Complete works of Swami Abhedananda

by Swami Prajnanananda | 1967 | 318,120 words

Swami Abhedananda was one of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and a spiritual brother of Swami Vivekananda. He deals with the subject of spiritual unfoldment purely from the yogic standpoint. These discourses represent a study of the Social, Religious, Cultural, Educational and Political aspects of India. Swami Abhedananda says t...

Chapter 4 - Buddhist Councils And Buddhist Thoughts

It has already been said before that immediately after the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha in 543 B.C. five-hundred Arhats (Elders) gathered at Rajagriha at the request of the venerable Mahakashyapa, the most learned among Buddha’s disciples, to chant the metaphysical doctrines, set forth in the Abhidhammapitaka; Upali the oldest disciple of Buddha, to repeat the laws and rules of discipline of Vinaya-pitaka; and Ananda, die most favourite disciple of Buddha, to repeat the stories and parables of the Sutta-pitaka. This was the First Buddhist Council. At this first Council the Elders (theras) collected the doctrines which were afterwards known as Theravada.

One-hundred years after the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha the Second Buddhist Council was held at Vaisali. This Council decided some serious quarrels which arose among the Bhikkhus, concerning certain monastic rules. But those who did not obey the decision of the Council, convened a separate great meeting (Mahasangha) at Vaisali, and came to their own decisions on those points. They were called Mahasanghikas. In course of the next one-hundred years, four other schools arose among the Mahasanghikas. They were called Ekavyavaharikas, Lokottaravadins, Kukkulikas, and Bahusrutiyas. These again, during the next one-hundred years, gave rise to other schools, Prajnaptivadins, Chittikas, Aparasailas, and Uttarasailas.

The Third Council was held during the reign of Asoka, the Buddhist Emperor, in Pataliputra (modem Patna) about 242 B.C. to settle the three Pitakas, viz., the Sutta-pitaka which contains the sayings and doings of Buddha himself; the Vinaya-pitaka which contains) the rules for the conduct Of monks and nuns who had joined the order; and lastly the Abhidhamma-pitaka which contains the description of the conditions of life in various worlds, the elements and the causes of existence. About a hundred and fifty years after this the three Pitakas were formally reduced to writing in Pali which was the spoken language of the masses’ in Magadha during the time of Buddha.

The Fourth Council was held during the reign of the Emperor Kanishka who lived more than five centuries after the Nirvana of Buddha, between 10 and 150 A.D. The place of this meeting was the Kundalavana-Vihara, somewhere in Kashmir.

There evolved four schools of philosophy among the Buddhists, and they were:

  1. Madhyamika,
  2. Yogachara,
  3. Sautrantika,
  4. Vaibhashika.

(i) The Madhyamika school teaches sunyavada or universal voidness or nothingness. It denies the absoulte existence of the external world and of cognition.

(ii) The Yogachara school accepted the teachings of their Guru, and practised Yoga to find out the existence of cognition and ideas as real mental phenomena. They may be classed as Idealists who deny the existence of the external phenomena. But the Madhyamika school accepted the teachings (achara), but did not question the authority of their teacher by practising Yoga; therefore their system was neither the best, nor the worst mediocre.

(iii) The Sautrantika school admitted cognition, and said that although the external world cannot be perceived, yet from the testimony of other people the existence of the external world can be inferred.

The Sautrantikas are so called, because some of the disciples of Buddha asked him what was the end (anta) of the Sutra, or Aphorism of the universal sunyata; and Buddha called them Sautrantikas, because they asked the end of the Sutra.

(iv) The Vaibhashikas admit both external world and cognition of mental phenomena as realities. The Vaibhashikas are those who consider the theory of sunyata as ‘Vibhasha’ or ‘Viruddhabhasha’. They are regarded as the Pratyakshavadins or realists.

Now, Childer’s Pali Dictionary describes the stages immediately preceding Nirvana, which are these: (1) Sattapatti i.e. falling in a stream from which there is absolutely no chance of going back. A man in this stage is bound at no distant date to attain Nirvana. He may be born seven times, but no more and that even, not as inferior animals. (2) Sakadagami: In this stage of Sakadagami, the disciple is bound to return twice, once on earth, and once in Heaven. (3) Anagami: In this stage, the disciple is bound to return once only to Heaven; and (4) Nirvana: As a man may be living and yet attain the highest knowledge; then he is said to be in the Nirvanamarga, and when he dies, he is said to be, by a bold metaphor, ‘extinguished’. There is no speculation in the Hinayana as regards what remains after Nirvana.

The doctrine of the Mahayana goes beyond this. The word ‘Nirvana’ is not much used, and ‘obtaining bodhi or knowledge’, and ‘obtaining omniscience’ are the terms used for Nirvana. When a man knows everything, he knows the miseries of the world, and, therefore, cannot enter into the Nirvana without stretching a helping hand to the suffering millions all around him. He is, therefore, said to be ‘girt in the strongest armour’. He resolves to remove the sufferings.

The Mahayana doctrine does not altogether ignore the selfish creed of the Hinayana, but it considers that to be an inferior thing. The Sarvajna, the Tathagata, and the Lokanatha, of the Mahayana school, grant individual extinction (pratyekabodhi) to innumerable creatures all round him. While securing his own prospect of emancipation, each of them delays for the good of others. There had been in the innumerable kalpas many Lokanathas; there are in the infinite space many Sarvajnas, and there will be in the infinite future many Tathagatas, who by their preachings, emancipated, emancipate, and will emancipate, innumerable sentient and suffering beings of the world. But none among these as high as Arya-Avalokitesvara who has vowed not to enter the blissful region, till there is a single sentient being unemancipated.

The following table will give an idea of the gradual development of different schools among the Buddhists:

Development of different schools of Buddhism

It is to note that Asanga, the venerable Buddhist philosopher, has described graphically about the distinction between Hinayana and Mahayana in the first book of his Mahayana-sutralankara. In the 2nd-3rd century A.D., we find among the Buddhists three yanas like Sravakayana, Pratyekayana and Mahayana. From these three yanas, there evolved further four schools of philosophy, namely, Sarvastivada or Sautrantika, Vahyarthabhanga or Vaibhasika, Vijnanavada or Yogachara, and Sunyavada or Madhyamika. Advayavajra (12th century A.D.) has described about these four schools in his Tattvaratnavali. The Vaibhasika school has explained in its books these two following yanas, Pratyeka and Sravaka. Now, the Mahayana was divided again into two, Paramitayana and Mantrayana. Among these two yanas, the first has been explained either by the theories of Sautrantika and Yogachara, and the second, Mantrayana, by the theories of Yogachara and Madhyamika.

Again among the two Paramitas, Mantrayana or Mantranaya commences with Sunyavada and Vijnanavada, though there is a great controversy among these schools or theories. It will be elaborately explained afterwards that Sunyavada deals with the doctrine of sunya or nothingness, and Advaya-vajra, the Buddhist philosopher of Bengal has said in his Mahasukhaprakasha that from the right knowledge sunyata appears as vija (seed form), from vija develops the idea of vimbam, and by the process of nyasa and vinyasa in vimbam, realization or revelation of everything comes.

It has been said before that the third Buddhist Council was held in the seventeenth year of the reign of Asoka in 242 B.C. at Pataliputra, the then capital of Magadha, to settle the three Pitakas. That Council lasted for nine months, under the presidency of Tissa, the son of Moggali, and was attended by a thousand elders (theras). The canonical works of the Tripitakas viz. Vinaya (5 books), Sutta (5 collections) and Abhi-dhamma (7 books) were then completed. The Sutta (relating to the doctrines) contains five grounds of collections, called the Nikayas: Digha-nikaya; Majjhima-nikaya; Samyutta-nikaya; Anguttara-nikaya; and Khuddaka-nikaya. The latter contains Khuddakapatha, Dhammapada, Udana, Itivuttaka, Sutta-Nipata, Vimanavattu, Petavattu, Theragatha, Therigatha, Jataka, Niddesa, Patisambhidamagga, Apadana, Buddhavansa, Charyapitaka.

The Vinaya contains the rules for the discipline of the monks and nuns who had joined the Order. It has three main divisions: (1) Sattavibhanga which is sub-divided into Parajika and Pachittiya; (2) Khandaka subdivided into Mahavagga and Cullavagga; (3) Parivara. The Abhidhammas contain Patthana, Dhammasangani, Dhatukatha, Puggalapannatti, Vibhanga, Yamaka, Kathavaltu. About one hundred and fifty years after this, the three Pitakas were formally reduced to writing in Pali, which was the spoken language of the masses in Magadha during the time of Buddha.

It has already been said that the Fourth Buddhist Council was held during the reign of the Emperor Kanishka who ascended the throne about 125 A.D. This assembly of five-hundred monks is said to have been convened by the King on the advice of the venerable monk, Parsvika and to have met at Kundalavana-Vihara in Kashmir under the presidency of Vasu-mitra about six centuries after the parinirvana of Buddha between 120 and 150 A.D. At this Council the final compilation of the very words of Buddha and expurgation of spurious doc-trines and scriptures as well as preparation of elaborate commentaries on all the books of the three Pitakas were completed.

At this Council, Mahayana doctrines of Northern Buddhism were properly established. Kanishka found that the Buddhists were divided into eighteen schools. These eighteen schools were the sub-divisions of the four main schools, which were: (1) Arya-Sarvasti-vada; (2) Arya-Sammatiya; (3) Maha-sanghika; (4) Arya-Sthavira. The eighteen sub-schools are:

1. Arya-Sarvastivada:

  1. Mula-sarvastivada.
  2. Kasyapiya.
  3. Mahisasaka.
  4. Dharmagupta.
  5. Bahusrutiya.
  6. Tamraspatiya (red robe).
  7. Vibhajyavadin.

2. Arya-Sammatiya:

  1. Kanru-Kullaka.
  2. Avantika.
  3. Vastiputriya.

3. Maha-Sanghika:

  1. Purvasaila.
  2. Aparasaila.
  3. Himavata.
  4. Lokottaravadins.
  5. Prajnaptivadins.

4. Arya-Sthavira:

  1. Mahavihara.
  2. Jetavaniya.
  3. Abhayagirivadins.

After the Second Buddhist Council in about 400 B.C., when the Mahasanghikas separated themselves from the Theravadins, the former were labelled as Mahayanists and the latter as Hina-yanists. Gradually their doctrines were written down between 100 B.C. and 400 A.D.[1]

To make these divisions of the Pitakas more explicit, let me give an authorised list of them, made by the modern scholars, and this repetition, I think, will not disturb the mind of the seekers after knowledge. The Pali Tripitakas were three systematic collections. It has been said before that (1) the Vinaya-pitaka is the Book of Discipline, (2) the Sutta-pitaka is the popular Book of Discourses, and (3) the Abhidhamma-pitaka is the collection of philosophy, based on psychology and ethics of the Buddhists. These Pitakas are, in truth, the canonical literature, but these are also non-canonical literature of the Buddhists, and they are Milinda-panha, Netti-prakarana as well as Buddhadatta’s manuals on Vinaya and Abhidhamma, along with their commentaries. Besides, there are ]atakas or Birth-Stories of Buddha, chronicles of Ceylon like the Dipavamsha, Mahavamsha, Chulavamsha, and later works in Pali, modelled on classical Sanskrit poetry. There are also the grammars, written by Kaccayana and Moggallana, and also the Rupasiddhi and the Saddaniti. Buddhaghosha’s encyclopaedic work, the Visuddhimagga is also worth-mentioning. The Mahavastu is said to be a book on Vinaya, belonging to the Lokottaravadins of the Mahasanghika school. The Lalitavistara is also an incomplete biography of Buddha, which is written in mixed Sanskrit. This Lalitavistara is considered to be a text of the unorthodox Mahayana school and also forms a part of the Vaipulya-sutra. Asvaghosha’s Buddha-charita and Saundara-nanda as well as Aryasura’s Jatakamala are to be mentioned in this connection.

The nine texts or dharmas are very important Sutras of the Mahayanists. The Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita, Saddharma-pundarika, Lankavatara, Suvarna-prabhasa, Gandavyuha, Tatha-gataguhyaka, Samadhiraja and Dasabhumisvara, are known as the Vaipulya-sutras, Besides them Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga and others have written many philosophical works of the Mahayana school. The Tibetan Buddhist literature, Tanjur, consisting of 1,108 texts and the Kanjur, consisting of 3,458 texts are also worth-mentioning.

Like the Mahayana literature, the Mahayana doctrines gradually developed into Madhyamika philosophy or sunyavada as one branch, and vijnanavada as the second. The oldest record of sunyavada we find in the Astasahsrika-prajnaparamita, which is attributed to Kasyapa. It was compiled during the Second Buddhist Council at about 400 B.C. It was translated into Chinese in the beginning of the fourth century A.D.. and into Tibetan in the ninth century A.D.

When Buddha was sojourning on the Gridhrakuta Mountain, Sariputra Subhuti, Maitrayaniputra and others entered upon a discussion on the principles of the Prajnaparamita, and Buddha solved their abstruse questions. These discussions and their solutions make up the subject matter of the Prajnaparamita which means absolute knowledge of Sarva-sunyata or universal voidness. ‘Prajna’ means knowledge and ‘paramita’ means absolute.

It is said: “When Bodhisattva Mahasattva, the great intelligent being, who has known universal voidness (sunyata), has acquired the Prajnaparamita, where there is voidness or nothingness of everything and there remains no name and consciousness of any object, there is said to be Prajnaparamita. In that state, one does neither remember, nor expect anything. There is no space on his body, whereon anyone can cause violence and kill him. The weapon, stick, or stone, thrown at him, cannot reach his body”. Thus when the Prajnaparamita is acquired, one should be indifferent to pleasure and pain, happiness and misery. By reaching the Yogic samadhi, one gains also the absolute knowledge of universal voidness (sunyata). The Prajna-paramita is also called the Maha-paramita, the highest knowledge or the Mahavidya, the highest science, that is, the knowledge of the Sarva-sunyata or universal voidness or nothingness.

The Nirvana of the Madhyamikas consists of this Prajnaparamita. The Madhyamika Buddhists say: “All our existences are conditional. My existence depends upon that of others. The cause and effect do exist only in relation to each other. There is no absolute existence of the object of senses, viz: rupa, rasa, gandha, sabda, and sparsa. And as the objects of sense are not self-existent, so the sensations like (vedana), ideas (samjna), and samskaras. If the objects have no absolute existence, they may be regarded as non-existent or sunya. Therefore the universe must be void. The knowledge of the universal voidness (sunyata) is the only absolute knowledge (Prajna-paramita), and voidness (sunyata) is the only absolute entity in the whole sphere of thought and existence.

The absolute knowledge (Prajna-paramita) and universal voidness (Sarua-sunyata) are not again different from each other. It is by the comprehension of this voidness that we attain to Nirvana, the home of peace and blessing. It is said that the Bhagavan says: “O Subhute, all the substances have sunyata or voidness for their refuge; they do not alter that refuge.” The chitta (mind), which arrives at the comprehension of the sunyata, becomes achitta, that is, loses its consciousness. Then the chitta cannot be said to be either existent or non-existent—“tatra astita va nastita va na vidyate nopalabhyate”. Thus the whole infinity is resolvable into this absolute entity or sunyata[2]. The most powerful exponent of the Madhyamika philosophy was Nagarjuna who lived in about 100 A.D. He wrote Madhyamika-karika, which was commented upon by Chandrakirtti.

The Vijnanavada was afterwards called the Yogachara, because Asanga (400 A.D.), the greatest exponent of this school, wrote the Yogacharabhumi-shastra,[3] which teaches that there is no absolute reality in anything, and that everything is only a passing state of consciousness (Vijnana) like a dream. According to this philosophy, all sense perceptions (Khyati-vijnana) are like the waves in the lake of the mind (Alaya-vijnana). Therefore visible phenomena are nothing but the creation of our own mind (svachitta). It is only on account of maya (illusion)[4] that the phenomena appear as subject and object.

Although this type of idealism existed simultaneously with the sunyavada of the Madhyamika school, still its great teacher Asvaghosha (100 A.D.) developed the tathata[5] philosophy from the teachings of Lankavatara-sutra which was one of the early works of the Vijnanavada. The tathata philosophy teaches: “All things in their fundamental nature are not namable or explicable. They cannot be expressed in any form of language. They possess absolute sameness (samata). They are objects neither to transformation, nor to destruction. They are nothing but one soul or thatness (bhuta-tathata)”. This ‘thatness’ has no attribute and it can only be somehow pointed out in speech as ‘thatness’. As soon as you understand that when the totality of existence is spoken of or thought of, there is neither that which speaks nor that which is spoken of, there is neither that which thinks not that which is thought of, this is the stage of ‘thatness’.[6]

The ‘thatness’ or tathata of Buddha was regarded by some as the Atman or Brahman of Vedanta. In the Lankavatara-sutra, we read that Ravana asks the Lord Buddha: “How can you say that your doctrine of Tathagatagarbha was not the same as the Atman doctrine of the other schools of philosophers, for those heretics also consider the Atman as eternal, immute, unqualified, all-pervading and unchanged?” To this the Lord is found to reply thus: “Our doctrine is not the same as the doctrine of those heretics; it is in consideration of the fact that the instruction of a philosophy which considered that there was no soul or substance in anything (Nairatmya) would frighten the disciples, that I say that all things are in reality the Tathagatagarbha. This should not be regarded as Atman. Just as a lamp of clay is made into various shapes, so it is the non-essential nature of all phenomena and their freedom from all characteristics (sarva-vikalpa-lakshanavinivritta) that is variously described as the Garbha or the Nairatmya (essencelessness). This explanation of Tathagatagarbha as the ultimate truth and reality is given in order to attract our creed of those heretics who are superstitiously inclined to believe in the Atman doctrine”.[7]

It is said in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: “yasyanubittah pratibuddha atmasmin” etc., i.e., “He who has discovered and understood (pratibuddha) the Atman dwelling in the darkness of this corporiety, he is all-creating, for he is the creator of the universe; his is the world, he is himself the world”.[8]  Here the word, used for knowing, is pratibuddha. This word which also means ‘awaking’, and “which the Buddhists are accustomed to use when they describe how Buddha has in a solemn hour under the Asvattha tree gained the knowledge of the delivering truth, or is awake to the delivering truth; the same word from which also the name (Buddha) i.e. ‘the knowing’, ‘the awake’ is derived”.[9] Dr. Oldenberg further says: “Of all the texts in which the Brahminical speculations as to the delivering power of knowledge are contained, perhaps not even one was known except by heresy to the founder of the Buddhist community of believers. But, for all that, it is certain that Buddhism has acquired as an inheritance from Brahminism, not merely a series of its most important dogmas, but, what is not less significant to the historian, the bent of its religious thought and feeling, which is more easily comprehended than expressed in words”.[10] Further he adds: “If in Buddhism the proud attempt be made to conceive a deliverance, in which man himself delivers himself, to create a faith without a god, it is Brahminical speculation which has prepared the way for this thought. It has thrust back the idea of a god step by step; the forms of the old gods have faded away, and besides this Brahma, which is enthroned in its everlasting quietude, highly exalted above the destinies of the human world, there is left remaining, as the sole really active person in the great work of deliverance, man himself, who possesses inherent in himself the power to turn aside from this world, this hopeless state of sorrow.

“Every people makes for itself gods after its own ideal, and is not less made what it actually is by the reflex influence of what its gods are. A people with a history make themselves gods who shall show their power in their history, who shall fight their battle with them, and join in the administration of their state. The god of Israel is the Holy One, before whose flaming majesty the heart of man bows in prayer as to a father with the confidence of a child; whose wrath causes men to disappear, whose tender mercy worketh good to children, and children’s children even unto the thousandth generation. And rhe god of the Brahminical thought? The Great One, before whom all human movement is stilled, where all colours are pale and all sounds expire. No song of praise, and no petition, no hope, no fear, and no love. The gaze of a man is unmoved, is turned upon himself who looks into the depths of his own being, expecting his ego to disclose itself to him as the everlasting One, and the thinker, for whom the veil has risen, discovers as an enigma of deep meaning, the mystery of the Unseen Seer, the Unheard Hearer, to find out whom Brahmans leave goods and chatties, wife and child, and move as mendicants, homeless through the world”.[11]

Thus we see that after the death (parinirvana) of Buddha and also of his direct disciples, the difficulty of understanding what he meant by Nirvana, was felt more keenly by his later followers than ever before. And it has already been said that there arose four main schools of Buddhistic philosophy. The first was of the extreme nihilists, who interpreted Nirvana as ‘the realization of the utter emptiness of the world and of the blissful nothingness and extinction which was considered the highest end aim of life’. While the other three schools believed that Buddha meant by Nirvana the annihilation of self (atta) and of the universe, and the permanent abiding of abstract thought in itself. These Buddhists maintained the permanence of abstract thought, but not of any thinker. The idea of egoentity as permanent, was considered by them to be an illusion. Here we shall not forget that Buddha kept perfect silence about the question whether or not the individual soul was permanent. This reticence created more confusion in the minds of his followers, and gave them ample opportunity to indulge in all kinds of guess-work. The great problem, however, whether Buddha’s idea of Nirvana was a positive state has remained undecided to the present day, even among the Buddhists themselves.

The storm of agnosticism and nihilism of the Buddhist philosophers of the fifth and sixth centuries after Christ, swept away from the minds of the people the idea of a supreme Being of the universe, who is the omnipotent Creator and omniscient Ruler of all phenomena as well as the idea of an immortal and indestructible soul-entity which remains after the death of the body, and reincarnates to enjoy or suffer, and reap the fruits of works, and attain in the end a positive state of absolute bliss-and happiness.

That storm ultimately produced a tremendous wave of reaction in the ocean of religious thoughts of India, and resulted in the revival of the more rational philosophy and religion of Vedanta, through the wonderful powers of logic and reasoning and ability of Sankaracharya, the greatest exponent and commentator of the Vedanta philosophy, who lived in the seventh century, A.D. Sankaracharya has been recognised in India as-the embodiment of divine wisdom and the personification of true philosophy and logic. His reasoning and arguments have been greatly appreciated in the West by such philosophers as Schopenhauer and Deussen and scholars like Max Müller and others. It was he who gave a death blow to Buddhism in India, by pointing out the falacies and errors in the Buddhistic philosophy. Thus he saved India from demoralisation and spiritual degeneration which were brought about by the corrupted agnosticism, atheism, and nihilism of the Buddhistic philosophers of the sixth century after Christ. From that time Buddhism, after reigning in India for nearly 1000 years, slowly disappeared. Practically it was driven out of the land of its birth, and lived outside of India among the people of China, Japan, Tibet, Burma, and Ceylon, where there was neither real and speculative philosophy, nor any religion, based upon the higher principles and logic. But it must be accepted that the Buddhist period was the golden age in India, because, in this period, Fine Arts like sculpture, painting, architecture, and music, as well as intellectual productions and religious missionary work were done with a remarkable success.

Footnotes and references:


The Mahayana is so called because it is as spacious as the sky and will proceed by subduing the gods, the men and the demons.”

  1. Bodhisattva = Intelligent being.
  2. Mahasattva = Great being.
  3. Sambuddha = Fully enlightened.


Whether sunyata is existent or non-existent, is has been discussed in my lecture: What is Nirvana?


Asanga was also the author of the Mahayana-sutra, Mahayanasam-parigraha-sastra, Mahayanasutralankara, etc. Vasubandhu, his younger brother, was the commentator of the Mahayanasutras, Saddharma-punda-rika, Prajnaparamita, etc.


Maya can be translated as illusion in the Buddhist philosophies of the Madhyamika school, but in Advaita Vedanta, maya is known as delu sion, and not as illusion.


Tathata means ‘thatness’ or ‘suchness’.


Cf. Dr. S. N. Dasgupta: A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 180.


Ibid. p. 147.


Cf. Dr. H. Oldenborg: Buddha, p. 51.


Ibid. p. 52.


Ibid., p. 52.


Ibid, pp. 52-53.

FAQ (frequently asked questions):

Which keywords occur in this article of Volume 2?

The most relevant definitions are: Buddha, pitaka, Nirvana, sunyata, Mahayana, Madhyamika; since these occur the most in “buddhist councils and buddhist thoughts” of volume 2. There are a total of 142 unique keywords found in this section mentioned 335 times.

Can I buy a print edition of this article as contained in Volume 2?

Yes! The print edition of the Complete works of Swami Abhedananda contains the English discourse “Buddhist Councils And Buddhist Thoughts” of Volume 2 and can be bought on the main page. The author is Swami Prajnanananda and the latest edition is from 1994.

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