Early Buddhism

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Gandhāran texts
Pali Canon


1st Council
2nd Council
3rd Council
4th Council


First Sangha
 ├ Ekavyāvahārika
 ├ Lokottaravāda
 ├ Bahuśrutīya
 ├ Prajñaptivāda
 └ Caitika
 ├ Mahīśāsaka
 ├ Dharmaguptaka
 ├ Kāśyapīya
 ├ Sarvāstivāda
 └ Vibhajyavāda
  └ Theravāda

The term Early Buddhism can refer to:

The period of Pre-sectarian Buddhism lasted until about 150 years after the death of Gautama Buddha. The various splits within the monastic organization went together with the introduction and emphasis on Abhidhammic literature by some schools. This literature was specific to each school, and arguments and disputes between the schools were often based on these Abhidhammic writings. However, actual splits were originally based on disagreements on vinaya (monastic discipline), though later on, by about 100 CE or earlier, they could be based on doctrinal disagreement.[1] Pre-sectarian Buddhism, however, did not have Abhidhammic scriptures, except perhaps for a basic framework, and not all of the early schools developed an Abhidhamma literature.

Several hundreds of years after the advent of Mahayana Buddhism (in the fifth century CE), the early Buddhist schools entered a period of decline in India, while Mahayana Buddhism became stronger. The seventh-century Chinese pilgirm Xuanzang reports, however, that non-Mahayana Buddhists continued to comprise a substantial majority of Buddhists in India at that time, and it is likely that this was the case right up to the end of Buddhism in India altogether.


Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)

  450 BCE[2] 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE[3]







Early Buddhist schools Mahāyāna Vajrayāna






Sri Lanka &
Southeast Asia


















East Asia


Early Buddhist schools
and Mahāyāna
(via the silk road
to China, and ocean
contact with India
to Vietnam)

Tángmì / Hànchuán Mìzōng





Thiền, Seon







Jōdo shū


Central Asia & Tarim Basin





Silk Road Buddhism


  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE
  Legend:   = Theravada   = Mahayana   = Vajrayana   = Various / syncretic

Common biases of research according to Bhikkhu Sujato[edit]

According to Bhikkhu Sujato, biases beset most commonly scholarly research on early Buddhism:

I find myself unable to accept many of the findings of the modern [researcher]s, any more than I could accept the traditions of the schools. It seems to me that much of the modern work, while it has accomplished a great deal, is hampered by the problems that bedevil Buddhist studies in general: uncritical acceptance of textual evidence over archeological findings; bias in favour of either the southern or the northern traditions; reliance on inaccurate or mistaken readings from secondary works and translations; simplistic and unrealistic notions of religious life in general and monastic life in particular; lack of understanding of the Vinaya; backreading of later situations into earlier times; and perhaps most importantly, a lack of appreciation of myth, so that 'historical' information is divorced from the mythic context that gave it meaning.[4]


  1. ^ Harvey,Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 74
  2. ^ Cousins, L.S. (1996); Buswell (2003), Vol. I, p. 82; and, Keown & Prebish (2004), p. 107. See also, Gombrich (1988/2002), p. 32: “…[T]he best we can say is that [the Buddha] was probably Enlightened between 550 and 450, more likely later rather than earlier."
  3. ^ Williams (2000, pp. 6-7) writes: "As a matter of fact Buddhism in mainland India itself had all but ceased to exist by the thirteenth century CE, although by that time it had spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia." Embree et al. (1958/1988), "Chronology," p. xxix: "c. 1000-1200: Buddhism disappears as [an] organized religious force in India." See also, Robinson & Johnson (1970/1982), pp. 100-1, 108 Fig. 1; and, Harvey (1990/2007), pp. 139-40.
  4. ^ Bhikku Sujato, Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools, 2006. p. 4