THE FIRST COUNCIL
37.1 The Background of the First
Just like other early religious leaders and great philosophers,
Shakyamuni Buddha left no writing from his own hand. He preached the
people both by example and precepts. Throughout forty nine years,
he travelled from place to place, sometimes accompanied by his disciples,
expounding the Dharma to the people of all kinds. There was no literal
record nor documentary on what he spoke in the sermons. It is natural
that the disciples would gather together to put in order their recollection
of the great teachings after the death of such a reputable leader
of a monastic order, Shakyamuni Buddha.
The disciples would re-construct the way in which the Buddha's teaching was
correctly followed by the people in future. On the other hand, there arose
differences of interpretation of the Buddha's teachings after his death. In
order to avoid any false thinkings and deviant ways to study Buddhism, a
council was necessary to establish a unity of doctrine and opinion within the
monastic community, as well as the lay community.
37.2 The Council in the Cave
Three months after the death of Shakyamuni, Ajatashatru, the king
of Magadha patronized the council, held at Saptaparna-guha in the
Cave of the Seven Leaves in Rajagaha. The leading convenors of the
council were Mahakashyapa, Ananda and Upali. It was known as the First
Council. As the chairman of the Council, Mahakashyapa selected five
hundred Bhiksus to undertake the task of establishing the Buddhist
canon. Ananda, having been for a long period of time at the side of
Shakyamuni, was responsible to recite what teachings the Buddha had
expounded, i.e. Sutta-pitaka. Upali, the first in taking precepts
amongst the disciples, was responsible for the rules of disciples
of the Order i.e. Vinaya-pitaka. Mahakashyapa himself recited and
edited the commentaries, i.e. Abhidhamma, or Shastra.
After they had completed their recitation, the Bhiksus in the assembly
examined the words to make sure that their meanings were correct, and then all
recited them together in unison, each monk in this way thinking over the words
again and memorizing them. Each recitation was submitted for scrutiny and
approval in the assembly.
Only when a version that all could consent to had been reached, the joint
recitation would take place. The final scriptures were written on
Pattra, the palm leaves for writing in ancient time. The Buddhist
canon compiled at the First Council was knowned as the Tripitaka consisting
of three parts, Sutta-pitaka, Vinaya-pitika and Abhidhamma. It was
regarded as the earliest and original teaching of the Buddha, serving
as a basis of absolute authority. It was also called Agama which meant
There are another names for the First Council, such as:
- "Gathering of 500 Bhiksus"
- "The First Group Recitation"
- "The First Compilation"
- "The Sthavira Council"
Sthavira means the elder and senior monks with 20 to 49 years standing
(i.e. time after ordination). The intermediate monks were those with
10-19 years standing, while the junior with less than 10 years standing.
Sthavira sometimes refers to the title given to Mahakashapa, who chaired
the First Council. It was later developed to Theravada tradition.
37.3 The Council "outside the cave"
In the same period, another group of Bhiksus who was originally not
the followers of Mahakashyapa, gathered "outside the cave" 20 miles
away in northwest of The Cave of the Seven Leaves. The council was
led by Bhaddiya, one of the Five Bhiksus. The participating Bhiksus
also recited and compiled their own version of the Buddhist canon,
but with wider scope of interests in the Buddha's teaching. The canon
was later the basis of the Mahasanghika school of thought.
It seems that the elder Bhiksus in the cave led by Mahakashyapa concentrated
their attention upon the rules of discipline for the continuation of the
monastic community. However, Shakyamuni's teachings had not been intended
only for the Bhiksus, but for all mankind to gain enlightenment and liberate
from suffering. It is again natural for the lay believers to expect different
standards and rules of discipline for different groups of people within the
Buddhist community. For instance, the Bhiksus were expected to observe strict
rules of discipline and to devote themselves in religious practice, while the
lay believers did not. Certainly, it was one of the factors leading to the
subtle differences in outlook that characterized the Sthavira school, centered
about the monastic community, and the Mahasanghika school, serving the needs
in lay community.
37.4 Sthavira and Mahasanghika
Sthavira and Mahasanghika were the two earliest sections of Buddhism.
Literally, Sthavira referred to "the Teaching of the Elders," the intimate and
older disciples, while Mahasanghika referred to the "Members of the Great
Order", the rest in Buddhist community. The former put more emphasis on the
rules of discipline and the continuation of the monastic order, while the
latter was characterized by the mission of salvating all sentient beings
particularly in lay community. At first, they were not considered to be
different schools as there was no record of any struggle between orthodoxy and
heterodoxy between the two schools.
Strictly speaking, they served different needs in the Buddhist community with
the common goal - the continued existence of the Dharma. It was no point to
agree which school was more important than the other, as the effort
contributed by both schools were equally great.
Once Ananda asked Shakyamuni whom he should follow after Shakyamuni's death.
Shakyamuni Buddha replied that the precepts were the teacher in Buddhism. It
is no doubt that taking precepts and observing the rules of discipline is the
most important religious practice in Buddhism, particularly in the monastic
However, Shakyamuni also spent the greater part of his lifetime working to
spread his teachings in lay community so that all people, not just
the monks, gained enlightenment. A monk should prepare to sacrifice
his own being for the welfare of mankind - liberation from the sufferings
and attainment of wisdom. It was certainly the original meaning of