The First Council: Three months after the Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana (passing away), his immediate disciples convened a council at Rajagaha. Maha Kassapa, the most respected and senior monk, presided at the Council.
Two very important personalities who specialised in the two areas of the teachings:
– The Dharma: Ananda, the closest constant companion and disciple of the Buddha for 25 years. Endowed with a remarkable memory, Ananda was able to recite what was spoken by the Buddha.
– The Vinaya: Upali remembered all the Vinaya rules.
Only these two sections – the Dharma and the Vinaya – were recited at the First Council (no mention was made of the Abhidharma yet). Though there were no differences of opinion on the Dharma there was some discussion about the Vinaya rules.
Before the Buddha’s Parinirvanana, he had told Ananda that if the Sangha wished to amend or modify some minor rules, they could do so. But Ananda forgot to ask the Buddha what the minor rules were. As the members of the Council were unable to agree as to what constituted the minor rules, Maha Kassapa finally ruled that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones should be introduced. No intrinsic reason was given. Maha Kassapa did say one thing, however: “If we changed the rules, people will say that Ven. Gautama’s disciples changed the rules even before his funeral fire has ceased burning.” At the Council, the Dharma was divided into various parts and each part was assigned to an Elder and his pupils to commit to memory. The Dharma was then passed on from teacher to pupil orally. The Dharma was recited daily by groups of people who regularly cross-checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.
The Second Council: According to the Theravadin school (Rahula), about one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing away, the Second Council was held to discuss some Vinaya rules, and no controversy about the Dharma was reported. The orthodox monks (Sthavarivada) said that nothing should be changed, while the others insisted on modifying some rules. Finally, a group of monks left the Council and formed the Mahasanghika – the Great Community. (The Mahasanghika should not to be confused with Mahayana.)
According to another version (Skilton), the Second Council may have had two parts: initially in Vaisali, some 60 years after the Buddha, and 40 years after that, a meeting in Pataliputra, where Mahadeva maintained five theses on the Arhat. The actual split may have occurred at Pataliputra, not Vaisali over details of the Vinaya. In the non-Theravadin version of events, the Mahasangha followed the original vinaya and the Sthaviravada (the Elders) wanted changes. What exactly happened is unlikely to be ever revealed, but the first split in the Sangha was a fact.
The Third Council: During the reign of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd Century BCE, the Third Council was held to discuss the differences of opinion among the bhikkhus of different sects. At this Council differences of opinion were not confined to the Vinaya, but also concerned the Dharma. The President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu which refuted the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects occurring at the time. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council became known as Sthaviras or Theravada, “Teaching of the Elders”. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included at this Council. After the Third Council, King Asoka sent missionaries to Sri Lanka, Kanara, Karnataka, Kashmir, Himalaya region, Burma, even nowadays Afghanistan. Asoka’s son, Ven. Mahinda, brought the Tripitaka to Sri Lanka, along with the commentaries that were recited at the Third Council. These teachings later became known as the “Pali-canon”.
The Fourth Council: The Fourth Buddhist Council was held under the auspices of King Kaniska at Jalandhar or in Kashmir around 100 CE, where 499 monks of the Sarvastivadin school compiled a new canon. This council was never recognised by the Theravada school.
The Fifth Council (Burma): The 5th Buddhist Council was held from 1868 to 1871 in Mandalay, Burma where the text of the Pali Canon was revised and inscribed on 729 marble slabs.
The Sixth Council (Burma): The 6th Buddhist Council was held at Rangoon, Burma in 1954-1956.