The Great Buddhist Councils


The Great Buddhist Councils

1. The Sanghayāna

Since the Great Demise of the Buddha, signifying the cessation of His personal generation and propagation of Dhamma,

the Buddhist monks (the Sangha) took it upon themselves to appropriately convene great Councils to rehearse the Teachings of the Buddha to restore it to its pristine purity.

This was done with the aim of making the Teachings of the Buddha last long and beneficially useful to the future generations of Buddhists and scholars.

2. The First Great Buddhist Council

The 1st Great Buddhist Council was convened just 3 months after the Great Demise of the Buddha.

An immoral Bhikkhu named Subhadda who had joined the Sangha (monkhood) in his old age, made derogatory remarks to the effect that monks were now free to do as they like.

That prompted the Venerable Kassapa, the third chief Disciple of the Buddha, to convene a Council of leading Arahants to protect and fortify the Buddha’s teaching. When consulted, the other senior Arahants unanimously agreed to the suggestion.

King Ajātasattu was informed and by a royal decree, all the arrangements were made for the Sangha to assemble at the entrance to the Sattā panni Cave in Rājagaha.

500 seats were arranged in the spacious hall, but only 499 distinguished Arahants were present for the Convocation:

As anticipated Venerable Ānanda who was then only a Sotāpanna (Stream winner) attained Arahantship, appeared just in time on the scene by his psychic powers to occupy the vacant seat.

In this August Assembly and first inaugural Sangha Council held three months after the Great Demise of the Buddha, the Venerable Kassapa was the presiding Arahant.

The Venerable Upāli was chosen to rehearse the Vinaya whilst the Venerable Ānanda recited the Dhamma (including the Abhi-Dhamma).

This first ever majestic Rehearsal lasted 7 months, held in the eighth year reign of King Ajātasattu, in his capital city of Rājagaha.

The Tipiṭaka

In accordance with order of priority, the Vinaya was rehearsed first. It comprised five books incorporated in three parts:-

Part I Vibhaṅga

(Major Offences)
(Minor Offences)

Part II Khanda

(Greater Sections)
(Smaller Sections)

Part III

Epitome of the Vinaya

Next to be rehearsed was the Dhamma Pitaka which consisted of 5 main collections comprising:-

1. the collection of Long Discourses
2. the collection of Middle Length Discourses
3. the collection of Kindred Sayings
4. the collection of Numerical Discourses
5. the Smaller collection of Discourses comprising the further sub-division of sixteen books.

In accordance with tradition, the Abhidhamma was rehearsed by all the Arahants present in the Sangha Council and consisted of the following 7 books:-

1. the Classification of Dhammas
2. the Books of Divisions
3. the Points of Controversy
4. the Description of Individuals
5. the Discussion with reference to the Elements
6. the Book on Pairs
7. the Book on Relations

So ended the First Great Buddhist Council convened by the most distinguished Arahants for the sake of posterity, under the royal patronage of King Ajātasattu, in the year 543 B.C.

3. The Second Great Buddhist Council

The Second Council at Vesālī was held in the tenth year of King Kalasoka’s reign, 100 years after the great Demise of the Buddha.

Just as the First Council was held for a reason, so also this Second Council was convened as a result of the Ten Unlawful Points being construed as Not Unlawful by the many shameless Bhikkhus of the Vajji clan.

The 10 Unlawful Points were as appended below:-

1. it is fit to use salt in horns, etc., etc., in order to season unsalted foods;

2. it is fit to eat food so long as the sun’s shadow has not passed the meridian by more than two fingers’ breath;

3. it is fit for a Bhikkhu who has already finished his meal, to eat another meal without going through the due Vinaya rite if he intends to enter a village;

4. it is fit to perform the Uposatha ceremony in separate buildings in the case of a large Jurisdiction;

5. it is fit to perform any Vinaya ceremony first and then take the consent of the absent Bhikkhus

6. it is fit to conform to the practise of teachers and preceptors;

7. it is fit for a Bhikkhu who has finished his meal to drink that milk which has changed its original state but has not yet become curd, without getting the due Vinaya rite done;

8. it is fit to drink unfermented palm-wine;

9. it is fit to use mats without fringes;

10. it is fit to accept gold and silver

The Venerable Yasa, hearing of these heretical teachings vowed, even at the cost of his life, to nip them in the bud. He succeeded. The Venerable Revata, when questioned about them, also declared that they were all unlawful.

Finally in the presence of 8 distinguished Arahants who had assembled at Valukarama in Vesālī, in 100 B.E. (443 B.C.) the Venerable Sabbakāmi, the most senior Arahant, being 120 years from his Upasampadā, when questioned by Venerable Revata, adjudged that they were all unlawful according to the Vinaya.

The Venerable Revata then chose 700 distinguished Arahants to hold a Council in order to safeguard the Dhamma. This Second Council lasted 8 months. King Kalasoka was the Royal Patron. The Venerable Sabbakāmi was the presiding Thera (being the most senior).

Amongst the august assembly, Arahants Sabbakāmi, Sāḷha, Revata, Khujjasobhita, Yasa, Sambhūta and Sanavasika, were all pupils of the Venerable Ānanda,

while Arahants Vasabhagamika and Sumana, pupils of the Venerable Anuruddha, had the good fortune to live in the Buddha's own time.

4. The Third Great Buddhist Council

After the conversion of King Aśoka, the wicked King, to Emperor Dharmāśoka, the King of Righteousness, he became a very staunch Buddhist ruler.

Under his royal patronage, Buddhism flourished and became widespread throughout the world. The Sangha grew in importance and greatly increased in numbers.

Tempted by worldly gain, many undesirables of other sects joined the Order and polluted the Dharma by their corrupt practises and heretical views.

When the senior-most Arahant Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa became aware of the pollution of the (Sangha) Order, he refrained from performing the Uposatha Ceremony with the Sangha for 7 years. He was living in seclusion on the banks of Ahoganga.

During this time, the Emperor Dharmāśoka pondered about a doubt he had regarding a thoughtless act done by an irresponsible minister:

The King was told that Arahant Moggaliputta Tissa would be able to clear his doubt. So the King invited him but he would not come. Failing twice, the emperor sent a third invitation to come and protect the Dharma. Then the Venerable Thera accepted the invitation.

Upon arriving at Pāṭaliputra the Emperor received him with due honour and gave him residence in his Aśokarama monastery.

The Emperor stayed there with the Venerable Arahant Moggaliputta Tissa for seven days and avidly studied the Dhamma under him.

The Bhikkhus were tested with regard to their views and the undesirables were expelled from the Noble Order. The remaining pure Bhikkhus performed the Uposatha for the first time after a lapse of seven years.

After this, the Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa took the opportunity to convene the Third Buddhist Council in order to protect the Dhamma and the Teaching.

One thousand Arahants were chosen to participate in this great Council which took place at Aśokarama, Pāṭaliputra (Patna) in the eighteenth year of Emperor Dharmāśoka’s reign. This was (in 308 B.C.) about 236 years after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.

The Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa was the presiding Thera and it was he who was responsible for the composition of the Kathāvatthu - Pakāraṇa, one of the seven books of the Abhidhamma, at this august Assembly.

5. The Fourth Great Buddhist Council

The Fourth Great Buddhist Council was held in the year BE 450/BC 94 in Aloka Cave in Malaya village in Ceylon (present Sri Lanka).

The royal patron was King Vatta Gamani.
The presiding Thera was Venerable Maha Rakkhita.

- The Ti-pitaka was committed to writing on palm leaves on that auspicious occasion.
- 500 senior monks took part and it lasted for 1 year.

6. The 5th Great Buddhist Council

The Fifth Great Buddhist Council was held in the year BE2415/AD 1871 in the city of Ratana-pun at Mandalay.

The Venerable Bhadanta Jāgarā Bhivamsa was the presiding Thera in the big assembly of 2400 monks.

The Council decided to preserve the Tipiṭaka written on marble slabs as the ones previously written on palm leaves in Ceylon would not last:

- The heavy task took 7 years 6 months and 14 days using 729 slabs.
- The Council lasted 5 months and 3 days to complete.
- Its royal patron was King Mingdon.

7. The 6th Great Buddhist Council

The latest and Sixth Great Buddhist Council was held in the year BE 2498/AD 1954 on Viśākhā Fullmoon Day at Maha Pāṣāṇa Cave in Rangoon (present Yangon).

Nyaung yang Sayadaw, Venerable Revata (Abhidhajamaharatthaguru) presided over it;

There was a total of 2,500 monks who took part, including monks from the 5 Theravada countries.

The Government of Burma was the host. It lasted 8 months.