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by D. Amarasiri Weeraratne

Upto the time of the 2nd Council 200 years after the Buddha, there were no sectarian divisions among Buddhist monks. The Buddha had permitted the Sangha to change minor rules after his demise, according to the wishes of the fraternity and by a majority decision. In pursuance of this concession, the monks of the Vajji country well known for its republican form of government called for the adoption of ten minor changes in the Vinaya rules.

The hard core orthodox and conservative monks headed by Revata and Sabbakami resisted these changes. Hence the conservative elders disallowed these changes. Consequently, the dissident monks broke away from the conservative elders (The Theras) and established the Mahasanghika Sect and held their own Sangha Council. Thus came about the first division in the Sangha. The Maha Sanghikas as their name implies constituted the majority of the Sangha. The Theras constituted a minority of hard core reactionaries who were opposed to an form of change.

Between the 2nd and 3rd Councils 236 years after the Buddha the Conservative Elders (The Theras) broke off into two sects, viz: Vibjjavadins and Sautrantikas. Almost simultaneously the Mahasangikas also broke off into a sect called Puggalavadin. (Believers in persons.) The Vibjjavadins broke off into three sects, one of which was the Theravada - the Buddhism we have in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos etc. Thus you will see that the Puggalavada Sect and the Theravada Sect were the earliest of the sectarian divisions in Buddhism.

Controversy on Abhidhamma The chief characteristic of the Puggalavada Sect was their rejection of the Abhidharma Pitaka as a teaching of the Buddha. They maintained that Abhidharma is apocryphal scripture cooked up by the Theravada Elders between the 2nd and 3rd Councils and adopted at the 3rd Council. The Puggalavadins as well as Sautranitikas rejected the Abhidharma Pitaka and had only 2 Pitakas viz: Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas.

In the Suttas the Buddha speaks of a person who fares on in Sansara, performs good and bad deeds and receives reward or distribution for them. In fact the entire Sutta Pitaka is based on the assumption that there is a person (puggala) who is subject to the sufferings in Sansara. The purpose of the Buddha-Dhamma is to eliminate this suffering and help them to attain Nirvana.

The Anatta concept The Abhidharma denies the existence of a person or an individual. It accepts only fleeting thought moments which arise and flash instantly. In this process there is no person or being. The Buddha taught the Suttas to men on earth, referring to a person. In the Abhidharma he is supposed to have preached to the gods in which he denies the existence of a person or an individual. In order to bridge the gulf of this inconsistency the Abhidharma scholars invented the theory of two truths. The Sutras are true in the conventional sense, and the Abhidharma is true in the ultimate sense which is the highest truth.

The Puggalavadins could not accept the theory that the Buddha had taught two kinds of truth. Nowhere had he done so. The Theravadins cannot quote from any part of the Sutras where he has taught that there are two truths called Sammuti and Paramartha. Thus they refuted this contention and asserted that the Abhidharma Pitaka is a fabrication and required another concoction to maintain its validity. It is with the help of this fabrication that Abhidharma scholars reconcile the inconsistency in the Sutra and Abhidharma teachings.

The Southern School of Buddhism Theravada Buddhism is Abhidharma oriented. All its commentaries and ancillary literature are written in a way to accommodate the Abhidarma. Ven. Buddhagosha asserted that the Abhidharma Pitaka is a teaching of the Buddha. But he himself admitted in the Atthasalini Commentary that there were ancient Sinhala Elders at Anuradhapura who challenged the validity of the Abhidharma Pitaka.

They pointed out that the Buddha had taught in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra that we should not accept teachings presented to us in his name if they are inconsistent with the Sutra and the Vinaya teachings. They also asserted that in the Anagatabhaya Sutra the Buddha envisaged a time when monks will cook up doctrines and scriptures not taught by him and present them as the Buddha-word. He admonished his followers to carefully compare such teachings with the Sutras and the Vinaya and accept them only if they are compatible and consistent.

Therefore Abhidharma being incompatible with the Sutra and Vinaya teaching was rejected by the Puggalawadins. The Sautrantika teachers too rejected the Abhidharma on the same grounds. The very name Sautrantika Sect means those who take only the Sutras as authoritative.

The controversy on Antarbhava They accepted Abhidharma only to the extent that it is found in seed form in the Sutras. Another important teaching of the Puggalavadins was the doctrine of Antarabhava. The interim spirit existence between one life and another. This was denied by the Therevadins who asserted that the acceptance of Antarabhava by the Puggalavadins was due to a misunderstanding of some passages of the Sutras. The Puggalavadins maintained their position and showed that the misinterpretation of key passages is the work of Abhidharma oriented Theravada teachers, who tried to cut and hack the Buddha-word to suit their Abhidharma-oriented views. Their teaching was that their was no person, or being, but a mere flux of fleeting thought moments which are impersonal. The Puggalavadins considered this a bovine folly.

Between the 2nd and 3rd Council, the Theravadins had compiled 7 Abhidharma books and asserted that except one other were the teachings of the Buddha preached in the Tavatismsa heaven to the gods. Not to be outdone the Sarvastivadin teachers also compiled 7 Abhidharma books and adopted them as their Abhidharma Pitaka. They were candid and frank enough to reveal the names of the authors of the books, unlike the Theravadins who took up the position that their 7 books contained preachings of the Buddha to the gods in the Tavatimsa heaven.

The common denominator But an examination of the two Abhidharma Pitakas show too many discrepancies whereas their Sutra and Vinaya Pitakas are similar. This is clear proof that the Abhidharma Pitaka was composed after the monks broke off into sects. The Puggalavadins taught that a person or a pudgala who performs good and bad deeds reaps the results and fares on in Sansara until the attainment of Nirvana. The Bharahara Surta was the favourite text of the Pudgalavadins. Therein Buddha said" Bhara have Panchakkhando, Bharaharo Ca Puggalo." This means the five aggregates are a burden, the puggala or person is the burden bearer.

Here clearly the Buddha distinguishes between the five groups of aggregates (skandas) and the person who bears them. But according to the Theravada Abhidharma the burden carries itself. There is no burden-bearer. This is what Buddhaghosha meant when he said in the Visuddhi Magga - the standard text of the Theravada - that" there is mere suffering but no sufferer exists". "There is the Noble Eightfold Path but no one traverses it". Buddhaghosha copied the idea from a verse in Nagarjuna’s Mula Madhyama Karika - his magnum opus in which he ennunciates his Madhyamika philosophy with its central doctrine of Sunyata - the void. According to this, the whole world and all its phenomena are mirage, a dream, an illusion or" a castle in the air" as Nagarjuna put it. This is the Hindu doctrine of Maya dressed up in a Buddhist garb.

The Puggalavadins taught that to deny the existence of a person is to bring down the whole edifice of the Buddha-Dharma. It is absurd to say that the burden carries itself, that mere suffering exists and there is no sufferer, or that the Path exists without anyone to tread the path. This is not Buddhism, it is the Buddhaghosha brand of Abhidharma Buddhism.

The self and no-self The Puggalavadins point out that if there are no beings, the practise of Metta would not be possible, Karma and Rebirth would be meaningless, without a person faring on in Sansara. Memories of previous lives, the preaching of the Satipattana Sutra for the purification of beings and overcoming their sufferings would be meaningless, if there is no person.

The Buddha said, "One person is born among men for the welfare and happiness of beings". Hundreds of such texts can be quoted from the Sutras. To deny a person in the ultimate sense (the highest truth) and accept him in a conventional sense is to talk with two tongues and dilute the truth of the Buddha-word. The Sutta Nipata says that "Buddhas have no two words." "Truth is one and not many". (Ekam hi saccam na dutiyamatthi). Two contrary truths is foreign to the Buddha’s teaching.

The chief difference between Puggalavada and Theravada comes with the acceptance and non-acceptance of the Abhidharma Pitaka as a teaching of the Buddha. Theravada is steeped in Abhidharma and is abhidharma oriented. The Puggala vadins have only two Pitakas namely Sutra and Vinaya Pitakas. The Puggalavadins took care not to use the word Atman or soul as is understood in Vedanta, i.e. an immutable self characterised by permanence, bliss and substance.

The Puggala of the Pudgalavadins is a self that is subject to impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and is not to be considered as the essence or core for those reasons. This appears to be a halfway house between the Vedantic soul and the no-soul doctrine of the Theravadins. The Buddha is neither an anatmavadi nor atmavadi.

The Puggalavadins teach that the puggala arises simultaneously with the five aggregates, is not within or outside them, but forms a structural unit with them.

It is the astral body, secondary body or bio-plasamabody of modern Para-psychological research. Its existence and verifiability has been vindicated by 150 years of Psychical Research in the West in which very eminent scientists have taken part. It is the mano-kaya or the Suttas.

If Buddhism is to be a practical religion of value to mankind, it must take into account and recognise the existence of persons or individuals - otherwise Buddhism falls flat and collapses like a pack of cards. When you deny a person, you have to deny the Buddha, his Dhamma and the Sangha. That reduces Buddhism to a force.

see also:Puggalavada and Theravada Buddhist teachings