Buddhist Councils - Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma
authentic teachings of the Buddha Gotama have been preserved
and handed down to us and are to be found in the Tipitaka.
The Pali word, 'Tipitaka', literally means 'the three baskets'
(ti- three + pitaka- basket). All of the Buddha's teachings
were divided into three parts. The first part is known as the
Suttanta Pitaka and it contains the Discourses. The second
part is called the Vinaya Pitaka and it contains all the rules
the Buddha laid down for monks and nuns. The third part is
known as the Abhidhamma Pitaka and comprises the Buddha's teachings
on his psycho-ethical philosophy. It is known, that whenever
the Buddha gave a discourse to his ordained disciples or lay-followers
or prescribed a monastic rule in the course of his forty-five
year ministry, those of his devoted and learned monks, then
present would immediately commit his teachings word for word
to memory. Thus the Buddha's words were preserved accurately
and were in due course passed down orally from teacher to pupil.
Some of the monks who had heard the Buddha preach, in person
were Arahants, and so by definition, 'pure ones' free from
passion, ill-will and delusion and therefore, without doubt
capable of retaining, perfectly the Buddha's words. Thus they
ensured that the Buddha's teachings would be preserved faithfully
for posterity. Even those devoted monks who had not yet attained
Arahantship but had reached the first three stages of sainthood
and had powerful, retentive memories could also call to mind
and word for word what the Buddha had preached and so could
be worthy custodians of the Buddha's teachings. One such monk
was Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and chosen attendant and constant
companion during the last twenty-five years of the Buddh's
life. Ananda was highly intelligent and gifted with the ability
to remember whatever he had heard spoken. Indeed, it was his
express wish that the Buddha always relate all of his discourses
to him and although he was not yet an Arahant, he deliberately
committed to memory and word for word all the Buddha's sermons
with which he exhorted monks, nuns and his lay followers. The
combined efforts of these gifted and devoted monks made it
possible for the Dhamma and Vinaya, as taught by the Buddha
to be preserved in its original state.
The Pali Tipitaka and its allied literature exists as a result of the Buddha's
discovery of the noble and liberating path of the pure Dhamma. This path enables
all those who follow it to lead a peaceful and happy life. Indeed, in this
day and age we are fortunate to have the authentic teachings of the Buddha
preserved for future generations through the conscientious and concerted efforts
of his ordained disciples down through the ages. The Buddha had said to his
disciples that when he was no longer amongst them, that it was essential that
the Sangha should come together for the purpose of collectively reciting the
Dhamma, precisely as he had taught it. In compliance with this instruction
the first Elders duly called a council and systematically ordered all the Buddha's
discourses and monastic rules and then faithfully recited them word for word
The teachings contained in the Tipitaka are also known as the Doctrine of the
Elders (Theravada). These discourses number several hundred and have always
been recited word for word ever since the First Council was convened. Subsequently,
more Councils have been called for a number of reasons but at every one of
them the entire body of the Buddha's teaching has always been recited by the
Sangha participants, in concert and word for word. The first council took place
three months after the Buddha's death and attainment of Parinibbana and was
followed by five more, two of which were convened in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. These collective recitations which were performed by the monks at
all these Buddhist Councils are known as the 'Dhamma Sangitis', the Dhamma
Recitations. They are so designated because of the precedent set at the First
Buddhist Council, when all the Teachings were recited first by an Elder of
the Sangha and then chanted once again in chorus by all of the monks attending
the assembly. The recitation was then judged to have been authentic, when and
only when, it had been approved unanimously by the members of the Council.
What follows is a brief history of the Six Councils.
THE FIRST COUNCIL
King Ajatasattu sponsored the First Council. It was convened in 544 B.C.
in the Satiapanni Cave situated outside Rajagaha three months after the
had passed away. A detailed account of this historic meeting can be found
in the Cullavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka. According to this record the incident
which prompted the Elder Mahakassapa to call this meeting was his hearing
disparaging remark about the strict rule of life for monks. This is what
happened. The monk Subhadda, a former barber, who had ordained late in
life, upon hearing
that the Buddha had died, voiced his resentment at having to abide by all
the rules for monks laid down by the Buddha. Many monks lamented the passing
the Buddha and were deeply grieved, however, the Elder Mahakassapa heard
Subhadda say: "Enough your Reverences, do not grieve, do not lament.
We are well rid of this great recluse (the Buddha). We were tormented when
he said, 'this
is allowable to you, this is not allowable to you' but now we will be able
to do as we like and we will not have to do what we do not like.' Mahakassapa
was alarmed by his remark and feared that the Dhamma and the Vinaya might
be corrupted and not survive intact if other monks were to behave like
and interpret the Dhamma and the Vinaya rules as they pleased. To avoid
this he decided that the Dhamma must be preserved and protected. To this
gaining the Sangha's approval he called to council four hundred and ninety-nine
Arahants and Ananda. With the Elder Mahakassapa presiding, the five-hundred
monks met in council during the rainy season. The first thing Mahakassapa
did was to question the foremost expert on the Vinaya of the day, the Venerable
Upali on particulars of the monastic rule. This monk was well qualified
the task as the Buddha had taught him the whole of the Vinaya, himself.
First of all the Elder Mahakassapa asked him specifically about the ruling
first offence (parajika), with regard to the subject, the occasion, the
individual introduced, the proclamation, the repetition of the proclamation,
and the case of non-offence. Upali gave knowledgeable and adequate answers
and his remarks met with the unanimous approval of the presiding Sangha.
Thus the Vinaya was formally approved.
The Elder Mahakassapa then turned his attention to Ananda in virtue of his
reputable expertise in all matters connected with the Dhamma. Happily, the
night before the Council was to meet, Ananda attained Arahantship. The Elder
Mahakassapa, therefore, was able to question him at length with complete confidence
about the Dhamma with specific reference to the Buddha's sermons. This interrogation
on the Dhamma sought to verify the place where all the discourses were first
preached and the person to whom they had been addressed. Ananda, aided by his
word-perfect memory was able to answer accurately and so the Discourses met
with the unanimous approval of the Sangha. The First Council also gave its
official seal of approval for the closure of the chapter on the minor and lesser
rules, and approval for their observance. It took the monks seven months to
recite the whole of the Vinaya and the Dhamma and those monks sufficiently
endowed with good memories retained all that had been recited. This historic
first council came to be known as the Pancasatika because five-hundred fully
enlightened Arahants had taken part in it.
THE SECOND COUNCIL
The Second Council was called one hundred years after the Buddha's Parinibbana
in order to settle a serious dispute over the 'ten points'. This is a reference
to some monks breaking of ten minor rules. They were given to:
1. Storing salt in a horn.
2. Eating after mid-day.
3. To eating once and then going again to a village for alms.
4. Holding the Uposatha Ceremony with monks dwelling in the same locality.
5. Carrying out official acts when the assembly was incomplete.
6. Following a certain practice because it was done by one's tutor or teacher.
7. Eating sour milk after one had had his mid-day meal.
8. Drinking strong drink before it had been fermented.
9. Using a rug which was not the proper size.
10. Using gold and silver.
Their misdeeds became an issue and caused a major controversy as breaking
these rules was thought to contradict the Buddha's original teachings.
was the Second Council's patron and the meeting took place at Vesali due
to the following circumstances. One day, whilst visiting the Mahavana Grove
Vesali, the Elder Yasa came to know that a large group of monks known as
the Vajjians were infringing the rule which prohibited monk's accepting
silver by openly asking for it from their lay devotees. He immediately
criticized their behaviour and their response was to offer him a share
of their illegal
gains in the hope that he would be won over. The Elder Yasa, however declined
and scorned their behaviour. The monks immediately sued him with a formal
action of reconciliation, accusing him of having blamed their lay devotees,
Yasa accordingly reconciled himself with the lay devotees, but at the same
time, convinced them that the Vajjian monks had done wrong by quoting the
Buddha's pronouncement on the prohibition against accepting or soliciting
for gold and
silver. The laymen immediately expressed their support for the Elder Yasa
and declared the Vajjian monks to be wrong-doers and heretics saying, "the
Elder Yasa alone is the real monk and Sakyan son. All the others are not
monks, not Sakyan sons."
The stubborn and unrepentant Vajjian monks then moved to suspend the Venerable
Yasa Thera without the approval of the rest of the Sangha. When they came to
know of the outcome of his meeting with their lay devotees. The Elder Yasa,
however escaped their censure and went in search of support from monks elsewhere,
who upheld his orthodox views on the Vinaya. Sixty forest dwelling monks from
Pava and eighty monks from the southern regions of Avanti who were of the same
mind, offered to help him to check the corruption of the Vinaya. Together they
decided to go to Soreyya to consult the Venerable Revata as he was a highly
revered monk and an expert in the Dhamma and the Vinaya. As soon as the Vajjian
monks came to know this they also sought the Venerable Revata's support by
offering him the four requisites which he promptly refused. These monks then
sought to use the same means to win over the Venerable Revata's attendant,
the Venerable Uttara. At first he too, rightly declined their offer but they
craftily persuaded him to accept their offer saying, that when the requisites
meant for the Buddha were not accepted by him, Ananda would be asked to accept
them and would often agree to do so. Uttara changed his mind and accepted the
requisites. Urged on by them he then agreed to go and persuade the Venerable
Revata to declare that the Vajjian monks were indeed speakers of the Truth
and upholders of the Dhamma. The Venerable Revata saw through their ruse and
refused to support them. He then dismissed Uttara. In order to settle the matter
once and for all, the Venerable Revata advised that a council should be called
at Valikarama with himself asking questions on the ten offences of the most
senior of the Elders of the day, the Thera Sabbakami. Once his opinion was
given it was to be heard by a committee of eight monks, and its validity decided
by their vote. The eight monks called to judge the matter were the Venerables,
Sabbakami, Salha, Khujjasobhita and Vasabhagamika, from the East and four monks
from the West, the Venerables, Revata, Sambhuta-Sanavasi, Yasa and Sumana.
They thoroughly debated the matter with Revata as the questioner and Sabbakami
answering his questions. After the debate was heard the eight monks decided
against the Vajjian monks and their verdict was announced to the assembly.
Afterwards seven-hundred monks recited the Dhamma and Vinaya and this recital
came to be known as the Sattasati because seven-hundred monks had taken part
in it. This historic council is also called, the Yasatthera Sangiti because
of the major role the Elder Yasa played in it and his zeal for safeguarding
the Vinaya. The Vajjian monks categorically refused to accept the Council's
decision and in defiance called a council of there own which was called the
THE THIRD COUNCIL
The Third Council was held primarily in order to rid the Sangha of corruption
and bogus monks who held heretical views. The Council was convened in 326 B.C.
at Asokarama in Pataliputta. It was presided over by the Elder Moggaliputta
Tissa and one thousand monks under the patronage of the Emperor Asoka. Tradition
has it that he won his throne through shedding the blood of all his father's
sons save his own brother, Tissa Kumara who eventually ordained and achieved
Asoka was crowned in the two hundred and eighteenth year after the Buddha's
Parinibbana. At first he paid only token homage to the Dhamma and the Sangha
and supported members of other religious sects as well as his father had done
before him. However, all this changed when he met the pious novice-monk Nigrodha
who preached to him the, Appamada-vagga. Thereafter, he ceased supporting other
religious groups and his interest in and devotion to the Dhamma deepened. He
used his enormous wealth to build, it is said, eighty-four thousand pagodas,
temples and viharas and to support the Bhikkhus with the four requisites daily
and lavishly. His son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta were ordained and
admitted to the Sangha. Eventually, his generosity was to cause serious problems
within the Sangha. In time the order was infiltrated by many unworthy men,
holding heretical views and who were attracted to the order because of the
Emperor's generous support and costly offerings of food, clothing, shelter
and medicine. Large numbers of faithless, greedy men espousing wrong views
tried to join the order but were deemed unfit for ordination. Despite this
they seized the chance to exploit the Emperor's generosity for their own ends
and donned robes and joined the order without having been ordained properly.
Consequently, respect for the Sangha diminished. When this came to light some
of the genuine monks refused to hold the prescribed purification or Uposatha
ceremony in the company of the corrupt, heretical monks.
When the Emperor heard about this he sought to rectify the situation and dispatched
one of his ministers to the monks with the command that they perform the ceremony.
However, the Emperor had given the minister no specific orders as to what means
were to be used to carry out his command. The monks refused to obey and hold
the ceremony in the company of their false and 'thieving', companions (theyyasinivasaka).
In desperation the angry minister advanced down the line of seated monks and
drawing his sword, beheaded all of them one after the other until he came to
the King's brother, Tissa who had ordained. The horrified minister stopped
the slaughter and fled the hall and reported back to the Emperor Asoka who
was deeply grieved and upset by what had happened and blamed himself for the
killings. He sought Thera Moggaliputta Tissa's counsel. He proposed that the
heretical monks be expelled from the order and a third Council be convened
immediately. So it was that in the seventeenth year of the Emperor's reign
the Third Council was called. Thera Moggaliputta Tissa headed the proceedings
and chose one thousand monks from the the sixty thousand participants for the
traditional recitation of the Dhamma and the Vinaya, which went on for nine
months. The Emperor, himself questioned monks from a number of monasteries
about the teachings of the Buddha. Those who held wrong views were exposed
and expelled from the Sangha, immediately. In this way the Bhikkhu Sangha was
purged of heretics and bogus bhikkhus.
This council achieved a number of other important things as well. The Elder
Moggaliputta Tissa in order to refute a number of heresies and ensure the Dhamma
was kept pure, complied a book during the council called, the Kathavatthu.
This book consists of twenty-three chapters, and is a collection of discussions
(katha) and refutations of the heretical views held by various sects on matters
philosophical. It is the fifth of the seven books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka.
The members of this Council also gave a royal seal of approval to the doctrine
of the Buddha, naming it the Vibhajjavada, the Doctrine of Analysis. It is
identical with the approved Theravada doctrine.
One of the most significant achievements of this Buddhist assembly and one
which was to bear fruit for centuries to come, was the Emperor's sending forth
of monks, well versed in the Buddha's Dhamma and Vinaya who could recite all
of it by heart, to teach it in nine different countries. These Dhammaduta monks
included the Venerable Majjhantika Thera who went to Kashmir and Gandhara.
He was asked to preach the Dhamma and establish an order of monks there. The
Venerable Mahadeva was sent to Mahinsakamandala (modern Mysore) and the Venerable
Rakkhita Thera was dispatched to Vanavasi (northern Kanara in the south of
India.) The Venerable Yonaka Dhammarakkhita Thera was sent to Upper Aparantaka
(northern Gujarat, Kathiwara, Kutch and Sindh). The Venerable Maharakkhita
Thera went to Yonaka-loka (the land of the lonians, Bactrians and the Greeks.)
The Venerable Majjhima Thera went to Himavant (the place adjoining the Himalayas.)
The Venerable Sona and the Venerable Uttara were sent to Suvannabhumi (now
Myamar). The Venerable Mahinda Thera, The Venerable Ittiya Thera, the Venerable
Uttiya Thera, the Venerable Sambala Thera and the Venerable Bhaddasala Thera
were sent to Tambapanni ( now Sri Lanka). The Dhamma missions of these monks
succeeded and bore great fruits in the course of time and went a long way in
ennobling the peoples of these lands with the gift of the Dhamma and influencing
their civilizations and cultures.
THE FOURTH COUNCIL
The Fourth Council was held in Tambapanni (Sri Lanka) in 29 B.C. under the
patronage of King Vattagamani. The main reason for its convening was the realization
that it was now not possible for the majority of monks to retain the entire
Tipitaka in their memories as had been the case formerly for the Venerable
Mahinda and those who followed him soon after. Therefore, as the art of writing
had, by this time developed substantially it was thought expedient and necessary
to have the entire body of the Buddha's teaching written down. King Vattagamani
supported the monk's idea and a council was held specifically to reduce the
Tipitaka in its entirety to writing. Therefore, so that the genuine Dhamma
might be lastingly preserved, the Venerable Maharakkhita and five hundred monks
recited the words of the Buddha and then wrote them down on palm leaves. This
remarkable project took place in a cave called, the Aloka lena, situated in
the cleft of an ancient landslip near what is now Matale. Thus the aim of the
Council was achieved and the preservation in writing of the authentic Dhamma
was ensured. In the Eighteenth Century, King Vijayarajasiha had images of the
Buddha created in this cave.
THE FIFTH COUNCIL
The Fifth Council took place in Mandalay Burma now known as Myanmar in 1871
A.D. in the reign of King Mindon. The chief objective of this meeting was to
recite all the teachings of the Buddha 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 cause the entire
Tipitaka to be inscribed for posterity on seven hundred and twenty-nine marble
slabs in the Myanmar script after its recitation had been completed and unanimously
approved. This monumental task was done by some two thousand four hundred (2,400)
erudite 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.
THE SIXTH COUNCIL
The Sixth Council was called at Kaba Aye in Yangon, formerly Rangoon in 1954,
eighty-three 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. He authorized the construction of the Maha Passana Guha, 'the great cave',
an artificial cave very like India's Sattapanni Cave where the first Buddhist
Council had been held. Upon its completion The Council met on the 17th of May,
1954. As in the case of the preceding councils, its aim first objective was
to affirm and preserve the genuine Dhamma and Vinaya. However it was unique
in so far as the monks who took part in it came from eight countries. These
two thousand five hundred learned Theravada monks came from Myanmar, Cambodia,
India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. The late Venerable Mahasi
Sayadaw 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 Tipitaka rendered into their native scripts, with
the exception of India.
The traditional recitation of the Buddhist Scriptures took two years and the
Tipitaka 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. Happily, 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 Myanmar (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 in May, 1956, two and a half millennia after the Lord Buddha's
Parinibbana. This council's work was the unique achievement of representatives
from the entire Buddhist world. The version of the Tipitaka which it undertook
to produce has been recognized as being true to the pristine teachings of the
Buddha Gotama and the most authoritative rendering of them to date.
May All beings be happy!
Source: Nibbana.com, http://web.ukonline.co.uk/buddhism/