Early Buddhist History: The Councils

According to Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha died (about 480 BCE), Mahakasyapa, one of his senior disciples, convened a council of 500 enlightened monks to determine how to go forward without their teacher. During this First Buddhist Council the disciples Ananda and Upali recited the Buddha’s sermons and rules for the monastic order, as there was not yet a written form of Magadhi, the language they probably spoke.

The assembled monks agreed that these recitations were accurate and that the Buddha’s teachings would be preserved by memorizing and chanting them. There was precedent for this method: the Vedas, ancient texts associated with Hinduism, had been passed on orally for centuries. But while early generations of Buddhist monks and nuns probably did memorize and chant the Buddha’s teachings, some historians question whether this First Buddhist Council actually took place.

There is more agreement that a Second Buddhist Council took place about 70 years after the first. It marked the first significant division of the Buddhist sangha into two major schools, Sthaviravada (“school of the elders”) and Mahasanghika (“great assembly”). The principal cause of this schism appears to have been disagreement over monastic rules. The Sthaviravadins thought the Mahasanghikas were too lax; the Mahasanghikas accused the Sthaviravadins of adding rules the Buddha hadn’t taught.

At first, Buddhism existed mainly in northeastern India, in the area occupied by the present-day states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The greatest expansion of Buddhism took place under the patronage of the Emperor Ashoka, who ruled most of India and beyond from about 268 to 232 BCE. Ashoka’s missionaries successfully spread Buddhism throughout the Indian subcontinent and into today’s Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Ashoka is credited with convening a Third Buddhist Council. It adopted a text called the Abhidharma, which remains one of the most popular texts in the scriptural canon. As many as three more Buddhist councils are said to have been convened after that, though historians believe these were more legend than fact.

The school of Sthaviravada Buddhism established by Ashoka’s missionaries in Sri Lanka was the forerunner of today’s Theravada Buddhism, the dominant school in southeast Asia. In the first century BCE, the monks of Sri Lanka committed their chanted teachings to writing, which is the basis of the scriptures called the Pali Canon. (The Pali language is similar to Maghadhi.)

The Mahasanghika school also continued to develop until early in the first millennium CE, when it faded away. Elements of Mahasanghika can be found in Mahayana Buddhism, which in time would dominate China and east and north Asia.


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