The name Theravāda comes from the ancestral Sthāvirīya, one of the early Buddhist schools, from which the Theravadins claim descent. After unsuccessfully trying to modify the Vinaya, a small group of “elderly members”, i.e. sthaviras, broke away from the majority Mahāsāṃghika during the Second Buddhist council, giving rise to the Sthavira sect. According to its own accounts, the Theravāda school is fundamentally derived from the Vibhajjavāda “doctrine of analysis” grouping, which was a division of the Sthāvirīya.
Buddhists from the Indian mainland appear originally to have regarded the Buddhists of Laṅkā as simply the ‘Laṅkā school’, thus Vasubandhu writing in the fourth century cites the notion of the bhavāṅga-vijñāna of the Tāmraparṇīya-nikāya as a forerunner of the ālaya-vijñāna. But beginning with Yijing’s account of his travels in India (671–695 ce ) and Vinītadeva’s eighth-century summary of the divisions of the Buddhist schools (Samaya-bhedoparacana- cakra-nikāya-bhedopadarśana-cakra), we find north Indian sources describing the Buddhist Saṅgha as comprising four nikāyas: (1) the Mahāsāṃghikas, (2) the Sthāviras, (3) the Sarvāstivādins, and (4) the Saṃmatīyas. Significantly, the Sthāviras in turn comprise three sub-nikāyas: the Jetavanīyas, the Abhayagirivāsins, and the Mahāvihāravāsins. The Buddhists of Laṅkā are thus no longer regarded as the ‘Laṅkā school’, they are the Sthāviras, despite the fact that both the Sarvāstivādins and the Saṃmatīyas were also understood as tracing their lineage to the Sthāvira side of the original split with the Mahāsāṃghikas. The reason for referring to the three Buddhist nikāyas of Laṅkā as the Sthāviras is probably not so much a recognition of an exclusive claim to be the authentic theravāda, as a reflection of the simple fact that the Laṅkā schools alone of the various Sthāvira schools continued to refer to themselves as theriya or theravāda in certain contexts.
According to Damien Keown, there is no historical evidence that the Theravāda school arose until around two centuries after the Great Schism which occurred at the Third Council. Theravadin accounts of its own origins mention that it received the teachings that were agreed upon during the putative Third Buddhist council under the patronage of the Indian Emperor Ashoka around 250 BCE. These teachings were known as the Vibhajjavada. Emperor Ashoka is supposed to have assisted in purifying the sangha by expelling monks who failed to agree to the terms of Third Council. The elder monk Moggaliputta-Tissa was at the head of the Third council and compiled the Kathavatthu (“Points of Controversy”), a refutation of various opposing views which is an important work in the Theravada Abhidhamma.
Later, the Vibhajjavādins in turn is said to have split into four groups: the Mahīśāsaka, Kāśyapīya, Dharmaguptaka, and the Tāmraparṇīya.
Transmission to Sri Lanka
Sanghamitta and the Bodhi Tree
Mihintale, the traditional location of Devanampiya Tissa’s conversion.
The Theravāda is said to be descended from the Tāmraparṇīya sect, which means “the Sri Lankan lineage”. Missionaries sent abroad from India are said to have included Ashoka’s son Mahinda (who studied under Moggaliputta-Tissa) and his daughter Sanghamitta, and they were the mythical founders of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, a story which scholars suggest helps to legitimize Theravāda’s claims of being the oldest and most authentic school. According to the Mahavamsa chronicle their arrival in Sri Lanka is said to have been during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura (307 BCE to 267 BCE) who converted to Buddhism and helped build the first Buddhist stupas. According to S.D. Bandaranayake:
“The rapid spread of Buddhism and the emergence of an extensive organization of the sangha are closely linked with the secular authority of the central state…There are no known artistic or architectural remains from this epoch except for the cave dwellings of the monks, reflecting the growth and spread of the new religion. The most distinctive features of this phase and virtually the only contemporary historical material, are the numerous Brahmi inscriptions associated with these caves. They record gifts to the sangha, significantly by householders and chiefs rather than by kings. The Buddhist religion itself does not seem to have established undisputed authority until the reigns of Dutthagamani and Vattagamani (ca mid-2nd century BCE to mid-1st century BCE)…”
The first records of Buddha images come from the reign of king Vasabha (65-109 BCE), and after the 3rd century AD the historical record shows a growth of the worship of Buddha images as well as Bodhisattvas.
In the 7th century, the Chinese pilgrim monks Xuanzang and Yijing refer to the Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka as Shàngzuòbù (Chinese: 上座部), corresponding to the Sanskrit Sthavira nikāya and Pali Thera Nikāya. Yijing writes, “In Sri Lanka the Sthavira school alone flourishes; the Mahasanghikas are expelled”.
The school has been using the name Theravāda for itself in a written form since at least the 4th century, about one thousand years after the Buddha’s death, when the term appears in the Dīpavaṁsa.
According to Buddhist scholar A. K. Warder, the Theravāda
… spread rapidly south from Avanti into Maharashtra and Andhra and down to the Chola country (Kanchi), as well as Sri Lanka. For some time they maintained themselves in Avanti as well as in their new territories, but gradually they tended to regroup themselves in the south, the Great Vihara (Mahavihara) in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, becoming the main centre of their tradition, Kanchi a secondary center and the northern regions apparently relinquished to other schools.
Between the reigns of Sena I (833-853) and Mahinda IV (956-972), the city of Anuradhapura saw a “colossal building effort” by various kings during a long period of peace and prosperity, the great part of the present architectural remains in this city date from this period.
Pali textual tradition
Main article: Pali literature
Buddhaghosa (c. 5th century), the most important Abhidharma scholar of Theravāda Buddhism, presenting three copies of the Visuddhimagga.
The Sri Lankan Buddhist Sangha initially preserved the Buddhist scriptures (the Tipitaka) orally as it had been traditionally done, however during the first century BCE, famine and wars led to the writing down of these scriptures. The Sri Lankan chronicle The Mahavamsa records:
“Formerly clever monks preserved the text of the Canon and its commentaries orally, but then, when they saw the disastrous state of living beings, they came together and had it written down in books, that the doctrine might long survive.
According to Richard Gombrich this is “the earliest record we have of Buddhist scriptures being committed to writing anywhere.” The Theravada Pali texts which have survived (with only a few exceptions) are derived from the Mahavihara (monastic complex) of Anuradhapura, the ancient Sri Lankan capital.
Later developments included the formation and recording of the Theravada commentary literature (Atthakatha). The Theravada tradition records that even during the early days of Mahinda, there was already a tradition of Indian commentaries on the scriptures. Prior to the writing of the classic Theravada Pali commentaries, there were also various commentaries on the Tipitaka written in the Sinhalese language, such as the Maha-atthakatha (“Great commentary”), the main commentary tradition of the Mahavihara monks.
Of great importance to the commentary tradition is the work of the great Theravada scholastic Buddhaghosa (4-5th century CE), who is responsible for most of the Theravada commentary literature that has survived (any older commentaries have been lost). Buddhaghosa wrote in Pali, and after him, most Sri Lankan Buddhist scholastics did as well. This allowed the Sri Lankan tradition to become more international through a lingua franca so as to converse with monks in India and later Southeast Asia.
Theravada monks also produced other Pali literature such as historical chronicles (e.g. Mahavamsa), hagiographies, practice manuals, summaries, textbooks, poetry and Abhidhamma works such as the Abhidhammattha-sangaha and the Abhidhammavatara. Buddhaghosa’s work on Abhidhamma and Buddhist practice outlined in works such as the Visuddhimagga and the Atthasalini are the most influential texts apart from the Pali Canon texts themselves in the Theravada tradition. Other Theravada Pali commentators and writers include Dhammapala and Buddhadatta. Dhammapala wrote commentaries on the Pali Canon texts which Buddhaghosa had omitted and also wrote a commentary called the Paramathamanjusa on Buddhaghosa’s great manual, the Visuddhimagga.
Over much of the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, three subdivisions of Theravāda existed in Sri Lanka, consisting of the monks of the Mahāvihāra, Abhayagiri vihāra and Jetavana. The Mahāvihāra was the first tradition to be established, while Abhayagiri Vihāra and Jetavana Vihāra were established by monks who had broken away from the Mahāvihāra tradition. According to A.K. Warder, the Indian Mahīśāsaka sect also established itself in Sri Lanka alongside the Theravāda, into which they were later absorbed. Northern regions of Sri Lanka also seem to have been ceded to sects from India at certain times.
Buddha painting in Dambulla cave temple in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist cave-temple complex was established as a Buddhist Monastery in the 3rd century BCE. Caves were converted into a temple in the 1st century BCE.
When the Chinese monk Faxian visited the island in the early 5th century, he noted 5000 monks at Abhayagiri, 3000 at the Mahāvihāra, and 2000 at the Cetiyapabbatavihāra.
The Mahavihara (“Great Monastery”) school became dominant in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 2nd millennium CE and gradually spread through mainland Southeast Asia. It was established in Myanmar in the late 11th century, in Thailand in the 13th and early 14th centuries, and in Cambodia and Laos by the end of the 14th century. Although Mahavihara never completely replaced other schools in Southeast Asia, it received special favor at most royal courts. This is due to the support it received from local elites, who exerted a very strong religious and social influence.
Theravada, a group of monks who disagreed with the Mahavihara way, decided to rebel and form their own alliance group. Mahavihara was essential to Theravada, because it was in fact the center of Theravada Buddhism. It was responsible for the development of Sri Lankan people, based off their religious beliefs and acceptable lifestyle. In the religious sense of Theravada, there are no further subdivisions, if Mahavihara does not cease to exist.