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The Three Buddhist Councils

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The First Buddhist Council

Time and Place

Convened in 544 BC in the Satapanni Cave outside Rajagaha 3 months after Buddha had passed away

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King Ajatasattu

Reasons why Council was convened

1) Mahakassapa overheard the monk, Subhadda, make disparaging remarks about the strict rule of life for monks. Subbadda exhorted lamenting monks to refrain from expressing grief for the death of the Buddha as they were free to do whatever they like.

Mahakassapa feared that the Dhamma and the Vinaya might be corrupted and might not survive intact if other monks also behave like Subhadda.

To prevent this, he decided that the Dhamma and the Vinaya must be preserved and protected. So he obtained Sangha’s approval to call to council 499 arahants and Ananda.

2) When Buddha was alive, He did not choose a successor to be the leader of the Sangha. According to Him the Dhamma and the Vinaya should be their guide and teacher when he was no longer amongst them. Hence the council quickly collect the Dhamma and the Vinaya, chartered and approved unanimously by the members of the council.

3) During Buddha’s lifetime, He gave many discourses to His disciples and lay followers and prescribes many vinaya rules. The learned monks then present would immediately commit to memory His teachings word for word. Thus Buddha’s words were preserved and passed down orally from teacher to pupil. People feared the Dhamma preached by Buddha would disappear along with His departure, so they were chartered and remembered and consolidated while they were still fresh in the minds of His disciple monks.

4) Buddha was a wayfarer who gave discourses to different kinds of people and the Dhamma and the Vinaya existed only in the collective minds of the monks and the lay followers. Moreover, Buddha’s two chief disciples had already passed away before the Buddha. Hence there was a need to call for a council to consolidate the Dhamma and the Vinaya.

5) There were rebellious monks in the Sangha during Buddha’s time. One of them was Devadatta who tried to kill the Buddha and cause a schism in the Sangha. Therefore rules had to be laid down to prevent future schism.

6) There were also quarrels among the monks in the order and one such quarrel was between the dhammadhara and vinayadhara monks at Kosambi. The quarrel was so serious that even the Buddha could not settle it,

7) There were also arrogant monks like Channa the charioteer of the Master before His Enlightenment who refused to listen to the senior monks.


Convened with Mahakassapa presiding over it . He called to council 500 Arahants during the rainy season.

The first thing he did was to question Venerable Upali, the foremost expert in the Vinaya, particulars of the monastic rules. He asked him with regards to the subject, the occasion, the individual introduced, the proclamation, the amended rule, the offence and the case of non-offence. Venerable Upali was able to provide knowledgeable and adequate answers and this met with the approval of the presiding Sangha and in this way the Vinaya Rule was formally approved.

As for the Dhamma, Mahakassapa turned to Ananda who was the Buddha’s personal assistant for 25 years. The questions asked sought to verify the place where all the discourses were first preached and to whom they had been addressed. Ananda was able to answer accurately and so the discourses were approved by the presiding Sangha as well.

During the first council, the monks could not agree on what the lesser and minor rules were. Ananda admitted he had failed to mention them as he was mentally overwhelmed by grief of the impending death of the Buddha. It was important to discuss the acceptance of all the lesser and minor rules in the trial of Ananda as they were part of the Vinaya which would serve to guide the monks.

The First Buddhist Council also saw the punishment of Channa, who had slighted every monk and was arrogant to the extreme. To prevent such a recurrence, the Vinaya rule that was laid sown was to impose complete social boycott on the arrogant monk.It was a guideline to help the Sangha guide arrogant, misbehaving monks in the Sangha.


It took the monks 7 months to recite the whole of the Dhamma and the Vinaya and those monks sufficiently endowed with good memories retained all that had be recited. This historic event came to be known as the Pancasatika because 500 fully enlightened arahants had taken part in it.

The Second Buddhist Council


Time and Place

Convened 100 years after the Buddha’s Mahaparinibbana at Vesali

King Kolasoka

Reasons why Council was convened

1) Venerable Yasa while visiting Mahavana Grove came to know that a group group of Vajjian monks were infringing the rule which prohibit monk’s asking and accepting gold and silver openly from lay people. He objected to their behaviour. The Vajjian monks were upset with Ven. Yasa and decided to impose an ‘Act of reconciliation’ and an ‘Act of Suspension’ on him.

2) Ven. Yasa managed to reconcile with the lay devotees and at the same time convinced them that the Vajjian monks had done wrong by accepting gold and silver from them. Before the Vajjian monks could impose the ‘Act of Suspension’ on him, Ven. Yasa managed to escape.

3) Ven. Yasa also found that the Vajjian monks were performing 9 other non-permissible acts in addition to accepting gold and silver. These 10 rules were:

  • It is permissible to store salt in the horn.
  • It is permissible to eat after mid-day.
  • It is permissible to eat once and then go again from village to village for alms.
  • It is permissible to hold Uposatha Ceremony with monks dwelling in the same locality.
  • It is permissible to carry out official acts when the assembly was incomplete.
  • It is permissible to follow what is customary because it was done by one’s teacher.
  • It is permissible to eat sour milk.
  • It is permissible to take strong drink before it had been fermented.
  • It is permissible to use rug without a border.
  • It is permissible to accept silver and gold.

4) Ven. Yasa went in search of support from monks elsewhere, who upheld the orthodox views on the Vinaya. 60 ascetics from Pava and 80 ascetics from Avanti offered to help him. Together they went to consult Ven. Rewata, a highly revered monk and an expert in the Dhamma and the Vinaya. Initially Ven. Rewata was reluctant to be involved in the dispute and Ven. Yasa and the other monks had a had time tracking him down.

5) As soon as the Vajjian monks heard this, they tried to win Ven. Rewate over but failed. In order to settle the matter once and for all, the Ven. Rewata advised that a council be called to discuss the Vinaya rules as he was disturbed by the misbehaviour of the Vajjian monks.


1) Ven.Rewata approached Ven. Sabbakamin, a well-respected monk of 120 years old.

2) To oppose the strong Vajjian monks, an impressive representative of the Buddhist community which was made up of 700 Arahants, assembled for the 2nd Buddhist Council with Ven. Rewata presiding over it.

3) There were so many speeches and debated that a subcommittee comprising 4 Bhikkhus from the East and 4 from the West was formed. Ven. Rewata questioned Ven. Sabbakamin in the presence of the Order on each of the 10 points. Ven. Sabbakamin would refer to the place where the act was first committed, and the punishment which would be conferred for the offence. Once his opinion was given, it was heard by the subcommittee and its validity decided by their vote.

4) After the debate, the 8 monks were convinced that the 10 points maintained by the Vajjian monks were contrary to the Vinaya Rules. Afterwards 700 monks recited the Dhamma and the Vinaya and this recital came to be known as the Sattasati because 700 monks took part in it. The historic council is also called the Yasathera Sangiti because of the major role played by Ven. Yasa.


The Vajjian monks at first appeared o accept the decisions laid down in the 2nd Buddhist Council but they were not satisfied and so called a council of their own which was called the Mahasanghika. They were able to invite 10,000 monks and gathered at Pataliputra. This resulted in the great schism of the Buddhist Sangha 100 years after the parinibbana of the Buddha.

The Third Buddhist Council


Time and Place

Convened in 325 B.C. at Asokarama in Pataliputra 236 years after the Mahaparinibbana of the Buddha.

King Asoka

Reasons why council was called

1) Asoka’s interest in and devotion to the Dhamma deepened after he met the ascetic, Nigrodha. Thereafter he used his wealth to build pagodas, temples and viharas and supported the Bhikkhus with the four requisites daily and lavishly. Even his son, Mahinda, and daughter, Sanghamitta, were ordained and admitted to the Sangha. Eventually his generosity was to cause serious problems within the Sangha.

2) Because of Asoka’s generous support and costly offerings of food, clothing, shelter and medicine, the Sangha was infiltrated by many unworthy men. They held heretical views. Many faithless and greedy men tried to join the Sangha but were deemed unfit for ordination. Some merely shaved off their hair, donned yellow robes and entered the monasteries especially during meal times.

3) All 18 schools of Buddhism at that time held their own Dhamma and Vinaya texts. Their monks dwelt amongst genuine monks but proclaimed their own doctrines. They were non-Theravadan practices. Some of these schools believed in pudgala, sarva and alaya consciousness.

4) The genuine monks refused to hold Uposatha Ceremony in the company of the corrupt and heretical monks. One of them was Thera Moggaliputta Tissa. For 7 years there were no Uposatha Ceremony.

5) Asoka tried to rectify this situation but the genuine monks refused to obey. The minister sent by Asoka as a result beheaded the monks except for Asoka’s brother, Tissa who was a monk. Asoka was greatly disturbed by the whole incident and seeked Thera Moggaliputta Tissa’s advice. Hence a 3rd Council was convened immediately to rid the Sangha of heretical monks and to ensure that the Dhamma and the Vinaya were kept pure.


1) Thera Moggaliputta chose 1000 learned monks with mastery of the tipitaka for the traditional recitation of the Dhamma and the Vinaya which lasted for 9 months. Those who held wrong views were exposed and expelled from the Sangha immediately. In this way the Bhikkhu Sangha was purged of heretic and bogus bhikkhus.

2) The Thera Moggaliputta Tissa also compiled a book called the Kathavatthu. This is to refute point by point the views put forth by non-Theravadan believers. It is a collection of discussions and refutations of the heretical views held by various sects on matters philosophical.

3) Members of the Council also gave a royal seal of approval to the doctrine of the Buddha, naming it the Doctrine of Analysis and this is identical with the approved Theravada doctrine. Therefore the Council helped to pushed Theravadan Buddhism to the fore front.

4) The Council also saw the erection of Asoka’s schism pillar edict which put an end to the disruptive elements which threatened the orthodox school of the time. Theravadan teachings were considered the orthodox teachings of the time.

5) The most significant achievement of the 3rd Buddhist Council and one which was to bear fruit for centuries to come, was Asoka sending forth of monks, well versed in the Buddha’s Dhamma and Vinaya, to teach in 9 different countries. Each delegate consist of 5 monks as a community of 5 monks is required to perform ordination. The Ven. Majjhima Thera went to Himavant (place adjoining Himalayas), the Ven. Sona and Uttara went to SuvannaBhumi (Myanmar) and Asoka’s son, Ven. Mahinda and daughter, Sanghamitta, went to Tambapanni (Sri Lanka) which was the most successful and enduring in spreading Theravadan Buddhism.


The 3rd Buddhist Council lasted for 9 months and Asoka closed the council with a great ceremony. The objective of the Council to rid the Sangha of heretic monks was achieved. The Dhamma mission of the monks also succeeded in spreading Theravadan Buddhism. It bore great fruit in the course of time and it went a long way in ennobling the people of these lands with the gift of the Dhamma and influencing their civilizations and cultures.