Speaking of Theravada Buddhism, I've seen some authors conflating what we know now as Theravada with the whole Sthavira Nikaya / Sravakayana. So they would say that extinct Sravakayana schools like Sarvastivada - Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Vatsiputriya - Pudgalavada are a part of the Theravada Buddhism itself. But I honestly doubt this is the case. I think what we call as Theravada Buddhism nowadays (or perhaps we can call it "Tamraparniya") is the only remaining sect of Vibhajjavada (which itself is one of many sects of Sthavira Nikaya / Sravakayana). Its doctrines was only codified by Buddhaghosa during 5th century CE. Even before 12th century, Buddhism in Sri Lanka wasn't even uniform. We had Mahavihara monastery where the orthodox Sravakayanins were centered, then we had Abhyagiri monastery where the Mahayanins were centered. If I remember correctly, it was during 12th century, a Sri Lankan king unified Buddhism in Sri Lanka with the Mahavihara monastery as the lead of Sri Lankan Buddhism, and then its teachings spread to the Southeast Asian nations (i.e Myanmar, Thailand,etc.). Would it be correct & safe to say that Theravada Buddhism (as we know today) actually originated from Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya in Sri Lanka?

Thank you!

2 Answers 2


Please refer to the book called Sects and Sectarianism by Ven. Sujato. There's also info on Wikipedia.

Apparently, the Mahavihara monastery used to maintain its orthodox views and was less open to accepting new ideas from India, while Abhayagiri monastery was open to accepting visiting mainland scholars and their ideas, including Mahayanists. But Abhayagiri was not necessarily a Mahayana monastery. Abhayagiri studied both Theravada and Mahayana, according to Chinese scholars.

These monasteries had to compete with each other and with other monasteries for the attention of the monarch and the laity. It was basically for survival.

Ven. Buddhaghosa apparently came from North India and may not even be Theravadin in origin. He came to Sri Lanka apparently because he heard that the traditional commentaries are best preserved in Sri Lanka. Eventually he became an important figurehead in Theravada and became a revivalist.

Ven. Buddhaghosa compiled existing works and also wrote new works. The Visuddhimagga was his magnum opus. He was like the Adi Shankara of Theravada Buddhism. He was with Mahavihara.

The term "Theravada" means "the path of the elders". You can say it simply means "orthodox" or "original".

The school that Mahavihara belonged to, was the Tamraparniya branch of Vibhajjavada. Using the term "Theravada" was a way to show that Mahavihara carried the original and authentic teachings of Buddhism, sort of like the term "Catholic" (meaning universal) in "Catholic Church".

The Mahavihara wrote the Dipavamsa, which tried to portray Mahavihara as the one true successor of the original Sthavira sect of old. So Theravada=Mahavihara is a view peddled by Dipavamsa. But is it right? I think it is exaggerated.

It's pretty much like some people considering humans to have originated separately from other animals. It's simply not true. Current humans are those that survived, but humans have had many evolutionary siblings, cousins and ancestors.

Similarly, Theravada of today is simply the evolved version that survived and it's closely linked to Mahavihara, and also linked to Abhayagiri.

The term "Theravada" started like an honorific term to show originality and authenticity but has now been repurposed to become the name of the subsect of Vibhajjavada, that has now survived.

This is my impression from reading the relevant chapter of the book, and also some Wikipedia pages.


I think there are two types of Theravada:

  1. Whatever Theravada actually is.
  2. Mainstream cultural Theravada, which originated from Buddhaghosa and Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya in Sri Lanka.

Whatever Theravada actually is includes the Sutta Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, the Abhidhamma Pitaka and early treatise found in the Sutta Pitaka, such as the Patisambhiddhamagga.

In mainstream cultural Theravada, the Abhidhamma Pitaka and Patisambhiddhamagga are rarely studied & taught. This is probably because essential parts of them appear in conflict with Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga and also largely unrelated to the mass-market commentary called Abhidhammattha-Saṅgaha. For example, about the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the independent Australian scholar monk Sujato, who appears to share the Visuddhimagga view, said:

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons we know the “mind moment” AKA “one lifetime” theory of dependent origination is incorrect. In order to create such a theory, the Vibhanga had to change the text of the sutta. So the Vibhanga is, in essence, saying that the principle of dependent origination, which in the suttas deals with the rebirth of sentient beings, can also be abstracted out and applied in other contexts, such as the arising of phenomena in the moment, but to make that work we have to change certain terms and definitions. And of course that is quite correct. If we change things in DO, we can apply similar principles in other contexts. So long as we are clear, as the Vibhanga is, that that is not what the Suttas are talking about.


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