After the Buddha attained final Nibbāna, a council of five hundred bhikkhus convened to recite the Dhamma and the Discipline. It was at this council that the Pāli Canon first took shape. But it also seems that something else happened – a subtle transition from a flexible practice to a dogmatic one.
After the Dhamma and the Discipline were recited to the council, the venerable Ānanda said, “Lords, at the time of the Blessed One’s attainment of final Nibbāna he told me: ‘If it wishes, the Sangha can abolish the minor and lesser rules when I am gone.'”
But Ānanda did not ask the Blessed One what the minor and lesser rules were. So it was unclear to the Sangha which rules to abolish, if any.
After much debate, Mahā-Kassapa responded:
Let the Sangha hear me, friends; there are certain of our training rules that involve laymen, by which laymen know what is allowed to monks who are sons of the Sakyans and what is not. If we abolish these minor and lesser rules, there will be those who say: ‘The training rules proclaimed by the monk Gotama to his disciples existed only for the period ending with his cremation; they kept his training rules as long as he was present, but now that he has attained final Nibbāna they have given up keeping his training rules.’ If it seems proper to the Sangha, let not what is undeclared be declared, and let not what is declared be abolished; let the Sangha proceed according to the training rules as they have been declared.
The resolution was placed before the council and passed. The elder bhikkhus then admonished the venerable Ānanda for not asking the Blessed One which were the minor and lesser rules. Out of faith in the venerable ones, the venerable Ānanda acknowledged his act as a wrongdoing.
In previous posts, I talked about the development of the Discipline in light of the complex and subtle relationships between the Buddha and those around him. (See here, here, and here.) What seemed apparent from those occasions was that the Discipline was developed in response to particular situations in a way that was hopefully skillful and that contributed to the complete cessation of suffering for all beings, whether ordained or not. In this respect, the discipline was a living, breathing set of rules that developed according to the situation.
But Mahā-Kassapa’s resolution seems to miss this spirit and style of the Buddha’s teachings entirely. The resolution effectively turns a living, breathing set of rules into a dogmatic set of principles to be followed without question.
Granted: the motivation behind the resolution seems reasonable given the circumstances the council was in. But the Buddha’s suggestion that they could abolish some rules seems to be yet another teaching in the spirit of this living, breathing approach to practice. Despite this teaching, it is curious the Sangha quickly adopted a resolution that smells of dogmatism.
I should say here: I have reason to believe that the Discipline followed by Theravadan Buddhists today does give room for adaptation to local circumstances. (Since I cannot remember where I heard or read this, I do not have sources to cite.) So this curiosity about the dogmatic turn of the first council should in no way be interpreted as a curiosity about Theravadan Buddhism as it is practiced today.
Mahā-Kassapa’s resolution raises serious questions for how we engage practice. If we allow ourselves to abolish parts of our practice as we see fit, adding other elements as we see fit, then we run the risk of practice becoming yet another playground for greed, ill will, and delusion. On the other hand, if we fix our practice once and for all, disallowing change with our impermanent circumstances, then we run the risk, yet again, of practice becoming a field for a thousand harmful seeds to bloom.
The appearance of the Buddha in this world shows that there is a middle way between these two extremes. But how do we realize for ourselves this subtle path in our practice and in our daily lives?
Here’s to chewing on this question together, through our continuous practice, with our friends, enemies, and teachers, and across our many births and deaths in this world we share!
(Note: These events from the first council, including the quote given above, can be found in Bhikkhu Nānamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, pages 336 – 339.)