The Four Buddhist Councils

When historians look at prominent historical events, such as the “Four Buddhist Councils,” they take the relevant material – the different experiences of eye-witnesses – and organize it in a coherent manner. This is what is termed “history.” But history, in the Buddhist context, is only a way for us to mentally understand the past for the purposes of progressing through the Buddhist levels of teachings to liberation; it is not that we can find The Four Buddhist Councils experienced in one unique way. There are numerous versions of the Four Buddhist Councils, indeed some do not even accept that there were four. These versions are all useful, and we are to consider each of them if we are to understand the material from a wider viewpoint, without bias nor cultural conditioning.

What is History?

History is a way of organizing earlier material in order to understand some sort of development which happened over time. If we look at a quote, “If history obtains, man has attended it,” we may consider history as existing independently – as a thing all by itself – and that man was just a bystander, watching and attending it like a sports event. But history doesn’t exist as “a thing.” It is just a way of organizing and looking at various themes within material over a period of time. In Buddhist terminology this organization of historical material is a “mental construct.”

We can relate this idea of mental construct to the theme of projections. For example, we can ask, “Did the Russian Revolution happen?” Even though the response would be “Yes,” we would still need to ask: Then, what actually did happen at this time? Many people were there and experienced something different within each moment, but did they experience “The Revolution” as if it was an elephant they were all watching? If it wasn’t, then what was the revolution? The revolution was only described afterwards when different historians tried to make sense of the various experiences of many people who were there. These historians then put together the eye-witness accounts in some sort of mental synthesis – an organisation of experiences called “history.” We can also see this type of organisation of Buddhist material which can be presented in various different ways.

If we take the topic of psychology, for example, even though there are numerous schools of psychology, what is the topic actually talking about? We can say that psychology is the vast amount of momentary experiences of a great number of different people. A psychologist then presents these experiences within an organizational scheme, which is explained using a psychological theory. The experiences can be presented within not just one scheme but can be organised according to numerous systems.

If we ask the philosophical question, did anything actually happen previously? The response would be “Of course something happened.” But, was it just a mental construct that puts it together in a synthesis of “history”? This is a significant question because it introduces us to the Buddhist analytical way of looking at things – a way that is important for us to understand.

Tibetan Buddhists study the four schools of Indian Buddhism as a graded course, i.e. one level leads to another, both in terms of our understanding and of progressively deeper insights and a subtler deconstruction of our false view of reality. This is a way of organizing material for the purpose of gaining liberation and enlightenment; the Buddhist aim. If these organizational schemes are merely mental constructs, then they are mentally constructed by someone, or a group of people, for a purpose; like different psychological theories are put together for the purpose of helping patients. We can organize the material of the Buddhist teachings according to a logical development of ideas, whereby we have the beginning of a concept of a certain teaching that is developed and then, again further elaborated or expanded upon – this is what is known as “the history of Buddhism.”

In our Western way of thinking, this idea of how things develop – of what is referred to as “progress” – is something we are very concerned about. It is based on our concept of linear time, something which is culturally specific. Linear time provides us, as Westerners, with useful information on how ideas develop overtime, but for Tibetans and Indians this information is irrelevant. They do not believe in history in terms of linear time. Therefore, can we say that our Western historical analysis is more valid than the Indian/Tibetan one? The Buddha taught all topics simultaneously in numerous realms, therefore the issue of dividing the teachings according to time is fairly irrelevant. Even though the three transmissions within the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma can be divided, the actual dates of these transmissions are insignificant.

What is important is not to adopt an arrogant academic conceptually biased point of view, a view which regards only history as true and that it was people later on who developed all these ideas. This isn’t Buddhism. Authentic Buddhism is only what Buddha taught. Therefore then, is it useful to study or to construct a line of development of ideas, to have an historical perspective? Is it useful for us to take the concept of what a Buddha is over a period of time in order to see the development, or progression, of an idea?

Looking in terms of development or progress is one way of labelling the time sequence, another way is in terms of degeneration. Either way is equally valid because that would be how it makes sense within the context of a certain way of thinking. Or, you could see it as just people making it up, or in order to gain legitimacy – “this is what Buddha really meant” – in terms of either interpretable or definitive.

If we return back to the question as to what is the purpose of a history, of constructing a history of the development of some ideas, we may not have an answer. However, we could say that for our way of thinking, which is very linear, it is useful in that it helps us to make sense of the material within our own conceptual framework. It is important for us not to be judgemental and, from a Buddhist point of view, not to say that to take an historical perspective is far more valid than some of the Buddhist ways of understanding how to organize material.

Here, when we refer to linear time, we are talking about time that has a beginning, either created by a higher being or starting with a Big Bang. This beginning will continue and come to an end, either with the destruction of the universe or the Big Crunch, and then consequently time will end. This is in contrast to the Buddhist point of view whereby there is no beginning and no end. Instead, there will be another Big Bang, another Big Crunch or expansion to nothing – it just goes on and on, in a non-linear way.

The differing views of linear and non-linear underlines one of the benefits of studying Buddhist material, because what it does is to help us identify what are our culturally specific ways of thinking. The word “specific” here is important because it shows that it is only our culture that thinks in this way, yet in fact we are to understand that there are many other ways of looking at the universe and our experience. Often, because we are only familiar with our own viewpoint, we don’t even consider the possibility that there is another way of looking at the universe, let alone that it could be equally valid. Therefore, studying something as different as the Buddhist way of thinking helps us to identify these projections that we have of ways of organizing material. The notions of “one truth,” “progression,” or “degeneration” are simply ways of understanding that are mentally constructed – they are not necessarily universal nor do they exist “out there” as The Truth.

According to the Chittamatra point of view, “it is how it appears to us.” Situations appear to each person in a different way depending on their culture. For example, in family therapy, the manner in which a situation will appear to the mother, to the father or to the children will be different. When we open up our minds to consider that there are other ways of organizing material and understanding it, for various different purposes, then we will have so many other tools that we can use for dealing with our everyday problems. Considering other possibilities shows us that we may have been conditioned by our culture and, in fact, in looking at it in another way will help us find a better solution. Or, we may find it useful to put together different viewpoints in order to come up with yet another mental synthesis.

Our conditioning, which makes us think in a certain way, doesn’t mean that we have to be judgemental about our culture, thinking that ours is superior and others’ inferior or vice versa. We have all grown up in a certain context because nobody exists out of a context. Nor, do we have to view our conditioning as limited because the point is that there are other helpful ways of looking at and understanding different topics.

After Buddha’s Death

If we turn to the Western idea of history, after Buddha passed away his disciples had to deal with the vast amount of material that Buddha taught, of which none of it was written down. There are different versions of what happened to this material according to varying schools and authors within the Buddhist world. Different people remember diverse events and recount their stories or versions to their students or children, etc. Therefore, as there are different versions of what happened, we cannot find just one possibility or the “one truth.”

Buddha’s main disciples recounted that the ones who wrote down the teachings were all arhats. But, actually we have no idea that all five hundred of them were arhats, were all liberated beings. The five hundred arhats are said to have come together and recited from memory word for word what Buddha taught.

Here, it is important to note that nothing was written down from Buddha’s teachings for approximately four hundred years from the time the Buddha passed away. After this time the version that appears in Pali of the Theravada school was written down, while other versions were written down even later. This is why Shantideva said, “If you question the accuracy of us remembering what was said, then we can question the accuracy of what you remember.” We cannot know for definite that the arhats remembered everything word for word, because there was an enormous amount of material. This situation, where material was first transmitted orally and then written down later, is not unique to Buddhism. In fact, in many world religions nothing was written down at the time of the founder of that religion, and things were remembered and only written down much later.

Written Language and Memorizing

In terms of the history of the written language, we could ask, why would we develop a written language? According to many researchers, it was primarily developed for military purposes, to send some order etc. to another part of the army, or for administrative purposes. In the beginning, particularly in India, the written language was never used for philosophical nor for spiritual matters. It was only used for practical purposes, such as in the case of merchants who wrote down what they sold and how much it cost.

To understand whether or not people could really remember so much material in those days, we can look at the Tibetans nowadays. Tibetans are able to memorize thousands of pages of texts and are then able to recite them. The best example is that of His Holiness Dalai Lama who has memorized an enormous amount of material from which he can just quote at any time from any place. Therefore, it is unremarkable that the only way people, who did not have books nor even the concept of books, could learn would be to memorize a great deal.

It is hard for us to imagine what it would be like if there were no books, let alone no computers and internet, and that our whole education system was based purely on hearing the explanation of the teachings, which had to be remembered – this means, in a sense, to memorize. The need to memorize implies that these teachings wouldn’t just be recited once, but instead would have to be recited in an organized fashion over and over again. This repetition would help the young students, who on hearing the teachings many times would then continually recite, practice and learn them. It was only on the basis of having heard and memorized them that a student could truly think about the teachings and try to understand their meaning.

Memorization within the education system exists even today among the Tibetans in Buddhist institutions. Even though students now have books, they still recite and memorize them. In fact, the whole education system is oriented toward taking advantage of the exceptional ability of young minds to memorize. As young children, we can memorize various things, such as nursery rhymes, and remember them many years later; while to remember something from yesterday, like a telephone number is much harder – long-term memory is always better than short-term.

The Tibetan educational system is such that up until the age of thirteen, the students don’t receive any explanations – they just memorize. Some Westerners may feel that this is unsatisfactory and is a “medieval way” of studying, but it can be argued that a medieval way of learning has its benefits. A student who memorizes is not totally dependent on the internet and on libraries. They can remember something without having to look it up.

First Buddhist Council

The First Council was convened in Rajagrha in the kingdom of Magadha in the year following the Buddha’s passing. Note that the term “Council” is a Western word meaning an elected governing body. Here, the term actually means a gathering with the aim of everybody coming together to recite the scriptures and make sure that there were no corruptions.

The First Council was attended by five hundred arhats. Among these five hundred, three of the most outstanding memorizers recited one of the three major divisions of the Buddha’s teachings. Ananda, Buddha’s cousin (to have a family relative as a personal attendant and close disciple was a custom then and can still be found in the Tibetan tradition), possessed a perfect memory and therefore recited by heart all the sutras. Due to his jealously, Mahakashyapa, an elderly but relatively new monk, didn’t wish for Ananda to be present, but as Ananda had the best memory the other arhats invited him to recite the sutras. The sutras are themes of practice, especially dealing with concentration.

A portion of the abhidharma teachings, according to one version, was recited by Mahakashyapa. Other traditions say that Mahakashyapa just presided and that the abhidharma teachings, taught by the Buddha, were not recited at this time but were only later put together by various arhats from the conference. Abhidharma here is translated as “special topics of knowledge” and deals with metaphysics – how you understand the universe, what the universe is made up of, the different types of beings within it, the topic of biology, etc. This area of study helps us to develop what is called “discriminating awareness” so that we can understand the various factors of our experience.

The rules of discipline for the monastic order (vinaya) were recited by the monk Upali. There are both monks’ and nuns’ vows, as well as the divisions of novice, fully ordained, etc. The Buddha formulated the rules in order to resolve an incident or problem within the community and not to enforce “obedience.” Within Christian monasticism, one of the major vows is that of obedience – a vow that doesn’t exist in the Buddhist monastic system. The Biblical or ancient Greek heavenly or kings’ laws and the Western judicial legal system has legislature that is to be followed and obeyed. In these contexts, obedience is synonymous with “being good,” whilst disobedience is to be punished. When we look at the Western “judicial” – the administration of justice - system, we find that there is no such thing as “justice.” If someone follows the law, then they are good; if they disobey, then they are “guilty.” This whole concept of guilt is a very Western way of thinking.

In contrast, Buddhist ethics is based on understanding the problem and not on obedience. When a problem or difficulty arises, then a solution or rule is found in order to help avoid the problem from recurring again and causing more difficulties. This is relevant nowadays in any organization or society with certain so-called laws or rules which citizens must strictly obey. However, if people were to understand the reasons or motive behind these rules, then there would be no need for police and society would run much more smoothly.

The First Council was presided by Mahakashyapa, a dignified and older brahmin from Magadha. He became a monk when he was already quite old. Before he passed away, Buddha gave Mahakashyapa his old worn-out robe in exchange for the brahmin’s new one. In later times this was taken as a sign that the Buddha had transmitted the authority of his line of teachings to Mahakashyapa, and so he felt that he was in charge.

However, Buddha’s intention had always been that the authority of the teachings was to be kept egalitarian, i.e. without one person in charge. Yet, throughout Buddhist history, there has been a continuous dialectic between a central figure in authority, who takes charge of the organization to structure the teachings and has a certain power, and a democratic, egalitarian monastic community, whose leaders are voted in and in which decisions are made together. This is evident nowadays within the Tibetan monastic community concerning the full ordination for nuns. The lineage for these types of vows has been broken but there is a strong movement towards re-establishing them. However, His Holiness the Dalai Lama cannot just reintroduce them. Buddha’s stipulation was that these types of decisions cannot be made by a central authority but instead have to be decided by a council of elders who all have to agree. A major decision adopted unanimously within the Buddhist monastic community is actually difficult in practice, and is an issue relevant even today with, for example, the European Union.  In the Buddhist community, Buddha encouraged independent thinking despite the patriarchs, and because there was not a strict enforcement of a number of customs, various interpretations developed in different areas.       

Once Buddha passed away, Mahakashyapa took over, setting up the council to review and codify the Buddha’s teachings. At the start of the first council, Ananda met with the prime minister of Magadha to tell him of Buddha’s intention for a democratic egalitarian order but the prime minister was too occupied with preparing to attack the kingdom Avanti, in the west of Magadha.

In speculation, the fact that Mahakashyapa was a strong leader and initiated the codification of the teachings probably contributed to the survival of the Buddhist order in those troubled times. Coming from Mahakashyapa, there later developed a line of patriarchs – lineage or succession – who were in charge of the whole Buddhist community. The Tibetans count a line of seven patriarchs, whereas in the Zen (Japanese) tradition they count 28 patriarchs, the last one being Bodhidharma who brought Zen to China, and began the line of Chinese patriarchs of the Chan tradition. Later, branches of these traditions went to Korea, Japan, etc. In the Theravada countries of South-East Asia, national patriarchs began a line of succession, for example “The Grand Patriarch of Thailand," etc. In Tibet, a similar type of position as a patriarch developed with the institution of the Dalai Lamas. In the case of both a patriarch and the Dalai Lama, they are not considered like a pope – infallible with a direct line to Buddha, having legal authority over the monastic order. Instead, they basically have the responsibility to hold the whole order together and to look after the welfare of both the monastic and lay communities within their countries.

An interesting point in the historical development of the Buddha’s teachings is the splitting off of various schools within what is generally known as the Hinayana tradition. These schools have slightly different versions of the abhidharma, as well as adapting or altering the Vinaya according to their various needs. This adaptation was decided in a democratic way by a group of elders and not autocratically. The elders followed the custom of the Jains. The Jain religious/philosophical system began fifty years before the Buddha, and the Buddha adopted many ideas from it. The Jain monks would recite their vows every two weeks by heart because they were not written down.

It was after the First Council, when it became the custom for the assembly of monks to recite the various teachings from memory, to first hear the correct words of the teachings through the oral transmission (understanding them is not a requirement at this point!) and then memorize them correctly. The oral transmission is an important feature within Tibetan monasteries even today. Group recitation of the sutras is an important custom in the traditional Buddhist monasteries throughout Asia.

Second Buddhist Council

About a hundred years after the First Council – there are different opinions as to the dating, either 386 BCE or 376 BCE – there was a Second Council held in Vaishali in the Vajji republic.

There are different versions describing the main aim of the Second Council, i.e. the split within the community. Note here that “split” doesn’t mean a schism, like Devadatta had done with Buddha. It wasn’t that the people hated and wished to kill each other; it was just a disagreement about customs. One version is that, out of the ten controversial issues to be discussed, the main issue at this time was the differing opinion on whether or not the monks were allowed to handle gold (money) according to the monastic rules.

The group who felt that Buddha intended for monks not to handle gold was the Theravada. They were the very strict ones, the conservative group. Theravada means “the Propounders According to the Elders.” In the Theravada tradition, even nowadays, monks aren’t allowed to handle or carry money, and must have attendants or novices who deal with any sort of financial matters. The Mahasanghika, which means “the Majority Community,” was the group that broke off and said that it was appropriate that monks had gold.       

This point about handling gold is controversial because some monks were starting to accumulate money and that starts to make problems in a community that is supposed to be egalitarian. It is even a problem nowadays in the various monastic orders. In the Theravada tradition, for example in Thailand, money is handled very strictly and monks cannot touch it. In Theravada countries, monks and nuns don’t pay for anything. They are supposed to live by begging and to accept whatever food they are given. Laypeople who support the monastic community, by giving their own food and placing it in the begging bowls, accumulate positive force – what is known as “merit.” This situation differs from that of Tibet where it is too cold and the distances are too far to beg barefoot, especially in the winter. In the Tibetan traditional system, various people would take food to the monasteries, who would then distribute it to the monks. In different countries, these rules developed differently throughout history. 

Another version says that the main issue deliberated at the Second Council concerned the situation of those known as arhats, liberated beings. These beings didn’t know everything, i.e. they weren’t omniscient. For example, if they were lost then they would have to ask for directions on the road. However, despite the limitations of their knowledge, the Theravadins conceded that they were nevertheless knowledgeable about the Dharma; that they knew how to teach others and knew the meaning of the teachings. The Theravadins insisted that the arhats, similar to a Buddha, were completely free of any disturbing emotions, like desire.

However, the other group, the Mahasanghikas, based undoubtedly on their experience, said that the arhats could still be seduced in their dreams. They could have erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions. They questioned the fact that if arhats were still influenced by sexual dreams could they then still be arhats. This was a very practical issue as it arose because of the experiences of the practitioners. The Mahasanghikas stated that a Buddha wasn’t influenced at all by dreams. This statement resulted in a greater emphasis as to the difference between a Buddha and an arhat. For the Theravadins there was not such a great difference between an arhat and a Buddha. For them, Buddha taught to wider audiences, while the arhats just taught to limited numbers.

If we look at the historical development of the Mahasanghika group, part of the Mahasanghikas went from central India to the northwest, an area which is now northern Pakistan. Another group went south to the area which is now Andhra Pradesh, on the west coast of India, halfway down. It was particularly in the area of Andhra where Mahayana first emerged, and later on tantra also evolved both there and in Pakistan. Historically, the idea of what a Buddha is developed more and more toward the direction of omniscience; the idea that a Buddha knows absolutely everything simultaneously and can manifest in a countless number of forms, teaching and being understood in every language. The concept of a Buddha continually enlarged, until we reach the Mahayana view which presents the most qualities of a Buddha. 

Third Buddhist Council  

Some sources do not record the third gathering as a council. Those sources that do record it state that the Third Council took place about a hundred and fifty years after the second one. According to different versions, the date of the Third Council was around either 237 BCE or 247 BCE.

Eighty years before this, there was the founding of the Maurya Empire in Northern India, and so at the time of the Third Council, the famous emperor, Ashoka, ruled. This emperor was cruel and at first led many wars, in which a large number of people were killed. But after later hearing the Buddhist teachings, he repented and became a strong follower and supporter of the Buddhist teachings, sending out various teachers to explain the Buddhist teachings throughout both his empire and adjoining regions. The ruling of Ashoka is the time when Theravada Buddhism first went to Sri Lanka, as well as to present-day Afghanistan, Kashmir, Myanmar, etc.

According to one version, the main focus of the Third Council was that, because various groups assembled with numerous differing views, the Theravadins were concerned with retaining the purity of the teachings. Therefore, the head monk of the council wrote an analytical refutation of all the current varying views that he considered to be incorrect interpretations of the Buddhist teachings. Those who had different understandings or views of abhidharma – how things exist in the past, present and future (metaphysical issues) – formed a separate school, “the Sarvastivada tradition,” and broke off from the Theravadins.

According to the Sarvastivadins, all matter is made up of particles or atoms, in the non-Western sense, and so everything exists – the Sanskrit term “sarvasti” means all-existing. They assert that the matter (particles) in the universe basically stay the same in the past, present and future; only changing their configuration. For example, the atoms in a body come from the atoms of the parents’ sperm and egg. These atoms will be the same as those that dissolve into the earth at death or become ashes if the body is cremated. In this way, there is the concept of everything existing in the past, present, and future. This topic is relevant nowadays in terms of modern science. We can consider whether a certain amount of matter and energy in the universe persists over time, changing its form, or whether it is new matter and energy being created.   

The Theravadins didn’t agree with the view of the Sarvastivadins. Instead, they only asserted the present, and said that the only things that exist are present phenomena. For them, past events that have not yet brought about their results still exist in the present, such as an argument between a couple that took place in the past but is still effective in that it could lead to a divorce.

Over several centuries, following the Third Council, more and more schools began to increasingly break away, based on their different understandings: some from the Theravada, while others from the Mahasanghika or from the Sarvastivada schools. Around fifty years later, the Dharmaguptaka School branched off. Those within this school elevated the status of the Buddhas, emphasising the importance of offering first to the stupas – monuments containing the Buddha’s or a realized master’s relics – then to the Buddhas, and finally of lesser importance to the monastics. Here, the devotional aspect became the principal focus.

The Dharmaguptaka school was the main Hinayana Buddhist school found in Gandhara, the region spanning present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. It was here that the earliest written version of the Buddhist teachings were made, starting in the first century BCE, and these were in the Gandhari language.

One of the main issues at that time was the question of “who or what was the Buddha?” As centuries pass, we can understand that the founder of any order (or “religion”) becomes more and more glorified. When we look at the other Hinayana traditions (eighteen of them), then we find within the historical development over the centuries before the common era, that Buddha becomes more and more supernatural, in the sense that he gains more powers and becomes more omniscient. Therefore, the difference between an arhat and a Buddha becomes greater. We can note here that Buddha skilfully taught various audiences so that the teachings adapted to the specific need, at that time, for a devotional aspect of religious practice, also evident in non-Buddhist literature. The need for a devotional figure corresponds to Buddha becoming more and more of an exalted being, as well as a focus on the worship of stupas, relics and monuments of not only Buddha but also of various other great figures.

In reaction to this devotional aspect, the Mahayana scriptures or sutras emphasized the great benefits, positive force or merit, gained through reciting and studying texts. Historically, the Mahayana scriptures first started to appear between the first and the fourth centuries CE in the area of present-day Andhra Pradesh in the eastern part of South India. This was the region to which the Mahasanghika branch of Hinayana had moved, and which had established the Buddha as a superhuman figure, widening the gap between the Buddha’s attainments and those of an arhat. The main early Mahayana sutras that emerged were the Prajnaparamitra Sutras, which Buddha taught on Vulture’s Peak about the voidness of all phenomena – the second turning of the wheel of dharma.

The focus of the Mahayana sutras is not on excessive devotion, where people merely light incense and candles etc. to monuments, but is instead on the need to study and recite the texts. In these sutras, the benefits of study are repeated continuously with numbers given, such as it is thirty-six million times more merit to study and recite a text than to make offerings to a stupa. But as Shantideva, a great eighth-century CE Indian Buddhist master, pointed out it is still not useless to make offerings.

The devotional aspect is also present within the Dharmaguptaka School, a school that developed more in Central Asia. The followers of this school put together a body of what are called “dharanis.” A dharani is basically a short sentence or formula that is continuously recited in order for the mind to remain focused and mindful of a certain teaching – a type of devotion. The use of dharanis evolved at a time when devotional Hinduism was developing. It is difficult to say whether Hinduism influenced Buddhism or vice versa. They both occurred at the same time, with Hindus chanting, like in the case of Hare Krishnas, and the Buddhists chanting dharanis.

The devotional aspect from the Dharmaguptaka movement is clearly seen in Chinese Buddhism, where followers enter the temples to light incense and candles, constantly reciting dharanis. In most of the Buddhist schools in China, there is generally not so much emphasis on study. Dharanis did not just have an influence on the devotional aspect of Buddhism, but also in the development of tantra. Hence, later in Buddhist history, the recitation of mantras, which are usually much shorter than dharanis, are constantly repeated in tantric practice to keep the practitioner mindful of the meaning of a specific teaching.

The development of the Dharmaguptaka School not only led to more of a focus on the devotional aspect but also created a different version of the monastic vows for both monks and nuns. This tradition went through Central Asia and then to China. Between the fourth and fifth centuries CE, another branch broke off from Sarvastivada known as the Mulasarvastivada, whose version of the monastic rules of discipline is followed by the Tibetans. Therefore, at present there are three main lineages of the monastic ordination: first, the Theravada in Southeast Asia; second, the Mulasarvastivada, which went to Tibet and then to Mongolia and surrounding regions; and third, the Dharmaguptaka, which went to China, then Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Fourth Buddhist Council

There were two separate councils that were called “the Fourth Buddhist Council.” The earlier one was held within the Theravada tradition in the late first century BCE in Sri Lanka. At that time there was a severe famine and many monks had died of starvation. Therefore, to preserve the teachings, which had been transmitted orally up until then, the teachings were written down. This was in the Pali language, the dialect in which the Theravada teachings had been transmitted.

As for the other Fourth Buddhist Council, in the late first century CE in Kashmir and Northern India, within the Sarvastivada School Kumaralata rejected the authority of the abhidharma texts, in favor of relying exclusively in the Sarvastivada sutras. The tradition that followed from him was called “Sautrantika.”  Also at this time, in the first century CE, the Kushans, coming from Central Asia, conquered Gandhara, Kashmir and Northern India and established the Kushan dynasty. During the reign of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, this other council called “the Fourth Council” was convened in Kashmir under Vimalamitra. There, the members of the council rejected the Sautrantika assertions and codified the Sarvastivada abhidharma teachings in the Mahavibhasha Sutra. This became the basis for the Vaibhashika division of Sarvastivada. Both the Vaibhashika and the Sautrantika teachings were taught in the monastic universities in India and continues today in the Tibetan monasteries.


Tibetans/Indians view history as non-linear, based on the levels of Buddhist teachings, while Westerners view history as linear, organizing historical material logically based on dates and facts. From the Western perspective of history, Buddhist teachings were not written down for many centuries after they were taught by Buddha, instead they were transmitted orally, recited continually and memorized – a custom existing nowadays. The Councils were set up for followers of all Buddhist schools to recite the teachings together and identify possible corruptions. The First Council was attended by five hundred arhats, from which three of them each recited one of the major divisions of the Buddha’s teachings. Mahakashyapa took charge of this council, despite Buddha’s intention for the monastic community to remain egalitarian. The authority of Mahakashyapa led to the codification of the teachings and to the lineages of patriarchs.

The Second Council was formed to deliberate on whether or not monastics should handle gold, and the situation of the arhats concerning desire. Due to a difference of opinion among the monks, a division followed in the monastic community between the Theravada and Mahasangika traditions.

At the time of the ruling of Emperor Ashoka, the Third Council was set up to ascertain the purity of the teachings and harmonize the various interpretations in light of various schools breaking away and developing. As a result of further differences in interpretation of the teachings, Sarvastivada broke off from Theravada.

The Fourth Council, in Sri Lanka, was convened to write down the Buddhist teachings. The Fourth Council in Kashmir was convened to compile the teachings that formed the basis for the Vaibhashika tenet system within Sarvastivada, while rejecting the Sautrantika interpretations.

In this way, because of the lack of a central figure of authority, different interpretations and opinions naturally emerged in different geographical areas and thus Buddhism developed.