A number of Buddhist councils have been held, or alleged to have been held, over the course of the history of Buddhism. Some are recognized by particular Buddhist traditions as equivalent to ecumenical councils in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (that term is not generally used in a Buddhist context); others are acknowledged as local.
At the present day, Mahayana Buddhism gives little prominence to councils, but they are an important part of the traditional narrative of Theravada Buddhism. Formerly, different Theravada countries had different lists of councils, but nowadays the Burmese numbering is generally accepted. This page covers these recognized councils; for others see /Addendum.
This council is described in the Pali Canon (and also, with some differences, in scriptures handed down in other traditions). They tell how Kassapa (known as Kāśyapa in Sanskrit), apparently the senior surviving disciple of the Buddha, convened it shortly after the Buddha's death (traditionally about 544 BC; currently dated by most scholars around 400 BC), in order to preserve the teachings. It comprised 500 senior monks (a conventional large number) meeting at Rājagaha (-gṛha; modern name Rajgir). Kassapa questioned Upāli on the monastic discipline and Ānanda on the rest of the teachings. The council compiled and recited the teachings and ensured their passing on. (It was not customary in ancient India to write down religious teachings; if writing had been introduced in the Buddha's day at all it was used only for mundane matters such as bookkeeping.) This is traditionally regarded as the "first edition" of the Pali Canon. The Council is also said to have decided not to take up the Buddha's permission to abolish minor rules of monastic discipline.
Historians reject this account as implausible, though they are not agreed on whether some small gathering of leading disciples took place with such a purpose, or whether the whole story is fictional.
This also is reported in the Canon, which places it "a hundred years" later (and again, with variations, in other traditions), in Vesālī (Sanskrit Vaiśālī; modern Besarh). It dealt with a dispute over monastic discipline. Some of the details are obscure, but the most important issue was whether monks should be allowed to accept money. On the advice of an aged monk named Sabbakāmin (Sanskrit Sarvagāmin), who had been a pupil of Ānanda, it was agreed they should not. (In theory this remains the rule today, though actual observance varies.)
Historians generally regard this as essentially accurate, though arguments have been made, and widely accepted, for a shorter timescale, about 70-80 years.
According to Theravada sources this was held in the reign of Emperor Asoka (traditionally about 308 BC; according to historians about 250 BC) under the presidency of Tissa Moggalliputta, in Pāṭaliputta (Patna). It dealt with three matters:
- expelling "false" monks
- refuting the views of other schools of Buddhism in Tissa's work the Kathāvatthu, which the Council added to the Pali Canon
- sending out missionaries
According to the late Professor Hirakawa, the council took place in the latter part of the 2nd century BC.
It has often been supposed that this council was purely Theravada, being known only from their sources, but a recent paper by Sujato draws attention to a Chinese source partially agreeing with Theravada ones and suggests it was a pan-Buddhist one. Just how much of what tradition says happened at the council really did so is not agreed.
This is said to have been held in Ceylon to write down the Pali Canon from oral tradition to ensure its survival, in the reign of King Vaṭṭagāmaṇi. Historians have still not agreed on an exact chronology for early Sinhalese monarchs, but they agree he reigned in the last century BC. The earliest surviving source for this (as for the Third) is the Dīpavaṃsa in the 4th century. However, this does not call it the Fourth Council, nor does it say it took place in Ceylon. The subcommentaries on the (5th century) Samantapāsādikā say it was "like a fourth council", and the 14th-century Saddhammasaṅgaha actually calls it the Fourth Council. 13th- and 14th-century sources specify its location as Ālokavihāra (Aluvihara).
Historians have generally looked favourably on the basic tradition. L. S. Cousins has argued for a different account of events: there was a council in Ceylon about that time, though at a different location, but it did not write the Canon down, merely approving a written version brought over from India, where the Canon had been written down by a Council at some earlier date.
This took place in Mandalay from 15 April to 12 September 1871. It approved a set of 729 marble slabs on which the entire Canon had been inscribed. Mandalay tourist guides call them the world's largest book.
This was held by all five Theravada countries in Rangoon from 17 May 1954 to 24 May 1956 and comprised about 2500 monks. All but about 150 were Burmese. Its main purpose was to approve a printed edition of the Canon in 40 volumes. The chair was held in turn by leading figures from all five countries. Questions were asked by the famous Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw, and answered by another Burmese monk, Vicittasāra, the only one who knew the entire Canon by heart.
Although the Council was officially approved by all five countries, in fact the other countries pay it only lip service, tending to regard it, as do scholars, as in large part motivated by reasons derived from internal Burmese politics. In particular, after attending the Council and approving its edition of the Canon, Cambodia, Ceylon and Thailand proceeded with their own editions.
After the close of the council proper, some monks remained to edit the commentaries (1956-60) and subcommentaries (1960-62). This continuation is sometimes treated as part of the council, as are preparatory sessions in different countries.
- Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus, Alfred Metzner, Frankfurt/Berlin, volume 1, 1966, page 105, note 362; Kate Crosby, Theravada Buddhism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, page 81
- A History of Indian Buddhism, vol 1, Shunjusha, Tokyo, 1974, translated and edited by Paul Groner, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1990, page 91
- Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight, University of Chicago Press, 2013, page 23; Philippe Cornu, Dictionnaire encyclopédique du bouddhisme, Seuil, Paris, 2001, page 304, sv Kuthodaw
- Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma, Cornell University Press, 1975, page 277