Bart Dessein

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online February 2013 | | DOI:

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Tradition starts the history of the Mahāsāṃghika (Mahāsāńgika/Mahasamghika/Mahasanghika) school of Buddhism with the so-called Buddhist Council of Vaiśālī (present-day Besarh in the northwest of Bihar state), held about a hundred years after the demise of Śākyamuni Buddha. This council is reported to have introduced the first schism in the Buddhist community, when the famous king Aśoka (reigned c. 270–c. 230 bce) intervened in a dispute among the monastics and decided in favor of the majority, whence the name “Mahāsāṃghika” (“Great Community,” Chinese name “dazhong bu,” 大眾部, as an alternative for the transliteration “Mohesengqi bu,” 摩訶僧祇部). The other group involved in the dispute became known as the Sthaviravādins (“the Elders”), of whom the present-day Theravādins are the only successors. In the course of time, along with the spread of the Mahāsāṃghikas over the Indian subcontinent, the school was the subject of a further dissemination. The presence of a variety of Mahāsāṃghika subgroups is attested by epigraphic evidence and is corroborated in Buddhist literature. Until the beginning of the common era, the Mahāsāṃghikas had their stronghold in the North. Starting from the 2nd century ce, the valley of the Kŗṣṇā River in Andhra Pradesh developed into a major center of different Mahāsāṃghika subschools. Apart from some textual materials belonging to the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda and Bahuśrutīya subgroups, the few extant texts are those preserved in Chinese translation. This textual evidence reveals that the northern groups had a much more divinized concept of a bodhisattva than the southern groups had. In the South, a more human description of the bodhisattva prevails. It is therefore not unlikely that the so-called “five points” of Mahādeva (who is in some accounts also mentioned with respect to the Council of Vaiśālī), which are depreciatory of the status of the arhat, played a decisive role in the formation of the southern subschools. It is likely that a more human concept of the arhat also encroached on the interpretation of the status of the bodhisattva and the attribution of divine characteristics to the Buddha only. The exalted status of the Buddha only, also helps to explain why the Andhra region witnessed the development of stūpa worship. Although the Mahāsāṃghikas no longer exist as a separate Buddhist school, their doctrinal and cultic developments have been important for the development of the Mahayana, the general name for what was originally known as “bodhisattvayāna.” The Mahāsāṃghikas have also been important for the development of tantric Buddhism. The very existence of Chinese textual sources related to the Mahāsāṃghikas attests the presence in China, at some point in history, of the Mahāsāṃghikas—or at least of Mahāsāṃghika texts.

Article.  11636 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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