Councils: Buddhist Councils

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Accounts considering the final events in the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, are often quick to point out that his last injunctions to his community include exhortations to remember that all compounded things are impermanent and to work diligently for the attainment of salvation. What these accounts sometimes fail to emphasize is that the Buddha also enjoined the community to appoint no successor in his stead. The Buddha was explicit in arguing that his teaching (Dharma) and disciplinary training (Vinaya) would provide sufficient guidance for the attainment of nirvāa. He further granted the community authority to abolish all lesser and minor precepts of conduct, although he failed to identify precisely which precepts he deemed minor and lesser. In the absence of an appointed or hereditary successor to leadership of the Buddhist community, and with an obvious uncertainty as to which disciplinary rules were to be retained, much confusion could be expected in the days and years following the leader's demise. To combat the anticipated disorientation, it was suggested that a council be convened whose purpose would be to solidify basic Buddhist doctrine and discipline. In this way, the transition from the ministry of the Buddha's charismatic leadership to one of a newly established social identity was softened and advanced. Further, convocation of this first Buddhist council helped to establish a precedent upon which future Buddhist communities could draw for sanction in resolving disputes.

Council Literature

Literature on these various Buddhist councils derives from both primary and secondary sources. Initially, one looks to the canonical sources, and this avenue of inquiry yields fruitful results. Appended to the Vinaya Piaka, or disciplinary portion, of each Buddhist school's canon is a section devoted to a consideration of the Buddha's death and the first two Buddhist councils. Noncanonical sources also unearth a mine of useful material. In this re-gard, we can consult such texts as the Pali Dīpavasa, as well as the Samayabhedoparacanacakra of Vasumitra, the Nikāyabhedavibhagavyākhyāna of Bhavya, the Mahāprajñāpāramita Śāstra, (often wrongly attributed to Nāgārjuna), Ji-zang's San-lun hsüan-i (based on an earlier work of Paramārtha), the Mahāvibhāā Śāstra, the Śāriputraparipcchā Sūtra, and others. There is also a wealth of secondary material in Western languages, for which the reader is referred to the appended bibliography.

Major Indian Councils

Current buddhological research enables the documentation of no fewer than five Indian Buddhist councils, each of which must be described in order to unearth its import for the history of the tradition.

The first council: Rājagha

The first Indian Buddhist council was allegedly held during the rainy season immediately following the Buddha's death in, according to the most popular reckoning, 483 bce. It was held in the capital city of King Bimbisāra, ruler of Magadha and a chief royal patron of the Buddha and the Buddhist community. With food and shelter provided, Rājagha proved to be an ideal site for the Buddhists' deliberations. Most accounts tell that a leading Buddhist monk of the time, Kāśyapa, was selected to convene the council and charged with the task of inviting an appropriate assemblage of monks. There are, however, some indications that the Buddha's first enlightened disciple, Ājñāta Kauinya, was chosen to preside, thus raising a later scholarly debate as to whether personal merit or seniority was the basis for leadership selection. In any case, as the records recount the story, five hundred monks, all having attained the status of arhat s (Pali, arahant s; "enlightened ones"), were selected to participate in the council proceedings. The plan for the enactment of the council was to have the president of the event question first Upāli, a disciple known for his mastery of the disciplinary materials, on Vinaya, and then Ānanda, allegedly the Buddha's most beloved disciple, on the various sermons of the Buddha. Sources recount, however, that at the time of his selection Ānanda was not yet enlightened. (This fact in and of itself casts some doubt on the accuracy of the account.) In due course, however, Ānanda is reported to have attained nirvāa, thus enabling him to participate in the expected fashion.

During Kāśyapa's questioning of Ānanda, reference was made to the Buddha's suggestion that the lesser and minor precepts be abolished. With the community in a quandry as to the best course of action, Kāśyapa decided to leave all disciplinary rules intact, lest the community fall into disrepute in such matters. After the recitation of the doctrinal and disciplinary materials, other issues of business were entertained and various penalties imposed on individuals who had acted incorrectly. As the convocation prepared to adjourn, a traveling monk, Purāa, arrived in Rājagha and was invited to join the proceedings. He declined, noting that he chose to remember the Dharma and Vinaya precisely as spoken by the Buddha. In so noting, further suspicion is thrown on the authority and impact of the council. Finally, the council concluded, referring to itself as the vinayasagīti, or "chanting of the Vinaya."

At least three major functions for this first council at Rājagha can be distinguished. In the first place, there is the practical concern. The council established authority for the fledgling religious community in the absence of its founder, and solidarity was enhanced as well. There was also a secondary concern to begin the post-Buddha period with communal purity confirmed. The meting out of formal penalties assured such a condition. Third, there is the obvious mythic function. A formal religious event effected a renewal of the cosmic and social order, thus providing an auspicious beginning for the religious organization's new mission. Furthermore, in the recitation of the Dharma and the Vinaya (in nothing like their later forms, however), an infant Buddhist canon was established.

The general consensus of scholarship devoted to the first council almost uniformly concludes that the canonical accounts are at best greatly exaggerated and at worst pure fiction. On a small scale, it may be safe to assume that several of the Buddha's intimates gathered after his death to consider their future plight in the Indian religious climate, but the authenticity of the dramatic event presented in the canon is highly questionable.

The Second Council: Vaiśālī

One hundred years pass before there is any further information on the historical development of the Buddhist community. The occasion for this new look into the ongoing progress of the still-infant Buddhist religion was a council held in the town of Vaiśālī. The various Vinaya accounts record that a Buddhist monk named Yaas wandered into Vaiśālī and observed the resident monks, or bhiku s (formally identified as the Vjiputraka bhiku s), engaged in ten practices that seemed to conflict with Yaas's understanding of injunctions made explicit in the Vinaya. Yaas, the tale has it, formally protested indulgence in these ten apparently illicit practices, but was rejected by the community of monks and sentenced to a penalty known as the pratisaharaīya-karma. This punishment required that he beg the pardon of the monks he had offended by his accusation and obtain their forgiveness. Although initially intending to comply with the penalty, Yaas eventually changed his mind, resolving to convince the local laity that the Vjiputraka monks were at fault. Upon learning of Yaas's renewed attack on their conduct, the resident monks further punished this young agitator with the utkepaīya-karma, literally banishing him from the community.

Undaunted by the formal act of banishment, Yaas journeyed to Kauśāmbī, seeking the support of a learned monk known as Sabhūta Śāavāsin. Another well-respected monk, Revata, also decided to come to Yaas's support on the issue of the ten practices. All the while, the Vjiputraka bhiku s were gathering supporters to their side as well. The conflict was brought to a conclusion in the convocation of a formal council in Vaiśālī. Revata was selected to preside over the proceedings. Sarvagāmin, an elder monk who had had the Buddha's direct disciple Ānanda as his upādhyāya, or teacher, was questioned on each of the ten points. One by one, Sarvagāmin rejected each point on the basis of various scriptures. With the ten practices condemned and concord renewed, the council concluded, again referring to itself as the "recital of the Vinaya" (vinayasagīti ) or as the "recital of the seven hundred," the number of monks who attended the gathering.

Of course it is necessary to consider just what these ten illicit practices were and why this particular event seems to have had so great an impact on the early Buddhist community. The ten points include: (1) preserving salt in a horn; (2) taking food when the shadow is beyond two fingers wide; (3) after finishing one meal, going to another town for another meal; (4) holding several confession ceremonies within the same monastic boundary; (5) confirming a monastic act in an incomplete assembly; (6) carrying out an act improperly and justifying it by its habitual performance in this way; (7) after eating, drinking unchurned milk that is somewhere between the states of milk and curd; (8) drinking unfermented wine; (9) using a mat without a border; and (10) accepting gold and silver. Although there is considerable scholarly disagreement concerning the meaning and implications of these practices, it is abundantly clear that each of the ten points was fully rejected by the Vinaya of each Buddhist nikāya, or school. Based on such scriptural certainty, then, is it possible to make any sense out of these points and their implications for Buddhist history?

Although a reconciliation was effected by the council of Vaiśālī, the very occasion of the council suggests forcefully that there were significant tensions and disagreements already operative in the Buddhist community. That it was divided by various factions must be assumed. To make general statements, it may be summarized that the various differences that were emerging as reflecting (1) rigorist versus laxist tendencies; (2) monastic versus lay emphases; and (3) sacred versus secular concern in the community.

Virtually all scholars conclude that the council of Vaiśālī was a historical event. Almost all sources place the event one hundred years after the Buddha's nirvāa (although two sources cite 110 years) at the Vālukārāma Monastery in Vaiśālī. Wilhelm Geiger and others have suggested that the council of Vaiśālī is the beginning point of Buddhist sectarianism, the point at which the sagha split into the Sthavira and Mahāsāghika schools. This premise, however, has been persuasively rejected by Marcel Hofinger, André Bareau, myself, and others. Thus, at the conclusion of the council of Vaiśālī, the Buddhist community remained bound together, albeit in a rather tenuous and uncertain union.

Pāaliputra I: the noncanonical council

By the time of the consecration of King Aśoka (c. 270 bce), the Buddhist sectarian movement was already well advanced. Attempts to locate the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism in the scriptures have continually failed. Nonetheless, through the painstaking efforts of Bareau, it has been possible to reconstruct the evidence of a council from which the Buddhist sectarian movement had its birth. By using primarily noncanonical sources, Bareau has been able to conclude that another council followed that of Vaiśālī by less than half a century, and it is this event that must be considered here.

In the study of this new council, only one issue can be found about which all the texts concur: that it was held in Pāaliputra. Both the date of the council and the occasion for its convocation are troublesome. Four possible dates appear in the various texts: 100 an (i.e., after the nirvāa of the Buddha), 116 an, 137 an, and 160 an. Bareau dismisses the extreme dates as "manifestly aberrant," and initially concludes that the event must have occurred either in 137 an or 116 an. According to Bareau, the former date would locate the council under the reign of King Mahāpadma the Nandin, while the latter would place the proceedings in the reign of Kālāśoka. Bareau prefers the former figure, assuming that it would take thirty-seven years or so for the cause of the council to develop fully: namely, disciplinary laxity and five disparaging theses about arhats promulgated by an apparently renegade monk named Mahādeva. In other words, Bareau feels quite certain as to the cause of the convocation, and infers the date from the cause.

As to the specifics of the council, Bareau tells us that by the reign of Mahāpadma the Nandin, the Buddhist community had divided itself into two camps, one lax in discipline and supporting the tenets of Mahādeva, the other rigorous and strongly opposed to him. Unable to resolve their dispute internally, the Buddhists approached King Mahāpadma and asked him to mediate the dispute. The king assembled the two groups in his capital of Pāaliputra, but being incompetent in religious matters, decided to put the matter to a simple vote. The "laxist" party was apparently in the majority and withdrew, calling itself the Mahāsāghikas, or "Great Assembly." The minority party referred to itself as the Sthaviras, or "Elders." Each group then began to develop its own canon and religious community.

Virtually all the early sources in Buddhist literature conclude that the council described above was a historical event. Further, they consider this initial council of Pāaliputra to be the true starting point of the sectarian movement in Buddhism. Recently, however, Bareau's conclusions as to the date and cause of the council have been questioned. Janice J. Nattier and Charles S. Prebish have suggested that the council took place in 116 an, under the reign of Kālāśoka, and that disciplinary laxity and Mahādeva's theses had nothing at all to do with the schism (1977). Based on a reevaluation of Bareau's sources and a consideration of the Śāriputraparipcchā Sūtra, Nattier and Prebish argue that the chief issue of the council, and the resulting sectarian split, was unwarranted Vinaya expansion on the part of the future Sthaviras. They are unable, at this time, to ascertain which hypothesis, if either, is correct. Nevertheless, it is clear that the sectarian movement in Buddhism emerged sometime in the century following the Vaiśālī council; by 200 bce more than a dozen sects were evident in the Buddhist community.

Pāaliputra II: the third canonical council

No king has been more important for the early history of Buddhism in its native land than Aśoka. Although the traditional Buddhist legends tend to conflict somewhat with the picture of Aśoka revealed by his numerous rock edicts and inscriptions, it has generally been concluded that Aśoka was a pious ruler, sympathetic to the many Buddhists in his domain. By utilizing materials in the Pali Dīpavasa, Mahāvasa, Mahā-bodhivasa, and Samantapāsādikā, one can construct a fairly accurate account of the events leading up to the third Buddhist council, and of the council itself.

The Mahāvasa (v. 280) indicates that the close of the council was in the seventeenth year of Aśoka's reign. The Dīpavasa notes the date as 236 an, or 247 bce. Apparently, "heretics" had been entering the Buddhist community for some time, undermining the Dharma, and therefore weakening the entire social and religious structure of the sagha. In order to remedy the situation, Aśoka chose a famous monk, Moggaliputtatissa, to preside over a huge assembly of a thousand monks, who were to determine and restore orthodoxy. Under Tissa's guidance the offending viewpoints were rejected; eventually it was concluded that the Buddha was a vibhajyavādin, or "distinctionist." The viewpoints under discussion were recorded in a now well-known Abhidharma text, the Kathāvatthu.

There is no question that this council was a historical event. It is curious, however, that it is mentioned only in the Pali accounts, lending weight to the supposition that the council may have been only a "party meeting" of the Vibhajyavāda sect. It is now well known that this sect was the parent of the Theravāda nikāya. Other possibilities for the function of the council include the separation of the Sarvāstivādin group (the heretical faction under this interpretation) from the Sthavira proper.

The council of Kanika

Near the end of the first century ce, Kanika became the ruling monarch of the great Kushan dynasty. He tried hard to emulate Aśoka's example of ruling in accord with the Buddhist Dharma, and championed the Sarvāstivādin school of Buddhism. From his capitals of Purusapura and Mathura, he wielded much power in the Buddhist world. Near the end of his reign, about 100 ce, Kanika sponsored a council, probably in Gandhara (but possibly in Kashmir), to consider the doctrines of the Sarvāstivādin school.

Following the suggestion of the Sarvāstivādin scholar Pārśva, invitations were sent to all the learned Buddhists of the time, from whom 499 were finally chosen to attend the conference. Great debates were held on various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, and especially on the Abhidharma. The venerable scholar Vasumitra was president of the council, assisted by Aśvaghoa. A new Vinaya was committed to writing at the conference, and a great commentary, known as the Mahāvibhāā, on the Abhidharma text of the Jñānaprasthāna was compiled. There is no question but that the position this council occupies in the history of the Sarvāstivāda nikāya is analogous to that of the council convened by Aśoka nearly four centuries earlier for the history of the Theravāda nikāya.

No collective meeting in Indian Buddhism ever attained the importance of the five heretofore considered. All of the other major convocations were to take place outside of the Buddhist homeland.

Other Ancient Councils

Recognizing the impact the Indian Buddhist councils have had on the continued growth of the religion in its native land, councils have periodically met in other Buddhist countries as well. Of course Aśoka was renowned for exporting Buddhism through a series of missionary endeavors, with Sri Lanka at the forefront of his enterprise. Equally, within several centuries of the close of King Kanika's reign in India, Buddhism had spread into Central Asia, China, and Tibet. It is no surprise then, that Sri Lanka and Tibet were the sites of other ancient Buddhist councils.

The fourth Theravādin council

Records indicate that Aśoka's son Mahinda, a Buddhist monk, was sent to Sri Lanka to propagate the religion. Upon receiving Mahinda's teaching, King Devānapiyatissa became a lay disciple and established a Buddhist monastery, called the Mahāvihāra, in his capital city of Anurādhapura. A branch of the bodhi tree was exported to Sri Lanka, and an ordination lineage was started for monks and nuns.

During the first century the Buddhist order was threatened by invading Tamils from South India and King Vaagāanī was forced into exile for fourteen years (4329 bce). After reassuming the throne, the king found his land threatened by famine and the religious tradition split by schismatic rumblings. To combat rising religious unrest, it was decided to convene a conference in the capital city (in 25 bce), in the by then old and famous Mahāvihāra. The prime function of the proceedings was to write down the scriptural texts of the Theravādin school of Buddhism in the Pali language. Thus the formal Tipiaka ("three baskets," i.e., the Buddhist canon) was established, providing an institutionalized basis for the continued growth and development of the Theravāda tradition. In addition, the Mahāvihāra community had an apparently orthodox, authoritative textual ground from which to refute their rivals in the Mahāyāna-leaning community of the Abhayagiri Monastery. Eventually, the Pali scriptures compiled at this council found their way into all the Theravādin countries of South and Southeast Asia.

The Lhasa council in Tibet

By the middle of the seventh century of the common era Tibet had an unusual political and religious relationship to India and China. King Srong bstan sgam po of Tibet seems to have been married to both Nepalese and Chinese wives, and there was a clear influx of Buddhist ideas from each of these countries. After the great monastery at Bsam yas was completed in 787, a Sarvāstivādin ordination lineage was established, and the institution became a lively place for the discussion of a wide variety of religious viewpoints.

Although King Khri srong lde btsan (r. 759797?) was able to undermine the claims to state religion of the indigenous Bon religion, his reign was further aggravated by internal disputes among the Buddhists in his kingdom. Not only did the Tantric tradition advanced by Padmasambhava conflict with older Indian ideas maintained by Śāntirakita, but a Chinese monk (generally called Hva-shang, or simply Mahāyāna) argued against Śāntirakita as well.

As a resolution to the problem, it was suggested that a council be held at court (in 792794 ce), with the king in attendance. To present the traditional Buddhist viewpoint, Śāntirakita's pupil Kamalaśīla was invited to Tibet. Mahāyāna argued the Chinese position. Two chief issues were considered. First, the Chinese monk argued that buddhahood was attained suddenly, intuitively, while the Indian monk maintained that the path to enlightenment was gradual. Second, the Indian representative argued, as a corollary to the prior point, for the positive value of meritorious action, while Mahāyāna offered a radical opposition. In a lively debate, the Chinese position was clearly defeated (so say the prevailing accounts of the Indian faction), establishing the efficacy of the Indian standpoint for Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese were forced in no uncertain terms to leave the country, as is reported through both a Chinese source in the Dun-huang manuscripts and the works of Kamalaśīla (preserved in Sanskrit and Tibetan), but the memory of this monumental debate persisted in the minds of many Tibetan Buddhists for generations.

Modern Councils

In the millennium between 800 and 1800 ce little mention was made of Buddhist councils. To be sure, there were numerous proceedings of local import in the various Buddhist countries, but it was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that another council took place of major impact for the entire Buddhist world.

The fifth Theravādin council

In the Buddhist culture of Southeast Asia it is not at all unusual for royal monarchs to be religious scholars, with prior training from within the Buddhist monastic order. Rama IV of Thailand, for instance, developed extensive scholarship in the Pali texts during his twenty-seven years as a monk. It was in this tradition that King Mindon Min of Burma (r. 18521877) convened the fifth Theravādin council in Mandalay in 1871. The purpose of the council was explicit: to revise the Pali texts. To insure the survival of the new scriptures the king had all the texts entombed in stupas, thus preserving the 729 marble tablets upon which the texts were inscribed.

The sixth Theravādin council

In 1954, nearly one hundred years after the Mandalay council, the sixth Theravādin council was convened in Rangoon, Burma, by the prime minister, U Nu. The fact that the twenty-five hundredth anniversary of the Buddha's death was approaching made the notion of a council even more auspicious. The basic function of this sixth council was to recite and confirm the entire Pali canon. Nearly two years of preparations were made prior to its inauguration on May 17, 1954.

U Nu delivered the initial address, charging the twenty-five hundred monks in attendance to work diligently at reciting and editing these important scriptural resources. For two years recitation proceeded, culminating with closure on the twenty-five hundredth anniversary of the Buddha's death (according to Burmese reckoning). The council, in addition to having tremendous religious significance, was a national festival in Burma, and established solidarity among all Theravāda Buddhists there and throughout Asia.

The World Fellowship of Buddhists

In an attempt to carry on the spirit demonstrated by the various Buddhist councils, the World Fellowship of Buddhists was established in 1950 as an expression of true religious ecumenism. The Fellowship has exercised its lofty intention through a series of conferences in various Buddhist countries. These conferences have sometimes expressed political as well as religious concerns, but they nonetheless reflect a spirit of cooperation that is thoroughly consistent with the very first Buddhist conclave, held in the rainy season following the Buddha's death in 483 bce.

See Also

Aśoka; Buddha; Devānapiyatissa; Kamalaśīla; Moggaliputtatissa; Śāntarakita; Theravāda.


The best general, comprehensive work on the issue of Indian Buddhist councils is André Bareau's Les premiers conciles bouddhiques (Paris, 1955). Much of this material, and the work of other researchers, is summarized in Charles S. Prebish's "A Review of Scholarship on the Buddhist Councils," Journal of Asian Studies 33 (February 1974): 239254. A useful study of the Rājagha council is presented in Jean Przyluski's Le concile de Rājagha (Paris, 19261928). An equally valuable resource for the Vaiśālī council is Marcel Hofinger's Étude sur la concile de Vaiśālī (Louvain, 1946). The Vaiśālī council is also discussed in Paul Demiéville's "À propos du concile de Vaiśālī, "T'soung pao 40 (1951): 239296, and Nalinaksha Dutt's "The Second Buddhist Council," Indian Historical Quarterly 35 (March 1959): 4556. For a somewhat dated but still important viewpoint, consult Louis de La Vallée Poussin's "The Buddhist Councils," Indian Antiquary 37 (1908): 118, 81106. The most recent and controversial material on Indian Buddhist councils is presented in Janice J. Nattier and Charles S. Prebish's "Mahāsāghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism," History of Religions 16 (February 1977): 237272. For non-Indian councils, Demiéville's Le concile de Lhasa (Paris, 1952) effectively covers the Tibetan materials. Donald Smith's Religion and Politics in Burma (Princeton, 1965) is helpful for Theravādin proceedings, and Buddhism in the Modern World, edited by Heinrich Dumoulin and John Maraldo (New York, 1976), offers a constructive overview.

New Sources

Bechert, Heinz. "The Importance of Asoka's So-Called Schism Edict." In Indological and Buddhist Studies: Volume in Honour of Professor J. W. de Jong on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by L. A. Hercus et al., pp. 6168. Canberra, 1982.

Bechert, Heinz, ed. Zur Schulzugehörigkeit von Werken der Hīnayāna-Literatur. Göttingen, 19851987.

Cousins, Lance. "The 'Five Points' and the Origins of the Buddhist Schools." In The Buddhist Forum: Seminar Papers 198788, edited by T. Skorupski, pp. 2760. London, 1991.

Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era. Translated by Sara Webb-Boin. Louvain-la-Neuve, 1988. See pages 124139.

Prebish, Charles S. "Buddhist Councils and Divisions in the Order." In Buddhism: A Modern Perspective, edited by Charles S. Prebish, pp. 2126. Delhi, 1995.

Prebish, Charles S. "Saiksa-Dharmas Revisited: Further Considerations of Mahasamghika Origins." History of Religions 35 (1996): 258270.

Ruegg, D. Seyfort. Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective: On the Transmission and Reception of Buddhism in India and Tibet, London, 1992.

Wang, B. "Buddhist Nikayas through Ancient Chinese Eyes." In Buddhist Studies Present and Future (IABS 10th International Conference 1991), edited by Ananda W. P. Guruge, pp. 6572. Sri Lanka, 1992.

Charles S. Prebish (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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