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A Brief History Of The Sthaviravada (Theravada) School


This school is also known as the Vibhajyavada School, it may be called the most orthodox school of Buddhism.


During the reign of Mahapadma Nanda of the Nanda dynasty, the first schism in the Buddhist communities occurred.

The account of the tradition of the Sammitiya school dated 349 B.C. During the reign of Mahapadma Nanda (also Vasumitra's account), a monk probably Mahadeva put forward five articles or dogmas which has nothing to do with the Vinaya. These formed the subject of bitter controversy among the bhikkus. The five dogmas were:

(1) an arhat may commit a sin under unconscious temptation.
(2) one may be an arhat and not know it.
(3) an arhat may have doubts on matter of doctrine.
(4) one cannot attain arhatship without the aid of a teacher.
(5) "the noble ways" may begin with a shout that is one meditating seriously on religion may make such exclamation as "How sad" and by so doing attain progress towards perfection - the path is attained by an exclamation of astonishment.

An assembly thus took place at Pataliputra with the support of the king. Those who voted for the 5 dogmas formed the Mahasanghika while those who rejected them that apparently included a number of senior monks (Elders. Sthaviras) constituted themselves into the school of the Elders (orthodox school), the Sthaviravada school.

As an expression of this spirit noticed at the inception of the schism was their strong opposition made against the procedure followed in choosing those monks to attend the Council. According to Sthaviravada, only the arahats could be present in the council and not the non-arahats.

The Vajjian monks disagreed with the decision of the Council and held another assembly on their own called the "Great Council". At which "Great Council" altered the Tripitaka to suit their own views and added new texts therefore a schismatic school arose. However it was unlikely that the "Great Council" was held immediately after the 2nd Council. It is this Great Council which is supposed to be the origination of the Mahasanghika school yet the Vinaya of that school agrees with the opinion of the orthodox monks in condemning the Vajjian monks. Thus this shows that the communities of the monks remained united for some time after the 2nd Council, all concerned it appears accepted the decision arrived at the most probable date is thus some time after the Vaisali Council and some time before the period of Asoka Maurya.

The Work

The Sthaviravada Tripitaka, now preserved in Pali, is one of the most authentic in the sense of preserving the discourses of the Buddha in their wording as recognized before the schisms.

It is most significant that where comparison can be made and has been made, a Sthaviravada text agrees most closely with the corresponding Mahasanghika text -- the Patimokshas in the Vinayas of these 2 schools agree in being considerably shorter than any of the others extant.

The Abhidharma is the glory of the Sthaviravada school and consists of 7 treatises. All the versions of the Pitaka were actually based upon one common original in Magadhabhasa (the dialect used by the Buddha). Therefore the Pali version of the Tripitaka was not the original version. Pali is a literary form of Paisaci that is supposed to be the spoken dialect of Ujjayini (therefore the home of Paisaci is at Ujjayini or more accurately about the Vindhya mountains). Because there was a version of the Pitaka in Paisaci therefore the Pali Tripitaka is probably based upon this version.

Core Teaching

Their characteristic doctrine was that of the incorruptible nature of the arhat. Another characteristic doctrine is that progress in understanding comes all at once "insight" does not come "gradually".

This school admits the human character of the Buddha and he is often represented as having human foibles though he is recognized as possessing certain superhuman qualities.

The teaching of the Buddha according to this school is very simple - He asks us to "abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind". All these can be accomplished by the practice of sila, samadhi and prajna.

The philosophy of this school is also simple - all worldly phenomena are subject to 3 characteristics --- anicca (impermanence), dukkha (sufferings) and anatta. All compound things are made up of 2 elements --- nama and rupa. When an individual understands the true nature of things he tries to renounce worldly life and follows the Middle Path and Eightfold Noble Path of the various recessions of the Tripitaka.


After the Sangha split into the Sthaviravada school and the Mahasanghika school further schisms occured to produce approximiately 18 (or more) schools. It was during the reign of Bindusara (293 - 268 B.C.) that the Sthaviravada school underwent a further schism It started about 200 years after the parinibbana of the Buddha (~286 B.C.) an elder called Vatsiputra prepared a new recession of the Abhidhamma in 9 sections and formulated his special doctrine departed from Sthaviravada. They are:

Abhayagirivasins (or Dharmarucis)
Jetavaniyas (or Sagaliyas)

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