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 Dhamma in its pristine purity. The means for preserving the paṭipatti aspect of 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.
After Mahaparinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha, his chief disciple, Maha Kassapa, was on his way to Kushinagar with his 500 disciples. It was going to take another seven days for them to reach there, and until that time the Buddha's physical remains were to be preserved. Among Maha Kassapa's disciples there was one by the name of Subhadda who was very old in age, but very immature in Dhamma. When he heard of the Buddha's passing away, he jumped with joy exclaiming, "O wonderful the old man is gone! He was so troublesome, so bothersome with his rules stating do this, don't do that. Now that he is gone we are free to do what we want. No one can interfere." Hearing this, Maha Kassapa became concerned thinking, "Yes, certainly there are ripe, matured people in the sangha, but there are also foolish ones like Subhadda. Now that the Buddha has passed away, such people will twist his words to suit their own purposes. They will claim the Buddha said something that he may not have said, or not talk about some things that he did say, thus contriving to put in his mouth what they desire. They will make efforts to remove what is undesirable to them by saying the Buddha did not say so. Such people will then be the cause of the Dhamma's downfall. What shall be done?" The wise old Maha Kassapa mused and then concluded that all the spoken words of the Buddha must be gathered and compiled together.
After seven days, once Maha Kassapa arrived, the cremation took place. Three months later, at the Sattapanni cave in Rajgir, the very first Sangayana took place. Five hundred Arahant bhikkhus who were very close to the Buddha gathered together, narrated and compiled the words of the Buddha with utmost care. The teachings regarding Vinaya, the rules and regulations for the bhikkhus, was well absorbed and digested by Upali, a senior teacher of the bhikkhus, and he narrated the words that had come as guidance from the Buddha. This was accepted by all. The rest of the words and teachings were well known to Ananda, which he recounted and this too was accepted by everyone.
This event was a huge undertaking. In those days neither paper nor printing presses existed. This being such a large body of literature, it was not a small matter for people to memorise it in order to preserve it. And what's more, preserve it while carefully retaining its authenticity, the pristine purity of what was said, so there could be no argument regarding what was genuinely said.
So they came together on one common point of agreement saying that these were the authentic, proven words of the Buddha which no one should add anything to or remove anything from.
This was the first Sangayana. It kept Dhamma alive, giving birth to the tradition whereby the second and then the third, fourth and fifth Sangayana's were held. Then, 2500 years after the Buddha's time, the sixth Sangayana was held in Burma. At this time, wherever in the world the words of the Buddha, the Tipitaka existed - and they existed only in the five countries of Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos - from these countries 2500 scholarly bhikkhus were invited to review and recite together the Buddha's words. The opinions of all had to be one, this was important, in fact a necessary condition.
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 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 Tipiṭaka. It was after the council, that nine Theras were sent to various places for the spread of 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.