Life of the Buddha

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(Part Two) 32. The First Buddhist Council

After the Buddha passed away a meeting was held to preserve his teachings.

Understandably, the Buddha’s death was a great loss to most of his followers, except the deeply realised disciples, and many were plunged into deep grief. Yet there was a monk who had entered the order in his old age, who rejoiced at the Buddha’s death.

“Do not be sad, brothers,” he said. “Cry not. We are now free of the Great Ascetic. He constantly worried us, saying ‘This is suitable, this is not suitable.’ Now we are free do do what we like.”

These unexpected words spoken by a monk hardly a week after the death of the Great Teacher caused the Venerable Maha Kassapa, the third chief disciple of the Buddha, to call a meeting of the leading arahants in order to protect and preserve the teachings. The other elder monks were consulted and they all welcomed the suggestion.

King Ajatasattu was informed of the intention of the order of Monks and he made all necessary arrangements for the monks to meet at the entrance of the Sattapanni Cave in Rajagaha.

Five hundred seats were arranged and prepared in the large hall, but only 499 famous arahants were chosen for the meeting. The empty seat was reserved for the Venerable Ananda, who was still only a sotapanna.

Soon there was only one more day before the meeting was to begin. The Venerable Ananda thought, “The meeting is tomorrow. It is not right for me to go to the meeting as a mere learner and not an arahant. I must try very hard to purify my mind in the little time left to me”.

He spent much of the night in the Contemplation of the Body, one of the meditation exercises taught by the Buddha for the purification of mind. When it was almost dawn, he thought, ” I shall lie down,” but he kept mindful of the body. Before his head touched the pillow and after he raised his feet off the ground, all the remaining defilements disappeared from his mind. He had attained arahantship. And so he went to the council meeting as an arahant.

The meeting started three months after the passing away of the Buddha. That meeting is now referred to as the First Buddhist Council.
The Venerable Maha Kassapa was the president at the First Council. Venerable Upali was chosen to answer questions about the Vinaya, the monks’ and nuns’ disciplinary rules. Venerable Ananda, who had the honour of hearing all the discourses of the Buddha and who had an unusually good memory, was chosen to recite all the discourses and answer questions about the teachings.

The First Buddhist Council collected together and arranged the Buddhist Scriptures known as the Pali Tipitaka, which have since been handed down from one generation of monks to another. In the early days of Buddhism, there was no written record of the teachings. The monks had to memorise the scriptures and then teach the next generation of monks in the same way, it being an oral tradition.

About 83 B.C., during the reign of the pious Sinhalese king, Vatta Gamani Abhaya, a Council of Arahants was held in Sri Lanka and the Tipitaka, for the first time in the history of Buddhism, was put down in writing on ola leaves.