Wednesday, August 5, 2009

How Teachings of the Buddha are preserved over 2500 years (Part 1)

This painting depicted Ven. Ananda in the First Buddhist Council
(Please do not mistake the person sitting there in the painting as Buddha. That person was Ven. Ananda)
(Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia)
* Another strange thing I found in the painting was how come there was a scroll on his lap. There was no writing of any sort about Buddhist scriptures in the First Buddhist Council.

Recently, I came across a chapter in ‘The Fundamentals of Buddhism’ by Sayadaw U Silananda about Divisions of the Buddha’s Teachings and the Buddhist Council. Out of my interest, I looked up some additional readings from the internet about the efforts on how the Buddha’s disciples managed to preserve His teachings until today.

In the book, it mentioned that the First Buddhist Council was held at Rajagaha 3 months after the Buddha passed away, led by Venerable Mahakassapa. The main purpose of the Council was to review what the Enlightened One taught in 45 years. Then it was the start of gathering of the scriptures of Buddhism into an enormous collection. The collection was called (in Sanskrit) ‘Tripitaka’ or (in Pali) ‘Tipitaka’, which gives the meaning of ‘three baskets’ because it is organized into three major sections. It also is called the "Pali Canon" because it is preserved in a language called Pali.

Elaborated from the chapter, Venerable Mahakassapa felt that there was a need to prioritise the review the monastic discipline at that time because monks could abandon the rules of discipline and do as they liked after Buddha left them. So the first agenda in the Council was to review the rules of discipline for monk and nuns. Since Venerable Upali was known to have comprehensive knowledge on the rules of the monastic order, he was in-charged for delivering the rules out to the 500 monks. Only those rules, upon agreeable by the 500 arahats, were accepted by the Council. Then these rules became the Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline Section), one of the three baskets or sections of Buddha’s core teachings (Tipitaka). Vinaya Pitaka is a collection of texts regarding the rules of discipline and conduct for monks and nuns. The Vinaya-pitaka is not only a directory of monastic rules but it also explains the circumstances that caused the Buddha to make many of the rules.

Mahakassapa also asked Venerable Ananda, who Buddha’s closest companion when Buddha was still alive to recall from his memory on all the Buddha’s sermons as he was known for his prodigious memory. He began all his recitation with the word ‘Thus I have heard’, similar to what you can find these words in the beginning of any Buddhist scriptures or suttas. Again, the collection of suttas recited had to be agreed and approved by the Council for their accuracy, before being adopted. This section or basket of the Tipitaka is called the Sutta Section (Sutra in Sanskrit) or ‘Sutta Pitaka’ and it contains thousands of sermons and discourses delivered by the Buddha and a few of his disciples. This ‘basket’ is further subdivided into five nikayas, or collections (More of these are explained the chapter mentioned)

Up till the Third Buddhist Council which was held about 250 BCE to clarify Buddhist doctrine and to desist the spreading of heterodoxy to the Buddha’s teachings, the final version entire Pali Canon of the Tipitaka was adopted, which the inclusion of the third basket, Abhidhamma Pitaka (Abhidharma in Sankrit) or ‘Section of Special Teachings’. This section of Special Teachings mentioned contains commentaries and analyses of the suttas. The Abhidhamma Pitaka explores the psychological and spiritual phenomena described in the suttas and provides a theoretical foundation for understanding them.

Where did the Abhidhamma-pitaka come from? According to legend, the Buddha spent the first few days after his enlightenment formulating the contents of the third basket. Seven years later he preached the teachings of the third section to devas (gods). The only human who heard these teachings was his disciple Venerable Shariputta, who passed the teachings on to other monks. These teachings were preserved by chanting and memory, as were the suttas and the rules of discipline.

However, all the Buddha teachings were not put into any form of writing and they have been passed down generations to generations through words by mouth, until the fourth Buddhist Council. We will explore more on this in the next part. Please feel free to comment on the post too.

Samurai Beng, the Dhamma warrior