Buddha and Buddhism
6. Community (Sangha)
After the Buddha's death in 483 BC, the first Buddhist Council was led by Mahakassapa during which Ananda recited the discourses on the doctrine and Upali the rules of the discipline. These were then memorized and became the first two baskets of the Pitaka, the Sutta and Vinaya. Buddhism added abstinence from intoxicants to the four cardinal rules of abstaining from violence, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct.
At Buddhist gatherings the Pratimokshasutra was recited, followed by confessions of monks who felt they had violated any of it. The four offenses that led to expulsion were having sexual intercourse, taking what was not given, taking of a human life or persuading anyone to commit suicide, and falsely boasting of supernatural attainments. The thirteen offenses deserving suspension included sexual misdemeanors, harming living beings by building a hut, falsely accusing another monk of a major offense, persisting in causing divisions in the community, and refusing to move when admonished by other monks. Other minor violations were eating between meals, attending secular entertainment, using unguents and jewelry, using high or luxurious beds, and handling money.
A century after the death of the Buddha the monks of Vaishali relaxed the rules on ten minor points, leading to contributions of money to the monks which was protested by the elder Yasa, who organized a council to condemn the changed rules. The easterners from Vaishali became known as Mahasanghikas, and the traditional westerners Theravada. According to tradition Theravada soon divided into eleven sects and Mahasanghikas into seven. Thus Buddhism was administered locally, though a monk could reside in any monastery irrespective of sect.
In the third century BC the Emperor Ashoka tried to unite the Buddhists, but he was stricken with remorse when his minister beheaded monks refusing to comply. Advised by the most learned monk of the time, Moggaliputta Tissa, all monks who did not follow the Theravada were dismissed from the community, and refutations of heretical views were published in the Kathavatthu of the Abhidamma basket. The number of sects was reduced, but others later denied that Ashoka ever held such a council. Regardless of whether that council was held, the support of Ashoka for Buddhism greatly expanded its influence so that it was even adopted and promoted by Greek rulers such as Menander.
The deification of the Buddha by the non-Theravadins led to the ideal of the Bodhisattva or future Buddha instead of the mere arhat. Bodhisattvas are enlightened persons, who postpone their own nirvana in order to help save all sentient creatures. This along with the conception of the pure mind (vijnana) eventually led to the "Greater Vehicle" or Mahayana Buddhism.
According to Edward Conze the earliest part of the Prajnaparamita Sutra is from about the first century BC.9 It explains that the Bodhisattva comprehending the truth does not retire into the blessed rest but dwells in wisdom to help others. In this wisdom one finds that all truths are empty. The Bodhisattva assured of future Buddhahood by previous Buddhas, whether absorbed in trance or not, knows the essential original nature. Seeing everything and everyone as illusion the Bodhisattva is not attached to anything, while guiding all beings to nirvana. The world is transcended in this practice of wisdom, the highest perfection. Later during the Christian era this form of Buddhism was to spread into China and throughout Asia.
Among the major religions Buddhism is unusual, like Jainism, in that it did not originally believe in God, though it recognized gods and goddesses and heavens and hells. Less stringent and more popular than the ascetic Jainism, it's emphasis on ethical behavior and the quest for enlightenment appealed to both those who renounced the world and laypeople. Though it also offered excellent individual models of ethical behavior and friendly attitudes, except in its religious community it was unable to convert society as a whole to its way of nonviolence any more than Jainism could.
Nevertheless in my opinion both Jainism and Buddhism even more provided outstanding examples of supremely ethical attitudes and actions. They were not afraid to criticize the priestly corruptions of Brahminism nor the violent ambitions of the ruling class (Kshatriyas). Mahavira and the Buddha were great teachers and leaders, and the non-theistic religions they founded nourished and enriched the spiritual tradition of India and encouraged ethical behavior among its people.
Perhaps the greatest contribution they both made was to make nonviolence a noble path in a culture where the word for noble (Aryan) had stood for racism based on color and the violent conquest of India. Their devotion to truthfulness and their ability to live simple lives with few material possessions as well as their chastity kept their lives relatively pure and free of entanglements and exploitation. Though surely not without their individual imperfections and occasional schisms, the good contributed to the world by these teachings and the lives of their best followers must have been substantial.
1. Samyutta Nikaya (author's version), 5:420.
2. Thomas, Edward J., The Life of the Buddha, p. 88.
3. Maha Parinibbana Suttanta 6:7 (156).
4. Brahma-Jala Sutta 1:9 (4).
5. Dhammapada (author's version), 2:1-3.
6. Ibid. 18:17-19.
7. Ibid. 25:20-22.
8. The Questions of King Milinda tr. T. W. Rhys Davids, 4:4:16.
9. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & Its Verse Summary tr. Edward Conze, p. x.