The different Buddhist Councils

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The different Buddhist Councils

Postby zavk » Wed Aug 26, 2009 11:06 am

Hi friends and venerables,

I'm interested in learning more about the different Buddhist Councils. I've read the wiki entry and my general understanding is that a main purpose of those councils was to address various practical matters relating to the preservation of the teachings and vinaya.

But would it be reasonable to assume that those councils also had a more ritualistic and symbolic purpose--that is to bring the sangha together in a spirit of camaraderie, as a kind of affirmation (performed through joint recitation, etc, etc) of fellowship and commonality?

It seems to me that this is very likely but I would like to know if any author has written about this symbolic aspect of the council?

Thanks
With metta,
zavk
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Re: The different Buddhist Councils

Postby retrofuturist » Thu Aug 27, 2009 1:30 am

Greetings zavk,

Interesting theory... if true though, it would certainly be secondary to the crucial task of maintaining the "word of the Buddha" through accurate recollection and transmission of the suttas. Now that we have copies of the suttas spread all across the world, in physical and electronic form, it's all too easy to forget just how important it was to maintain an accurate oral tranmission of the Buddha's teachings.

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Re: The different Buddhist Councils

Postby Ben » Thu Aug 27, 2009 2:18 am

Hi zavk

There might be some interesting stuff here:
http://www.pariyatti.org/ResourcesProje ... fault.aspx
Cheers

Ben
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Re: The different Buddhist Councils

Postby zavk » Thu Aug 27, 2009 8:13 am

Thanks for your responses, Retro and Ben.

Let me first clarify (in case there's any misunderstanding) that I'm in no way trivialising the contributions of the Buddhists Councils. But I've become quite curious about them and am hoping to find readings that do more than just describe the proceedings.

Anyway, yes, I fully agree with you Retro that before the teachings were committed to writing, the crucial task facing the early Councils was the preservation of the 'words of the Buddha'. The Councils were probably also convened to resolve sectarian disputes. In any case, there was an unmistakable utilitarian purpose to those councils. And to that end, the early sangha deserves our utmost respect and gratitude. :bow:

However, I'm not sure if we can unambiguously draw a line between the utilitarian and symbolic functions of the Councils, nor unambiguously designate one to be of primary importance and the other of secondary importance. Let me try to elaborate on what I've been considering....

By the time of Fifth and Sxith Councils in 1871 and 1954-6 respectively, the teachings have long been in print. So while the preservation of the teachings remained important it was probably not 'crucial' in the sense that it was millenia ago. There will, of course, always be problems relating to the translation and interpretation of the teachings and vinaya that need to be ironed out. So to that end, the Fifth and Sixth Councils still performed an important utilitarian function.

Yet, there also seems to be an important ritualistic, symbolic purpose to these two later Councils. I am thinking of the joint recitation by the elders in Fifth Council (which according to the wiki took place in the presence of over 2,000 monks and lasted five months), and the question and answer session between Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw and Ven. Bhadanta Vicittasarabhivamsa in the Sixth. It seems to me that these discursive activities were not merely about 'testing' or 'verifying' the accuracy of their knowledge of the Dhamma. Rather, it seems to me that they performed an important symbolic function in bringing the disciples of the Buddha together in fellowship and commonality--an affirmation of spiritual camaraderie through symbolic exchange.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I should point out here that I am interpreting these events with theories formulated in the social sciences about the role of communication in forging community. What I am suggesting about the Councils, and particularly the Fifth and Sixth ones, can be illustrated with modern day scenarios.

Take for example a conference. A conference typically has a number of speakers presenting ideas to an audience. One obvious function of a conference is the transmission of information. But a conference also has another function. This other function is exemplified by the figure of the keynote speaker who typically gives an address at the start or end of the proceedings. When the keynote speaker speaks she isn't merely transmitting information. Her speech also performs a ritualistic, symbolic function--it declares the openinng or closing of the event, but it also serves to affirm the common purpose and fellowship of the people present.

Or to give another example of a wedding ceremony. At a wedding, a celebrant presides over the proceedings. Through the legal power that is bestowed on the celebrant, she completes the marriage process by pronouncing the couples married. In this regard, the celebrant performs a utilitarian function in transmitting the law to the couple. Yet, this utilitarian function is performed through symbolic means--through speech ("I now pronounce you..."). In this instance, speech performs an act and the act is completed by speech. Moreover, this speech-act is performed in the presence of the friends and relatives of the couple. Those well-wishers are there to bear witness to the speech-act. They do not technically 'do' anything. But simply by being present--simply by watching and hearing--they affirm the authority of the declaration and in doing so also affirm the act of matrimony.

So comparing these two scenarios to the Councils analogously, I would say that is no clear cut distinction between the utilitarian and the symbolic. The utilitarian necessitates the symbolic; the symbolic fulfills the utilitarian. In other words, the utilitarian and the symbolic are dependently originated.

Why am I making all these speculations? These ideas developed as I was reflecting on what DhammaWheel means to me and what it might mean to others. But I see that I have, once again, rambled on too much--I apologise. :embarassed: I shall stop here and post my thoughts about how this relates to DhammaWheel in another post.
With metta,
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Re: The different Buddhist Councils

Postby zavk » Thu Aug 27, 2009 8:14 am

So, in light of what I've written above, it seems to me that when we are on DW, we are not merely just transmitting information to one another. I mean, sure, we come online for utilitarian purposes: we exchange Buddhist resources, we study suttas, etc, etc. But we also do more than that. For example, we also talk about the difficulties we are experiencing, we ask for advice on personal matters, we talk about irreverent stuff: e.g. we play word association games, we joke about our music tastes (like for example, ahem, Bob Dylan), we discuss the finer points of football (which means different things to different people--for me, it will always be the game which is played so beautifully by the Brazilians and by the clubs in England, but which the England national team generally suck at :tongue: )

I guess what I'm trying to say is that through our discursive activities on the net, we are affirming our commonality and fellowship in the Dhamma. So despite not being rooted in geographical space and not interacting 'face-to-face, our symbolic gestures allow us to forge community (much like those symbolic gestures in the Councils forge the wider community of the monastic sangha). We do not always take part in all conversations. But even in witnessing these conversations we are drawn together in fellowship. This ritualistic (I'm using this word in the broadest sense; coming online has become a kind of ritual for me) mode of communication binds us together in spiritual friendship, in spiritual community, in kalayna mittata. And for that I am grateful. :group:
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Re: The different Buddhist Councils

Postby Ben » Thu Aug 27, 2009 9:25 am

Hi Ed
Nice post!
I hope you didn't mind my earlier short post which I composed at work. Have a look at some of those resources at Pariyatti. Two of those treasures includes 'the light of the Dhamma' and 'the light of the Buddha' which were two journals which were published to coincide and celebrate the sixth council in 1955. I've had a look at some issues and there's some fantastic stuff in there, including republished articles by Ledi Sayadaw and other articles by scholar monks as well as lay-people. You may actualy find amongst the issues of those publications some information that is pertinent to your question. Certainly, I think its a safe bet to assume that part of the motivation to publish the Light of Dhamma and Light of Dhamma was due to the commeraderie from organising and performing the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana but also to share the commeraderie with and support the world-wide Dhamma diaspora.
Metta

Ben
"Only those who take to meditation with good intentions can be assured of success. With the development of the purity and the power of the mind backed by the insight into the ultimate truth of nature, one might be able to do a lot of things in the right direction for the benefit of mankind."

Sayagyi U Ba Khin


Compassionate Hands Foundation (Buddhist aid in Myanmar) • Buddhist Global Relief
UNHCR Syria Emergency Relief AppealTyphoon Haiyan Relief AppealKiva: (person to person micro-finance)

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Re: The different Buddhist Councils

Postby zavk » Thu Aug 27, 2009 10:27 am

Ben wrote:I hope you didn't mind my earlier short post which I composed at work. Have a look at some of those resources at Pariyatti.


Not at all Ben. I will be exploring the site carefully.
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Re: The different Buddhist Councils

Postby jcsuperstar » Sun Aug 30, 2009 12:13 am

i see what youre saying (i think) but im not sure if there is an answer out there for you, monks already gathered to chant the Patimokkha which i think would serve the purpose of what youre saying the councils may have. :shrug:
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