King Ashoka and the Third Council: The Council at Pataliputra

The Third Council convened in 326 B.C.E. with 1,000 monks working for nine months. The need for this council arose as debate was being carried on about both the dharma and the precepts. At this time, King Ashoka was ruling a vast empire in India, created by his grandfather Chadragupta Maurya in the wake of Alexander the Great. He had taken the throne in a bloody war and was a ruthless leader with many violent triumphs to his credit. But during the eighth year of his rule, after a particularly gruesome battle at Kalinga, King Ashoka became shaken by the bloodbath — upward of 100,000 people are said to have been slaughtered — and it set the stage for his powerful personal transformation.

King Ashoka was largely responsible for the spread of Buddhism beyond India's borders and its emergence as one of the world's great religions. He sent emissaries as far as Greece to the west and China to the east. He practiced tolerance and respect for other religious disciplines, promoted peace instead of war, and established schools, hospitals, and orphanages for his people. He was living proof that it is possible to rule a great nation with kindness and open-mindedness, promoting peace and goodwill.

Ashoka ran into a monk who told the mighty king that he could use his power for good instead of evil. The monk was a Buddhist. Ashoka soon exchanged his sword for the dharma.

He stopped hunting and fighting, and started meditating and doing humanitarian work. Instead of soldiers he had missionary monks, who spread the dharma wherever they could, reaching out past the boundaries of India and into the neighboring nations. He built 84,000 stupas and thousands of monasteries throughout the land. King Ashoka inscribed his new beliefs on rocks that can be found throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

These inscriptions would come to be known as the Edicts of King Ashoka and included such promises as moderate spending, proper schooling for children, medical treatments for everyone, promotion of proper behavior. He promised to practice the dharma until the end of time, to always be available — no matter what he was doing — for the affairs of his people; he promoted respect for everyone and all religions.

Because he practiced such spiritual generosity, many less-devoted practitioners entered the Buddhist practice and the purity of the practice was diluted. Ashoka sought to weed out these weak links from the monasteries he had created and called a new council with the genuine, steadfast monks who were left.

At the Third Council, the teachings were reviewed and a new, purified collection was set forth. Nine missions of arhats were sent out to spread the dharma into different areas of India and across its vast borders into other countries.

Ashoka became a role model for other kings throughout Asia, such as King Devanampiyatissa in Sri Lanka, who was converted to Buddhism by Ashoka's son, Mahinda. Another great king/convert was Menander I (Milinda in Pali). He is the subject of one of the earliest preserved texts outside the Pali Canon, dated from the second century B.C.E. In this text he interrogates the monk Nagasena on a variety of doctrinal issues. The king eventually gave up his thrown to become a Buddhist monk. More recently, King Kirti Sri Rajasahna, who ruled the Kandayan kingdom in Sri Lanka before the British conquered it, helped to revive Buddhism by importing monks from Thailand and patronizing Buddhist temples and art. He did so, even though his personal religion was Hinduism.

The Fourth Council: One North One South

There were two Fourth Councils. One is believed to have taken place in Sri Lanka in 29 B.C.E. with 500 monks writing down the orally transmitted teachings for the first time. Another council is said to have been held in India in the first century C.E. This council was led by Kanishka, ruler of what is today Pakistan and northern India. King Kanishka loved the teachings of the Buddha and often had bhikkus teach him the dharma.

He soon found that they were not in accord on the teaching of the dharma, and he was very distressed over the differences he heard. At the advice of another, he convened a council to sort out the differences. Five hundred monks compiled a new canon at the Fourth Council.

This was the start of the Mahayana scriptural canon: the collection of Mahayana teachings. Theravada Buddhists, however, do not recognize this council.

In the Theravada tradition, a Fifth Council took place in Mandalay, Burma, in 1871. 2,400 monks labored for five months inscribing the Tipitaka (“Three Baskets”) onto marble slabs. The sixth council took place in Rangoon in 1954, with 2,500 monks from all the Theravada countries.

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