Buddhism > Buddhist Council


Buddhist council, 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. Not all councils are recognized by all the traditions; on occasion they resulted in schisms within the Buddhist community.

Reasons for the First council

There are several reasons that led to the convening of the first Buddhist council. Understandably, the Buddha’s death was a great loss to most of his followers, except the deeply realised disciples, and many were plunged into deep grief. But there were also some rebellious monks during the lifetime of Buddha.

One incident involved the monk Subhadda who was heard by Mahā  kāśyapa (also known as Kāśyapa) saying “Do not cry. Do not lament. We are freed from the ruthless master, we are free from his advice- do this, don’t do that. Today, we can do whatever we like.”
This was alarming to Venerable Mahā kāśyapa that such a comment was made within the monk community so shortly after the Buddha’s death. Venerable Mahā kāśyapa, the third chief disciple of the Buddha, called a meeting of the leading arahants in order to protect and preserve the teachings. The other elder monks were consulted and they all welcomed the suggestion.

Also the Buddha did not choose a successor to be the leader of the Sangha. He had advised the following: If you want to see the path, let Dhamma and Vinaya be your guides and teachers as mentioned in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Hence, the council has to be convened so that Dhamma and Vinaya could be recited and remembered.
There were feeling of doubt and dismay then prevailing among the people that the Dhamma preached by the Lord would disappear along with his departure. The meeting would ensuring consistency in teaching and to reduce risk of disinformation, deliberate or otherwise.

There were no single source of teachings or a single person who knew all the teachings of the Buddha. Venerables Sariputta and Mogallana, the 2 chief disciples of Buddha had passed away before the Buddha. Buddha was a wayfarer and he gave discourses to different kinds of people, like kings, robbers, monks, nuns, courtesans, and etc. The Dhamma-Vinaya existed then only in the collective memory of monks and layfolks.

The First council had to be convened soon so that the true dhamma and vinaya could be chanted and remembered while the memory of the Dhamma and Vinaya still fresh.

The First Council

There is no specific date for the first council but it is agreed that it took place within 3 months of the Buddha’s passing.
Mahakassapa had contacted King Ajatasattu to inform him of the intentions of the Sangha. King Ajatasattu then made all necessary arrangements for the monks to meet and the location chosen was the Sattapanni Cave in Rājagṛha (modern Rājgīr, Bihār state, India) So the first council, took place during the first rainy season following the Buddha’s death (in about 487 B.C.). It lasted for 7 months.

Mahakassapa chose 499 famous arahants were for the meeting. The last place was reserved for Venerable Ananda who was a still a Sotapanna.

In the Cullavagga, it is stated that the bhikkhus strongly interceded for Ananda, though he had not attained Arhanthood as he had reached very high moral standard and he had learnt the Dhamma and Vinaya from Buddha himself.  Mahakassapa eventually accepted venerable Ananda as a result of the motion on the part of the monks.

Soon there was only one more day before the meeting was to begin. The Venerable Ananda thought, “The meeting is tomorrow. It is not right for me to go to the meeting as a mere learner and not an arahant. I must try very hard to purify my mind in the little time left to me”.
He spent much of the night in the Contemplation of the Body, one of the meditation exercises taught by the Buddha for the purification of mind. When it was almost dawn, he thought, ” I shall lie down,” but he kept mindful of the body. Before his head touched the pillow and after he raised his feet off the ground, all the remaining defilements disappeared from his mind. Venerable Ananda attained arahanthood on the eve of the Council.


The procedure was a simple one. With the permission of the assembled Sangha, Venerable Mahakassapa asked questions of the Vinaya (monastic discipline), of Venerable Upali. Questions were with regards to where, to whom and the subject of the reason for the Vinaya rule. In this way, the Parajikas and Vinaya rules of both Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni orders were agreed upon at the Council with permission of the assembled Sangha.

Upali had been a low-caste barber who met the Buddha when he was asked to cut the Buddha’s hair. Some years later, when he became the Buddha’s disciple, the Buddha treated him as an equal of the highest-caste monks.

Upali repaid the Buddha for his courtesy by learning and keeping the Precepts. As the expert on rules, he was not always popular with other monastics. Once when the Buddha heard that Upali had been treated disrespectfully by other followers, he gave them all a lecture on the importance of the Precepts.

By the time of the Council Upali was in his 70s, and at first he declined Mahakasyapa’s invitation to the Council. But Mahakasyapa implored him to come, and so he relented and presented a recitation of the rules for the monastic orders.

Then Mahakassapa in turn questioned Venerable Ananda. Ananda was also the Buddha’s cousin and known for his ability to remember everything he heard. Ananda had been Buddha’s personal assistant for 25 years and he had heard very much from the mouth of the Buddha.

The subject matter of Sutta pitaka in all of the 5 Nikayas, was formulated as questions for Ananda who gave the appropriate answers. They were formulated in the same lines as those adopted for the Vinaya – to whom and where was the sermon given: Person or persons who were given the sermon; Venue of the sermon.

The sutta would start with, “Evam me sutam – thus have I heard….”

None of this would be committed to writing for a long time. The Vinaya and Sutta-pitaka were memorized and chanted by generations of monks before being committed to writing. Eventually the Abhidharma or Abhidhamma would be added to this canon to make up the Tipitika, or “three baskets,” that remain the main body of scriptures for Theravada Buddhism.

The Texts of the First Buddhist Council:

Vinaya Pitaka comprises the following:

  1. Parajika Pali                            Major Offences
  2. Pacittiya Pali                           Minor Offences
  3. Mahavagga Pali                       Greater Section
  4. Cullavagga Pali                       Lesser Section
  5. Parivara Pali                            Summary and Classification of Vinaya

Sutta Pitaka comprises of the following 5 Nikayas(collections)

Digha NikayaCollection of Long discourses  34 discourses  
Majjhima Nikaya Collection of Middle length discourses   152 discourses
Samyutta Nikaya Collection of Related discourses7,762 discourses  
Anguttara NikayaCollection of Numerical discourses  9,557 discourses
Khuddaka Nikaya Minor Collection

Khuddaka Nikaya is divided into fifteen books:

  1. Khuddaka Patha – Minor Readings
  2. Dhammapada – Path of Truth
  3. Udana – Paeans of Joy
  4. Itivuttaka – “Thus Said” Discourses
  5. Sutta Nipata – Collected Discourses
  6. Vimana Vatthu – Stories of Celestial Mansions
  7. Peta Vatthu – Stories of Petas
  8. Theragatha – Verses of elder monks
  9. Therigatha – Verses of elder nuns
  10. Jataka – Birth stories of the Bodhisatta
  11. Niddesa – Expositions
  12. Patisambhida – Book on Analytical Knowledge
  13. Apadana – Lives of Arahants
  14. Buddhavamsa – Lineage of the Buddha
  15. Cariya Pitaka – Modes of Conduct

Bhanakas are speakers who recite the teachings and are responsible for the spread of the teachings. It was said that the Bhanakas for

Digha Nikaya              –           Ananda & disciples
Majjhima Nikaya         –           Sariputta’s disciples
Samyutta Nikaya        –           Mahakassapa & disciples
Anguttara Nikaya       –           Anuruddha & disciples

Second Buddhist Council (Vaisali c. 386 BCE)

The Second Buddhist council took place approximately one hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinibbāṇa. It took place at the “Valukarama”, in Vesali, India, under the patronage of ‘King Kalasoka’.

Virtually all scholars agree that the second council was a historical event. Traditions regarding the Second Council are confusing and ambiguous, but it is agreed that the overall result was the first schism in the Saṃgha, between the Sthaviras and the Mahāsāṃghikas, although it is not agreed upon by all what the cause of this split was.

After 100 years after the death of the Buddha, Buddhism in India seems to have consisted of several regional organisations each having their own characteristics. This was the inevitable result of difficulties in communication. There was little or no contact between the groups, due to the great distances between the regions. Therefore it is not surprising that there existed differences in the teaching.

During those 100 years several rules were changed by some monasteries. Ten rules for monks were adapted to suit the new times by the Vajjiputtas. These monks lived in Vesali. That city was a commercial centre with a monetary economy. The Vajjiputtas had to accept alms in monetary form. For the inhabitants of Vesali it was quite natural at that time to give money instead of food. But there arose difficulties. A monk named Yasa, belonging to the group of the Elders, travelled through Vesali. He saw that the monks there accepted monetary gifts from the laymen and he protested against it. When Vajjians didn’t heed to his advice, Venerable Yasa reported them to the highly respected monk of that time Venerable Revata.           

These 10 rules were:
1. Storing salt in a horn. 
2. Eating after midday. 
3. 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 his midday meal. 
8. Consuming strong drink before it had been fermented. 
9. Using a rug which was not the proper size. 
10. Using gold and silver.

Some version of the story also say that others of the 10 rules are also broken, including eating meals after noon and drinking alcohol.

Thus this led to the Second Council. Venerable Revata thero was a Arahant and who was respected by both sides. He was chosen to lead the 700 learned monks who attended this council.

The assembled 700 senior monks, representing several factions of the sangha, ruled against the money-handling monks and declared that the original rules would be maintained. The above ten violations of rules by the Vajjians were passed as unlawful in the council creating the ‘Great Schism’ of Buddhism. The Council at Vesali lasted eight months and after it ended a new meeting was held by the Vajjiputtas and their followers. That meeting was named ‘The Great Recitation’. The Tipitaka was changed in accordance with their own interpretations and new texts were added. From this there arose a separate school, the Mahāsanghikas.

Theravāda was strongly represented in the western part of North India. The Mahāsanghika-school was chiefly established in the eastern part. But a clear division cannot be made. Monks of different schools lived together in harmony in the same monasteries. And wandering monks were not asked to which school they belonged.

Some belive there was another Council held after this to discuss the “Great Schism” between two major schools, the Schavira or Sthavira (“elders”) and Mahasanghika (“great assembly”). Sthavira was a forerunner of Theravada Buddhism, and Mahasanghika was a now-extinct school that developed some of the doctrines associated with Mahayana Buddhism, which emerged later.

Third Buddhist Council (Pataliputra 250 BC)

In 232 B.C.E., a third Council was convened at Pataliputta (Patna) by Emperor Asoka at the request of Venerable Moggalliputta Tissa. The Third Council was held primarily to rid the Saṅgha of corruption and bogus monks who held heretical views.  The council is recognized and known to both the Theravada and Mahayana schools, though its importance is central only to the Theravada school.

According to tradition one reason for the corruption was The Emperor’s generous support of the monasteries had caused many men to seek monk’s ordination to receive food, clothing and shelter, but they weren’t terribly interested in the dharma and held many non-Buddhist views. 

Thera Moggaliputta Tissa headed the proceedings and chose one thousand monks from 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.

At the end of this Council the Venerable Moggalliputta Tissa composed a book, the Kathavattu, in which he set out to disprove the wrong opinions and theories of a number of sects. The teaching that was approved and accepted by this Council, was known as Theravāda. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was also was compiled during this council.

Fourth Buddhist Council

Fourth Buddhist Council is the name of two separate Buddhist council meetings. The first one was held in the 1st century BC, in Sri Lanka. In this fourth Buddhist council the Theravadin Pali Canon was for the first time committed to writing, on palm leaves. The second one was held by the Sarvastivada school, in Kashmir around the 1st century AD.

Fourth Buddhist Council (Sri Lanka c. 29 BCE / 100 CE)

The Fourth Buddhist Council was held during the reign of King Walagamba (Vattagamini Abhaya r. 103-77 BCE), under the patronage of a regional chieftain at “Alu Vihara”, Matale, in Tambapanni (Sri Lanka).

The Fourth Buddhist Council (Theravada tradition) 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.

Because the Pali Canon was in that time solely remembered by heart, the surviving monks recognized the danger of not writing the teachings of the Tipitaka down, so that even if some of the monks (whose duty it was to study and remember parts of the Tipitaka for later generations) died, the teachings would not be lost. 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. This Fourth Buddhist Council took three years.

King Vattagamani supported the monk’s idea and a council was held specifically to commit the entire Tipitaka to writing, so that the genuine Dhamma might be lastingly preserved. To this purpose, 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 18th century, King Vijayarajasiha had images of the Buddha created in this cave. After the Council, palm leaves books appeared, and were taken to other countries, such as Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. The Tipitaka and its commentaries were originally brought to Sri Lanka by the missionary monk Mahinda of the Third Buddhist Council.

Fourth Buddhist Council (Kashmir in 72 AD)

The Fourth Buddhist Council was held at Kundalvana, Kashmir in 72 AD under the patronage of King Kanishka (Kanishka ruled the ancient Kushan Empire, which was west of Gandhara and included part of modern-day Afghanistan) and the president of this council was Vasumitra, with Aśvaghosa as his deputy. This council distinctly divided the Buddhism into 2 sects Mahayan & Hinayan. The Fourth Council of Kashmir is not recognized as authoritative in Theravada; reports of this council can be found in scriptures which were kept in the Mahayana tradition.

o Asvaghosa, a great philosopher and poet who wrote Buddhacharita was present in this Council 
o Five hundred monks led by Vasumitra revised the canon and established a definitive version.The Great Commentary on the Abhidharma is attributed to this council.

Fifth Buddhist Council

The Fifth Council took place in Mandalay, Burma (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 2,400 monks.

Their joint Dhamma recitation lasted five months. It was also the work of this council to cause the entire Tipitaka to be inscribed on 729 marble slabs for posterity in the Myanmar script after its recitation. Each marble slab was 5 1/2 feet high, 3 1/2 feet wide and about 5 inches thick. This monumental task was done by many skillful craftsmen. Upon completion, each slab was 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. It is the largest book in the world that stands to this day.

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. It has been argued that, since the Theravadin multinational Sixth Buddhist council received the name of “Sixth Buddhist council”, this involved implicitly recognizing the fifth, even though most other nations were not involved in the fifth council, and 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 and Thailand between the fourth and sixth, so the total can be made up in other ways.

Sixth Buddhist Council (Yangon 1954)

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 Indias 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 first objective was to affirm and preserve the genuine Dhamma and Vinaya. However it was unique insofar 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, and Thailand. 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 Tripitaka rendered into their native scripts, with the exception of India.


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