Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline

April 29, 2017; revised December 8, 2021

1. Degradation of Thēravada Buddha Dhamma occurred gradually over the past 1500 years. Still, two drastic changes took place during that time: (i) Buddhaghōsa’s introduction of Hindu meditation techniques 1500 years ago, (ii) misinterpretation of anicca and anatta by the European scholars when they translated both Tipiṭaka and Visuddhimagga to English in the late 1800s.

  • In several posts in this section, I will provide evidence for the above (see bullet #7 below).
  • I will discuss the historical timeline in this post, which is critical to the discussion. I have combined two previous posts, “Thēravada: Problems with Current Interpretations of Key Concepts” and “Historical Timelines of Buddha Dhamma and Sri Lanka – End of Sinhala Commentaries” (and removed them) to come with this more concise post.
  • As I explained in earlier posts in this section, much worse distortions to Buddha Dhamma were branching out of various sects based on Mahāyāna, Zen, and Tibetan (Vajrayāna). It started with the rise of Mahāyāna in India about 500 years after the Buddha. Here we are focusing only on Thēravada Buddha Dhamma.

2. Here, we look at the timeline of Thēravada Buddha Dhamma from the beginning and see whether we can discern when the pure Dhamma started going underground.  There are a few historical facts that most people agree on.

(BCE = Before Current Era, CE = Current Era = AD):

  • 563 – 483 BCE: Buddha Gotama
  • 377-307 BCE: The city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, was established by King Pandukabhaya. But there is evidence that human colonization in Sri Lanka goes back to at least 30,000 years; see the detailed article on Sri Lanka on Wikipedia:  Wikipedia:
  • 247 BCE: Buddha Dhamma was introduced to the Sinhala Kingdom in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka by Ven. Mahinda Thero.
  • 161-137 BCE: For the first time in history, King Dutugemunu united all of Sri Lanka under one kingdom.
  • 29 BCE: Tipiṭaka (the version recited at the Third Buddhist Council —Dhamma Sangayāna — around 247 BCE), was written down in Sri Lanka at the Fourth Sangayāna, which was the last Sangayāna attended by all Arahants. This is the Pāli Tipiṭaka that has survived to this date.
  • 100-200 CE: Ven. Maliyadeva, the Last Arahant with psychic powers by some accounts, lived in Sri Lanka: (However, it is likely that there have been “jāti Sotāpannas” who attained Arahanthood since then but may not be that many).
  • 100 BCE: It is likely that Mahāyāna Buddhism originated when the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras (the Prajñāpāramitā series,) along with texts concerning Akṣobhya Buddha, probably written in the 1st century BCE in the south of India:āyāna
  • 150-250 CE: Life of Nāgarjuna; considered the founder of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nāgarjuna’s central concept was the “emptiness” (shunyata) of all dhammas. The most influential work is Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way).

2. It is clear that the Pāli Tipiṭaka that we have today has the Buddha’s original teachings since Arahants wrote it down. However, Buddha Dhamma started to decline within 100-200 after being written down.

  • Still, there was no significant impact on Thēravada Buddhism up to the writing of Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghōsa around 450 CE.
  • The other major work that influenced Thēravada teachings to date was Abhidhammattha Sangaha by Acariya Anuruddha, who was there around the same time as Acariya Buddhaghōsa. However, since not many people are knowledgeable in Abhidhamma, it has not impacted Thēravada to the same extent as  Visuddhimagga.
  • By this time, a critical had already taken place. The Mahāyāna influence had successfully introduced two new words to the Sinhala language: අනිත්‍ය (aniyta) and අනාත්ම (anātma.) Those two words replaced the Sinhala words අනිච්ච (anicca) and අනත්ත (anatta); see #4 below. It is critical to note that many Pali words Like saṅkhāra and viññāna do not have separate Sinhala words, i.e., the exact words (සංඛාර and විඥ්ඥාන) appear in the Sinhala language.
  • Another critical development took place much later, in the late 1800s, when early European scholars started translating the Tipiṭaka to English. That was when the key Pāli terms anicca and anatta were incorrectly translated as impermanence and “no-self.” By that time, even in Theravada, anicca, and anatta had been established to be the same as Sanskrit words aniyta and anātma.

3. To first discuss the influence of Buddhaghōsa, let us look at the timeline of events that led to his visit to Sri Lanka roughly 950 years after the Parinibbana of the Buddha. Here is a timeline compiled by Bhikkhu Nyānamoli, taken from his introduction to Ref. 1 (see the references below).

King Devanampiyatissa (307-276 BCE):

  • The arrival of Ven. Mahinda in Anuradhapura and establishing Dhamma in the kingdom of King Devanampiyatissa.
  • Mahāvihāra monastery founded by Ven. Mahinda.

King Vattagamini (104-88 BCE):

  • Abhayagiri monastery was founded by the King and became separate from the Mahāvihāra monastery.
  • Sensing insecurity, Mahāvihāra monastery writes down Tipiṭaka (away from the royal capital).

King Bhatikabhaya (20 BCE-9 CE):

  • Public disputes started to break out between Abhayagiri and Mahāvihāra monasteries.

King Vasabha (66-110 CE):

  • Sinhala commentaries on Tipiṭaka ended being recorded at any time after his reign.

King Voharika-Tissa (215-237 CE):

  • King supports both Mahāvihāra and Abhayagiri monasteries.
  • Abhayagiri adopts Vetulya (Mahāyāna?) pitaka.
  • King suppresses Vetulya doctrines.

King Gothabhaya (254-267 CE):

  • King supports Mahāvihāra monastery.
  • 60 bhikkhus in Abhayagiri were banished by King for upholding Vetulya doctrines.
  • Indian Bhikkhu Sangamitta supports Abhayagiri monastery.

King Jettha-Tissa (267-277 CE):

  • King favors Mahāvihāra monastery; Sangamitta flees to India.

King Mahāsena (277-304 CE):

  • King supports Sangamitta, who returns from India.
  • Persecution of Mahāvihāra by King; its Bhikkhus are driven from the capital for 9 years.
  • Mahāvihāra (with its libraries of seven stories) burnt to the ground.
  • Sangamitta assasinated.
  • Rebuilding of Mahāvihāra.

King Sri Meghavaṇṇa (304-332 CE):

  • King favors Mahāvihāra.
  • Sinhala monastery was established at Buddha Gaya in India.

King Jettha-Tissa II (332-334 CE):

  • Dipavamsa composed.
  • Some of Buddhadatta Thera’s works.

King Mahānama (412-434 CE):

  • Buddhaghōsa arrives in Sri Lanka and composes Visuddhimagga and other works.

4. I really recommend reading the Introduction to the English translation of Visuddhimagga by Ven. Nyānamoli (Ref. 1). To quote Ven. Nyānamoli (starting on p. xxvii of Ref. 1):

“…Now by about the end of the first century B.C. E. (dates are very vague), with Sanskrit Buddhist literature just launching out upon its long era of magnificence, Sanskrit was on its way to becoming a language of international culture. In Ceylon, the Great monastery (Mahāvihāra), already committed by tradition to orthodoxy based on Pāli, had been confirmed in that attitude by the schism of its rival, which now began publicly to study the new ideas from India. ……In the first century C.E., Sanskrit Buddhism (“Hīnayāna,” and perhaps by then Mahāyāna) was growing rapidly and spreading abroad. The Abhayagiri monastery would naturally have been busy studying and advocating some of these weighty developments while the Mahāvihāra has nothing new to offer. …….King Vasabha’s reign (66-110 CE) seems to be the last mentioned in the Commentaries as we have them now, from which it may lie dormant, nothing further being added. Perhaps the Mahāvihāra, now living only on its past, was itself getting infected with heresies. ……in King Mahāsena’s reign (277-304 CE) things came to a head. With the persecution of Mahāvihāra with royal assent and the expulsion of its bhikkhus from the capital, the Abhayagiri monastery enjoyed nine years of triumph. But the ancient institution rallied its supporters in the Southern provinces and the king repented. The bhikkhus returned and the king restored the buildings, which had been stripped to adorn the rival”.

“Still, the Mahāvihāra must have foreseen, after this affair, that unless it could successfully compete with the “modern” Sanskrit in the field of international Buddhist culture by cultivating Pāli at home and aboard it could assure its position at home. It was a revolutionary project, involving the displacement of Sinhala by Pāli as the language for the study and discussion of Buddhist teachings, and the founding of a school of Pāli literary composition. ………It is not known what was the first original Pāli composition in this period; but the Dipavamsa (dealing with historical evidence) belongs here (for it ends with Mahāsena’s reign and is quoted in the Samantapasadika, and quite possibly the Vimuttimagga (dealing with practice), was another early attempt by the Mahāvihāra in this period (4th century) to reassert its supremacy through original Pāli literary composition”.

5. Here is another account of the destruction of the original Mahāvihāra during the reign of King Mahāsena (277-304 CE) from Ref. 2 (p. 46): “..the Mahā-vihāra, the Brazen Palace, and all such religious edifices, built by generosity of devout kings and pious noblemen for the use of the orthodox Saṅgha, were razed to the ground. Some three hundred and sixty-four colleges and great temples were uprooted and destroyed, says an ancient chronicle (nikaya-Sangraha, p.14), ..”.

6. Thus it is clear that the historical tradition of compiling Sinhala commentaries (on Tipiṭaka) was abandoned somewhere in the 4th century or even before that, and many of the original Sinhala Atthakatha could have been burnt when the original Mahāvihāra was burned. A concerted effort was initiated by the Mahāvihāra to compile literature in the Pāli language to counter the onslaught by Sanskrit Mahāyāna literature in India that was benefiting the Abhayagiri monastery. The appearance of Buddhaghōsa on the scene in the early fifth century accelerated this effort to compile Pāli literature.

  • More details can be found in the Mahāvamsa, the Pāli historical account of the history of Sri Lanka compiled in the 5th century (Ref. 3).
  • However, most accounts in the Mahāvamsa — especially regarding the history of Sri Lanka — are not correct. I will write a post on this issue later.
  • However, since Mahāvamsa was written around the time of Buddhaghōsa, it is possible that accounts about Buddhaghōsa may be correct.

7. In the next two posts, “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background” and “Buddhaghōsa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis“, I will discuss the events leading to Buddhaghōsa’s writing of Visuddhimagga, and how it introduced the first major contamination of Buddha Dhamma by incorporating Hindu vedic meditations — breath mediation and kasina mediation.

The second major contamination — which has been even more damaging — was the incorrect translation of anicca and anatta as impermanence and “no-self.” This is discussed in the last two posts: “Background on the Current Revival of Buddha Dhamma” and “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.


1. The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghōsa (translated by Bhikkhu Nyānamoli), BPS Edition, 1999. The Introduction (by Bhikkhu Nyānamoli) provides the historical background.

2. Pāli Literature of Ceylon, by G. P. Malasekara (Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, Delhi, 1928), 2010 edition.

3. The Mahāvamsa – The Great Chronicle of Lanka, by Wilhelm Geiger (1912).

 – සරල සිංහල මහාවංසය (Sinhala Translation of Mahāvamsa,  by Vijayasiri Vettamuni, (Sri Devi Printers, 2002; fourth printing 2013).

Next, “Buddhaghōsa and Visuddhimagga – Historical Background “.


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