Early in the teaching life of the Buddha, Mahavira the great Jain teacher died. His death in about 527 bce was—to the alarm of the Buddha’s followers—followed by great argumentation about what Mahavira had actually said and what he had not. It was clear that this might happen at some future date with the Buddha’s teaching and steps would be necessary to prevent the problem occurring. The Buddha did not stay in one place, but moved about over a wide area of northern India, teaching and instructing any who would listen, as well as those of his monks who dwelt in those places. For early on in his career as a teacher he had begun sending monks out to spread the doctrine of enlightenment and liberation from suffering:
`Go monks and travel for the welfare and happiness of the people, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. No two of you go the same way. Teach the doctrine, monks, which is fine in the beginning, middle and end, and proclaim the pure, holy life. There are beings, naturally of little passion, who are languishing for lack of hearing the doctrine; they will understand it!’
said the Buddha as he dispatched the first sixty monks.
The Buddhist Sangha was essentially an order of wandering mendicants and only later with the favour of kings and the wealthy did it have places to reside in and build viharas for the rainy season—the Deer Park and the Jeta Park given by Anathapindika.
There was a monastic rule forbidding the teaching of the doctrine ‘word for word’ to lay persons, and there appears to have been an injunction against writing down the scriptures to prevent them falling into the wrong hands. Whatever the reason for this, it is noteworthy that despite the loss of the Indus Valley script, two other scripts were introduced into India—Brahmi was already used in the eighth century bce and Kharosti in the third century bce, both derived from Aramaic script and probably introduced by merchants. So there were adequate if complex writing systems available, even though none was utilised until the first century bce in Sri Lanka. Instead, monks with good memories, called Bhanakas, were employed. These probably rendered the sutras into gathas—groups of rhythmic stanzas—for ease of memorisation.
Each sutra traditionally began with the words, ‘Thus I have heard,’ with which Ananda began the recitation of the sutras after the death of the Buddha. Bhanakas were also required to recite the Vinaya rules and code of monastic conduct. The Vinaya also seems to have contained the first stories of the Buddha’s life, put to good use much later (2nd century ce in Sanskrit) in Ashvaghosha’s beautiful Buddhacharita, a life of the Buddha.
It is not to be thought, however, that all this evolved smoothly and without problems. At one point: ‘A quarrel broke out between a Dhammakathika and a Vinayadhara in such a marked way, that each group made the cause of one individual member its common cause and participated in the dispute.’
Indications of stages previous to this crystallisation into bodies are found in the Vinaya in connection with the arrangements made by Dabba Mallaputta for the residence of the monks. He arranged that the monks adopting the same mode of life (sabagha) resided in the same place in order that the Suttantikas could recite suttantas among themselves, Vinayadharas discussed the rules of discipline with one another, and the Dhammakathikas talked mutually about questions of doctrine, and so on. [N. Dutt. The spread of Buddhism. 1980.] With monastic communities spread over an area of hundreds of miles, it is hardly surprising that these groups inevitably developed their own ways and traditions, which still fitted in with the code of the Vinaya discipline. Little habits and idiosyncrasies grow into larger ones as time goes by.
Even at the passing of the Buddha, sadness was not universal, and not all the monks were downcast. When he heard of the Buddha’s passing, the Venerable Subhadda was very relieved at his departure. `We used to be annoyed by being told, “This beseems you,” and, “This beseems you not,” by the Great Samana, but now he has gone, we shall be able to do whatever we like; and what we do not like, that we shall not have to do!’ If kaftans and long beards had been in fashion then, I have no doubt the Venerable Subhadda would have acquired both.
The Buddha’s passing presented the sangha with one great problem. There had been no authority but the Buddha, and he had refused to pass this on, telling the monks that the teaching should be their guide. But the Buddha’s teaching had never followed a linear progression, and had been given to all sorts of people in all sorts of different places and situations. His teaching was contingent, responding to the needs of the time and the people involved, and it was particularly hard to fit all the pieces together. In fact it was not until four or five hundred ce that the Pali Canon reached its present form, nearly a thousand years after the death of the Buddha.
Fortunately, there was one recourse. Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant for twenty years, had followed his master nearly everywhere and had a prodigious memory.
Mahakashyapa, the elder, decided that a number of enlightened arahats should be gathered and the sutras recited. The one problem remaining was that Ananda was not an arahat, so he was sent away and told not to come back until he was. Meanwhile, the arahats sat in deliberation in Sonbhandar cave in the Rajghir hills near the city of Rajagriha.
Ananda said sadly, ‘During all these years I have followed the Tathagata as his attendant. Every assembly that has been held for consideration of the law, I have joined. But now as you are going to hold an assembly after his death, I find myself excluded. The King of the Law having died, I have lost my dependence and helper.’ But Kashyapa sent him sternly away.
He found a deserted place and strove earnestly to reach the place ‘beyond learning’. Exhausted one day, he decided to lie down. Scarcely had his head touched the pillow when he became an arahat.
When he knocked at the door of the assembly, Kashyapa told him that if he was really enlightened, he should show his power and enter without opening the door. According to Hsuan Tsang’s (750 ce) delightful version of events, Ananda then ‘entered through the keyhole’. This was apparently considered acceptable and he was invited to join the assembly.
Mahakashyapa then said ‘Let Ananda, who ever heard the words of the Tathagata collect by singing through the Sutra-pitaka. Let Upali, who clearly understands the rules of discipline (Vinaya), and is well known to all who know, collect the Vinaya-pitaka; and I, Kashyapa will collect the Abhidharma-pitaka (the commentaries).‘
Hsuan Tsang’s account goes on to describe how ‘going west from this point (where Ananda had sat) 20 li or so, is a stupa built by the emperor Ashoka. This is the spot where the `Great assembly’ (Mahasangha) formed their collection of books (or, held their assembly). . . Those who had not been permitted to join Kasyapa’s assembly to the number of 100,000 men, came together to this spot and said, ‘We too wish to show our gratitude to Buddha and we also will hold an assembly for collecting the scriptures.’
They too collected the three main pitakas (baskets of teachings) plus the miscellaneous pitakas (Khuddaka-nikaya) and the Dharani-pitaka. ‘Thus they distinguished five pitakas. And because in this assembly both common folk and holy personages were mixed together, it was called `The assembly of the great congregation (Mahasangha).’ [Records of western countries. Hsuan Tsang Tr. Beale.]
This account is interesting in all sorts of ways, but it is highly unlikely that the Abhidharma (the commentaries) would have reached such a stage of development that it could have been collected or recited at such an early date. If this recitation actually took place, it would almost certainly have been of a dvipitaka (two baskets—the sutras and the vinaya).
Whatever version was finally accepted, it seems likely that even Ananda’s phenomenal memory—after forty years of dhamma talks—was bound to be a little imperfect in places, and that his version would not entirely coincide with all the others. As time goes by, our memories change and evolve in the light of succeeding events. As it was, the Venerable Punna, a highly respected monk, stated that he would not give his agreement, but would rather keep to what he himself remembered of the Buddha’s words.
Development of the Schools
Although there were no doctrinal differences during that period, certain trends, traditions and practices grew up in that era, which led eventually to the formation of the different schools. We generally think of different schools as having their origin in argument and difference of opinion, but there were other forces at work. To the diverse communities to whom the Buddha had spoken, it would have been a matter of honour to keep alive word that had been given them in person by the Great Samana himself. But these same teachings would have been remembered in different communities with different emphases, often corresponding to the special character of the teachers to whom the communities had affiliated themselves. If they were interested in the Vinaya and very strict about the rules, it would be hardly surprising if they memorised more of the Vinaya teaching. On the other hand, those who concentrated on meditation and the absorptions, would be more likely to specialise in the Buddha’s teaching on those subjects, and their own comments and developments would unconsciously slide into their memory of the sutras.
‘The division, though not proceeding from radical differences in doctrine, grew stereotyped in course of time, and fusion between them later on became impossible due to the separatist frame of mind that their existence as separate orders naturally developed. Thus the division which had commenced without any doctrinal difference gradually gave rise to the latter and grew into fully-fledged schools. History shows that this process of development actually came to pass. For instance, the school of the Sarvastivadins (‘everything exists’) who were connected with the original division of Abhidhammikas with Sariputra at their head, affiliated themselves with Sariputra’s disciple Rahula, at whose time doctrinal differences had not yet appeared. Similarly, the Sthaviravadins (ancestors of the Theravadins) affiliated themselves to Upali, Mahasanghikas to Mahakashyapa, and the Sammatiyas to Mahakatyayana. [N. Dutt. The Spread of Buddhism. 1980.] If this happens in modern times to teachers almost all of whose words are recorded on film, electronically, or in print—and it does—how much more so in the case of a teacher who lived 2500 years ago and whose teaching was committed only to human memory for five hundred years after he gave it, and in a different if closely related language. The Buddha probably spoke Magadhi and his talks would have contained local allusions and colloquialisms. Professor Gombrich notes a number of puns and jokes in the early sutra material not noticed when the sutras were finally written down in Sri Lanka in the first century bce in a literary language, and put together from the accounts of numerous redactors. The pieces had to be taken and carefully fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. But the Buddha had never given a linear teaching with a clear development. His talks were spontaneous, and directly relevant to those to whom he gave them. Therefore there are, unsurprisingly, various inconsistencies and anomalies in the texts, which the later redactors tried to cope with, perhaps further amending the texts to make them fit better as they did so.
The period leading up to the lifetime of the Buddha was characterised by enormous change. Cities replaced the villages and towns, and with them came a flood of new ideas, and old ideas were subjected to analysis and testing. From India to Greece, which was strongly influenced by Indian medical ideas, new religions and philosophies sprang up and looked afresh at the world they lived in.
The Buddha’s two principal disciples, the wise Brahman Sariputra and Mogallana the thaumaturge, had been students of one of the principal Indian sceptics, Sanjaya Belathiputta, who did not perhaps have a profound vision to pass on, but encouraged doubt and questioning. When asked about the nature of existence, he would neither accept the theory propounded, nor deny it. But neither would he not accept it nor not deny it. He prepared them well for their meeting with their future master. Philosophers, noblemen like Ananda, people of humble background like the great Vinaya master Upali, who had been a barber, the wealthy and generous Anathapindika, and Amrapali the courtesan, all fell beneath the Buddha’s spell—people of all kinds and from all walks of life.
And what was this? It was not a belief system or a tradition system like Brahmanism. It was putting all that aside—all the wish fulfilment and idealism—and looking at what is and how it is, which is seldom ideal and even less the fulfilment of one’s wishes. What we know of the Buddha’s life exemplifies this. He tried all the current teachings and systems and discarded them one by one as not leading to emancipation. Systems of yoga, deep meditational absorption, asceticism, all were discarded as inadequate, or excessive. It is this fresh and vital perception that lies at the core of Buddhism, and it is also this that has made it so distinctive and held it together for so long. It was straying from this principle that led in many cases to Buddhism being supplanted by other religions.
The Buddha in effect produced a manual for seeing life as it is and dealing with it and its problems, undeluded by idealistic belief systems or the claims of great yogic power. What he found was not just the way to the ‘ending of all ill’, but ‘to be investigated and understood at this very moment by the wise’. Perceptions that shake the world do not come shorter and more to the point than this.