Early Buddhism. By Early Buddhism we mean the initial Sangha of Gautama Buddha and the era of its spread throughout the Indian Subcontinent, prior to the major sectarian divisions of Mahayana and Theravada that dominate modern day Buddhism. This era can be roughly summarized in the following stages:
- Gautama Buddha’s lifetime, during which he gathers his Sangha and teaches across the Gangetic plains of northern India (643-543 BCE).
- The teachings of Buddha are formulated into texts and for approximately two centuries the Sangha remains relatively non-sectarian and relatively isolated to northern India (543-320 BCE).
- The spread of Early Buddhism across the whole of India during the Maurya Empire (esp. by Ashoka), and its spread into Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Central Asia (320-180 BCE). This period includes the first sectarian divisions of Buddhism into its earliest distinct schools (Mahasamgika & Sthavira), and the appearance of several sub-schools (such as the Sarvastivada, Dharmaguptaka, etc.).
- The persecution and expulsion of Buddhism from much of India (see Ashokavadana)—or the more gradual theory of its decline in India—resulting in isolation between northern and southern centers of Buddhism (Sri Lanka in the south; North-west India, Kashmir and Central Asia in the north), and the beginning of the emigration of Buddhist Arhats into Nepal, Tibet and China (180 BCE – 200+/- CE).
The two primary schools at the close of this era were the Sthavira and the Mahasamghika. Two further divisions of the Sthavira—the Sarvastivada and the Dharmaguptaka—would play a prominent role in the spread of Buddhism in central and eastern Asia.
It is important to note that during this era of Early Buddhism, Mahayana was not a distinct school, but seems to have initially been a set of oral (i.e. unwritten) teachings—a Mahayanist lived in the same Sangha or Vihara as non-Mahayanists (or Sravakayanists), but studied and practiced an additional set of teachings. This accords with Blavatsky’s insistence that there was always an exoteric vs. esoteric division in Buddha’s teachings, i.e. that he taught his exoteric doctrines publicly, but reserved his esoteric doctrines for his more advanced disciples. Modern scholars suggest that the earliest Mahayana texts may have been put into writing in the Andhra region of India around the 1st century BCE, and brought north from there. Blavatsky similarly suggests that these texts were originally written in the 2nd century BCE. Thus, while the emergence of Mahayana as a distinct school is a later development, following the transmission of Buddhism in the north by the Mahasamghikas, Sarvastivadas, Dharmaguptakas, etc., it may be suggested that its most important doctrines originated with Buddha’s private teachings and existed to some extent within all early schools.
Note: following definitions are drawn from the Theosophical Glossary of H. P. Blavatsky, unless otherwise noted.
Buddhism. Buddhism is now split into two distinct Churches: the Southern and the Northern Church. The former is said to be the purer form, as having preserved more religiously the original teachings of the Lord Buddha. It is the religion of Ceylon, Siam, Burmah and other places, while Northern Buddhism is confined to Tibet, China and Nepaul. Such a distinction, however, is incorrect. If the Southern Church is nearer, in that it has not departed, except perhaps in some trifling dogmas due to the many councils held after the death of the Master, from the public or exoteric teachings of Sakyamuni—the Northern Church is the outcome of Siddharta Buddha’s esoteric teachings which he confined to his elect Bhikshus and Arhats. In fact, Buddhism in the present age, cannot he justly judged either by one or the other of its exoteric popular forms. Real Buddhism can be appreciated only by blending the philosophy of the Southern Church and the metaphysics of the Northern Schools. If one seems too iconoclastic and stern, and the other too metaphysical and transcendental, even to being overgrown with the weeds of Indian exotericism—many of the gods of its Pantheon having been transplanted under new names to Tibetan soil—it is entirely due to the popular expression of Buddhism in both Churches. . . .
Buddha (Sk.). Lit., “The Enlightened.” The highest degree of knowledge. To become a Buddha one has to break through the bondage of sense and personality; to acquire a complete perception of the real self and learn not to separate it from all other selves; to learn by experience the utter unreality of all phenomena of the visible Kosmos foremost of all; to reach a complete detachment from all that is evanescent and finite, and live while yet on Earth in the immortal and the everlasting alone, in a supreme state of holiness.
Buddha Siddharta (Sk.). The name given to Gautama, the Prince of Kapilavastu, at his birth. It is an abbreviation of sarvartthasiddha and means, the “realization of all desires.” Gautama, which means, on earth (gau) the most victorious (tama) “was the sacerdotal name of the Sakya family, the kingly patronymic of the dynasty to which the father of Gautama, the King Suddhodhana of Kapilavastu, belonged. Kapilavastu was an ancient city, the birth-place of the Great Reformer and was destroyed during his life time. In the title Sakyamuni, the last component, muni, is rendered as meaning one mighty in charity, isolation and silence,” and the former Sakya is the family name. . . . Buddha Gautama, the fourth of the Sapta (Seven) Buddhas and Sapta Tathagatas was born according to Chinese Chronology in 1024 b.c.; but according to the Singhalese chronicles, on the 8th day of the second (or fourth) moon in the year 621 before our era. He fled from his father’s palace to become an ascetic on the night of the 8th day of the second moon, 597 b.c., and having passed six years in ascetic meditation at Gaya, and perceiving that physical self-torture was useless to bring enlightenment, he decided upon striking out a new path, until he reached the state of Bodhi. He became a full Buddha on the night of the 8th day of the twelfth moon, in the year 592, and finally entered Nirvana in the year 543 according to Southern Buddhism. The Orientalists, however, have decided upon several other dates. All the rest [of his traditional biography] is allegorical. . . . As to his being one of the true and undeniable Saviours of the World, suffice it to say that the most rabid orthodox missionary, unless he is hopelessly insane, or has not the least regard even for historical truth, cannot find one smallest accusation against the life and personal character of Gautama, the “Buddha.” Without any claim to divinity, allowing his followers to fall into atheism, rather than into the degrading superstition of deva or idol-worship, his walk in life is from the beginning to the end, holy and divine. During the 45 years of his mission it is blameless and pure as that of a god—or as the latter should be. He is a perfect example of a divine, godly man. He reached Buddhaship—i.e., complete enlightenment—entirely by his own merit and owing to his own individual exertions, no god being supposed to have any personal merit in the exercise of goodness and holiness. Esoteric teachings claim that he renounced Nirvana and gave up the Dharmakaya vesture to remain a “Buddha of compassion” within the reach of the miseries of this world. And the religious philosophy he left to it has produced for over 2,000 years generations of good and unselfish men. His is the only absolutely bloodless religion among all the existing religions tolerant and liberal, teaching universal compassion and charity, love and self-sacrifice, poverty and contentment with one’s lot, whatever it may he. No persecutions, and enforcement of faith by fire and sword, have ever disgraced it. No thunder-and-lightning-vomiting god has interfered with its chaste commandments; and if the simple, humane and philosophical code of daily life left to us by the greatest Man-Reformer ever known, should ever come to he adopted by mankind at large, then indeed an era of bliss and peace would dawn on Humanity.
Aryasangha [Aryasanga] (Sk.). The Founder of the first Yogacharya School. This Arhat, a direct disciple of Gautama, the Buddha, is most unaccountably mixed up and confounded with a personage of the same name, who is said to have lived in Ayodhya (Oude) about the fifth or sixth century of our era, and taught Tantrika worship in addition to the Yogacharya system. Those who sought to make it popular, claimed that he was the same Aryasangha, that had been a follower of Sakyamuni, and that he was 1,000 years old. Internal evidence alone is sufficient to show that the works written by him and translated about the year 600 of our era, works full of Tantra worship, ritualism, and tenets followed now considerably by the “red-cap” sects in Sikhim, Bhutan, and Little Tibet, cannot be the same as the lofty system of the early Yogacharya school of pure Buddhism, which is neither northern nor southern, but absolutely esoteric. Though none of the genunine Yogacharya books (the Narjol chodpa) have ever been made public or marketable, yet one finds in the Yogacharya Bhumi Shastra of the pseudo-Aryasangha a great deal from the older system, into the tenets of which he may have been initiated. It is, however, so mixed up with Sivaism and Tantrika magic and superstitions, that the work defeats its own end, notwithstanding its remarkable dialectical subtilty. . . . Since it is beyond dispute that the Mahayana religious works were all written far before [the psuedo-]Aryasangha’s time . . . and that these contain all and far more of the fundamental tenets of the Yogacharya system, so disfigured by the Ayodhyan imitator—the inference is that there must exist somewhere a genuine rendering free from popular Sivaism and left-hand magic.
Asoka (Sk.). A celebrated Indian king of the Morya [Maurya] dynasty which reigned at Magadha. There were two Asokas in reality, according to the chronicles of Northern Buddhism, though the first Asoka—the grand father of the second, named by Prof. Max Müller the “Constantine of India,” was better known by his name of Chandragupta. It is the former who was called, Piadasi (Pali) “the beautiful,” and Devanam-piya “the beloved of the gods,” and also Kalasoka; while the name of his grandson was Dharmasaka—the Asoka of the good law—on account of his devotion to Buddhism. Moreover, according to the same source, the second Asoka had never followed the Brahmanical faith, but was a Buddhist born. It was his grandsire who had been first converted to the new faith, after which he had a number of edicts inscribed on pillars and rocks, a custom followed also by his grandson. But it was the second Asoka who was the most zealous supporter of Buddhism; he, who maintained in his palace from 60 to 70,000 monks and priests, who erected 84,000 topes and stupas throughout India, reigned 36 years, and sent missions to Ceylon, and throughout the world. . . .
Dharmasaka (Sk.). The name given to the first Asoka after his conversion to Buddhism,—King Chandragupta, who served all his long life “Dharma,” or the law of Buddha. King Asoka (the second) was not converted, but was born a Buddhist.
Nagarjuna (Sk.). An Arhat, a hermit (a native of Western India) converted to Buddhism by Kapimala and the fourteenth Patriarch, and now regarded as a Bodhisattva-Nirmanakaya. He was famous for his dialectical subtlety in metaphysical arguments; and was the first teacher of the Amitabha doctrine and a representative of the Mahayana School. Viewed as the greatest philosopher of the Buddhists, he was referred to as “one of the four suns which illumine the world.” He was born 223 b.c., and going to China after his conversion converted in his turn the whole country to Buddhism.
Sthavirah, or Sthaviranikaya (Sk.). One of the earliest philosophical contemplative schools, founded 300 b.c. In the year 247 before the Christian era, it split into three divisions: the Mahavihara Vasinah (School of the great monasteries), Jêtavaniyah, and Abhayagiri Vasinah. It is one of the four branches of the Vaibhachika School founded by Katyayana, one of the great disciples of Lord Gautama Buddha, the author of the Abhidharma Jnana Prasthana Shastra, who is expected to reappear as a Buddha. All these schools are highly mystical. Lit., Staviranikaya is translated the “School of the Chairman” or “President” (Chohan).
Svabhavika (Sk.). The oldest existing school of Buddhism. They assigned the manifestation of the universe and physical phenomena to Svabhava or respective nature of things. . . . [see “A Svabhavika School of Buddhism?” by David Reigle]
Tripitaka (Sk.). Lit., “the three baskets”; the name of the Buddhist canon. It is composed of three divisions: (1) the doctrine; (2) the rules and laws for the priesthood and ascetics; (3) the philosophical dissertations and metaphysics: to wit, the Abhidharma, defined by Buddhaghosa as that law (dharma) which goes beyond (abhi) the law. The Abhidharma contains the most profoundly metaphysical and philosophical teachings, and is the store-house whence the Mahayana and Hinayana Schools got their fundamental doctrines. . . .
Abhidharma (Sk.). The metaphysical (third) part of Tripitaka, a very philosophical Buddhist work by Katyayana.
Yogacharya (Sk.). (1) A mystic school. (2) Lit., a teacher (acharya) of Yoga, one who has mastered the doctrines and practices of ecstatic meditation—the culmination of which are the Mahasiddhis. It is incorrect to confuse this school with the Tantra, or Mahatantra school founded by Samantabhadra, for there are two Yogacharya Schools, one esoteric, the other popular. . . .
The Early Schools of Buddhism
There are two major, and several minor schools that developed in early Buddhism following the pre-sectarian period. Most of the minor schools had limited influence and duration, with a couple of notable exceptions.
The original Sangha of Gautama Buddha formulated a set of teachings at the First Buddhist Council. These teachings were grouped into two major classes—the Dharma (teaching) and the Vinaya (rules for monks)—which resulted in two collections of literature: the Sutra (or Sutta) Pitaka and the Vinaya Pitaka. Following a period of perhaps a couple of centuries, the Sangha gathered together for a Second Buddhist Council. Records indicate that this was done primarily due to variances in interpretation and approach to the Vinaya portion of the teachings, i.e. the initial sectarian division in Buddhism seems to have been in regards to the rules for the monks rather than doctrine. The result of this division was two schools: the Mahasamghika (“Great Sangha”) and the Sthaviravada or Sthaviranikaya (“School of the Elder”).
Further divisions then occurred, with several distinct versions of Abhidharma Pitakas playing a primary role in later sectarian differences (see “Tripitaka,” and “Abhidharma,” Theosophical Glossary). The Abhidharma texts attempt to systematize the teachings found scattered throughout the Sutra texts, and are generally considered to be later developments. However, several scholars suggest that a form of Abhidharma Pitaka may have existed from the very beginning of the original Sangha (see Matrika Pitaka). Different communities of Buddhists, often greatly separated geographically, eventually developed widely differing versions of Abhidharma (i.e. Theravada vs. Sarvastivada), resulting over time in divisions such as “northern” and “southern” which persist to this day.
The earliest Mahasamghika (lit. “Great Sangha”) may perhaps be viewed as the original Buddhist school. As a school it was founded upon the Sutra and Vinaya texts of the First Buddhist Council. The Mahasamghika’s record the initial division between Buddhist schools to have occurred at the Second Buddhist Council, when a minority wished to add several Vinaya rules to the canon. The majority (the Mahasanghikas) disagreed and kept to the original Vinayas, while the minority (the Sthaviras) decided upon inclusion of the additional rules.
Mahasamghika teachings include the “two truths” doctrine (saṁvṛti vs. paramārtha), the doctrine of Bodhisattvas, and a teaching quite close to that of Blavatsky’s explanation of Nirmanakayas (i.e. that bodhisattvas are born out of their own free will into lower states of existence in order to help liberate other sentient beings).
The later Theravadins believed that the Mahasamghikas had no Abhidharma texts, but this may be moreso an indication of their lack of access to said texts, as the Chinese explorer Xuanzang mentions studying Abhidharma texts with Mahasamghikas. Modern scholars suggest that the Mahasamghikas may have had an Abhidharma collection in five or six parts. A well-known Mahasamghika texts is the Mahavastu, a kind of preface to their Vinaya collection. Other Mahasamghika texts are extant in Chinese translations as well as in MSS. discovered in Afghanistan.
Paramartha (6th century CE), along with several modern scholars, suggests that the earliest Prajnaparamita literature was composed in the Mahasamghika school. As noted above, Mahayana teachings seem to have existed from the very beginning of Buddhism, but were not formally recorded or incorporated as a distinct set of treatises, or as a distinct school, until much later. Paramartha also names the Bahusrutriya sub-school of Mahasamghika in an originating role of the Mahayana system, as they taught both an exoteric and an esoteric set of doctrines—the esoteric embodying Mahayana ideas. The Tattvasiddhi-Sastra is an example of a text that is associated with this sub-school.
Sthaviravada means “The School of the Elder,” which Blavatsky interprets as “The School of the Chohan.” While the Mahasamghika school may perhaps be viewed as more closely representing the original Sangha, the Sthavira school—or, more specifically, several sub-schools of it—would go on to have a much wider and more impactful influence upon both the southern and northern schools of modern Buddhism.
Theravada is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit Sthaviravada, however, the later Theravada school is not identical with the original Sthavira school, but is a later development which arose out of southern sub-schools of Sthavira (most particularly the Vibhajyavada). Because of the Buddhist persecution in India following the fall of the Maurya Empire, a great geographical divide arose between the Sthaviras in the south and the Sthaviras and Mahasamghikas (and each of their sub-schools) in the north. This divide led to increasing deviation between northern and southern schools over time. In the south, the Theravada arose out of the sub-schools of Sthavira. In the north, the most prominent Sthavira sub-schools (Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka) would help give rise to Buddhist centers in Nepal, Kashmir, China and into eastern Asia.
The Stavira contained Sutra, Vinaya and Abhidharma Pitakas (“Tri-Pitaka”). The extant Tri-Pitaka belonging to the Theravada school is known as the Pali Canon. However, due to often significant differences between the Tri-Pitaka of the Theravada school and the Tri-Pitaka of the Sarvastivada school (both having derived from the Sthaviravada), we cannot say that the Pali Canon is necessarily a representation of the early canon of the Sthaviras. All that can be accurately said is that the Theravada arose out of the southern Sthaviravada schools, and became prominent in Sri Lanka, from which it spread to south-east Asia. For more on the southern development, see Theravada Buddhism. See below for more on the “northern” sub-schools.
The Sarvastivadins—a sub-school of the Sthavira (though some identify it with the Sthavira itself)—were a highly influential school in Early Buddhism, notably in the northern regions, such as Kashmir. By the time of Xuanzang (6th century CE), the Sarvastivada was the dominant Buddhist school in the Himalayan regions, covering all of modern Nepal and extending west into Kashmir. Blavatsky suggests that Asanga drew from earlier esoteric teachings in composing his Yogacarabhumi-sastra, which, she claims, he blended with tantrika doctrines. Modern scholars note that Asanga was a student of the Sarvastivada school of Early Buddhism. Thus, the Sarvastivada may perhaps be connected with what Blavatsky refers to as the teachings of the original Yogacara school (see Theosophical Glossary entries for “Yogacara,” “Aryasangha,” and “Svabhavika”).
Blavatsky and her teachers refer to a “Svabhavika” school of Buddhism in Nepal, drawing on terminology used by early orientalists. They refer to this school as having once been “the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India.” A case may be made for this being a reference to the Sarvastivada school:
“The distinctive Sarvāstivāda doctrine is that “all exists” (sarva asti, sarvāsti, sarvāstitva). This means that all dharmas, all the factors of existence, exist in the past, the present, and the future. They do this by way of their svabhāva, their inherent nature, which remains the same throughout the three time periods. In this sense, the Sarvāstivādins may be considered Svābhāvikas, and their doctrine has been described as a svabhāvavāda.” (David Reigle, “A Svabhavika School of Buddhism?”)
The Sarvastivadins were also referred to as Abhidharmikas, as they contained a unique set of Abhidharma texts. The Sarvastivada Abhidharma consists of seven texts: Jñānaprasthāna, Prakaraṇapāda, Vijñānakāya, Dharmaskandha, Prajñaptiśāstra, Dhātukāya, and Saṅgītiparyāya. In addition to these is the “Great Commentary,” the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra by Katyāyāniputra. All of these texts are extant as part of the current Chinese Buddhist canon. It is worth noting that when Blavatsky defines “Abhidharma” in her Theosophical Glossary, the Abhidharma mentioned by her is that which was composed by Katyayana, and she names the Jñānaprasthāna specifically (see “Sthavirah”). This text was said by the Sarvastivadins to be the “root” or “body” Abhidharma, with the remaining six texts viewed as its “limbs.” The Sarvastivadins maintained that their Abhidharma represents the words of Buddha and was compiled by Katyayana—as opposed to the Theravadin account, which maintains that their Abhidharma was compiled by Sariputra (hence the two widely differing Abhidharma collections). Blavatsky further suggests that “the disciples of Katyayana were and are as unsectarian as their humble admirers the Theosophists are now” (note the suggestion that unsectarian disciples of Katyayana still existed in her time). Katyayana is said in some sources to have been the initiator of the Sthavira school itself.
The Prajnaparamita literature is also said to have an association with the Sarvastivada school, especially in Kashmir. A nearly complete Sarvastivada canon survives to this day in Chinese translation.
The Mahisasaka is regarded most commonly as an offshoot of the Sarvastivada school. The Vinaya of the Mahisasaka was obtained by Faxian in Sri Lanka (in its Sanskrit original) and was later translated into Chinese. It is extant today as part of the Chinese Buddhist Canon.
The Dharmaguptaka is fairly consistently regarded as an offshoot of the Sarvastivada school, with some sources viewing them as a further offshoot from the Mahisasaka. The Dharmagupatakins appear to have been prominent in north-western India, Kashmir and along the Silk Road. They are said to have made more efforts than any other school to spread Buddhism beyond India, primarily by following the Silk Road, thus reaching into Persia-Iran westward and into China eastward. Their Vinaya was translated into Chinese and became the foundation for monastic orders in Chinese Buddhism. From there it was carried into Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya is thus one of three surviving Vinaya lineages (the others being the Theravada and the Mulasarvastivada in Tibetan Buddhism)—it remains active as a lineage in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The Śāriputra Abhidharma Śāstra is an Abhidharma text which may have belonged to the Dharmaguptaka school.
The Dharmaguptaka school appears to have had two extra portions to their Pitaka—the usual Tri-Pitaka of Sutra, Vinaya and Abhidharma, with the addition of a Bodhisattva-Piṭaka and a Mantra-Piṭaka. Some scholars have speculated that the Mahayana Sutras may have originally been included in a “Bodhisattva-Pitaka.” Parmartha, Asanga and Buddhayasas all associate the Dharmaguptaka school with the early formations of Mahayana.
One notable idea in the Dharmaguptaka is that the Sravakayana is ultimately not the same path as the Bodhisattvayana—this being seemingly an early version of the later Mahayana vs. Hinayana division. The Dharmaguptakas also rejected aspects of the Sarvastivada school, including portions of their Vinaya.
While there is some form of connection between the mula-sarvastivada school and the sarvastivada school, modern scholars remain unsure of the exact nature of the relationship, and traditional accounts vary. Suggestions range from the Mula- being an offshoot of the Sarvastivada, to their being an entirely independent school, to both terms indicating the same school.
The Mulasarvastivada Vinaya (rules for ordained monks) is distinct from the extant Vinaya of the Sarvastivadins. It is one of three surviving Vinaya lineages (the others being the Theravada and the Dharmaguptaka in East Asia), being the current Vinaya of Tibetan Buddhism. The text of their Vinaya is available in both Chinese and Tibetan translation.
We may note that such early schools of Buddhism ought to be of special interest to students of Theosophy considering the insistence by Blavatsky and her teachers of the existence of a pre-sectarian Buddhist doctrine which remains to this day almost entirely unknown and esoteric. Our primary source for information on the early schools which appear to share the most in common with Blavatsky’s and her teacher’s approach to Buddhism (esp. the Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka) comes to us from the Chinese Buddhist canon, which remains largely unexplored by students of theosophy.
Early and Foundational Texts
In modern scholarship the term “Early Buddhist Texts” is used to indicate only the very earliest layers of recorded Buddhist teaching, restricted generally to collections believed to pre-date 300 BCE. Below we outline the primary early texts also extending beyond this period, up until at least the beginning of the common era (CE) and its first few centuries. We view this as the primary formational period of Early Buddhism, and, along with several scholars, we favor the interpretation that much of the Abhidharma portion as well as early Mahayana teachings, etc. existed as part of the core teachings of the Buddha from the very beginning.
Note that many of the texts included below from the Chinese, Tibetan and Pali Canons are not yet available in English translation, while in the cases of some of the more popular texts there may be numerous translations. We have linked to original sources where possible, and have largely left it to students to locate English translations. See the following sites for originals of many Early Buddhist Texts (some of which include English translations): suttacentral, accesstoinsight (Pali Canon), cbetaonline (Chinese Canon), tbrc & 84000.co (Tibetan Canon).
Sutra-Pitaka (the Dharma, or doctrinal portion)
The Dharma portion of the teachings is divided into five main collections of texts. The first four are considered Early Buddhist Texts, with the fifth being perhaps a somewhat later development. These are found in both the Pali Canon (there called the Nikayas) and the Chinese Canon (there called the Agamas). Asanga (4th century CE) referred to this collection as “Sravaka-Pitaka,” which he contrasted with a “Bodhisattva-Pitaka” (see “Mahayana Sutras” below).
The five collections of the Sutra-Pitaka are as follows:
Vinaya-Pitaka (the rules and laws for ordained monks)
The Vinaya portion of the teachings is said to have been compiled (along with the Sutra portion) at the First Buddhist Council. However, as outlined above, sectarian differences arose due to differences in approach to the Vinaya, hence the several schools of Early Buddhism each had somewhat unique Vinaya collections. There are three Early Buddhist Vinaya lineages still in existence today, these being:
1. The Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka in East Asian Buddhism (China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, etc.), contained in the Chinese Canon;
3. The Vinaya of the Theravada, contained in the Pali Canon.
Other extant Vinayas (without known active lineages) are:
5. The Vinaya of the Sarvastivada, contained in the Chinese Canon;
6. The Vinaya of the Mahisasaka, contained in the Chinese Canon.
Abhidharma-Pitaka (the philosophical and metaphysical portion)
There are two complete Abhidharma collections available today:
1. The Sarvastivada Abhidharma (see Vaibhasika), contained in the Chinese Canon, consisting of seven texts and a major commentary:
- Jñānaprasthāna (Part 1, 2)
- Prakaraṇapāda (Part 1, 2)
The primary Abhidharma commentary in Sarvastivada is the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra by Katyāyāniputra.
2. The Theravada Abhidharma, contained in the Pali Canon, also consisting of seven texts:
Other extant Abhidharma texts include:
3. The Śāriputra Abhidharma Śāstra, believed to be from the Dharmaguptaka school, contained in the Chinese Canon;
4. The Tattvasiddhi Śāstra, believed by some to be from the Mahasamghika school, contained in the Chinese Canon.
In addition to the above, two central Abhidharma texts which are widely studied by Tibetan Buddhists are:
1. the Abhidharmakośa-kārikā and its commentary the Abhidharmakośa-bhāsya, both authored by Vasubandhu; and
2. the Abhidharma-samuccaya, authored by Asanga.
The above three sets form what is called the
The extant Tri-Pitakas are thus: 1. the Pali, 2. the incomplete Sanskrit, 3. the Chinese, and 4. the Tibetan.
Early Mahayana Sutras (perhaps originally included in a “Bodhisattva-Pitaka”)
It is quite likely that the Mahayana teachings were originally oral instructions, and were only later committed to writing. Some scholars suggest that the earliest Mahayana texts were composed in the Andhra region of India by the Mahasamghika school and gradually brought north from there. Suggested dates for the earliest texts are between the 2nd century BCE and the beginning of the common era (CE). The texts below range in dates, with some texts being likely from the early period and others from the early centuries of the common era.
Among the earliest Mahayana sutras are a collection of about 40 texts called the Prajna-Paramita-Sutras, the primary texts of which are commonly named according to their lengths (see below). The oldest of these are generally believed to be the:
- Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (8,000 lines); and
- Triśatikā or Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Diamond Sutra) (300 lines).
The next period of development (according to Conze) includes the elaborated:
- Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (18,000 lines);
- Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (25,000 lines); and
- Śatasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (100,000 lines).
Other, shorter and generally later texts include:
- Pañcaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (500 lines);
- Saptaśatikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (700 lines);
- Sārdhadvisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (2500 lines);
- Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya (Heart Sutra)
In addition to these is the commentary Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa, commonly attributed to Nagarjuna.
Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus Sutra)
The Lotus Sutra is an Indian Mahayana text, perhaps composed around the 1st century BCE. It was later translated into Chinese and became one of the most influential texts in East Asian Buddhism. It is extant in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, and has been translated into numerous other languages.
Avataṃsaka Sūtra aka Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra is a large composite text, which includes the Daśabhūmika Sutra (Ten Stages Sutra) and the Gandavyuha Sutra. It was likely composed in India in stages leading up to the beginning of the common era. According to Paramartha, the Avatamsaka Sutra is also known as the Bodhisattva-Pitaka, and in a Dunhuang manuscript, it is referred to as the Bodhisattvapiṭaka Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra. It is possible that this text is but a part of a larger collection called Bodhisattva-Pitaka.
It is extant in Chinese in two translations, by Buddhabhadra and by Siksananda. The latter has been translated into English, see: The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sūtra, tr. Thomas Cleary, 1993.
Pure Land Sutras
The “Pure Land” sutras are Indian Mahayana texts likely composed in the Kashmir or Gandhara regions of the northwest. The primary sutras were later translated into Chinese and became highly influential in East Asian Buddhism. The primary, and oldest, Pure Land sutras are the:
- Longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Infinite Life Sutra) (extant in Sanskrit & Chinese);
- Shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra, aka Amitābha Sūtra (extant in Chinese); and the
- Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra (extant in Chinese).
See: The Three Pure Land Sutras, tr. Hisao Inagaki, 2010.
Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka, is connected with the Prajna-Paramita-Sutras in traditional accounts, which have him receiving those sutras from the Nagas (“Serpents,” which Blavatsky suggests refers to the Mahatmas). The primary Madhyamaka text is Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (extant in Sanskrit). There are numerous other texts from the early Madhyamaka school, most notably those attributed to Nagarjuna and his student Aryadeva. The Madhyamaka position would go on to have a major and central influence on much of Tibetan Buddhism. For more on the Madhyamaka, see Mahayana Buddhism.
Yogacara (or Yogacarya)
The Yogacara is commonly said to have been systematized by the 4th century Indian brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, but Blavatsky suggests the existence of an original Yogacarya school from the very beginning of Buddhism, which Asanga merely formulated (while, she claims, mixing in elements of Tantra which were foreign to the original Yogacarya). Asanga and Vasubandhu were students of the Sarvastivada school, from which they may have gained their Yogacara education (see Sarvastivada above).
The Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra is another central text of Yogacara, traditionally attributed to Asanga, though he may perhaps have been more a compiler than author. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan translations and a large portion in Sanskrit.
A key work of Vasubandhu is the Abhidharmakośakārikā, which is a kind of distillation of Sarvastivada Abhidharma. Two other of his influential works are the Vimśatikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi and the Triṃśikā-vijñaptimātratā.
For more on the Yogacara, see Mahayana Buddhism.
The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra was perhaps composed, along with the early Prajna-Paramita-Sutras, in the Andhra region of India. It is the first text to include the concept of the tathāgatagarbha, which would have large influence in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan translations.
The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is another text perhaps composed in the Andhra region, though its composition may have occurred gradually over an extended period of time, into the common era. The text shares the same title as the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali Canon, but they are quite different in content. It is extant in Chinese and Tibetan translations.
The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra is a somewhat later text (perhaps into the first few centuries of the common era), and was highly influential in the development of Chan Buddhism. It is extant in Sanskrit, and in Chinese and Tibetan translations.
Other notable texts include the:
- Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra
- Vimalakirti sutra,
- Suvarṇaprabhāsa-sūtra (Golden Light Sutra), etc.
Numerous other early Mahayana texts exist, of varying importance and influence, and with varying doctrinal emphasis. There is not a single collection or a “Pitaka” for what is referred to as Mahayana Sutras, though as suggested above, the early texts may have belonged to a “Bodhisattva-Pitaka.”
Translations & Commentaries
- A High Disciple, a Prophecy, and a Miracle
- A Visit to the Buddha
- Among the Celestials
- Buddha’s Renunciation
- Buddha’s Method
- Building on Recollection
- Discipline for Disciples
- Kshatriya and Brahman
- Prajnaparamita-Hridaya-Sutra (The Heart Sutra)
- Self-Glorification or Self-Conquest
- Some Parables of the Buddha
- States of Consciousness
- The Buddha’s Cosmology
- The Buddha’s Former Births
- The Buddha’s Teaching of the Logos
- The Chain of Causation
- The Doctrine of the Divine Man
- The Fruits of Discipleship
- The Ideal Brahman
- The Ladder of Consciousness
- The Nativity of Buddha
- The Noble Eightfold Path
- The Sevenfold Counsels of Perfection
- Vestures of Consciousness
- Visâkhâ: A Woman Disciple of the Buddha
- Wise and Foolish Disciples
- “For I Desired Mercy, and Not Sacrifice”
Selected Articles, etc.
- Buddha and Ambapali
- Buddha: The Life of Siddhartha Gautama
- Buddhism Before Buddha
- Details of Discipline
- Light of Asia: The Great Renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana)
- Notes on the Mādhyamika Philosophy
- Philosophy of the Yogācāra
- Rajput and Brahman in Buddha’s Day
- Sakya Muni’s Place in History
- The Buddha’s Life
- The Mādhyamika School in China
- The Nativity of Buddha