History and Sources

What other early schools and scriptures are especially important in the history of Buddhism?

A number of early Buddhist schools or denominations arose in India during the five or six centuries after the Buddha’s death. One cluster, known collectively as the Hinayana (“Small Vehicle”) schools, developed as a result of differing interpretations of what manner of being the Buddha was. The most important of these schools is the Theravada (“Wisdom of the Elders”), the branch largely responsible for the Pali Canon. Theravada Buddhists taught that the Buddha was a historical human being who counseled others to pursue their own path to enlightenment. But some Buddhists inclined toward more expansive, spiritual interpretation.

The Mahasanghikas (“Proponents of the Great Assembly”) taught that the Buddha’s many previous lives as a Buddha-to-be, a Bodhisattva, prior to his birth as Siddhartha Gautama meant that the Buddha was more of a cosmic spiritual being than a mere mortal. All but one volume of their sizeable Sanskrit (called Buddhist Hybrid) scriptures have been lost. Another school, the Sarvastivadins (“Proponents of the View that All Exists”), further emphasized the importance of the Bodhisattva’s spiritual evolution as a model of growth in virtue. They, too, produced a body of sacred writing, but the Sanskrit originals were lost and we know of them through Chinese and Tibetan translations.

Next to the Theravada school the most important of the early denominations was the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”). So called because of its wider appeal, Mahayana teaching emphasized the larger-than-life qualities of the Buddha. More than a mere mortal, the Buddha was a saving figure whose compassion filled the universe and whose grace was available to all who asked. Mahayana scriptures in Sanskrit included sutras claiming to be the Buddha’s own words, commentaries and treatises called shastras, and esoteric works called Tantras used by smaller sects.

A. The Pali Canon (Tripitaka, “Three Baskets”)

  1. Vinaya-Pitaka (Basket of Order): contains material about the life of the Buddha and the origin of the monastic community, including the rules of discipline for monks.
  2. Sutra-Pitaka (Basket of Instruction): contains teaching of the Buddha and his early disciples as well as the 547 Jataka (birth stories) tales of the Buddha’s previous lives.
  3. Abhidharma-Pitaka (Basket of Higher Teaching): contains seven sections of teaching designed for specialized instruction of advanced initiates, and it dates from the fourth century B.C.E.

B. Other Key Texts

  1. The Mahavastu: Dating from around the first century B.C.E., this text was originally part of a much larger collection produced by the Mahasanghika school. It focuses on the various stages in the career of a Buddha-to-be (Bodhisattva) and details the various previous lives of the salvific being eventually embodied in the historical Buddha.
  2. Questions of King Milinda (Milindapanha): Compiled in North India around the third century C.E., this text is a philosophical dialogue between a Buddhist sage named Nagasena and the Bactrian king Menander (Pali: Milinda). The discourses cover basic Buddhist themes such as self-lessness, suffering, and the attainment of nirvana.
  3. The Lotus of the Good Law Sutra (Saddharmapundarika): Used especially by Tendai Buddhists of Japan, this text arose in its present form about 250 B.C.E. and is especially concerned with conveying the notion that all sentient beings possess the essential quality necessary for attainment of Buddhahood.
  4. The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñaparamita Sutra): With parts that date as far back as the first century C.E., this text is a collection of sayings of the Buddha that are in effect a comprehensive explanation of the attainment of Buddhahood.

Boys studying the Theravada texts at the Shwe Yan Pyay monastery school in Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar. (Zzvet /


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