Dr Shermila Milroy

According to the interpretation of Buddhist literature, with the perfection of ‘Paramita’ a Buddha appears in a new Buddha Kalpa [a long period of time] that begins at the end of another Buddha Kalpa. Despite the fact that we did not get eyewitness of the Sri Saddharma being preached by the Gautama Buddha born in the present Bhadrakalpa, it should be marked here with gratitude that the Dhamma has survived and remained unbroken for more than 2500 years because of the irresistible courage and dedication of the Maha Sangha.

When studying the divisions in the Buddhist world, the most practical and common question that arises to us is that ‘What was the original Buddhism preached by the Buddha himself?’ Among us there are scholars who are uncertain as to what the original Buddhism preached by the Gautama Buddha, who was born in the 6th century AD. Also, there are ordinary layman who has no doubt or problem in that case. It is clear and direct to all of us that even today, no permanent solutions have been found for the problematic and uncertain situations about certain aspects of Buddhist philosophy that have arisen among Buddhist traditions.

Although there are no conflicting views on the biography of the Buddha in any tradition, the views between different traditions about concepts such as ‘Patichchasamuppadaya’ and ‘Nirvana’ have left unanswered questions even in the present time. These problematic points on dhamma are not problematical within the content of each tradition. Yet, they are unresolved matters for someone who engages in a comparative study of them with an open mind.

The majority of traditions believe that Buddhist philosophy has come from three main traditions. They are, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.  Pali and Sanskrit were the two original languages ​​of India at the time of the Buddha. These traditions accept the Pali tradition as Theravada or Hinayana, while Sanskrit tradition is known as Mahayana. Some accept Vajrayana as a Mahayana tradition. However, on some occasions, it is accepted that it does not belong to both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Here, we must not forget that Vajrayana is a philosophy descended from Sanskrit languages ​​and some Tantrayana texts are also derived from Prakrit and Apabhraṁsa languages. Therefore, according to the aforementioned method of division, the Buddha’s teachings that descend from Sanskrit language belongs to the Mahayana tradition, in order to discover why Vajrayana differs from the Mahayana tradition although it originates from Sanskrit language it is necessary to engage in a deep study of its origins.

The concepts of ‘saṁsara’, ‘Bodhisattva’, and ‘Nirvana’ do not differ greatly within Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. However, these two traditions have a different interpretation of the path to attain Nirvana.

Accordingly, some people accept Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana as the main traditional divisions whilst it should not be overlooked that there are other traditions besides these divisions.

Among those divisions are, the ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ that exists in Tibet, different Chinese literature-based traditions called ‘religion’ and Japanese divisions such as ‘Zen Buddhism’, ‘Shingon’ and ‘Pure Land’. Chinese ‘Āgama’ is a literature inspired by both the Pali and Sanskrit traditions. There are different opinions about the origin of Tibetan Buddhism as well. It is the belief of many scholars that out of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, the three main divisions in the world, Tibetan Buddhism belong to Vajrayana tradition. However, Tibetan Buddhist monks say that the two main divisions of the Mahayana are the Sutrayana and the Vajrayana, and that the Chinese ‘Āgama’ belongs to Sutrayana, and Tibetan Buddhism is not a tradition broken away from Vajrayana because it contains certain parts of Sutrayana too. Therefore, Tibetan scholars point out that it is more appropriate to consider that Tibetan Buddhism comes from the Nalanda tradition.

Tantrayana is also known as Vajrayana in certain books. In some places it is also known as Mantrayana. In the Tantrayana that belongs to Vajrayana tradition, it is said that one can attain Nibbāna in the present moment. Meanwhile, ‘Sarvastivadaya’ is a tradition based on Abhidhamma originated in the 3rd century BC, the time of Emperor Ashoka. Although Sarvastivadaya is derived from Sanskrit, it does not belong to Mahayana tradition. Both the Sarvastivadaya and the Sautrantika traditions descend from the Sanskrit language and it is taught that they belong to Sarvastivadins. Both these traditions do not belong to the Mahayana as they hold different views on the concept of Bodhisattva.

It is mentioned in Buddhist literature that Theravada literature remained undivided and is still stable today in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.

According to the Deepavamsa and Mahavamsa, Theravada Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by King Dharmashoka of India in the 3rd century BC and it was established here as the ‘Mahaviharika’ tradition during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. Later, some monks left the ‘Mahavihara’ tradition and later established two other traditions namely ‘Abhayagiriya’ and ‘Jethavana’. All three ‘Pirivenas’ [monasteries]  created by these three traditions were located in Anuradhapura, which was the capital city at the time. Abhayagiri monks further maintained close contact with the Mahayana tradition and allocated a considerable amount of teachings and traditions from Mahayana. Meanwhile, ‘Jethavana’ monks had contact with Buddhism, but it was not as strong as ‘Mahaviharika’. Even though Buddhism spread all over the world and spread under different labels, we must not forget that all those traditions were originated in India. When a religion, philosophy or language spreads like this, it is common to see diversity based on political, philosophical, geographical and cultural differences. Yet, we must also accept that the only thing that happened during the time that the original Buddha’s words were subjected to various divisions and interpretations was the division of the monks in the Buddhist world.

While analyzing the Buddhist cultures in the world that subjected to diversity due to these divisions, it is equally important to analyze how the Buddha Sāsana in Sri Lanka was divided. All this began to change during the reign of King Mahasen in the late 4th century AD. He destroyed the Mahaviharas who did not want to embrace the Mahayana tradition.

As a result, ‘Abhayagiriya’ and ‘Jethavana’, which had close ties with the Mahayana tradition, established as alternative Buddhist traditions in Sri Lanka. Weak governance and South Indian invasions like ‘Chola’ ‘Pallava’ also strongly influenced this. Buddhist temples were destroyed, monks were killed, and a political instability was created in the country as the Cholas started destroying the Buddha Sāsana can be seen as the main factors in the destruction of the Buddha Sāsana. The sangha tends to split up because of unstable political and religious background. Many of them even entered into married life and they were no longer monks, and the higher ordained monks were also nowhere to be found.

During the Polonnarewa era, some alterations were made in the Sasana with the intervention of King Vijayabahu I. Sri Lankan monks were sent to Thailand in order to re-establish the Upasampada. That time no nikaya division took place.

After being subjected to invasions, murders, threats and massacres during the Kingdom of Kandy, the Sri Lankan Buddha Sāsana and the Maha Sangha were temporarily became defunct. Higher ordained monks were massacred and many monks fled the country. Along these lines, we lost the higher ordination. Luckily, the Pali and Theravada Buddhist tradition had already been codified as the Tripitaka.

Subsequently, what’s important is to discuss is how the Bhikkhu order was divided. Since, the higher ordination was forfeited, he future existence of the monks in the Sasana was in a very problematic situation. However, the kings Vimaladharmasuriya I, Vimabadharmasuriya II, Sri Vijaya Rajasingha and Keerthi Sri Rajasingha made great efforts to restore it again. As a result, in the year 1753 during the Kingdom of Kandy, the Upasampada was restored from Thailand under the patronage of Welivita Saranankara Sangharaja Thero. The Siam Maha Nikaya was born as a result of replacing the higher ordination from Myanmar, and in the 19th century, Amarapura Nikaya was formed since the higher ordination was brought from Mynmar, and the Rāmañña Nikaya was formed by giving higher ordination brought from the city of Ramañña in Mynmar. Thus, the Sri Lankan Sangha Society was divided into three main sects and the Siam Maha Nikaya was further divided into seven chapters; namely, the Malwathu Chapter, Asgiri Chapter, Kalyani Samagri Sangha Sabha, Rangiri Dambulu chapter, Sri Kalyani Samagri Sangha Sabha, Kotte Sangha Sabha, Vanavasi Chapter, Uva Chapter and Rohana Chapter. In the same manner, Amarapura Nikaya was divided into 21 chapters as, Amarapura Sirisaddhammavansha Nikaya, Amarapura Muulavanshika Nikaya, Udarata Amarapura Nikaya, Amarapura Sabaragamu Sadhdhamma Nikaya, Sadhdhamma Yukthika Nikaya, Dadalu Paramparayaththa Amarapura Nikaya, Amarapura Mranmawansabhidaja Nikaya, Amarapura Vajiravansha Nikaya, Kalyanivanshika Sri Dhammarama Sadhdhamma Yukthika Nikaya, Sri Lanka Swejin Maha Nikaya, Sabaragamu Sathdhammavansha Nikaya, Amarapura Ariyavansha Sadhdhamma Yukthika Nikaya, Chulagandha Nikaya, Udarata Samagrii Sangha Sabha, Uva Amarapura Nikaya, Amarapura Sri Dhammarakshitha Nikaya, Udukinda Amarapura Nikaya, Sri Sambuddha Sasanodhaya Sangha Sabha, Amarapura Maha Nikaya, Amarapura Nikaya, and Sri Kalyanivansha Nikaya. Amidst all these divisions Rāmañña Nikaya still remains united.

Through the above analysis, one can gather a simple idea about the divisions of the Buddhist world. Apart from the Buddha’s character, we can see that many aspects such as the main Buddhist concepts, the path and speed of attaining Nirvana, the discipline of monks, the style of clothing, preaching methods, rituals and chanting methods differ from tradition to tradition.

Concisely, this division in the Buddhist world is despairing. It is no longer possible for us to make the Bhikkhus descend from all these ‘Yana’ and unite in one common plane as Buddhayana. As a result of this division, the uncertainty that has arisen about many of the basic Buddhist concepts, the misunderstandings that have aroused due to the lack of proper understanding between the respective traditions, and the acceptances and rejections caused by these misunderstandings can be identified. It is no secret to all of us that Buddhism originated in India and later spread to different countries of the world. When expanding like this, undergoing some practical changes based on regional geographical factors and cultural factors cannot be completely prevented. The significant factor here is the unification among the Buddhist lay people in spite of the division among the monks.

When we enter a temple in any country or area, we meet Buddhists who come from different cultures, have different skin colors, and speak different languages. If one questions them, they never say “I am a Theravada Buddhist” or “I am a Mahayana Buddhist”, instead they say “I am a Buddhist”.

We accept the fact that the spread of Buddha’s philosophy differs depending on various physical and social factors, and that it cannot be completely prevented. When taken on a global level, these divisions and classifications are not strongly felt by the people of each country, but we cannot avoid feeling the divisions that have happened within the same country more closely and sensitively.

The divisions in the Buddha Sāsana in Sri Lanka, where pure Theravada was established, can be considered as the best example for this. It is confirmed in the Buddhist scriptures that the Buddha did not approve the division or disunity of the Sangha. The common Buddhist community has not been divided by this division which has existed for centuries, and regardless of the sect or the color of the monks’ robe, they have the same reverence and devotion. They treat every monk with equal respect, worship with equal respect, and fulfill them with the Four Requisites in equal respect. When looking at how other religions in the world are divided according to the classifications existing in those religions and philosophies, it is exemplary that any Buddhist who enters any temple in the world, is simply acknowledged as a Buddhist. Therefore, the world’s Buddhist community has an absolute right to raise their voice for a united Buddhist world.

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