THE SECOND COUNCIL
38.1 The Background of the Second
A hundred years after the First Council, during King Kalasoka, a second great
assembly in Buddhist community took place, known as the Second Council.
Different from those behind the First Council, it was the difference
of opinions concerning the precepts that led to the convention of
the Second Council.
A group of "liberal" Bhiksus of the Vajji tribe from the prosperous
city of Vaishali put forward a new interpretation of the "Ten Precepts",
which were the basic rules of discipline for the Bhiksus in the Sangha
Order, therefore they requested for relaxation so as to meet the socio-economical
changes in society over a hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni.
They found some strict rules were not practical, therefore they proposed
the Bhiksus be allowed, for instance,
- to store salt
- to eat after noon
- to drink some beverages
- to accept gifts of gold and silver, and monetary alms
- and etc.
Some Vajji Bhiksus laid golden almsbowl in streets asking people to donate
money for the sake of their merits and virtues.
An elder Bhiksu Yasas reprimanded the "unlawful" acts, but was attacked and
requested to resign by the local Vajji Bhiksus. As the issue was becoming
acute and serious, a council was call upon to discuss the meaning of Vinaya,
and consider the validity of the new interpretation of the "Ten Precepts".
38.2 The Conventions in Vaishali
Most of the elders Bhiksus from all over India came to the assembly
in a garden in the city of Vaishali. Five Bhiksus were elected as
representatives. In the assembly, 700 Bhiksus were selected to perform
a group recitation of the Sutras and Vinaya, just as Mahakashyapa
had done at the time of the First Council. Thus, the Second Council
was also known as "Gathering of the 700 Bhiksus".
The proposals of the Vajji Bhiksus were finally rejected by the
elders of the Order. The new interpretation was regarded as the "Ten
Unlawful Things". Having been rejected in the Second Council, the
Vajji Bhiksus gathered a group of 10,000 disciples and held a council
of their own, referred as the "Great Group Recitation". It is around
this time that the Buddhist Order appears to have split into two major
divisions, one known as the Sthavira, "Members of the Elders", and
the other known as the Mahasanghika, "Members of the Great Order".
38.3 The Origin of the Schism
The early Buddhism existed in the form of several fairly autonomous groups in
India, partly due to the difficulties in communication amongst the groups at
that time, and more importantly, due to the teaching from the last words of
In the Nirvana Sutra, Shakyamuni had no attempt to keep an Order as a single
unified Order. He asked the disciples to abide by the Dharma, not
an individual person. He told the disciples that the precepts were
their master after his death. So, it is not surprising that a hundred
years later there should have appeared subtle doctrinal and ritual
differences among these various Buddhist groups.
Under the influence of the political and religious environment at that time,
the elder Bhiksus treated themselves as a highly disciplined class set apart
from the lay community, carrying out special religious practice for the
purpose of their own enlightenment. They emphasized the omnipotence of the
rules of discipline that the precepts for the Order laid down by Shakyamuni
should be abided by without the slightest deviation.
However, the Vajji Bhiksus disputed and stressed the original intent of the
teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha be allowed for all people in society
(lay community), not just one special class of people (monastic community).
They argued that, so long as there was no violation of the main tenets
and precepts of Buddhism, it should be permitted to adapt to the socio-economical
changes, and the customs and practices of a specific region in which
one was preaching or living. They had the opinion that, if the disciples
remained faithful to the main tenets, e.g. the Four Noble Truths,
and devoted themselves to Threefold Training (i.e. Trisiksa), minor
variation and deviations in the observance of the rules of disciplines
should be accepted. In view of the relatively progressive and cosmopolitan
atmosphere in Vaishali (the house of the famous lay believer Vimalakirti),
it is quite natural that a new movement arising among the members
of the Buddhist community there to break the "obsolete" rules.
With the schism after the Second Council, the process of division continued
until there were as many as eighteen sects, ten of them belonging to the
Sthavira and eight to the Mahasanghika. Buddhism had entered a period of
38.4 Restoration of the Original Meaning
From the historical point of view, the schism was an inevitable outcome
in the development of Buddhism. On the surface, the Sthivara Bhiksus
would appear to be the upholders of orthodoxy and the Mahasanghika
Bhiksus the heretics. In ordinary terms, the Sthivara seemed to be
the dogmatists and the Mahasanghika the revisionists.
The question of the greatest concern lies whether these sects preserved the
true spirit of Shakyamuni's teachings. In Buddhism, all reform movements
have, as their starting point, the spirit of striving to return to the
fundamentals of the faith and to restore the original meaning.
In accordance with the Buddhist doctrine of Middle Way, any extreme is a deviant
way to study Buddhism. A strong and healthy monastic order is necessary
in Buddhism, however, if it is established on the basis of rejecting
the lay community, it certainly violates the original meaning of Buddhism.
On the other hand, a wide and popular support in lay community is
necessary in Buddhism, however, if it is not led by the great masters
who are enlightened by committing themselves in serious religious
practices, it certainly deviates from the original meaning of Buddhism
Shakyamuni Buddha used to preach the Dharma in different ways depends upon
the background and the capacity of the people he was addressing to
understand it. Different standards in the rules of discipline are
obviously required for different groups of people within the Buddha
community. In different periods of time, one Buddhist sect may be
more appealing to the other. The existence of the development and
the extinction of any Buddhist sect has its conditions, in accordance
with the Law of Causal Condition. Actually, the fate of Buddhism rests
upon the ability to re-establish the fundamental principles of the
doctrines, and to apply them correctly in practice.
The Dharmas expounded by any one sect is only one of many, many ways to attain
Buddhahood. The ultimate truth i.e. the nature of Buddhist Dharma
is beyond thoughts and words, but can be experienced by self-certification.
This is the profound doctrine of One Buddha Vehicle.