“Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism”

Recently a colleague asked me to read his intriguing paper that I anticipate will be well-received when it is published, but one issue I had was the use of the term “pre-Mahāyāna”. A few weeks later, a MA student asked me to read over his thesis, in which he frequently used the term “Mainstream Buddhism”.

These terms are basically employed to avoid using word “Hīnayāna”, which was originally a pejorative expression used in Indian Mahāyāna to refer to their opponents who, contrary to the superior bodhisattva path, merely sought arhatship. I feel, however, that “pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” are inadequate.

Here I would like to present my thoughts on the matter. This issue is actually relevant to East Asian Buddhism, too, and I'll address this point at the end.

The term “pre-Mahāyāna” is problematic since this assumes the relevant literature we presently possess, that apparently postdates Mahāyāna literature, was, in fact, produced before the emergence of any Mahāyāna movement or its texts.

However, this is not necessarily the case, since the extant “Hīnayāna” canons date to the Common Era, around which time, if not earlier, Mahāyāna literature already existed. Let me quote some relevant remarks from Gregory Schopen:

We know too that the earliest source we have in an Indian language other than Pāḷi – and this, according to Norman, is a translation – appears to be the Gāndhārī Dharmapada, the manuscript of which may date to the second century C.E. Of our Sanskrit sources, almost all from Central Asia, probably none is earlier than the fifth century, and the Gilgit Manuscripts, which appear to contain fragments of an Ekottarāgama, are still later. Our Chinese sources do not really begin until the second half of the second century, and it is, in fact, probably not until we arrive at the translations of the Madhyamāgama and the Ekōttarāgama by Dharmanandin in the last quarter of the fourth century that we have the first datable sources which allow us to know – however imperfectly – the actual doctrinal content of at least some of the major divisions of the nikāya/āgama literature. It is from this period, then, from the end of the fourth century, that some of the doctrinal content of the Hīnayāna canonical literature can finally be definitely dated and actually verified. Not before.1

Mahāyāna literature was introduced into China alongside texts that would be later classified as “Hīnayāna”. This occurred even before the Chinese translation of the Āgamas. On the basis of the available evidence, it doesn't seem to me that you could say that “Hīnayāna” texts in their extant forms must predate the Mahāyāna. It seems fairer to suggest that both of these types of Buddhist literature in their earliest extant forms stem more or less from the same period. On that point, it is erroneous to suggest that the “Hīnayāna” constitutes a “pre-Mahāyāna” form of Buddhism.

I would agree that the content of “Hīnayāna” probably reflects early Buddhism better than anything in Mahāyāna literature, but the fact remains that the extant body of literature is not actually “pre-Mahāyāna”.

Some might suggest that modern Theravāda constitutes an example of “pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism” that is still active in the present day. According to the proponents of modern Theravāda, of course, their tradition is a true transmission of what apparently existed from the Buddha’s own lifetime twenty-five centuries ago, but this is an emic, not etic, view.

Southeast Asian Theravāda is not so ancient. Theravāda in Sri Lanka claims to be able to trace itself back to the time of Aśoka, and although you can find evidence to support the claim that Aśoka, in fact, transmitted some form of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, was that Buddhism really what would later designate itself as “Theravāda”?

Who defines "Buddhism"?
Again, the living tradition claims an unbroken lineage back to this early century, but then so do Mahāyānists (the latter also claims to have accounts from the time of the Buddha too). Why favor the claims of one Buddhist school over another? Theravāda’s history seems more realistic based on what we know at present, but religious orders don’t necessarily preserve reliable histories (the varying views about Devadatta among early Buddhist schools reflects this issue). Based on the extant literature mentioned above, Theravāda as a coherent lineage might not be much older than what we identify as early Mahāyāna.

With respect to “Mainstream Buddhism”, again I think we need to ask, “According to who? And when?” Buddhism had a long history in India. Sarvāstivāda might have been more mainstream than Mahāyāna for the first five to six centuries of the Common Era, but in the seventh century we see monks such as Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) and Yijing 義淨 (635–713) reporting on and also studying Mahāyāna subjects at the great monastery of Nālanda, around which time the fledgling project of Buddhist Tantra was underway. For the next five to six centuries, Mahāyāna-related traditions were clearly in the mainstream. Again, the idea of a “Mainstream Buddhism” as an alternative to “Hīnayāna” is problematic.

Are there any good solutions to the problem at hand? I'd like to suggest simply referring to texts as much as possible by their sectarian affiliations, at least where possible. Grouping Sarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika, for example, together under a single umbrella term such as “Śrāvakayāna” is problematic, since these two Buddhist lineages seem to have considered themselves mutually separate. They did not together constitute any sort of monolithic entity. Their views of who and what the Buddha was also differed considerably.

As Joseph Walser has discussed in Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, there is also evidence to suggest that Mahāsāṃghika, or some members of it, as well as some Dharmaguptakas, accepted or experimented with Mahāyāna ideas.2 On a related point, the bhikṣu ordination lineages in India were all based on explicitly non-Mahāyāna vinaya texts, and Mahāyāna monks, even elsewhere in Asia such as Tibet and China, still ordained via orthodox vinaya conventions (whether they actually followed the primary vinaya codes or not is a separate issue). In light of these points, an identification of a “Mainstream Buddhism” that ignores all the considerable overlap between Mahāyāna and everything else is based on a weak foundation.

Finally, with respect to East Asian Buddhism, I think that the labels Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna are suitable for the simple fact that this distinction was, and still is, observed by East Asian Buddhists. I used to think “Śrāvakayāna” might be more sensitive and proper when referring to non-Mahāyāna texts, but if you read Chinese Buddhism, the common and almost universal term employed is “small vehicle” 小乘, i.e., Hīnayāna.

This distinction was by no means merely scholastic: it directed authors and whole lineages away from texts considered Hīnayāna toward an entirely Mahāyāna-centered focus.

The predictable result was most things considered Hīnayāna seldom becoming influential in East Asia, which even includes the vinaya. Although there is indeed an enormous amount of vinaya literature translated into Chinese, with numerous relevant commentaries written by native East Asian monks, I am of the impression that the vinaya never actually strongly defined Buddhism anywhere in East Asia. It arguably still does not, despite the vinaya revivalism in post-WWII Chinese Buddhism (at least in Taiwan) and frequent calls for monastic discipline.

To sum up, I think the terms “Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” shouldn't be used. They are clearly problematic from both emic and etic perspectives. What do you think?


1 Gregory Schopen, “Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transference of Merit,” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2010), 25.


2 Joseph Walser, Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 50–52.