The Buddhist Councils

The Story of Early Buddhism

Panoramic view of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet
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Four Buddhist Councils marked important turning points in the story of early Buddhism. This story spans the time from immediately after the death and parinirvana of the historical Buddha in the 5th century BCE to sometime early in the first millennium CE. This is also the story of sectarian clashes and the eventual Great Schism that resulted in the two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana.

As with much about early Buddhist history, there is little independent or archeological evidence to corroborate how much of the early written accounts of the Four Buddhist Councils are true. To confuse matters, different traditions describe two entirely different Third Councils, and one of those is recorded in very different ways.

It might be argued, however, that even if these councils didn't take place, or if the stories about them are more myth than fact, the stories are still important. They can tell us a lot about how early Buddhists understood themselves and the changes taking place in their tradition.

The First Buddhist Council

The First Buddhist Council, sometimes called the Council of Rajagrha, is said to have been held three months after the death of the Buddha, possibly about 486 BCE. It was called by a senior disciple of the Buddha named Mahakasyapa after he heard a younger monk suggest that the rules of the monastic order could be relaxed.

The significance of the First Council is that 500 senior monks adopted the Vinaya-Pitaka and Sutta-Pitaka as the accurate teaching of the Buddha, to be remembered and kept by generations of nuns and monks to come.

Scholars say that the eventual versions of the Vinaya-Pitaka and Sutta-Pitaka we have today would not be finalized until a later date. However, it's entirely possible that senior disciples did meet and agree to a canon of basic rules and doctrines at this time.

The Second Buddhist Council

The Second Council has a bit more historical corroboration than the others and is generally regarded as a real historical event. Even so, you can find a number of conflicting stories about it. There is also confusion in some quarters about whether one of the alternate Third Councils actually was the Second Council.

The Second Buddhist Council was held at Vaishali (or Vaishali), an ancient city in what is now the state of Bihar in northern India, bordering Nepal. This Council probably was held about a century after the first one, or about 386 BCE. It was called to discuss monastic practices, in particular, whether monks could be allowed to handle money.

The original Vinaya forbade nuns and monks from handling gold and silver. But a faction of monks had decided this rule was impractical and had suspended it. These monks also had been accused of breaking a number of other rules, including eating meals afternoon and drinking alcohol. 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. It is unclear if the money-handling monks complied.

A few traditions record one of the alternate Third Buddhist Councils, which I'm calling Pataliputra I, as the Second Council. The historians I've consulted don't agree with this, however.

The Third Buddhist Council: Pataliputra I

We might call this the First Third Buddhist Council, or the Second Second Buddhist Council, and there are two versions of it. If it happened at all, it may have happened in the 4th or 3rd century BCE; some sources date it closer to the time of the Second Council, and some date it to closer to the time other the other Third Council. Be advised that, most of the time, when historians talk about the Third Buddhist Council they're talking about the other one, Pataliputra II.

The story that often is confused with the Second Council concerns Mahadeva, a monk with a bad reputation who is almost certainly a myth. Mahadeva is said to have proposed five points of doctrine over which the assembly could not agree, and this caused a schism between two factions, Mahasanghika and Sthavira, which eventually resulted in the split between the Theravada and Mahayana schools.

However, historians don't believe this story holds water. Note also that in the actual Second Buddhist Council, it's likely Mahasanghika and Sthavira monks were on the same side.

The second and more plausible story is that a dispute had occurred because Sthavira monks were adding more rules to the Vinaya, and Mahasanghika monks objected. This dispute was not resolved.

The Third Buddhist Council: Pataliputra II

This Council is the more likely of the recorded events considered to be the Third Buddhist Council. This Council was said to have been called by the Emperor Ashoka the Great to weed out heresies that had taken hold among the monks.

The Fourth Buddhist Council

Another Council considered of "dubious historicity," the Fourth Council is said to have been held under the patronage of King Kanishka the Great, which would have put it in the late 1st or early 2nd century. Kanishka ruled the ancient Kushan Empire, which was west of Gandhara and included part of modern-day Afghanistan.

If it happened at all, this Council may have involved only monks of a now-extinct but influential sect called Sarvastivada. The Council appears to have met to compose commentaries on the Tipitika.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Buddhist Councils." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). The Buddhist Councils. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Buddhist Councils." Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).