The Riddle of the First Buddhist Council - A Retrospection
visting professor Chung-Hwa
Institute of Buddhist Studies
Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal, No.7, pp.452~473, 1994
The problem of the First Council was first raised and discussed in detail by Minayeff in 1887. (1) He thought that the chapter XI of the Cullavagga which contains an account of the First Council is riddled with contradictions, and rejected the episode of chanting of the dharma and vinaya as legend, for it was contradicted by traditions of earlier origin. His view as summarised by Poussin(2) may be stated as follows:
(1) D.P. Minayeff published his work in Russian in 1887. This was translated into French under the titleRecherch es sur le Bouddhisme in 1894.Poussin gave a critical account of Minayeffs thesis in his work (see nex note) which I have utilised for the article.
(2) Louis De La Vallee Poussin, The Buddhist Councils (K. P. Bagchi and Co, Calcutta, 1976), p.10, Henceforth abbreviated as Councils.
Oldenberg's Criticism of Minayeff
This view of Minayeff is totally rejected by Oldenberg. (3) He neither finds any incoherence nor contradiction in the account of the Cullavagga. Moreover Oldenberg rightly points out that so far as the official resolution regarding the chanting is concerned, nothing 'can be more probable nor more conformable to the habits made known to us by the literature'. He further states that the 'point of view of Minayeff who claims to recognise in these episodes (and those of the failings of Ananda) an old kernel of authentic tradition (einen guten alten kern guter uberlieferung) and to separate them from the rest of the account due to a much younger time, is illusory'. In fact "Der Culla, wenn er.... die Geschiste von dem Konzil mit dem in Rede stehenden Episoden ausstattete beging damit nicht in mindesten, wie Minayeff will, einen Selbstwiederspruch. "So Oldenberg neither accepts the view that the episodes of Subhadda etc. are historic and earlier in origin than the legendary account of, nor accepts that there is any contradiction between the chanting and the other episodes. This does not mean that Oldenberg believes in the authenticity of the Council. He has other reasons to discard it as a legend.
Oldenberg points out that much of the Cullavagga XI. 1 agrees almost verbatim with certain portions of the Mahaparinibbanasutta (VI.19-20).(4) In order to understand the relationship between the Cullavagga and the Mahaparinibbanasutta we will give below a synopsis of the Cullavagga XI. 1:(5)
(3) Ibid, p.10.
(4) The Mahaparinibbanasutta (PTS, London, 1982),;VI. 19n 20 ( abbreviated a MPS ). Also see, Dialogues of the Buddha,Part II, pp. 73ff (PTS, London, 1977).
(5)Cullavagga XI. 1 (abbreviated as CV ).
The Cullavagga does not record the reaction of Kassapa to the statement of Subhadda. After narrating this incident Kassapa simply told the monks: "Come, my bretheren, let us chant together the dharma and vinaya before the non-dhamma spread and the dhamma be put aside." Then the Cullavagga goes on to narrate how the formal resolution to chant was adopted, the monks selected and the place for chanting decided upon.
It is to be noted that the account about the formal resolution etc., are not recorded in the MPS. The MPS in fact does not contain the slightest hint as to the chanting of the dhamma and vinaya. Otherwise the two texts agree with each other verbatim, and Oldenberg is of the opinion that the Cullavagga copied this part of the narraration from the MPS. As the MPS does not breath a single word about the chanting, Oldenberg came to the conclusion that all the incidents connected with the Council (viz. Kassapa's proposal to chant, his selection of the monks, selection of the place for chanting, formal proposal for chanting, and its acceptance by the Samgha, the chanting of the dhamma and vinaya etc. ) and mentioned in the Cullavagga but omitted in the MPS are nothing but fiction. And this elaborate fiction, according to Oldenberg, was concocted in immitation of the Second Buddhist Council which is historical. (6)It is, however, not properly explained by Oldenberg why the Cullavagga would have to copy the. MPS or to feel inclined to creat such a fiction in immitation of the Second Council. Oldenberg is equally determined to deny the historical nature of even those
Thus according to Oldenberg the redactors of the Cullavagga were familiar with the account of the MPS regarding the khuddanukhuddakani sikkhapadani and the punishment of the Channa, but were not aware whether theinstructions of the Buddha had already been carried out or not. So they imagined fitting sequels to the account of the MPS and wrote about the actual execution of the orders of the Buddha. Oldenberg is also sceptical about the historical nature of the episode of the faults of Ananda which is not connected with the chanting directly.
Poussin has excellently summarised the opinion of Oldenberg in the following way:(9) "Wishing to set forth the primitive compilation of scriptures, postulated by orthodoxy, the compiler of Cullavagga has naturally brought forward Kassapa, A nanda and Upali. He added the story of Kassapa's journey and the episode of the lesser precepts, had grouped and developed several other souvenirs relative to this period: almost all were known to him through the MPS. In one word Oldenberg believes that all our chapter of the Culla is a forgery."-----------
(7) Poussin, Councils, p.22.
(8) Poussin, Councils.
(9) Poussin, Councils, p.12.
Criticism of Oldenberg by Finot and Obermiller
As against Oldenberg's contention that the MPS maintains utter silence concerning the First Council, Finot (10) offers the following arguments. He points out that the chapters XI and XII of the Cullavagga which contain the accounts of the two Councils, have such an abrupt beginning unlike the other chapters of the Cullavagga that they could not have been originally a part of this work. He further points out that the Mahapaninibbanasutta also differs from the other suttas of the Digha Nikaya in the nature of its contents, being more historical in character, and that the Mahaparinibbana sutta and the two chapters (XI, XII) of the Cullavagga are so similar in nature that they must have been originally parts of one and the same work. In support of his view he refers to a work entitled Samyukta-vastu (Nanjio 1121), the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivadins, which contains the account of both parinirvana and the Councils, and concludes therefrom that the Theravadins too had a work corresponding to the Samyukta-vastu and that it was dismembered at a later date by the ancient editors of the Nikayas and Vinaya. Dr. Obermiller (11) corroborates Finot's contention and gives us in detail the contents of the Vinaya-ksudra ka which roughly correponds to the Cullavagga, and shows that it not only contains the account of the two Councils but also the Mahapaninibbanasutta. He further points out that "the story of the Councils begins just on the same line in which the narrative of the burial of the Buddha finishes, without any indication whatsoever".
In view of these evidences Prof. N. Dutt (12) takes Finot's contention as sound,
viz., that the Mahapaninibbanasutta and at least the chapter XI (and
not the chapter XII) of the Cullavagga originally formed one treatise,
and in the analogy of the
(11) N.Dutt, Early Monastic Buddhism vol.I, pp.337~38; Indian Historical Quarterly (Calcutta), vol.VIII, pp.781>84.
(12) N.Dutt, Early Monastic Buddhism vol. I, p.338.
aside. Poussin(13) also is inclined to support the conclusions of Finot drawn on the basis of his finding of the text of Samyukta-vastu.
Rejection of Finot's View
It is difficult to support the views of Finot and others. Both the Samyukta-vastu and the Vinaya-ksudraka belong to the Mulasarvastivadins. And it is only the Mulasarvastivadins who have joined the MPS and the account of the two Councils into one single text.
This arrangement has not been followed by any other school which arose out of the Sthaviras. The tradition followed by these schools definitely shows that the MPS was regarded as a sutta which was held separate from the account of the First Council. Though the Mahasamghika version of the MPS has not come down to us, it is certain that the Mahasamghikas possessed this sutta. The Mahasamghika Vinaya(13a) refers to this sutta by name and reproduces certain informations mentioned in the available MPS versions belonging to schools which developed out of the Sthaviras. Thus the compilation of the MPS must have been completed before the Sthavira-Mahasamghika split. It is clear that even in this early period the MPS was known as sutta to the Mahasamghikas, and that, according to the Mahasamghika tradition also, it existed separately from the account of the First Council. So it is obvious that the arrangement discusssed by Finot and other scholars is to be taken as a later development peculiar to the Mulasarvastivadins, and can be of no use in determining the arrangement of the Buddhist traditions in the earliest period. This cannot solve the problem raised by Oldenberg due to the silence of the MPS. As for the abrupt beginning of the Cullavagga account it has been shown later that this perception of the abruptness is only due to the misunderstanding of the real nature of this part of the Cullavagga account. There are, however, some objective grounds for rejecting the view of Oldenberg which may now be discussed._________________
(13) Poussin, Councils, p.13, note 39, p.11, note 36.
(13a) T. 22, p.489 C27ff (T. for Taisho ed. of Tripitaka).
Refutation of Oldenberg's theory
The grand edifice of Oldenberg's theory rests on a number of facts and assupmtions. The observations that certain parts of the Cullavagga agrees verbatim with the MPS, and that the MPS does not mention anything about the First Council refer to facts. As for the assumptions which contribute greatly to giving the final shape to the theory of Oldenberg we may note the following:
(14) MPS VI, 19 20. (15) CV XI, 1.
Before we start our examination of the theory propounded by Oldenberg we would like to enumerate the following principles which should guide us in our investigation:
(16) Biswadeb Mukherjee, The Schismatic Matt ers and the Early Buddhist Literature especially, pp.89, 90, 95 (Journal of Research V. B.; vol. 1, part I,;Humanities and Social Sciences, 1977).
(17) Ibid, p.94.
We may start our criticism of Oldinberg's view by pointing out that there is no decisive reason to hold that the MPS is earlier than the Cullavagga XI. It is true that the MPS deals with events that took place before the holding of the First Council. However the fact that the MPS records earlier events does not by itself prove that the MPS was composed at an earlier date. The possibility that the MPS might have been composed at a later date cannot be ignored. The MPS not only describes the last days and the funeral ceremony of the Buddha but also records the distribution of the relics and the construction of the stupas over the relics which certainly took place quite some time after the death of the Buddha. On the other hand the First Council, took place, according to the tradition of the undivided Buddhist community during the first rainy season after the Buddha's Parinirvana. The time gap between these two events is quite short, and it is obvious that the MPS could not have been composed before the First Council or discussed during the Council. In short, the MPS or rather the genuine traditions exclusively recorded in the MPS had not yet become a part of the official canon fixed during the First Council. On the other hand, the Culla vagga XI records different Formal Acts performed during the First Council and so the core of this account must be contemporaneous with the Council.A careful analysis of the Cullavagga XI will even now reveal to us traces of such traditions which became part of the Buddhist scripture during the time of the First Council and therefore, before the compilation of the MPS. Some of these tradition came to be included in the MPS at a later date. Let us, for example, first discuss that part of the Cullavagga XI where Kassapa is reporting to the monks about the reaction of Subhadda to the news of the death of the Buddha. This incidence is also given in the MPS. From the Cullavagga account it is clear thatthe monks in general have not yet heard of the Subhadda episode.
This detail would be out of place if we have to admit that the Cullavagga XI was composed at a later period when the MPS had already become quite well known to the Buddhist community. This ignorance on the part of the Buddhist monks indirectly shows that the MPS was not yet composed at that time.
As already pointed out, the Cullavagga XI mainly consists of a number of krtyas or Formal Acts performed by the Samgha. The chanting of the dharma and the vinaya, the deliberations on the minor rules etc. are different Formal Acts. The features of a Formal Act have been carefully preserved in case of the chanting of the dhamma and the vinaya which is mentioned in all the vinaya versions including that of the Mahasamghikas, and thus belongs to the earliest strata of traditon. This is the most important of all the Formal Acts discussed in this chapter, and for the sake of which the First Council was probably held. Now as the chanting is a Formal Act, it, according to the ancient legal custom, was performed with reference to the vatthu, nidana and puggala, (18) i.e. the subject-matter, the place and the person or persons concerned. The necessary information about these three points were generally supplied as a sort of introduction to the legal act of krtya. The Formal Act of chanting of the dhamma and the vinaya also has its introduction which still can be discerned in the first few sections of the Culavagga XI.(19) This introduction which contains the story of Subhadda(20) must be as old as the First Council, and consequently must have been a part of the Buddhist canon long before the MPS came to be recognised as a canonical work.
But how this episode came to be later included in the MPS? The reason would be clear if we once again pay attention to the contents of the MPS. This work deals with among other things the parinirvana of the Buddha and other incidents directly connected with it. So it is but natural that the compiler of the-----------
(18) I have shown that the invariable association of"vatthu", nidana, and puggala with the vinaya was due to ancient legal Custom (see ibid, pp.92ff) , krtya being a legal act should also be discussed together with vatthu, etc.
The cases of the minor rules (Khuddanukhuddakani sikkhapadani) and the monk Channa are slightly different. Each of these episodes consists of two parts: i) the Buddha's instruction, and ii) the execution of this instruction. The instructions on these two cases are mentioned both in the MPS(21)and the Cullavagga (22) while the account of their execution is only found in the CullavaggaOldenberg (23) came to the conclusion that the monks were no longer aware whether the Buddha's instructions had already been carried out or not. So they imagined fitting sequels to those-instructions in the form of suitable actions taken by the Samgha. This theory of Oldenberg is solely based on two presuppositions:-----------
(21) MPS (VI.3).
(22) CV XI. 12; XI. 9.
(23) Poussin, Councils p. 22t note 64.
i) The MPS is an earlier work which influenced the composition of the Cullavagga XI at a later date.
ii) The time-gap between the MPS and the Cullavagga is long enough to make the monks uncertain about the execution of the Buddha's orders.
But these presuppositions cannot be accepted. The entire Buddhist canon does not provide us with the slightest ground to suppose that the devoted disciples would be so indifferent to the instructions of the Buddha that they would not only neglect to execute them but would not even be certain whether the instructions have been carried out or not. It world be more reasonable to accept as fact the Cullavagga account that the monks lost no time to act according to the orders of the Buddha. The other objections to the theory of Oldenberg would be the same as what we have already pointed out regarding the chanting of the dhamma and vinaya, viz. i) the Cullavagga XI is as old as the First Council and the M PS is a comparatively later work; ii) the instructions of the Buddha being connected with the last days of the Buddha naturally find mention in the MPS while official actions taken on the basis of the instructions by the Samgha should belong to the category of krtya and as such are justifiably excluded from the MPS and included in the Cullavagga
Poussin's view and its criticism
Poussin does not subscribe to the view of Oldenberg and puts it aside as a mere hypothesis. (24) The path he treads is not entirely different from his predecessors; he develops a view which is an improved version of Minayeff's theory. Like Minayeff, he percieves multiple internal contradictions in the account of the Cullavagga XI, regards the chanting of dhamma and vinaya as a later product of imagination because of such contradiction but ascribes the other episodes to an authentic, earlier tradition. Actually the main thrust of his arguments is to prove the legendary nature of the account of chanting the dhamma and vinaya. He strongly believes in the legendary nature of this episode, and this attitude has influenced his summarisation of the CV XI, the-----------
(24) Council, p.13.
beginning of which may be quoted below:(25)
The expressions given in italics by me were used by Poussin to emphasise the vaguesess and suddenness of the rambling Cullavagga account, and thus to raise doubt about its authenticity. It is to be noted that this imperfect beginning was made to gradually lead us to the account of the chanting of the dhamma and vinaya in the Council.
He proceeds further to show that the account of the chanting does not fit well with the two other episodes narrated in the Cullavagga XI, viz. the account of the charges brought against, Ananda, and the discussion on the minor rules (khuddanukhuddakani sikkhapadani). We may first start with the episode of Ananda.(26)
The monks reproach Ananda with a number of faults which he had committed before his attainment of the status of an arhat. For example, they told Ananda: "You committed a fault for you had not enquired about the minor rules. Confess your fault. "Ananda confessed the faults which he had done either through forgetfulness or with a good intention. And all his replies end with the formula: "I do not see any wrong in that . Nevertheless out of deference to you (ayusmantanam sddhaya) I confess this sin."
Minayeff (27) questions the propriety of charges being brought against one who is an arhat.
(25) Council, p.2.
(26) CV XI. 10; T.22, p.191 b3ff; T.22, p.967b 2 7ff.
(27) Poussin, Councils, p.15; Minayeff, (Cherches, p.31)
It is obvious that Minayeff takes the tradition of Ananda's trial to be genuine which leads him to conclude that the ideal of an arhat was still vague. This speaks in favour of the antiquity of the tradition. On the other hand, the episode of chanting which could only be done by Arhats, shows that the Arhats were already valued as perfect saints. This is, no doubt, a later tradition, and is contradicted by the earlier tradition. Hence the episode of chanting is a legend.
Oldenberg (28) objects to this view. He points out that the Arhat ideal must have been clear from very ancient time, but he holds that one can naturally make mistake before becoming an arhat, and he can be judged for such a mistake even after he has attained the status of an arhat. Oldenberg points out that anybody who is familiar with the Vinaya, will agree that every offence committed must find its disciplinary action without taking account of the fact as to the guilty person has in the meantime attained to some degree of spiritual perfection. Against this view of Oldenberg, Poussin (29) draws our attention to the episode of Channa and works out a long and complicated thesis in defense of Minayeff. Let us take a look at the episode of Channa (30) so that we would be in a better position to understand the view of Poussin.
After the chanting of dharma and vinaya, Ananda informed the monks that the Buddha had instructed the Samgha to impose the brahmadanda on Channa. Being asked by the monks Ananda explains the nature of this punishment: "Let the monk Channa speak whatever pleases him; the monks will not speak to him, will not exhort him, neither will they warn him. Ananda agrees to go and announce this sentence to Channa, provided a group of monks accompanies him, "for this monk is fierce and passionate. Ananda announces this sentence to Channa who receives it with great humility. His grief and remorse is such that
The point which Poussin wants to make is that while in case of Channa the punishment is lifted due to his attainment of 'arhatva', Ananda, on the other hand, is subjected to disciplinary action even after he becomes arhat. The samgha is adopting different types of action against 2 Arhats. Poussin further states that Channa finds himself absolved from the brahmandand a when it is no longer harmful to him.
This state of things, according to Poussin, (31) shows that from very ancient time the Buddhists were having two very different concepts about the state of an arhat. It refers to a very early period when the concept of arhat had not yet been dogmatically propounded. This is what Minayeff saw here. He is therefore, justified in pointing out the contradiction between the Ananda episode and the tradition of chanting.
In support of this contention Poussin further states that according to orthodox argument, not only the arhat cannot fall, but also the counsel, assistance etc. of others are absolutely useless to him. The story of an arhat culpable and subject to penance against will is contrary to the orthodoxy of the non-Mahasamghikas. The story of Channa reflects the attitude of the conservative group while episode of Ananda shows the existence of the non-orthodox group which later championed the five points of Mahadeva and facilitated the rise of the Mahasamghikas.
Poussin(32) is further of the opinion that "in the oldest account there is no question of a Council; they reprimand Ananda. If one adds to this nucleus the legend of a Council, the reprimand of Ananda will not at first change its character: and if orthodoxy, just about to be formed exacts that all the members of the Council should be Arhats, there will no difficulty in assigning to the reprimand the second rank which is suitable to it after the narration of an event of____________________
(31) Poussin, Councils, pp.15 17.
(32) Ibid, p.17.
so great importance as the redaction of the Scriptures. Orthodoxy is not yet sufficiently sensitive to feel the contradiction of the chronological arrangement; it is not sufficiently rigid to exclude the precise mention of the 'non-sanctity' of Ananda at the time of a gathering the object of which was to punish him. All that the orthodox tendency can obtain is to promote A nanda to sanctify during the night of the Council.
The elaborate speculations of Poussin can be summarised thus: Originally the episode of Ananda who was not an arhat was an independent matter which became in course of time the nucleus to which was added the imginary account of the Council. Due to the importance of the Council its account was related first and then was narrated the episode of Ananda. Up to this stage of development there is no contradiction, for the arhat element has not yet been introduced. The contradiction arises when due to the demand of orthodoxy Ananda is first made an arhat before th Council starts, and then because of the previously arranged sequence of events, is made to face the charges brought against him.
Poussin comes to the same conclusion regarding the discussion on the minor rules (Khuddanukhuddakani sikkhapadani)(33)during the First Coucil. Poussin draws our attention to the three references to the minor rules in the MP S VI. 3, the CV XI. 9, and the Pacittiya LXXII. In the MPS the Buddha permits the Order to abolish the minor rules if it deems it necessary to do so. In the CV XI we read that Ananda informed the Samgha about this permission of the Buddha. On being asked Ananda admitted that he had not asked the Buddha which these rules were. The monks offered six different suggestions about the identity of the minor rules, but could not come to any decision. On the advice of Kassapa the Samgha adopted the resolution not to change anything which the Buddha had approved. The Pacittiya LXXII states: " If a monk at the time of recitation of the Patimokkha should speak thus: 'What is the good of recitation of the minor rules, except to engender doubt, weariness and perplexity?', this monk is guilty of contemning the rules."
In his discussion on these three references Poussin (34) agrees entirely with
Let us first discuss how old could these references be. The compilation of MPS, as we have already shown, occured at a comparatively later time, after the First Council but before the rise of different Buddhist sects. The Pacittiya rule in question also appears to have been promulgated after the First Council. Poussin(35)thinks that Kassapa, Upali, Ananda etc. missed this rule during the First Council. This view is not tenable. It is really unthinkable that the Vinaya experts among the monks would not recall to mind this rule when they were discussing the problem of the minor rules. It is even most likely that the other monks also would be able to point out this Pacittiya rule, for they listened to the recital of Pratimoksa every month. We have good reasons to hold that this rule was not yet formulated at the time of the First Council, and that this Pacittiya rule came into existence later under the influence of the First Council's discussions on the minor rules. It was only during the First Council that the monks for the first time came to know that the Buddha had designated a part of the Pratimoksa rules as khuddanukhuddakani sikkhapadani, and also became aware of the fact that they did not know which rules the Buddha meant when he talked about the abrogation of some minor rules. It was also shortly before his death that the Buddha for the first time used this particular term for the minor rules. So it is not possible that this Pacittiya rule was promulgated before the First Council.
In the MPS the Buddha permits the Samgha to annul the minor rules, but the arhats during the First Council decided to preserve all the Vinaya rules, for they lacked precise knowledge as to the identity of the minor rules. They virtually put an end to all future deliberations on this problem. It is obvious that the statement of the Pacittiya rule that any discussion unfavourable to the recitation of the minor rules will lead to uncertainity, and therefore it is an ecclesiastical offence to do so reflects faithfully the cautious spirit of the First Council, but runs counter to the generous attitude of the Buddha. This suggests that the Pacittiya