Early Buddhist Sects
Sautrantika: One of the early Indian schools of this tradition. Also known as the Sutra-Only School because it focused on just the discourses of the Buddha.
Vaibhasika: An influential early Indian school in north-west India also of this tradition. Its version of the Abhidharma, the Mahavibhasa (The Great Book of Alternatives), was the basis for Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-kosa that is still studied in Tibetan monasteries and considered to be one of the five classic commentaries or treatises that should be mastered.
Theravada (Lineage of the Elders): This is the form of Buddhism that was transmitted very early to the South-east Asian counties of Sri Lanka (247 BCE) and Burma (272-236 BCE) and later to Thailand (1260), Laos (14th century), Cambodia, and southern Viet Nam. It was between 25 and 17 BCE that the Pali canon or scriptures were first recorded in Sri Lanka. In America it is also popularly known as vipassana or Insight Meditation. The most conservative branch of Buddhism, the Theravadans based their practice exclusively on the Tripitaka of the Pali Scriptures and are the only remaining school evolving out of this tradition. Their focus is the practice of mindfulness, which involves cultivating an awareness of one’s thoughts, actions, and body to become aware of what one does and one’s motivation. This is a prelude to a direct understanding of the transitory, conditioned nature of existence. Theravadans take refuge in the three jewels and follow the five precepts of no killing, no stealing, no inappropriate sex, no inappropriate speech, and no ingesting substances that befuddle consciousness. Monastics must be celibate and cannot claim to have supernormal powers. The goal of one following this path is to become an arhat. It has become a popular form of Buddhism in the United States. Some modern western leaders in this school have questioned if enlightenment is possible or even a useful goal, stressing more the integration of Buddhist concepts and theories with Western psychology and therapy.
When Shakyamuni Buddha lived on this planet over 2500 years ago, he transmitted dharma to the many disciples who followed him. After the Buddha’s Parinivana, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, Venerable Mahakasyapa, became the head of the sangha and presided over the First Great Council at Rajagrha that was held to codify the Buddha’s teachings. He was known for his accomplishments in the dharma.
Ananda, the Buddha’s younger cousin and known as “the assistant who heard much,” became the second patriarch in this lineage after Mahakasyapa passed away. As a condition for becoming the Buddha’s attendant, a position he held for 24 years, Ananda requested no preferential treatment and that the Buddha repeat for him any teachings he might miss. He was gifted with total recall and at the First Great Council repeated all of the Buddha’s teachings from memory. His recitation became the basis for the Sutras in the Tripitaka. When Guru Padmasambhava reincarnated eight years after Shakyamuni Buddha left this world, it was Venerable Ananda who transmitted the special dharma that Shakyamuni instructed him to transmit.
The sangha divided into many sects based on different interpretations and emphasis. The main split was between what became known as the Sravakayana (or Path of the Arhats) and Mahayana (or Path of the Bodhisattvas) Vehicles. Of the eighteen or so lessor vehicle sects, only the Theravada School has survived. This is the dominant form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Today there are over 100 million Theravada Buddhist worldwide with a growing number of temples and groups forming in the West as the people of Southeast Asia migrate to the West.
Many Westerners have also gone to Southeast Asia to study and have brought their own form of usually lay practice to the West, often referred to as Insight Meditation or vipassana. Theravada monasteries have developed in the U.S. that train western monastics, notably the Bhavana Society Forest Monastery and Meditation Center (Sri Lanka) in High View, West Virginia, and Abhayagiri (Fearless Mountain) Monastery (Thai) also in the forest monk tradition in Redwood Valley, California.