For the origins of the Mahāyāna we must agree with Hirakawa that while some Mahāyāna doctrines are derived from the Mahāsāṃghika school, some others are derived from the Sarvāstivādin school. I would add that unless some other source can be pointed to, we may conclude that Mahāyāna Buddhism in its various forms, at least leaving out the special development of Tantrism, can be traced to either the Mahāsāṃghika or the Sarvāstivādin schools.
It is well recognized by Buddhologists that the Mahāsāṃghika sect arose by a schism from the previously undivided Buddhist saṃgha
in the second century after the Buddha's Nirvāṇa (A.N.), leaving the other part of the saṃgha
to be called Sthavira. As to precisely when the schism occurred, there was a difference of opinion as to whether it happened as a result of the Second Buddhist Council (about 110 A.N.) over a laxity of Vinaya rules by some monks, or happened later in the century (137 A.N.) over the five theses about Arhats and which occasioned a 'Third Buddhist Council' sponsored by the Kings Nanda and Mahāpadma. There were some other possibilities, as summarized by Nattier and Prebish, who conclude that the schism occurred 116 A.N. over Vinaya rules, while the argument over Arhat attainment provoked a further split within the already existing Mahāsāṃghika sect. It is immaterial for our purposes whether the 'five theses of Mahādeva' downgrading the Arhat occasioned the schism between the Mahāsāṃghikas and the Sthaviras, or whether this downgrading was an internal argument within the Mahāsāṃghika. What is important here is that the downgrading of the Arhat continued into a Mahāyāna scripture called the Śrīmālā-sūtra
, and that the five theses are a characteristic of the Mahāsāṃghika, to wit: 1. Arhats are tempted by others, 2. they still have ignorance, 3. they still have doubt, 4. they are liberated by others; and 5. the path is accompanied by utterance. The fifth of these seems explainable by other Mahāsāṃghika tenets, in Bareau's listing: No. 58 'morality is not mental'; No. 59 'morality does not follow upon thought'; No. 60 'virtue caused by a vow increases'; No. 61 'candor (vijñapti
) is virtue'; No. 62 'reticence (avijñapti
) is immoral.'
Part I of this paper attempts to relate the Śrīmālā-sūtra
and the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine to the Mahāsaṃnghika school. Part II discusses the terms dharmatā
so as to expose an ancient quarrel. (Wayman, introduction, 35–36)
1. Akira Hirakawa, "The Rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism and its Relationship to the Worship of Stupas," Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko, No. 22, Tokyo, 1963, p. 57.
2. Janice J. Nattier and Charles S. Prebish, "Mahāsaṃghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism," History of Religions, 16:3, Feb., 1977, pp. 237, ff.
3. André Bareau, Les sectes bouddhiques du Petit Véhicule (École Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1955), Chapitre I 'Les Mahâsânghika', pp. 55–74.