1. Origin and Spread of the Buddha’s Doctrine

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1 | Origin and Spread of the Buddha’s Doctrine

NOT ALL PEOPLE think alike. They have different needs, interests, and dispositions in almost every area of life, including religion. As a skillful teacher, the Buddha gave various teachings to correspond to the variety of sentient beings. We’re going to look at the development of the two major Buddhist traditions containing these teachings, the Pāli and Sanskrit traditions.1 But first, we begin with the life story of Śākyamuni Buddha.


In the view common to both traditions, Siddhārtha Gautama, a prince from the Śākya clan, was born and grew up near what is now the India-Nepal border in the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. As a child, he had a kind heart and excelled in the arts and studies of his time. He lived a sheltered life in the palace during his early years, but as a young man he ventured out beyond the palace walls. In the town, he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse, prompting him to reflect on the suffering nature of life. Seeing a wandering mendicant, he considered the possibility of liberation from saṃsāra. And so, at age twenty-nine, he left the palace, shed his royal attire, and adopted the lifestyle of a wandering mendicant.

He studied with the great teachers of his time and mastered their meditation techniques but discovered they did not lead to liberation. For six years he pursued severe ascetic practices in the forest, but realizing that torturing the body doesn’t tame the mind, he adopted the middle way of keeping the body healthy for the sake of spiritual practice without indulging in unnecessary comforts.


Sitting under the bodhi tree in what is present-day Bodhgaya, India, he vowed not to arise until he had attained full awakening. On the full moon of the fourth lunar month, he finished the process of cleansing his mind of all obscurations and developing all good qualities, and he became a fully awakened buddha (sammāsambuddha, samyaksaṃbuddha). Thirty-five years old at the time, he spent the next forty-five years teaching what he had discovered through his own experience to whoever came to hear.

The Buddha taught men and women from all social classes, races, and ages. Many of those chose to relinquish the householder’s life and adopt the monastic life, and thus the saṅgha community was born. As his followers attained realizations and became skilled teachers, they shared with others what they had learned, spreading the teachings throughout ancient India. In subsequent centuries, the Buddhadharma spread south to Sri Lanka; west into present-day Afghanistan; northeast to China, Korea, and Japan; southeast to Southeast Asia and Indonesia; and north to Central Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. In recent years, many Dharma centers have opened in Europe, the Americas, the former Soviet republics, Australia, and Africa.

I feel a deep connection to Gautama Buddha as well as profound gratitude for his teachings and for the example of his life. He had insights into the workings of the mind that were previously unknown. He taught that our outlook impacts our experience and that our experiences of suffering and happiness are not thrust upon us by others but are a product of the ignorance and afflictions in our minds. Liberation and full awakening are likewise states of mind, not the external environment.


Vehicle and path are synonymous. While they are sometimes used to refer to a progressive set of spiritual practices, technically speaking they refer to a wisdom consciousness conjoined with uncontrived renunciation.


The Buddha turned the Dharma wheel, setting forth practices of three vehicles: the Hearer Vehicle (Sāvakayāna, Śrāvakayāna), the Solitary Realizer Vehicle (Paccekabuddhayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna), and the Bodhisattva Vehicle (Bodhisattayāna, Bodhisattvayāna). According to the Sanskrit tradition, the three vehicles are differentiated in terms of their motivation to attain a specific goal, their principal meditation object, and the amount of merit and time necessary to attain their goals. Teachings and practitioners of all three vehicles exist in both the Pāli and Sanskrit traditions. In general, those practicing the Hearer Vehicle principally follow the Pāli tradition, and those practicing the Bodhisattva Vehicle principally follow the Sanskrit tradition. Nowadays in our world, hardly anyone follows the Solitary Realizer Vehicle.

The Buddha’s teaching spread widely in India in the centuries after the Buddha lived and was brought to Sri Lanka from India by King Aśoka’s son and daughter in the third century B.C.E. The early suttas were transmitted orally by the bhāṇakas—monastics whose job it was to memorize the suttas—and according to Sri Lankan sources, they were written down about the first century B.C.E. to form what is now the Pāli canon. Over the centuries, beginning in India and later augmented by Sinhala monks in the old Sinhala language, a body of commentaries on the scriptures built up. In the fifth century the great translator and commentator Buddhaghosa compiled the ancient commentaries and translated them into Pāli. He also wrote his famous masterwork the Visuddhimagga and numerous commentaries. Another South Indian monk, Dhammapāla, lived a century later and also wrote many commentaries in Pāli. Pāli is now the scriptural language uniting all Theravāda Buddhists.

Beginning in the first century B.C.E., the Sanskrit tradition came into view and gradually spread in India. Philosophical systems in India—Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra (a.k.a. Cittamātra or Vijñānavāda), and Madhyamaka—evolved as scholars developed divergent views on points not explained explicitly in the sūtras. Although many tenets of the Pāli tradition are shared with one or another of these four tenet systems, it cannot be equated with any of them.

Several monastic universities arose—Nālandā, Odantapuri, and Vikramaśīla—and there Buddhists from various traditions and philosophical schools studied and practiced together. Philosophical debate was a widespread ancient Indian custom; the losers were expected to convert to the winners’ schools. Buddhist sages developed logical arguments and reasonings to prove the validity of Buddhist doctrine and to deflect the philosophical attacks of non-Buddhists. The renowned Buddhist debaters were also great practitioners. Of course not all Buddhist practitioners were interested in this approach. Many preferred to study the sūtras or to practice meditation in hermitages.


Nowadays, three canons exist: the Pāli, Chinese, and Tibetan; a Sanskrit canon was not compiled in India. Each canon is divided into three “baskets” (piṭaka)—or categories of teachings—which are correlated with the three higher trainings. The Vinaya basket deals chiefly with monastic discipline, the Sūtra basket emphasizes meditative concentration, and the Abhidharma basket is mainly concerned with wisdom.

The Chinese canon was first published in 983, and several other renditions were published later. The standard edition used now is the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō, published in Tokyo in 1934. It consists of four parts: sūtras, vinaya, śāstras (treatises), and miscellaneous texts originally written in Chinese. The Chinese canon is very inclusive, sharing many texts with both the Pāli and Tibetan canons. In particular, the Āgamas in the Chinese canon correspond to the first four Nikāyas in the Pāli canon.

The Tibetan canon was redacted and codified by Buton Rinpoche in the fourteenth century. The first rendition of the Tibetan canon was published in 1411 in Beijing. Later editions were published in Tibet in Nartang in 1731–42 and later in Dergé and Choné. The Tibetan canon is composed of the Kangyur—the Buddha’s word in 108 volumes—and the Tengyur—the great Indian commentaries in 225 volumes. Most of these volumes were translated into Tibetan directly from Indian languages, chiefly Sanskrit, although a few were translated from Chinese and Central Asian languages.


Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, China, and Southeast Asia many centuries before coming to Tibet. As our elder brothers and sisters, I pay respect to you.

Modern-day Theravāda was derived from the Sthaviravāda, one of the eighteen schools in ancient India. The name Theravāda does not seem to have indicated a school in India prior to Buddhism having gone to Sri Lanka. The Sinhala historical chronicle Dīpavaṃsa used the name Theravāda in the fourth century to describe the Buddhists on the island. There were three Theravāda subgroups, each with a monastery bearing its name: Abhayagiri (Dharmaruci), Mahāvihāra, and Jetavana. Abhayagiri Theravādins had close connections with India and brought in many Sanskrit elements. The Jetavanins did this as well, but to a lesser extent, while the Mahāvihārins maintained the orthodox Theravāda teachings. In the twelfth century the king abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana traditions and amalgamated those monks with the Mahāvihāra, which has since remained prominent.

Buddhism suffered greatly after the Sri Lankan capital fell to the Coḷa forces in 1017. The bhikkhu and bhikkhunī orders were destroyed, although the bhikkhu order was restored when the Sri Lankan king invited monks from Burma to come and give the ordination. The Buddhadhamma thrived once again in Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka came to be seen as the center of the Theravāda world. When the state of Theravāda teachings or its ordination lineages in one country were adversely affected, leaders would request monks from another Theravāda country to come and give ordination. This has continued up to the present day...

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