Early Buddhism

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Gandharan texts
Pali Canon


1st Council
2nd Council
3rd Council
4th Council


First Sangha
 ├ Ekavyahāraka
 ├ Lokottaravāda
 ├ Bahuśrutīya
 ├ Prajñaptivāda
 └ Caitika
 ├ Mahīśāsaka
 ├ Dharmaguptaka
 ├ Kāśyapīya
 ├ Sarvāstivāda
 └ Vibhajyavāda
  └ Theravāda

The term Early Buddhism can refer to:

The period of Pre-sectarian Buddhism lasted until about 100 years after the death of Gautama Buddha. The various splits within the monastic organization went together with the introduction and emphasis on Abhidhammic literature by some schools. This literature was specific to each school, and arguments and disputes between the schools were often based on these Abhidhammic writings. However, actual splits were originally based on disagreements on vinaya (monastic discipline), though later on, by about 100 CE or earlier, they could be based on doctrinal disagreement.[1] Pre-sectarian Buddhism, however, did not have Abhidhammic scriptures, except perhaps for a basic framework, and not all of the early schools developed an Abhidhamma literature.

Several hundreds of years after the advent of Mahayana Buddhism (in the fifth century CE), the early Buddhist schools entered a period of decline in India, while Mahayana Buddhism became stronger. The seventh century Chinese pilgirm Xuanzang reports, however, that non-Mahayana Buddhists continued to comprise a substantial majority of Buddhists in India at that time, and it is likely that this was the case right up to the end of Buddhism in India altogether.

Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)

 450 BCE[2]250 BCE100 CE500 CE700 CE800 CE1200 CE[3]







Early Buddhist schoolsMahayanaVajrayana






Sri Lanka &
Southeast Asia

 Theravada Buddhism






Central Asia




Tibetan Buddhism


Silk Road Buddhism


East Asia

 Chán, Tiantai, Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren




 450 BCE250 BCE100 CE500 CE700 CE800 CE1200 CE
 Legend: = Theravada tradition = Mahayana traditions = Vajrayana traditions


  1. ^ Harvey,Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 74
  2. ^ Cousins, L.S. (1996); Buswell (2003), Vol. I, p. 82; and, Keown & Prebish (2004), p. 107. See also, Gombrich (1988/2002), p. 32: “…[T]he best we can say is that [the Buddha] was probably Enlightened between 550 and 450, more likely later rather than earlier."
  3. ^ Williams (2000, pp. 6-7) writes: "As a matter of fact Buddhism in mainland India itself had all but ceased to exist by the thirteenth century CE, although by that time it had spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia." Embree et al. (1958/1988), "Chronology," p. xxix: "c. 1000-1200: Buddhism disappears as [an] organized religious force in India." See also, Robinson & Johnson (1970/1982), pp. 100-1, 108 Fig. 1; and, Harvey (1990/2007), pp. 139-40.