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History of the Buddhist Schools

The First Council
Three months after the passing of Gautama Buddha, The First Council was held at Rajagaha by his immediate disciples who had attained Arahantship (Enlightenment). Maha Kassapa, the most respected and elderly monk, presided at the Council. Only two sections the Dhamma and the Vinaya were recited at the First Council. All Arahants unanimously agree that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones should be introduced. At this point, no conflict about what the Buddha taught is known to have occurred, so the teachings were divided into various parts and each was assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory. These groups of people often cross-checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.

The Second Council
At the Second Council, one hundred years later, it was not the dharma that was called into question but the monks' code of rules or vinaya. This resulted in the formation of the Sthaviravadin and Mahasanghika schools. Opinions differ on the cause of the split: the Sthaviravadins described their opponents as lax monks who had ceased to follow all the vinaya rules, while the Mahasanghikas argued that the Buddha had never intended a rigid adherence to all the minor rules. Apart from Pali sources, an important independent account of this split is found in the Shariputra-pariprccha (The Enquiry of Shariputra), an eclectic text of Indic origin, which differs radically from the received Theravadin version. According to this version, the Mahasanghikas were not the defeated party, but the conservative party that preserved the original vinaya unchanged against the reformist attempts of the Sthaviras to establish a reorganized and stricter version.

However, after this initial division, more were to follow. Schism in early Buddhism was typically not on points of doctrine (orthodoxy), but in the area of practice (orthopraxy). So if two schools shared a vinaya, but were in dispute over doctrinal matters, it was likely that they would continue to practice together. However, if one group disputed the vinaya of another, this would often prevent common practice.

3rd Century BCE
In the 3rd century BCE, Theravadin sources state that a Third Council was convened under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka, but since no mention of this council is found in other sources and because of various implausible features in this account, most scholars treat the historicity of this Third Council with skepticism although it is generally accepted that one or several disputes did occur during Asoka's reign, involving both doctrinal and vinaya matters, although these are likely to have been too informal to be called a Council.

However, according to the Theravadin account, this Council was convened primarily for the purpose of establishing an official orthodoxy. At the council, small groups raised questions about the specifics of the vinaya and the interpretation of doctrine. The chairman of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu, which was meant to refute these arguments. The council sided with Moggaliputta and his version of Buddhism as orthodox; it was then adopted by Emperor Ashoka as his empire's official religion. This school of thought was termed Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis". The version of the scriptures that had been established at the Third Council, including the vinaya, sutta and the abhidhamma commentaries (collectively known as Tripitaka), was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka's son, the Venerable Mahinda. There it was eventually committed to writing in the Pali language. The Pali Canon remains the only complete set of Nikaya scriptures to survive, although fragments of other versions exist.

Whatever might be the truth behind the Theravadin account, it was around the time of Asoka that further divisions began to occur within the Buddhist movement and a number of additional schools emerged, including the Sarvastivada and the Sammitiya. All of these early schools of Nikayan Buddhism eventually came to be known collectively as the Eighteen Schools in later sources. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Theravada, none of early these schools survived beyond the late medieval period by which time several were already long extinct, although a considerable amount of the canonical literature of some of these schools has survived, mainly in Chinese translation. Moreover,the origins of specifically Mahayana doctrines may be discerned in the teachings of some of these early schools, in particular in the Mahasanghika and the Sarvastivada.

1st Century CE
Between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, the terms Mahayana and Hinayana were first used in writing, in, for example, the Lotus Sutra.

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