The Mūlasarvāstivāda was one of the early Buddhist schools of India. Although various theories exist, the origins of the Mūlasarvāstivāda and their connection to the Sarvāstivāda sect remain largely unknown.
The continuity of the Mūlasarvāstivāda religious order remains in Tibetan Buddhism. Although only Mūlasarvāstivādin bhikṣus (monks) existed: the bhikṣuṇī order had never been introduced.
History of Mūlasarvāstivāda
The relationship of the Mūlasarvāstivāda to the Sarvāstivāda school is a matter of dispute. Modern scholars favor classifying them as an independent. Yijing insisted that they derived their name from being a branch of Sarvāstivāda, while Buton Rinchen Drub insisted that the name was a tribute to Sarvāstivāda as the “root” (mūla) of all Buddhist schools.
Several theories have been set 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.
According to Gregory Schopen, the Mūlasarvāstivāda formed during the 2nd century AD and went into decline in India by the 7th century.
In Central Asia
The Mūlasarvāstivāda remained common at times throughout Central Asia due to missionary activities offered in the region. Several scholars recognize three distinct major phases of missionary activities seen in the history of Buddhism in Central Asia:
In the 7th century, Yijing writes that the Mūlasarvāstivāda were prominent everywhere in the kingdom of Śrīvijaya (modern-day Indonesia). Yijing stayed in Śrīvijaya for six to seven years, during which time he studied Sanskrit and translated Sanskrit texts into Chinese.
Yijing asserts that the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was almost universally adopted in this area. He writes that the subjects examined, as well as the rules and ceremonies, were essentially the same in this region as they were in India.
Yijing described these islands as generally “Hīnayāna” in orientation but writes that the Melayu Kingdom included Mahāyāna teachings such as Asaṅga’s Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra.
Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya lineage
The Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya is one of three surviving Vinaya lineages, along with the Dharmaguptaka and Theravāda. The Tibetan Emperor Ralpacan limited Buddhist order to the Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya. As Mongolian Buddhism was introduced from Tibet, Mongolian ordination follows this rule as well.
The Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya is extant in Tibetan (9th-century translation) and Chinese (8th-century translation), and to some extent in the original Sanskrit.
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