Before the Buddha died, his statements to the monks that they might abolish all the lesser and minor disciplinary precepts and work out their own salvation with diligence provided ample bewilderment to the members of the early Saṅgha.
Because these statements were open to ecclesiastic interpretation, the early community decided to hold periodic Councils designed to encourage tacit agreement with regard to matters of doctrine and discipline:
In so doing, it was hoped that uniformity would be affirmed and sectarianism discouraged.
Whether the early Councils were truly historical events has long been a matter of contention in Buddhist communities:
While most Asian Buddhists believe that the first Council was a historical event, its historicity is questioned by virtually all Buddhist scholars:
They argue that while it was not unlikely that a small group of Buddha’s intimate disciples gathered after his death, a Council held in the grand style described in the scriptures is almost certainly a fiction.
On the other hand, almost all scholars agree that the Second and following Councils were historical events. Of special importance is the Vaiśālī or Second Council, which paved the way for the first great schism in early Buddhism.
The First Council was said to have been held in Rājagriha, India, in the year of the Buddha’s death, generally thought to have occurred in the 4th or 5th century B.C.E.
Fearful that the community would dissolve through uncertainty over the founder’s teachings, the saṅgha held a Council to preclude that possibility.
Mahākāśyapa, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, was appointed president of the Council and selected 500 Arhat monks as participants.
Another disciple, Upāli, recited the disciplinary rules known as the Vinaya-piṭaka (Basket of Discipline), while Ānanda recited the Buddha’s discourses, establishing the Sūtra-piṭaka.
Functionally, this important event established authority for the group in the absence of its leader.
The Vaiśālī Council, deemed the Second Indian Buddhist Council in all accounts, occurred about 100 years after the Buddha’s death:
It was convened to resolve a dispute over supposedly illicit monastic behaviour, such as accepting gold and silver.
To resolve the conflict, a Council of 700 monks met in Vaiśālī.
Revata was appointed president of the Council, and Sarvagāmin was questioned on ten points of possibly inappropriate monastic behaviour.
Each point was rejected by Sarvagāmin, the offending practices outlawed, and concord re-established, although significant disagreements had obviously begun to appear in the still-unified Buddhist community.
It has been postulated that Buddhist sectarianism began shortly after the Vaiśālī Council, with the Mahāsaṁghika school and Sthāviras emerging as individual sects following a non-canonical Council held shortly after the Vaiśālī event.
Another Council was held in Pāṭaliputra around 250 B.C.E. during the reign of King Aśoka:
Aśoka convened the Council under Moggaliputta Tissa with the intention of establishing the orthodoxy of the Dharma.
A thousand monks were assembled, and, under Tissa’s guidance, various viewpoints were considered and either sanctioned or rejected, with the proponents of rejected views being expelled from the city.
This Council is mentioned only in the Pāli records, and for this reason it is often referred to as the Third Theravāda Council.
A Theravāda Council was held under King Vaṭṭagāmaṇī of Śrī Lanka in 25 B.C.E., following a famine and in the midst of schismatic unrest in the Buddhist community.
Vaṭṭagāmaṇī convened the conference in the capital city of Anuradhapura at the monastery known as Mahāvihāra. The meeting committed the Pāli Buddhist scriptures to writing, thus “closing” the Three Baskets of scriptures in the Theravāda tradition.
Around 100 C.E. another Council was held under the Kushan king Kaniṣka, probably in Gandhāra. A great scholar named Vasumitra presided, assisted by the learned Aśvaghoṣa:
In addition to compiling a new Vinaya, they prepared a commentary called the Mahā-vibhāṣā (Great Exegesis) on the Abhidharma text Jñāna-prasthāna (Foundation of Knowledge), which became the standard reference work for all Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma issues.
Almost seven centuries later, around 792, a Council was held in Lhasa, Tibet, under King Trisong Detsen (742-797):
It was convened at the recently completed Samye Monastery in order to resolve differences between Chinese and Indian notions of practice and Enlightenment:
Tibetan sources claim that the Chinese position was defeated, continuing an Indian basis for the development of Tibetan Buddhism.
In modern times, a Council was held in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon in Myanmar), in 1871; this Council is sometimes referred to as the 5th Theravāda Council:
Convened during the reign of King Mindon Min (1808 – 1878), this Council was charged with revising the Pāli texts. The revised texts were inscribed on 729 marble tablets, and enshrined in Stūpas to ensure their survival.
Finally, a Council considered to be the 6th Theravāda Council was held in Rangoon in 1954 to recite and confirm the whole Pāli canon. This Council was scheduled to coincide with the celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death:
The prime minister of Burma, U Nu (1907 – 1995), delivered the opening address to the approximately 2500 monks in attendance. The Council was a national festival in Burma, and helped established solidarity for Theravāda Buddhists throughout the world.