5. The Three Sins & Five Theses



The Sarvāstivādin Mahāvibhāṣā was compiled, according to legend, by a group of 500 arahants in Kaśmīr in the time of king Kaniṣka; in fact it must have been after Kaniṣka and after the 2nd Century ce. The creation of this magnificent commentarial edifice marked a bold attempt by the Kaśmīr branch of the Sarvāstivādins to establish themselves as the premier school of Buddhism following the patronage of Kaniṣka. The text devotes a lengthy section to explaining the ‘5 points’, following which it relates the story of Mahādeva:


Having already explained the 5 wrong views and their abandoning, then how do they say they arose? They say they arose because of Mahādeva.

In the past there was a merchant of Mathura. He had a beautiful young wife who gave birth to a son. His face was lovely, so they called him Mahādeva. Not long afterwards, the merchant took much wealth and went to a far country. There he engaged in trade for a long time without returning.  When the son grew up he had indecent relations with his mother. Afterwards, hearing that his father was returning, his mind grew afraid. With his mother he formed a plan, then killed his father. Thus he committed one ānantarika sin.

That act gradually became known. So taking his mother they prepared to flee and hide in Pāṭaliputta. There he came across an arahant bhikkhu, who he had previously made offerings to in his own country. Again he was afraid his act would be revealed, and so he made a plan and killed that bhikkhu. Thus he committed a second ānantarika sin.

His mind became sad and worried. Later he saw his mother having intercourse with someone else. So in anger he said: ‘For your sake I have already committed two grave sins. We have moved to another country, and still find no peace. Now you have given me up and pleasure yourself with another man! How can I endure such filthy deeds from you!’ Thereupon in the same way he killed his mother. Thus he committed a third ānantarika sin.

But there was no cutting off of the power of wholesome roots for that reason, so he became gravely sorrowful and could not sleep at peace, [thinking]: ‘How can one eradicate one’s own grave sins?’ He heard it rumoured that the ascetics, Sons of the Sakyan, taught a Dhamma for the eradication of past sins. Then he went to Kukkuṭārāma monastery. Outside the gates he saw one bhikkhu practicing walking meditation, chanting the following verse:


‘If a man commits a heavy sin

By doing good, he makes it end

Then that man lights up the world

As the moon emerges from the clouds.’


When he heard this, his heart leapt for joy, knowing that by refuge in the Buddha’s religion he would certainly end that sin. So he approached that bhikkhu and eagerly requested the going forth. Then that bhikkhu, when he saw him ask so confidently, gave him the going forth without questioning carefully. He allowed him to retain the name Mahādeva and gave him instruction.

Mahādeva was intelligent, so not long after going forth he could recite from memory the entire Tripitaka in its letter and meaning. His speech was clever and skilful, so he was able to instruct, and all in Pāṭaliputta without exception took him as their guide. The king heard of this and frequently summoned him within the palace, made offerings to him and asked for Dhamma instruction.

After leaving there, he went to stay in the monastery. Because of crooked thinking, in a dream he emitted impurity. However, previously he had been praised as an arahant. Then he asked one of his disciples to wash his soiled robe. The disciple said: ‘An arahant has already eliminated all āsavas.[1] So how can the teacher now still allow this to happen?’ Mahādeva replied: ‘This is the troublemaking of Māra Devaputta, you should not think it strange. There are, in brief, two kinds of emission of āsavas. The first is the defilements. The second is [physical] impurity. The arahant has no defilement āsavas. But even they cannot avoid emitting the āsavas of impurities. For what reason? Although an arahant has ended all defilements, how could they not have substances such as tears, spittle, and so on? Moreover, all Māra Devaputtas are continually jealous and hating Buddhism. When they see someone practicing the good, they therefore approach to destroy them. They will even do this for arahants, which is why I emitted impurity. That is what happened, so now you should not have any cause for doubting.’ That is called ‘the arising of the first wrong view’.

 Again that Mahādeva wished to instruct his disciples to delight in personal attachment [to him]. He falsely set up a system with a gradual explanation of the 4 fruits of asceticism. Then his disciple bowed and said: ‘Arahants all have enlightenment wisdom. How can we all not know ourselves?’ Then he replied thus: ‘All arahants also have ignorance. You now should not lose faith in yourselves. It is said that all ignorance may be summarized as two kinds. The first is defiled; the arahant has none of this. The second is undefiled, which the arahant still has. Therefore you are not able to know yourself.’ That is called ‘the arising of the second wrong view’.

Then the disciples all went back and said: ‘We have just heard that a noble one has already crossed over doubt. How is it that we still have doubt about the truth?’ Then again he said: ‘All arahants still have doubt. Doubt has two kinds. The first is the inherent tendency to doubt; the arahant has abandoned this. The second is doubt about the possible and impossible;[2] an arahant has not abandoned this. Even Pacceka Buddhas are similar in this regard to you disciples, although they cannot have doubt due to defilements regarding the truth. So why do you still despise yourselves?’ That is called ‘the arising of the third wrong view’.

After that the disciples read the Suttas, which said an arahant has the noble eye of wisdom, and can realize for oneself regarding one’s own liberation. For this reason they said to their teacher: ‘If we are arahants we should realize for ourselves. And so why [for example] does the teacher when entering the city not appear to have the intelligence to realize himself [what is the correct road to take]?’ Then again he said: ‘An arahant can still learn from another person, and is not able to know for himself. For example, Sāriputta was the foremost in wisdom; Mahāmoggallāna was the foremost in psychic powers. But if the Buddha’s [words] were not remembered, they could not know this for themselves.[3] This is a situation when one can learn from another and then oneself will know. Therefore regarding this you should not dispute.’ That is called ‘the arising of the fourth wrong view’

But Mahādeva, even though he had committed a host of crimes, had not cut off and stopped all previous wholesome roots. Afterwards alone in the middle of the night his sin weighed heavily [thinking]: ‘In what place will I experience all that severe suffering?’ Depressed and afraid, he frequently cried out: ‘Oh, what suffering!’  His attendant disciple heard the cry and was amazed. In the morning he visited and questioned: ‘How are you these days?’ Mahādeva answered: ‘I am extremely blissful.’ The disciple continued to question: ‘Last night did you cry out “Oh, what suffering!”’ He then said: ‘I shouted the noble path – you should not think this is strange. It is said that if one does not with complete sincerity invoke suffering summoning [one’s whole] life, then the noble paths will not manifest. That is why last night I frequently cried out “Oh, what suffering!”’ That is called ‘the arising of the fifth wrong view’.

Afterwards, Mahādeva gathered and taught these 5 wrong views. He composed this verse:


Another conveys [impurity to soil the robes];

Ignorance; doubt; he learns from another;

The path is caused by the utterance of a sound:

That is called the true Buddha’s dispensation.[4]


After that, the Elder bhikkhus in the Kukkuṭārāma monastery one by one passed away. On the 15th day, it came time for the uposatha.[5] In his turn Mahādeva took the seat for teaching the precepts. There he recited the verse that he had composed. At that time in the assembly there were trainees and adepts who were very learned, firm in precepts, and cultivators of jhana. When they heard that teaching, without exception they were alarmed and objected. They criticized that only a fool would make such a statement, saying: ‘This is not found in the Tripitaka!’ They immediately recomposed that saying thus:


Another conveys [impurity to soil the robes];

Ignorance; doubt; he learns from another;

The path is caused by the utterance of a sound:

What you say is not the Buddha’s dispensation!


Then that whole night was full of rowdy arguments, until finally in the morning factions emerged. Within the city, the news spread until it reached the state minister. The matter gradually spread, and would not end. The king heard and personally went to the monastery, but each faction stuck to its own recitation. Then the king, hearing this, himself began to doubt. He questioned Mahādeva: ‘Which side should we now trust?’ Mahādeva said to the king: ‘In the precept scriptures it says in order to settle issues, one should rely on what the majority say.’ The king then instructed both factions of the Sangha to stand apart. The noble faction, though many in years, were few in number. Mahādeva’s faction, though few in years, were many in number. The king then trusted Mahādeva’s group, since they were the majority, and suppressed the other group. When this was completed he returned to the palace.

At that time, in the Kukkuṭārāma monastery there was still open unextinguished argument with those of other views, until there was a division into two sections: first was the Sthavira school;[6] second was the Mahāsaṅghika school.

At that time all the noble ones, knowing that the community was rebellious, left the Kukkuṭārāma monastery, wishing to go elsewhere. When the ministers heard that, they immediately told the king. The king, hearing this, was angry, and commanded his ministers: ‘Take them all down to the Ganges riverfront. Put them in a broken boat and float them in midstream to drown. Then we’ll find out who is a noble one, and who is an ordinary person!’ The minister respectfully carried out the king’s command and put it into effect. Then all the noble ones arose with psychic powers, just like a king goose flying in the air, and they left. Returning, they used their psychic power to grab those in the boats who they had left the Kukkuṭārāma monastery with, and who did not have psychic powers. Displaying many miracles, they manifested in various forms. Then they voyaged through the sky to the north-west and left.

When the king heard and saw this he was deeply regretful. He fainted and fell down on the ground. They sprinkled him with water, and only then did he regain his senses. Quickly he sent out scouts to follow [the arahants] where they went. A minister returned having found out they were staying in Kaśmīr. But when the Sangha was asked to return, all refused the insistent request. The king then gave away all Kaśmīr, establishing a monastery for the noble ones to stay. Each monastery was named after the various altered forms that each had previously manifested [when fleeing]. It is said that there were 500 ‘Pigeon Monasteries’. Again he sent a messenger with much wealth to organize for their material needs and offerings. Because of this, that land up until the present has had many noble beings upholding the Buddha’s Dhamma, which has been handed down from then until now and is still flourishing.

After the king of Pāṭaliputta had already lost that community, leading others he went to make offerings to the Sangha at the Kukkuṭārāma monastery.

Afterwards, Mahādeva occasionally went into the city, where there was a soothsayer. [Mahādeva] met him; [the soothsayer] saw him, and secretly predicted that:[7] ‘Now this Son of the Śakyan will surely die after seven days.’ When [Mahādeva’s] disciples heard, they became depressed and spoke [to Mahādeva]. He replied: ‘I have known this for a long time.’ Then he returned to Kukkuṭārāma monastery and dispatched his disciples to spread out and tell the king and all wealthy householders of Pāṭaliputta: ‘After seven days retreat I will enter Nibbana.’ When they heard, the king and all without exception began to lament.

When the seventh day was reached, his life came to an end. The king and all the citizens were full of grief and regret. They brought fragrant firewood, together with many oils, flowers and offerings. They piled them in one place to burn them. But when they brought the fire there, it went out. Many times they tried in different ways, but just could not make it burn. It is said that a soothsayer said to the people: ‘This will not burn with these good quality cremation materials. We should use dogshit and smear filth.’ After following  this advice, the fire immediately blazed up, instantly burning up and becoming ashes. A strong wind blew up and scattered the remains. This was because he had earlier originated those wrong views. All those with wisdom should know to dispel them.[8]


This account is found only in the great Mahāvibhāṣā (T 1545) and not in Buddhavarman’s earlier Vibhāṣā translation (T 1546). [9] But who could resist such a lurid tale? This became the definitive version, and was further elaborated, e.g. by Paramārtha in the sixth century, and taken up by most later Chinese accounts.

There are a number of points to be made here. First we notice that the text is explicitly presented as an addendum to the basic discussion of the 5 points. Next we see that the story appears to have sprung into being as a full-fledged myth of origins. Like any myth, it probably derives from a number of sources. Lamotte sees the Aśokavadāna’s tale of a corrupt monk in the time of Upagupta as a likely source.[10] In fact most of the elements of the Mahāvibhāṣā’s story could be assembled by already-existing elements available to the Kaśmīr authors: the tales of Upagupta and the unnamed bad monk from the Aśokavadāna giving the narrative context; the Vibhajjavādin inheritance shared with the Kathāvatthu on the five points, in substance and sequence; Vasumitra for the basic details of the schism. These are blended with a good dose of literary flourish, myth, and satire: Mahādeva’s funeral seems to be a parody of the Buddha’s funeral, with the funeral pyre refusing to light, etc.

The remaining detail that I cannot account for from Indic sources is the motif of the murder of the father by the son who is sleeping with the mother. This is not found, so far as I am aware, in any earlier Indic myths. We note that Kaśmīr had been under Greek influence and sometimes rulership for several centuries before the compilation of the Mahāvibhāṣā, and that there are several references in Greek sources to the performance of Greek drama in Asia. Greek theatres have been unearthed in nearby Bactria, but not yet in Kaśmīr.[11] The possibility holds that this ‘Oedipal’ motif arose from Greek influence.

The motive for the mythmaking would seem to be clear enough. The compilation of the Mahāvibhāṣā is usually given as the reign of Kaṇiṣka, although in fact it must have been finalized later, as his name is mentioned in the text itself as a king of the past. No doubt the source material spans a considerable period of time, mostly around 500-600 an. The compilation marked a bold attempt by the Kaśmīr Vaibhāṣikas to assert themselves as the pre-eminent doctrinal school of Buddhism, and establish their interpretation as the ‘orthodoxy’ against which others are measured – and to a large degree they succeeded. One obvious problem is that Kaśmīr is a long way from the Buddhist heartland, and did not feature in any early Buddhist stories. As early as the Second Council (100 an), the Vajjiputtakas were asserting their superiority since the Buddhas all lived in the eastern lands.[12] Thus the Vaibhāṣikas, knowing they could not claim authenticity as a school from the Buddha’s time, needed the next best: a pure assembly of arahants directly airlifted straight from the heart of the greatest Buddhist empire ever.

While the king is not named, it seems probable that it was Aśoka. The text is speaking from the same tradition as Vasumitra, and regardless of whether the ‘Vasumitra’ of the treatise was the same as the ‘Vasumitra’ associated with the redaction of the Mahāvibhāṣā, it would seem unlikely that the extremely learned authors of the Mahāvibhāṣā were unaware of Vasumitra’s account. Hence following Vasumitra they probably associated these events with Aśoka.

The content of the passage, though not decisive, tends to support this chronology. As far as we know, Aśoka is the only king of Pāṭaliputta explicitly associated with missions to Kaśmīr. Furthermore, he is represented as donating all Kaśmīr, and, pious exaggeration aside, Aśoka was perhaps the only king of Pāṭaliputta whose sway extended so far. The reason for the omission of his name is not hard to find. The passage is presented as a retelling of a story from another source. Presumably in its original context the identity of the king was clear and the authors of the Mahāvibhāṣā probably assumed this would be understood. Nevertheless, even though we may concur with ascribing this episode to the reign of Aśoka, the fact that the text does not specify the time means that it cannot serve as an independent evidence in favor of Vasumitra’s chronology.

Despite the king’s temporary anger, he soon relented and personally established monasteries throughout Kaśmīr, while those (Mahāsaṅghikas) who remained in the old lands were corrupt and worthless. While we should never take such polemics too seriously, there may be a degree of truth in the vitriol, for it is normal that long-established traditions, especially with royal sponsorship, tend to become decadent, and reform movements have more chance to live, experiment, and grow in the outer regions.

The story’s description of how the five theses came to be formulated has the ring of reality. In my experience, it is common that when monks live close to a great teacher, they will usually believe he is an arahant, and inevitably questions arise as to conduct. Some random examples that I have heard in my time as a monk: Can an arahant smoke? Can an arahant walk into the hall patting a dog and forget to wipe his feet? Can an arahant cry during a Dhamma talk? Can an arahant announce his attainment – on TV? Can an arahant suffer from Alzheimer’s? Can an arahant express support for a prime ministerial candidate who turns out to be grossly corrupt? And not least – can an arahant have wet dreams? These arise in exactly the kind of real-life context that is depicted in the Mahāvibhāṣā’s story of Mahādeva, and I think it is extremely likely that this represents the kind of context within which these questions arose and became controversial. This is perfectly in line with how similar questions are treated in the Suttas:


‘Here, Sandaka, some teacher claims to be omniscient and all-seeing, to have complete knowledge and vision thus: “Whether I am walking or standing or sleeping or awake, knowledge and vision are continuously and uninterruptedly present to me.” He enters an empty house, he gets no alms food, a dog bites him, he meets with a wild elephant, a wild horse, a wild bull, he asks the name and clan of a woman or a man, he asks the name of a village or a town, and the way to go there. When he is questioned “How is this?” he replies: “I had to enter an empty house, that is why I entered it. I had to get no alms food, that is why I did not get any. I had to be bitten by a dog… I had to meet a wild elephant, a wild horse, a wild bull… I had to ask the name… I had to ask the way to go there, that is why I asked.”[13]


Such situations would have been as common in ancient India as they are today, and the Mahāvibhāṣā’s account realistically shows how such questions could have arisen in the context of the five points.

The story behind points 2-4, dealing with the kind of knowledge an arahant should have, also seem to me to be a realistic context. Mahādeva sets up a system whereby he can assess and guarantee the attainments of his disciples, making Mahādeva and his students dependent on each other in a sort of mutual ego-massage. This kind of symbiotic teacher/student relationship is common in spiritual circles, and it is also common in modern Buddhism that this would be accompanied by a system which verifies various attainments of concentration or wisdom. Not infrequently, the students themselves do indeed doubt such claims: I myself have been in this situation. The whole context calls into question the belief that the five theses are intended to be a criticism of the arahant. This interpretation has already been questioned by Cousins on the basis of the Kathāvatthu, who argues that what is criticized is certain kinds of arahants, namely those without psychic powers. Mahādeva himself is supposed to be an arahant; given his character in the story, it could hardly be the case that he is criticizing himself. Nor is he criticizing his followers. He is merely pointing out that arahantship is not omniscience, but relates solely to liberating spiritual knowledge. While one may or may not agree with his particular interpretations, this general position is no different from any other Buddhist school. It is often suggested that the five theses paved the way for the emergence of the Bodhisattva ideal and the later idea of the ‘selfish arahant’. While there may be something to this, there is no hint of such developments at this stage. The real problem would seem to be not so much any particular theoretical problem with arahantship, but the misuse of spiritual authority. Compliance with an externally assessed syatem, rather than inner realization, becomes the standard by which spiritual growth is measured.

One interesting point in the above account is that Mahādeva first proclaimed his heretical teachings in the form of a verse recited after the fortnightly recitation of the pāṭimokkha. It is the custom of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis to come together every fortnight to share in a communal recitation of their monastic code. In the Mahāpadāna Sutta, this recitation – though in the context of a past Buddha – is given as the famous verses known as the ‘Ovāda Pāṭimokkha’. It seems likely that the recitation of some such verses as these formed the first pāṭimokkha. In any case, it remained – and indeed still does remain – the custom of the Sangha to accompany the dry list of Vinaya rules with some verses of inspiration, which usually include the ‘Ovāda Pāṭimokkha’.[14] Some of these verses end with the famous declaration that: ‘This is the teaching of the Buddhas’, and these particular verses are in fact found in the Sanskrit pāṭimokkha text of the Mahāsaṅghika and the Sarvāstivāda.

Now, this phrase is also found in Mahādeva’s heretical verses above, where he claims that his 5 theses are ‘the teaching of the Buddhas’. It seems that he was recasting in his own form the Ovāda Pāṭimokkha verse that was regularly recited at the uposatha. One of the Ovāda Pāṭimokkha verses that ends with ‘This is the teaching of the Buddhas’ starts with the phrase: Anūpavādo, anūpaghāto (Sarv: (nopavā)d(ī) nopaghātī; Mahāsaṅghika āropavādī aparopaghātī). Anūpavādo is identical in rhythm and similar in sound to parūpahāro, the Pali term meaning ‘conveyance by another’, which appears to start off Mahādeva’s verse. But parūpahāro (literally ‘other-close-bring’) is hardly a clear description of what the first of the 5 theses is about. However the use of such an obscure term would make sense if it was originally composed for the role it plays in the Mahāvibhāṣā: to substitute as closely as possible to the well-known verses recited at the uposatha.

Perhaps the most important feature of this account for our current purposes is to notice that Mahādeva is accused of committing only three ānantarika acts. These are carefully counted, and the number is repeated elsewhere. An ānantarika act is one of the most heinous crimes known in Buddhism, resulting in unavoidable rebirth in hell. But the list of ānantarika acts is well known and standard, and consists of five. The two not mentioned in the Mahāvibhāṣā’s account are the malicious shedding of the Buddha’s blood – which, to belabour the obvious, is not possible after the Buddha’s death – and causing a schism in the Sangha. Mahādeva, though often taken to be the root schismatic, is not accused, even in the texts that want to destroy his name forever, of deliberately and maliciously causing a schism in the technical sense required by the Vinaya. This is extremely strong evidence that the traditions did not regard even the Mahāsaṅghika split, regrettable as it was, as a schism in this sense.

The Mahāvibhāṣā obviously did not refrain from accusing Mahādeva of causing schism out of any sense of tender affection. Why then did it not make this accusation? The authors of the Mahāvibhāṣā were learned monks fully versed in the Vinaya. To them it would have been obvious that, if their story was correct, it was technically impossible for Mahādeva to cause a schism in the Sangha. The Vinaya emphatically states that a formal schism cannot be caused by a lay person or even a novice, but only by a fully ordained bhikkhu. But Mahādeva had committed three ānantarika sins, rendering it impossible for him to ordain as a bhikkhu. The text is quite aware of this, which is why it takes care to note that his ordination teacher did not question carefully, as he is required to do in the Vinaya. Thus his ordination was invalid, and he could not have caused a schism.[15]


Which Mahādeva?

We have seen that Bhavya, Vasumitra, and the Śāripūtraparipṛcchā, none of whom mention the original Mahādeva, all mention the later Mahādeva II, a few generations after Aśoka. He is associated with the formation of the later Mahāsaṅghika branches in Andhra. Bhavya[16] and Vasumitra[17] specify that Mahādeva II was an ascetic converted from another sect, which does not agree with the story of Mahādeva I.

Lamotte argues against the identification of the good Mahādeva of the Pali tradition with the Mahāsaṅghika Mahādeva on two grounds. His minor reason is the geographical argument: Mahādeva the vibhajjavādin is sent to Mahiṁsaka, while Mahādeva the later Mahāsaṅghika reformer is in Andhra. Lamotte dismisses as ‘vain’[18] attempts to locate Mahiṁsaka in Andhra, but later more moderately regards it as ‘possible’.[19] Certainly, the canonical Pali sources[20] locate a ‘Mahissati’ near Ujjeni in Avanti. But the Pali commentaries locate Mahiṁsaka in Andhra.[21] The inscriptions confirm that the Mahāvihāra had a branch or branches in Andhra, and indeed there are references to the ‘Andhra Commentary’, so we can assume that they knew what they were talking about, and that it is plausible that the Pali commentarial sources think of Mahiṁsaka as Andhra, regardless of what other sources may say. Indeed, there are several inscriptions referring to the Mahīśāsakas in Andhra, and inscriptions in Andhra region that refer to the ‘Ruler of Kaliga and Mahisaka’. About 200kms to the South-west of Nāgārjunikoṇḍa there is a reference to Mahiṣa-visaya.[22] I would therefore suggest we have reasonable grounds for assuming that Mahiṁsaka can be Andhra, at least from the Sri Lankan point of view.

The more important consideration is the obvious doctrinal point: how could the orthodox Moggaliputtatissa, an avowed Vibhajjavādin, have associated with a heretic like Mahādeva? But we have just seen that the evidence for Mahādeva’s heresy is thin indeed. It seems the whole legend is based on the Mahāvibhāṣā, written 400 or more years after the events. And – I know I am being pedantic, but it is an important point – Moggaliputtatissa is not ‘an avowed Vibhajjavādin’. While he may have thought of himself as belonging to a school called Vibhajjavāda, the evidence does not make this explicit. Rather, he said the Buddha was a Vibhajjavādin, probably opposing the heretical teachers of a ‘self’, which was not a Mahāsaṅghika doctrine or anywhere imputed to Mahādeva.

In the end I am inclined to accept two Mahādevas. The first lived at the time of Aśoka, was one of Mahinda’s teachers, and went on a mission to Mahiṁsaka (= Andhra), where he became a leading figure in the formation of the Mahīśāsaka school. The second lived a couple of hundred years later in the same area, and was a local leader of one of the subsects of the Mahāsaṅghikas. Neither had anything to do with the original schism or the five theses.[23] The similarities of the names and areas of activity led to their conflation, and the story of the corrupt unnamed monk from the Aśokavadāna was incorporated to explain how the most orthodox school – from the Sarvāstivādin point of view, i.e. themselves – came to be relocated away from the power-centre of original Buddhism.

One further point to consider: if Mahādeva was not originally associated with the 5 heresies, why was his name singled out? One reason could be the similarities in names and locations with the one or two other Mahādevas. But we might also ask, who else in Buddhism is reviled in this way? There is only one monk in Buddhist history whose name comes in for such treatment: Devadatta. He was closely associated with Ajātasattu, king of Magadha, just as Mahādeva was associated with Aśoka. And Devadatta also proposed a set of ‘5 theses’ in order to provoke a schism. There is a lot of mythic assimilation going on between these two pairs. Without wishing to linger on this point, I would raise the question whether Mahādeva fits the evil role simply because his name is similar to Devadatta.


The Five Heresies

The usual list of five theses is:


1. That semen may be conveyed to an arahant (by non-human beings while he is asleep).

2. That an arahant may have doubt.

3. That an arahant may have ignorance.

4. That an arahant may be led to comprehension by others.

5. That the path may be aroused by crying ‘Aho! What suffering!’


The middle three dealing with the ‘imperfections’ of the arahant’s knowledge are treated quite briefly and repetitiously in the Kathāvatthu; the commentary treats them synoptically. The Kathāvatthu stresses the knowledge and wisdom of an arahant and has the opponent agree that the arahant does not lack knowledge regarding Dhamma. This goes on for some time, but the text is tantalizingly brief in addressing the actual point. The opponent asks: ‘May not an arahant be ignorant of the name and lineage of a woman or a man, of a right and wrong road, or of the names of grasses, twigs, and forest plants?’ This reminds us of Mahādeva’s claim that an arahant might not have personal knowledge about Sāriputta and Moggallāna, i.e. historical details. This seems to be entirely reasonable, and no Theravādin would dispute it. The issue would seem to be whether this kind of ‘unknowing’ has anything to do with ‘ignorance’ in the spiritual sense. But the responder does not make this explicit, merely adding: ‘Would an arahant lack knowledge of the fruit of stream-entry, once-return, non-return, and arahantship?’ – ‘That should not be said…’. Despite the obscure phrasing, the point is clear enough, that an arahant might doubt about worldly matters, but not about matters of spiritual significance. Thus the whole question seems to be more a matter of terminology than different worldviews.

The opponent introduces the distinction between an arahant who is ‘skilled in his own Dhammas’ and one who is ‘skilled in another’s Dhammas’. The commentary aligns the first with one ‘released by wisdom’, who is skilled in his ‘own dhamma’ of arahantship, the second also is ‘both ways released’, being also proficient in the eight attainments. It would perhaps be more plausible to see this as the distinction between an one who knows his own mind (as in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta) and one who reads other’s minds (as in the Gradual Training, e.g. Sāmaññaphala Sutta, etc.). Be that as it may, the Mahāvihāravāsin commentary, even while insisting on the unimpeachablility of the arahant, is developing the conceptual framework that would eventuate in a significant erosion of the arahant’s status. The ultimate outcome of this process would be the belief, normative in modern Theravāda, that an arahant might not attain jhana.

Given that the middle three theses do not seem to be necessarily weighty, the more controversial views would then seem to be the first and last. The last is that one can give rise to the path through wailing ‘O, suffering’. I will not discuss this here,[24] but there is one interesting detail in the Kathāvatthu’s discussion. It says that if this were the case, then one who had murdered their mother, father, or arahants, spilled the Buddha’s blood or caused schism in the Sangha could arouse the path merely by uttering ‘O suffering!’[25] This rather overstates the case, for the proposition would seem to be that crying ‘O suffering’ was one condition for the path, not in itself sufficient. In any case, we notice that these crimes are almost identical with the crimes actually attributed to Mahādeva in the Mahāvibhāṣā. The list is of course stock, so perhaps we should make nothing of it. But it is possible that a similar argument was known to the Sarvāstivādins, who gave the accusations flesh and blood by pinning them on Mahādeva.



But the most interesting, and probably decisive, consideration is whether an arahant can emit semen. The idea is expressed in different ways, probably partly due to the obscure nature of the summary verse in which the 5 theses are expressed, and partly due to a doomed attempt at discretion. But the basic idea is that an emission need not be a matter of mental defilement. The ‘conveyance’ is evidently the conveyance of the semen to the arahant by non-human beings, especially those associated with Māra.

While this idea seems bizarre to us, it has substantial correlations in early thought. The notorious Malleus Maleficarum alleges that unclean devils such as incubi and succubi ‘… busy themselves by interfering with the process of normal copulation and conception by obtaining human semen, and themselves transferring it…’.[26] The discussion there really deserves a detailed comparison with the Kathāvatthu, but alas, we must defer that pleasure to another time. We will consider the other Vinayas say on this matter first, then see how the Mahāsaṅghika compares.

As so often in Buddhist controversies, the problem arises because of a grey area in the canonical texts, in this case the first bhikkhu saṅghādisesa. Saṅghādisesa is the second most serious class of offence in the Vinaya. While the most serious class of offences, the pārājikas, entail immediate and permanent expulsion from the Sangha, saṅghādisesa requires a period of rehabilitation involving loss of status, confession of the offence to all bhikkhus, and similar mild but embarassing penances.

The basic rule for saṅghādisesa 1 is identical in all existing pāṭimokkhas: ‘Intentional emission of semen, except in a dream, is a saṅghādisesa’. In the Pali, the background is this. First the rule was laid down simply for ‘intentional emission of semen’. Then a number of bhikkhus had gone to sleep after eating delicious food, without mindfulness, and had wet dreams. They were afraid they had committed an offence. The Buddha said: ‘There is intention, but it is negligible.’[27] Thus there is no offence for a wet dream, but this is a practical concession for Vinaya purposes, not an admission that there is no ethical content to wet dreams. The point is made clear in Kathāvatthu 22.6, where the Mahāvihāravāsin specifically refutes the proposition (attributed by the commentary to the Uttarapāthakas) that dream consciousness is always ethically neutral.

The Pali rather curiously repeats the story of the mindless, greedy monks emitting semen as a pretext for making an allowance for using a sitting cloth in order to prevent the dwelling from being soiled.[28] Why such a cloth should be called a ‘sitting cloth’ (nisīdana) is unclear, and the use of such a small cloth rapidly proves inadequate, so the Buddha allows a sleeping-cloth ‘as large as you like’. But this passage, which appears to spring from the same origin as the saṅghādisesa story, adds some emphatic messages.


‘Those, Ānanda, who fall asleep with mindfulness established and clearly comprehending do not emit impurity. Even those ordinary people who are free from lust for sensual pleasures, they do not emit impurity. It is impossible, Ānanda, it cannot happen, that an arahant should emit impurity.’[29]


The text goes on to list five dangers of falling asleep unmindfully: One sleeps badly, wakes badly, has nightmares, devas don’t protect one, and one emits semen. Those who sleep mindfully may expect the corresponding five benefits.

This list of five dangers/benefits occurs in similar contexts in the Sarvāstivāda,[30] Dharmaguptaka,[31] and Mahīśāsaka[32]Vinayas. The Sarvāstivāda moreover adds the following: ‘Even if a bhikkhu who is not free of greed, hatred, and delusion sleeps with unconfused mindfulness and unified mind he will not emit semen; still more a person free from lust.’[33] The Mahīśāsaka adds a similar statement: ‘If one who is not free from greed, hatred, and delusion goes to sleep with mind distracted and confused, they will emit semen; even if unable to be free, going to sleep with established mindfulness, one will not commit that fault.’[34] I have not found similar statements in other Vinayas. These are similar to the statements found in the Pali Vinaya, but I have found nowhere else that declares so emphatically that it is impossible for an arahant to emit semen in a dream.

The Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, while preserving an identical saṅghādisesa rule, gives only a brief, formulaic origin story, and no statement that one emits after falling asleep mindlessly, although it does speak of having sensual desire while in the dream.[35] This suggests that nocturnal emissions are a product of defilements, but is much less explicit than the other Vinayas on this point. The whole rule is dealt with relatively briefly, but this is typical of this section of this Vinaya, so the brevity is more likely to be a mere literary characteristic than a sectarian difference.

Thus all the Vinayas preserve the same rule against emitting semen. With the exception of the Mūlasarvāstivāda, the Sthavira schools all contain strong admonitions emphasizing that wet dreams occur because one goes to sleep unmindfully. The Mahāvihāravāsin, Sarvāstivādin, and Mahīśāsaka in addition say even an unenlightened person can prevent wet dreams by mindful sleeping, still more an enlightened one. The Mahāvihāravāsin alone explicitly declares that it is impossible for an arahant to emit semen.

In the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya the origin story is quite different to the Mahāvihāravāsin. After the initial laying down of the rule, there were two trainees (i.e. ariyas but not arahants) and two ordinary people who had wet dreams. They doubted and told Sāriputta, who told the Buddha. The Buddha said:


‘Dreams are unreal, not true. If dreams were real, one who practiced the holy life in my Dhamma would not find liberation. But because all dreams are untrue, therefore, Sāriputta, those who practice the holy life in my Dhamma reach the end of suffering.’[36]


Then it lists (and defines) five kinds of dream: true dreams (such as the 5 dreams of the Bodhisattva before his awakening); false dreams (when one sees in a dream what is not true when awake); unrealized dreams (having woken, one does not remember); a dream inside a dream; dreams born of thinking (one plans and imagines during the day, then dreams about it at night).[37]

Then the text gives us 5 causes of erections: sensual desire; excrement; urine; wind disorder; contact with non-humans.[38] A similar list is found in the Pali cases for the first pārājika, in the context of affirming that an arahant can have an erection:

‘There are, monks, these five causes of erections: lust, excrement, urine, wind, or insect bite. These are the five causes for an erection. It is impossible, monks, it cannot happen that that bhikkhu could have an erection out of lust. Monks, that bhikkhu is an arahant.’[39]


The last point is crucial: in the Pali it clearly refers to ‘bites of caterpillars and little creatures’, whereas the Mahāsaṅghika speaks of ‘non-humans’, a term widely used of spirit beings, and thus inclusive of the idea of ‘conveyance by Māra’.

So the Mahāsaṅghika does not contain any statement condemning wet dreams, or attributing them to mindlessness. While the Mūlasarvāstivāda is also silent on the topic, in that case it is a mere omission, whereas the Mahāsaṅghika appears to be deliberately justifying wet dreams with the curious doctrine about the unreality of dreams (which is contradicted immediately below!) Similarly, they appear to have rephrased the five causes of erections to suggest the possibility of Māra’s involvement.

On this basis, we are justified in seeing a sectarian divergence in this Vinaya issue. All the Vinayas are concerned about wet dreams. The Sthavira schools, with the dubious exception of the Mūlasarvāstivāda, condemn them with varying degrees of stridency, while the Mahāsaṅghika are concerned to excuse them. There seems little doubt that this difference is connected with the root cause of the separation between the schools on the basis of the ‘five points’. Since this Vinaya was found in Pāṭaliputra, it should be seen as relevant to the central or mainstream Mahāsaṅghika, not just to their later sub-schools.

As with so many doctrinal points that are theoretically ‘Theravādin’, there is no unity on this question in contemporary Theravāda. The question is usually discussed out of the public arena, but has made its way into at least one contemporary publication. Some modern Theravādins hold that nocturnal emissions can be a purely natural occurrence, saying: ‘When the pot’s full, it overflows’. The question has sometimes arisen due to circumstances identical with those depicted in the story of Mahādeva: an attendant washes the robes of a revered monk and discovers unexpected evidence of ‘outflows’. While not wishing to pass judgement on whether an arahant can have an emission, we can say that some monks who have said this in modern times are genuinely well-practiced meditation masters. Whether correct or incorrect, they are nothing like the corrupt Mahādeva who lurches forth out of the feverish imagination of the Mahāvibhāṣā.


Dhamma or Vinaya?

We have seen various causes proposed for the root schism. The two that appear to stand out are the status of the arahant and textual revision. However it is sometimes argued that the schisms must have been based on Vinaya grounds, for the Vinaya itself defines schism as performance of separate uposathas in the same monastic boundary. But this is suspiciously self-referential: of course the Vinaya sees schism as a Vinaya matter – how else? The reality is that Dhamma and Vinaya are never separate in practice, and so the Vinayas repeatedly and explicitly emphasize that schism can be due to either Dhamma or Vinaya.

We are still left with our problem: what was the cause of the root schism - was it Dhamma or Vinaya? I think we have sufficiently shown that there is no basis whatsoever for concluding that Vinaya practice was the cause: none of our sources say this. But this leaves us little closer to a solution, for all such boundaries are inevitably permeable. We are dealing with a variety of subtly interrelated questions of practice, textuality, self-definition, communal survival, philosophical evolution, and so on. The surviving fragments we happen to have inherited come with no guarantee that they are capable of yielding a ‘correct’ interpretation.

I am reminded of a memorable sequence in the documentary ‘The Fog of War’. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary for Defence during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, reminisces about a social dinner he organized in the early 90s with his opposite number during the Vietnam War (whose name I forget). As the dinner went on, the discussion became more and more heated. McNamara was trying to convey the point that the Americans were only interested in stopping the progress of communism. The Vietnamese gentleman insisted that the Americans wanted to colonize Vietnam. McNamara denied this point-blank, alleging that Vietnam was the next domino allowing Chinese communism to take over Asia. The Vietnamese representative thought this was ridiculous: they had been colonized for over 1000 years by the Chinese, and Chinese domination was the last thing they wanted. As the conversation went on, it became more and more clear that the two sides were fighting two quite different wars. The Americans were fighting a global ideological war, the Vietnamese were fighting a local war for national independence. The real problem was neither communism nor colonialism, but the inability to listen to each other.

In our diverse accounts of the schisms, with some sides alleging textual shenanigans, others speaking of doctrinal corruptions, and so on, surely we have a similar situation. We know that all of these things were in fact going on: everyone was revising and updating their texts, everyone was refining their doctrinal perspectives. This process continues today. But only rarely does it lead to schism. The cause of the schism was neither the five points nor the textual revisions, but the inability to listen.

This can easily be compared with the modern situation. There are many Buddhists around with many different views, far more divergent than in the early period in India. We notice that some of these Buddhists are interested in dialogue and engagement with Buddhists of other traditions, and are quite open to learn from them. Some, on the other hand, are content with their own tradition, and ignore or openly condemn other Buddhist traditions. Within both of these groups, however, we find similar diversity of views and doctrines. Theravādins don’t stop being Theravādins because they talk with Tibetans. Zen practitioners don’t take up tantra just because they see a sand mandala. Views do change, mutual conditioning does happen, but the result is not a homogenous blend, but rather an infinite variety of perspectives and approaches. The key difference is not that one group has clearly distinct doctrines and the other doesn’t, but that one group is interested in dialogue and the other isn’t. As long as the interest in dialogue and learning remains, people of differing views can live, practice, and grow together.

This is why I see the real difference in the accounts of the schisms as not being the difference in factual details which we have so laboriously tried to unravel, but the difference in emotional tones. The Mahāvihāravāsin, Sarvāstivādin, and Puggalavāda treatises all demonize (literally!) their opponents. The Śāriputraparipṛcchā, on the other hand, stands out for its gentle acceptance of the schism. While it naturally favours its own school, this does not lessen its appreciation of other schools.


[1] Lit. ‘outflows’ or ‘influences’; a standard Buddhist term for mental defilements. The dialogue here puns between the literal and metaphorical meanings.

[2] 處非處 = ṭhānaṭṭhāna

[3] ? 佛若未記彼不自知 (CBETA, T27, no. 1545, p. 511, b18-19). Sasaki has: ‘… if the Buddha had not remarked upon their abilities, they would not have gained self-awareness.’

[4] 餘所誘無知  猶豫他令入     道因聲故起  是名真佛教 (CBETA, T27, no. 1545, p. 511, c1-2)

The first three characters are a literal equivalent of the Kathāvatthu’s parūpahāra. (餘=para;  所=upa; 誘=hāra). Cf. Kuei Chi’s commentary attributed to Mahādeva himself: 大天解言。 諸阿羅漢。 煩惱漏失二事俱無。為魔所誘。或以不淨塗污其衣。乍如漏失 (CBETA, T43, no. 1829, p. 1, b6-7)

[5] The fortnightly recitation. It is through holding separate uposathas in the same monastic boundary that a formal schism can occur. But our text does not say this occurred.

[6] Not Sarvāstivāda as claimed by Nattier and Prebish, 201.

[7] ? 遇爾見之竊記彼言

[8] CBETA, T27, no. 1545, p. 510, c23-p. 512, a19. In several places I have referred to Liang’s partial translation of this passage, as well as Sasaki, 1998, 12-19.

[9] Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 278

[10] Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 277

[11] McEvilley, 2002, 386-388

[12] Pali Vinaya 2.303: The Buddhas, Blessed ones arise in the Eastern Lands. The eastern bhikkhus are speakers of Dhamma, the Pāveyyaka bhikkhus are speakers of non-Dhamma. (puratthimesu janapadesu buddhā bhagavanto uppajjanti. dhammavādī pācīnakā bhikkhū, adhammavādī pāveyyakā bhikkhū.)

[13] MN 76.21, translation Bodhi/Ñāṇamoḷi. For discussion and Sanskrit parallels, see Anālayo.

[14] Pachow, 192-197

[15] See Sasaki, 1998, 30

[16] Rockhill, 1992, 189

[17] 有一出家外道。捨邪歸正。亦名大天 (CBETA, T49, no. 2031, p. 15, b1-2)

[18] Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 299

[19] Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, 342

[20] DN Vol 2.235; Sutta Nipāta 1017

[21] E.g. Cousins, On the Vibhajjavādins 161, refers to Vjb 28: Mahiṁsakamaṇḍala Andharaṭṭhanti vadanti…

[22] Cousins, On the Vibhajjavādins, 166

[23] See http://sectsandsectarianism.googlepages.com/dhammaorvinaya%3F

[24] See discussion in Cousins, The 'Five Points' and the Origins of the Buddhist Schools.

[25] Kathāvatthu, 2.6

[26] The Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Witch’s Hammer’) is a textbook published in 1486 by two Dominican monks on how to identify and subjugate witches. See http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/part_I/mm01_03a.html

[27] Pali Vinaya 3.112: ‘Atthesā, bhikkhave, cetanā; sā ca kho abbohārikā’ti

[28] Pali Vinaya 1.294

[29] ‘Ye te, Ānanda, bhikkhū upaṭṭhitassatī sampajānā niddaṁ okkamanti, tesaṁ asuci na muccati. yepi te, Ānanda, puthujjanā kāmesu vītarāgā tesampi asuci na muccati. aṭṭhānametaṁ, Ānanda, anavakāso yaṁ arahato asuci mucceyyā'ti.

[30]一者無難睡苦。二者睡易覺。三者睡無惡夢。四者睡時善神來護。五者睡覺心易入善覺觀法 (CBETA, T23, no. 1435, p. 197, a18-20). The last is different: one easily enters wholesome thoughts.

[31] 1. Nightmares; 2. Not guarded by devas; 3. Mind doesn’t enter thought of Dhamma; 4. One does not gain perception of light; 5. One emits semen. (一者惡夢。二者諸天不護。 三者心不入法。四者不思惟明相。五者於夢中失精 (CBETA, T22, no. 1428, p. 579, b25-27))

[32] 1. Nightmares; 2. Not guarded by devas; 3. Not gain perception of light; 4. No thought of Dhamma in mind; 5. Emits semen. (一者惡夢二者善神不護三者不得明想四者無覺法心 五者失不淨 (CBETA, T22, no. 1421, p. 10, b22-24)) This is identical with the Dharmaguptaka, except items three and four are swapped.

[33] 比丘有婬怒癡未離欲。不亂念一心眠。尚不失精。何況離欲人(CBETA, T23, no. 1435, p. 197, a20-22), also (CBETA, T23, no. 1435, p. 197, a20-22)

[34] 若未離欲恚癡散亂心眠必失不淨。雖未能離。以繫念心眠者無有是過 (CBETA, T22, no. 1421, p. 10, b27-29)

[35] 夢中雖有情識 (CBETA, T24, no. 1458, p. 540, b28-29)

[36] 夢者虛妄不實。若夢真實。於我法中修梵行者。無有解脫。以一切夢皆不真實。是故舍利弗。諸修梵行者於我法中得盡苦際 (CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 263, a26-29)

[37] 者實夢。二者不實夢。三者不明了夢。四者夢中夢。五者先想而後夢 (CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 263, b8-10)

[38] 身生起有五事因緣。欲心起。大行起。小行起。風患起。若非人觸起 (CBETA, T22, no. 1425, p. 263, b20-21)

[39] Pali Vinaya 3.39: ‘pañcahi, bhikkhave, ākārehi aṅgajātaṁ kammaniyaṁ hoti - rāgena, vaccena, passāvena, vātena, uccāliṅgapāṇakadaṭṭhena. imehi kho, bhikkhave, pañcahākārehi aṅgajātaṁ kammaniyaṁ hoti. aṭṭhānametaṁ, bhikkhave, anavakāso yaṁ tassa bhikkhuno rāgena aṅgajātaṁ kammaniyaṁ assa. arahaṁ so, bhikkhave, bhikkhu.’

The identical list in Mahīśāsaka Vinaya saṅghādisesa 1, except sensual desire is last.  (CBETA, T22, no. 1421, p. 10, b26-27)