The six historical Councils, or Dhamma-Saṅgītis, were held for the purpose of compiling the words of the Buddha. These were called recitation councils, or saṅgītis, because the texts were recited sentence by sentence by an eminent Thera (elder monk), and chanted after him in chorus by the whole assembly. It was only on the basis of unanimous acceptance by the members of the assembly that the words were compiled. This collection of the Buddha’s teaching is called the Tipiṭaka.22
There are two important aspects of the Dhamma—the theoretical, textual aspect (pariyatti), and the practical, applied aspect (paṭipatti). Basically the work of such recitations or councils is to preserve the pariyatti aspect of the Dhamma in its pristine purity. The means for preserving the paṭipatti aspect of the Dhamma is the actual practice of the Buddha’s teaching, handed down from teacher to pupil.
The councils were necessary to preserve the words accurately because, until the Fourth Council, the words of the Buddha were not written down but were only committed to memory. They also provided a forum for settling disputes in the Saṅgha and for maintaining the purity of the monastic discipline.
The following is a brief description of each of the six Councils:
The First Council (Paṭhama-Dhamma Saṅgīti) was held at Rājagaha under the patronage of King Ajātasattu in 544 B.C., after the Mahāparinibbāna of the Buddha. Mahākassapa Thera presided over the council, Upāli was the reciter for the Vinaya, and Ānanda was the reciter for the Dhamma. It consisted of five hundred arahants and continued for seven months.
The Second Council (Dutiya-Dhamma Saṅgīti) was held at Vesāli under the patronage of King Kālāsoka in 444 B.C., one hundred years after the First Council. It consisted of seven hundred monks and was presided over by Revata Thera.
The Third Council (Tatiya-Dhamma Saṅgīti) was held at Pāṭaliputta under the patronage of King Dhammāsoka (better known as King Asoka) in 326 B.C. Thera Moggaliputta Tissa presided over the council in which one thousand monks, well-versed in the word of the Buddha, participated for nine months. During this council an additional collection of the Buddha’s words was compiled, the Kathāvatthu, and added to the Tipiṭaka. It was after the council that nine Theras were sent to various places for the spread of the Dhamma.
The Fourth Council (Catuttha-Dhamma Saṅgīti) was convened in Sri Lanka at the time of King Vaṭṭagāminī Abhaya (29-17 B.C.). Five hundred learned monks participated in the council presided over by Mahā Thera Rakkhita. The entire Tipiṭaka and commentaries (Aṭṭhakathās) were recited and then committed to writing for the first time.23
The Fifth Council (Pañcama-Dhamma Saṅgīti) was held at Mandalay in Burma in 1871 A.D. under the patronage of King Min-Don-Min, with 2,400 learned monks participating. The council was presided over in turns by the Mahā Thera Venerable Jāgarābhivaṃsa, Venerable Narindabhidhaja and Venerable Sumaṅgala Sāmī. The recitation and inscription of the Tipiṭaka onto marble slabs continued for more than five months.
The Sixth Council (Chaṭṭha-Dhamma Saṅgīti) was convened by Prime Minister U Nu of Burma in May 1954, in Rangoon, with the collaboration and participation of learned monks from various countries of the world. Venerable Abhidhaja Mahāraṭṭha Guru Bhadanta Revata presided over the council and 2,500 learned monks from Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and other countries, re-examined the text of the Tipiṭaka. The council completed its task on the full moon day of Vesākha in 1956, the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s Mahāparinibbāna.24
These six Councils, the first three in India, the fourth in Sri Lanka and the last two in Burma, served the valuable function of helping to maintain the purity of the Dhamma, which continues to flourish more than 2,500 years after its rediscovery by Gotama the Buddha.
The Spread of the Dhamma