Just before he died (or attained nirvana), the Buddha promised his disciples that the teachings he had communicated to them would be their guide.
According to tradition, Mahakashyapa took the leadership of the community of monks after the passing of the Buddha and went on to gather 500 of the most advanced disciples to recite the teachings.
This communal gathering and recitation is known as the First Council and was held in the capital of Rajgir, of the kingdom of Magadha (located in northeast India). After the monks entered Rajgir, the first month was spent repairing the buildings at the site but the time soon arrived for the gathering. Mahakashyapa selected some of the Buddha’s disciples to recite the teachings they had heard from him and had previously committed to their memory. This was in part a response to Subhadra, a follower of the Buddha who delighted in his leader’s death because it meant that one would no longer need to follow his rigid discipline any longer. First selected by Mahakashyapa for recitation was Ananda, a companion and disciple who had spent over thirty years listening to the Buddha’s teachings. We learn that Ananada recounted a teaching and the location where the Buddha supposedly gave it, which was at the Buddha’s home near Shravasti. Ananda communicated to the others what he remembered and because the disciples at the council attested to its accuracy, Mahakashyapa instructed the assembly to commit it to memory.
The First Council divided the Buddha’s teachings into two groups: the general discourses and the discipline. These were later divided into the “three baskets” (tipitaka in Pali; tripitaka in Sanskrit) that constitute the principal categories of the Theravadan Buddhist canon and the “dharma” of the Buddha. The three baskets are as follows:
The Basket of Discourses (Pali: Sutta Pitaka; Sanskrit: Sutra Pitaka), believed to have been recited by Ananda, is an extensive collection of advice that the Buddha gave concerning the practice of meditation and related topics. This advice attempts to guide devotees in the training of the mind to gain valuable insight that will lead them to nirvana. Nirvana is, according to Buddhist doctrine, the full and complete release from the never-ending cycle of birth and suffering. There is the teaching called the Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Pali: Mahasatipatthana Sutta) in the Sutta Pitaka that contains crucial advice on how realize the four noble truths. Many Buddhist traditions have developed their practices of meditation on this teaching.
The Basket of Discipline (Pali and Sanskrit: Vinaya Pitaka), recited by Upali, a chief monk and former barber in Kapilavastu, contains the more than 225 rules of conduct that guide the community (sangha) of monks and nuns. During his leadership role over the burgeoning Buddhist community, the Buddha established rules to govern the behaviour of his followers, especially as new situations and events presented themselves. There is the case of the monk Sudinna who admitted to having sexual intercourse with his former wife, which led the Buddha to rebuke him by saying that such behaviour is inappropriate for any member of the sangha. Such only cultivates further attachment to the world of sensual desires and will not assist one in the path to liberation. In response to this, the Buddha made a rule that forbade those following the monastic way of life from engaging in sexual behaviour.
The Basket of Higher Teachings (Pali: Abhidhamma Pitaka; Sanskrit: Abhidharma Pitaka) contains texts of a much later date than the other baskets although tradition says that it was recited by Mahakashyapa, the Buddha’s successor. It includes narratives on the Buddha, his previous lives, and philosophical speculation, notably on epistemology and metaphysics (mind, matter and time). One of these texts is the Patthana, which attempts to describe how the mind works and also proposes twenty-four fundamental relations governing all phenomena. One of the relations is called stimulative causes, which stimulate sensations within human beings and cause thoughts and feelings in them.
It is important to acknowledge that the three baskets were not written down, but were memorized by the monks and handed down from one generation of monks to the next until it took written form in the first century BCE. Mahakashyapa passed away shortly after the First Council and Ananda took over the role as leader of the sangha. It was during Ananda’s roughly four decades of leadership that Buddhism propagated through India. Buddhism is a missionary religion and in the period following the First Council monks dispersed in all directions. According to the Mahavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka, the Buddha instructed his disciples to,
“Go forth for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and the happiness of gods and men. Let no two of you go in the same direction. Teach the Dharma which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful at the end. Proclaim both the letter and the spirit of the holy life completely fulfilled and perfectly pure.”
Ananda immersed himself in his role as leader, teaching thousands of disciples the path to liberation. Some leaders also founded monastic communities that further expanded the sangha and brought in many new disciples. This expansion during Buddhism’s early period occurred peacefully and people were not forced to become a part of their community. The monks and disciples would enter villages carrying bowls and then go from door to door seeking food, receiving any food the people offered them. They would then retreat to the outskirts of the village where inhabitants would often visit them to request instruction. In some cases, people asked to join the sangha and the monks would offer any teachings that they could from memory before moving onto the next village.
Academic Views on the First Council and the Tripitaka
Although it is clear that the First Council plays an important role in Buddhist tradition and informs one of how Buddhists at an earlier time might have preserved their founder’s teachings as well as understood themselves, there is scant historical evidence to support its historicity. Although this can be said of several councils, it is particularly relevant to the first that many scholars do not think took place. According to Charles Prebish, “Virtually all the researchers have concluded that the council was not an historical event” (1).
Not only are the texts quite removed historically from the time the council would have taken place, but it seems unlikely that there would have been a need to call a council on the basis of one man, Subhadra, and his criticism of the Buddha. In the earlier Vinaya materials mentioning the First Council there is no description of the canon whose authenticity it is trying to establish, which is what one would expect to find. However, the descriptions of the canon appearing in the recitations of the First Council are found in later material. One theory presented by Andre Bareau and supported by Prebish is that the First Council was inspired by the history of the Second Council and that its author wished to justify the authenticity of the tripitaka canon and avoid any future dissidence by giving the community a body of scriptures which held authority (2).
1. Prebish, Charles. 1974. “A Review of Scholarship on the Buddhist Councils.” Journal of Asian Studies 33(2): 239-254. p. 241.
2. Bareau, André. 1955. Les premiers conciles bouddhiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. p. 27-29.