Historical overview of the early Buddhist Councils
The Evolvement of Theravada Buddhism to the Present

Buddhist Era 1 (-544 Before Common Era)
Parinibbana (Skt: Parinirvana; death and final release) of the Buddha at age 80, at Kusinara, now Kusinagar, India.
It is asserted that Venerable Mahakassapa, who was absent at the parinibbana of the Buddha in Kusinara, was on his way to Kusinara from Pava. Mahakassapa received news of the Buddha's demise from a naked ascetic of the Ajivika sect. It is also recorded that a monk, named Subhadda, openly told the other monks who were grieving, to stop and to think of the occasion as a new beginning; since they were treated as schoolboys by the Master, they would now be free to do as they liked without hindrance.
This remark of Subhadda alarmed Mahakassapa for the future safety and purity of the Dhamma preached by the Buddha. Mahakassapa also had other reasons for his anxiety; he had received the robe of the Master as a token of succession of Dhamma authority. Therefore he was determined to fulfill the Master's command to establish the Truth. Thus Subhadda's remark was a clear indication of the necessity of holding a council to preserve the purity of the Buddha's teachings.

The First Buddhist Council:
The meeting took place in the second month of the rainy season (vassa) after the Buddha's parinibbana. It is further stated in the Pali Chronicle that the Council was held near Saptapami Cave. Ajatasattu helped the session of the Council and made arrangement for seats, accommodation and food. In the Samantapasadika, we find a detailed description of the ceremonies that took place about 6 weeks before the actual opening of the session.
Mahakassapa had proposed that a council of 500 Arahants (fully enlightened) bhikkhus should meet to rehearse the teachings of the Buddha in order to establish a canon of the Buddha's sermons on Dhamma and of the Vinaya, a code of discipline for monastics. It was stated in the Cullavagga and confirmed in the Dipavamsa that the number of monks was chosen through a vote by the general congregation of monks assembled at the place of the parinibbana of the Master.
In the Cullavagga it is stated that the bhikkhus strongly interceded for Ananda, though he had not attained Arahant, because of the high moral standard he had reached and because he had learnt the Dhamma and Vinaya from the Buddha himself. Mahakassapa finally accepted Ananda.
It should be noted that Ananda was brought to trial in the course of the proceedings; the Cullavagga declaired that Ananda had to meet certain charges after the recital of the Dhamma and Vinaya.
Proceeding of the First Council:
The Council proceeding was a simple one. With the permission of the Sangha, Mahakassapa asked questions on the Vinaya of the Venerable Upali, thus in this way the Vinaya-pitaka was agreed upon. Then Ananda recited all of the sermons given by the Master and again was questioned by Mahakassapa, thus the Sutta-pitaka was compiled.
Buddhaghosha in his Samantapasadika gives a detailed account of the constituent parts of the Vinaya and the Sutta-pitaka that were recited at the Council. According to the accounts of the Cullavagga and the Samantapasadika, Mahakassapa presided over the entire business of the Council, leaving the remaining participants to be Upali and Ananda only. However the Dipavamsa says that the texts have been compiled by the bhikkhus with Upali and Ananda as leaders in the Vinaya and the Dhamma respectively.
Charges against Ananda:
There was considerable agitation over the admission of Ananda to the Council because of Ananda's failure to reach the stage of Arahant, which he actually did attain on the eve of the Council. However, because of the conventional belief that the level of Arahant clears one of all guilt, and because of the late development of Ananda's attainment, he was still questioned by his peers on several charges as follows:
1. He could not formulate the lesser and minor precepts as he was overwhelmed with grief over the demise of the Master.
2. He had to tread upon the robe of the Master while sewing it as there was no one to help him.
3. He permitted women to salute the body of the Master first because he did not want to detain them.
4. He was under the influence of Mara (the Evil One) when he forgot to request the Master to remain for a kalpa when the Buddha announced the approach of his demise.
5. He called for the admission of women into the Order out of consideration for Mahaprajapati Gotami who nursed the Master in his infancy.
The Charges are differently framed in other accounts. The replies given may be taken to have satisfied the Assembly.
Another important matter was the passing of the highest penalty (Brahmadanda) on Channa, the Buddha's charioteer on the day of his renunciation. As a monk, Channa was extremely arrogant and had slighted every member of the Order, high and low. The penalty imposed was complete social boycott. When the punishment was announced to Channa he was seized with such grief and repentance that he was purged of his weaknesses and this became Arahant, the punishment removed.
In summary the proceedings of the First Council produced 4 results:
1. Settlement of the Vinaya by Venerable Upali.
2. Settlement of the Dhamma by Venerable Ananda.
3. The trial of Ananda
4. The punishment of Channa
The teachings that had been agreed upon at the First Council were carried away from Rajagaha in memorized form to various places where the scattered Sangha had become established. The next thing that was done was the translation of these texts from the common language of Rajagaha, which possibly was Magadhi, into the various local languages. Then in each locality they would have been distributed to different monks who would take the responsibility of memorization and passing it on to others. The members of the First Council agreed to the authenticity of the canon, while those who were absent reserved the preference to decline the parts of the canon they saw fit and present their own versions of the Master's teachings. At this point there was no centralized authority or religion of "Buddhism", consequently allowing the scattered community of monks and nuns to grow creatively. This liberal environment allowed for the development of various forms of discipline, religious practice and philosophical interpretation indicating the Buddha as the originator. Due to a decline of the original standards set forth by the Buddha, other councils were convened to purify the Buddha's teachings and the Sangha again.

BE 100 (-444 BCE)
The Second Buddhist Council:
One hundred years after the Parinibbana of the Buddha the Second Buddhist Council was held at Vesali in order to examine and suppress 10 practices that ran counter to the Vinaya, by a group of Vajjian monks. In the Cullavagga, it is said that the Vajjian monks were practicing the Ten Points (dasa vathuni) that were regarded as unorthodox by Venerable Yasa of Yosambi who was at Vesali.
The Ten Points were:
1. The practice of carrying salt in a horn for use when needed.
2. The practice of taking food after midday.
3. The practice of going to a neighboring village and taking a second meal the same day (the offence of overeating).
4. The observance of Uposothas in different places within the same parish.
5. The practice of performing an ecclesiastical act and obtaining its sanction afterward.
6. The practice of using customary practices as precedents.
7. The practice of drinking milk whey after meals.
8. The drinking fermented palm juice that is not yet toddy.
9. The use of a borderless sheet for sitting.
10. The acceptance of gold or silver.
Also at issue was the Vajjian monks reluctance to accept the Suttas and the Vinaya as the final authority on the Buddha's teachings.
The Vajjian monks however pronounced the penalty of patisaraniyakamma upon Yasa, which required him to apologize to the laity who had been forbidden by Yasa to carry out the precepts of the Vajjian monks.
Yasa defended his own views before the laity and by his eloquent advocacy won them over to his side, thus increasing the fury of the monks who expelled Yasa from the Sangha.
Yasa went to Kausambi and sent messengers to the Bhikkhus of the western country of Avanti and of the southern country, inviting them to assemble and decide the question in order to ensure the preservation of the Vinaya.
Next, he went to Ahoganga hill where Sambhuta Sanavasi dwelt, told him about the Vajian monk's practices and invited him to take part in resolving this question. Venerable Sanavasi agreed.
At the same time, about 60 Arahants from the western country and 88 from Avanti and the southern country assembled at Ahoganga hill, enlisting the support of Venerable Revata of Sahajati.
Venerable Revata suggested that they settle the dispute at the place of its origin. Thus a council of 700 bhikkhus was held at Vesali to discuss the "Ten Points" of the Vajjian bhikkhus and to settle the disputes between the Vajian monks and Yasa. It is estimated that this took place in the Valikarama in Vesali in the year of King Kalasoka's reign.

Proceedings of the Second Buddhist Council:
There was an 8 member committee selected, comprised of 4 members from each, of the east and west countries. Bhikkhu Sabbakami was the president. Revata asked the questions and Sabbakami responded to them.
The Accounts of the Dipavamsa and Samantapasadika said that king Kalasoka, a decendant of Ajatasattu, was at first in favor of the Vajjjian monks but later gave his support to the council of Thera's.
The Dipavamsa also mentions the "Vajjian Council". The Vajjian monks disagreed with the decision of the council chaired by Sabbakami and convened the Mahasangiti (Great Council). After the Second Buddhist Council the Vajjian monks did not want to remain in the Sangha of the Theravada or Sthaviravada. Thus they left and formed a new Sangha known as the Mahasangha or Mahasanghika, "The Great Congregation".
The schism marks the first beginnings of what would later evolve into Mahayana Buddhism, which would come to dominate Buddhism in northern Asia (China, Tibet, Japan and Korea).

BE 294 (-250 BCE)
The Third Buddhist Council:

With the conversion to Buddhism of the Emperor Asoka, who lavishly supported the Sangha with land buildings and requisites, many heretics were attracted to join the Order to share in the wealth. However, even though they became bhikkhus they continued to adhere to their old doctrines and practices, even preaching these doctrines as through they were the Buddha's own words. As a consequence the orthodox bhikkhus separated themselves from them, refusing to perform the Uposotha rites with them. Thus no Uposotha rites were observed at Pataliputta for about 7 years. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Asoka sent one of his ministers to request the orthodox bhikkhus to perform the Uposotha rites with the others, but they still refused. The minister misunderstood Asoka's command and consequently beheaded several bhikkhus.
Asoka was grief stricken at the news and apologized to the Sangha for this tragedy asking several of the bhikkhus if they held him responsible or not, but the opinion was divided. The perplexed king sought to resolve the matter and sent messengers to Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa who had retired to the Ahoganga hills along the Ganges to come to Pataliputta to clear his doubts. Reluctantly the Elder Tissa was persuaded to come after several unsuccessful attempts. He arrived by boat and was greeted by Asoka personally. The king was said to have entered the water knee deep and extended his right hand to the Thera significant of great reverence. It is said that the Elder resided in the pleasure garden and was asked to perform a miracle, which he did to encourage the king's faith. Asoka then asked the Elder about his responsibility in the death of the bhikkhus, the Elder Tissa answered that there is no guilt if there is no evil intent; Asoka was satisfied with this answer.
Proceedings of the Third Buddhist Council:
The Elder Tissa advised Asoka to convoke an assembly of the entire community of bhikkhus. The unorthodox views of the heretical bhikkhus were suppressed and 60,000 were expelled.
Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa elected 1,000 bhikkhus who were versed in the Pitakas to make a compilation of the true doctrine.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka is recited at the Council along with additional sections of the Khuddaka Nikaya. The Tipitaka "Three Vessels" of the Pali canon is now complete, although some scholars suggest that at least two parts of the extant canon, the Parivara in the Vinaya Pitaka and the Apadana in the Sutta Pitaka may date from a later period.
The Elder Tissa established the Kathsvstthu-pakarana wherein the heretical doctrines were thoroughly examined and refuted. This ended the Third Buddhist Council.
Afterwards the Emperor Asoka dispatched missionaries to distant lands to extend the teachings of the Buddha.
BE 297 (-247 BCE)
King Asoka sends his son, Venerable Mahinda on a mission to bring Buddhism to Sri Lanka. King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka is converted to Buddhism.
BE 304 (-240 BCE)
Venerable Mahinda establishes the Mahavihara (Great Monastery) of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The Vibhajjavada community living there becomes known as Theravada. Mahinda compiles the first of the Tipitaka commentaries, in the Sinhala language. Mahinda's sister, Venerable Sanghamitta, arrives in Sri Lanka with a cutting from the original Bo tree, and establishes the bhikkhuni-sangha in Sri Lanka.
BE 444 (-100 BCE)
Fourth Buddhist Council
Famine and schisms in Sri Lanka point out the need for a written record of the Tipitaka to preserve the Buddhist religion. King Vattagamani convenes a Fourth Council, in which 500 reciters and scribes from the Mahavihara write down the Pali Tipitaka for the first time, on palm leaves.
BE 544 (Year 1 Common Era, Year 1 AD)
BE 644 (100 CE)
Theravada Buddhism first appears in Burma and Central Thailand.
BE 744 (200 CE)
Buddhist monastic university at Nalanda, India flourishes; remains a world center of Buddhist study for over 1,000 years.
BE 1100 (600's)
Buddhism in India begins a long, slow decline from which it would never fully recover.
BE 1100? 1400? (6th c.? 9th c.? )
Dhammapala composes commentaries on parts of the Canon missed by Buddhaghosa (such as the Udana, Itivuttaka, Theragatha, and Therigatha), along with extensive sub-commentaries on Buddhaghosa's work.
BE 1594 (1050 CE)
The bhikkhu and bhikkhuni communities at Anuradhapura die out following invasions from South India.
BE 1614 (1070 CE)
Bhikkhus from Pagan arrive in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka to reinstate the obliterated Theravada ordination line on the island.
BE 1708 (1164 CE)
Polonnaruwa destroyed by foreign invasion. With the guidance of two monks from a forest branch of the Mahavihara sect; Venerable's Mahakassapa and Sariputta, King Parakramabahu reunites all bhikkhus in Sri Lanka into the Mahavihara sect.
BE 1780 (1236)
Bhikkhus from Kañcipuram, India arrive in Sri Lanka to revive the Theravada ordination line.
BE 1823 (1279 CE)
Last inscriptional evidence of a Theravada Bhikkhuni nunnery (in Burma).
BE 1831 (1287 CE)
Pagan looted by Mongol invaders; its decline begins.
BE 1900 (13th c.)
A forest-based Sri Lankan ordination line arrives in Burma and Thailand. Theravada spreads to Laos. Thai Theravada monasteries first appear in Cambodia shortly before the Thais win their independence from the Khmers.
BE 2000 (1400's)
Another forest lineage is imported from Sri Lanka to Ayudhaya, the Thai capital. A new ordination line is also imported into Burma.
BE 2297 (1753 CE)
King Kirti Sri Rajasinha obtains bhikkhus from the Thai court to reinstate the bhikkhu ordination line, which had died out in Sri Lanka. This is the origin of the Siyam Nikaya.
BE 2312 (1768 CE)
Burmese destroy Ayudhaya (Thailand's Capital).
BE 2321 (1777 CE)
King Rama I, founder of the current dynasty in Thailand, obtains copies of the Tipitaka from Sri Lanka and sponsors a Council to standardize the Thai version of the Tipitaka, copies of which are then donated to temples throughout the country.
BE 2347 (1803 CE)
Sri Lankans ordained in the Burmese city of Amarapura found the Amarapura Nikaya in Sri Lanka to supplement the Siyam Nikaya, which admitted only brahmans from the Up Country highlands around Kandy.
BE 2372 (1828 CE)
Thailand's Prince Mongkut (later King Rama IV) founds the Dhammayut movement, which would later become the Dhammayut-Nikaya or Sect.
BE 2400 (1800's)
Sri Lankan Sangha deteriorates under pressure from two centuries of European colonial rule (Portuguese, Dutch, British).
BE 2406 (1862 CE)
Forest monks headed by Venerable Paññananda go to Burma for reordination, returning to Sri Lanka the following year to found the Ramañña Nikaya. The first translation of the Dhammapada is made in a Western language (German).
BE 2412 (1868 CE)
Fifth Council is held at Mandalay, Burma; Pali Canon is inscribed on 729 marble slabs.
BE 2417 (1873 CE)
Venerable Mohottivatte Gunananda defeats Christian missionaries in a public debate, inspiring a nationwide revival of Sri Lankan pride in its Buddhist traditions.
BE 2423 (1879 CE)

Sir Edwin Arnold publishes his epic poem Light of Asia, which becomes a best seller in England and the USA, stimulating popular Western interest in Buddhism.
BE 2424 (1880 CE)

Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, founders of the Theosophical Society, arrive in Sri Lanka from the USA, embrace Buddhism, and begin a campaign to restore Buddhism on the island by encouraging the establishment of Buddhist schools.
BE 2425 (1881 CE)

Pali Text Society is founded in England by T.W. Rhys Davids; most of the Tipitaka is published in roman script and, over the next 100 years, in English translation.
BE 2435 (1891 CE)

Maha Bodhi Society founded in India by the Sri Lankan lay follower Anagarika Dharmapala, in an effort to reintroduce Buddhism to India.
BE 2443 (1899 CE)
First Western Theravada monk (Gordon Douglas) ordains, in Burma.
BE 2444 (1900 CE)
Venerable Ajaan Mun and Venerable Ajaan Sao revive the forest meditation tradition in Thailand.
BE 2445 (1902 CE)
King Rama V of Thailand institutes a Sangha Act that formally marks the beginnings of the Mahanikaya and Dhammayut sects. Sangha government, which up to that time had been in the hands of a lay official appointed by the king, is handed over to the bhikkhus themselves.
BE 2493 (1949 CE)
Mahasi Sayadaw becomes head teacher at a government-sponsored meditation center in Rangoon, Burma.
BE 2498 (1954 CE)
Burmese government sponsors Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon.
BE 2500 (1956 CE)
Buddha Jayanti Year, commemorating 2,500 years of Buddhism.
BE 2502 (1958 CE)
Venerable Nyanaponika Thera establishes the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka to publish English-language books on Theravada Buddhism. Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is founded in Sri Lanka to bring Buddhist ideals to bear in solving pressing social problems. Two Germans ordain at the Royal Thai Embassy in London, becoming the first to take full Theravada ordination in the West.
BE 2504 (1960's)
Washington (D.C.) Buddhist Vihara founded -- first Theravada monastic community in the USA. {and Bhavana Society Brochure}
BE 2514 (1970's)
Refugees from war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos settle in USA and Europe, establishing many tight-knit Buddhist communities in the West. Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw and Dr. Rina Sircar, from Burma, establish the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Northern California, USA. Venerable Ajaan Chah establishes Wat Pah Nanachat, a forest monastery in Thailand for training Western monks. Insight Meditation Society, a lay meditation center, is founded in Massachusetts, USA. Venerable Ajaan Chah travels to England to establish a small community of monks at the Hamsptead Vihara, which later moves to Sussex, England, to become Wat Pah Cittaviveka (Chithurst Forest Monastery).
BE 2524 (1980's)
Lay meditation centers grow in popularity in USA and Europe. First Theravada forest monastery in the USA (Bhavana Society) is established in West Virginia. Amaravati Buddhist Monastery established in England by Venerable Ajaan Sumedho (student of Venerable Ajaan Chah).
BE 2534 (1990's)
Continued western expansion of the Theravada Sangha: monasteries from the Thai forest traditions established in California, USA (Metta Forest Monastery, founded by Venerable Ajaan Suwat; Abhayagiri Monastery, founded by Venerable Ajaans Amaro and Pasanno). Buddhism meets cyberspace: Buddhist computer networks emerge; several editions of the Pali Tipitaka become available online.

1. BE = Buddhist Era. Year 1 of the Buddhist Era calendar is the year of the Buddha's Parinibbana (death and final release), which occurred in the Buddha's eightieth year (480 BCE according to the "historical" timeline; 544 BCE by tradition).
The actual date of the Buddha's birth is unknown. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha's birth took place in 624 BCE, although some recent estimates place the Buddha's birth much later -- perhaps as late as 448 BCE. 560 BCE is one commonly accepted date for the Buddha's birth, and the "historical" date for that event that I adopt here.
Events in the timeline prior to -250 CE are shown with two CE dates: the date based on the "traditional" nativity of 624 BCE, followed by the date based on the "historical" date of 560 BCE. After -250 CE the "historical" date is dropped, since these dates are more appropriate only in discussions of earlier events.
To calculate the CE date corresponding to an event in the Buddhist traditional calendar, subtract 544 years from the BE date. The BE dates of well-documented historical events (particularly those in the twentieth century) may be off by one year, since the CE and BE calendars start their years on different months (January and May, respectively).
2. CE = Common Era. Year 1 of the Common Era corresponds with the year 1 AD (Anno Domini) in the Christian calendar. -1 CE (or 1 BCE -- "Before the Common Era") corresponds with the year 1 BC ("Before Christ"). By convention there is no year zero; the year 1 BCE is followed by 1 CE.
3. Events of the last few decades are still much too fresh in our collective experience to argue intelligently for or against their historical significance.
[1] The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1996)
[2] The Buddha's Way by H. Saddhatissa (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971)
[3] Pali Literature and Language by Wilhelm Geiger (New Delhi: Oriental Books, 1978)
[4] Beginnings: the Pali Suttas by Samanera Bodhesako (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1984)
[5] Buddhism in Sri Lanka by H.R. Perera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1966)
[6] The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) (Introduction) by Ven. Bhikkhu Ñanamoli (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1975)
[7] Indian Buddhism (second edition) by A.K. Warder (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980)
[8] Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo by Richard Gombrich (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988)
[9] The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka: An Anthropological and Historical Study by Michael Carrithers (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983)
[10] The Progress of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1994)
[11] World Buddhist Directory by The Buddhist Information Centre (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Information Centre, 1984)