According to history and tradition, there have been six great Buddhist Councils in the time since the death of the Buddha. In each case, a large group of members of the Sangha have congregated, generally to take up issues relating to preserving the meaning and purity of the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddhist Councils have been instrumental in the creation and preservation of the Pali Canon (Tipitaka), both in its original oral form, and, as it now exists, in its written form, both in Pali and in local languages. Though generally a Theravada affair, the Sixth Buddhist Council, held in the 20th Century, included representatives from Mahayana nations as well. The councils have been central in shaping the Buddhist monastic discipline and the Pali Canon, and, with the Sixth Council, established a precedent for cooperation and dialogue that is remarkable for an institution spread out over as many nations and with as little central organization as the Sangha

Lesser councils, called by the Sangha of a single Buddhist nation, have also occurred throughout history. Most commonly, these councils served the same role as their greater counterparts; settling issues of discipline, fixing the contents of the religious canon, and committing scripture to writing or producing new translations into the vernacular. Such lesser councils are too numerous, and often too poorly documented, to list individually. At least two have taken place in Thailand; one in the 15th Century in Chiang Mai (approx. 2020 B.E.), and another in 2331 B.E. under the reign of King Rama I. Several have also been held in Burma and Sri Lanka, and presumably also in the lesser known Theravada nations (Laos, Cambodia).

Summary of the Six Councils:

N.B.: Dates (especially of the very early councils) are approximate. Dates in parenthesis are the dates from the Theravada Buddhist calendar.

The First Buddhist Council:
Held in 544 B.C. (1 B.E.), at the Satiapanni Cave near Rajagaha. The First Council, the precedings of which are recorded in the Vinaya Pitaka, occurred three months after the death of the Buddha, and was held under the patronage of King Ajatasattu. The first council was convened by the Elder Mahakassapa, for the purpose of preserving the Dhamma and Vinaya to prevent the decline of the Buddha's teachings. The Venerable Upali recited and answered questions regarding the Vinaya, as he had received complete instruction in its nuances from the Buddha. The Ven. Ananda, who had a perfect memory of every discourse he had heard from the Buddha, recited the Buddha's teachings, giving birth to what is now the Sutta Pitaka. At the end of the council, the Sangha gave their approval to the recollection of the vinaya and the suttas, and settled some matters concerning the observance of minor rules of discipline. The First Council is said to have taken place over 7 months. Some scholars question if this event is actually historical.

The Second Buddhist Council:
100 years after the death of the Buddha (approx. 444 B.C., or 100 B.E), the Sangha once again convenend, this time at Vaisali to settle matters relating to the violation and modification of some of the rules of discipline by various monks and monastic groups. 10 disciplinary issues were considered by the council, most of them regarding the acceptance of certain gifts by monks from the laity, or rules regarding food. The monks in favor of a more relaxed approach to these disciplinary issues were ruled against by the most senior monks of the day, and broke off to form their own council, called the Mahasangiti. This split later developed into the Mahayana sect, with the monks that remained loyal to the council forming the Hinayana schools. Historians have doubts as to whether this council ever actually took place.

The Third Buddhist Council:
Held in 326 B.C (218 B.E.) at Asokarama in Pataliputta, with support from King Asoka. The great King Asoka was a generous and sincere supporter of the Sangha; as a result, many false monks had joined up in order to benefit from his generosity. The deeds and heretical views of these monks reduced the lay followers' faith in the Sangha, and led to disagreement and strife among the monks. As a result, the monks who followed the Dhamma refused to perform the Uposatha ceremony for the laity in the presence of the false monks. Several monks were killed by agents of the King, against his wishes, for this refusal. Only when the King's own brother, the monk Tissa, was threatened did these acts come to Asoka's attention. In order to remedy the situation, Asoka sponsored the Third Council, where matters concerning discipline and correct views could be clarified, and the false monks expelled from the Sangha. The Dhamma was recited for nine months under the supervision of the King's brother. Monks were questioned about their knowledge of the Dhamma, and those espousing heretical views or who were ignorant of the teachings were exposed as frauds and expelled from the Sangha. Elder Tissa compiled the Kathavatthu during this time, a book of the Abhidhamma that explains many of the areas of disagreement that arose during the Council, and the resolution of these issues. At the end of the council, missionaries were sent forth with the suppport of King Asoka to spread the Dhamma. These missionaries traveled throughout India, as well as to Sri Lanka, Burma, and also traveled to the Ionians and Greeks. The missionaries helped to establish Buddhism outside of India for the first time, and also spread the teachings throughout Asoka's empire.

The Fourth Buddhist Council:
Held in Tambapanni, Sri Lanka in 29 B.C. (515 B.E.) with assistance from the King Vattagamani. The primary purpose for this council was to commit the Pali Canon to writing for the first time. The size of the canon had apparantly increased since the earlier councils-we know for a fact that works like Elder Tissa's Kathavatthu had been added to the canon, and the commentarial tradition had ballooned in the nearly 500 years since the Buddha's death as well. To prevent the teachings from being lost, 500 monks recited the complete canon, while other transcribed their words onto palm leaves. This event is probably the origin of the Pali words now most associated with the canon, such as sutta and pitaka.

The Fifth Buddhist Council:
Held under King Mindon in Mandalay, Burma in 1871 A.D. (2415 B.E.) The primary purpose of this council was to recall the entirety of the teachings of the canon, in order to establish if any of the teachings had been altered or forgotten. Over two thousand monks recited the canon for a period of five months. At this council, the King had the Tipitaka carved into 29 giant marble slabs in the Burmese script and housed in a temple. These slabs remain to this day, and are called the largest book in the world.

The Sixth Buddhist Council:
The first (and only) 'modern' Buddhist council. Held in Rangoon in 1954 A.D. (2498 B.E.), and sponsored by the government of Burma, in a synthetic reproduction of the cave where the First Council was held. Attended by over two thousand monks from eight countries: Burma, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. During the council, the Pali Canon was written down in the respective scripts of every country except India. For two years the Tipitaka and Commentaries were recited by the monks, and the different versions of the Canon were checked for differences and collated. The Canon was then prepared for publication and printed using modern printing presses in the Burmese script. The version of the Tipitaka prepared by the Sixth Council is regarded as the most authoritative to date, and is the standard used by temples, monasteries, and lay practitioners all the world over.

My other sources are MIA at the moment. With luck I'll turn them up later.

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