It seems to me that we can no longer think of ‘pre-sectarian’ and ‘sectarian’ Buddhism as two clear-cut periods. Rather, we must think in terms of an evolutionary process, whose complexity we can only guess at, and which we can know of only through fragments. Sectarian tendencies would have proceeded at different rates in different places. Just as Moggaliputtatissa escaped the conflicts by running off to retreat, so must many monastics have viewed the arguments as worldly Dhamma. Even Xuan-zang, a millenium after the Buddha, recorded the existence of many monks who did not belong to one or other school. Yet this should not blind us to the achievements of the sects: the development of sectarian organization made it possible to maintain the scriptures and keep the Dhamma alive.
I would suggest the following scheme for interpreting the development of early Buddhist sectarianism. This should not be taken too seriously or pressed too far – it is merely a conceptual framework that is perhaps a little more useful than thinking of ‘pre’ and ‘post’ sectarian Buddhism. All qualifications are given, all exceptions are allowed!
0-100 an - Integrated Pre-sectarian Buddhism: After the Parinibbana, the Buddhist community was in a state of uncertainty, even shock. It was imperative that they work together to make real the Buddha’s injunction to take the Dhamma and Vinaya as their refuge. The hugeness of the task and the uncertainty of the future would have provided the Sangha with ample reason to stick together, as a still untried fledgling spiritual movement.
100-200 an - Disintegrating Pre-sectarian Buddhism: The very success of the Sangha in preserving itself and the Dhamma must inevitably breed complacency. The Second Council saw a significant rift over Vinaya practice, and it was only with difficulty that enough monks were assembled from the various districts to resolve the problem as a unified Sangha. The Aśokan period saw various divisive potentials within the Sangha rapidly multiply in potency. No longer could the Sangha deal with problems using its internal mechanisms, but had to rely on government support.
200-300 an - Emerging Sectarian Buddhism: Spread out over vast areas, the Sangha evolved distinct regional identities. Local saints articulated more sophisticated and precise Abhidhammas. Lavish support enabled the establishment of local centers based around worship of stupas and relics, including those of the local saints. Texts became more firmly fixed in particular dialects. In the stupas of Vedisa many of these elements have emerged, but there is still no direct evidence that the community regarded itself as a distinct ‘school’.
300+ an – Sectarian Buddhism: The constellation of sectarian tendencies was by now set irreversibly in the firmament. The emergence of sects, if it had not taken place already, was at hand. From now on the different communities saw themselves as irreversibly separate. The boundaries between the sects would never have been absolute, but they were there, and they played a crucial role in all subsequent developments.
I have followed the suggestions of earlier researchers in closely associating the emergence of schools with the Aśokan missionaries. But we must remember that we do not know whether the leaders of the missions personally promulgated the theses that were later taken to define the doctrinal positions of the schools. We must avoid the fallacy of back-reading a later situation into earlier times: ‘sectarian tendency’ or ‘sectarian precursor’ does not mean ‘sect’.
None of the evidence for ‘sudden schisms’ in the Aśokan or pre-Aśokan period stands up to scrutiny. The sectarian accounts in which these ideas are found are mythic texts whose prime purpose is to authenticate the schools. The schools which flourished in the border regions each found themselves in the position of trying to assert that they are the true bastion of real Buddhism. This was accomplished by developing a myth of origins. The Mahāvihāravāsins and Sarvāstivādins in particular seem to have felt the need to combine this mythic authority with a shrill denunciation of the ‘opposing’ sects. This reflects a lack of confidence and maturity of these schools in that period, and survives as evidence of a certain bitterness in local sectarian rivalries.
And yet even the most polemicized passages from the Mahāvibhāṣā confirm that the ‘schisms’ were not literal Vinaya schisms of the ‘go-straight-to-hell’ variety. We cannot find any evidence anywhere for the formation of schools due to schisms in the narrow Vinaya sense.
The mythic accounts of sect formation must, as historical documents, bow and exit before the ‘Unity Edicts’ of Aśoka himself. Using mythic texts to decide whether the schism was in 116 an or 137 an is as sensible as using the Bible to decide whether the world was created in 4004 bce. Aśoka said the Sangha was unified, and we have no serious reason not to take him at his word.
The findings in my work so far constitute in part a radical departure from previous visionings of this period. If there is any merit in this analysis, we must rethink many of our ideas about how Buddhism formed. Not the least of the problems is the question of the interrelationship between the existing early canonical texts. These are usually held to stem primarily from the pre-sectarian period, then finalized and edited in the early sectarian period. Thus collating the corresponding parts of the different collections may take us back to before the schism. Shifting the root schism one or two centuries later could make a major difference in how these texts are dated.
I would note, though, that sectarian separation is only one factor to be taken into consideration. The accidents of history have decreed that the early canonical texts that have come down to us hail mainly from two areas: Sri Lanka and Kaśmīr/Gandhāra. These areas, 3000 kms apart, were established at the extreme ends of the Indic cultural sphere from the time of Aśoka. Even if the texts were not separated on doctrinal/sectarian grounds until later, this geographic separation must have meant the collections remained primarily isolated from this time. Thus collating the collections would still bear the promise of restoring us to the pre-Aśokan period.
All I have said so far is, of course, just stories of the past. Like any historian, in analyzing the myths of the past I am creating my own mythology, a mythology cast in the methods and concepts of the present. History lies to the extent that it pretends to have rejected myth, and has meaning to the extent that it owns up to its agenda: recreating the present in the image of the past. This is why history is so intensely political, and the act of pretending objectivity is just another political manouver. After many years of reading and contemplating both history and myth, I have come to believe that the only difference between the two is that myth has miracles, while history has footnotes.