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Samanera Bodhesako

The First Council

"Come, friends: let us recite the Teaching and the Discipline before what is not the Teaching shines forth and the Teaching is put aside, before what is not the Discipline shines forth and the Discipline is put aside, before those who speak what is not the Teaching become strong and those who speak what is the Teaching become weak, before those who speak what is not the Discipline become strong and those who speak what is the Discipline become weak."[23]

Thus, a few months after the Buddha's decease a meeting now known as the First Council was held in the hills outside of Rajagaha (modern Rajgir, in Bihar) in order to put the Vinaya and the Suttas into a formal structure for the sake of those who would come later. Venerable Upali, who had gone forth at the same time as Venerable Ananda, was designated responsible for the Vinaya, as was Venerable Ananda for the Suttas. The account of their stewardships consists of but a few lines of reportage, probably edited long after the event -- most likely together with the account of the Second Council, the report of which seems to be much more contemporaneous with its subject matter.

The evidence is twofold. First, we would expect the Culavagga to have, if not fewer, at least not more Khandhakas than the Mahavagga. In the Suttas we often encounter Maha/Cula pairs, and the Maha is invariably the longer. At any rate the Tenth Khandhaka of the Culavagga is concerned with the nuns. It would be inconsistent with attitudes displayed elsewhere in the texts for the nuns' disciplinary matters to be placed ahead of the monks' concerns, particularly at such an important convocation as the Council. Therefore, the account of the Councils must have been appended at a time when the Vinaya was already considered closed to interpolations. Indeed, the account of the Councils was almost certainly the final addition to the Vinaya texts.

Second, it is said in Khandhaka XI that Venerable Ananda recited the five Nikayas. Therefore the account could not have been edited until a time when the five Nikayas actually existed. Since the Suttas never refer to themselves as consisting of Nikayas at all, let alone as five, if we were to assume the account to be contemporary, we would be forced to suppose that this classification came into being quite dramatically. It is more reasonable to suppose that a body of material existed which, though not formally included in the First Council compilation, adhered to it as supplementary matter; that that material must have included an account of the Council itself; and that it, as well as certain other materials, eventually came to be included in the Canon before the Canon itself was regarded as closed. The account was included at a time when the five Nikayas already existed as formally organized bodies of texts, but probably was codified quite soon after, for the specification of the number five suggests an attempt to legitimize the last of them, the Khuddaka Nikaya.

Be that as it may, it is not difficult, despite the brevity of the reportage, to imagine what must have taken place. The Council was no mere recitation of texts: that had been going on for forty-five years and did not require a special assembly. The Council's aim must have been two-fold:
    1) To decide what, out of the vast store of material at hand, should be given the protection of formal organization; and
    2) To set up a mechanism to preserve this material.

Obviously it couldn't all be saved. Not only were there the Buddha's discourses, all 82,000 of them,[24] but also the discourses of many other monks, some of them learned, wise, enlightened, liberated. Some of the discourses were duplicates -- the monks from Savatthi remembering the Buddha saying a particular Sutta when he was there; the monks from Kusinagara remembering him saying quite the same thing on a visit to them -- others varied in greater or lesser extent. Some variations were revealing, others perhaps less so. These elders wanted this discourse included, those elders had other requests. In addition to the formal discourses there were events of some significance: the famine in Veranja and its effects on the Order, Devadatta's attempt at a schism, an attempt on Venerable Sariputta's life (Ud. IV,4 (39-41)), and so on. Which of these were worthy of preservation? Which would be of less value to those who came later? How much was enough, and how much too much? These decisions were, with regard to the Suttas, Venerable Ananda's responsibility as, with regard to the Vinaya, they were Venerable Upali's.

The selection being made, it was then necessary to assign to different teachers the responsibility of learning and passing on a certain portion of a collection; for even among the august members of the Council -- there were 500 elders, we are told, "not one more, not one less," and all were liberated -- few would have been able to learn the Suttas in their entirety. If one-hundred of them took responsibility for the Vinaya, there would have been one-hundred each for the long discourses, the middle length discourses, the grouped collection, and the enumerated collection.[25] Even though most monks could take responsibility for passing on to their following no more than a portion of a collection, yet every part of this organized recension would have been the responsibility of a large number of schools. Thus, if one or several schools died out, their tradition would not thereby be lost.

(A digression here on the question of memory may be worthwhile. Literate people sometimes express doubt that large segments of text could have been accurately remembered during the five centuries before they were first written down. But anthropologists have often remarked on the extraordinary and proven ability of their non-literate informants to remember accurately. It would seem that the comparatively poor memory of literate folk is due to their very literacy: they don't need to cultivate the faculty of memory. They forget (if they ever knew) that like all faculties, if they don't use it they lose it. In literate cultures that part of experience that is not readily recordable tends to become impoverished: literacy is not without it's drawbacks.

(Although Venerable Ananda was pre-eminent in the ability to learn discourses apparently possessing what today is called a "photographic memory", the ability to remember segments of texts which, in print, take up a volume or more, was not an unusual ability. Even today, when we have authoritative editions of all the texts printed in a variety of scripts, the ability is not unheard of.

(In Burma government-regulated examinations are offered monks annually to test their recall of the texts, as well as their understanding of them. At present (1983) there are in Burma alone four monks who have demonstrated their ability to recite by memory not only the Vinaya and Sutta collections in their entirety, both of which are more voluminous today than in their original First Council recension, but also the seven volumes of the Abhidhamma. Since 1949 when the examinations were first offered, 67 monks have passed the oral and written examinations for the five volumes of the Vinaya and 265 have done so for the Suttas comprising sixteen volumes. Additionally, well over 300 monks have passed oral and written examinations proving their perfect recall and understanding of one entire Nikaya (Digha: 122; Majjhima: 89; Samyutta: 52; Anguttara: 55). The number who can recite large portions of a Nikaya -- a volume or more -- must be substantially higher. In Sri Lanka, where recitation is also greatly valued but where, however, examinations are not offered, one can find many more such reciters.[26])

When we remember that the cultivation of mindfulness and awareness is a central discipline in the Buddha's Teaching, that the Suttas were arranged in as mnemonic a manner as possible, that monks were encouraged to review often the discourses in their minds and that they were expected to meet frequently for group rehearsals, both within their own company and together with other companies, we will not be surprised that at a time when memorization was the only way to transmit the Teaching, such an ability, assiduously fostered, would be widespread and reliable. It will be seen, then, that it was not (as is often asserted) due to the writing down of the texts that they achieved their definitive form. Well before that time, when they had come to be regarded as sacred, there already existed a method whereby they could be transmitted from generation to generation without error.

Not everyone agreed with what was being done. A wandering monk, the leader of a large company, Venerable Purana, while travelling through the Southern Hills south of Rajagaha, came to the cave in the canebrake where the Council was meeting. At this time the Vinaya and Suttas had already been recited (i.e. organized, assigned and rehearsed).

"Friend Purana," the elders said to him, "the Teaching and Discipline have been recited together by the elder monks. Please submit yourself to this recitation."

"Friends," he replied, "the Teaching and Discipline are well-recited by the elders. But in the way I have heard them in the Exalted One's presence, in the way that I have received them in his presence, thus will I bear it in mind." -- Culavagga XI,l,11 (ii,288-9)

Thereby Venerable Purana rejected not only the organization of the Suttas into collections but, apparently, the structuring of the Suttas individually into the form in which they had been cast for transmission. The Council had no "legal" status by which it could compel other monks to submit to it. decisions nor is the notion of compulsion consistent with the spirit of the Suttas and the Vinaya: its strength lay in the collective repute, the upright conduct, and the wisdom of its individual members. They could urge, and perhaps generally receive, compliance; but they could not command it. Probably, then, Venerable Purana was not the only teacher who chose to go his own way. Others too, though acknowledging that the Council's recension was well-recited -- i.e. providing right-view guidance -- may have preferred to continue teaching according to their own methods. We don't know for sure for none of those other traditions have survived. The only record we have today of the Buddha's Teaching is that dependent upon the collective repute, the upright conduct, and the wisdom of the individuals who comprised the First Council.

Later Additions

"But how do we know," it may be asked, "that with the closing of the First Council the Sutta recension that they compiled remained intact, without additions? For if no additions were made later then, true enough, we would have here the actual Teaching of the Buddha. But what grounds are there for accepting this as so?"

A good and important question. The answer being, that we don't know that "no additions were made later": quite the contrary, we do know they were made.

The Canon had been open and growing for nearly a half century. For it to be suddenly closed, and for there to be an immediate acceptance of that closure sufficiently widespread for it to be effective, is contrary to reason. Only when the compilation had come to be generally regarded as sacrosanct could the Canon be successfully closed; and such an attitude necessarily develops gradually. And the evidence of the Suttas themselves supports this view. There are, for example, discourses in which Venerable Ananda appears not as the Buddha's shadow but quite apart from the Buddha. In these discourses he is regarded, except by Venerable Maha Kassapa, as a respected elder; he is called maha-acariya, "great teacher" in A. X,96 (v,198) and in S. XVI,11 (ii,218) he is said to have been touring the Southern Hills leading a great company of monks. It is clear that at least some of these discourses took place after his attendancy on the Buddha had ended, with the decease of his master. Indeed, two of them -- Subha Sutta, D. 10, and Gopaka-Moggallana Sutta, M. 108 -- state specifically in their introductory material (D. i,204 and M. iii,7) that they took place "not long after" the Buddha's decease. And there are discourses involving monks other than Venerable Ananda in which the text itself informs us that the conversation took place after the Buddha's passing away.[27] Nor can we reasonably suppose all these talks to have occurred during the few months between the Buddha's decease and the convening of the First Council. Some of them may have, but Madhura (of M. 84), for instance, was in Western India, not so far from present-day Delhi but a great distance From Rajagaha, over very bad roads (A. V,220 (iii,256)): even if the discourse itself had originated before the Council met, it could hardly have become known in Rajagaha in such a short time, let alone become popular enough for inclusion in the recension. But even if such is maintained, there still remains the Bakkula Sutta, M. 124 (iii,124-28), in which Venerable Bakkula asserts, at least thirty-three times, that he has been a monk for eighty years.

Now, all accounts agree that the Buddha's decease took place forty-five years after his awakening. Therefore even if Venerable Bakkula had been ordained very soon after the establishment of the Order,[28] the discourse still had to have taken place at least thirty-five years after the closing of the First Council. And in all likelihood it took place even later than that although Venerable Bakkula could not have been spoken of by the Buddha unless his ordination took place during the Buddha's lifetime: i.e. the Bakkula Sutta postdates the First Council, but by less than eighty years. We can be quite certain, then, that the First Council did not produce the version of the texts that we now have. But we can be equally certain that the compilation they produced is in no way dramatically different from what we now have. Consider:

If we examine the seven Suttas just referred to, we will notice that they have in common a distinctive feature. Whereas the usual way the discourses begin is: "One time the Exalted One was dwelling at..."[29] these discourses make no mention of where the Buddha dwelt. Rather, they begin: "One time Venerable Ananda (or Venerable Udena, or whoever) was dwelling at..." In other words, by this method they inform us at the very start that they are in fact later additions and are not to be taken as having been part of the First Council's compilation.[30] There is no attempt to disguise the fact. On the contrary, there is a conscientiousness in its assertion.

And when we look through the Nikayas we find other discourses which follow this same form: "One time Ven. So-and-so was dwelling at..." Although they do not always otherwise declare themselves to be later additions -- for once should be enough -- yet often we can find further telltale evidence that this is so. Thus for example in the Digha Nikaya aside from the already-mentioned Subha Sutta, there is only one other discourse out of the thirty-four in that collection wherein we are told the dwelling not of the Buddha but of the main individual, Venerable Kumara Kassapa, in this case. This discourse -- the Payasi Sutta, D. 23 (ii,316-58) -- involves a long discussion between Venerable Kassapa and the chieftain Payasi, mainly on the subject of rebirth. The chieftain presents a series of thought-out reasonings as evidence that there is no rebirth. Venerable Kassapa presents counter-arguments, primarily in the form of elaborate similes,[31] showing the flaws in Payasi's theses. In the end although Venerable Kassapa does not actually offer any arguments in favour of rebirth, Payasi declares himself to be both convinced and pleased.

Now, on numerous occasions the Buddha declared that for beings constrained by craving there is rebirth (S. XXII,25 (iii,26) etc). He said that he could remember his own past lives (M. 4 (i,22) etc), that he could see the passing on of beings according to their deeds (M. 4 (i,22-3) etc), and that by means of certain mental practices others could develop these abilities (A. X,102 (v,211) etc), and had done so: e.g. the Venerable Maha Moggallana and Anuruddha. But nowhere do the Suttas record the Buddha arguing in favour of rebirth on logical grounds; nor would we expect him to do so for rebirth is not a matter of logic. Yet despite Venerable Kassapa's assertion that until then he had neither seen nor heard of anyone sharing Payasi's views, there must have been many sceptics to judge both from the views ascribed by the texts to the various teachers of the day and from the frequency with which the Suttas assert rebirth; and most monks -- even among those who had personally achieved complete self-purification -- would have had to accept rebirth on the basis of confidence in the Buddha rather than from direct knowledge (see S. XII,70 (ii,122-3), and compare A. VII,54 (iv,78-82)). After the Buddha's decease, then, there was a strongly felt need for some sort of textual authority to lend support to these monks on the question of rebirth, just as the Madhura Sutta, mentioned earlier, seems to have been included to lend support to the Buddhist teaching of ethical equality between castes. It matters not at all that Venerable Kassapa's similes are unlikely to convince a modern sceptic: they were appropriate to their time; they filled an existing need. And that need would have been felt most strongly among the reciters and preservers of the long discourses.

The Payasi Sutta, which is obviously the model for the much later Milindapanha, could have been made much shorter -- and hence included in any of the other Nikayas -- by eliminating extraneous introductory and concluding material and some of the more elaborate similes; so it was not only due to considerations of length that it came to be included in the Digha Nikaya.[32] Rather, questions about rebirth are more apt to be raised by the laity whose goal is to obtain a good rebirth than by monks whose aim is to transcend rebirth entirely, and in fact the arguments of the Payasi Sutta, concerned as they are with reasoning and simile, are more likely to convince a layperson than a practising monk who -- questions of relevance aside -- might be better convinced by evidence concerned with direct reflection and perception. Of the four Nikayas the Digha is, for reasons we have already noted, the one most directed to the interests of laypeople, thus lending substantiation to the Commentarial suggestion that Venerable Ananda was primarily responsible for this collection. Hence the monks who would most likely seek textual support on the question of rebirth would be the digha-bhanakas, the "reciters of the Digha". There would have developed among the individuals of the various companies who shared the responsibility for various portions of the long discourses a consensus that the Payasi Sutta, until then a part of the peripheral material known by those reciters but not included in their texts, should be formally included in the Nikaya. Since the Digha is divided into three Vaggas, or sections, each about a volume in length, and since the Payasi Sutta, is now the last discourse of the second Vagga, the responsibility apparently was assigned to or taken up by those who recited the middle portion of the long discourses. However, it was not always the case that later Suttas came to be placed at the end of a Vagga, as the evidence shows.

The discourse makes no claim to being the ipsissima verba of the Buddha. It presents itself as being, in its central portion, a conversation between a certain fairly obscure monk and a certain layman, apparently mentioned nowhere else in the Suttas; there is no reason not to accept it on those terms. It acknowledges itself to be a later addition as the Commentator Dhammapala points out at Vimana Vatthu Commentary, p. 297: indeed, every discourse identified by the traditional commentaries as post-First Council begins, it seems, with the "One time Venerable So-and-so" formula. But it was not a haphazard addition: the mechanism by which the Suttas were passed on necessitated, before the Canon was closed, that additional material could be inserted only when there was a common accord among those who were responsible for a portion of the texts.

Turning now to the Majjhima Nikaya we learn more about the process of adding discourses. Other than those already mentioned there are two discourses in the Majjhima that make no mention of the Buddha's dwelling place: the Anumana Sutta, M. 15 (i,95-100) and the Maratajjaniya Sutta, M. 50 (i,332-8). Both begin: "One time Venerable Maha Moggallana dwelt in the Bhagga Country..." Since we know from S. XLVII,14 (v,163-5) that both Sariputta and Maha Moggallana predeceased the Buddha, the discourses themselves could not have taken place after the time of the First Council as was evidently the case with the Payasi Sutta; rather they were simply not included in that compilation.[33] But we note that the two Majjhima Suttas have the same venue, and that the Bhagga Country was an out-of-the-way place, at least as measured by the infrequency of its mention in the Suttas.[34] Since Venerable Maha Moggallana and Venerable Sariputta were the two chief disciples of the Buddha, the monks living among the Bhaggas would certainly have remembered the former's visit to them and would have kept in mind what he had said and done, as part of their local tradition.

There must have been in residence there some companies of majjhima-bhanakas, preserving at least the first third of the Majjhima Nikaya, which today contains 152 Suttas and, like the Digha, is divided into three volume-length Vaggas. They would be the ones to have wished to include these two discourses -- all the more precious for having taken place there -- in their collection, to raise them from the lower status of local tradition and to afford them additional protection against being lost. When meeting with neighbouring majjhima-bhanakas, as they must have done from time to time, not only to recite together, they successfully convinced their fellow-monks to include these two discourses in their own recitations. Thus, due in effect to local boosterism, the Canon grew. And when we look at the Samyutta Nikaya we find further evidence of this.

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23. Venerable Maha Kassapa, the elected head of the First Council. Culavagga Xl,1,1 (ii,284) [Back to text]

24. We noted earlier (footnote 15) that Venerable Ananda knew 84,000 discourses. The four Nikayas as we now have them comprise sixteen volumes; 5,500 pages in their abbreviated roman-script edition contain according to the Commentarial reckoning a total of 17,505 discourses although some are quite short. Though the precise number of discourses is problematical, we can see that in any case what was included, voluminous as it is, is but a fraction of what was available. [Back to text]

25. These figures -- other than the "500" -- are entirely speculative. Their purpose is only to demonstrate that, whatever the specific details, a mechanism for preserving the texts was entirely feasible. However, the Commentarial assertion -- Sumangalavilasini I,13 -- that primary responsibility for these four collections was assigned respectively to Venerable Ananda, the pupils of Venerable Sariputta, Venerable Maha Kassapa and Venerable Anuruddha, lends support to our suggestion. [Back to text]

26. Data courtesy Religious Affairs Department, Rangoon. [Back to text]

27. E.g. the Madhura Sutta, M. 84 (ii,83-90), with Venerable Maha Kaccana and King Avantiputta of Madhura; the Ghotamukha Sutta, M. 94 (ii,157-63), with Venerable Udena and the brahmana Ghotamukha. [Back to text]

28. This, however, is unlikely. Venerable Bakkula seems to be mentioned, in the whole of the four Nikayas, in only one other context: in A. I,14 (i,25) he is declared by the Buddha to be foremost among all monks in respect of good health. [Back to text]

29. Because the Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas contain numerous short discourses, therein this formula is often abbreviated or omitted entirely. This almost certainly was done by the later scribes rather than the earlier reciters. In these instances we know that the Buddha is the speaker by his use of the term bhikkhave, the vocative form for "monks"; for in those days all monks addressed one another as avuso (= "reverend" or "sir"); only the Buddha used the term bhikkhave. [Back to text]

30. This is in distinction to those Suttas, presumably not later additions, in which although the Buddha plays no part whatsoever in the narrative, yet his dwelling place at that time is nevertheless given according to the usual formula. Examples will be found at D. 34; M. 5, 9, 28, 69, 76, 127; S. V,1, VI,3, 6, 9; A. VI,34, etc. A comparison of S. LV,52 (v,405-6) and S. LVI,30 (v,436-7) points up the distinction. In neither case does the Buddha appear "on stage"; in both cases he is quoted; the first discourse begins "One time the Buddha was dwelling at..."; the second begins "One time a number of senior monks were dwelling at..." [Back to text]

31. Like Venerable Bakkula, Venerable Kumara Kassapa is mentioned elsewhere in the four Nikayas only at A. I,14 (i,24), where he is declared foremost in respect of embellished speech. Had the Payasi Sutta not been appended to the Canon, we would have had no example of this. He is also mentioned once in the Vinaya. In affirming the validity of his admission to the Order, for which one must be at least twenty years of age, the Buddha stated that age is reckonable not from birth but from conception, declaring that it is in the womb that "the mind (citta) first arises, consciousness (vinnana) first becomes manifest." -- Mahavagga I,75 (i,92) [Back to text]

32. Nor is length an absolute criterion. There are at least fifteen Suttas in the other three Nikayas that are longer than the shortest of the Digha Suttas. [Back to text]

33. There are a number of other discourses which also begin "One time Ven. So-and-so..." but which similarly must have been delivered during the Buddha's lifetime. For example there are about 75 such Suttas involving either Ven. Maha Moggallana or Ven. Sariputta or both. There are also two Suttas (S. XLI,9 (iv,300-302) and A. II,36 (i,65-7)) wherein it is specifically stated in the dialogue that the Buddha was then living at Savatthi, in the latter instance, but in the former the location is not given. Therefore we cannot assert that all "One time Ven. So-and-so..." discourses were delivered after the Buddha's decease: only that they came to be included in the Canon at a later date. [Back to text]

34. A number of other "One time Ven. So-and-so..." discourses are also set in remote locales: Alavi, Avanti, Ceti, Madhura, etc., generally West of the centres where the texts locate, Venerable Ananda: Vesali, Pataliputta, Rajagaha, Kosambi. Although during the Buddha's day the West of India was still "pioneer country" as regards the Teaching, we know (as discussed in the Appendix) that within a century of the First Council these western territories had risen to monastic prominence and, perhaps, cultural importance as well: Taxila was already a centre of learning even in the Buddha's day: Mahavagga VIII,1,6-7 (i,269-70). [Back to text]

Source: Nanavira Thera Dhamma Page, by Jakub Bartovsky

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