Third Buddhist Council Convenes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A group of Buddhist elders reportedly met under the direction of King Aśoka for the purpose of establishing the beliefs and practices appropriate to Buddhism. The meeting also was said to have resulted in Buddhist missions to lands outside of India.

Summary of Event

During the lifetime of the Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama; c. 566-c. 486 b.c.e.), Buddhism consisted of his teachings. After his death, however, Buddhists began to interpret these teachings in various ways. Therefore, the Buddhists called a council about a year after the death of the Buddha to organize and interpret his teachings and to compile a code of monastic discipline. Council members also accused and criticized those who advocated views or practices they believed were inconsistent with Buddhism. For example, the Buddha’s favorite disciple, Ānanda, was charged with having unorthodox ideas, including the view that Buddhists should allow the establishment of a separate order for nuns. Aśoka Moggaliputta Tissa Mahinda

Roughly a century later, the Second Buddhist Council, held at Vesālī and also known as the Council of Vesālī, continued the work of trying to define and maintain Buddhist orthodoxy. However, different approaches to Buddhism continued, and these began to develop into the split that would gradually lead to the development of the two major sects or schools of Buddhism, Theravāda (also called Hīnayāna) and Mahāyāna. As Buddhism grew in popularity, it absorbed influences from other religions in India, complicating the problem of defining orthodox Buddhism.

During the third century b.c.e., Aśoka, the ruler of much of the Indian subcontinent, converted to Buddhism. Aśoka was a ruthless and cruel monarch early in his career, but he was so disturbed by the suffering caused by a military campaign that he turned to the Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence and became one of the most important early supporters of the religion. Even though Aśoka apparently treated all religions with tolerance, the fact that this was the king’s religion led many people to identify themselves as Buddhists. Ancient texts in the Pāli language report that members of unorthodox sects began to enter Buddhist monasteries, and religious practices in many of these monasteries grew lax. Disputes over religion even led to rioting. In one tradition, the king’s brother, who was a faithful Buddhist, died in a religious riot. According to these Pāli texts, King Aśoka sponsored the Third Council in his capital city of Pataliputra in order to establish the correct beliefs and practices of Buddhism.

A Pāli language chronicle of the history of what became Sri Lanka, known as the Dīpavamsa (compiled fourth century c.e.; The Dīpavamsa: An Ancient Buddhist Historical Record, 1879), recounts that Aśoka called on the elder Moggaliputta Tissa to convene the council. Tissa, who had been living as a hermit to escape the religious turbulence, presided over a gathering of one thousand of the wisest Buddhist elders 236 years after the Buddha’s death, or about 250 b.c.e. by current historical dating. The council lasted nine months. By its end, the participants had agreed on one version of Buddhism, identified in the texts with what later became known as Theravāda (literally, the way of the elders). The monks who refused to conform to this version of the faith were expelled from the Saṅgha, the community of believers. They were forced to give up their yellow robes, the symbol of a true Buddhist monk, and put on white robes instead. The white-robed dissidents would not be allowed to live in monasteries or on temple grounds.

The Third Council is supposed to have completed the assembly of the writings that made up the basic canon of Theravāda Buddhist writings, known as the Tipiṭaka (compiled c. 250 b.c.e.; English translation in Buddhist Scriptures, 1913), or “Three Baskets” after its three divisions. To spread the newly reestablished orthodoxy, the members of the council decided to send missionaries to other lands. These lands included Gandhara (now in Pakistan), the Greek settlements of northwestern India, the Bombay coast, the Himalayas, and other territories. Most notably, King Aśoka’s own son, Mahinda (sometimes spelled Mahendra) went as a missionary to Sri Lanka, where Theravāda Buddhism put down deep roots and continues to be the majority religion. There have been claims that Buddhist missions reached even farther than the territories surrounding India and may have been in Greece and North Africa. There is little evidence for these claims, although some small molded Indian figures and stones with Buddhist symbols from approximately the era of Aśoka have been found in Egypt.

Some historians have raised doubts about whether Aśoka was behind the Third Council, and some have questioned whether it actually took place. They point out that no mention is made of this council in the inscriptions made by Aśoka on rocks and pillars around his empire. Further, doubting historians argue that although Aśoka was a Buddhist, he ruled an empire that included different religions and would have been reluctant to alienate non-Buddhists or unorthodox Buddhists. Aśoka’s policy of religious tolerance would have been contrary to the goals of the council, in the view of these historians. The only descriptions of the Third Council that exist are from the Pāli language sources of the Theravāda Buddhist tradition, with the chronicles of Sri Lanka being especially important. Skeptics have suggested that the writers of those Pāli texts may have tried to create historical support for their own school of Buddhism by claiming that it had the approval and sponsorship of the great king.

The questions about the historical accuracy of traditional accounts of the council have led some historians to suggest that there may have been a local gathering in Pataliputra, without the active involvement of Aśoka, that was later exaggerated into a major event. Some evidence, though, does support the traditional view of the Third Council. Although Aśoka’s inscriptions do not explicitly mention the gathering, there is a royal inscription from the period known as the Schism Edict, which threatens to expel dissenting monks from the Saṅgha and orders those who disrupt the faith to leave the monasteries and replace their yellow robes with white ones. This is consistent with the idea that the king was supporting efforts to maintain orthodoxy and that he was pursuing the kinds of policies reported to have been put in place by the council. The descriptions of the missions give the names and destinations of the missionaries, and these religious journeys are consistent with the embassies Aśoka maintained with foreign lands. Therefore, even if one accepts the possibility of some distortion and exaggeration in the Pāli records, it seems reasonable to conclude that they are based on actual events.

Significance

It is unlikely that scholars will be able to resolve the arguments about the historical accuracy of the Pāli language reports of the Third Council, unless some new and unexpected archaeological evidence emerges. Still, the council represents at least three important developments in the early history of Buddhism. First, Buddhism had become a dominant religion in India by this period, with official recognition and support. Second, by the mid-third century b.c.e., variations in Buddhist belief and practice had taken the forms that would be acknowledged as the two major schools, Theraváda (Hīnayāna) and Mahāyāna. The former, the type of Buddhism reported to have been recognized by the council as orthodox, became the version of the religion that would predominate in the areas of Sri Lanka and most of Indochina, and Mahāyāna Buddhism became the version most widely practiced throughout China, Korea, and Japan. Whether the council actually was a major gathering sponsored by the king or a smaller, local affair, it marks a definite stage in the division of the religion. Finally, the third century b.c.e. was a time in which Buddhism made substantial progress in moving from India and becoming a major world religion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Karen. Buddha. New York: Viking, 2001. A short, well-written biography of the Buddha and introduction to his teachings. Glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lopez, Donald S. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. San Francisco: Harper, 2001. A short history of the origins and transformations of Buddhism. Pronunciation guide, bibliography, glossary, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seneviratna, Anuradha, ed. King Aśoka and Buddhism. Seattle: Pariyatti Press, 1995. A collection of essays on Aśoka’s life and on the debates about his role in history, including debates about his role in the Third Council.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thapar, Romila. Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997. An updated edition of one of the most widely read histories of the Mauryan period by a prominent scholar of ancient India. The second chapter contains a critical discussion of the historical arguments about the Third Council and about Aśoka’s involvement in it. Bibliography, index.
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