Buddhism: The First Millennium

Buddhism: The First Millennium


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Beginning with the events immediately following the dark days after the death of Shakyamuni and continuing over a period of 1,000 years, this dynamic tome covers a vast and complex series of events and developments in the history of Buddhism. Through a thorough examination of its early development in India, a new light is cast on little-known aspects of Buddhist history and its relevance to the understanding of Buddhism today. Topics include the formation of the Buddhist canon, the cultural exchange between the East and West, and the spirit of the Lotus Sutra.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780977924530
Publisher: Middleway Press
Publication date: 06/01/2009
Series: Soka Gakkai History of Buddhism
Pages: 150
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Daisaku Ikeda is the author and coauthor of more than 60 books on a wide range of topics, including the history of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. He is the founding president and leader of the Soka Gakkai International, one of the largest lay Buddhist organizations in the world with members in more than 190 countries and territories. He is the recipient of the United Nations Peace Award, the Rosa Parks Humanitarian Award, and the International Tolerance Award of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Burton Watson is a translator of Chinese and Japanese literature. A former professor at Columbia, Stanford, and Kyoto Universities, his translations include Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, The Lotus Sutra, and The Vimalakirti Sutra, among others. He received the PEN Translation Prize in 1981.

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The First Millennium

By Daisaku Ikeda, Burton Watson

Middleway Press

Copyright © 2009 Soka Gakkai
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-938252-16-7



The First Council

Immediately after Shakyamuni Buddha's death, his followers gathered with the purpose of putting his teachings and sermons into definitive order. Since we are dealing with events that transpired well over two thousand years ago, we cannot hope to learn of them in detail. Our only recourse is to examine the fragmentary bits of information recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, piece them together through conjecture, and in this manner attempt to reconstruct the way in which the Buddhist canon came into being.

The First Council is said to have taken place in the year of Shakyamuni's death at a place called the Cave of the Seven Leaves (Skt Saptaparna-guha) in a mountainside near Rajagriha, the capital of the state of Magadha.

Attended by some five hundred monks, it was said to have centered around Mahakashyapa, Ananda, Upali, and the others among Shakyamuni's ten major disciples who were still alive at the time. We are told that Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha, also lent his assistance to the council. The site remains in existence today, and photographs of it show a gently sloping hill with a cave in the side, approached by a flight of some ten stone steps. One can make out a broad open area within, where the members of the council must have gathered in order to be protected from the rain.

Some Western scholars have questioned whether the First Council ever took place. Since the scriptures of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism mention "the rules formulated at the gathering of the five hundred" and "the five hundred who compiled the precepts," it seems that such a gathering did in fact occur. We could, of course, deny the validity of the scriptures themselves on this point and others like it, but to do so would be to reduce ourselves to silence, since they are our only source. Most Buddhist scholars, at least in Japan, regard the First Council as a matter of historical fact.

With the death of such an extraordinary leader as Shakyamuni, it is only natural to suppose that his disciples should want to gather immediately and put into order their recollections of his teachings so that the dharma, or Law, could be handed down to later generations without error.

The scriptures record an interesting episode concerning the particular circumstances that impelled Mahakashyapa to call the members of the Order together in council. According to this account, Mahakashyapa, accompanied by a large group of monks, was on his way from Pava to Kushinagara at the time when Shakyamuni passed away. Along the road, Mahakashyapa and his group met a Brahman who was holding in his hand a mandara flower. Mahakashyapa asked him if he had any news of Shakyamuni, whereupon the man replied that Shakyamuni was no longer of this world. Hearing this, some of the monks began to weep and wail aloud, while others grieved in silence. To everyone's astonishment, however, one old monk burst into the following embittered harangue. "Friends, cease your sorrow, cease your grieving! Now we are free at last from that Great Monk. 'This you may do,' he would say to us, or 'This is not proper for you,' making life miserable for us and oppressing us. But now we may do whatever we like and need never do anything that goes against our wishes!"

Mahakashyapa, who was known in the Order as "foremost in the ascetic practices," naturally listened to these rantings with grave displeasure. As soon as Shakyamuni's funeral had taken place and his remains had been taken care of, he addressed the other monks in these words: "Friends, we must make certain that the teachings and ordinances are put into proper form, rendering it impossible for false doctrines to flourish while true ones decline, for false ordinances to be set up while true ones are discarded, for expounders of false teachings to grow strong while expounders of the truth grow weak, for expounders of false ordinances to seize power while expounders of true ones lose it."

Mahakashyapa then selected five hundred monks to undertake the task of putting Shakyamuni's sermons and teachings in order and shaping them into the canon of the Buddhist religion.

While convenient, the account seems plausible enough and serves to point up an important motive that must surely have lain behind the compilation of the canon. I am referring, of course, to the notoriously unpredictable nature of the human heart. Among Shakyamuni's followers were those who ordinarily evinced the greatest respect for him and were diligent and strict in their practice of the dharma, or Law. And yet in certain cases, they retained in their hearts a fundamental egoism and narrowness of vision. Faced with the fact of Shakyamuni's death, the true nature of their hearts was suddenly and almost unconsciously revealed. That, I believe, is what the story of the old monk and his shocking outburst is intended to convey.

To his disciples, Shakyamuni was a teacher who bestowed on them the deep compassion and love of a father. At the same time, he was the leader of their religious organization. The large majority of his disciples regarded him with awe and respect, but there must have been others who could not live up to the severe discipline demanded of them, the ordinances that made their lives so different from those of ordinary laymen, and who were therefore still prey to the temptations and delusions of the mundane world. It was only natural for such persons to feel, however mistakenly, that they had been liberated from an oppressive spiritual burden. The rantings of the old monk served as a warning to Mahakashyapa that a certain laxness was likely to invade the Order.

The death of its foremost leader meant that the Order faced a time of grave peril. In the Indian society of the period, still overwhelmingly dominated by the various schools of Brahmanism, Buddhism was as yet a very new religion and one with a relatively small following. The death of the founder naturally deprived the organization of its prime source of leadership and inspiration and plunged many of the disciples into deepest despair. Undoubtedly they felt a sudden emptiness in their hearts, a sense of fathomless bewilderment and loss.

Shakyamuni's passing probably occasioned varied reactions among persons and groups outside the Buddhist Order as well. Those who looked upon the new religion with ill will in all likelihood predicted that Shakyamuni's death signaled its gradual disintegration, for no matter how outstanding a personality the founder of a new religious order may be, if he or she can find no suitable successor to carry on the work, the order is likely to be troubled by internal dissension and fall into decline. The various Brahmanical schools in particular, we may surmise, hoped and believed that this would be the case.

This is not surprising, since it appears to have been the general belief that, apart from Shakyamuni, there was no one in the Buddhist Order who was of truly exceptional stature. The scriptures record the following exchange when the disciple Ananda chanced to meet an old friend who was a Brahman. "Ananda," the Brahman inquired, "now that the Buddha has passed away, is there anyone of equal stature to carry on in his place?"

Ananda replied: "Friend, how could there possibly be anyone of equal greatness? The Buddha through his own efforts attained an understanding of the truth and set about putting it into practice. All that we, his disciples, can do is to follow the teachings that he handed down and the example that he set for us."

Just as the earlier anecdote concerning Mahakashyapa indicated that a definitive Buddhist canon was necessary for the solidarity and maintenance of the religious order, so this one concerning Ananda illustrates the necessity for such a canon as an authoritative foundation in matters of faith. "Rely on the Law and not upon persons," says a popular Buddhist teaching (cf. WND-1, 102). But to do so, that Law must become a matter of public record.

We are told in the Nirvana Sutra that, just before his death, Shakyamuni addressed the disciples gathered about him with the following words: "Although I may die, you must not for that reason think that you are left without a leader. The teachings and precepts I have expounded to you shall be your leader. Therefore if any of you have any doubts, now is the time to question me about them. You must not lay yourself open to regret later on, when you may say, 'Why didn't we ask him while he was still alive!'" Shortly after, he said: "Decay is inherent in all composite things. Work out your own salvation with diligence." These famous words were his final pronouncement as he passed into nirvana.

It is from this passage that the precept "Rely on the Law and not upon persons" derives. Shakyamuni no doubt intended his words to be a warning against the self-appointed teachers who would come forward after his death and attempt to confound the doctrine with their own private interpretations and theories. Some Buddhist scholars believe that work had already begun on the compilation of a definitive canon during Shakyamuni's lifetime, though the more common view is that he merely charged his disciples to keep a careful record in their minds of his words and actions. This is probably why, during his later years, Shakyamuni kept Ananda constantly by his side as his personal attendant. In their Chinese versions, nearly all the sutras begin with the phrase "This is what I heard." In nearly all cases the "I," we are told, represents Ananda, who, famed for his remarkable powers of memory, recited the exact words that he had heard the Buddha preach.

Jainism, another new religion that arose in India at about the same time as Buddhism, split into two divisions after the death of its founder because there was no definitive canon to appeal to in cases of doctrinal dispute. Some scholars have suggested that it was this example that led Shakyamuni to charge Shariputra, another of his principal disciples, with the task of codifying his teachings.

There can be no doubt that Shakyamuni, particularly in his later years, gave intense thought to the question of how best to ensure the continued existence of the dharma. Any religious leader of outstanding ability and foresight can be expected to give serious and constant consideration to the future of the organization after his or her death. The proof that Shakyamuni did so is to be found in the fact that, immediately after his departure from the world, his followers came together in conclave and put his teachings in order. This act, together with the immense amount of effort expended by members of the Buddhist faith over the following thousand years or more in preserving and enlarging the body of sacred scriptures, is surely a reflection of the intense concern that Shakyamuni evinced during his lifetime for the continued existence of the dharma.

* * *

The Recitation of the Words of the Buddha

From the scriptures, we learn that Mahakashyapa, eldest of the surviving major disciples, acted as the chair of the First Council, "the assembly of five hundred monks," while the disciples Ananda and Upali were chosen to recite the words of the Buddha as they had memorized them. Ananda, having been for a long time Shakyamuni's personal attendant, constantly at his side, was in a position to remember just what teachings the Buddha had expounded, where, and to whom, while Upali, who was noted among the ten major disciples as "foremost in observing the precepts," possessed the most thorough knowledge of the rules of discipline the Buddha had laid down for the Order. Thus Ananda recited before the assembly the words pertaining to the dharma, which came to be referred to as sutras, while Upali dictated the rules and regulations that are known collectively as the vinaya.

It was not simply their powers of memory and recall, however, that qualified Ananda and Upali for the task assigned them. They were living embodiments of the Buddha's teachings. Anyone who works with one's whole being to absorb and retain every word and phrase that is taught will find it impossible ever after to divorce oneself from such teachings, even if he or she wishes to do so. Thus, although the teacher may die, the teacher's voice does not. The term voice-hearer (Skt shravaka) is used to describe those disciples who were able to listen to Shakyamuni's preaching. Such individuals, when they could no longer listen to Shakyamuni's actual voice, no doubt kept his words continually in remembrance and pursued the religious life in light of them.

Needless to say, there were in those days no mechanical means of recording or any methods of taking shorthand. It is even doubtful that scripts existed for the writing of Indian languages. Shakyamuni's disciples, if they were to retain his teachings, had no recourse but to make those teachings an integral part of their own being by committing them to memory as a community.

It is important to note that these teachings are not in any sense a system of intellectual knowledge or a body of facts. Rather they are an expression of wisdom addressing questions such as how human beings ought to live or what is the cause of human suffering. As the disciples received the teachings of the Buddha, they proceeded to put them into practice in their own lives and in this way, one by one, verified the truth and validity of Shakyamuni's words.

The teachings of Buddhism, we must remember, are to be mastered subjectively, through actual practice. One can never understand them by sitting at a desk and reading a book. Only through the exchange that takes place between one person and another, one life force and another, can their truths be grasped. This point should also be kept in mind when approaching the Buddhist scriptures, which represent the embodiment of the teachings and wisdom.

We may suppose that Upali in his daily attitudes and activities exemplified the rules of conduct and discipline laid down for the Buddhist Order. It was not that he went about recalling to mind one by one the ordinances that Shakyamuni had formulated, but rather that all of his actions had unconsciously come to be a living expression of the discipline, or vinaya, and of the spirit that underlay it. Had he not mastered it so thoroughly, it is unlikely that he would have been singled out among all the disciples for the epithet "foremost in observing the precepts." Something similar can probably be said of Ananda. Had he not mastered the teachings, he would not have been able to recite from memory such a vast number of sermons, a feat that is indeed one of the wonders of the history of Buddhism. As we shall see later, the Tripitaka, or three parts of the Buddhist canon, consists of the sutras, or teachings, of the Buddha; the vinaya, or rules of discipline; and the shastra, or commentaries. Of these, the sutras, which were recited by Ananda, run to more than six thousand works.

The scriptures describe the circumstances under which the canon was compiled in the following manner. Mahakashyapa addressed the two disciples who were to be the reciters, saying: "Monks, listen to my words. I believe the time has come for us to question the elder monk Ananda concerning the doctrines of the faith."

To this Ananda replied, "Monks, listen to my words. I believe the time has come for me to reply to the questions of the elder monk Mahakashyapa concerning the doctrines of the faith."

Mahakashyapa then asked, "My friend Ananda, where did the Buddha preach his first sermon?"

Ananda once more replied, saying, "My friend Mahakashyapa, thus have I heard. The Buddha was once at the Deer Park in Varanasi. ..."

When Ananda then went on to describe how Shakyamuni delivered his famous first sermon at the Deer Park at present-day Sarnath near Varanasi, the older monks all wept and sank to the ground in grief. So deep was their sorrow over the death of Shakyamuni that, when Ananda recreated the words of the sermon and the noble figure of Shakyamuni appeared once more in memory as he had been in life, they were overcome with emotion.

After Ananda had completed his recitation, the members of the gathering examined it to make certain that it contained no errors, and then all recited it together in unison, each monk in this way engraving the words in his or her mind.

This group recitation is of particular importance, for it was in this way that members of the council committed the words of the sermon to memory, enabling them to hand them on to others. According to scholars, the various hymns and other rhymed portions of the sutras were worked out by the members of the council in order to make the words of the Buddha easier to memorize. Also, since paper did not exist at this time and it was therefore impossible to write down the texts of the sermons, it was necessary that each recitation should be submitted to the careful scrutiny of the assembly. Only when a version to which all could consent had been reached would the joint recitation take place. Because of this process, the work of the First Council is sometimes described as "the first group recitation" as well as "the first compilation" of the scriptures.

Here we must note that Buddhism stresses the necessity of reading or reciting the sutras with the three faculties of "body, mouth, and mind." In other words, the important thing is not to approach them like a body of intellectual knowledge but to discover how one can make the Buddha's teachings a part of oneself and put them into actual practice.

It is natural to suppose that in any group of persons listening to the teachings of the Buddha, such as the five hundred monks at the First Council, there are bound to be differences in how individuals comprehend these teachings. Some of the monks had perhaps heretofore interpreted certain of the teachings in an arbitrary manner so as to accord with their own predilections. The coming together of the five hundred, the examination of each point in the teachings with the utmost care, and the establishment of a definitive version of the Buddha's words to which all the members of the assembly could give their assent and which in the future would be the common property of the Order as a whole, are of enormous significance in the history of Buddhism.


Excerpted from Buddhism by Daisaku Ikeda, Burton Watson. Copyright © 2009 Soka Gakkai. Excerpted by permission of Middleway Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Editor's Note,
Translator's Note,
1.The Formation of the Buddhist Canon,
2. The Theravada and the Mahasamghika,
3. King Ashoka,
4. Questions of King Milinda,
5. Cultural Exchange Between East and West,
6. The Rise of Mahayana Buddhism,
7. Vimalakirti and the Ideal of the Lay Believer,
8. The Formation of the Lotus Sutra,
9. The Spirit of the Lotus Sutra,
10. Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu,

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Buddhism: The First Millennium 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
wanderingguru426 More than 1 year ago
When I started reading this book, I was blown away by how the disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha memorized the Teachings and passed them on for generations before they were written and recorded. It's amazing the peaceful way(s) in which Buddhism spread from one country to another, through the vast reaches of time and place to be transmitted virtually all over the globe. If you are a student of Buddhism, world religions or history, your missing out if you don't read this great book!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful read