There are many ways to divide the history of Buddhism. There is no one right way. Each way is devised with a certain objective in order to accomplish certain tasks.
My concern is with understanding early Buddhism. That means that I will divide the history of Buddhism accordingly. This division is made in order to shed light on the period I am calling early Buddhism.
Original Buddhism (449-404 BCE)
Original Buddhism is the Dharma taught by the historical Buddha and his authorized disciples.
As Bhikkhu Sujato rightly notes, “Dating of Buddhist events is painfully complex and doubtful matter” (150). Almost all dates are based on the passing of the Buddha. Since I have already explained my reasoning elsewhere, I will not repeat it here. I will merely tell you that I date the Buddha’s birth at 484 BCE and his passing away at 404 BCE.
Original Buddhism can be dated from the awakening of the Buddha in 449 BCE to his passing into nirvana in 404 BCE. This is the pure Dharma taught by the fully enlightened Buddha.
But sadly, original Buddhism is lost from us forever. That means the Dharma that has come down to us is imperfect, flawed, and not without error. That means there is no inerrant and infallible Buddhist scripture. In other words, there is no Bible.
I might mention that even the Christian Bible is not inerrant and infallible, despite blind faith to the contrary. Such belief was only possible, and is still only possible, through ignorance. An honest assessment of the textual evidence would destroy any such false beliefs.
I, therefore, feel it is better for Buddhists to be honest with the evidence. Original Buddhism is gone forever. It ended with the passing away of the Buddha. What we have now is oral transmissions, fallible and errant, of that original teaching. This leads us to stage two.
Early Buddhism (403-200 BCE)
After the passing of the Buddha, the sangha of fully enlightened arahants gathered to recite the monastic rules (vinaya) and the discourses (suttas) of the Buddha. We can date this to about 403 BCE, less than a year after the Buddha’s passing away.
This is the stage of Buddhism that interests me most. The Dharma of this time, I believe, has been preserved. These are still the authentic teachings of the Buddha, though fallible and errant. They are being molded and shaped to make them easy to recite and remember.
It should be noted that writing was not in general use in India at this time (Rhys Davids 111ff). All important messages were remembered and recited. The Hindu Vedas were remembered and recited by the Brahmins, and they date to thousands of early earlier than Buddhism. And it should be noted that when these Brahmins converted to Buddhism they brought their skill in memorization with them.
It is important to determine when early Buddhism ended. Bhikkhu Sujato ends it at the beginning of the common era. But I find it more useful to end it with the schism of Buddhism and the rise of the various schools of Buddhism.
The Eighteen School Schisms (About 200 BCE)
But this gets us into a very knotting problem. When did the schisms take place?
We can place the 1st Buddhist Council at 403 BCE. And I think we are fairly safe at placing the 2nd Buddhist Council 100 years later, at about 303 BCE. We can also give, in fact, the only sure dates, that Asoka reigned from 268 BCE to 232 BCE.
Now the question, not easily answered, is did the schism happen before, during, or after the reign of Asoka. There is no general agreement. I partly agree with Bhikkhu Sujato, “I think this event must be placed after Asoka” (153).
However, there does seem to be tension between the Mahasanghika and the Sthaviravada (Pai, Theravada). And Hirakawa Akira says that “the schism clearly did occur a little more than a century after the Buddha’s death” (82). “The most probable date,” writes A. K. Warder, “is thus some time after Vaisali and some time before the period of Asoka Maurya” (207). This would put the date sometime between 300 BCE and 268 BCE.
What we can be a little more sure about is that schism did not take place during Asoka’s reign. “The Asoka edicts,” writes Hirakawa Akira, give little evidence that Asoka ruled during a period when Buddhism was fiercely sectarian” (113).
I would like to distinguish between the division into the two original schools and the schisms into the eighteen schools. I place the end of early Buddhism to the schisms of the eighteen schools. To quote Hirakawa Akira again, “The phrase ‘the schisms into the eighteen schools,’ which is found in a number of Buddhist texts, refers to the eighteen schools produced by these later schisms, but not to the two original schools” (111).
Dating the arising of the eighteen schools is doubtful and we may need to revise it as more evidence comes in. We know the eighteen schisms probably happened after the reign of King Asoka, which ended in 232 BCE. I am tentatively giving the date of 200 BCE, with the understanding that it took several decades for the schisms to develop.
I give the date of the 3rd Buddhist Council as 132 BCE. As Hirakawa Akira states, “the Third Council… must have occurred in the second century BCE” (110). And I agree with him, that this Third Council was not universal but “was probably held… within the Theravada School” (110).
Mainstream Buddhism (200-1 BCE)
Now we enter the problem of terminology. What to call the eighteen schools collectively. There have been many suggestions. The Mahayana Buddhists call them Hinayana, which means the inferior vehicle. Which is a pejorative word and should not be used by scholars.
John Strong has said, “Hinayana is a pejorative term meaning ‘Lesser Vehicle.’ Some adherents of the ‘Greater Vehicle’ (Mahayana) applied it to non-Mahayanist schools such as the Theravada, the Sarvastivada, the Mahasam Ghika, and some fifteen other schools. This encyclopedia uses the term Mainstream Buddhism.” And so I follow suit.
It should be noted, writes Eric Cheetham, that “there is a remarkable degree of consensus about basic aims, methods, and topics among all of these original schools of Buddhism” (xv). But there were differences, which should not be ignored.
What is important about mainstream Buddhism is that its writings still exist. The Theravada Pali canon comes from this time. It is by comparing the existing canons from the various schools that we can get back to early Buddhism. It is by this comparison and historical research that we can determine which texts in the Pali canon qualify to be called Early Buddhist Texts. See my article on that.
Later Buddhism (1-2022 CE)
When does mainstream Buddhism end and later Buddhism begin? Technically mainstream Buddhism lasted way into the tenth century CE in India, and still survives today in Theravada Buddhism (the only mainstream Buddhism to survive).
But for the sake of my interests, I call later Buddhism anything after the turn of the century (1 CE and later). This is purely pragmatic and not historical. It singles that my primary interest is in early Buddhism and in getting as close as possible to the teachings of that time period.
Another reason is that near the turn of the century, some Buddhists began creating forgeries, false sutras that claimed to be the word of the Buddha. These changed the original teachings of the Buddha and turned the Buddha into a God. Whether they are true or not can be debated, but that they did not come from the historical Buddha can not be doubted.
It is important to emphasize that this division is useful for the study of early Buddhism. Historians would have different ways of dividing Buddhist history that would be just as valid.
My purpose is to first, point out that original Buddhism is lost for good. Any claim to be representing the indisputable word of the Buddha needs to be dismissed. All we have is what his followers say he said. It is important to remember this.
My second purpose is to facilitate the recovery of early Buddhism through the uncovering of the Early Buddhist Texts. These have levels of development. Textual criticism in Buddhism is still in its early stages. There is much work to be done and it is underfunded and understaffed.
The third purpose is to show the importance of studying mainstream Buddhism in order to better get at early Buddhism. There is a lot of work that still needs to be done. The Chinese agamas need to be translated into Pali, since that has the only complete canon. The other languages as well. Then, and only then, can a real textual comparison take place.
And finally, my purpose is to exclude later inventions of the Mahayana and Vajrayana. They are not usually relevant to the study of early Buddhism. And it is early Buddhism that is my primary concern here.
- Akira, Hirakawa. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2007.
- Cheetham, Eric. Fundamentals of Mainstream Buddhism. Boston: Charles E. Tittle Co., 1994.
- Forrest, Jay. “Early Buddhist Texts.” Suttavadin Buddhist Blog. February 23, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/early-buddhist-texts/
- Forrest, Jay. “The Dating of the Buddha.” Suttavadin Buddhist Blog. March 30, 2022. https://jayforrest.org/the-dating-of-the-buddha/
- Rhys Davids, T. W. Buddhist India. United States: Theravada Tipitaka Press, 2010.
- Strong, John. “Hinayana,” Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Robert E. Buswell, Jr., ed. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 2003.
- Sujato, Bhikkhu. Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools. n.p., Santipada, 2012.
- Warder, A. K. Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2000.