Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (1/4)

The gap in the Buddha-Sāsana (S: Śāsana)[i] between the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions began in India as doctrinal differences, but came to be India itself, for when the Sāsana died out in India, these two great traditions became substantially isolated from one another, Theravāda to the south and Mahāyāna to the north, remembering each other unkindly and mostly in lore. In this way, what began as doctrinal distinctions became a geographical and cultural divide. We now live in a globalized world in which these two great schools cannot fail to intersect; they are found in close proximity, living side by side in almost any major western city and in many Asian cities. Moreover, curiosity, along with the probing of modern scholarship, has broadened the dialog between the two sides. Yet Theravāda and Mahāyāna remain generally aloof from each other.

Chinese_JunkI have come to the view that there is much more that holds Buddhism together than that splits it apart, that the Sāsana is robust, tolerant of diversity, yet remarkably able to retain its core teachings, which it has – for the most part – on both sides of this divide. Nonetheless, because of the subtle sophistication of the Buddha’s teachings, the Sāsana has historically gone through cycles of decline and recovery. Moreover, geographical isolation has not only cut off Theravāda from Mahāyāna, it also disrupted the ability of each to recover from its respective faults. Mahāyāna became early on a tradition cut off from its past, and Theravāda a tradition cut off from its future.

I will begin by dispelling two historical myths that sustain the idea that the separation of these two traditions is irreconcilable, that Theravāda and Mahāyāna can do little to help each other. One has to do with monastic discipline and the other with doctrine. I then illustrate these processes of decline and then recovery and argue that healing the gap between these traditions will create a healthier Sāsana on both counts. Theravāda and Mahāyāna need each other.

Myth 1: schism as the origin of Mahāyāna

Sects or schools distinguish themselves spatially, doctrinally, and also formally at the saṅgha level. A common misconception is that the difference between Theravāda and Mahāyāna began at the saṅgha level with a schism. The saṅgha has been traditionally the heart of the Buddhist community since it is charged with preserving, propagating and living according to the teachings. Schism in the monastic community (P:saṅghabedha) was a serious concern of the Buddha, for a dispute in the saṅgha would effectively split the saṅgha in twain and carry the whole community with it. Luckily, formal schisms have been relatively rare in Buddhist history. However, it is a common belief that the Theravāda and Mahāyāna saṅghas can nevermore be in communion. This erroneous belief has had unfortunate consequences.

A little history: Even aside from formal schism, diversity in the Buddhist community began developing in the early centuries of the Sāsana because of geographical dispersal of the saṅgha, for distinctions in monastic behavior and doctrinal views began to develop among communities at significant distances from one another in South Asia, such that separate sects became recognizable, each of which preserved, orally in the early centuries, its own version of the early scriptures, generally in a distinct language, but at the same time the various sects were still largely in communion. At one time eighteen separate sects, almost entirely formed in this way, could be counted in the Buddhist area. The Theravāda sect was probably the most outlying, since it was transmitted to the island of Sri Lanka, apparently during the reign of Aśoka.

Nevertheless, there appears to have been a historical full-fledged formal schism in the early saṅgha, about one century after the Buddha’s parinirvana, a schism recorded in the later literature of many of these later sects. One side in this schism became known as the Mahāsāṃghika sect, and the other side, the Sthavira sect, both born of allegedly irreconcilable differences. It was Mahāsāṃghika that would later be identified with Mahāyāna. The Sthavira, for its part, would give rise to Theravāda, Sarvāstivādin, Dharmagelupka, and most other sects. Theravāda is the only one of these many sects that remains today, stranded on an island as Buddhism died out many centuries later in continental India, though it had in the meantime also spread to Southwest Asia.

Among the ancient sectarian reports of schism, there is very little agreement about its genesis.[ii] In some accounts it had to do with monastic discipline in others with doctrine. The Theravāda tradition reports that it had to do with the laxity of Mahāsāṃghika discipline; the Mahāsāṃghika tradition itself held that the schism has to do with the attempt by the the Sthaviriyans to impose stricter discipline. In neither case is a significant difference in the terms of the dispute reflected in its respective monastic code.

On the other hand, the Sarvāstivādin sources – also, like Theravāda, on the Sthaviriya side – attribute the dispute to five doctrinal issues all having to do with the status of the arahant. It was a later Chinese source,[iii] based on the Sarvāstivādin account, that seems to have first seen in the Mahāsāṃghika the precursor to the Mahāyāna, even claiming that the Mahāsāṃghika had tried to incorporate some of the Mahāyāna (as we now know, yet to be composed) sutras prior to the schism.[iv] In fact, some Mahasanghikas – not all – did espouse views that would, centuries later, come to characterize Mahāyāna, having to do with the supramundane nature of the Buddha and of bodhisattvas,[v] which may have led to this effort by some later Mahāyānists to identify themselves with Mahāsāṃghika.

The theory that the Mahāyāna and Theravāda monastic orders were rent asunder by this ancient schism is widely believed in both schools and has served to deepen the gap that persists to this day. But the schismatic account is false. This account of the origin of Mahāyāna cannot be correct, for reports of the famous Chinese pilgrims Faxian (early fifth century) and Xuanzang (seventh century) provide us with a clear picture of the process of Mahāyāna propagation. Both tell as that any given monastery in India commonly had monastics of Mahāyāna persuasion living quite happily together with non-Mahāyanists.[vi]

Instead, whereas the sects were largely geographically determined, Mahāyanist ideas seem to spread quietly over the entire Buddhist region from sect to sect, much like a dance craze might spread with little regard to national borders. As Gombrich concludes, “Mahāyāna … is not a sect but a current of opinion which cut across sects as properly defined.”vii The Mahāyāna craze even reached far-flung Theravāda Sri Lanka, at times with some success, but was finally suppressed by King Parakkama Bāhu I in the twelfth century as part of a purification program.[viii]

Whereas, before the Mahāyāna movement, doctrine in the various sects was centered on the discourses of the Buddha, the Mahāyāna movement centered a later doctrinal development that added a new scriptural corpus quietly and unevenly throughout the Sāsana, apparently with little drama, opposition or discord. In summary, there was no historical schism that rent Theravāda and its sister sects on the one side, and Mahāyāna on the other asunder. Technically, both saṅghas should still be properly in communion. In fact, I am aware of one ordination of Mahayana monks and nuns by a monastic quorum including Theravada monks, at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California on August 9, 2013.

The story does not end here, for it remains to be shown a significant way in which the myth of schism has harmed the Theravāda saṅgha in particular. Buddhism took root in Central Asia and by the first century CE ventured along the Silk Road into China. This complex migration entailed the mingling of monks ordained in various sects but primarily from the southwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent, which were nearer the trade routes. Likewise, early scriptures were transmitted from various sects and in various languages, along with newer Mahāyāna sutras and scholarly writings. Most early missionaries to China seem to have been associated with Mahāyāna, but there was a dearth of Indian masters of significant influence.[ix]

The journey over the Silk Road was made by rough monks traveling with rough caravans led by rough traders through a very rough environment. But eventually an order of Chinese monks was established, around which Mahāyāna began to consolidate itself in China. Ultimately they would settle on the Vinaya from the Dharmaguptaka sect – a Sthirāvada sect historically close to Theravāda – of West India as the standard for monastic procedures throughout East Asia.

Because few women or nuns made the perilous journey over the Silk Road, the first Chinese nuns seem to have been ordained only in the fourth century, and even then they were ordained by monks, contrary to the convention prescribed in the Vinaya of ordination of nuns by nuns. Nonetheless, the nuns’ saṅgha was fully established with the ordination of three hundred Chinese nuns by foreign nuns in 433 CE. This was possible after a boat captain named Nan-t’i had brought the requisite number of fully ordained nuns from southern regions to Nan-ching to perform the ordination.x Significantly for our discussion, these nuns were brought from Sri Lanka, and so would certainly have belonged to the Theravāda tradition, in fact, probably to the nuns order established in Sri Lanka by Saṅghamitta Theri, the daughter of Emperor Aśoka of India.

Clearly alleged sectarian or schismatic divisions were not an issue in fifth century China; Vinaya was Vinaya, ordination was ordination, and potential doctrinal differences that might exist between the Sri Lankan and Chinese saṅghas were besides the point. The saṅghas were regarded as in communion, the Chinese women were ordained by the Theravāda nuns and the ordination was approved by Chinese monks, certainly largely of Mahāyāna doctrinal persuasion.

Subsequent Theravāda history has revealed one way in which Theravāda needs Mahāyāna: Theravāda at some point since this historic ordination in ancient China misplaced its own order of fully ordained nuns, in all of the Theravāda countries, in Sri Lanka and in most of the nations of Southeast Asia. It is believed this happened in the tenth or eleventh centuries due to war.[xi] The loss of the nuns’ sangha has created a situation that is a mirror image of that in China prior to 433 CE, that is, the absence of existing nuns to ordain new nuns. In the meantime, the order of nuns in China – originally transmitted, as we have seen, from Theravāda nuns from Sri Lanka – has flourished uninterrupted to the present day in Mahāyāna lands. If we, like the ancient Chinese, regard sectarian divisions as beside the point, as I have argued here, then a resolution to the Theravāda deficit is simple: Let Chinese Mahāyāna nuns ordain Theravāda nuns and bring back the order the Theravāda saṅgha had itself established to China. If, on the other hand, we adhere to the tradition that an ancient schism separates the two saṅgha irreparably, then Theravāda is cut off from its own future, and from the nun’s saṅgha it once spawned. This situation has resulted in controversy, but its outcome is secure.

In recent decades the Theravāda nuns’ order is, in fact, being restored in exactly this way: with the help of their Chinese, generally Taiwanese, Mahāyāna sisters who have kindly provided the necessary quorum of nuns to ordain new Theravāda nuns. And yet, the status of these ordinations is under challenge for various reasons including this myth of ancient schism. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that the numbers of Theravāda nuns is increasing, particularly with fully viable Theravāda nuns’ orders in Sri Lanka and recently also in California, large enough to provide a quorum for ordaining new Theravāda nuns. In this way Mahāyāna has helped the Theravāda tradition to restore the original intention of the Buddha, effectively recovering the future from which it was long cut off.

Next Week: Myth 2: Mahāyāna as higher teachings


i. This term for Buddhism as it plays out historically and socially is here given in two languages. The scriptural language of Theravāda is Pali, that of Indian Mahāyāna is Sanskrit. The two languages are closely related and often words are identical in both. Where I provide both terms I will use P for Pali and S for Sanskrit.
ii. Nattier and Prebish (1977).
iii. ibid.
iv. As we will see shortly, none of these Mahāyāna scriptures could have existed at this early time.
v. Nattier and Prebish (1977).
vi. Anālayo (2014).
vii. Gombrich (1988, 112).
viii. Skilton (1994, 150).
ix. Sharf (2001, 4-5). Sharf (2001, 7) also points out that it is uncertain whether this meant Mahāyāna was really popular in India and Central Asia at this early time or whether Mahāyāna monks felt themselves to be outcasts in their own lands.
x. Heirman (2001).
xi. Skilton (1994, 152).


Anālayo, Bhikkhu, 2014, “The Hīnayāna Fallacy,” Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies 6, 9-31.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2013, “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” In The Bodhisattva Ideal: essays on the emergence of Mahāyāna, Buddhist Publication Society, 1-30.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2014, A Cultural of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sāsana, Theravāda Dharma Society of America.

Connelly, 2016, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, Wisdom Publications.

Gombrich, Richard, 1996, How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

Gombrich, 2006[1988], Theravāda Buddhism: a socialhistory from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge.

Heirman, Anne, 2001, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24:2.

Jaffe, Richard M., 2010, Neither Monk nor Layman: clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Kalupahana, David J., 2015, Mulamadhyamakarika of Nāgārjuna: the philosophy of the middle way, Motilal Danarsidass: Delhi.

Kalupahana, David J., 1992, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Sri Satguru Publications.

Nattier, Jan and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsaghika Origins: the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism,” History of Religions 16:3, 237-272.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, 1974, Zen Keys, Doubleday.

Santina, Peter Della, 1997, The Tree of Enlightenment, Chico Dharma Study Foundation.

Sharf, Robert H., 2001, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Skilton, Andrew, 1994, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes and Noble.

Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts, Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, also available on-line.

Williams, Paul, 2008, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, Routledge.


6 Responses to “Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (1/4)”

  1. Bo Gak Sunim Says:

    A wonderful article, Bhante. Very informative, and with a spirit of unity.
    I look forward to reading the next 3
    Pieces. Blessings to you palms together, head bowed.
    Bo Gak Sunim.


  2. Budismo e Sociedade Says:

    Hello Bhante. I am a brazilian blogger that shares translations of bhuddhist texts. I realy liked the idea of this text. Can I translate this text in portuguese to post in my Blog? And of course, I’ll put the source and the link to your own blog. If you agree, as soon as I finish I tell you. What do you think?

    Thank you

    ps: link to my blog:


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