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Lions from S?ñch?, where the Caitika Mah?sghika sub-sect was preeminent

The Mah?sghika (Sanskrit "of the Great Sangha", Chinese: ; pinyin: Dàzhòng Bù) was one of the early Buddhist schools. Interest in the origins of the Mah?sghika school lies in the fact that their Vinaya recension appears in several ways to represent an older redaction overall. Many scholars also look to the Mah?sghika branch for the initial development of Mahayana Buddhism.


The original center of the Mah?sghika sect was in Magadha, but they also maintained important centers such as in Mathura and Karli.[1] The Kukku?ikas were situated in eastern India around V?ras? and Paliputra and the Bahu?rut?ya in Ko?ala, Andhra, and Gandhara. The Lokottarav?da subschool itself claimed to be of the 'Middle Country', i.e. Ganges Basin region in the north of India. The Mah?sghikas and the Lokottarav?da subschool also had centres in the Gandhara region.The Ekavy?vah?rika are not known from later times.[2]

The Caitika branch was based in the Coastal Andhra region and especially at Amar?vati and N?g?rjunako. This Caitika branch included the P?rva?ailas, Apara?ailas, R?jagirikas, and the Siddh?rthikas. Finally, Madhyadesa was home to the Prajñaptiv?dins.[3] The ancient Buddhist sites in the lower Krishna Valley, including Amar?vati, N?g?rjunako and Jaggayyape?a, "can be traced to at least the third century BCE, if not earlier."[4]

The cave temples at the Aja Caves, the Ellora Caves, and the Karla Caves are associated with the Mah?sghikas.[5]


Most sources place the origin of the Mah?sghikas to the Second Buddhist council. Traditions regarding the Second Council are confusing and ambiguous, but it is agreed that the overall result was the first schism in the Sangha between the Sthavira nik?ya and the Mah?sghika nik?ya, although it is not agreed upon by all what the cause of this split was.[6] Andrew Skilton has suggested that the problems of contradictory accounts are solved by the Mah?sghika riputraparip?cch?, which is the earliest surviving account of the schism.[7] In this account, the council was convened at Paliputra over matters of vinaya, and it is explained that the schism resulted from the majority (Mah?sa?gha) refusing to accept the addition of rules to the Vinaya by the minority (Sthaviras).[7] The Mah?sghikas therefore saw the Sthaviras as being a breakaway group which was attempting to modify the original Vinaya.[8]

Scholars have generally agreed that the matter of dispute was indeed a matter of vinaya, and have noted that the account of the Mah?sghikas is bolstered by the vinaya texts themselves, as vinayas associated with the Sthaviras do contain more rules than those of the Mah?sghika vinaya.[7] Modern scholarship therefore generally agrees that the Mah?sghika vinaya is the oldest.[7] According to Skilton, future historians may determine that a study of the Mah?sghika school will contribute to a better understanding of the early Dhamma-Vinaya than the Therav?da school.[8]

Appearance and language


The Eight Auspicious Signs of Buddhism

Between 148 and 170 CE, the Parthian monk An Shigao came to China and translated a work which describes the color of monastic robes (Skt. kya) utitized in five major Indian Buddhist sects, called Da Biqiu Sanqian Weiyi (Ch. ?).[9] Another text translated at a later date, the riputraparip?cch?, contains a very similar passage corroborating this information.[9] In both sources, the Mah?sghikas are described as wearing yellow robes.[9] The relevant portion of the riputraparip?cch? reads:[10]

The Mah?sghika school diligently study the collected s?tras and teach the true meaning, because they are the source and the center. They wear yellow robes.

The lower part of the yellow robe was pulled tightly to the left.[11]

According to Dudjom Rinpoche from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the robes of fully ordained Mah?sghika monastics were to be sewn out of more than seven sections, but no more than twenty-three sections.[12] The symbols sewn on the robes were the endless knot (Skt. ?r?vatsa) and the conch shell (Skt. ?a?kha), two of the Eight Auspicious Signs in Buddhism.[12]


The Tibetan historian Buton Rinchen Drub (1290-1364) wrote that the Mah?sghikas used Pr?krit, the Sarv?stiv?dins Sanskrit, the Sthavirav?dins used Paic? and the Sa?mit?ya used Apabhraa.[13]

Doctrines and teachings

The Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas. Cave 4, Aja Caves, Mah?rtra, India.
Elephant motif with buddhas above. Karla Caves, Mah?rtra, India.

List of doctrinal tenets

Andre Bareau, in his Buddhist sects of the small vehicle (1955), lists numerous doctrinal tenets as upheld by the Mah?sghika. Some of these include:[14]

  1. The Buddhas are supramundane (lokottara), devoid of asravas and the mundane natures.
  2. In all their words (vaca), Tathagatas turn the wheel of Dharma. They can also express all the Dharmadhatu in a single sound.
  3. The material body (rupakaya), power (prabhava) and longevity of the Buddha is unlimited (ananta).
  4. The Buddha does not sleep or dream.
  5. The Tathagata answers questions without thinking.
  6. Buddhas never say a word because they are always in samadhi, but beings, thinking that they utter words, jump for joy.
  7. In a single moment of thought (ekaksanikacitta), Buddhas comprehend all dharmas.
  8. The Buddhas remain in all directions. There are Buddhas everywhere in the four directions.
  9. When the Bodhisattvas enter into a womb (garbha), they possess nothing impure and are entirely provided with organs and members, rather than developing gradually. When they enter a womb, Bodhisattvas also take on the appearance of a white elephant.
  10. Bodhisattvas, because they want to help beings become perfect, make vows to be reborn in bad destinations.
  11. The different aspects of the four noble truths are known in a single moment (ekaksanika).
  12. The five sensory (indriya) faculties consist of balls of flesh, therefore only consciousness (vijnana) sees forms, hears sounds, etc.
  13. There are no indeterminate (avyakrta) things (dharma), that is, there are no dharmas that are neither good nor bad.
  14. When one enters certainty [to become a Buddha] (samyaktvaniyama) one has abandoned all the fetters (samyojana).
  15. "Stream enterers" (srotapanna) can commit all misdeeds, except for the irremediable crimes (anantarya).
  16. All sutras uttered by Buddha are n?t?rtha ("of plain or clear meaning").
  17. Since they do not know everything (sabba), there are Arhats who are subject to ignorance (avijja), who have doubts (kariksa), who are saved by others.
  18. The self-presence of mind is bright. It is soiled (i.e. darkened) by adventitious secondary defilement.
  19. The tendencies (anusaya) are neither consciousnesses (citta) nor mental factors (caitta), and are devoid of object (analambana).
  20. The past and the future do not really exist.
  21. 'There is no intermediate state (antarabhava).''
  22. Virtue (sila) is not mental (acetasika) and it is not consecutive to thought (cittanuparivatti).
  23. Tendencies (anusaya) are indeterminate (abyakata), not-caused (ahetuka) and disjointed from thought (cittavippayutta).
  24. There is a root-consciousness (mulavijiiana) which serves as the support (dsraya) for eye-perception and the other sensory perceptions, like the root of the tree is the principle of the leaves, etc.
  25. The current consciousnesses (pravvttivijnana) can be simultaneous (sahabhu) and do not carry karmic seeds (bija).
  26. The path (marga) and the defilements (klesa) appear together.
  27. The act (karman) and its maturation (vipaka) evolve at the same time.
  28. Material things last a long time and so go through transformation (as milk turns into curds), but mental factors and consciousnesses do not because they have a swift production and cessation.
  29. Thought (citta) penetrates the whole body (kaya) and, depending on the object (visaya) and the support (acraya), it can contract or expand.
Cave 1, Aja Caves, Mah?rtra, India

Buddhas and bodhisattvas

The Mah?sghikas advocated the transcendental and supramundane nature of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the fallibility of arhats.[15] Of the 48 special theses attributed by the Samayabhedoparacanacakra to the Mah?sghika, Ekavy?vah?rika, Lokottarav?da, and the Kukku?ika, 20 concern the supramundane nature of buddhas and bodhisattvas.[16] According to the Samayabhedoparacanacakra, these four groups held that the Buddha is able to know all dharmas in a single moment of the mind.[17] Yao Zhihua writes:[17]

In their view, the Buddha is equipped with the following supernatural qualities: transcendence (lokottara), lack of defilements, all of his utterances preaching his teaching, expounding all his teachings in a single utterance, all of his sayings being true, his physical body being limitless, his power (prabh?va) being limitless, the length of his life being limitless, never tiring of enlightening sentient beings and awakening pure faith in them, having no sleep or dreams, no pause in answering a question, and always in meditation (sam?dhi).

A doctrine ascribed to the Mah?sghikas is, "The power of the tath?gatas is unlimited, and the life of the buddhas is unlimited."[18] According to Guang Xing, two main aspects of the Buddha can be seen in Mah?sghika teachings: the true Buddha who is omniscient and omnipotent, and the manifested forms through which he liberates sentient beings through his skillful means (Skt. up?ya).[19] For the Mah?sghikas, the historical Gautama Buddha was merely one of these transformation bodies (Skt. nirmak?ya), while the essential real Buddha was equated with the Dharmak?ya.[20]

The Mah?sghika Lok?nuvartan? s?tra makes numerous supramundane claims about the Buddha, including that:

  • He was not produced through union of father and mother, but magically produced.
  • His feet never touch the ground or get dirty, his footprints are only a show.
  • His body and mouth does not get dirty, he only makes a show of cleaning himself.
  • He did not really suffer and struggle to attain enlightenment for six years, this was just a show.
  • He never gets hungry, he only manifests this in order to allow others to gain merit by giving.
  • He does not really produce human waste, this is only a show.
  • His body does not grow tired, ill or old, and is not affected by cold or heat, it only appears to have these qualities.[21]

Like the Mah?y?na traditions, the Mah?sghikas held the doctrine of the existence of many contemporaneous buddhas throughout the ten directions.[22] In the Mah?sghika Lok?nuvartana S?tra, it is stated, "The Buddha knows all the dharmas of the countless buddhas of the ten directions."[22] It is also stated, "All buddhas have one body, the body of the Dharma."[22]

In the view of Mah?sghikas, advanced bodhisattvas have severed the bonds of karma, and are born out of their own free will into lower states of existence (Skt. durgati) in order to help liberate other sentient beings. As described by Akira Hirakawa:[23]

The Sarv?stiv?din also taught that the Bodhisattva was subject to the law of karma. If one attained arhathood, he was free of the karmic law; and once the arhat died, he entered nirva never to return to the world of sa?s?ra. But living in the cycle of sa?s?ra, the Bodhisattva was bound to the law of karma. In contrast to this school the Mah?sghika held that the Bodhisattva has already sundered karmic bondage and, therefore, is born in durgati out of his own free will, his deep vow (pra?idh?na) of salvation.

The concept of many bodhisattvas simultaneously working toward buddhahood is also found among the Mah?sghika tradition, and further evidence of this is given in the Samayabhedoparacanacakra, which describes the doctrines of the Mah?sghikas.[24] These two concepts of contemporaneous bodhisattvas and contemporaneous buddhas were linked in some traditions, and texts such as the Mah?prajñ?p?ramit?upade?a use the principle of contemporaneous bodhisattvas to demonstrate the necessity of contemporaneous buddhas throughout the ten directions.[25] It is thought that the doctrine of contemporaneous buddhas was already old and well established by the time of early Mah?y?na texts such as the Aas?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra, due to the clear presumptions of this doctrine.[24]

Mundane and supramundane

The Mah?sghikas held that the teachings of the Buddha were to be understood as having two principal levels of truth: a relative or conventional (Skt. sa?v?ti) truth, and the absolute or ultimate (Skt. param?rtha) truth.[15] For the Mah?sghika branch of Buddhism, the final and ultimate meaning of the Buddha's teachings was "beyond words," and words were merely the conventional exposition of the Dharma.[26] K. Venkata Ramanan writes:[27]

The credit of having kept alive the emphasis on the ultimacy of the unconditioned reality by drawing attention to the non-substantiality of the basic elements of existence (dharma-nyat?) belongs to the Mah?sghikas. Every branch of these clearly drew the distinction between the mundane and the ultimate, came to emphasize the non-ultimacy of the mundane and thus facilitated the fixing of attention on the ultimate.


According to Bart Dessein, the Mohe sengzhi lu (Mah?sghika Vinaya) provides some insight into the format of this school's textual canon. They appear to have had a Vinaya in five parts, an Abhidharmapi?aka, and a Sutrapi?aka:

Of these texts, their Vinaya was translated into Chinese by Buddhabhadra and Faxian between 416 and 418 CE in the Daochang Monastery in Nanjing, capital of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. In this text, their Abhidharma is defined as "the s?tr?nta in nine parts" (navga). This suggests that the early Mah?sghikas rejected the abhidharmic developments that occurred within Sarv?stiv?da circles. As is the case with their Vinayapi?aka, also their Sutrapi?aka seems to have consisted of five parts (?gama): *D?rgh?gama,*Madhyam?gama,*Sa?yukt?gama, *Ekottar?gama and *K?udrak?gama.

Dessein also mentions that the school probably also had a Bodhisattvapi?aka, which included material that "in all likelihood consisted of texts that formed part of the early development of the bodhisattva path as an alternative career to that of the arhant, perhaps serving as a foundation for the later developments of the bodhisattva doctrine".[28]


According to some sources, abhidharma was not accepted as canonical by the Mah?sghika school.[29] The Therav?din D?pava?sa, for example, records that the Mah?sghikas had no abhidharma.[30] However, other sources indicate that there were such collections of abhidharma. During the early 5th century, the Chinese pilgrim Faxian is said to have found a Mah?sghika abhidharma at a monastery in Paliputra.[30] When Xuanzang visited Dh?nyaka?aka, he wrote that the monks of this region were Mah?sghikas, and mentions the P?rva?ailas specifically.[31] Near Dh?nyaka?aka, he met two Mah?sghika bhik?us and studied Mah?sghika abhidharma with them for several months, during which time they also studied various Mah?y?na stras together under Xuanzang's direction.[30][31] On the basis of textual evidence as well as inscriptions at N?g?rjunako, Joseph Walser concludes that at least some Mah?sghika sects probably had an abhidharma collection, and that it likely contained five or six books.[32]


The Mah?vastu (Sanskrit for "Great Event" or "Great Story") is the most well known of the Lokottarav?da branch of the Mah?sghika school. It is a preface to their Vinaya Pitaka and contains numerous J?taka and Avad?na tales, stories of past lives of the Buddha and other bodhisattvas.[33] It is considered a primary source for the notion of a transcendent (''lokottara'') Buddha, who across his countless past lives developed various abilities such as omniscience (sarvajñana), the lack of any need for sleep or food and being born painlessly without the need for intercourse.[34] The text shows strong parallels with the Pali Mahakhandhaka.


The ?ariputraparip?cch? (Shelifu Wen Jing, , Taisho 1465, p. 900b), translated into Chinese between 317 and 420, is a Mahasamghika Vinaya work which also provides a history of early Buddhism and its schisms.[35]

Lok?nuvartan? s?tra

The Lok?nuvartan? s?tra (Chinese, pinyin : fóshu? nèi zàng b?i b?o j?ng) is a text preserved in some Sanskrit fragments as well as in Tibetan and Chinese translation. It is one of three texts belonging to the Mah?sghika in the Chinese Buddhist canon (Taish? Tripi?aka , Volume 17, text No. 807).[21]


The Tattvasiddhi-stra ("the treatise that accomplishes reality"; C: , Chengshilun), is an Abhidharma work by a figure known as Harivarman (250-350). Some scholars including A.K. Warder, attribute the work to the Bahusrutiyas, however others disagree and see it as a Sautrantika work.[36][37] Chinese sources mention that he was initially a Sautrantika teacher who later lived with the Mahasamghikas.[37]

Manuscript Collections

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited a Mah?sghika-Lokottarav?da vihara in the 7th century at Bamyan, Afghanistan, and this monastery site has since been rediscovered by archaeologists.[38]Birch bark manuscripts and palm-leaf manuscripts of texts in this monastery's collection, including Mahayana sutras, have been discovered at the site, and these are now located in the Schøyen Collection. Some manuscripts are in the G?ndh?r? language and Kharoh? script, while others are in Sanskrit and written in forms of the Gupta script. Manuscripts and fragments that have survived from this monastery's collection include the following source texts:[38]

  • Pr?timok?a Vibha?ga of the Mah?sghika-Lokottarav?da (MS 2382/269)
  • Mah?parinirva S?tra, a sutra from the ?gamas (MS 2179/44)
  • Ca?g? S?tra, a s?tra from the ?gamas (MS 2376)
  • Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2385)
  • Bhai?ajyaguru S?tra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2385)
  • ?r?m?l?dev? Si?han?da S?tra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • Prav?ra?a S?tra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • Sarvadharmaprav?ttinirde?a S?tra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • Aj?ta?atrukauk?tyavinodana S?tra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • riputra Abhidharma stra (MS 2375/08)

Relationship to Mah?y?na

Sculpture of the Buddha from Mathura. 5th or 6th century CE

Acceptance of Mah?y?na

In the 6th century CE, Param?rtha, a Buddhist monk from Ujjain in central India, wrote about a special affiliation of the Mah?sghika school with the Mah?y?na tradition. He associates the initial composition and acceptance of Mah?y?na s?tras with the Mah?sghika branch of Buddhism.[39] He states that 200 years after the parinirva of the Buddha, much of the Mah?sghika school moved north of R?jag?ha, and were divided over whether the Mah?y?na teachings should be incorporated formally into their Tripi?aka. According to this account, they split into three groups based upon the relative manner and degree to which they accepted the authority of these Mah?y?na texts.[40] Param?rtha states that the Kukku?ika sect did not accept the Mah?y?na s?tras as buddhavacana ("words of the Buddha"), while the Lokottarav?da sect and the Ekavy?vah?rika sect did accept the Mah?y?na s?tras as buddhavacana.[41] Paramartha's report states:

In this school, there were some who believed these sutras and some who did not. Those who did not believe them . . . said that such sutras are made by man and are not proclaimed by the Buddha, . . . that the disciples of the Lesser Vehicle only believe in the Tripitaka, because they did not personally hear the Buddha proclaim the Greater Vehicle. Among those who believed these sutras, there were some who did so because they had personally heard the Buddha proclaim the Greater Vehicle and therefore believed these sutras; others believed them, because it can be known through logical analysis that there is this principle [of the Greater Vehicle]; and some believed them because they believed their masters. Those who did not believe [them] did so because these sutras were self-made and because they were not included in the five Agamas.[42]

Param?rtha also wrote about the origins of the Bahu?rut?ya sect in connection with acceptance of Mah?y?na teachings. According to his account, the founder of the Bahu?rut?ya sect was named Y?jñavalkya.[43] In Param?rtha's account, Y?jñavalkya is said to have lived during the time of the Buddha, and to have heard his discourses, but was in a profound state of sam?dhi during the time of the Buddha's parinirva.[43] After Y?jñavalkya emerged from this sam?dhi 200 years later, he discovered that the Mah?sghikas were teaching only the superficial meaning of the s?tras, and therefore founded the Bahu?rut?ya sect in order to expound the full meaning.[43] According to Param?rtha, the Bahu?rut?ya school was formed in order to fully embrace both "conventional truth" and "ultimate truth."[44] Bart Dessein links the Bahu?rut?ya understanding of this full exposition to the Mah?y?na teachings.[45] In his writings, Param?rtha also indicated as much:[46]

In the Mah?sghika school this Arhat recited completely the superficial sense and the profound sense. In the latter, there was the sense of the Mah?y?na. Some did not believe it. Those who believed it recited and retained it. There were in the Mah?sghika school those who propagated these teachings, and others who did not propagate them. The former formed a separate school called "Those who have heard much" (Bahu?rut?ya). [...] It is from this school that there has come the Satyasiddhistra. That is why there is a mixture of ideas from the Mah?y?na found there.

Royal patronage

Some early Mah?y?na s?tras reference wealthy female donors and provide evidence that they were developed in the ?ndhra region, where the Mah?sghika Caitika groups were predominant. The Mah?y?na Mah?megha S?tra, for example, gives a prophecy about a royal princess of the ?atav?hana dynasty who will live in ?ndhra, along the Ka River, in Dh?nyaka?aka, seven hundred years after the parinirva of the Buddha.[47]

Several scholars such as Étienne Lamotte, and Alex and Hideko Wayman, associate the ?ndra Ik?v?ku dynasty with patronage of Mah?y?na s?tras.[47] Epigraphic evidence at N?g?rjunikoa also provides abundant evidence of royal and wealthy female donors.[47]


A number of scholars have proposed that the Mah?y?na Prajñ?p?ramit? teachings were first developed by the Caitika subsect of the Mah?sghikas. They believe that the Aas?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra originated amongst the southern Mah?sghika schools of the ?ndhra region, along the Ka River.[24] Guang Xing states, "Several scholars have suggested that the Prajñ?p?ramit? probably developed among the Mah?sghikas in southern India, in the ?ndhra country, on the Ka River."[25] These Mah?sghikas had two famous monasteries near the Amar?vati and the Dh?nyaka?aka, which gave their names to the schools of the P?rva?ailas and the Apara?ailas.[24] Each of these schools had a copy of the Aas?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra in Prakrit.[24] Guang Xing also assesses the view of the Buddha given in the Aas?hasrik? Prajñ?p?ramit? S?tra as being that of the Mah?sghikas.[24]Edward Conze estimates that this s?tra originated around 100 BCE.[24]


Cave complex associated with the Mah?sghika sect. Karla Caves, Mah?rtra, India

Brian Edward Brown, a specialist in Tath?gatagarbha doctrines, writes that it has been determined that the composition of the ?r?m?l?dev? Si?han?da S?tra occurred during the ?k?v?ku Dynasty in the 3rd century as a product of the Mah?sghikas of the ?ndhra region (i.e. the Caitika schools).[48] Wayman has outlined eleven points of complete agreement between the Mah?sghikas and the ?r?m?l?, along with four major arguments for this association.[42] Anthony Barber also associates the earlier development of the Tath?gatagarbha S?tra with the Mah?sghikas, and concludes that the Mah?sghikas of the ?ndhra region were responsible for the inception of the Tath?gatagarbha doctrine.[49]

According to Stephen Hodge, internal textual evidence in the A?gulim?l?ya S?tra, Mah?bherih?raka Parivarta S?tra, and the Mah?y?na Mah?parinirva S?tra, indicates that these texts were first circulated in South India and then gradually propagated up to the northwest, with Kashmir being the other major center. The A?gulim?l?ya S?tra gives a more detailed account by mentioning the points of distribution as including South India, the Vindhya Range, Bharuch, and Kashmir.[50]

The language used in the Mah?y?na Mah?parinirva S?tra and related texts, seems to indicate a region in southern India during the time of the tav?hana Dynasty. The tav?hana rulers gave rich patronage to Buddhism, and were involved with the development of the cave temples at Karla and Aja, and also with the Great St?pa at Amar?vati. During this time, the tav?hana Dynasty also maintained extensive links with the Kua Empire.[50]

Using textual evidence in the Mah?y?na Mah?parinirva S?tra and related texts, Stephen Hodge estimates a compilation period between 100 CE and 220 CE for the Mah?y?na Mah?parinirva S?tra. Hodge summarizes his findings as follows:[50]

[T]here are strong grounds based on textual evidence that the MPNS (Mah?y?na Mah?parinirva S?tra), or a major portion of it, together with related texts were compiled in the Deccan during the second half of the 2nd century CE, in a Mah?sghika environment, probably in one of their centres along the western coastal region such as Karli, or perhaps, though less likely, the Amaravat?-Dhanyaka?aka region.

In the 6th century CE, Param?rtha wrote that the Mah?sghikas revere the s?tras which teach the Tath?gatagarbha.[50]

Bodhisattva canons

Within the Mah?sghika branch, the Bahu?rut?yas are said to have included a Bodhisattva Pi?aka in their canon, and Param?rtha wrote that the Bahu?rut?yas accepted both the H?nay?na and Mah?y?na teachings.[15] In the 6th century CE, Bh?vaviveka speaks of the Siddh?rthikas using a Vidy?dh?ra Pi?aka, and the P?rva?ailas and Apara?ailas both using a Bodhisattva Pi?aka, all implying collections of Mah?y?na texts within the Mah?sghika schools.[51] During the same period, Avalokitavrata speaks of the Mah?sghikas using a "Great ?gama Pi?aka," which is then associated with Mah?y?na s?tras such as the Prajñ?paramit? and the Da?abh?mika S?tra.[51]

Views of scholars

Since at least the Meiji period in Japan, some scholars of Buddhism have looked to the Mah?sghika as the originators of Mah?y?na Buddhism.[52] According to Akira Hirakawa, modern scholars often look to the Mah?sghikas as the originators of Mah?y?na Buddhism.[53]

According to A.K. Warder, it is "clearly" the case that the Mah?y?na teachings originally came from the Mah?sghika branch of Buddhism.[54] Warder holds that "the Mah?y?na originated in the south of India and almost certainly in the ?ndhra country."[55] Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that "historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as N?g?rjuna, Dignaga, Candrak?rti, ?ryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in ?ndhra."[56]

André Bareau has stated that there can be found Mah?y?na ontology prefigured in the Mah?sghika schools, and has offered an array of evidence to support this conclusion.[57] Bareau traces the origin of the Mah?y?na tradition to the older Mah?sghika schools in regions such as Odisha, Kosala, Koñkana, and so on. He then cites the Bahu?rut?yas and Prajñaptiv?dins as sub-sects of the Mah?sghika that may have played an important role in bridging the flow of Mah?y?na teachings between the northern and southern Mah?sghika traditions.[57]

André Bareau also mentions that according to Xuanzang and Yijing in the 7th century CE, the Mah?sghika schools had essentially disappeared, and instead these travelers found what they described as "Mah?y?na." The region occupied by the Mah?sghika was then an important center for Mah?y?na Buddhism.[57] Bareau has proposed that Mah?y?na grew out of the Mah?sghika schools, and the members of the Mah?sghika schools also accepted the teachings of the Mah?y?na.[57] Additionally, the extant Mah?sghika Vinaya was originally procured by Faxian in the early 5th century CE at what he describes as a "Mah?y?na" monastery in Paliputra.[58]

Vinaya Recension

Cave temple associated with the Mah?sghikas. Ellora Caves

Early features

The Mah?sghika Vinaya recension is essentially very similar to the other recensions, as they all are to each other. The Mah?sghika recension differs most from the other recensions in structure, but the rules are generally identical in meaning, if the Vibhangas (explanations) are compared. The features of the Mah?sghika Vinaya recension which suggest that it might be an older redaction are, in brief, these:

The Bhiksu-prakirnaka and Bhiksuni-prakirnaka and the Bhiksu-abhisamacarika-dharma sections of the Mah?sghika Vinaya are generally equivalent to the Khandhakas/ Skandhakas of the Sthavira derived schools. However, their structure is simpler, and according to recent research by Clarke, the structure follows a matika (Matrix) which is also found embedded in the Vinayas of several of the Sthavira schools, suggesting that it is presectarian. The sub-sections of the Prakirnaka sections are also titled pratisamyukta rather than Skandhaka / Khandhaka. Pratisamyukta / Patisamyutta means a section or chapter in a collection organised by subject; the 'samyukta-principle', like the Samyutta-Nikaya / Samyukta-agama. Scholars such as Master Yin Shun, Choong Moon Keat, and Bhikkhu Sujato have argued that the Samyutta / Samyukta represents the earliest collection among the Nikayas / Agamas, and this may well imply that it is also the oldest organising principle too. (N.B. this does not necessarily say anything about the age of the contents).

There are also fewer stories in general in the Vinaya of the subsidiary school, the Mah?sghika-Lokottarav?da, and many of them give the appearance of badly connected obvious interpolations, whereas in the structure of the Sthavira recensions the stories are integrated into the whole scheme. In the formulations of some of the pratimoksha rules also, the phrasing (though generally identical in meaning to the other recensions) often appears to represent a clearer but less streamlined version, which suggests it might be older. This is particularly noticeable in the Bhiksuni-Vinaya, which has not been as well preserved as the Bhiksu-Vinaya in general in all the recensions. Yet the formulation of certain rules which seem very confused in the other recensions (e.g. Bhikkhuni Sanghadisesa three = six in the Ma-L) seems to better represent what would be expected of a root formulation which could lead to the variety of confused formulations we see (presumably later) in the other recensions. The formulation of this rule (as an example) also reflects a semi-parallel formulation to a closely related rule for Bhiksus which is found in a more similar form in all the Vinayas (Pc64 in Pali).

Depiction of Devadatta

According to Reginald Ray, the Mah?sghika Vinaya mentions the figure of Devadatta, but in a way that is different from the vinayas of the Sthavira branch. According to this study, the earliest vinaya material common to all sects simply depicts Devadatta as a Buddhist saint who wishes for the monks to live a rigorous lifestyle.[59] This has led Ray to regard the story of Devadatta as a legend produced by the Sthavira group.[60] However, upon examining the same vinaya materials, Bhikkhu Sujato has written that the portrayals of Devadatta are largely consistent between the Mah?sghika Vinaya and the other vinayas, and that the supposed discrepancy is simply due to the minimalist literary style of the Mah?sghika Vinaya. He also points to other parts of the Mah?sghika Vinaya that clearly portray Devadatta as a villain, as well as similar portrayals that exist in the Lokottarav?din Mah?vastu.[61]

Chinese translation

The Mah?sghika Vinaya is extant in the Chinese Buddhist Canon as Mohesengzhi Lü (; Taish? Tripi?aka 1425). The vinaya was originally procured by Faxian in the early 5th century CE at a Mah?y?na monastery in Paliputra.[58] This vinaya was then translated into Chinese as a joint effort between Faxian and Buddhabhadra in 416 CE, and the completed translation is 40 fascicles in length.[62] According to Faxian, in Northern India, the vinaya teachings were typically only passed down by tradition through word of mouth and memorization. For this reason, it was difficult for him to procure manuscripts of the vinayas that were used in India. The Mah?sghika Vinaya was reputed to be the original vinaya from the lifetime of the Buddha, and "the most correct and complete."[63]


Although Faxian procured the Mah?sghika Vinaya in India and had this translated into Chinese, the tradition of Chinese Buddhism eventually settled on the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya instead. At the time of Faxian, the Sarv?stiv?da Vinaya was the most common vinaya tradition in China.

In the 7th century, Yijing wrote that in eastern China, most people followed the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, while the Mah?sghika Vinaya was used in earlier times in Guanzhong (the region around Chang'an), and that the Sarv?stiv?da Vinaya was prominent in the Yangzi region and further south.[64] In the 7th century, the existence of multiple Vinaya lineages throughout China was criticized by prominent Vinaya masters such as Yijing and Dao'an (654-717). In the early 8th century, Dao'an gained the support of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang, and an imperial edict was issued that the sa?gha in China should use only the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya for ordination.[65]

Ati?a was ordained in the Mah?sghika lineage. However, because the Tibetan Emperor Ralpacan had decreed that only the M?lasarv?stiv?da order would be permitted in Tibet, he did not ordain anyone.

See also


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  • "Arya-Mahasamghika-Lokuttaravadin Bhiksuni-Vinaya"; edited by Gustav Roth, 1970.
  • Mahasamghika and Mahasamghika-Lokuttaravadin Vinayas in Chinese translation; CBETA Taisho digital edition.[full ]
  • "The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature"; Frauwallner, Serie Orientale Roma, 8. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.
  • "Vinaya-Matrka -- Mother of the Monastic Codes, or Just Another Set of Lists? A Response to Frauwallner's Handling of the Mahasamghika Vinaya"; Shayne Clarke. Indo-Iranian Journal 47: 77-120, 2004.
  • "A Survey of Vinaya Literature"; Charles Prebish. Originally, Volume I of The Dharma Lamp Series. Taipei, Taiwan: Jin Luen Publishing House, 1994, 157 pages. Now published by Curzon Press.
  • "The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: a comparative study based on the S?trga portion of the Pali Sa?yutta-Nik?ya and the Chinese Sa?yukt?gama", Choong Mun-Keat, Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz, 2000. (Contains an account of Master Yin-Shun's theory that the Samyukt'Agama is the oldest collection, by a student of Prof. Rod Bucknell.)
  • "History of Mindfulness"; Bhikkhu Sujato, Taipei, Taiwan: the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2006. (Gives further evidence for the Anga-theory of Master Yin-Shun and the theory that the Samyukta-/ Samyutta- is the oldest organising principle.)
  • "Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Pratimoksa Sutras of the Mahasamghikas and Mulasarvastivadins"; Charles Prebish. Volume I of the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions Series. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975, 156 pages. First Indian Edition, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996. (This is only a translation of a small part of the Vinayas, on its own it is nearly useless.)
  • Charles Prebish and Janice J. Nattier, "Mahasamghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism"; History of Religions, 16, 3 (February, 1977), 237-272.
  • "The Pratimoksa Puzzle: Fact Versus Fantasy"; Charles Prebish. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 94, 2 (April-June, 1974), 168-176.
  • "A Review of Scholarship on the Buddhist Councils"; Charles Prebish. Journal of Asian Studies, XXXIII, 2 (February, 1974), 239-254.
  • "Theories Concerning the Skandhaka: An Appraisal"; Charles Prebish Journal of Asian Studies, XXXII, 4 (August, 1973), 669-678.
  • "Saiksa-dharmas Revisited: Further Considerations of Mahasamghika Origins"; Charles Prebish. History of Religions, 35, 3 (February, 1996), 258-270.

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