The Buddhist Councils
According the modern-day edition of the Pali Canon, over the past 2,500 years there have been six dhamma (dharma in Sanskrit) councils (dhammasangitas) or “dhamma recitations.” The process was as follows: “the basic teaching of the Buddha were first recited by an elder monk and then chanted after him in chorus by the whole assembly. The recitation was considered to be authentic when it was unanimously approved by all of the monks in attendance.” The recitations were not committed to written words until the Fourth Council some 500 years after the Buddha's death.
The First Council: The Council at Rajagriha
Three months after the Buddha's death, 500 senior monks (arhats) gathered together at Rajagriha in what has come to be known as the First Council. Rajagriha was the capital of Magadha, which was one of the four great kingdoms (in addtition to Kosala, Vansa, and Avanti) in ancient India. Their hope was that they would be able to establish the Buddhist canon and create the definite teachings of the Buddha.
Ananda and Upali each took on a special task at the council. Ananda, as the longtime companion of the Buddha, was responsible for the recitation of the Buddha's teachings. It was felt that since he had spent so many years by the Buddha's side, he would have heard the teachings most frequently. Upali was given the task of setting forth the rules of discipline for the sangha (vinaya).
Arhat means “worthy one” in Sanskrit. An arhat is one who has attained enlightened mind and is free of desires and cravings. An arhat has nothing more to learn and has absorbed all of the Buddha's teachings.
Each of the arhats recited the teachings, examining the words to ensure they were accurate. They recited them over and over again, and each repetition was checked to make sure they all agreed that it was correct. The First Council lasted seven months.
The members of the council carried the memorized teachings away with them to all parts of the country, wherever disciples of the Buddha were to be found. Thus, the oral tradition of passing on the Buddha's teaching was established and remained exclusively so for many hundreds of years and actually continues to this day.
The Second Council: The Council at Vesali
One hundred years later, the Second Council took place to settle disagreements regarding the monastic rules. This council was held at Vaishali and 700 arhats attended. The Elders of the council felt that certain members of the sangha were taking some of the Ten Precepts too lightly and that there was a general slackening of discipline.
A group of monks put forth a series of changes in the precepts, making them more lax than they had been previously. For example, they felt it was acceptable for the members of the sangha to accept money, and debated the need for the precept that forbade them to use money.
The assembly of monks thereby discussed the validity of the Ten Precepts. The dissenting monks, the Vajjians, were outvoted. They refused to give in, however, and seceded from the group of the council of Elders. Thus, Buddhism was divided into two schools of thought: Theravada and Mahayana. The Elders belonged to the Theravada school; Vajjian monks split off to create the Mahayana school that differed in the interpretation of the precepts and philosophy.