Early Buddhism

The term Early Buddhism can refer to two distinct periods, both of which are covered in a separate article:


The period of “Early Buddhism” in the sense of pre-sectarian Buddhism is considered by scholars such as Paul J. Griffiths and Steven Collins to be from the time of the historical Buddha to the reign of Ashoka (c. 268 to 232 BCE). Lamotte and Hirakawa both maintain that the first schism in the Buddhist sangha occurred during the reign of Ashoka.

The various splits within the monastic organization went together with the introduction and emphasis on Abhidhammic literature by some schools. This literature was specific to each school, and arguments and disputes between the schools were often based on these Abhidhammic writings. However, actual splits were originally based on disagreements on vinaya (monastic discipline), though later on, by about 100 CE or earlier, they could be based on doctrinal disagreement. Pre-sectarian Buddhism, however, did not have Abhidhammic scriptures, except perhaps for a basic framework, and not all of the early schools developed Abhidhamma literature.

Theravada Buddhism Himalaya Retreat Annapurna Range monk

Theravada Buddhism Himalaya Retreat Annapurna Range monk

Pre-sectarian Buddhism

Main article: Pre-sectarian Buddhism

Pre-sectarian Buddhism, also called “early Buddhism“, “the earliest Buddhism“, and “original Buddhism“, is the Buddhism that existed before the various subsects of Buddhism came into being.

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.

Early Buddhist schools

The early Buddhist schools are those schools into which the Buddhist monastic saṅgha initially split, due originally to differences in vinaya and later also due to doctrinal differences and geographical separation of groups of monks.


The original saṅgha split into the first early schools (generally believed to be the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghika) a significant number of years after the death of Gautama Buddha. According to scholar Collett Cox “most scholars would agree that even though the roots of the earliest recognized groups predate Aśoka, their actual separation did not occur until after his death.” Later, these first early schools split into further divisions such as the Sarvāstivādins and the Dharmaguptakas, and ended up numbering, traditionally, about 18 or 20 schools. In fact, there are several overlapping lists of 18 schools preserved in the Buddhist tradition, totaling about twice as many, though some may be alternative names. It is thought likely that the number is merely conventional.


After the Sangha split into the various early Buddhist schools and the Mahayana, there appeared further elaborations and interpretations of the preserved teachings, and various new doctrines, scriptures and practices. They were composed and developed by the monastic communities, concerning issues deemed important at the time.

Ideological differences

The schools sometimes split over ideological differences concerning the “real” meaning of teachings in the Sutta Piṭaka, and sometimes over disagreement concerning the proper observance of vinaya. These ideologies became embedded in large works such as the Abhidhammas and commentaries. Comparison of existing versions of the Suttapiṭaka of various sects shows evidence that ideologies from the Abhidhammas sometimes found their way back into the Suttapiṭakas to support the statements made in those Abhidhammas.


Some of these developments may be seen as later elaborations on the teachings. According to Gombrich, unintentional literalism was a major force for change in the early doctrinal history of Buddhism. This means that texts were interpreted paying too much attention to the precise words used and not enough to the speaker’s intention, the spirit of the text. Some later doctrinal developments in the early Buddhist schools show scholastic literalism, which is a tendency to take the words and phrases of earlier texts (maybe the Buddha’s own words) in such a way as to read-in distinctions which it was never intended to make.

Preservation of older ideas

The later Mahayana schools may have preserved ideas which were abandoned by the “orthodox” Theravada, such as the Three Bodies doctrine, the idea of consciousness (vijnana) as a continuum, and devotional elements such as the worship of saints.

Newly introduced concepts

Some Buddhist concepts that were not existent in the time of pre-sectarian Buddhism are:

  • “Building paramis” or paramitas. The ten paramis are described in Theravadin texts of late origin, while the (Mahayana) paramitas are found in the Mahayana Sutras such as the Dasabhumika Sutra and the Surangama Sutra, also of late origin.
  • The Bodhisattva vows, which is only found in the Mahayana Sutras.

Newly composed scriptures

In later times, the arguments between the various schools were based in these newly introduced teachings, practices and beliefs, and monks sought to validate these newly introduced teachings and concepts by referring to the older texts (Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka). Most often, the various new Abhidhamma and Mahayana teachings were bases for arguments between sects.


As the last major division of the canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka has had a checkered history. It was not accepted as canonical by the Mahasanghika school and several other schools. Another school included most of the Khuddaka Nikaya within the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Also, the Pali version of the Abhidhamma is a strictly Theravada collection, and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools. The various Abhidhamma philosophies of the various early schools have no agreement on doctrine and belong to the period of ‘Divided Buddhism’ (as opposed to Undivided Buddhism). The earliest texts of the Pali Canon (the Sutta Nipata and parts of the Jataka), together with the first four (and early) Nikayas of the Suttapitaka, have no mention of (the texts of) the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Abhidhamma is also not mentioned at the report of the First Buddhist Council, directly after the death of the Buddha. This report of the first council does mention the existence of the Vinaya and the five Nikayas (of the Suttapitaka).

Although the literature of the various Abhidhamma Pitakas began as a kind of commentarial supplement upon the earlier teachings in the Suttapitaka, it soon led to new doctrinal and textual developments and became the focus of a new form of scholarly monastic life. The various Abhidhamma works were starting to be composed from about 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha.

Traditionally, it is believed (in Theravadin culture) that the Abhidhamma was taught by Buddha to his late mother who was living in Tavatimsa heaven. However, this is rejected by scholars, who believe that only small parts of the Abhidhamma literature may have been existent in a very early form. Some schools of Buddhism had important disagreements on subjects of Abhidhamma, while having a largely similar Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka. The arguments and conflicts between them were thus often on matters of philosophical Abhidhammic origin, not on matters concerning the actual words and teachings of Buddha.

One impetus for composing new scriptures like the Adhidhammas of the various schools, according to some scholars, was that Buddha left no clear statement about the ontological status of the world – about what really exists. Subsequently, later Buddhists have themselves defined what exists and what not (in the Abhidhammic scriptures), leading to disagreements.

Parts of the Khuddaka Nikaya

Oliver Abeynayake has the following to say on the dating of the various books in the Khuddaka Nikaya:

‘The Khuddaka Nikaya can easily be divided into two strata, one being early and the other late. The texts Sutta Nipata, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, Therigatha (Theragatha), Udana, and Jataka tales belong to the early stratum. The texts Khuddakapatha, Vimanavatthu, Petavatthu, Niddesa, Patisambhidamagga, Apadana, Buddhavamsa and Cariyapitaka can be categorized in the later stratum.’

The texts in the early stratum date from before the second council (earlier than 100 years after Buddha’s parinibbana), while the later stratum is from after the second council, which means they are definitely later additions to the Sutta Pitaka, and that they might not have been the original teachings by the Buddha, but later compositions by disciples.

The following books of the Khuddaka Nikaya can thus be regarded as later additions:

  • the Khuddakapatha
  • the Vimanavatthu
  • the Petavatthu
  • the Niddesa
  • the Patisambhidamagga
  • the Apadana
  • the Buddhavamsa
  • the Cariyapitaka

and the following three which are included in the Burmese Canon

  • the Milindapanha
  • the Nettippakarana
  • the Petakopadesa

The original verses of the Jatakas are recognized as being amongst the earliest part of the Canon, but the accompanying (and more famous) Jataka Stories are purely commentarial, an obvious later addition.


The Parivara, the last book of the Vinaya Pitaka, is a later addition to the Vinaya Pitaka.

Other later writings
  • all literature of the Mahayana (the Mahayana Sutras).
  • all commentarial works (atthakatha) of Theravada and other early Buddhist schools.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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