THE THIRD & FOURTH
39.1 Background of the Third Council
In the Second Council, only matters pertaining to the precepts (i.e.
Vinaya) were discussed and no controversy about the Dharma (i.e. Sutra)
was noted. However, in the third century B.C. during the time of King
Ashoka (about 235 years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha), the
Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion in both
the Vinaya and the Dharma.
In the reign of King Ashoka in Mauryan Dynasty, the King himself was
an ardent Buddhist, who ruled the country successfully based upon
the ideals of Buddhism, e.g., the universal ideals of absolute pacifism
and respect for life. King Ashoka erected thousands of monasteries
and stupas, and dispatched parties of Bhiksus to various regions to
propagate Buddhism. One such mission, led by Prince Mahinda, travelled
to Ceylon (i.e. Sri Lanka), and is considered to be the origin of
the Theravada Buddhism prevalent to this day in Sri Lanka and other
countries in S.E. Asia.
Buddhism had entered into a period of great flourishing and splendor.
It was recorded that 60,000 Bhiksus resided in Pataliputra, the capital
of Maunyn Dynasty. Under these circumstances, there existed many "revised"
versions of Tripitaka with distorted and misled interpretations. In
order to clear the confusion and rectify the situation, the Third
Council was convened.
39.2 The Convention in Pataliputra
Patronized by King Ashoka, the Third Council was held at Pataliputra, just
236 years after the death of Shakyamuni. The Chairman of the Council was
Moggaliputta Tissa, the Buddhist Master of the nation. As there were one
thousand Bhiksus participating in the council, the Third Council was also
known as "the Gathering of 1,000 Bhiksus".
In putting the Buddhist scripture in order, the assembly did not confine themselves
to the Vinaya, but also covered the Sutra and the Shastra (i.e. Abhidhamma)
as well. At the end of the Council, Tissa compiled a book called Kathavatthu,
refuting the heretical, false views and theories held by some disciples.
The teaching approved and accepted by the Council was known as Theravada.
39.3 King Ashoka and King Milinda
In the third century, B.C., King Ashoka in India played a crucial role in the
spread of Buddhism. His Mauryan Empire extended its influence south into
Ceylon (i.e. Sri Lanka) and west into the Greek states -- regions into which
Buddhism was introduced.
With the evidence of the Fourteen Rock Edicts on rocks and pillars, King
Ashoka was in effect proclaiming himself to be the first monarch in history
to rule not by military force, but by the power of the Buddhist Dharma. In
Ashoka's region, Buddhism for the first time became one of the national
religions of India.
After the death of King Ashoka, the Mauryan Dynasty came to an end.
King Milinda (Menander in Sanskrit) conquered Kubal region (today's
Afghanistan) and central India during mid second century B.C. The Indian
referred to him as "the Greatest King in all India".
With the heritage of Greek culture and learning he was earnest to
familiarize himself with the Indian culture and learning. However,
for a long time, he was unable to find an Indian philosopher or a
religious leader whom he could regard as a worthy opponent in debate,
until he met Nagasena. Nagasena was the leader of a company of the
Buddhist Order, and highly esteemed by the people.
The debate between King Milinda and Nagasena remarked the confrontation
between philosophy and wisdom of the East and those of the West. Nagasena was
aware that his performance might determine the future of the Buddhist
community. The historical debate was recorded with a total of 262 questions
and answers, entitled Milindapanha, or Questions of King Milinda.
The questions were asked step by step through the various aspects of Buddhism,
and the answers were given in a clear, striking and wholly appropriate way, so
that the King was totally convinced by the profound doctrines of Buddhism.
Later, the King became a lay believer and donated a monastery named Milinda
Furthermore, it is said that he relinquished the throne to his son,
and became a monk, in time gaining the status of an Arhat.
Buddhism had already begun to exercise an important influence upon not only
the Greek world of the West, but also Sri Lanka and Burma in the south
and China in the east. This was also a period of transition to Mahayana
Buddhism, as the success of Nagasena to convert a monarch was directly
allied to the spirit of the later followers of Mahayana Buddhism.
Today, Milindapanha, is still regarded as an introduction to Buddhism, and
used in Theravada Buddhism as a manual of instruction for the Bhiksus.
39.4 The Fourth Council
About 400 years after the death of Shakyamuni (around 80 B.C.), King Kaniska
in Ceylon was also an ardent Buddhist. He used to inquire the Bhiksus about
the Buddhist doctrines, but he got different answers and interpretation. He
found that the Buddhist teachings were in confusion and with no unity. He then
gathered five hundred Bhiksus in Kashmir, headed by Vasumitra to edit the
Tripitika and make references and remarks. In the council, there were all
together three hundred thousand verses, over nine million statements compiled.
It took twelve years to complete. The Mahavibhasa Shastra was one of the
famous Buddhist scripture written by that time. The assembly was known as the
It was at this time in Sri Lanka that the Tripitaka was first put into