The Brief History of the Great Councils
(From the ' Teachings of the Buddha", Ministry of Religious Affairs, Myanmar, 1997)
The Buddha attained Enlightenment in 589 B.C. At that time, he was thirty-five years old. Since then, throughout forty-five years he preached many discourses and disciplines diligently for welfare of all beings without regarding cold, heat, tiredness, weariness, and ailment.
The Buddha left his last words thus:
"Ananda, the discourses and the disciplines I have taught and laid down to all of you will be your teacher when I am gone."
Therefore it is clearly noted that the Buddha will remain alive so long as the discourses and the disciplines are in existence. Of course, the discourses and the disciplines are called Sasana, the Teachings of the Buddha. The permanency of Sasana relies on the existence of these discourses and disciplines. And vice versa, if they disappear the Buddha and his teachings will also disappear. When this happens, the whole world will be overwhelmed by the darkness of ignorance.
Therefore the bhikkhus, the Buddha's disciples, have been successively striving for the preservation of the discourses and the disciplines so that they are not stained by mistakes and they do not disappear. But there had arisen many obstacles endangering the Buddha's Teachings through the ages. The bhikkhus have never neglected those obstacles and they tried to overcome them. Then they also held the Great Councils to promote and propagate the Buddha's Teachings. The successive kings, governments and the people contributed to the accomplishment of the Great Councils.
The Buddha attained Mahaparinibbana in 544 B.C. That year was counted as the first year of the Buddhist Era. Now, two thousand and five hundred years have passed since the demise of the Buddha. During this time, altogether six great councils of Theravada Buddhism have been held. In these councils, many hundreds of Bhikkhus gathered together and recited the Buddha's discourses and disciplines in unity to approve the teachings of the Buddha. The discourses and the disciplines are recited in originality without any change, addition or modification.
The First Great Council
Three months after the demise of the Buddha the First Great Council was held in Sattapanni Cave Pavilion at Mount Vebhara near the city of Rajagaha. Subhadda, who became a bhikkhu in his old age, disparaged the Buddha's Teachings on the seventh day after the Buddha had passed away. On hearing those insulting words. Venerable Mahakassapa decided to hold the First Great Council. Five hundred arahats, including Venerable Upali and Venerable Ananda, took part in that council. It started on the fifth waning day of Wagaung (August) and lasted seven months.
The Second Great Council
The Second Council was held at Valukarama monastery, near the city of Vesali in 100 B.E. (443 B.C). It was held because the bhikkhus of the Vajji clan from Vesali preached and practised ten unlawful modifications in the Rules of the Order. The seven hundred arahats led by Venerable Yasa. Venerable Sabbakami and Venerable Revata took part in that council while King Kalasoka of Vesali and the people gave necessary supports to that council, it lasted eight months.
The Third Great Council
The Third Council was held at Asokarama Monastery in the city of Pataliputta in 235 B.E (308 B.C). Sixty thousand ascetics infiltrated into the Sangha Order, polluted the Sasana by their corrupt lives and heretical views. That is the main reason why the Third Council was held by one thousand arahats in order to protect the Sasana.
Venerable Mahamoggaliputta Tissa presided over the council. King Siridhammasoka of Pataliputta gave the necessary support to the council. It lasted nine months. After the Third Council, nine missions were sent to nine different places to propagate the Sasana. The mission of five arahats to Suvannabhumi, Myanmar, was led by Venerable Sona Thera and Venerable Uttara Thera.
The Fourth Great Council
The Fourth Council was held at Cave Aloka in Malaya district, Sri Lanka, in 450 B.E (94 B.C).
The people of Sri Lanka were hard hit by rebels, hunger and starvation for twelve years. So the Bhikkhus had to make strong efforts to maintain the Buddha's Teachings. The elder bhikkhus foresaw that if there would appear such danger in future, the bhikkhus would not be able to memorize the discourses and the disciplines by heart because of the declination of their power of mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Therefore, they held the Fourth Great Council.
It was during the reign of King Vattagamani that five hundred bhikkhus, led by Venerable Mahadhammarakkhita, inscribed the entire words of the Buddha's Teachings on palm leaves.
The heads and elders as well as the people of Malaya district gave all-round sup port to the council.
The Fourth Great Council continued for one year.
The Fifth Great Council
The Fifth Council was convened at Mandalay in Myanmar on the first waning day of Tazaungmone, 1232 Myanmar Era, 2415 B.E (November, 1871). The scriptures inscribed on palm-leaves could not last for a long time. Besides there might be many variations in rewriting the scriptures from copy to copy. Therefore, the scriptures were inscribed on marble slabs in order to dispel these disadvantages.
Two thousand and four hundred bhikkhus led by Venerable Jagarabhivamsa Thera (Tipitakadhara Mahadhammarajadhirajaguru) of Dakkhinarama Monastery, Mandalay, convened, to recite and approve the scriptures. King Mindon initiated and supported the Fifth Great Council to the end. The scriptures were first inscribed on seven hundred and twenty-nine marble slabs ) in the precinct of Lokamarajina Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill. It took seven years, six months and fourteen days to finish this work. Then the bhikkhus recited to approve the inscriptions for five months and three days.
After the Fifth Great Council. the Pali Texts were translated into Myanmar language, and the Doctrinal Order was promulgated to the whole country for purpose of purification and propagation of the Buddha's Teachings.
The Sixth Great Council
On the full-moon day of Kason, 1316, M.E. 2498 B.E (May, 1954), the Sixth Great Council was held in the Mahapasana Great Cave, Kaba-Aye, Yangon, Myanmar.
The country of Myanmar had been one of the British Colonies for one hundred years and during this period the Buddha Sasana had deteriorated to some extent. So the Sixth Great Council was held aiming at the purification and promotion of the Buddha Sasana. Two thousand and five hundred bhikkhus from the five countries of Theravada Buddhism participated in that council. Nyaung Yan Sayadaw, Venerable Revata (Abhidhajamaharatthaguru), presided over it; the Mahasi Sayadaw, Venerable Sobhana (Aggamahapandita), and the Mingun Sayadaw, Venerable Vicittasarabhivamsa (Tipitakadhara Dhamma-bhandhagarika) took the leading roles in that council.
The doctrinal questions asked by the people of five Theravada Buddhist countries: Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia were solved magnanimously. Twenty- five other countries also gave much help to that council.
At that Council, not only the canonical Pali Texts of the Buddha but also the commentaries and sub-commentaries were reexamined.
In this way, Venerable Mahakassapa and the custodians of the Dhamma held the great councils up to six times and approved the words of the Buddha without any change and modification. The Teaching of the Buddha thus approved is called Theravada Buddhism.
On the full moon day of Nayon, 1342 M.E (June 1980). the State Samgha Mahanayaka Committee comprising all sects was initiated in order to purify, perpetuate and propagate the Theravada Buddhism. Since then, the religious affairs have been carried out by the Samgha and the lay devotees of Myanmar hand in hand.
Under the patronage of the State Samgha Mahanayaka Committee, various measures have been taken for perpetuation and promotion of the Buddha Sasana and the moral development of the entire nation. The Pali Texts were translated into English; two State Pariyatti Sasana Universities were founded in Yangon and Mandalay with the contributions of the people. The lawful and the unlawful doctrines were discriminated and the unlawful ones were crushed down. Missions were sent not only to the states and divisions of the country but also to foreign countries for the propagation of Sasana.
This is the brief history of religious work carried out by successive Buddhist generations.