The Background of the Second Council

A hundred years after the First Council, during King Kalasoka, a second great assembly in Buddhist community took place, known as the Second Council. Different from those behind the First Council, it was the difference of opinions concerning the precepts that led to the convention of the Second Council.

A group of “liberal” Bhiksus of the Vajji tribe from the prosperous city of Vaishali put forward a new interpretation of the “Ten Precepts”, which were the basic rules of discipline for the Bhiksus in the Sangha Order, therefore they requested for relaxation so as to meet the socio-economical changes in society over a hundred years after the death of Shakyamuni. They found some strict rules were not practical, therefore they proposed the Bhiksus be allowed, for instance,

    • to store salt
    • to eat after noon
    • to drink some beverages
    • to accept gifts of gold and silver, and monetary alms
    • and etc.

Some Vajji Bhiksus laid golden almsbowl in streets asking people to donate money for the sake of their merits and virtues.

An elder Bhiksu Yasas reprimanded the “unlawful” acts, but was attacked and requested to resign by the local Vajji Bhiksus. As the issue was becoming acute and serious, a council was call upon to discuss the meaning of Vinaya, and consider the validity of the new interpretation of the “Ten Precepts”.

The Conventions in Vaishali

Most of the elders Bhiksus from all over India came to the assembly in a garden in the city of Vaishali. Five Bhiksus were elected as representatives. In the assembly, 700 Bhiksus were selected to perform a group recitation of the Sutras and Vinaya, just as Mahakashyapa had done at the time of the First Council. Thus, the Second Council was also known as “Gathering of the 700 Bhiksus”.

The proposals of the Vajji Bhiksus were finally rejected by the elders of the Order. The new interpretation was regarded as the “Ten Unlawful Things”. Having been rejected in the Second Council, the Vajji Bhiksus gathered a group of 10,000 disciples and held a council of their own, referred as the “Great Group Recitation”. It is around this time that the Buddhist Order appears to have split into two major divisions, one known as the Sthavira, “Members of the Elders”, and the other known as the Mahasanghika, “Members of the Great Order”.

The Origin of the Schism

The early Buddhism existed in the form of several fairly autonomous groups in India, partly due to the difficulties in communication amongst the groups at that time, and more importantly, due to the teaching from the last words of Shakyamuni Buddha.

In the Nirvana Sutra, Shakyamuni had no attempt to keep an Order as a single unified Order. He asked the disciples to abide by the Dharma, not an individual person. He told the disciples that the precepts were their master after his death. So, it is not surprising that a hundred years later there should have appeared subtle doctrinal and ritual differences among these various Buddhist groups.

Under the influence of the political and religious environment at that time, the elder Bhiksus treated themselves as a highly disciplined class set apart from the lay community, carrying out special religious practice for the purpose of their own enlightenment. They emphasized the omnipotence of the rules of discipline that the precepts for the Order laid down by Shakyamuni should be abided by without the slightest deviation.

However, the Vajji Bhiksus disputed and stressed the original intent of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha be allowed for all people in society (lay community), not just one special class of people (monastic community). They argued that, so long as there was no violation of the main tenets and precepts of Buddhism, it should be permitted to adapt to the socio-economical changes, and the customs and practices of a specific region in which one was preaching or living. They had the opinion that, if the disciples remained faithful to the main tenets, e.g. the Four Noble Truths, and devoted themselves to Threefold Training (i.e. Trisiksa), minor variation and deviations in the observance of the rules of disciplines should be accepted. In view of the relatively progressive and cosmopolitan atmosphere in Vaishali (the house of the famous lay believer Vimalakirti), it is quite natural that a new movement arising among the members of the Buddhist community there to break the “obsolete” rules.

With the schism after the Second Council, the process of division continued until there were as many as eighteen sects, ten of them belonging to the Sthavira and eight to the Mahasanghika. Buddhism had entered a period of sectarianism.

Restoration of the Original Meaning of Buddhism

From the historical point of view, the schism was an inevitable outcome in the development of Buddhism. On the surface, the Sthivara Bhiksus would appear to be the upholders of orthodoxy and the Mahasanghika Bhiksus the heretics. In ordinary terms, the Sthivara seemed to be the dogmatists and the Mahasanghika the revisionists.

The question of the greatest concern lies whether these sects preserved the true spirit of Shakyamuni’s teachings. In Buddhism, all reform movements have, as their starting point, the spirit of striving to return to the fundamentals of the faith and to restore the original meaning.

In accordance with the Buddhist doctrine of Middle Way, any extreme is a deviant way to study Buddhism. A strong and healthy monastic order is necessary in Buddhism, however, if it is established on the basis of rejecting the lay community, it certainly violates the original meaning of Buddhism. On the other hand, a wide and popular support in lay community is necessary in Buddhism, however, if it is not led by the great masters who are enlightened by committing themselves in serious religious practices, it certainly deviates from the original meaning of Buddhism too.

Shakyamuni Buddha used to preach the Dharma in different ways depends upon the background and the capacity of the people he was addressing to understand it. Different standards in the rules of discipline are obviously required for different groups of people within the Buddha community. In different periods of time, one Buddhist sect may be more appealing to the other. The existence of the development and the extinction of any Buddhist sect has its conditions, in accordance with the Law of Causal Condition. Actually, the fate of Buddhism rests upon the ability to re-establish the fundamental principles of the doctrines, and to apply them correctly in practice.

The Dharmas expounded by any one sect is only one of many, many ways to attain Buddhahood. The ultimate truth i.e. the nature of Buddhist Dharma is beyond thoughts and words, but can be experienced by self-certification. This is the profound doctrine of One Buddha Vehicle.

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