Pre-sectarian Buddhism refers to Buddhism in the period between the first discourse of Gautama Buddha until the first enduring split in the Sangha, which occurred (according to most scholars) between the second Buddhist council and the third Buddhist council. The late Professor Hirakawa however, places the first schism after the death of King Asoka. Professor Schopen questions whether there ever was a unified Buddhism which split into sects.
Pre-sectarian Buddhism is the Buddhism presupposed by the early Buddhist schools as existing about one hundred years after the Parinirvana of the Buddha. It may be substantially the Buddhism of the Buddha himself, although this cannot be proved. According to Professor A.K. Warder, there is no evidence to suggest that it was formulated by anyone other than the Buddha and his immediate followers.
Comparing the various scriptures, it is even possible to uncover certain features of early Buddhism (and its environment) that the traditions themselves have forgotten about.
The Pre-sectarian Buddhist monks' order grew from a small unknown order of highly dedicated monks (in the year after the attainment of Nirvana) to a large, well-established and well-known order, which needed more formalities and more rules to uphold the correct teachings and discipline. It was relatively sober and the monks were not supposed to go to public festivals (number 7 of the ten precepts), and were expected to refrain from activities such as playing and dancing. The monks were not allowed to show off their supernatural abilities. They were also not allowed to use or receive money, in order to lead a simple life of contentment.
In the beginning the order of monks (Sangha) did not have any monasteries, but already in its first year the Buddha allowed these to be given, after being asked to do so by King Bimbisara. Many of the these monasteries were based in parks or forests, for example Veluvana, Jetavana and Nigrodharama. One of the buildings given was a very well-furnished building, comparable to a palace, called the Migaramatupasada.
The Buddha, as the leader and main teacher, was the one who decided on the rules to be followed, but the executive power lay with the monastic community as a whole. Buddha forbade the monastic community to make their own rules and gave instructions for the monks to still follow his teaching (doctrine and discipline) after his death. Thus, He did not appoint a successor to have legislative power over the Sangha and the monks. He gave limited powers to the Sangha to unanimously agree to not follow the 'lesser and minor' rules.
The second Buddhist council took place about 100 years after the Parinibbana of the Buddha. It was convened to decide on the subject of discipline or Vinaya, and dealt with whether it was allowed to follow adapted rules, thus disregarding the instructions of Gautama Buddha. The adapted rules were integrated within the larger framework of correct procedures, and the offending monks refused to acknowledge their fault. For this reason a council was convened, in which the issue was satisfactorily dealt with, in that the offending monks abandoned their old habits.
Shortly after the second Buddhist council the first long-lasting schisms occurred in the Sangha. The second Buddhist council is sometimes considered to be the origin of these schisms, but no direct evidence for this is apparent. The first post-schismatic groups are often stated to be the Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika.
In later times, the arguments between the various schools were based in these newly introduced teachings, practices and beliefs, and monks sought to validate these newly introduced teachings and concepts by referring to the older texts (Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka). Most often, the various new Abhidhamma and Mahayana teachings were bases for arguments between sects.
The following (later) Buddhist scriptures were not existent, or in a very early (insignificant) stage of development:
As the last major division of the canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka has had a checkered history. It was not accepted as canonical by the Mahasanghika school and several other schools. Another school included most of the Khuddaka Nikaya within the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Also, the Pali version of the Abhidhamma is a strictly Theravada collection, and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other Buddhist schools. The various Abhidhamma philosophies of the various early schools have no agreement on doctrine and belong to the period of 'Divided Buddhism' (as opposed to Undivided Buddhism). The earliest texts of the Pali Canon (the Sutta Nipata and parts of the Jataka), together with the first four (and early) Nikayas of the Suttapitaka, have no mention of (the texts of) the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Abhidhamma is also not mentioned at the report of the First Buddhist Council, directly after the death of the Buddha. This report of the first council does mention the existence of the Vinaya and the five Nikayas (of the Suttapitaka).
Although the literature of the various Abhidhamma Pitakas begun as a kind of commentarial supplement upon the earlier teachings in the Suttapitaka, it soon led to new doctrinal and textual developments and became the focus of a new form of scholarly monastic life. The various Abhidhamma works were starting to be composed from about 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha.
Traditionally, it is believed (in Theravadin culture) that the Abhidhamma was taught by Buddha to his late mother who was living in Tusita heaven. However, this is rejected by scholars, who believe that only small parts of the Abhidhamma literature may have been existent in a very early form. Some schools of Buddhism had important disagreements on subjects of Abhidhamma, while having a largely similar Sutta-pitaka and Vinaya-pitaka. The arguments and conflicts between them were thus often on matters of philosophical Abhidhammic origin, not on matters concerning the actual words and teachings of Buddha.
One impetus for composing new scriptures like the Adhidhammas of the various schools, according to some scholars, was that Buddha left no clear statement about the ontological status of the world - about what really exists. Subsequently, later Buddhists have themselves defined what exists and what not (in the Abhidhammic scriptures), leading to disagreements.
The texts in the early stratum date from before the second council (earlier than 100 years after Buddha’s parinibbana), while the later stratum is from after the second council, which means they are definitely later additions to the Sutta Pitaka, and that they might not have been the original teachings by the Buddha, but later compositions by disciples.
- ‘The Khuddaka Nikaya can easily be divided into two strata, one being early and the other late. The texts Sutta Nipata, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, Therigatha (Theragatha), Udana, and Jataka tales belong to the early stratum. The texts Khuddakapatha, Vimanavatthu, Petavatthu, Niddesa, Patisambhida, Apadana, Buddhavamsa and Cariyapitaka can be categorized in the later stratum.’
The following books of the Khuddaka Nikaya can thus be regarded as later additions:
The original verses of the Jatakas are recognized as the earliest part of the Canon, but the accompanying (and more famous) Jataka Stories are purely commentarial, an obvious later addition.
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