Nikaya Buddhism

Last updated

The term Nikāya Buddhism was coined by Masatoshi Nagatomi as a non-derogatory substitute for Hinayana, meaning the early Buddhist schools. [1] Examples of these groups are pre-sectarian Buddhism and the early Buddhist schools. Some scholars exclude pre-sectarian Buddhism when using the term. The term Theravada refers to Buddhist practices based on these early teachings, as preserved in the Pāli Canon.



Nikāya is a Pali word meaning "group" or "assemblage", referring to the collection of early Buddhist schools or non-Mahayana schools.

In Indian Buddhism


Early Buddhism in India is generally divided into various monastic fraternities, or nikāyas. Conventionally numbering eighteen, the actual count varied over time. The doctrinal orientation of each school differed somewhat, as did the number of piṭakas in their canon. An example of this is the Dharmaguptaka, which included a Bodhisattva Piṭaka and a Dhāraṇī Piṭaka. [2]

In the Mahāsāṃghika branch

The Mahāsāṃghika nikāyas generally advocated the transcendental and supramundane nature of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the fallibility of arhats. [3] Therefore, for the Mahāsāṃghikas, the bodhisattva ideal and buddhahood was advocated over the ideal of becoming an arhat. [4]

Avalokitavrata wrote of the Mahāsāṃghikas as using a "Great Āgama Piṭaka", which is then associated with Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Prajñāparamitā and the Ten Stages Sutra . [5] In the Caitika group of nikāyas, the Pūrvaśailas and the Aparaśailas each were known to have the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Prakrit. [6] Bhāvaviveka also wrote of the Siddhārthikas using a Vidyādhāra Piṭaka, and the Pūrvaśailas and Aparaśailas both using a Bodhisattva Piṭaka, implying organized collections of Mahāyāna texts within these Mahāsāṃghika nikāyas. [5]

In the Sthaviravāda branch

In the Sthavira nikāya, the Sarvāstivādins were a major nikāya. The Sarvāstivādin Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra is known to employ the outlook of Buddhist practice as consisting of three vehicles: Śrāvakayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna, and Bodhisattvayāna. [7] References to the Bodhisattvayāna and the practice of the Six pāramitās are commonly found in Sarvāstivāda works as well. [8]

The Theravada sect from Sri Lanka generally accepts the three vehicles, but categorizes these as three different types of bodhi, or enlightenment. [9] The Theravada nikaya only uses the Pāli Canon, which has three piṭakas, and does not contain separate literature for bodhisattvas. [9] Walpola Rahula writes of this, "At the end of a religious ceremony or an act of piety, the bhikkhu who gives benedictions, usually admonishes the congregation to make a resolution to attain Nirvana by realising one of the three Bodhis - Sravakabodhi, Pratyekabodhi or Samyaksambodhi - as they wish according to their capacity." [9]

Relationship to Mahāyāna

Jan Nattier writes that there is also no evidence that Mahāyāna ever referred to a separate formal school or sect of Buddhism, but rather that it existed as a certain set of ideals, and later doctrines, for bodhisattvas. [10] Paul Williams has similarly noted that the Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate vinaya or ordination lineage from the Indian nikāyas, and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to one of these nikāyas. [11] This continues today with the Dharmaguptaka nikāya in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya in Tibetan Buddhism. [11]

"Hinayana" and Nikaya Buddhism

Many commentors on Buddhism have used the term Hīnayāna to refer to Nikāya Buddhism. However, that term is now generally seen as flawed:

According to Robert Thurman, the term "Nikāya Buddhism" was coined by Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University, as a way to avoid the usage of the term Hinayana. [12] "Nikaya Buddhism" is thus an attempt to find a more neutral way of referring to Buddhists who follow one of the early Buddhist schools, and their practice.

The term Śrāvakayāna (literally, "hearer vehicle" or "disciples' vehicle") is also sometimes used for the same purpose. Other terms that have been used in similar senses include sectarian Buddhism or conservative Buddhism. Note that nikāya is also a term used in Theravāda Buddhism to refer to a subschool or subsect within Theravada.

Like the term Hinayana Buddhism, the term Nikāya Buddhism focuses on the presumed commonality between the schools, and not on the actual schools themselves. This commonality is thought to be found in a certain attitude. The term "Nikāya Buddhism" tries to shift the attention to the more neutral issue of attitude concerning the authenticity of scriptures.

A concise analysis by the Tibetan Buddhist, Reginald Ray, summarises the mistaken and confusing use of the term "Hīnayāna" to refer to any contemporary extant schools:

"Hīnayāna" refers to a critical but strictly limited set of views, practices, and results. The pre-Mahāyāna historical traditions such as the Theravāda are far richer, more complex, and more profound than the definition of "Hīnayāna" would allow. ... The term "Hīnayāna" is thus a stereotype that is useful in talking about a particular stage on the Tibetan Buddhist path, but it is really not appropriate to assume that the Tibetan definition of Hīnayāna identifies a venerable living tradition as the Theravāda or any other historical school[.] [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

Bodhisattva Any person who is on the path towards Buddhahood but has not yet attained it

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is any person who is on the path towards Buddhahood.

Hīnayāna is a Sanskrit term literally meaning the "small/deficient vehicle". Classical Chinese and Tibetan teachers translate it as "smaller vehicle". The term is applied collectively to the Śrāvakayāna and Pratyekabuddhayāna paths.

The Vinaya is the division of the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka) containing the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community, or Sangha. Three parallel Vinaya traditions remain in use by modern monastic communities: the Theravada, Mulasarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka. In addition to these Vinaya traditions, Vinaya texts of several extinct schools of Indian Buddhism are preserved in the Tibetan and East Asian canons, including those of the Kāśyapīya, the Mahāsāṃghika, the Mahīśāsaka, and the Sarvāstivāda

Nikāya is a Pāli word meaning "volume". It is often used like the Sanskrit word āgama to mean "collection", "assemblage", "class" or "group" in both Pāḷi and Sanskrit. It is most commonly used in reference to the Pali Buddhist texts of the Tripitaka namely those found in the Sutta Piṭaka. It is also used to refer to monastic lineages, where it is sometimes translated as a 'monastic fraternity'.

Yāna refers to a mode or method of spiritual practice in Buddhism. They were all taught by the Gautama Buddha in response to the various capacities of individuals. On an outwardly conventional level, the teachings and practices may appear contradictory, but ultimately they all have the same goal.

Buddhist texts Historic literature and religious texts of Buddhism

Buddhist texts are those religious texts which belong to the Buddhist tradition. The earliest Buddhist texts were not committed to writing until some centuries after the death of Gautama Buddha. The oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts are the Gandhāran Buddhist texts, found in Afghanistan and written in Gāndhārī, they date from the first century BCE to the third century CE. The first Buddhist texts were initially passed on orally by Buddhist monastics, but were later written down and composed as manuscripts in various Indo-Aryan languages and collected into various Buddhist Canons. These were then translated into other languages such as Buddhist Chinese and Classical Tibetan as Buddhism spread outside of India.

Schools of Buddhism Institutional and doctrinal divisions of Buddhism

The schools of Buddhism are the various institutional and doctrinal divisions of Buddhism that have existed from ancient times up to the present. The classification and nature of various doctrinal, philosophical or cultural facets of the schools of Buddhism is vague and has been interpreted in many different ways, often due to the sheer number of different sects, subsects, movements, etc. that have made up or currently make up the whole of Buddhist traditions. The sectarian and conceptual divisions of Buddhist thought are part of the modern framework of Buddhist studies, as well as comparative religion in Asia.

Early Buddhist schools Schools previously known as Ezhuthupally later became into which the Buddhist monastic saṅgha initially split

The early Buddhist schools are those schools into which the Buddhist monastic saṅgha split early in the history of Buddhism. The divisions were originally due to differences in Vinaya and later also due to doctrinal differences and geographical separation of groups of monks.

The Sthavira nikāya was one of the early Buddhist schools. They split from the majority Mahāsāṃghikas at the time of the Second Buddhist council.

Śrāvakayāna Buddhist term referring to a vehicle to enlightenment available to disciples of a Buddha

Śrāvakayāna is one of the three yānas known to Indian Buddhism. It translates literally as the "vehicle of listeners [i.e. disciples]". Historically it was the most common term used by Mahāyāna Buddhist texts to describe one hypothetical path to enlightenment. Śrāvakayāna is the path that meets the goals of an Arhat—an individual who achieves liberation as a result of listening to the teachings of a Samyaksaṃbuddha. A Buddha who achieved enlightenment through Śrāvakayāna is called a Śrāvakabuddha, as distinguished from a Samyaksaṃbuddha or Pratyekabuddha.

Mahāsāṃghika early Buddhist school

The Mahāsāṃghika was one of the early Buddhist schools. Interest in the origins of the Mahāsāṃghika school lies in the fact that their Vinaya recension appears in several ways to represent an older redaction overall. Many scholars also look to the Mahāsāṃghika branch for the initial development of Mahayana Buddhism.


The Ekavyāvahārika was one of the early Buddhist schools, and is thought to have separated from the Mahāsāṃghika sect during the reign of Aśoka.

Caitika early Buddhist school

Caitika was an early Buddhist school, a sub-sect of the Mahāsāṃghika. They were also known as the Caityaka sect.

Dharmaguptaka early Buddhist school

The Dharmaguptaka are one of the eighteen or twenty early Buddhist schools, depending on the source. They are said to have originated from another sect, the Mahīśāsakas. The Dharmaguptakas had a prominent role in early Central Asian and Chinese Buddhism, and their Prātimokṣa are still in effect in East Asian countries to this day, including China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. They are one of three surviving Vinaya lineages, along with that of the Theravāda and the Mūlasarvāstivāda.

Āgama (Buddhism) Collection of early Buddhist Texts

In Buddhism, an āgama is a collection of Early Buddhist Texts.

The Pratimokṣa is a list of rules governing the behaviour of Buddhist monastics. Prati means "towards" and mokṣa means "liberation" from cyclic existence (saṃsāra).

The Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra is an ancient Buddhist text. It is thought to have been authored around 150 CE. It is an encyclopedic work on Abhidharma, scholastic Buddhist philosophy. Its composition led to the founding of a new school of thought, called Vaibhāṣika, which was very influential in the history of Buddhist thought and practice.

<i>Arhat</i> In Buddhism, one who has achieved nirvana

In Buddhism, an arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant (Pali) is one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana. Mahayana Buddhist traditions have used the term for people far advanced along the path of Enlightenment, but who may not have reached full Buddhahood.

<i>Tripiṭaka</i> Buddhist canonical collection

Tripiṭaka or Tipiṭaka, meaning "Triple Basket", is the traditional term for ancient collections of Buddhist sacred scriptures.

Mahayana Branch of Buddhism

Mahāyāna is a term for a broad group of Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices. Mahāyāna Buddhism developed in India and is considered one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism. Mahāyāna accepts the main scriptures and teachings of early Buddhism, but also adds various new doctrines and texts such as the Mahāyāna Sūtras and its emphasis on the bodhisattva path and Prajñāpāramitā. Vajrayāna or Mantra traditions are a subset of Mahāyāna, which make use of numerous tantric methods considered to be faster and more powerful at achieving Buddhahood by Vajrayānists.


  1. Robert Thurman and Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University: "'Nikaya Buddhism' is a coinage of Professor Masatoshi Nagatomi of Harvard University who suggested it to me as a usage for the eighteen schools of Indian Buddhism, to avoid the term 'Hinayana Buddhism,' which is found offensive by some members of the Theravada tradition."Thurman, Robert (1981). "The emptiness that is compassion: an essay on Buddhist ethics". Religious Traditions. 4: fn 10.
  2. Baruah 2000, p. 52.
  3. Baruah 2000, p. 48.
  4. Padma 2008, p. 56.
  5. 1 2 Walser 2012, p. 53.
  6. Xing 2004, p. 66.
  7. Nakamura 1987, p. 189.
  8. Baruah 2000, p. 456.
  9. 1 2 3 "Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism". Access to Insight. Archived from the original on March 18, 2011. Retrieved 2011-02-20.
  10. Nattier 2003, p. 193-4.
  11. 1 2 Williams 2008, p. 4-5.
  12. Thurman, Robert (1981). "The emptiness that is compassion: an essay on Buddhist ethics". Religious Traditions. 4: fn 10.
  13. Ray 2002, p. 240.