Fourth Buddhist Council Convenes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

According to Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition, a fourth major gathering of Buddhist monks was held in Kashmir under the guidance of King Kanishka, and in the years following, Mahāyāna Buddhism spread throughout North and East Asia.

Summary of Event

Soon after the death of the Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama; c. 566-c. 486 b.c.e.), his followers began to take different approaches to his teachings. Buddhist tradition holds that about a year after the Buddha’s passing, five hundred monks gathered for the First Council in order to establish Buddhist orthodoxy. Continuing variations in the practice and understanding of Buddhism led to the Second Buddhist Council at the city of Vesālī about 383 b.c.e. Although this council was directly concerned with a perceived loosening of monastic discipline, religious historians generally believe that at this council in Vesālī, early Buddhism split into two definable factions. One faction, known as the Mahāsāṅghika school, favored a liberal interpretation of Buddhist teachings and practice. The other, known in Sanskrit as the Sthavirada and in Pāli as Theravāda, favored a strict interpretation. Kanishka Vasumitra Aśvaghosa

The gradual split into two major groups of believers continued over the centuries. According to many historical accounts, the Third Buddhist Council was held at Pataliputra in 250 b.c.e. to establish Buddhist orthodoxy. According to Theravāda (Hīnayāna) Buddhist sources, this council was held under the sponsorship of the great king Aśoka. One of the issues debated at the council concerned the reality of past and future states of consciousness. Those who were known as the Sarvāstivādins held that all such states were real. Another group, known as the Vibhajjavādins, maintained that these states of consciousness were unreal. This debate reflected the difference between those who advocated a liberal interpretation of Buddist doctrine (the Sarvāstivādins) and those who advocated a strict and narrow interpretation of the doctrine (the Vibhajjavādins). The Vibhajjavādins, identified as early Theravādins, were reported to have dominated the council. When missionaries went to other lands after the Second Buddhist Council was supposed to have been held, they carried the Theravāda version of Buddhism with them.

By the second century c.e., Buddhism had split into two schools, one of which came to flourish in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia as a result of the missionary activities in the years following the time of the Third Buddhist Council and one of which came to predominate in North and East Asia. The Theravādins, following a strict interpretation of the religion, emphasized the Buddha as a historical individual and his enlightenment as an event in history. They viewed achieving personal enlightenment and nirvana, freedom from the chain of rebirth, as the goals of each Buddhist. Mahāyāna Buddhists, interpreting the teachings of the Buddha more broadly, saw the Buddha himself as the earthly representation of an abstract principle of enlightenment. In accordance with their views on the existence of a broad mental reality, the Mahāyāna believers maintained that beings who achieved enlightenment could continue to participate in the events of the world, instead of passing on to nirvana. Mahāyāna followers therefore rejected individual enlightenment as a goal, seeing this as selfish, and stressed the goal of the bodhisattva, the enlightened being who forgoes nirvana in order to care for others and lead others to eventual enlightenment. The final split between Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism and the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism as the religion of East Asia are usually traced to the last of the great legendary councils. This was said to have taken place in the region of Kashmir, in modern northwestern India under the direction of King Kanishka.

Kanishka was a member of the Kushān tribe of the Tatar ethnic group of Central Asia. In the first and second centuries c.e., the Kushāns ruled over what is now Afghanistan, much of the northern Indian subcontinent (now the northern parts of India and Pakistan), and large parts of Central Asia. Under Kanishka, whose rule dated from c. 127 to c. 152 c.e., the Kushān Empire reached its greatest power and territorial extension. During his rule, Kanishka converted to Buddhism, echoing the earlier conversion of Aśoka. The records report that Kanishka built many viharas, or Buddhist temples, in northwestern India. The archaeological remains of temples attributed to him have been found, particularly in the area of Harvana Lake. As a powerful ruler in a central location, Kanishka maintained contacts with other major empires. He was in communication with the Roman Empire. The Gandhara school of art, showing Greco-Roman influences on the representation of images of the Buddha, flourished during his reign. Kanishka’s links to the Chinese empire may have encouraged the movement of Buddhism into China and into areas of the Chinese cultural sphere.

Kanishka is reported to have followed the example of Aśoka in the promotion of Buddhism, as well as in the conversion to the faith. The Kushān king is supposed to have organized the Fourth Buddhist Council. It was also supposed to have begun efforts to promote the faith, just as the earlier council had. However, while an early form of Theravāda Buddhism had emerged victorious from the Third Buddhist Council, Mahāyāna Buddhism had the upper hand at the fourth. Perhaps for this reason, Theravāda Buddhists generally do not recognize the council in Kashmir. There are also questions about whether Kanishka really was the organizer and supporter of this event.

The seventh century Chinese writer Xundang (Hsün-tang) is one of the most complete sources of information about the Fourth Buddhist Council and Kanishka’s supposed role in it. Xundang reported that Kanishka was concerned about the conflicting sects within Buddhism. To reconcile the differences, according to this source, the king called a council modeled on the earlier ones, especially on the council at Pataliputra that had been convened by Aśoka. Monks of different schools gathered, and 499 of them were selected to represent the faith.

Xundang wrote that Kanishka built a special temple for the gathering, and Vasumitra, of the Sarvāstivādin school, became president. Under Vasumitra’s leadership, the council members wrote commentaries on the Tipiṭaka (compiled c. 250 b.c.e.; English translation in Buddhist Scriptures, 1913), the three sacred books that make up the core of the Buddhist sacred writings. Kanishka had artisans engrave these commentaries on red copper sheets and built a stupa, a dome-shaped Buddhist monument, over them.

Because Xundang was writing so long after the events, his account is open to question. It may be that Kanishka was connected to the council in an effort to draw parallels between the life of the Kushān ruler and that of Aśoka. According to another version of the story of the council, it was summoned not by Kanishka but by the poet and dramatist Aśvaghosa. In this version, the council met for twelve years under Aśvaghosa’s leadership. At the end of this time, the council is said to have completed the Mahāvibhāsa (compiled c. 100 c.e.; great commentary), a compilation of Sarvāstivādin doctrines. In other accounts of the Fourth Buddhist Council, Aśvaghosa was a councilor of Kanishka, and the association with the king led the dramatist to serve as vice president under Vasumitra. The surviving texts of the Mahāvibhāsa do not mention Kanishka, a fact that would be puzzling if it had been composed at a council sponsored by Kanishka.

Missionary activities were supposed to have followed the council. These took Buddhism farther from India, particularly to the north and northeast. Over the centuries, the efforts to spread Buddhism begun at the council brought the religion to China, Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet. In all of these countries, the predominant form of the religion was Mahāyāna Buddhism, as the Sarvāstivādin school that reportedly predominated at the Fourth Buddhist Council came to be called.

Significance

Although there are questions about Kanishka’s personal involvement in the Fourth Buddhist Council, it is evident that this was a critical period in the history of Buddhism. In earlier Buddhism, the Theravāda school tended to be stronger, and the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council marks the rise of the Mahāyāna approach. Moreover, the missionary activities that began at this time eventually brought Mahāyāna Buddhism to a huge section of Asia. It is reasonable then to identify the Third Buddhist Council as the symbolic beginning of the spread of Theravāda Buddhism in the south and the Fourth Buddhist Council as the symbolic beginning of the spread of Mahāyāna Buddhism in the north. From the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council onward, the Buddhist world would be definitively divided into two in both geography and doctrine.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A good general introduction to Buddhism that has chapters on its origins in India and on Mahāyāna and Theravāda Buddhism. Particularly recommended for those seeking to understand the distinctions between those two major approaches to Buddhism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenfeld, John M. The Dynastic Arts of the Kushāns. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. An art history book that contains an excellent discussion of Kanishka’s life, of his representation in the arts, and of the question of his association with the Fourth Council.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Takeuchi, Yoshinori, Jan van Bragt, James W. Heisig, and James S. O’Leary, eds. Buddhist Spirituality: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, and Early Chinese. New York: Crossroad, 1993. A collection of studies on early Indian Buddhist spirituality, on Theravāda Buddhist practices, and on the rise of Mahāyāna in early Chinsese Buddhism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thakur, Manoj K. India in the Age of Kanishka. Rev. ed. Delhi: Worldview Publications, 1999. A general work on the historical era of the great Kushān ruler.
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Aśoka; Aśvaghosa; Buddha; Kanishka; Dīvānaṃpiya Tissa; Vattagamani. Buddhist Council, Fourth[Buddhist Council 4]

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