An Account of the Philsophical Schools of Buddhism

Honen, Pure Land Buddhism, Japan

Honen, Pure Land Buddhism, Japan

by Jayaram V

Prior to the emergence of Mahayana school and its expansion beyond the borders of the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism developed along many paths. After the passing away of the Buddha, for the next few centuries, several schools of Buddhism emerged in  in ancient India on account of differences in the interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha.

Although their total number was actually said to be 25 or 26, Buddhist tradition recognizes only 18 early schools formed between 5th century B.C.E and 4th century C.E. Of them presently the Theravada school only survives. The list of the 18 schools is provided below1

In the beginning there were only two schools, the Mahasanghikas and the Sthaviras. The former further split into

  1. Branch-Mahasanghikas
  2. Ekavyavaharins
  3. Lokottaravadins
  4. Bahusrutiyas
  5. Nityavadins
  6. Caityakas
  7. Purvasailikas
  8. Uttarasailikas

The Sthaviras were further split into

  1. Haimavatas
  2. Sarvastivadins
  3. Hetuvadins
  4. Vatsiputriyas
  5. Dharmadesakas
  6. Bhadrayanikas
  7. Sammitiyas
  8. Bahudesakas
  9. Dharmadesakas
  10. Bhadravarsikas

All the eighteen schools are grouped under Sravakayana branch of Hinayana (the smaller vehicle). In course of time there developed in Buddhism four major lines of thought namely the Vaibhasikas, the Sautrantikas, the Yogacaras and the Madhyamikas. The Vaibhasikas, who are also known as "existential dualists" interpreted existential reality in terms of experiential knowledge arising out of contact with substances, some of which they considered as transitory and some as eternal.

The Sautrantikas, who based their knowledge on the sutras,  distinguished reality into that which was real and existing and that which was real but non-existing. The acknowledged the existence of phenomenal world but considered it to be transient. The Yogacara school, which is also called the vijnanavada school, held the opinion that the whole world was an ideal. They argued that all phenomena existed because of consciousness and that the illusion of existence was a fabrication of the mind or consciousness alone.

The school recognized various levels or gradations within consciousness created by the activity of the senses and the mind. The Madhyamika philosophy was based on the original teachings of the Buddha and the middle path suggested by him. One of the chief proponents of this school was Nagarjuna whose interpretation  of reality borders on skepticism or agnosticism. This school had to major branches, the Svatantrikas and the Prasangikas.

Although there are essentially at present two major branches of Buddhism, namely Mahayana and Hinayana, Buddhism developed several local characteristics in each geographical area where it spread. Thus today Buddhism goes by several names such as Tibetan Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Cambodian Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism and so on.

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. This classification is based on the Buddhist Philosophy In Theory and Practice by Herbert V.Guenther 1971, Penguin Books

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