The Mahāsaṅghika school diligently study the collected Suttas and teach the true meaning, because they are the source and the center. They wear yellow robes.
The Dharmaguptaka school master the flavor of the true way. They are guides for the benefit of all. Their way of expression is special. They wear red robes.
The Sarvāstivāda school quickly gain unobstructed knowledge, for the Dhamma is their guide. They wear black robes.
The Kaśyapīya school are diligent and energetic in guarding sentient beings. They wear magnolia robes.
The Mahīśāsaka school practice jhana, and penetrate deeply. They wear blue robes.
(CBETA, T24, no. 1465, p. 900, c12-18)
These 17 sects are schismatic,
only one sect is non-schismatic.
With the non-schismatic sect,
there are eighteen in all.
Like a great banyan tree,
the Theravāda is supreme,
the Dispensation of the Conqueror,
without deficiency or excess.
The other sects arose
like thorns on the tree.
These two quotes, each from essential texts, highlight the radical divergence in perspectives on the Buddhist schisms. Are we to see the emerging schools as a corruption of an originally pure unity, or as unique unfoldings of the potential of the Dhamma? My own belief is that both of these perspectives are likely to contain some truth, and yet neither of them contains the whole truth.
If we reflect on the basic issues that divided the schools, we find much that is reminiscent of contemporary Buddhist dialogue. It is a shame that the complex and profound history of Buddhist philosophical thought becomes so easily reduced to the facile dismissal of other schools simply because they disagree with the interpretation of one’s own chosen party. As much as we would like to imagine that all the answers are wrapped up, the nature of philosophy is such that the basic issues that generated schools of thought remain, and reappear in varied guises in discussions within the school itself.
For example, the Mahāsaṅghika’s basic thesis was the transcendental nature of the Buddha. We might regard some of the extremes of this view with amusement - such as the idea that dirt never clings to the Buddha’s body, but he washes it in conformity with everyday usage – but it address a genuine Buddhist concern: how do we conceive of the nature of Buddhahood, so intensely human yet so totally beyond our lives of anxiety and fear? This is a live issue within modern Theravāda. While the ‘official’ (read ‘rationalist, modernist, middle-class’) position is that the Buddha was a perfected human, the devotional perspective of the vast majority of Theravādins sees the Buddha as something quite other.
Similarly, the Sarvāstivādins espoused a philosophical realism that tended to treat external objects as ‘existing’ in and of themselves, so that even an abstract relation like ‘possession’ comes to be considered as a real substance. This comes across as naïve, but in shaping their philosophy they show a consciousness of a fundamental problem of metaphysics: if we allow the ‘existence’ of one thing it becomes difficult to deny the existence of everything. So the Sarvāstivādins considered that the past and the future ‘exist’ in exactly the same sense as the present. The Sarvāstivādins were perfectly aware that this appeared to flaunt the fundamental Buddhist axiom of impermanence. But they were trying to find a coherent philosophical interpretation of impermanence based not on ontology, but on causal efficacy: the present ‘exists’ just as the past and future ‘exist’, but the present is distinguished in that it is operative or functional. To invoke a modern analogy, compare this with the buttons on the Word document I’m typing; they all ‘exist’, but only become operative when I hover the cursor above them: that moment is the ‘present’. We may question the exact formulation of this idea, but we should do so as the Sarvāstivādins themselves did, that is, within a Buddhist context, seeking the best way to articulate Buddhist truths. We would need to address the same question faced by the Sarvāstivādins: if all is impermanent, what is there that connects the past, future, and present? This question is much more than an abstract musing. In a devotional religion like Buddhism, it is crucial in forming our emotional attitude towards our beloved Teacher, so present in our consciousness, yet so remote in time. Theravādins, despite the stern official doctrine of radical momentariness, still popularly treat the Buddha as somehow still existing, resulting in an uneasy dichotomy between the official and the popular perspectives. The Sarvāstivādin approach would allow a less fractured understanding throughout the community, which might be one reason behind its extraordinary success in ancient India.
As another example, the Puggalavādins took their stand on the thesis that there exists a ‘person’ who is neither identical with nor separate from the five aggregates that make up our empirical existence. This ‘person’ is indescribable, but is not the ‘self’ of the non-Buddhist theorists. It is this ‘person’ which experiences the fruit of kamma and which attains liberation. The Puggalavādins were not blind to the difficulties in reconciling this theory with the teaching of ‘not-self’. Quite the opposite; their main philosophical efforts went into a sophisticated articulation of how the ‘person’ was in fact the correct understanding of ‘not-self’. Once more, this is a key issue in modern Buddhist dialogue. How do we reconcile the ‘atomic’ reality of our empirical experience with the undeniable sense of personal identity? This problem is especially acute in the relation between Buddhist and psychological thought. Much of psychology is concerned with building a coherent and integrated ‘self’, a project that is anathema to a literal interpretation of traditional Buddhism. But the psychological approach has developed in response to a genuine problem, the fractured and alienated modern psyche. This is a very different context to what the Buddha was facing when he critiqued Brahmanical or Jainist theories of a permanent and enduring essence that survived death. As we develop our modern responses to such questions, it would seem sensible to recognize that we are not the first generation to grapple with how to apply Buddhism in a historical context far removed from the Buddha’s own.
In pursuing the historical inquiry throughout this work, then, I take it for granted that the various sects all attempted to articulate and practice sincere interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. When examined closely, the doctrines of the schools cannot be explained away as simplistic errors, or alien infiltrations, or deliberate corruptions. It would then follow that more sympathetic and gentle perspectives on the schools are likely to be more objective than bitterly partisan accounts.
It seems to me that far too much weight has been ascribed to the Dīpavaṁsa, the earliest Sri Lankan chronicle. This version of events, despite straining credibility in almost every respect, continues to exert a powerful influence on the Theravādin sense of communal identity. The fact that some modern scholars have treated it favourably only reinforces this tendency.
The research contained in this work was primarily inspired by my involvement in the reformation of the bhikkhuni order within Theravāda. While we will only glance upon this issue here, one of the central questions in the revival of the bhikkhuni lineage from the Theravādin perspective is the validity of ordination lineages in other schools. The traditional Theravādin view would have it that the bhikkhunis in existence today are ‘Mahāyāna’. Mahāyāna, it is claimed, is descended from the Mahāsaṅghikas, and the Dīpavaṁsa asserts that the Mahāsaṅghikas are none other than the ‘evil’ Vajjiputtakas, who advocated the use of money by monks, and who were defeated at the Second Council, but who later reformed and made a new recitation. Hence the Mahāyāna is representative of a tradition whose fundamental principle was to encourage laxity in Vinaya. They are ‘schismatic’ and it is impossible to accept them as part of the same communion.
This view, ultimately inspired by the Dīpavaṁsa, underlies the position taken by many mainstream Theravādins today. I intend to show how the Dīpavaṁsa’s position is incoherent and patently implausible, and that a more reasonable depiction of the origins of Buddhist schools can be constructed from a sympathetic reading of all the sources.
Recently I was at a meeting where these issues were discussed. A Vietnamese monk acknowledged his lineage from the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya; a Tibetan monk noted his heritage from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya; but the Theravādins continued to speak as if they were simply ‘Mahāyāna’. This situation, regrettable though it is, is understandable since most Theravādins have never heard of ‘Dharmagupta’ or ‘Mūlasarvāstivāda’. Once the 17 schools had been dismissed as ‘schismatic’ and ‘thorns’ by the Dīpavaṁsa, and their doctrines had been refuted by the Kathāvatthu, there was no need to be informed about the other schools.
But the reality is that there has never been a distinctively ‘Mahāyāna’ Vinaya or ordination lineage. Rather, some bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, having ordained in one of the lineages of the early schools, choose to study and practice certain texts and ethical ideals known as ‘Mahāyāna’. This was, so far as we can tell, the case in ancient India and it remains the case today. Today, the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis of the East Asian traditions follow the Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka school, while the Central Asian traditions follow the Mūlasarvāstivāda. There is, therefore, no such thing as a ‘Mahāyāna’ bhikkhu or bhikkhuni from the Vinaya point of view. The Vinayas themselves are entirely silent on the question of the sects. If we wish to understand the relationship between the existing Sanghas of the various schools, then, we must investigate the relationships between the early schools of Buddhism from whom the Vinayas and ordination lineages derive.
One way of doing this is to examine the origins of the schools in question. Here we enter into the swirling and uncertain world of mythology, where interpretation reigns sovereign, and sectarian bias is not merely expected, but is the driving motivation. Given the contradictory, incomplete, and doubtful nature of the literary sources it is unclear whether we can expect to find even a glimmer of truth. But our surest evidence derives from the happy coincidence of the historical/mythic accounts and archeological findings, and it is here that we begin our search.
I have set myself the probably impossible task of attempting to communicate a more realistic picture of sectarian formation to practicing Buddhists. Though I use the methods and results of modern scholarship, I do not wish to speak to a purely academic audience. I hope there are some Buddhists willing to take the time to examine history a little more carefully, and not just to accept the polemics of their school based on ancient sectarian rivalries.
It would have been nice if I could have digested the excellent work of modern researchers on the topic and simply presented that in a palatable form. But alas, I find myself unable to accept many of the findings of the moderns, any more than I could accept the traditions of the schools. It seems to me that much modern work, while it has accomplished a great deal, is hampered by the problems that bedevil Buddhist studies in general: uncritical acceptance of textual evidence over archaeological findings; bias in favour of either the southern or northern traditions; reliance on inaccurate or mistaken readings from secondary works and translations; simplistic and unrealistic notions of religious life in general and monastic life in particular; lack of understanding of the Vinaya; backreading of later situations into earlier times; and perhaps most importantly, a lack of appreciation of myth, so that ‘historical’ information is divorced from the mythic context that gave it meaning. The reader may judge for themselves to what degree I have been able to surmount these problems.
Extraordinary thanks are due to Bhikkhuni Samacitta for her help in the Chinese translations, and Bhikkhu Santidhammo helping me understand the nature of schism and community. Thanks are also due to Bhikkhu Bodhi, who gave his time to reading my work and offering his comments. Marcus Bingenheimer, Bhikkhuni Thubten Chodren, Bhikkhuni Chi Kwang Sunim, Bhikkhuni Jampa Tsedron, Terry Waugh, Mark Allon, Rod Bucknell and many others have offered feedback and support. I would also like to extend my appreciation to the many donors who have supported my monk’s life, offering me the physical necessities that make this work possible: sādhu, sādhu, anumodāmi!
 It goes without saying that the Śāriputraparipṛcchā’s claims of the robe colors of the various schools should not be taken literally.