. According to Schayer, these ideas have Template:Quote

Edward Conze notes further: Template:Quote

Ideas and practices

Regamy has identified four points which are central to Schayer's reconstruction of precanonical Buddhism:Template:Sfn

  1. The Buddha was considered as an extraordinary being, in whom ultimate reality was embodied, and who was an incarnation of the mythical figure of the tathagata;
  2. The Buddha's disciples were attracted to his spiritual charisma and supernatural authority;
  3. Nirvana was conceived as the attainment of immortality, and the gaining of a deathless sphere from which there would be no falling back. This nirvana, as a transmundane reality or state, is incarnated in the person of the Buddha;
  4. Nirvana can be reached because it already dwells as the inmost "consciousness" of the human being. It is a consciousness which is not subject to birth and death.

Accordin to Ray, Schayer has shown a second doctrinal position alongside that of the more dominant tradition, one likely to be of at least equivalent, if not of greater, antiquity.Template:Sfn

Schayer's methodology has been used by M. Falk.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn Falk details the precanonical Buddhist conceptions of the cosmos, nirvana, the Buddha, the path, and the saint. According to Falk, in the precanonical tradition, there is a threefold division of reality:Template:Sfn

  1. The rupadhatu, the samsaric sphere of name and form (namarupa), in which ordinary beings live, die, and are reborn.
  2. The arupadhatu, the sphere of "sheer nama," produced by samadhi, an ethereal realm frequented by yogins who are not completely liberated;
  3. "Above" or "outside" these two realms is the realm of nirvana, the "amrta sphere," characterized by prajna. This nirvana is an "abode" or "place" which is gained by the enlightened holy man.Template:Refn

According to Falk, this scheme is reflected in the precanonical conception of the path to liberation.Template:Sfn The nirvanic element, as an "essence" or pure consciousness, is immanent within samsara. The three bodies are concentric realities, which are stripped away or abandoned, leaving only the nirodhakaya of the liberated person.Template:Sfn Wynne notes that this pure consciousness was the central element in precanonical Buddhism: Template:Quote

Conze mentions ideas like the "person" (pudgala), the assumption of an eternal "consciousness" in the saddhatusutra, the identification of the Absolute, of Nirvana, with an "invisible infinite consciousness, which shines everywhere" in Dighanikdya XI 85, and "traces of a belief in consciousness as the nonimpermanent centre of the personality which constitutes an absolute element in this contingent world."Template:Sfn

According to Lindtner, in precanonical Buddhism Nirvana is Template:Quote

According to Lindtner, Canonical Buddhism was a reaction to this view, but also against the absolutist tendencies in Jainism and the Upanisads. Nirvana came to be seen as a state of mind, instead of a concrete place.Template:Sfn

Elements of this precanonical Buddhism may have survived the canonisation, and its subsequent filtering out of ideas, and re-appeared in Mahayana Buddhism.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn According to Lindtner, the existence of multiple, and contradicting ideas, is also reflected in the works of Nagarjuna, who tried to harmonize these different ideas. According to Lindtner, this lead him to taking a "paradoxical" stance, for instance regarding nirvana, rejecting any positive description.Template:Sfn


According to Conze, Schayer's approach and results are "merely a tentative hypothesis".Template:Sfn Conze notes that it is also possible that these ideas later entered Buddhism, as a concession to "popular demand, just as the lower goal of birth in heaven (svarga) was admitted side by side with Nirvana."Template:Sfn According to Conze, the real issue is: Template:Quote

See also




  1. Potter, Karl H. Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.D. page 32.


Printed sources




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Further reading

History of Buddhism (general)
Early Buddhism
Modern understanding

External links

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Page is sourced from Pre-sectarian Buddhism