Lack of Successor

In the Lecture Notes for Unit 9 it states:

"if there was a supreme leader representing the Buddha after his demise, he could have taken the decision to the satisfaction of all. It is quite obvious, that the first schism could not have happened if there was a supreme leader for the Order."

With all due respect to Prof. Dr. Kapila Abhayawansa, I do not see this is obvious and am interested in other perspectives.

My struggles are as follows:
1) Even without deferring to the oft suggested "omniscience of the Buddha," it would seem to me obvious that the Buddha could have and would have foreseen that a schism following His demise was a real possibility. Even the lecture notes remind us that the Dhamma and the Vinaya were set forth to provide for the guidance of the Sangha, even after the Parinibbana. Surely as the Buddha saw dissension within the Sangha during his lifetime, the lecture notes remind us of the dispute between the Dhammadharas and Vinayadharas as well as the intention at schism from Devadatta, he could imagine the situation going farther out of control after His demise. As one who understood the workings of paticcasamuppada, it would seem obvious that the Buddha could have foreseen the arising of disputes that could lead to schism.

2) Accepting - at least as I do - that the Buddha could have and likely did foresee the eventuality of schism within the order, several scenarios for why He would not have appointed a successor occur to me.
- To do so could later be seen to elevate an Arahant to a status equal to that of the Buddha. There is no canonical indication that any of the disciples had equaled the Buddha's attainments.
- To do so could elevate the status and interpretation of a single perspective - that of this leader - over the established tradition - also highlighted in the notes - of "freedom for further elaboration or interpretation of the teachings of the Buddha," which the notes further indicate that even the Buddha did not monopolize.
- To do so would by necessity create future difficulties and potentials for schism over the succession of this individual (we have many examples of this in both Christian and Islamic tradition in the West).
- To do so could more quickly foster schism as those in disagreement with the opinion and direction of the appointed successor could still break away, only now they could be considered to fall completely out of the fold of Buddhism.
- This possibility to me seems all the more likely with successive leaders. Where the initial successor would claim the right and authority derived from his direct appointment by the Buddha, the successors either would not possess this validity or would be at pains to establish how they actually did, potentially creating further grounds for schism.

In light of these last two points, I can imagine that the appointing of a successor could have led to more, deeper and more broad distinction and divisions within the Sangha that could have been far more detrimental than the scenario which He opted for - letting all be their own refuge, with the Dhamma and Vinaya as there guide.

One could also take the respectful and deferential perspective that the Buddha clearly knew best, simply by virtue of His being the Buddha.
But at the same time, because He was the Buddha, he invited us to evaluate for ourselves.

What do you think?
Was this an omission on the part of the Buddha?
Would the establishment of a successor have prevented the first schism?
Are there other points I've missed that would suggest that a successor would be more harmful that even I've indicated?


Lack of Successor

Etienne Lamotte (1958) in his “The History of Indian Buddhism” also gave the same view as Prof. Dr. Kapila Abhayawansa that Buddha left the order without a successor and sees this as a major factor contributing to the eventual collapse of unity of the Order and the formation of sects.

As Prof. Dr. Kapila also pointed out in his notes, dissensions among the members of the Order existed both before and after the passing away of the Buddha. These dissensions primarily centred around the vinaya rules. For examples, dissensions concerning Dhammadharas, Vinayadharas and Devatatta happened during the Buddha’s time, all based on matter of disciplinary rules. Then come the famous 2nd Buddhist Council whereby the Mahasanghikas were separated from Theriyas, this is after the demise of the Buddha.

So in my view, whether there was an appointment of a successor or not, disunity and purity of the sangha will be affected either way. I kind of agree with writer of this forum saying that the appointment of successor would probably quicken schism and having a much serious repercussion then without. As the motto says “Religions are pure and good, only the men who administer it make it adulterated and bad”.

Pei Wan's picture


In my opinion, Buddha realized that there is no need to have a successor. All the Buddhist practitioners are practicing and meditating for the good and well of all the being. The establishment of successor may not help in this as this will become an attachment. Attachment will prevent the accumulation of merit and knowledge since the people will think as a self. This is what the Buddha hope not to happen.

Christopher Anthony Leibow's picture

I think you make some good

I think you make some good points. We can look at other traditions and see that schism come even with strong leaders or leaders with supposed direct lineages back to the founder. It also may have made the earlier tradition less adaptable as it spread.

Lack of Successor

I have also given some thought on this issue. I will try to use a parable which I thought of, and would welcome any comments on this.

Buddha have given us the Dharma, and the path. I would use the analogy of a someone teaching us to make cheesecake. Although he has taught us the method on making the cheesecake, if there are very strict rules that everyone attempting to make a cheesecake must follow a very strict recipe, and anything else is considered wrong, then we will be left with only one plain flavour.

However, the intent and the main steps making the cheesecake is maintained, but one has the freedom to develop into the multitude of flavour and types of cheesecakes, such as blueberry, orange, chocolate etc. Does that mean that it is wrong? I believe is allows more flavours, that will suit a bigger audience and making cheesecakes more popular. There are no one type that is correct, and no one recipe (or person in this analogy) will be absolutely true.

The diverse nature and the development have led to the growth and spread of cheesecakes (and this case, Buddhism).

P.S. A simplistic analogy which may be incorrect. Any comments are appreciated.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Practice vs. Attainment

I think this is a helpful analogy for practice, but if we continue and compare the ultimate goal with the cheesecake (which I love by the way), we would not say that Nibbana has many flavors, may varieties, though the Buddha may have taught many analogies for understanding it and vehicles or means to attain it.

Here is a relevant quotation, followed by some helpful commentary from Bhiddku Bodi.
"Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Doctrine and Discipline (dhammavinaya) there is but one taste — the taste of freedom": with these words the Buddha vouches for the emancipating quality of His doctrine.

Whether one samples water taken from the surface of the ocean, or from its middling region, or from its depths, the taste of the water is in every case the same — the taste of salt. And again, whether one drinks but a thimble-full of ocean water, or a glass-full, or a bucket-full, the same salty taste is present throughout. Analogously with the Buddha's Teaching, a single flavor — the flavor of freedom (vimuttirasa) — pervades the entire Doctrine and Discipline, from its beginning to its end, from its gentle surface to its unfathomable depths. Whether one samples the Dhamma at its more elementary level — in the practice of generosity and moral discipline, in acts of devotion and piety, in conduct governed by reverence, courtesy, and loving-kindness; or at its intermediate level — in the taintless supramundane knowledge and deliverance realized by the liberated saint, in every case the taste is the same — the taste of freedom.

So I agree in a natural growth and spread of approaches to the Dhamma
With regard to schism, it seems that prior to the Parinibbana it would have been unlikely and unnecessary as all would have been considered followers and there would be no different schools under one master, even if there were different systems of practice
There would also arise no different ordination traditions or Vinaya as long as all was overseen by the Buddha

My point is that after his death, whether there was a successor or not, there were invariably going to be schisms to go back to your analogy, as the individual members, groups, etc developed according to the freedom allowed them by the Buddha.
An appointed successor, in my opinion, could not have both supported this and restricted the tendency to schism.

Thanks for the response and the additional perspective.

lack of successor

I would like to think about the term of successor. Why Buddha didn't appoint a successor? In my point of view, if we consider that Buddhism is not a religious movement we can maybe get an explanation in this way. Walpola Rahula in What the buddha taught said that the buddha was considered as a teacher, an human being, not claim for an external power. Buddha didn't claim no inspiration from any god or external power. Realization, achievements come from human intelligence. In this way, a man is his own master. The buddha said: " one is one's refuge, who else could be the refuge" and "you should do your work for the Tathagatas only teach the way". What we have here it's the principle of individual responsability. The Buddha gave freedom to his disciple. In the Mahaparinibbana-sutta, the buddha said that he never thought of controlling the Sangha or the Sangha depend on him. The Buddha was considered like a teacher, a guide not like the chief of the Sangha, i means in the way like other religious movement. For instance, the Pope is responsible for the christian unity community, he is the symbol of the Christ, the chief of the christian community. In this case, it is necessary to appoint a successor. Because the Buddha thought that a man is responsible for his own achievements, it could be quite difficult to appoint a successor with some power to lead the Sangha that it will broke the principle of individual responsability probably.


Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Spot on

I agree completely
It appears that to have appointed a successor would've been contrary to the message and intention

As a result, to do so could have caused more factionalism as individuals, groups, etc. would not only have developed their own approach, they would have also been met with the opportunity to reject an "established" approach they disagreed with - perhaps to an even greater degree than we saw with the Nikaya schools and perhaps with even more damaging results - if we look at the religious wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants - as one modern example of multiple leaders driving conflict through factionalism

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Elimination of the Minor Rules

The Buddha's intimation to Ananda that the Sangha had the opportunity to eliminate the minor rules after His death may also be a sign of the inevitability of Schism and His anticipation of such splits over minor rules.

As the lecture notes mention, the schisms that occurred were generall not over points of doctrine but rather minor points of discipline. Even the aforementioned dispute between the Dhammadharas and Vinayadharas was a dispute over minor rules.

In light of this last point, we may see the Buddha as a wise teacher who is offering a solution before the anticipated problem arises, full knowing that the advice would not be taken.
Thus the Sangha under the direction of Maha Kasyapa at the First Council (traditionally) elected to retain even the minor rules, setting the stage for future schism over the disagreements that would result.

My takeaway from all of this is to consider even the schisms as just products of causes and conditions with no ultimate reality. My opportunity and that for all of us again was stated that we allow the Dhamma and Vinaya to be our guide. The benefit of our current position is while we may be distant in time and space from the Buddha and the early Sangha, we have an unprecedented wealth of original texts and commentaries available to us at the click of a mouse so that we can do just that.

The benefit for me then is a reduced concern with the Schools and a greater affinity for their teachings and intentions, namely cessation.

Always interested in additional perspectives.


St. Peter and Paul

Even Gautama Buddha (Mahayana Mahamaya Sutra) rises from his golden coffin to preach a last sermon to his distraught mother who had descended from heaven; he then lies in his coffin, and closes the lid over himself: the tomb is both occupied and empty. In Mahayana Japanese Buddhism, the golden coffin story is told as an epitome of filial piety, as Buddha proclaims; in Mahayana Nichiren Buddhism, the episode marks the transmission of the lineage of Zen from Buddha to his elder disciple Mahakassapa.
Mahakassapa arrives when the Buddha has already passed away. Distraught, he circles the Buddha's golden coffin in mourning three times (=common mytheme). Then, out of compassion (deceased) Buddha stretches his feet out of the coffin for Mahakassapa to behold, which constitutes the passing of the patriarchal mantle.
Mahakassapa apparently was the only one to understand Gautama Buddha's silent flower sermon, for which Buddha chose him as recipient of direct transmission of wisdom. On slightly different terms, the same happens between Jesus and Judas in the apocryphal gospel.
Mahakassapa apparently didn't lack self-esteem. The Theragatha records him as proclaiming: “In the whole field of the Buddha's following, Except for the mighty Master himself, I stand the foremost in ascetic ways; No one practices them so far as I”.
There are parallel motifs, however imperfect, that recur in the figures of both Buddhist Ananda and Christian St. Peter. As the great man's closest disciples, Peter and Ananda would have been expected to excel in both practice, wisdom and doctrine: this was clearly not the case. In Buddhist lore, before the I council Ananda was not yet an arahant but a sekha (=one in the course of perfection); Peter wasn't much skilled, either. Peter denied Jesus three times; Ananda (the Buddha's cousin) refused to give water to the dying Buddha (because a neighboring stream had been muddled as a caravan passed by), and so forth. Other imperfect analogies between Buddhism and Christianity are the presumed rivalries between Jesus' real followers and St.Paul, and between Ananda and Mahakassapa.