Philosophy of language in the Five Nikayas

by K.T.S. Sarao | 2013 | 141,449 words

This page relates ‘The First Buddhist Council’ of the study of the Philosophy of language in the Five Nikayas, from the perspective of linguistics. The Five Nikayas, in Theravada Buddhism, refers to the five books of the Sutta Pitaka (“Basket of Sutra”), which itself is the second division of the Pali Tipitaka of the Buddhist Canon (literature).

2.1. The First Buddhist Council

According to Pāli tradition recorded in canonical and non-canonical literature, and particularly the Mahāvaṃsa,[1] the First Buddhist Council was held at Rājagaha, three months after the Buddha had attained Parinibbāna. One of the most remarkable reasons is that the monk Subhadda, who had ordained late in life, upon hearing that the Buddha had expired, voiced his resentment at having to abide by all the rules for monks laid down by the Buddha. Many monks lamented the passing of the Buddha and were deeply grieved but Subhadda spoke up to show happiness and relief that Buddha was gone.

And Subhadda said to the bhikkhus:

“Enough, Sirs! Weep not, neither lament! We are well rid of the great Samana. We used to be annoyed by being told, ‘This beseems you, this beseems you not’. But now we shall be able to do whatever we like; and what we do not like, that we shall not have to do.”[2]

This irreverent remark filled the Ven. Mahakassapa with alarm for the future safety and purity of the Dhamma preached by the Master. The Ven. Mahakassapa feared that the Dhamma and the Vinaya might be corrupted and not survived intact if other monks were to behave like Subhadda and interpret the Dhamma and the Vinaya rules as they pleased. To avoid this he decided that the Dhamma must be preserved and protected. Then after he announced the theras, who had passed half a month–seven days in the funeral ceremonies and seven days in homage of the relics, that ‘spending the rainy season in Rājagaha, we will make a compilation of the Dhamma, no other (monks) must be permitted to dwell there’ (Geiger, 1980: 15). The five hundred Arahants were assigned to take apart the assembly.

The detail of the first Buddhist council was translated and presented by Geiger as below.

After the theras, with Mahākassapa at the head, unwavering in virtue, familiar with the thought of the Saṃbuddha, had arrived at that place [Rājagaha] to spend the rainy season there, they bussied themselves during the first of the rain-months with repairing all the dwellings, when they announced this to Ajātasattu.

When the repair of the vihāra was finished they said to the king: ‘Now we will hold the council’. To the question, ‘What should be done?’ they answered: ‘A place (should be provided) for the meetings’. When the king had asked: ‘Where (these were to be)?’ and the place had been pointed out by them, he with all speed had a plendid hall built by the side of the Vebbāra Rock by the entrance of the Sattapaṇṇi grotto, (and it was) like to assembly-hall of the gods. When it was adorned in every way he caused precious mats to be spread according to numbers of the bhikkhus.

On the second day of the second month of the rainy season the bhikkhus met together in that splendid hall. Leaving a fitting place vacant for Ānanda, the Arahants seated themselves on chairs, according to their rank. The thera Ānanda, to make known to them that he had reached the state of an Arahant, went not with them thither. But when some asked: Where is the thera Ānanda? he took the seat prepared for him, rising out of the ground or passing through the air.

Together the theras chose the thera Upāli to speak for the vinaya, for the rest of the Dhamma they chose Ānanda. The great thera (Mahākassapa) laid on himself (the task) of asking questions touching the vinaya and the thera Upāli (was ready) to explain it.

Sitting in the thera’s chair, the former asked the latter the questions touching the vinaya; and Upāli, seated in the preacher’s chair, expounded (the master). And as this best master of the vinaya expounded each (clause) in turn all (the bhikkhus) knowing the custom, repeated the vinaya after him.

Then the thera (Mahākassapa) taking (the task) upon himself questioned concerning the Dhamma, him the chief of those eho had most often heard (the word), him the treasure-keeper of the Great Seer (the Buddha); and the thera Ānanda, taking (the task) upon himself, taking his seat in the preacher’s chair, expounded the whole Dhamma. And all the (theras) knowing all that was contained in the doctrine repeated the Dhamma in turn after sage of the Videha country.

Thus in seven months was that compiling of the Dhamma to save the whole world completed by those (theras) bent on the whole word’s salvation. The thera (Mahākassapa) has made the blessed Buddha’s message to endure five hundred years, rejoicing in this thought at the end of the council, the earth encircled by the ocean trembled sis times and many wondrous signs were shown in the world in many ways. Now since the canon was compiled by the theras it was called Theras tradition.[3]

An important point which the First Buddhist Council had focused on is that Ven. Ānanda put on trial for some ecclesiastical offences, in spite of the fact that he had reached Arahanthood on the eve of session of the council and that the realization of an Arahanthood liberates a man from all guiltiness and punishment.

Ānanda was arraigned by the monks on several charges which he explained as follow:

i. He could not formulated the lesser and minor precepts, as he was overwhelmed with grief at the imminent death of the Master.

ii. He had to tread upon the garment of the Master while sewing it as there was no one to help him.

iii. He permitted women to salute first the body of the Master, because he did not want to detain them. He also did this for their edification.

iv. He was under the influence of the evil one when he forgot to request the Master to enable him to continue his study for a Kalpa.

v. He had to plead for the admission of women into order out of consideration for mahaprajapati Gautami who nursed the Master in his infancy.

vi. He failed to supply drinking water to the Buddha though he had thrice asked for it because the water of the river was muddy.

vii. He showed the privy parts of the Buddha to nun and women of low character with a purpose to rid them of then sensuality.

One more another remarkable item of business transacted at the First Buddhist Council was the passing of the highest penalty (Brahmadanda) on Channa who was the charioteer of the Master on the day of the Great renunciation. This monk had slighted every member of the Order, high and low, and was arrogant in the extreme. The penalty imposed was complete social boycott. When the punishment was announced to Channa he was seized with profound repentance and grief and was purged of all his weaknesses. In short, he became an Arahant.

The punishment automatically ceased to be effective. In short, the First Council basically achieved four main results:

i. The settlement of the Vinaya under the leadership of Upāli.

ii. The settlement of the texts of the Dhamma under the leadership of Ānanda.

iii. The trial of Ānanda.

iv. The punishment of Channa.

The Canon that was agreed at this First Buddhist Council included only the Vinaya Piṭaka and parts of the Sutta Piṭaka. The latter probably included the first four Nikāyas of the Pāli Canon; that is, the Dīgha Nikāya, the Majjhima Nikāya, the Aṅguttara Nikāya and the Saṃyutta Nikāya; with some of the books in the fifth Nikāya - Khuddhaka Nikāya such as the Suttanipāta and the Dhammapada.

The problem which has been debating is that was the Abhidhamma recited in this First Buddhist Council? Most of the scholars recorded the only two Vinaya pitaka and Sutta pitaka were compiled, while according Geiger (1980: liv) that “There is, besides, an account in the second volume of the Dulva, the Tibetan Vinaya of the Sarvāstivādin sect. The fixing of the Canon took place, according to this source, in the following order: (1) Dharmas, by Ānanda; (2) Vinaya, by Upāli; (3) Mātṛkā (i.e. Abhidharma) by Mahākassapa himself. […] Fā-hian and Hiuen-thsang also mention the First Council. The former gives the number of the bhikkhus as 500, the latter as 1,000; the former speaks in a general way of ‘a collection of sacred books’, the latter expressly mentions also the redaction of the Abhidharma by Mahākassapa.”

Footnotes and references:


Wilhelm Geiger (with Assisted by Mabel Haynes Bode) trans. [1921] 1980. The Mahāvaṃsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon. London: The Pāli Text Society.


First Buddhist Council. 01 August, 2013. <>


Wilhelm Geiger (with Assisted by Mabel Haynes Bode), trans. [1921] 1980. The Mahāvaṃsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon. London: The Pāli Text Society, pp. 15-17.

Let's grow together!

I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased sources, definitions and images. Your donation direclty influences the quality and quantity of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight the world is exposed to.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: