From time to time throughout Buddhist history councils have been convened, usually by the Sangha itself or sometimes by the ruling monarch, to either discuss points of doctrine or restore monastic discipline. The first such council was held in Rajagaha in India in the year of the Buddha’s death. It is said that 500 arahats assembled and together recited the Buddha’s discourses and committed them to memory so that they could be preserved and passed on to succeeding generations.
About a hundred years later a second council was held at Vesali. A community of monks in that city had begun soliciting monetary donations from lay supporters, a definite breach of Vinaya. They had given a ‘cut’ of the total to a visiting monk, Yasa, who had refused it and gone to the lay people and informed them that what the other monks were doing was wrong. As discussing monastic business with those outside the community is also an offence, the indignant monks censored and punished Yasa who submitted in silence. Determined to stop the abuses at Vesali, Yasa left, recruited monks from other monasteries and returned with a quorum of supporters. After much heated debate, the matter was finally settled and the whole community, united and reconciled, recited all the Buddha’s discourses together.
A third council was held at Pataliputra, King Asoka’s capital, in about 236 BC. The purpose of this council was to try to unite an increasingly fractious Sangha, settle doctrinal disputes and organise the sending of missionaries throughout India and beyond. In the centuries following this, Buddhism no longer being united, different religions and schools held their own councils. The last great council was held in Rangoon in Burma in 1956-7. Although this was mainly a Theravada gathering, representatives from every Buddhist country were invited and attended.
E. Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism. Louvain, Paris, 1988;
A.K. Warden, Indian Buddhism.