I recently attended an interesting talk at Buddhist Fellowship titled “Is There Harmony Among Various Buddhist Traditions”. The theme of the talk was on sectarian harmony among the three Buddhist traditions (which the speaker affectionately called MTV, short for Mahayana, Theravada and Vajayana).
The speaker cited heavily in his talk a 2011 article in the Tricycle magazine on the discovery of the Gandhara Text. According to him, the Gandhara text is revolutionizing how scholars viewed the development of early Buddhist traditions.
Scholars of early Buddhism no longer hold the view that Buddhism developed like a tree where the later traditions (Mahayana) branch out from earlier ones (Theravada). Rather the Gandhara Texts (some as old as 100 BCE) proofed that Mahayana Buddhism itself was very old and it interacted heavily with the other early Buddhist traditions, borrowing ideas from each other, thus making it impossible to say for sure which tradition is older. So the way early Buddhism developed is closer to the model of a braid rather than a tree.
The talk was a spirited reminder to all Buddhists to respect and learn from the rich traditions. No doubt, the message had left a strong impression on the listeners. After the talk, I decided to read the said Tricycle article  to learn more about the Gandhara text.
In all, the Tricycle article was well written, but left me with some unanswered questions. For example, while the article talked about the importance of the discovery, it gave very little details on what was actually in the Gandhara Texts. The article also used the word “Tradition” frequently without specifically stating if it was referring to the early Buddhist schools or the three traditions (MTV) that we have today.
I decided to do some additional research of my own , which proved to be both rewarding as well as educational. More importantly, I came to some interesting conclusions of my own:
Firstly, in his talk at the Buddhist Fellowship, the speaker mentioned that the Gandhara Texts were older than the period called “Early Buddhism”, this is incorrect . In fact, the bulk of the Gandhara Texts had been attributed to one of the early Buddhist school called the Dharmaguptaka.
Secondly, both the speaker at Buddhist Fellowship as well as the Tricycle article seems to imply that the Gandhara Text proofed that the Theravada and Mahayana traditions are equally old, that the two traditions borrowed ideas from each other during the early stage of their development before settling on the characteristics that is known today. This is also incorrect.
What the Gandhara Texts support is the theory that early Buddhist schools interacted with each other and borrow ideas from each other, thus making it impossible to say for certainty which school was the oldest  – The emphasis here is “early Buddhist schools”, of which Theravada is the only surviving tradition .
Scholars do not considered Mahayana Sutras as part of Early Buddhism. Unfortunately relatively few fragments of early Mahayana Sutras survived, making it difficult to say with certainty when and how the Mahayana Tradition first began and evolved.
For the early Buddhist Texts however, the story is different. We have the complete Nikaya as well as texts from the other early Buddhist schools (in the Agamas and the Gandhara Texts). This allowed scholars to study the texts in detail, tracing the developments of the Early Buddhist Schools.
So the braid model is correct, but it is used to describe early Buddhist schools, not Theravada and Mahayana.
Thirdly, apart from the Buddha’s teachings, the suttas also recorded the cultures, customs, religious beliefs, important events and personalities (like kings) during the Buddha’s time. Historians and scholars have been able to cross reference these information with other historical sources. This gives greater credibility that the suttas are based on real historical events. The same can’t be said of Mahayana Texts.
So where does this leave us?
For me, the Gandhara Texts as well as my own research showed that what I already knew was true; that the Nikayas of the Theravada tradition together with the Agamas and Gandhara Texts are the oldest known Buddhist Texts and that the Mahayana Texts definitely came later.
But does that mean we should reject two thousand years of Mahayana movement? Certainly not. As the Buddha had said, where the Noble Eightfold Path is found, that is the Buddha’s teachings. The Noble Eightfold Path can certainly be found in Mahayana Buddhism. There is the emphasis on morality, simplicity, letting go, meditation and the development of wisdom . The Buddhist community is richer because of the development of Mahayana Buddhism.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there are important differences. Most Buddhists are a pacifist lot! Many would prefer to overlook the differences (not wanting to even discuss it or find out more) in the name of sectarian harmony. While a small but vocal minority would argue at length over them (especially on online forums).
For me, the most honest, practical and wisest approach is to first learn as much as what we can with as little bias as possible. Try to understand, accept and respect the differences while keeping our attention on the similarities. Much like what we would do in genuine and mature relationships.
The article can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/93908177/Whose-Buddhism-Is-Truest
 Early Buddhism refers to the period after the second Buddhism council (about 250BCE) to about 500CE. This put the Gandhara Texts within the Early Buddhist period (the Gandhara Text dates to 100BCE – 600CE).
 Ajahn Sujato commented that while the Gandhara Text find is important. It is not as revolutionary as the Tricycle article had described. Rather, it confirmed a long held belief among Buddhist scholars – that Early Buddhist schools borrowed ideas from each other. http://sujato.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/whose-buddhism-is-truest/
 Other early Buddhist schools include the Sthaviravadins, Mahasamghikas, Dharmaguptaka and Sarvastivada. These schools had all died out, but the texts of Dharmaguptaka and Sarvastivada can be found in the Agamas and Gandhara Texts.
 I simply find it very difficult to accept the rest of Mahayana doctrines.