Historicity of First Buddhist Council

From WIkipedia, it is said:

… many scholars, from the late 19th century onward, have considered the historicity of the First Council improbable. Some scholars, such as orientalists Louis de La Vallée-Poussin and D.P. Minayeff, thought there must have been assemblies after the Buddha’s death, but considered only the main characters and some events before or after the First Council historical. Other scholars, such as Buddhologist André Bareau and Indologist Hermann Oldenberg, considered it likely that the account of the First Council was written after the Second Council, and based on that of the second, since there were not any major problems to solve after the Buddha’s death, or any other need to organize the First Council.

First Buddhist council - Wikipedia

Also, there are different accounts of First Council from different Buddhist sects (see here), which seems supporting the assumption that First Council is historically less probable compared with the Second Council (which more consistent in various sects’ account).

So what do you think, friends? Is the First Council historically not happened as the tradition said?


I’m not sure what to say exactly, but the Wikipedia article, while rough around the edges, is not a bad summary.

The basic point is that there are multiple accounts of the Council, all found in the canonical Vinayas, and hence as historically reliable as can be at such a distance. Lacking confirmation in archeology or non-Buddhist sources, we are left with the Vinaya accounts (supplemented by later commentaries).

These accounts agree in the main, but differ in many details, such as the order of the texts, or whether the Abhidhamma was recited.

In some cases we can assess these things independently. We know from textual analysis that the Abhidhamma was later and could not have been recited at the First Council. So this detail must be discounted. Does it mean that versions of the story that mention the Abhidhamma are less reliable? Not in and of itself, no. It is normal for such narratives to include both historical details and a degree of elaboration. Different narratives might elaborate in different ways.

A detail such as the order in which the recitation was done is harder to assess. It certainly stands as a clue of the perspective of the redactors of that account. But does it tell us anything about what actually happened? It might do, but it’s hard to say with any confidence.

The accounts of the Council are careful to record the existence of a tradition that was not present and rejects the council authority. And I think it is important to recognize that in a decentralized body such as the early Sangha, a narrative of central control is a record of the wishes of those making the narrative, not a description of the facts on the ground. Clearly the Councils, in fact and idea, exert a large influence on the Buddhist tradition. equally, though, there would have from the beginning a diversity of views, some of whom would contest the central authority. In fact, what we witness with the First Council is the first step toward establishing the very idea of a centralized authority in Buddhism.

Having said which, bear in mind that the items contested, when they are actually mentioned in the Vinaya, are extremely minor, relating to the relaxing of certain Vinaya rules about food in the time of famine. Later there were disputes about more serious matters, but we should be careful to not read later situations back into early times.

Even a question such as whether the Anguttara or the Samyutta was recited first may be interesting, but it’s hardly a dramatic difference. There’s no question about the main content of the teaching.

It is unreasonable to question or dismiss the historicity of the First Council based on minor differences; and equally unreasonable to insist that one’s one particular sect just happens to include the One and Only True View. As in all things historical, balance, sympathy, reasonableness, and humility are our best guides.


Pardon me, bhante, but do you mean there is a relaxing of some minor rules in First Council? AFAIK, in First Council (of Theravadin version) five hundreds Arahant monks agree to keep the rules as it is, without establishing new rules or abolishing old rules…


No. The story goes that there were certain rules that had been relaxed by the Buddha in a time of famine, allowing monks to store and cook food. These were later re-instated by the Buddha when the famine ended. But some monks were in distant lands (Dakkhinapatha i.e. the Deccan) when the relaxed rules were re-instated. So when they rejoined the larger Sangha after the Parinibbana they were not aware that the Buddha had tightened up these relaxed rules, and preferred to keep practicing them as before.

Or at least, that is the story as told in, if my memory serves me well, the Mahisasaka Vinaya.


So I have a discussion about Buddhism history with my friend in an online Buddhist group. He is skeptic about historicity of the First Council. I give your remarks to him, which he responded like this:

Archeological evidence in ancient history is usually naturally non-existant and non-surviving, so, agree, we can put that aside and focus on vinaya accounts that we do have.

The main theme of first council arguably is the preservation on the teaching and canonization of Buddhist Texts.

So, what was the reason behind the event? (1) Was it because of one “blessed bhikkhu” (without whom we do not have the council) inspired Mahakassapa? What’s his name? (2) Or the Devas that worried the lost of teaching? (3) Or Mahakassapa himself had the inspiration? No agreement.

How the texts recited? Was it by Ananda-Upali or by participans altogether (as in vinaya matrika sutra)?
Which one recited first? Sutta or Vinaya?
Did the sutta recited chronologically (from dhammacakkapavatana) or structure-wise (from Brahmajala)?
Did Samyutta recited before or after Anguttara?
Did the Vinaya recited severity-wise (parajika first) or chronologically (under garment things)?
What about abhidharma? (1) Was it recited and became separate pitaka? (2) Or incorporated in the khuddaka? (3) Or not even recited?

There are differences that we can “harmonize” apologetically, e.g. the reason for the council is Kassapa already had in mind about preservation of Teaching, then the deva asked him, and then the monk named Subhadda whose twitter was @Bhananda and IG account was @Mahallaka, expressed his happiness for future laxity. Solved the differences (like apologists do). :grin:

But not the case on the contradiction: if the first sutta recited is Dhammacakka, then the Brahmajala account is wrong. If one account is right, the other is wrong. Also, they both can be wrong like if the first sutta actually recited and considered as the most important turns out to be Isigili sutta. Of course we also can solve this problem the sectarian way: just favor one over the other. :grin:

Without these “minor” details, the only thing left we can assume with confidence as common to pre-sectarian is: there was a group of monks chilling out together in rainy season after Buddha’s parinibbana. Even if they did try to somewhat “canonize” the Teaching, they failed and the process did not bear result until after sectarian era.

I would say that generally speaking, when only one tradition is the outlier in a group of a half dozen, it’s more than likely the spurious one. It’s not impossible, I suppose, that all the others are based on a mistake that then was multiplied somehow, but it seems to me much less likely than someone in that one tradition changed a detail.

Also, there’s a difference between the common plot points of a story and their sequence and the exact details of how that plot point is told. So, for example, if all the stories have the recitation of the sutra pitaka and the vinaya pitaka, then that establishes that those events likely happened. Differences in how later traditions told those bits of the story doesn’t negate those events. It just means that story tellers in different places and times diverged on the details. This is a common feature of ancient stories in general. It’s actually quite rare for ancient stories to match each other word for word or detail for detail when you compare them closely.

So, I would say that the first council did happen, the main events common to most or all the accounts we have did happen, but if we want to know exactly what was said, we’ll have to be more forgiving of the contradictions. I mean, just because the Ekottarika Agama says Maitreya was there with a host of bodhisattvas or the Theravada account says the Brahmajala was the first sutta recited doesn’t mean the first council didn’t happen.


The search for truth is served by neither excessive credulity nor excessive skepticism.
And this is a good example of the hollowness of excessive skepticism.

If one account says the Council began with the Dhammacakka, and another account began with the Brahmajala, then what does this tell us?

  • that both accounts disagree as to the first sutta recited; both cannot be correct and maybe neither is.
  • that both agreed on the fact that the suttas were recited.
  • that both agreed on what the suttas were.

How are we to make sense of this?

History is an empirical discipline. One of the underlying assumptions that makes it work is that, unless there is a reason to think otherwise, the values and motivations of people in the past are mostly similar to our own. We see historical figures motivated by lust for power, or jealousy, by love of family, or the sincere desire for truth, and we recognize these values and motivations in ourselves and around us. This is how we make sense of the past: we bring our own reasonable sense of meaning to it.

Now personally, I don’t really care what the sequence of texts recited was. I mean, it’s an interesting data point and may have some meaning, but in the scheme of things, so what? Obviously the second pair of facts are the important things, and on this there is agreement.

If you ask any semi-educated Buddhist today what was recited at the First Council, they’d probably say “the Tipitaka” or something similar. Only experts would be aware of the name of the first sutta recited, and not even the experts would regard it as a critical point.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that for the Buddhists of the past it was similar. To distinguish, therefore, between the minor detail of what sequence the texts were recited in and the critical detail that the texts were recited is not arbitrary: it is an inference drawn using historical methodology.

That this distinction is not arbitrary is confirmed by the fact that, as Charles points out, all the accounts of the First Council agree on the fact of the recitation and the content of it (broadly speaking, and excepting the Abhidharma), but disagree on the sequence. Thus the consensus of the texts supports our implicit assumption about what matters.

History is not black and white. It is all about nuance and perspective and the balance of probabilities. Skeptics mistake the questioning of facts with the blithe dismissal of them. But the genius of history does not lie in the dismissal of the few facts at our disposal, but in telling a story that makes sense of the facts in a meaningful way.

Indeed. And it’s a shame that such excessive skepticism has gripped so much of the Academy, especially in the US. We have lost a generation of possible learning.


Bhante, my apologies for asking this, and I did try to find the answer on my own. What Academy is being referred to? I’m interested to understand what this body is (in the US particularly), and what they do…thanks in advance.


I’m talking about the Universities. In the US, with a few noble exceptions, the doctrines of extreme skeptics in the mold of Gregory Schopen, which aim to undermine any possible knowledge of anything in the first 500 years of Buddhism, dominate.

I have commented on this many times before. For example, in the American Academy of Religions (AAR) annual conference, which is the largest religious studies conference in the US, there are normally about 50 papers on Buddhism. Checking the papers year by year, it is invariably the case that there are no or very few papers on anything that happened in the first 500 years of Buddhism.

Can you imagine an academic conference on Christianity that ignored the Bible, Jesus, and the early Christian community?

It’s a shocking state of affairs, and a disgrace to the very idea of scholarship.

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Thanks, Bhante, this helps. FWIW, I joined (today) the AAR as a grad student member ( I am taking grad level Clinical Pastoral Counseling classes) " Founded in 1909, the American Academy of Religion is a learned society and professional association of teachers and research scholars involved in the disciplined study of religion."

Maybe being inside the AAR, I can provide some EBT pushback with respect to the approach toward Buddhist publications. I am not a scholar, by far, but maybe can be of some help in illuminating the AAR about the paucity of focus on the historical Buddha in its papers on “Buddhisms.”


That would be fantastic!

I’m sure the Buddhism arm of the AAR aims to simply represent the Buddhist studies in the US, and if there is nothing happening, there’s not a lot they can do about it. But at least to be aware that it is an issue.