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 Fourth Council.

    It was at this time in Sri Lanka that the Tripitaka was first put into writing.