Theravada Buddhism Chronology

Buddha, Founder of Buddhism

by Bhikkhu Bodhi

This timeline chronicles some of the significant events and personalities in the evolution of Theravada Buddhism that, in one way or another, figure prominently in the readings found elsewhere on this website. This is not meant to be a comprehensive chronology.

Because the sources I used in constructing this timeline (indicated by braces {} and listed at the end of this document) often assumed different dates for the Buddha's nativity, I have occasionally had to interpolate in order to fit events (particularly the early ones) onto a reasonably consistent timeline. Nevertheless, this chronology should provide a fairly clear picture of the relative sequence of events, if not the absolute dates on which they occurred.

For a general introduction to Theravada Buddhism, please see "What is Theravada Buddhism?".

BE1 CE2

-80 -624/-560

The Bodhisatta (Sanskrit: Bodhisattva), or Buddha-to-be, is born in Lumbini (in present-day Nepal) as Siddhattha (Skt: Siddhartha) Gotama, a prince of the Sakya clan. {1,2}

-51 -595/-531

The Bodhisatta renounces the householder life (age 29).

-45 -589/-525

While meditating under the Bo tree in the forest at Gaya (now Bodhgaya, India) during the full-moon night of May, the Bodhisatta becomes the Buddha (age 36).

During the full-moon night of July, the Buddha delivers his first discourse near Varanasi, introducing the world to the Four Noble Truths and commencing a 45-year career of teaching the religion he called "Dhamma-vinaya."

1 -544/-480

Parinibbana (Skt: Parinirvana; death and final release) of the Buddha, at Kusinara (now Kusinagar, India) (age 80). {1,3}

During the rains retreat following the Buddha's Parinibbana, the First Council convenes at Rajagaha, India, during which 500 arahant bhikkhus, led by Ven. Mahakassapa, gather to recite the entire body of the Buddha's teachings. The recitation of the Vinaya by Ven. Upali becomes accepted as the Vinaya Pitaka; the recitation of the Dhamma by Ven. Ananda becomes established as the Sutta Pitaka. {1,4}

100 -444/-380

100 years after the Buddha's Parinibbana the Second Council convenes in Vesali to discuss controversial points of Vinaya. The first schism of the Sangha occurs, in which the Mahasanghika school parts ways with the traditionalist Sthaviravadins. At issue is the Mahasanghika's reluctance to accept the Suttas and the Vinaya as the final authority on the Buddha's teachings. This schism marks the first beginnings of what would later evolve into Mahayana Buddhism, which would come to dominate Buddhism in northern Asia (China, Tibet, Japan, Korea). {1}

294 -250

Third Council is convened by King Asoka at Pataliputra (India). Disputes on points of doctrine lead to further schisms, spawning the Sarvastivadin and Vibhajjavadin sects. The Abhidhamma Pitaka is recited at the Council, along with additional sections of the Khuddaka Nikaya. The modern Pali Tipitaka is now essentially complete, although some scholars have suggested that at least two parts of the extant Canon — the Parivara in the Vinaya, and the Apadana in the Sutta — may date from a later period. {1, 4}

297 -247

King Asoka sends his son, Ven. Mahinda, on a mission to bring Buddhism to Sri Lanka. King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka is converted. {5}

304 -240

Ven. Mahinda establishes the Mahavihara (Great Monastery) of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The Vibhajjavadin community living there becomes known as the Theravadins. Mahinda compiles the first of the Tipitaka commentaries, in the Sinhala language. Mahinda's sister, Ven. Sanghamitta, arrives in Sri Lanka with a cutting from the original Bo tree, and establishes the bhikkhuni-sangha in Sri Lanka.{1, 5}

444 -100

Famine and schisms in Sri Lanka point out the need for a written record of the Tipitaka to preserve the Buddhist religion. King Vattagamani convenes a Fourth Council, in which 500 reciters and scribes from the Mahavihara write down the Pali Tipitaka for the first time, on palm leaves. {4, 5, 6}

544 1

Common Era (CE) begins; Year 1 AD.

644 100

Theravada Buddhism first appears in Burma and Central Thailand. {1}

744 200

Buddhist monastic university at Nalanda, India flourishes; remains a world center of Buddhist study for over 1,000 years. {1}

ca. 1000 5th c.

Ven. Buddhaghosa collates the various Sinhala commentaries on the Canon — drawing primarily on the Maha Atthakatha (Great Commentary) preserved at the Mahavihara — and translates them into Pali. This makes Sinhala Buddhist scholarship available for the first time to the entire Theravadan world and marks the beginning of what will become, in the centuries to follow, a vast body of post-canonical Pali literature. Buddhaghosa also composes his encyclopedic, though controversial, meditation manual Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification). Vens. Buddhadatta and Dhammapala write additional commentaries and sub-commentaries. {7}

ca. 1100 600's

Buddhism in India begins a long, slow decline from which it would never fully recover. {1}

ca. 1100? 1400? 6th c.? 9th c.?

Dhammapala composes commentaries on parts of the Canon missed by Buddhaghosa (such as the Udana, Itivuttaka, Theragatha, and Therigatha), along with extensive sub-commentaries on Buddhaghosa's work. {7}

1594 1050

The bhikkhu and bhikkhuni communities at Anuradhapura die out following invasions from South India.{1, 5}

1614 1070

Bhikkhus from Pagan arrive in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka to reinstate the obliterated Theravada ordination line on the island. {5}

1708 1164

Polonnaruwa destroyed by foreign invasion. With the guidance of two monks from a forest branch of the Mahavihara sect — Vens. Mahakassapa and Sariputta — King Parakramabahu reunites all bhikkhus in Sri Lanka into the Mahavihara sect. {1, 8}

1780 1236

Bhikkhus from Kañcipuram, India arrive in Sri Lanka to revive the Theravada ordination line. {1}

1823 1279

Last inscriptional evidence of a Theravada Bhikkhuni nunnery (in Burma). {8}

1831 1287

Pagan looted by Mongol invaders; its decline begins. {1}

ca. 1900 13th c.

A forest-based Sri Lankan ordination line arrives in Burma and Thailand. Theravada spreads to Laos. Thai Theravada monasteries first appear in Cambodia shortly before the Thais win their independence from the Khmers. {1}

ca. 2000 1400's

Another forest lineage is imported from Sri Lanka to Ayudhaya, the Thai capital. A new ordination line is also imported into Burma. {1}

2297 1753

King Kirti Sri Rajasinha obtains bhikkhus from the Thai court to reinstate the bhikkhu ordination line, which had died out in Sri Lanka. This is the origin of the Siyam Nikaya. {8}

2312 1768

Burmese destroy Ayudhaya (Thai capital).

2321 1777

King Rama I, founder of the current dynasty in Thailand, obtains copies of the Tipitaka from Sri Lanka and sponsors a Council to standardize the Thai version of the Tipitaka, copies of which are then donated to temples throughout the country. {1}

2347 1803

Sri Lankans ordained in the Burmese city of Amarapura found the Amarapura Nikaya in Sri Lanka to supplement the Siyam Nikaya, which admitted only brahmans from the Up Country highlands around Kandy. {9}

2372 1828

Thailand's Prince Mongkut (later King Rama IV) founds the Dhammayut movement, which would later become the Dhammayut Sect. {1}

ca. 2400 1800's

Sri Lankan Sangha deteriorates under pressure from two centuries of European colonial rule (Portuguese, Dutch, British). {5}

2406 1862

Forest monks headed by Ven. Paññananda go to Burma for reordination, returning to Sri Lanka the following year to found the Ramañña Nikaya. {9} First translation of the Dhammapada into a Western language (German). {2}

2412 1868

Fifth Council is held at Mandalay, Burma; Pali Canon is inscribed on 729 marble slabs. {2}

2417 1873

Ven. Mohottivatte Gunananda defeats Christian missionaries in a public debate, sparking a nationwide revival of Sri Lankan pride in its Buddhist traditions. {8}

2423 1879

Sir Edwin Arnold publishes his epic poem Light of Asia, which becomes a best-seller in England and the USA, stimulating popular Western interest in Buddhism.

2424 1880

Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, founders of the Theosophical Society, arrive in Sri Lanka from the USA, embrace Buddhism, and begin a campaign to restore Buddhism on the island by encouraging the establishment of Buddhist schools. {1}

2425 1881

Pali Text Society is founded in England by T.W. Rhys Davids; most of the Tipitaka is published in roman script and, over the next 100 years, in English translation.

2435 1891

Maha Bodhi Society founded in India by the Sri Lankan lay follower Anagarika Dharmapala, in an effort to reintroduce Buddhism to India. {1}

2443 1899

First Western Theravada monk (Gordon Douglas) ordains, in Burma. {2}

ca. 2444 ca. 1900

Ven. Ajaan Mun and Ven. Ajaan Sao revive the forest meditation tradition in Thailand. {1}

2445 1902

King Rama V of Thailand institutes a Sangha Act that formally marks the beginnings of the Mahanikaya and Dhammayut sects. Sangha government, which up to that time had been in the hands of a lay official appointed by the king, is handed over to the bhikkhus themselves.

2493 1949

Mahasi Sayadaw becomes head teacher at a government-sponsored meditation center in Rangoon, Burma. {10}

2498 1954

Burmese government sponsors a Sixth Council in Rangoon.

2500 1956

Buddha Jayanti Year, commemorating 2,500 years of Buddhism.

2502 1958

Ven. Nyanaponika Thera establishes the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka to publish English-language books on Theravada Buddhism. » Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is founded in Sri Lanka to bring Buddhist ideals to bear in solving pressing social problems. Two Germans ordain at the Royal Thai Embassy in London, becoming the first to take full Theravada ordination in the West. {1, 2}

ca. 2504 1960's 3

Washington (D.C.) Buddhist Vihara founded — first Theravada monastic community in the USA. {11; and Bhavana Society Brochure}

ca. 2514 1970's

Refugees from war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos settle in USA and Europe, establishing many tight-knit Buddhist communities in the West. Ven. Taungpulu Sayadaw and Dr. Rina Sircar, from Burma, establish the » Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Northern California, USA. Ven. Ajaan Chah establishes » Wat Pah Nanachat, a forest monastery in Thailand for training Western monks. » Insight Meditation Society, a lay meditation center, is founded in Massachusetts, USA. Ven. Ajaan Chah travels to England to establish a small community of monks at the Hamsptead Vihara, which later moves to Sussex, England, to become Wat Pah Cittaviveka (Chithurst Forest Monastery).

ca. 2524 1980's

Lay meditation centers grow in popularity in USA and Europe. First Theravada forest monastery in the USA (» Bhavana Society) is established in West Virginia. » Amaravati Buddhist Monastery established in England by Ven. Ajaan Sumedho (student of Ven. Ajaan Chah).

ca. 2534 1990's

Continued western expansion of the Theravada Sangha: monasteries from the Thai forest traditions established in California, USA (» Metta Forest Monastery, founded by Ven. Ajaan Suwat; » Abhayagiri Monastery, founded by Ven. Ajaans Amaro and Pasanno). Buddhism meets cyberspace: online Buddhist information networks emerge; several editions of the Pali Tipitaka become available online.

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Notes

1. BE = Buddhist Era. Year 1 of the Buddhist Era calendar is the year of the Buddha's Parinibbana (death and final release), which occurred in the Buddha's eightieth year (480 BCE according to the "historical" timeline; 544 BCE by tradition).

The actual date of the Buddha's birth is unknown. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha's birth took place in 624 BCE, although some recent estimates place the Buddha's birth much later — perhaps as late as 448 BCE {1}. 560 BCE is one commonly accepted date for the Buddha's birth, and the "historical" date for that event that I adopt here.

Events in the timeline prior to -250 CE are shown with two CE dates: the date based on the "traditional" nativity of 624 BCE, followed by the date based on the "historical" date of 560 BCE. After -250 CE the "historical" date is dropped, since these dates are more appropriate only in discussions of earlier events.

To calculate the CE date corresponding to an event in the Buddhist traditional calendar, subtract 544 years from the BE date. The BE dates of well-documented historical events (particularly those in the twentieth century) may be off by one year, since the CE and BE calendars start their years on different months (January and May, respectively).

2. CE = Common Era. Year 1 of the Common Era corresponds with the year 1 AD (Anno Domini) in the Christian calendar. -1 CE (or 1 BCE — "Before the Common Era") corresponds with the year 1 BC ("Before Christ"). By convention there is no year zero; the year 1 BCE is followed by 1 CE.

3. Events of the last few decades are still much too fresh in our collective experience to argue intelligently for or against their historical significance.

Sources

{1} The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1996)

{2} The Buddha's Way by H. Saddhatissa (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971)

{3} Pali Literature and Language by Wilhelm Geiger (New Delhi: Oriental Books, 1978)

{4} Beginnings: the Pali Suttas by Samanera Bodhesako (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1984)

{5} Buddhism in Sri Lanka by H.R. Perera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1966)

{6} The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) (Introduction) by Ven. Bhikkhu Ñanamoli (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1975)

{7} Indian Buddhism (second edition) by A.K. Warder (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980)

{8} Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo by Richard Gombrich (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988)

{9} The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka: An Anthropological and Historical Study by Michael Carrithers (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983)

{10} The Progress of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1994)

{11} World Buddhist Directory by The Buddhist Information Centre (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Information Centre, 1984)

Source: Reproduced and reformatted from Access to Insight edition © 2005 For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.