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The traditions of Tibetan Buddhism traditionally follow the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya


Gandhāran texts
Pāli Canon


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


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

The Sarvāstivāda (Sanskrit; Chinese: 說一切有部; pinyin: Shuō Yīqièyǒu Bù) were an early school of Buddhism that held to the existence of all dharmas in the past, present and future, the "three times". Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya states, "He who affirms the existence of the dharmas of the three time periods [past, present and future] is held to be a Sarvāstivādin."[1]

The Sarvāstivādins were one of the most influential Buddhist monastic groups, flourishing throughout Northwest India, Northern India, and Central Asia. The Sarvāstivādins are believed to have given rise to the Mūlasarvāstivāda sect, although the relationship between these two groups has not yet been fully determined.


  • Name 1
  • Origination and history 2
    • Origins 2.1
    • Early history 2.2
  • Appearance and language 3
    • Appearance 3.1
    • Language 3.2
  • Doctrinal systems 4
    • Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika 4.1
    • The Three Vehicles 4.2
    • Views on the Buddha 4.3
    • Views on arhats 4.4
    • Views on bodhisattvas 4.5
  • Canon 5
    • Vinaya 5.1
    • Āgamas 5.2
    • Abhidharma 5.3
  • Relationship to Mahāyāna 6
  • Relationship to Mūlasarvāstivāda 7
  • Details of philosophy 8
  • References 9
    • Bibliography 9.1


Sarvāstivāda is a Sanskrit term that can be glossed as: "the theory of all exists". Although there is some dispute over how the word "Sarvāstivāda" is to be analyzed, the general consensus is that it is to be parsed into three parts: sarva "all" or "every" + asti "exist" + vada "speak", "say" or "theory". This equates perfectly with the Chinese term, Shuōyīqièyǒu bù (Chinese: 說一切有部),[2] which is literally "the sect that speaks of the existence of everything," as used by Xuanzang and other translators.

Origination and history


According to some accounts, the Sarvāstivādins emerged from the Sthavira nikāya.

Regarding the origins of the Sarvāstivāda, Charles Prebish writes:

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the rise and early development of the Sarvāstivādin school. On the one hand, we have the tradition of Asoka’s council, stating that the schismatic group in the Sangha was expelled from Magadha, migrating to northwestern India and evolving into the Sarvāstivādin school. On the other hand, we have the attempts of several scholars to ascribe the rise of the school to one of Asoka’s missions—that sending Majjhantika to Gandhara, an early seat of the school. This episode corresponds well with one Sarvāstivādin tradition stating that Madhyantika (the Sanskrit counterpart of the Pali Majjhantika) converted the city of Kasmir, which seems to have close ties with Gandhara. Still another tradition established a community of Sarvāstivādin monks at Mathura, founded by the patriarch Upagupta. Be that as it may, until the reign of King Kanishka, around the turn of the Christian era, the history of the school is at best sketchy.[3]

Early history

The Sarvāstivāda enjoyed the patronage of Kanishka, during which time they were greatly strengthened, and became one of the dominant sects of Buddhism for the next thousand years.[3]

In Central Asia, several Buddhist monastic groups were historically prevalent. A number of scholars have identified three distinct major phases of missionary activity seen in the history of Buddhism in Central Asia, which are associated with the following sects, chronologically:[4]

  1. Dharmaguptaka
  2. Sarvāstivāda
  3. Mūlasarvāstivāda

Appearance and language


Between 148 and 170 CE, the Parthian monk An Shigao came to China and translated a work which described the color of monastic robes (Skt. kāṣāya) utitized in five major Indian Buddhist sects, called Da Biqiu Sanqian Weiyi (大比丘三千威儀).[5] Another text translated at a later date, the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, contains a very similar passage with nearly the same information.[5] In the earlier source, the Sarvāstivāda are described as wearing dark red robes, while the Dharmaguptaka are described as wearing black robes.[6] However, in the corresponding passage found in the later Śāriputraparipṛcchā, the Sarvāstivāda are described as wearing black robes and the Dharmaguptaka as wearing dark red robes.[6] In traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, which follow the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, red robes are regarded as characteristic of their tradition.[7]


The Tibetan historian Buton Rinchen Drub wrote that the Mahāsāṃghikas used Prākrit, the Sarvāstivādins used Sanskrit, the Sthavira nikāya used Paiśācī, and the Saṃmitīya used Apabhraṃśa.[8]

Doctrinal systems

Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika

The Sarvāstivāda comprised two subschools, the Vaibhāṣika and the Sautrāntika. Pioneering work on the subject was undertaken by Ch. Willemen in 1975, and more recently in 2006 (Abhidharmahṛdaya) and in 2008 in the Journal of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies (Tokyo). The Vaibhāṣika was formed by adherents of the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra, comprising the orthodox Kasmiri branch of the Sarvāstivāda school. The Vaibhāśika-Sarvāstivāda, which had by far the most "comprehensive edifice of doctrinal systematics" of the early Buddhist schools,[9] was widely influential in India and beyond.[10]

In contrast to the Vaibhāṣikas, the Sautrāntika Sarvāstivādins did not uphold the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra, but rather emphasized the Buddhist sūtras. The name Sautrāntika means "those who uphold the sūtras." According to the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, the Sautrāntikas held the doctrine that there may be many contemporaneous buddhas.[11]

The Three Vehicles

Regarding divisions of practice, the Vaibhāṣika Sarvāstivādins are known to have employed the outlook of Buddhist practice as consisting of the Three Vehicles:[12]

  1. Śrāvakayāna
  2. Pratyekabuddhayāna
  3. Bodhisattvayāna

Views on the Buddha

Sarvāstivādins viewed the Buddha's physical body (Skt. rūpakāya) as being impure and improper for taking refuge in, and they instead regarded taking refuge in the Buddha as taking refuge in the Dharmakāya of the Buddha.[13]

Some people say that to take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in the body of the Tathāgata, which comprises head, neck, stomach, back, hands and feet. It is explained that the body, born of father and mother, is composed of defiled dharmas, and therefore is not a source of refuge. The refuge is the Buddha's fully accomplished qualities (aśaikṣadharmāḥ) which comprise bodhi and the dharmakāya.

Views on arhats

According to A.K. Warder, the Sarvāstivādins held the same position as the Mahāsāṃghika branch regarding arhats, considering them to be imperfect and fallible.[14] In the Sarvāstivādin Nāgadatta Sūtra, the Mahīśāsaka view of women is criticized in a narrative about a bhikṣuṇī named Nāgadatta. Here, the demon Māra takes the form of her father, and tries to convince her to work toward the lower stage of an arhat, rather than that of a fully enlightened buddha (Skt. samyaksambuddha).[15]

Māra therefore took the disguise of Nāgadatta's father and said thus to Nāgadatta: "Your thought is too serious. Buddhahood is too difficult to attain. It takes a hundred thousand nayutas of koṭis of kalpas to become a Buddha. Since few people attain Buddhahood in this world, why don't you attain Arhatship? For the experience of Arhatship is the same as that of nirvāṇa; moreover, it is easy to attain Arhatship...."

In her reply, Nāgadatta rejects arhatship as a lower path, saying, "A Buddha's wisdom is like empty space of the ten-quarters, which can enlighten innumerable people. But an Arhat's wisdom is inferior."[15]

Views on bodhisattvas

Regarding divisions of practice, the Mahāvibhāṣā is known to employ the outlook of Buddhist practice as consisting of the Three Vehicles.[12] The Sarvāstivādins also did not hold that it was impossible, or even impractical to strive to become a fully enlightened buddha (Skt. samyaksaṃbuddha), and therefore they admitted the path of a bodhisattva as a valid one.[16] References to Bodhisattvayāna and the practice of the Six Pāramitās are commonly found in Sarvāstivāda works as well.[17]

The Mahāvibhāṣā of the Vaibhāṣika Sarvāstivādins includes a schema of four pāramitās: generosity (dāna), discipline (śīla), energy (vīrya), and wisdom (prajñā), and it says that the four pāramitās and six pāramitās are essentially equivalent.[18]

Foreign teachers hold that there are six pāramitās, adding patience (kṣānti) and meditation (dhyāna). But the teachers of Kaśmīra say that the last two are included in the first four. Patience is included in discipline and meditation in intuitive knowledge; they are accomplished upon completion of discipline and wisdom.



The Dharmaguptaka are known to have rejected the authority of the Sarvāstivāda pratimokṣa rules on the grounds that the original teachings of the Buddha had been lost.[19]

The complete Sarvāstivāda Vinaya is extant in the Chinese Buddhist canon. In its early history, the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya was the most common vinaya tradition in China. However, Chinese Buddhism later settled on the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. In the 7th century, Yijing wrote that in eastern China, most people followed the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, while the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya was used in earlier times in Guanzhong (the region around Chang'an), and that the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya was prominent in the Yangzi River area and further south.[20] In the 7th century, the existence of multiple Vinaya lineages throughout China was criticized by prominent Vinaya masters such as Yijing and Dao'an (654–717). In the early 8th century, Daoan gained the support of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang, and an imperial edict was issued that the saṃgha in China should use only the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya for ordination.[21]


Scholars at present have "a nearly complete collection of sūtras from the Sarvāstivāda school"[22] thanks to a recent discovery in Afghanistan of roughly two-thirds of the Dīrgha Āgama in Sanskrit. The Madhyama Āgama (T26, Chinese trans. Gotama Saṅghadeva) and Saṃyukta Āgama (T99, Chinese trans. Guṇabhadra) have long been available in Chinese translation. The Sarvāstivāda is therefore the only early school besides the Theravada for which we have a roughly complete sutra collection, although unlike the Theravada it has not all been preserved in the original language.


The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma consists of seven texts. The texts of the Sarvāstivādin Abhidharma are:

Following these, are the texts that became the authority of the Vaibhāṣika:

Sarvāstivādin meditation teachers also worked on the Dhyāna sutras (Chinese: 禪經), a group of early Buddhist meditation texts which were translated into Chinese and became influential in the development of Chinese Buddhist meditation methods.

All of these works have been translated into Chinese, and are now part of the Chinese Buddhist canon.

Relationship to Mahāyāna

The Sarvāstivādins of Kāśmīra held the Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra as authoritative, and thus were given the moniker of being Vaibhāṣikas. The Mahāvibhāṣā is thought to have been authored around 150 CE, around the time of Kaniṣka (127–151 CE) of the Kuṣāṇa Empire.[23] This massive treatise of Abhidharma (200 fascicles in Chinese) contains a great deal of material with what appear to be strong affinities to Mahāyāna doctrines.[24] The Mahāvibhāṣā is also said to illustrate the accommodations reached between the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna traditions, as well as the means by which Mahāyāna doctrines would become accepted.[25] The Mahāvibhāṣā also defines the Mahāyāna sūtras and the role in their Buddhist canon. Here they are described as Vaipulya doctrines, with "Vaipulya" being a commonly used synonym for Mahāyāna. The Mahāvibhāṣā reads:[26]

What is the Vaipulya? It is said to be all the sūtras corresponding to elaborations on the meanings of the exceedingly profound dharmas.

According to a number of scholars, Mahāyāna Buddhism flourished during the time of the Kuṣāṇa Empire, and this is illustrated in the form of Mahāyāna influence on the Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra.[27] The Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa also records that Kaniṣka presided over the establishment of Prajñāpāramitā doctrines in the northwest of India.[28] Étienne Lamotte has also pointed out that a Sarvāstivāda master is known to have stated that the Mahāyāna Prajñā sūtras were to be found amongst their Vaipulya sūtras.[26] According to Paul Williams, the similarly massive Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra also has a clear association with the Vaibhāṣika Sarvāstivādins.[29]

Relationship to Mūlasarvāstivāda

A number of theories have been posited by academics as to how the two are related, which Bhikkhu Sujato summaries as follows:

The uncertainty around this school has led to a number of hypotheses. Frauwallner’s theory holds that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya is the disciplinary code of an early Buddhist community based in Mathura, which was quite independent in its establishment as a monastic community from the Sarvāstivādins of Kaśmir (although of course this does not mean that they were different in terms of doctrine). Lamotte, opposing Frauwallner, asserts that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was a late Kaśmīr compilation made to complete the Sarvāstivādin Vinaya. Warder suggests that the Mūlasarvāstivādins were a later development of the Sarvāstivāda, whose main innovations were literary, the compilation of the large Vinaya and the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna Sūtra, which kept the early doctrines but brought the style up to date with contemporary literary developments. Enomoto pulls the rug out from all these theories by asserting that Sarvāstivādin and Mūlasarvāstivādin are really the same. Meanwhile, Willemen, Dessein, and Cox have developed the theory that the Sautrantikas, a branch or tendency within the Sarvāstivādin group of schools, emerged in Gandhāra and Bactria around 200 CE. Although they were the earlier group, they temporarily lost ground to the Kaśmīr Vaibhāśika school due to the political influence of Kaṇiṣka. In later years the Sautrantikas became known as Mūlasarvāstivādins and regained the ascendancy. I have elsewhere given my reasons for disagreeing with the theories of Enomoto and Willemen et al. Neither Warder nor Lamotte give sufficient evidence to back up their theories. We are left with Frauwallner’s theory, which in this respect has stood the test of time.[30]

Details of philosophy

Though the Sarvāstivādins would themselves claim that their teaching of 'all exists' (sarvasti) is a direct teaching of the Buddha himself, as shown by their attributing the earliest abhidharma texts to direct disciples of the Buddha, notably to Sariputra and constant reference to the sutras throughout, the school in its entirety is more rightly to be considered as part of the age of scholastic Buddhism. It was the most influential school in the northwestern part of India. In a Chinese context, the word abhidharma refers to the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma, although at a minimum the Dharmaguptaka, Pudgalavada and Theravada also had abhidharmas.

During the first century BC, in the Gandharan cultural area (consisting of Oddiyana, Gandhara and Bactria, Tokharistan, across the Khyber Pass), the sthaviriyas used Gandhari to write their literature in the Kharoṣṭhī script. During this time, the Sarvāstivāda abhidharma primarily consisted of the Abhidharmahrdaya authored by Dharmashresthin, a native from Tokharistan, and the Ashtagrantha authored/compiled by Katyayaniputra. Both texts were translated by Samghadeva in 391 AD and in 183 AD. respectively, but they were not completed until 390 in Southern China.

Although the sarvastitva was the central thesis, there were different theories on how 'sarvam' and even 'asti' were actually to be explained and understood among the Gandharan diverse Sarvāstivādins. Vasubandhu’s Koshabhasya, an elaborate yoga manual based on the Hrdaya, describes four main theses on sarvasti:

There are four types of Sarvāstivādins accordingly as they teach a difference in existence (bhavanyathatva), a difference in characteristic (laksananyathatva), a difference in condition (avasthanyathatva), and mutual difference (anyonyathatva).

Later Sarvāstivāda takes a combination of the first and third theses as its model. It was on this basis that the school’s doctrines were defended in the face of growing external, and sometimes even internal, criticism.

The doctrines of Sarvāstivāda were not confined to 'all exists', but also include the theory of momentariness (ksanika), conjoining (samprayukta) and simultaneity (sahabhu), conditionality (hetu and pratyaya), the culmination of the spiritual path (marga), and others. These doctrines are all inter-connected and it is the principle of 'all exists' that is the axial doctrine holding the larger movement together when the precise details of other doctrines are at stake.

The Sarvāstivāda was also known by other names, particularly hetuvada and yuktivada. Hetuvada comes from hetu – 'cause', which indicates their emphasis on causation and conditionality. Yuktivada comes from yukti – 'reason' or even 'logic', which shows their use of rational argument and syllogism.

When the Sarvāstivāda school held a synod in Kashmir during the reign of Kanishka II (c. 158-176), the Gandharan most important text, the Astagrantha of Katyayaniputra was rewritten in Sanskrit making necessary revisions. This revised text was now known as Jnanaprasthana, Course of Knowledge. Though the Gandharan Astagrantha had many vibhasas, the new Kashmir Astagrantha i.e. the Jnanaprasthana had a Sanskrit Mahavibhasa, compiled by the Kashmir Sarvāstivāda synod. The Jnanaprasthana and its Mahavibhasa, which took more than a generation to complete, were then declared the Vaibhāṣika orthodoxy, said to be 'Buddha’s word', Buddhabhasita. This new Vaibhāṣika orthodoxy, however, was not readily accepted by the Gandharan Sarvāstivādins, though gradually they adapted their views to the new Kasmira orthodoxy. The Gandharan Sarvāstivādins used the same Vinaya from Mathura. As a matter of fact, their abhidharma was meant for meditational practices. They made use of the Hrdaya which is a manual for attaining arhat. However, the long Gandharan Vinaya was abridged to a Sanskrit Dashabhanavara in the Kashmir synod by removing the avadanas and jatakas, stories and illustrations. After the declaration of the Vaibhāṣika orthodoxy, the Gandharan non-vaibhasika Sarvāstivādins, the majority, were called Sautrantikas “those who uphold the sutras”.

Interestingly, the Kasmira orthodoxy, the Vaibhāṣikas disappeared in the later part of the 7th century. Subsequently, the old Gandharan Sarvāstivādins, the non-Vaibhāṣika Sautrantikas, were named Mūlasarvāstivādins, who then at a later date went to Tibet. It has been suggested that the minority Vaibhāṣikas were absorbed into the majority Sautrantika Sarvāstivādins as a possible result of the latter’s adaptations.

Moreover, Mishrakabhidharmahrdaya, a title which means that 'sautrantika views were mixed with Vaibhāṣika views' was composed by Dharmatrata in the 4th century in Gandharan area. Vasubandhu (ca.350-430), a native from Purusapura in Gandhara, composed his Kosa based on this text and the Astagrantha. While in Kasmira, he wrote his karikas which were well received there but he faced intense opposition, notably from Samghabhadra, a leading Sarvāstivāda pundit, when he composed his bhasya. By his bhasya, Vasubandhu made it clear to the Vaibhāṣikas that he was a sautrantika, which is why he was fiercely opposed by the Sarvāstivāda vaibhasikas in Kasmira.

In reply to Vasubhandhu’s bhasya, Samghabhadra wrote a text, the Nyayanusara 'according to reason'. This work is presently only extant in Chinese (from Xuanzang’s translation and little is known of it in English).

For a critical examination of the Sarvāstivādin interpretation of the Samyuktagama, see David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.[31] For a Sautrantika refutation of the Sarvāstivādin use of the Samyuktagama, see Theodore Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word Dharma.[32]


  1. ^ de La Vallée-Poussin 1990, p. 807.
  2. ^ Taisho 27, n1545
  3. ^ a b Buddhism: A Modern Perspective. Charles S. Prebish. Penn State Press: 1975. ISBN 0-271-01195-5 pg 42-43
  4. ^ Willemen, Charles. Dessein, Bart. Cox, Collett. Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism. 1997. p. 126
  5. ^ a b Hino, Shoun. Three Mountains and Seven Rivers. 2004. p. 55
  6. ^ a b Hino, Shoun. Three Mountains and Seven Rivers. 2004. pp. 55-56
  7. ^ Mohr, Thea. Tsedroen, Jampa. Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. 2010. p. 266
  8. ^ Yao 2012, p. 9.
  9. ^ "one does not find anywhere else a body of doctrine as organized or as complete as theirs" . . ."Indeed, no other competing schools have ever come close to building up such a comprehensive edifice of doctrinal systematics as the Vaibhāśika." The Sautrantika theory of seeds (bija ) revisited: With special reference to the ideological continuity between Vasubandhu's theory of seeds and its Srilata/Darstantika precedents by Park, Changhwan, PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, 2007 pg 2
  10. ^ A Study of the Abhidharmahṛdaya: The Historical Development of the Concept of Karma in the Sarvāstivāda Thought. PhD thesis by Wataru S. Ryose. University of Wisconsin-Madison: 1987 pg 3
  11. ^ Xing 2005, p. 66.
  12. ^ a b Nakamura 1980, p. 189.
  13. ^ Xing 2005, p. 49.
  14. ^ Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. p. 277
  15. ^ a b Kalupahana 2001, p. 109.
  16. ^ Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 457
  17. ^ Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 456
  18. ^ Xing 2005, p. 48.
  19. ^ Baruah, Bibhuti. Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism. 2008. p. 52
  20. ^ Mohr, Thea. Tsedroen, Jampa. Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. 2010. p. 187
  21. ^ Heirman, Ann. Bumbacher, Stephan Peter. The Spread of Buddhism. 2007. pp. 194-195
  22. ^ bad cite
  23. ^ Potter, Karl. Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.D. 1998. p. 112
  24. ^ Potter, Karl. Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.D. 1998. p. 117
  25. ^ Potter, Karl. Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.D. 1998. p. 111
  26. ^ a b Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. 2005. p. 156
  27. ^ Willemen, Charles. Dessein, Bart. Cox, Collett. Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism. 1997. p. 123
  28. ^ Ray, Reginald. Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations. 1999. p. 410
  29. ^ Williams, Paul, and Tribe, Anthony. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. 2000. p. 100
  30. ^ Sects & Sectarianism BETA: The origins of Buddhist Schools[1]
  31. ^ Kalupahana 1975, pp. 76-78.
  32. ^ Theodore Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism and the Meaning of the Word Dharma. Asian Educational Services, 2003, page 76. This is a reprint of a much earlier work and the analysis is now quite dated; the first appendix however contains translations of polemical materials.


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