The original doctrine of Buddhism gave way to two major branches.1  The first is the “Old Wisdom” school, which adhered strictly to the Pali Canon and was shaped by the Brahmanical culture from which it sprang. This site will refer to this branch as “Original Wisdom,” in recognition of the existence of the Theravada tradition, which exists today. The other, of course, being the “New Wisdom,” or Mahayana. The Pali Canon is the ultimate product of what early followers believed to be the true teachings of the Buddha.  While none of the dharma was written in the immediate centuries after the Buddha’s final Nirvana, the Buddha’s adherents, like most monks of the time, were adept at memorizing and reciting sacred teachings.  These schools proliferated in what we now consider to be India.

The Buddha had many disciples who heard and carried out his teachings, but his ten greatest disciples are considered to be Mahākāshyapa, the first patriarch of the Indian lineage of Ch’an; Ānanda, renowned for memorizing the Buddha’s sermons; Shāriputra, foremost in wisdom; Subhūti, master of the emptiness doctrine; Pūrna, explainer of the dharma; Mahāmaudgalyāyna, possessor of supernatural powers; Katyāyana, master of discussion and exegesis; Aniruddha, user of the “heavenly eye”; Upāli, responsible for disciplinary rules; and Rāhula, son of the Buddha and master of esoteric activities.

The original schools recognized and emphasized various parts of the Canon. One major original school, the Sarvastivada, heavily featured the Abidharma. Others, like the Sautrantikas, relied solely upon the Discourses of the Buddha. The Sarvastivadins believed in the reality of the past, present, and future while the Sautrantikan Satyasiddhis believed only in the reality of the present moment.

It is helpful to note that only one of the original schools survives today: Theravada. This school, traceable from the Sthavira and subsequently the Vibhajjavādins, predominates in Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia. Theravada, living up to its name, meaning “Teachings of the Elders,” upholds all three components of the Pali Canon. However, in the past, there was an array of schools each with its own tapestry of traditions, emphases on particular texts, and philosophical predilections. Theravada is presently widespreads in the countries of Southeast Asia.

Levels of Attainment

 For readers who are familiar with the terminology of early Christianity, the term “disciple” would do best to exemplify the Indian “Sravaka.” A Sravaka (Savaka in Pali) is a “hearer.” In the case at hand, it is a hearer of the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhism does not have sole claim to the term. Jains consider their lay members to be Sravakas. A Sravaka is a being who has heard the Buddha’s teachings, has committed to them, but has not yet achieved the exalted status of Arhat or Pratyekabuddha.

Out of the Sravakas, some Arhats will emerge. Some, without hearing the Buddha’s teachings, will use their remarkable insight and wisdom to understand Dependent Origination, The Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. These beings are called Pratyekabuddhas (“solitary Buddhas”). They are called this because, while they are fully enlightened and have achieved supreme wisdom, they have not committed to be reborn to help other beings (in contrast to a Bodhisattva, who forestalls Nirvana to remain in the cycle of Samsara to help other beings achieve enlightenment).

Much of the early Mahayana literature defines itself by contrasting its “Great Vehicle” against the “Lesser Vehicle” of the srāvaka, arhat, and pratyekabuddha. To the Mahayanists, the original schools inadequately captured the true nature of the Buddha’s teachings.

Three Buddhist Councils

Early Buddhist schools proliferated throughout India and the immediate surrounding regions. The development of early Buddhist schools is traditionally understood through the lens of the decisions supposedly made at three Buddhist councils after the Buddha’s passing. The councils met on these occasions to reconcile differences of opinion and decide upon the details of the Buddhist canon.

First Council: The prominent disciple Mahākāshyapa called his fellow Buddha-followers to address lapses in discipline. Mahākākashyapa reproached Ananda (the Buddha’s dear cousin and attendant) for failing to achieve arhathood and for not trying to delay the Buddha’s final Nirvana. During this verbal assault from Mahākākashyapa, Ananda offered his opinions on what should constitute the rules of the Sangha’s behavior (the Vinaya). The Vinaya-Pitaka was codified after the heated exchange between Mahākākashyapa and Ananda. This exchange is described in the Vinaya-Pitaka, but its historicity is doubted.2

Second Council: More ostensible violations of vinaya rules prompted the Second Council, whose historicity is better-documented than the First Council.3  According to Theravada tradition, the schism between the Sthaviras and the Mahāsānghikas led to the council, in which monks from Vaishālī were expelled for violating vinaya rules. The Sthaviras and Mahāsānghikas split from one another as a result of a disagreement in what constitutes an arhat. The details of this disagreement feature heavily in the Third Council.

Third Council: The details of the disagreement of the Third Council are absent from the Vinaya-pitaka. Accounts of the disagreement vary widely in other sources, but most sources give the reason for the council as disagreement about what constitutes an arhat.4  The core of the disagreement stems from Mahādeva, a monk who believed an arhat could still be subject to doubting the Buddha’s teachings, to ignorance, and to temptation. Further, Mahādeva claimed an arhat could progress toward Nirvana with help from others, through the “utterance of certain sounds,”5 and through the practice of concentration (samadhi).

1Edward Conze, 1959, 155.
2Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 37.
3Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 37.
4Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 37.
5Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 37.