Six Buddhist councils
Six Buddhist councils have been held since the “Maha Parinirvana” (death) of our great Buddha in the 2600 year old Buddhist history. These were held to safeguard and conserve the original teachings of our great Buddha from internal and external pressures. These helped to deal with robed rogues with misconceptions and dispel them from the Buddhist order cleansing it.
We should be grateful to all those devoted, virtuous and respectful monks who passed down our great Buddha’s original teachings in the oral tradition since his ‘Parinirvana’.
The great disciplinarians and educators of Dhamma among the monks, assembled to clarify the original teachings (Suttas), monastic rules and guidelines (Vinaya) of our great Buddha in these councils. These helped to preserve the pure Buddhist teachings and pass them in the oral tradition to the future generations, unadulterated.
All these monks believed that monastic discipline is the life of the religious order and as long as the monastic rules are adhered to, the Buddhist order would continue to exist. Therefore, all the monastic rules laid by our great Buddha were carried forward despite our great Buddha’s permission to change the lesser and minor ones, when necessary, with the unanimous agreement of all the monks.
Once Buddha told Venerable Ananda that after his Parinirvana, his teachings and the monastic rules laid by him would be their guide. Therefore, preserving them properly became the greatest duty of the monks.
The first three Buddhist councils were held in India, the fourth in Sri Lanka and the fifth & sixth in Myanmar (Burma).
1) The First Buddhist Council (c. 486 BCE)
This was held three months after our great Buddha passed away, at the entrance to the cave named “Sapthaparni”, in Rajgir, India, under the patronage of ‘King Ajasatta’. Arahanth Maha Kashyapa presided and 500 learned monks attended this council.
Since our great Buddha preached Dhamma and laid monastic rules whenever the opportunity arose, they had not been categorized properly. The main objective of this council was to sort them out appropriately.
Our great Buddha’s teachings (Suttas) were recited by Arahanth Ananda and were separated into five groups (Nikayas). These five groups made up the ‘Sutta Pitaka’ in the Pali Canon. They were handed over to five sets of monks to carry forward in the oral tradition.
Deegha Nikaya – consisted of long Suttas. Given to Arahanth Ananda & his pupils to carry forward.
Majjima Nikaya – consisted of medium size Suttas. Given to Arahanth Sariputhra’s pupils to carry forward.
Anguththara Nikaya – consisted of Suttas which increased numerically one by one. Given to Arahanth Anuruddha & his pupils to carry forward.
Samyuktha Nikaya – consisted of Suttas which were interconnected with information on
Dhamma. Given to Arahanth Kashyapa & his pupils to carry forward.
Khuddaka Nikaya – consisted of short Suttas. Given to all monks to carry forward.
It is believed that the “Abhidhamma Pitaka” too, was recited under the theme “Dhamma” in this council.
Arahanth Upali recited the monastic rules & guidelines. These too were categorized into five groups which made up the “Vinaya Pitaka” of the Pali Canon.
Parajika Pali & Pachittiya Pali – Contain precepts of discipline for the ordained monks.
Chullawagga Pali & Mahawagga Pali – Contain enactments which should be carried out by the ordained monks collectively for the survival of the Bhikku order.
Parivara Pali – Contain enactments pertaining to individual and collective behavior of the monks.
2) The Second Buddhist Council (c. 386 BCE)
This was held hundered years after our great Buddha passed away, at the “Valukarama”, in Vesali, India, under the patronage of ‘King Kalasoka’.
Venerable Revata thero presided and 700 learned monks attended this council.
A group of monks named ‘Vajjians’ had been breaching ten monastic rules which was noticed by a visiting monk named “Yasa’.
They were :
Storing salt in horns to make their meals tasty whenever necessary.
Having meals after mid-day.
Eating once and then going again for alms to a village for more food.
Holding the Uposatha Ceremonies in the same building where monks dwell.
Performing Vinaya ceremonies when the number of monks in the assembly is incomplete.
Following a certain practice because it was carried out by a monk’s tutor or a teacher.
Eating curd (sour milk) after the mid-day meal.
Drinking unfermented palm wine.
Using a wrong sized mat or rug.
Accepting and using money (gold & silver).
When Vajjians didn’t heed to his advice, Venerable Yasa reported them to the highly respected monk of that time Venerable Revata, who called for a council. The above ten violations of rules by the Vajjians were passed as unlawful in the council creating the ‘Great Schism’ of Buddhism when the Vajjians refused this verdict and held a council of their own.
The radical Vajjian monks were expelled from the order and became known as the Mahasanghikas or the ‘Great Community’. The traditional monks associated with Ven. Revata became known as the Sthavarivadins or the ‘Community of the Elders’ (Pure ‘Theravada’ tradition).
3) The Third Buddhist Council (c. 250 BCE)
This was held about two hundered years after our great Buddha passed away, at the
“Asokarama”, in Pataliputta, India, under the patronage of ‘Emperor Asoka’.
Venerable Moggaliputtatissa thero presided and 1000 learned monks attended this council.
Emperor Asoka’s generosity to Buddhism brought lot of greedy and objectionable people to the Bhikku order. There had been nearly sixty thousand imposters as monks who had been spreading an unorthodox vision in the name of Buddhism. Seeing the immense damage that has been happening to Buddhism, King Asoka requested the eminent monk, Venerable Moggaliputtatissa thero to intervene and put an end to the sad state of affairs.
All bogus and corrupt monks who held improper views were questioned and exposed, dispelling them from the Bhikku order.
“Kathavaththu Pakarana”, which analyzes and contradicts the unorthodox views was compiled by Venerable Moggaliputtatissa thero and was added to the “Abhidharma Pitaka” as its fifth book.
Missionary monks were sent to nine regions around India to spread Buddhism under Emperor Asoka’s “Dharma Wijaya Programme”.
Those nine regions were :
1) Kashmir – Gandhara(modern day Nothern Pakisthan & Eastern Afghanistan). Located mainly in the Peshawar Valley.
Venerable Majjhanthika Thero was the missionary whose first sermon was “Asivisopama Sutta”
2) Mahisa Mandala (modern Mysore)
Venerable Mahadeva Thero was the missionary whose first sermon was “Devadutha Sutta”
3) Vanavasi Deshaya (modern Indian state of Tamil Nadu)
Venerable Rakkhitha Thero was the missionary whose first sermon was “Anamathagga Sutta”
4) Aparantha Deshaya (an ancient geographical region in the Indian Western border which consists of modern Northern Konkan, Northern Gujarat, Kathiawar, Kachch & Sindh)
A Greek monk named Venerable Dhammarakkhitha Thero was the missionary whose first sermon was “Aggikkhandhopama Sutta”
5) Maharatta (Maharashtra is a great region extending from the Arabian Sea on the West to the Satpura mountains in the North, comprises a good part of Western & Central India.)
Venerable Maha Dhammarakkhitha Thero was the missionary whose first sermon was “Maha Narada Kassapa Jathaka”
6) Yonaka Ratta (modern Sialkot in the North-east of Panjab Province in Pakistan)
Venerable Maha Rakkhitha Thero was the missionary whose first sermon was “Kalama Sutta”
7) Himawantha Pradesh (modern Nepal & Northern Himalayas)
Venerable Majjhima Thero was the missionary whose first sermon was “Dhamma Chakka Pawaththan Sutta”
8) Swarnabhoomi ( modern Mayanmar & Thailand)
Venerable Sona and Uththara Theros were the missionaries whose first sermon was “Brahmajala Sutta”
9) Thambapanni (modern Sri Lanka)
Arahanth Mahinda was the missionary whose first sermon was “Chullahaththi Padopama Sutta”
4) The Fourth Buddhist Council ( c. 29 BCE / 100 CE)
This was held during the reign of King Walagamba (Vattagamini Abhaya), under the patronage of a regional chieftain at “Alu Vihara” , Matale, in Sri Lanka.
Venerable Maharakkhitha thero presided and 500 learned monks attended this council.
This was held just after a foreign invasion and a severe famine which almost destroyed the country’s economy, state of affairs and Buddhism. Most of the learned Buddhist monks had left the country and the religion handed down in the oral tradition was in the verge of extinction. This prompted the ‘Maha Vihara bhikkus’ who had been conserving and protecting Buddhism and the sacred Bo tree brought by Arahanth Mahinda and Theri Sanghamitta during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa to Sri Lanka, to take necessary steps. Instead of passing down Buddha’s teachings in the oral tradition, they decided to write them down.
After King Walagamba’s return to power, he had built the massive ‘Abhayagiri Vihara Complex’ and handed it over as a private offering to Venerable ‘Mahatissa’ thero who had helped him during the war, instead of offering it to the Buddhist Order which was the accepted practice. This brought the first schism among the bhikkus in Sri lanka when ‘Maha Vihara bhikkus’ expelled Venerable ‘Mahatissa’ thero and his pupils from their order for accepting a private offering. This made a rift between the king and the ‘Maha Vihara bhikkus’ as well.
This made the ‘Maha Vihara bhikkus’ to have the fourth Buddhist Council elsewhere from Anuradhapura, the Capital at the time.
They chose Alu Vihara in Matale, in the Central Province under the patronage of a regional chieftain.
When the famine and the war were over, all the monks who had left the country returned. 500 of those learned monks assembled and wrote our great Buddha’s teachings (The Pali Canon) on ola leaves at the Fourth Buddhist Council. This was the greatest step ever taken in the history of Buddhism. This act preserved the original teachings of our great Buddha. Even if the Buddhist Order was destroyed in many countries, the untainted teachings of our great Buddha (Dhamma), remained protected by this act.
Now these Pali texts are translated into many languages and are available worldwide.
5) The Fifth Buddhist Council ( 1871)
This was held at “Mandalay”, in Mayanmar (Burma), under the patronage of
Venerable Jagarabhivamsa thero presided and 2400 learned Burmese monks attended this council.
This council was entirely a Burmese affair, and was held to recite all the teachings of Buddha ensuring that nothing was misrepresented or left out.
After the affirmation, the entire ‘Thripitaka” (Buddhist Pali Canon) was inscribed on 729 marble slabs which still stand at the Kuthodaw Pagoda, at the foot of the Mandalay Hill.
6) The Sixth Buddhist Council ( 1954)
This was held at “Yangon”, in Mayanmar (Burma), under the patronage of
the Burmese government led by the then Prime Minister U Nu.
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw thero presided and 2500 learned monks from different countries ( Burma,Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia, Nepal, Laos, Thailand & Vietnam) attended this council.
This was held to confirm and preserve the original Dhamma and Vinaya of the Buddhist Order. Two years of meticulous inspection and correction brought the final draft which was approved by the council unanimously and was printed on modern presses.
At the end of this council, all the participating countries had the Buddhist Pali Canon translated into their native language except India.