Pali Canon and Buddhist Councils

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See also History of the Pali Canon.

This article covers traditional accounts.

The Pali word "saṅgīti", commonly translated a "council", literally means "chanting together", this being traditionally its main function.

The late Professor Bechert says

The Council of Rangoon is the sixth following Burmese, the tenth following Siamese and the fifth following the former Sinhalese numbering. The Burmese numbering has, however, nowadays generally prevailed.

And Kate Crosby says the Burmese listing of councils is now standard.[2]

This receives some corroboration in the account of the Sixth Council given in CSSA:

  • a message from the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand calls it the Sixth Council, not the Tenth[3]
  • a message from the Amarapura Nikaya in Ceylon calls it the sixth[4]
  • a message from the Ramanna Nikaya in Ceylon calls it the sixth[5]
  • Sinhalese participant Anandamaitreya gives the Burmese list[6]

This article follows that Burmese listing of councils.

First Council

A brief account of this council is given in the Canon, as follows. Shortly after the Buddha's death (which tradition places about 544 BC, the start of its calendar), Kassapa convened a council of 500 leading monks at Rājagaha (modern Rajgir) to recite the Buddha's teachings lest they were lost. He questioned Upāli on the vinaya and then Ānanda on the dhamma in 5 nikāyas. The account also tells of a monk called Purāṇa, who was away at the time of the council. Informed of it on his return, he said

Well recited, brother, by the elders is the dhamma and vinaya. Nevertheless, just as was by me in the Lord's presence heard, in his presence received, just so will I remember.

A much more detailed account is given in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī, Buddhaghosa's (traditionally 4th century AD) commentary on the Dīghanikāya. It says the council assigned parts of the Canon to different groups of monks to remember; hence the references to Dīgha and Majjhima reciters below. It lists the texts recited there:

  1. Vinaya (Pitaka)
    1. Ubhatovibhanga
      1. Maha Vibhanga
        1. Parajikakanda
        2. Terasaka
        3. Aniyata
        4. Nissaggiya Pacittiya
        5. Pacittiya
        6. Patidesaniya
        7. Sekhiya
        8. Adhikaranasamatha
      2. Bhikkhuni Vibhanga
        1. Parajikakanda
        2. Sattarasaka
        3. Nissaggiya Pacittiya
        4. Pacittiya
        5. Patidesaniya
        6. Sekhiya
        7. Adhikaranasamatha
    2. Khandhaka
    3. Parivara
  2. dhamma
    1. Suttanta Pitaka in 4 sangitis:
      1. Digha Sangiti or Nikaya
        1. Silakkhandha Vagga
        2. Maha Vagga
        3. Patiya Vagga (PTS edition) or Pathika Vagga (Burmese edition)
      2. Majjhima Nikaya
      3. Samyutta Nikaya
      4. Anguttara Nikaya
    2. Abhidhamma Pitaka:
      • PTS edition:
        1. Dhammasangani
        2. Vibhanga
        3. Kathavatthu
        4. Puggala
        5. Dhatu
        6. Yamaka
        7. Patthana
      • Burmese edition
        1. Dhammasangaha
        2. Vibhanga
        3. Dhatukatha
        4. Puggalapannatti
        5. Kathavatthu
        6. Yamaka
        7. Patthana
    3. Khuddakagantha: the commentary says that there was disagreement on whether these belonged to sutta or abhidhamma; it also gives different views on the contents of this:
      • First, it gives the list according to the Digha reciters, who it says included it in the Abhidhamma; this in turn differs between editions of Sv:
        1. Jataka
        2. Niddesa in Burmese and Sinhalese editions, but the Pali Text Society edition instead has 2 entries:
          1. Maha Niddesa
          2. Cula Niddesa
        3. Patisambhidamagga
        4. Apadana in Burmese edition, omitted in Sinhalese and PTS
        5. Suttanipata
        6. Khuddakapatha in Burmese edition, omitted in Sinhalese and PTS
        7. Dhammapada
        8. Udana
        9. Itivuttaka
        10. Vimanapetavatthu in PTS edition, but 2 separate entries in Burmese and Sinhalese:
          1. Vimanavatthu
          2. Petavatthu
        11. Theratherigatha in PTS and Sinhalese editions, but 2 separate entries in Burmese:
          1. Theragatha
          2. Therigatha
      • Having listed the contents according to the Digha reciters, it then says the Majjhima reciters, who it says included it in the Sutta, added further books:
        1. Cariyapitaka
        2. Apadana in PTS and Sinhalese editions, omitted in Burmese
        3. Buddhavamsa

Near the start of this listing, the commentary raises the question of whether the council added or removed anything. Its answers are as follows:

  • nothing the Buddha said was removed, as he never said anything not to the point
  • things said by followers were removed where appropriate
  • narrative framework was added where appropriate

A subcommentary on this commentary, attributed to Dhammapāla, explains the apparent difference in lists of texts between reciters by saying that the Dīgha reciters counted the books apparently omitted from their list as parts of the Jātaka. A later subcommentary, written by Ñāṇābhivaṃsa and dated (at the end) 2345 (about 1800), repeats this, adding that the Netti, Peṭakopadesa and so on were counted as parts of the Niddesa and/or Paṭisambhidāmagga.

Second Council

The canonical account of this council says that it took place at Vesālī (Besarh) a century later to settle a dispute on rules of discipline. The commentaries add that it added to the Canon various passages, including the story of the First Council.

Third Council

This council is not mentioned in the Canon. Traditional accounts are given in the Dīpavaṃsa and the commentaries. They say it was held under the presidency of Tissa Moggaliputta in Pāṭaliputta (Patna) in Buddhist year 236 to deal with the views of other schools. Its main addition to the Canon was his expansion of the Kathāvatthu, which the Buddha had taught as a brief framework. It also added the account of the Second Council and a few other passages.

Fourth Council

This was held in the reign of King Vattagamani of Ceylon to write down the Canon from oral tradition. The foreword to the Sixth Council edition of the Canon gives its date more precisely as Buddhist year 450. Its earliest mention, in the Dīpavaṃsa, does not call it a council. The subcommentaries on the Samantapāsādikā, the commentary on the Vinaya, in explaining that it added to the Canon a long list of vinaya teachers in Ceylon (found near the start of the Parivāra), say it was like a fourth council. Later sources actually call it the Fourth Council, and give its location as Ālokavihāra (Aluvihara).

Fifth Council

This took place in Mandalay from 15 April to 12 September 1871[7]. It approved a set of 729 marble slabs on which the entire Canon had been inscribed. They are arranged thus:

  1. Vinaya
  2. Abhidhamma
  3. Sutta, ending with the Milindapañha, and also including the Netti and Peṭakopadesa.[8]

According to the Jinakālamālī, Milinda lived in the time of King Kutakannatissa, who was the grandson by adoption of Vattagamani. Thus the traditional view would date this book after the Fourth Council, which would mean it was added by the Fifth.

Sixth Council

This took place in Rangoon from 17 May 1954 to 24 May 1956 and comprised about 2500 monks representing all five Theravada countries. Its main purpose was to approve a printed edition of the Canon in 40 volumes. The chair was held in turn by leading figures from all five countries. Questions were asked by the famous Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw, and answered by another Burmese monk, Vicittasāra, who knew the entire Canon by heart.

The order of recitation of texts can be reconstructed by cancelling out the mistakes in contemporaneous sources:[9]

  • Vinaya Pitaka
  • Digha Nikaya
  • Majjhima Nikaya
  • Samyutta Nikaya
  • Anguttara Nikaya
  • Dhammasangani
  • Vibhanga
  • Dhatukatha
  • Puggalapannatti
  • Kathavatthu
  • Yamaka
  • Patthana
  • Khuddakapatha
  • Dhammapada
  • Udana
  • Itivuttaka
  • Suttanipata
  • Vimanavatthu
  • Petavatthu
  • Theragatha
  • Therigatha
  • Therapadana
  • Theri Apadana
  • Buddhavamsa
  • Cariyapitaka
  • Maha Niddesa
  • Cula Niddesa
  • Jataka
  • Patisambhidamagga
  • Netti
  • Petakopadesa
  • Milindapanha

A senior Burmese monk says

... the translator painstakingly determined the elisions for the benfit of persons who wish to have a complete understanding of all the 24 Paṭṭhānas. Also, wherever necessary, the elisions were determined for the Sixth Synod Edition, especially those in Vols. IV and V

That is, the Council added some material (apparently totalling over 40 pages) to the Canon.

The other Theravada countries give only "token acceptance" to the Council.[11] Thus, despite having given their approval to the Council's edition, they (except Laos) have their own editions.


  • according to tradition, all six councils seem to have added material to what the Buddha actually said
  • for both the First Council and the Sixth, there are said to be people who pay them lip-service but in practice ignore them

One might translate the traditional narrative into Western ways of thinking something like this:

  • First edition, Rajgir, India, 544 BC
  • Second edition, with additions, Besarh, India, 444 BC
  • Third edition, with additions, Patna, India, 308 BC
  • Fourth edition, with additions, Aluvihara, Ceylon, 94 BC
  • Fifth edition, with additions, Mandalay, Burma, 1871 AD
  • Sixth edition, with additions and corrections, Rangoon, Burma, 1954-6 AD


CSSA: Chaṭṭha Sangāyanā Souvenir Album, Union Buddha Sāsana Council Press, Yegu, Rangoon, [1956]: [1]

  1. Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern des Theravāda-Buddhismus, Alfred Metzner, Frankfurt/Berlin, volume 1, 1966, page 105, note 362: "Das Konzil von Rangoon ist das sechste nach birmanischer, das zehnte nach siamesischer und das fünfte nach der gängiger ceylonesischer Zählung. Die birmanische Zählung hat sich jedoch neuerdings allgemein durchgesetzt."
  2. Theravada Buddhism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014, page 81
  3. page 40
  4. page 44
  5. page 46
  6. page 83
  7. Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight, University of Chicago Press, 2013, page 23; Philippe Cornu, Dictionnaire encyclopédique du bouddhisme, Seuil, Paris, 2001, page 304, sv Kuthodaw
  8. Bollée in Pratidanam (Kuiper Festschrift), Mouton, The Hague/Paris, 1968, pages 493-9
  9. such as CSSA and The Nation (Rangoon), May 21, 1956: page 1, columns 3 & 4; page 4, column 3
  10. Conditional Relations, vol II, Pali Text Society, 1981, page x
  11. Mendelson, Sangha and State in Burma, Cornell University Press, 1975, page 277
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