Buddhist councils

Buddhist councils

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Lists and numbering of Buddhist councils vary between and even within schools. The numbering here is normal in Western writings.

First Buddhist council (c. 543 BCE)




According to the scriptures of all Buddhist schools, the first Buddhist Council was held soon after the mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, dated by the majority of recent scholars around 400 BCE, under the patronage of king Ajatasatru with the monk Mahakasyapa
Mahakasyapa
Mahākāśyapa or Kāśyapa was a brahman of Magadha, who became one of the principal disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha and who convened and directed the first council. Mahākāśyapa is one of the most revered of the Buddha's early disciples, foremost in ascetic practices...

 presiding, at Sattapanni caves Rajgriha (now Rajgir
Rajgir
Rajgir is a city and a notified area in Nalanda district in the Indian state of Bihar. The city of Rajgir was the first capital of the kingdom of Magadha, a state that would eventually evolve into the Mauryan Empire. Its date of origin is unknown, although ceramics dating to about 1000 BC have...

). Its objective was to preserve the Buddha's sayings (sutta
Sutta Pitaka
The Sutta Pitaka is the second of the three divisions of the Tipitaka or Pali Canon, the Pali collection of Buddhist writings, the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism...

s) and the monastic discipline or rules (Vinaya
Vinaya Pitaka
The ' is a Buddhist scripture, one of the three parts that make up the Tripitaka. Its primary subject matter is the monastic rules for monks and nuns...

). The Suttas were recited by Ananda
Ananda
Ānanda was one of the principal disciples and a devout attendant of the Buddha. Amongst the Buddha's many disciples, Ānanda had the most retentive memory and most of the suttas in the Sutta Pitaka are attributed to his recollection of the Buddha's teachings during the First Buddhist Council...

, and the Vinaya was recited by Upali
Upali
Upali was a monk, one of the ten chief disciples of the Buddha. Before joining the order, he worked as a barber. He asked the Buddha if a person of "low birth" such as he could join the order...

. According to some sources, the Abhidhamma Pitaka
Abhidhamma Pitaka
The Abhidhamma Pitaka is the last of the three pitakas constituting the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravāda Buddhism....

, or its matika, was also included. Also the Sangha
Sangha
Sangha is a word in Pali or Sanskrit that can be translated roughly as "association" or "assembly," "company" or "community" with common goal, vision or purpose...

 made the unanimous decision to keep all the rules of the Vinaya, even the lesser and minor rules.

Second Buddhist council (c. 4th century BCE)



The historical records for the so-called "Second Buddhist Council" derive primarily from the canonical Vinayas of various schools (Theravāda, Sarvāstivāda, Mūlasarvāstivāda, Mahāsanghika, Dharmaguptaka, and Mahīśāsaka). In most cases, these accounts are found at the end of the Skandhaka portion of the Vinaya. While inevitably disagreeing on points of details, they nevertheless agree on roughly the following.

About 100 or 110 years after the Buddha's Nirvana, a monk called Yasa, when visiting Vesālī, noticed a number of lax practices among the local monks. A list of "ten points" is given; the most important was that the Vesālī monks, known as Vajjiputtakas, consented to accepting money. Considerable controversy erupted when Yasa refused to follow this practice. He was prosecuted by the Vajjiputtakas, and defended himself by quoting in public a number of canonical passages condemning the use of money by monastics. Wishing to settle the matter, he gathered support from monks of other regions, mainly to the west and south. A group consented to go to Vesāli to settle the matter. After considerable maneuvering, a meeting was held, attended by 700 monks. A council of eight was appointed to consider the matter. This consisted of four locals and four 'westerners'; but some of the locals had already been secretly won over to the westerners' case. Each of the ten points was referred to various canonical precedents. The committee found against the Vajjiputtaka monks. They presented this finding to the assembly, who consented unanimously. The canonical accounts end there.

Virtually all scholars agree that this second council was a historical event.

Third Buddhist council (c. 250 BCE)



In striking contrast to the uniform accounts of the Second Council, there are records of several possible "Third Councils". These different versions function to authorize the founding of one particular school or other.

According to the Theravāda commentaries and chronicles, the Third Buddhist Council was convened by the Mauryan king Ashoka
Ashoka
Ashok Maurya or Ashoka , popularly known as Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from ca. 269 BC to 232 BC. One of India's greatest emperors, Ashoka reigned over most of present-day India after a number of military conquests...

 at Pātaliputra (today's Patna), under the leadership of the monk Moggaliputta Tissa. Its objective was to purify the Buddhist movement, particularly from opportunistic factions which had been attracted by the royal patronage. The king asked the suspect monks what the Buddha taught, and they claimed he taught views such as eternalism, etc., which are condemned in the canonical Brahmajala Sutta. He asked the virtuous monks, and they replied that the Buddha was a "Teacher of Analysis" (Vibhajjavādin), an answer that was confirmed by Moggaliputta Tissa. The Council proceeded to recite the scriptures once more, adding to the canon Moggaliputta Tissa's own book, the Kathavatthu
Kathavatthu
Kathāvatthu , translated as "Points of Controversy", is a Buddhist scripture, one of the seven books in the Theravada Abhidhamma Pitaka...

, a discussion of various dissenting Buddhist views now contained in the Theravāda Abhidhamma Pitaka
Abhidhamma Pitaka
The Abhidhamma Pitaka is the last of the three pitakas constituting the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravāda Buddhism....

.

Also, emissaries were sent to various countries in order to spread Buddhism, as far as the Greek kingdoms in the West (in particular the neighboring Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom was the easternmost part of the Hellenistic world, covering Bactria and Sogdiana in Central Asia from 250 to 125 BC...

, and possibly even farther according to the inscriptions left on stone pillars by Ashoka). According to Frauwallner (Frauwallner, 1956), several of these missionaries were responsible for founding schools in various parts of India: Majjhantika was the father of the Kasmiri Sarvastivādins; Yonaka Dhammarakkhita may have been the founder of the Dharmaguptaka school; Mahādeva, sent to the Mahisa country may have been the founder of the Mahisasakas; and several teachers travelled to the Himalayas where they founded the Haimavata school, including a certain Kassapagotta, who may be connected with the Kasyapiyas. Relics of some of the Haimavata monks have been excavated at Vedisa in central India. The most famous of the missionaries, and the main focus of interest for these Theravada histories, is Mahinda, who travelled to Sri Lanka where he founded the school we now know as Theravada.

The Theravāda's own Dipavamsa
Dipavamsa
The Dipavamsa, or "Deepavamsa", is the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka.It means Chronicle of the Island. The chronicle is believe to be compiled from Atthakatha and other sources around the 3-4th century. Together with Mahavamsa, it is the source of many accounts of ancient history of Sri...

 records a quite different Council called the "Great Recital" (Mahāsangiti), which it claims was held by the reformed Vajjiputtakas following their defeat at the Second council. The Dipavamsa criticizes the Mahasangitikas (who are the same as the Mahasanghikas) for rejecting various texts as non-canonical: the [Vinaya] Parivāra
Parivara
Parivara is the third and last book of the Theravadin Vinaya Pitaka. It includes a summary and multiple analyses of the various rules identified in the Vinaya Pitaka's first two books, the Suttavibhanga and the Khandhaka, primarily for didactic purposes...

; the 6 books of the Abhidhamma; the Patisambhida; the Niddesa
Niddesa
The Niddesa is a Buddhist scripture, part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. It is included there in the Sutta Pitaka's Khuddaka Nikaya. It is in the form of a commentary on parts of the Suttanipata. The tradition ascribes it to the Buddha's disciple Sariputta...

; part of the Jatakas; and some verses. (Dipavamsa 76, 82)

The Mahāsanghika, for their part, remember things differently: they allege, in the Sāriputraparipriccha that there was an attempt to unduly expand the old Vinaya. The Mahasanghikas' own vinaya gives essentially the same account of the Second Council as the others, i.e. they were on the same side.

An entirely different account of Mahāsanghika origins is found in the works of the Sarvāstivāda
Sarvastivada
The Sarvāstivāda were an early school of Buddhism that held to 'the existence of all dharmas in the past, present and future, the 'three times'. Vasubandhu's states:-Name:...

 group of schools. Vasumitra
Vasumitra
Vasumitra , was the fourth King of the Sunga Dynasty of Northern India...

 tells of a dispute in Pātaliputra
Patna
Paṭnā , is the capital of the Indian state of Bihar and the second largest city in Eastern India . Patna is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world...

 at the time of Ashoka
Ashoka
Ashok Maurya or Ashoka , popularly known as Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from ca. 269 BC to 232 BC. One of India's greatest emperors, Ashoka reigned over most of present-day India after a number of military conquests...

 over five heretical points: that an Arahant can have nocturnal emission; that he can have doubts; that he can be taught by another; that he can lack knowledge; and that the path can be aroused by crying "What suffering!". These same points are discussed and condemned in Moggaliputta Tissa's Kathavatthu
Kathavatthu
Kathāvatthu , translated as "Points of Controversy", is a Buddhist scripture, one of the seven books in the Theravada Abhidhamma Pitaka...

, but there is no mention of this Council in Theravadin sources. The later Mahavibhasa
Mahavibhasa
The Abhidharma ' Śāstra is an ancient Buddhist text. It is thought to have been authored around 150 CE.-The Compendia: is a term meaning 'compendium', 'treatise' or simply 'explanation', derived from vi + , 'to speak' or 'to explain'...

 develops this story into a lurid smear campaign against the Mahasanghika founder, who it identifies as "Mahadeva
Mahadeva (Buddhism)
Mahādeva is a controversial figure who appears in various roles in the histories of the early Buddhist schools.-As the cause of the first schism:...

". This version of events emphasizes the purity of the Kasmiri Sarvastivadins, who are portrayed as descended from the arahants who fled persecution due to Mahadeva.

The Fourth Buddhist Councils



By the time of the Fourth Buddhist councils, Buddhism had long since splintered into different schools. The Theravada
Theravada
Theravada ; literally, "the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching", is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It was founded in India...

 had a Fourth Buddhist Council in the last century BC in Tambapanni, i.e. Sri Lanka, at Aloka Lena now Alu Vihara during the time of King Vattagamani-Abaya. However it should be clarified that an anonymous local chieftain had given patronage and not the king, since he was a firm follower of the Abayagir school (a Mahayana Sect.). In fact one of the main reasons for the Council was the cruel policy the king held against the Mahavihara Priests who were Theravadians who were once attacked at the Mahavihara Premises killing many and driving away the others. The temple was destroyed and in its place a Mahayana Temple was built. The other main reasons for the Council were the unstable political situation within the country due to constant invasions which lead the king himself to flee several times and also severe famine. It is said to have been devoted to committing the entire Pali Canon to writing, which had previously been preserved by memory. No mention had been made as to who lead this Council, for which the approximate cause would have been the deteriorating status of Buddhism then, and the collective effort by the priesthood to preserve the religion in its purest form therefore not needing a leader(only the fact that the Mahavihara priesthood i.e. Theravada school took part in this recital and compilation had been mentioned).

Another Fourth Buddhist Council was held in the Sarvastivada
Sarvastivada
The Sarvāstivāda were an early school of Buddhism that held to 'the existence of all dharmas in the past, present and future, the 'three times'. Vasubandhu's states:-Name:...

 tradition, said to have been convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka
Kanishka
Kanishka ) was an emperor of the Kushan Empire, ruling an empire extending from Bactria to large parts of northern India in the 2nd century of the common era, and famous for his military, political, and spiritual achievements...

, in 78 AD at Jalandhar or in Kashmir. It is said that Kanishka gathered five hundred Bhikkhu
Bhikkhu
A Bhikkhu or Bhikṣu is an ordained male Buddhist monastic. A female monastic is called a Bhikkhuni Nepali: ). The life of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis is governed by a set of rules called the patimokkha within the vinaya's framework of monastic discipline...

s in Kashmir, headed by Vasumitra, to systematize the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma
Abhidharma
Abhidharma or Abhidhamma are ancient Buddhist texts which contain detailed scholastic and scientific reworkings of doctrinal material appearing in the Buddhist Sutras, according to schematic classifications...

 texts, which were translated form earlier Prakrit
Prakrit
Prakrit is the name for a group of Middle Indic, Indo-Aryan languages, derived from Old Indic dialects. The word itself has a flexible definition, being defined sometimes as, "original, natural, artless, normal, ordinary, usual", or "vernacular", in contrast to the literary and religious...

 vernacular languages (such as Gandhari
Gandhari language
Gāndhārī was a north-western prakrit spoken in Gāndhāra. Like all prakrits, it is thus descended from either Vedic Sanskrit or a closely related language. Gāndhārī was written in the script...

 in Kharosthi script) into the classical language of Sanskrit
Sanskrit
Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

. It is said that during the council three hundred thousand verses and over nine million statements were compiled, a process which took twelve years to complete. Although the Sarvastivada are no longer extant as an independent school, its traditions were inherited by the Mahayana
Mahayana
Mahāyāna is one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice...

 tradition. The late Monseigneur Professor Etienne Lamotte
Étienne Lamotte
Étienne Paul Marie Lamotte was a Belgian priest and Professor of Greek at the Catholic University of Louvain, but was better known as an Indologist and the greatest authority on Buddhism in the West in his time...

, an eminent Buddhologist, held that Kanishka's Council was fictitious. However, David Snellgrove
David Snellgrove
David Llewellyn Snellgrove is a British Tibetologist noted for his pioneering work on Buddhism in Tibet as well as his many travelogues.-Biography:...

, another eminent Buddhologist, considers the Theravada account of the Third Council and the Sarvastivada account of the Fourth Council "equally tendentious," illustrating the uncertain veracity of much of these histories.

Theravada Buddhist council in 1871 (Fifth Buddhist council)



Another Buddhist Council, this time presided by Theravada monks took place in Mandalay, Burma, in 1871 in the reign of King Mindon. The chief objective of this meeting was to recite all the teachings of the Buddha
Gautama Buddha
Siddhārtha Gautama was a spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. In most Buddhist traditions, he is regarded as the Supreme Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit: सिद्धार्थ गौतम; Pali: Siddhattha Gotama) was a spiritual teacher from the Indian...

 and examine them in minute detail to see if any of them had been altered, distorted or dropped. It was presided over by three Elders, the Venerable Mahathera Jagarabhivamsa, the Venerable Narindabhidhaja, and the Venerable Mahathera Sumangalasami in the company of some two thousand four hundred monks (2,400). Their joint Dhamma recitation lasted for five months. It was also the work of this council to approve the entire Tripitaka
Tripiṭaka
' is a traditional term used by various Buddhist sects to describe their various canons of scriptures. As the name suggests, a traditionally contains three "baskets" of teachings: a , a and an .-The three categories:Tripitaka is the three main categories of texts that make up the...

 inscribed for posterity on seven hundred and twenty-nine marble slabs in the Burmese script before its recitation. This monumental task was done by the monks and many skilled craftsmen who upon completion of each slab had them housed in beautiful miniature 'pitaka' pagodas on a special site in the grounds of King Mindon's Kuthodaw Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill where it and the so called 'largest book in the world', stands to this day. This Council is not generally recognized outside Burma.

Theravada Buddhist council in 1954 (Sixth Buddhist Council)



The Sixth Council was called at Kaba Aye
Kaba Aye
Kaba Aye Pagoda , formally Thiri Mingala Gaba Aye Zedidaw , is a pagoda located on Kaba Aye Road, Mayangon Township, Yangon, Myanmar. The pagoda was built in 1952 by U Nu in preparation for the Sixth Buddhist Council that he held from 1954-1956. The pagoda measures high and is also around the...

 in Yangon
Yangon
Yangon is a former capital of Burma and the capital of Yangon Region . Although the military government has officially relocated the capital to Naypyidaw since March 2006, Yangon, with a population of over four million, continues to be the country's largest city and the most important commercial...

 (formerly Rangoon) in 1954, 83 years after the fifth one was held in Mandalay. It was sponsored by the Burmese Government led by the then Prime Minister, the Honourable U Nu
U Nu
For other people with the Burmese name Nu, see Nu .U Nu was a leading Burmese nationalist and political figure of the 20th century...

. He authorized the construction of the Maha Passana Guha, the "great cave", an artificial cave very much like India's Sattapanni Cave where the first Buddhist Council had been held. Upon its completion The Council met on 17 May 1954.

As in the case of the preceding councils, its first objective was to affirm and preserve the genuine Dhamma and Vinaya. However it was unique insofar as the monks who took part in it came from eight countries. These two thousand five hundred learned Theravada monks came from Myanmar
Myanmar
Burma , officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar , is a country in Southeast Asia. Burma is bordered by China on the northeast, Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, India on the northwest, the Bay of Bengal to the southwest, and the Andaman Sea on the south....

, Cambodia
Cambodia
Cambodia , officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a country located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia...

, India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, Laos
Laos
Laos Lao: ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west...

, Nepal
Nepal
Nepal , officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, is a landlocked sovereign state located in South Asia. It is located in the Himalayas and bordered to the north by the People's Republic of China, and to the south, east, and west by the Republic of India...

, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a country off the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent. Known until 1972 as Ceylon , Sri Lanka is an island surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, and lies in the vicinity of India and the...

, and Thailand
Thailand
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

. The late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw
Mahasi Sayadaw
The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw U Sobhana was a Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation master who had a significant impact on the teaching of Vipassana meditation in the West and throughout Asia...

 was appointed the noble task of asking the required questions about the Dhamma of the Venerable Bhadanta Vicittasarabhivamsa who answered all of them learnedly and satisfactorily. By the time this council met all the participating countries had had the Pali Tripiṭaka rendered into their native scripts, with the exception of India.

The traditional recitation of the Buddhist Scriptures took two years and the Tripiṭaka
Tripiṭaka
' is a traditional term used by various Buddhist sects to describe their various canons of scriptures. As the name suggests, a traditionally contains three "baskets" of teachings: a , a and an .-The three categories:Tripitaka is the three main categories of texts that make up the...

 and its allied literature in all the scripts were painstakingly examined and their differences noted down and the necessary corrections made and all the versions were then collated. It was found that there was not much difference in the content of any of the texts. Finally, after the Council had officially approved them, all of the books of the Tipitaka and their commentaries were prepared for printing on modern presses and published in the Burmese script. This notable achievement was made possible through the dedicated efforts of the two thousand five hundred monks and numerous lay people. Their work came to an end on the evening of Vesak
Vesak
Vesākha is a holiday observed traditionally by Buddhists in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the South East Asian countries of Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, and Indonesia...

, 24 May 1956, exactly two and a half millennia after Buddha's Parinibbana, according to the traditional Theravada dating.

See also

  • The World Fellowship of Buddhists
    World Fellowship of Buddhists
    The World Fellowship of Buddhists is an international Buddhist organization. It was founded in 1950 in Colombo, Sri Lanka by representatives from 27 nations...

    (WFB) holds frequent meetings in which many Buddhist groups are involved. However, the meetings are of a differing nature from the Buddhist Councils mentioned above.