Introduction to Buddhist Councils
A Buddhist council consists of any of several assemblies convened in the centuries following the death of the Buddha to recite approved texts of scriptures and to settle doctrinal disputes.
Buddhist monastic communities have periodically convened to settle doctrinal and disciplinary disputes and to revise and correct the contents of the sutras. These gatherings, referred to by historians as "Buddhist councils", are recorded in the Buddhist sutras as having begun immediately following the death of the Buddha and have continued into the modern era.
First Buddhist council (544 BCE)
According to the scriptures of all Buddhist schools, the first Buddhist Council was held soon after the death of the Buddha, dated by the majority of recent scholars around 544 BCE, under the patronage of the King Ajatashatru with the Thera Mahakasyapa presiding, at Sattapanni caves Rajgriha (now Rajgir). Its objective was to preserve the Buddha's sayings (suttas) and the monastic discipline or rules (Vinaya). The Suttas were recited by Ananda, and the Vinaya was recited by Upali.
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 a disparaging remark about the strict rule of life for monks.
Second Buddhist council (c 383 BCE)
The Second Buddhist Council was held at Vaisali (or Vaishali), an ancient city in what is now the state of Bihar in northern India, bordering Nepal under the patronage of King Kalasoka while it was presided by Sabakami. This Council probably was held about a century after the first one, or about 383 BCE.
The historical records for the Second Buddhist Council derive primarily from the canonical Vinayas of various schools. 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 that the root dispute was points of vinaya or monastic discipline.
The Second Council resulted in the first schism in the Sangha. Modern scholars see this event as probably caused by a group of reformists called Sthaviras who split from the conservative majority Mahasa?ghikas. This view is supported by the vinaya texts themselves, as vinayas associated with the Sthaviras do contain more rules than those of the Mahasa?ghika Vinaya.
Third Buddhist council (c 250 BCE)
The Third Buddhist council was convened in about 250 BCE at Asokarama in Pataliputra, supposedly under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka.
The traditional reason for convening the Third Buddhist Council is reported to have been to rid the Sangha of corruption in the form of enemies who in the guise of supporters had infiltrated the Sangha, as well as monks who held heretical views. The council recommended the ruler Ashoka to expel sixty thousand Brahminic spies as well as re-evaluate the Pali Canon.
It was presided over by the elder monk Moggaliputta-Tissa and one thousand monks participated in the Council. The council is recognized and known to both the Theravada and Mahayana schools, though its importance is central only to the Theravada.
Fourth Buddhist Councils (29 BCE and 78 CE)
There were two of Fourth Buddhist councils held, one in Tambapanni (Sri Lanka) at Aloka Lena now Alu Vihara during the time of King Vattagamani-Abaya 29 BCE, and another in the Sarvastivada tradition, said to have been convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, in 78 CE at Kundalban in Kashmir.
Fourth Buddhist Council in Tambapanni (Sri Lanka)
The Fourth Buddhist Council was held in 29 BCE in Tambapanni, i.e. Sri Lanka, at Aloka Lena now Alu Vihara during the time of King Vattagamani Abaya. By the time of the Fourth Buddhist councils, Buddhism had long since splintered into different schools.
The Dipavamsa states that during the reign of Vattagamani Abhaya (29–17 BCE) the monks who had previously remembered the Tipitaka and its commentary orally now wrote them down in books, because of the threat posed by famine, war, and the growing power of the newly established Abhayagiri Vihara, which enjoyed the king's favour. The Mahavamsa also refers briefly to the writing down of the canon and the commentaries at this time.
Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir
Another Fourth Buddhist Council was held in the Sarvastivada tradition, said to have been convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, in 78 CE at Kundalban in Kashmir. It is said that Kanishka gathered five hundred Bhikkhus in Kashmir, headed by Vasumitra, to systematize the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma texts, which were translated from earlier Prakrit vernacular languages (such as Gandhari in Kharosthi script) into the classical language of Sanskrit. 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 tradition.
Fifth Buddhist council in Burma (1871 CE)
The Fifth Buddhist council (Pali: Pañcamasangayana) took place in
Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar) in 1871 CE under the auspices of King Mindon of Burma (Myanmar). The chief objective of this meeting was to recite all the teachings of the Gautama Buddha according to the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism and examine them in minute detail to see if any of them had been altered, distorted or dropped. It was presided over by three elder bhikkhus, Mahathera Jagarabhivamsa, Narindabhidhaja, and Mahathera Sumangalasami in the company of two thousand four hundred (2400) monks. Their joint Dhamma recitation lasted five months.
It was also the work of this council to approve the entire Tripitaka 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 Mindons 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. The Fifth Buddhist council was a Burmese affair, and most other Buddhist countries were not involved in it. It is not generally recognized outside Burma. The results of the fifth council were limited to the Burmese edition of the Pali Canon only. However, there were a number of other councils held in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Siam (Thailand) between the fourth and sixth, so the total can be made up in other ways.
Sixth Buddhist Council in Burma (1954 CE)
The Sixth Buddhist Council (Pali: Chattha Sangayana) was a general council of Theravada Buddhism, held in a specially built cave and pagoda complex at Kaba Aye Pagoda in Yangon, Burma. The Sixth Council was sponsored by the Burmese Government led by Prime Minister U Nu. He authorized the construction of the Kaba Aye Pagoda and the Mahapasana Guha or "Great Cave" in which the work of the council took place. This venue was designed to be like the cave in which the First Buddhist council was held.
The Council was convened on 17 May 1954, 83 years after the Burmese Fifth Buddhist council was held in Mandalay. The council was attended by 2500 monastics from eight Theravada Buddhist countries. The 2500 participating Theravadan Elders came from eight different countries: Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. A temple in Japan also sent delegates. The only Western monks to participate were German-born, Sri-Lanka-residing Nyanaponika Thera. 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.
The Council commenced proceedings on Vesak, 17 May 1954, in order to allow sufficient time to conclude its work on Vesak, 24 May 1956, the day marking the 2500-year celebration of Gautama Buddha's Parinibbana according to traditional Theravada dating.
In the tradition of past Buddhist councils, a major purpose of the Sixth Council was to preserve the Buddha's teachings and practices as understood in the Theravada tradition.
Over the two-year period, monks (sangiti-karaka) from different countries recited from their existing redaction of the Pali Canon and the associated post-canonical literature. As a result, the Council synthesized a new redaction of the Pali texts ultimately transcribed into several native scripts, with the exception of India.
Preservation of Tipitaka
The 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 Buddha'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 in concert.
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.