Here is the write-up of the 13th Day of the 17th Karmapa’s recent teachings on the Origins of Secret Mantra (see video here).
The Karmapa first considers the question of the dates of the Buddha, his birth and death; how they are calculated based on the time of Emperor Ashoka and why there are differing views of them.
The second part of the teaching was on the Buddha’s principle students, male and female, including the ‘ten great disciples’. Men and women were noted as ‘foremost’ disciples among Buddha’s following. It is interesting to note (although this was not mentioned by the Karmapa) that the Buddha identified four pairs of disciples (two sets male, two sets female) “who have no compare” and who should thus be emulated. These four pairs are a subset of the 80 foremost disciples listed above, identified in the sub-section 14 of Anugattara Nikaya 1 (i.e. AN 1.188-267). These four pairs of disciples to be most emulated are:
- monks: Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna
- nuns: Khemā and Uppalavaṇṇā
- laymen: Citta and Hatthaka of Alavi
- laywomen: Kujjuttara and Veḷukaṇḍakiyā
The Karmapa then went on to discuss Buddha’s extraordinary courage and equanimity, how he welcomed all castes and creeds into his spiritual community, yet still also treated higher castes, such as Brahmins, with respect. His view of a person was not about their caste but about what they practiced and thought. He gave a brief account of how Sunidha, a low caste man was instantly accepted by Buddha as a monk when he requested it.
Buddha was a pioneer in terms of language too. The Karmapa explained how he was the first to teach in colloquial language (Pali) and allowed people to recite the scriptures in their own dialects, much to the annoyance of some Brahmins. Buddha even went so far as to make it an offence to force people to recite them in Sanskrit if they did not know that language.
This was followed by a description of the eight wondrous qualities of the sangha community and the simple life of a monastic, as evidenced by the ‘six requisites’ of three robes, a begging bowl, water cup and mat.
The final part of the teaching was an overview on how Buddhism spread after the Buddha passed away and the ‘First Council’ [all-male] that was allegedly held to compile the Buddha’s teachings from recording those that had been memorised.
May we all be able to attain the courage, integrity and wisdom of Buddha and see all sentient beings, regardless of gender, caste, race, age, species etc. as worthy of respect and happiness.
Music? Respect by Aretha Franklin or Where Is the Love? by Black-Eyed Peas. ‘But if you only have love for your own race, then you only leave space to discriminate.”!
Written, edited and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 26th September 2021.
DAY 13 – ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA BY 17TH KARMAPA
Calculating the Buddha’s Date of Birth – 80 years from the paranirvana to his birth
“I have given a description of the Buddha’s life story. So I thought it would be good to speak about the Buddha’s dates. In ancient India, they took little interest in recording dates. Hence, the Buddha’s dates have not been recorded clearly in Indian history. The question about his dates of birth and death, is difficult to answer.
Before we can determine the dates, we need to know if there was a system of dating in India? Researchers hold different positions on when such a system might have developed, but many scholars say that after Alexander the Great had invaded India [327/326 BCE] the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha took power in Northern India [c.322 BCE] and it was from that time the dating tradition began. Regardless of whether there was a system of dating in India, there is no clear record of the Buddha’s dates. So it is difficult to calculate them. We have to try and hypothesise what they are.
As to the Buddha’s dates of birth and paranirvana, many scholars from East and West have been trying to establish these over the last two hundred years. If we want to know when Buddha was born, first we have to establish the date of the Buddha’s parinirvana. This is because the paranirvana is nearer to us in terms of time, so it is a little bit easier to calculate. Also, there are no disputes that he lived to eighty. This is accepted as certain.
Therefore, when was the Buddha’s parinirvana? It is difficult to say and complicated to calculate it. There are many different explanations of it. If we were to compile them, there would be at least sixty explanations of it. If we summarise the most well-known and common methods of calculation are those that count backwards from the dates of Emperor Ashoka [an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE] [i].
Rock Inscriptions of Ashoka
“What sources are available to help us establish the date? There are no historical records left from ancient India. So if we want to know more about that time, there are the letters written by the Greek ambassador, records of the travels of the Chinese masters who went to India, some of the Buddhist scriptures, and the pillars and rock inscriptions of Ashoka. It is extremely important to look at those rock inscriptions. The rock inscriptions of Ashoka are generally undisputed, and from these, we can calculate Ashoka’s dates and the length of his reign and when he ascended to the throne. Thus, there is not a lot of debate about it.
However, the biggest topic of debate is how many years before Ashoka did the Lord Buddha pass into parinirvana? This is a complex and profound question that I will discuss in detail next year. However, so it is not completely ignored, here are a few of the well-known calculations of the dates of Buddha’s paranirvana:
- 1085 BCE: Faxian of the Qing Dynasty visited India in the 4th century CE and recorded what was said in India at that time.
- 949 BCE: Faling of the Tang Dynasty.
- 543 BCE: Sri Lankan tradition in the “Mahāvaṃsa” the “Great Chronicle”. [Sri Lanka is in the Theravada tradition and part of the Southern transmission of Buddhism. Written in the 5th century CE, this is the historical chronicle of Sri Lanka written in Pali].
- 485 BCE: “Notes from the Noble Beings” (Phagpai Namthar): a well-known text, notes of the great masters of the Buddhist tradition, recorded after the Buddha passed away.
- 483/479 “Samantapāsādikā”, a text of the Theravada tradition, gives two dates.
- 477 BCE: Wilhelm Max Müller, a European scholar.
- 386 BCE: Hakuju Ui—a Japanese Buddhist monk scholar.
These I will speak about next year, I haven’t had enough time to present them this year.
In the past few years, scholars have examined these dates and raised objections to them, which are commonly known. In general, there are two main positions on his paranirvana:
- The Buddha passed away before 500 BCE
- He passed away in 386 BCE (the Japanese scholar’s view)
The Thai tradition follows the Sri Lankan tradition in saying it was 543 BCE.
Dating Systems and Ancient Relics
The Karmapa then explained the origins of the Christian Western dating system of AD/BC and its reformation into CE/BCE for the benefit of monastics. He then showed some images of ancient relics he had mentioned the previous day:
“On the outside of the vase was written the inscription. This is the image of it. The first is of the vase of the Buddha’s relics which belonged to the Shakya clan, excavated in India at the end of the 19th century at Piprahwa.Researchers have confirmed that the inscription is written in an ancient script, and not written in more recent times. The vase is in the Kolkata Museum. I do not know if it is always on display, but it is in the museum. The relics were mostly given to the King of Thailand, some to Sri Lanka and some to Japan.
The second photo is of the Lion Capital of the Ashokan pillar preserved in the museum at Sarnath. One can see it at that museum.”
The Buddha’s ‘Foremost’ Disciples: Men and Women
“The Vimalakirti Sutra lists the ten great disciples of the Buddha (see image above) as Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Maha Kashyapa, Subhuti, Purna, Mahākaccāna, Anuruddha, Upali, Rahula, and Ananda (see image above). The Theravada tradition has a slightly different list in the “Sutra of the Ten Elders”. “
[Author’s Note: It is said that in the “Etadaggavagga” (“These are the Foremost Chapter,” Anguttara Nikya, 1.188-267), the Buddha identifies 80 different categories for his “foremost” (Pāli: etadagga) disciples: 47 categories for monks, 13 for nuns, ten for laymen and ten for laywomen. While the disciples identified with these categories are declared to be the Buddha’s “foremost” or “chief” (Pāli: etadagga), this is different from his “Chief Disciples” (Pāli: aggasāvaka) who are consistently identified solely as Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna.]
“Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, Maha Kashyapa, Purna, Subhuti, and the three Kashyapa brothers [Uruvilvā-Kāśyapa, Nadī-Kāśyapa, and Gayā-Kāśyapa] were from the Brahman caste. Rahula, Ananda, Anuruddha, Nanda, and Devadatta were Kshatriya caste, among them the first three were counted among the ten great śrāvakas. Except for the three Kashyapas, they were also among the ten great śrāvakas. Yasa and Gavājpati were from the Vaishya caste and were also among the ten great śrāvakas. Upali was also one of the ten great śrāvakas, according to the list in the Vimalakirti Sutra.
As I mentioned before, the Buddha’s students included members of all castes. There were Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras because the Buddha dharma makes no distinctions of caste or clan; everyone can practice. Not only were there disciples from all castes, but there were also several women śrāvaka disciples. For example, the Buddha’s aunt Prajapati, his queen, Yashodhara, and Utpalivarna. They were all well-known Bikkshuni disciples.
The Karmapa continued:
“Among the male bhikshus, the greatest are recognised in terms of prajna, power and so forth, and among the female bhikshunis those with the greatest prajna and so on, were also recognised. Due to time constraints, I cannot show you all the names but if you are interested, they are there.
In addition, there were many great lay disciples who went for refuge to the Buddha, who were considered superior, great disciples. Including the kings Bimbisara and Ajatashatru of Magadha, King Prasenajit of Kosala, all the Shakya people, the Mallas, the Licchavis, the Kauśāmbis, Anathapindada, the elder Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā, the young Jivika the great physician, the elderly woman Viśāka, who was one of the great women disciples. “
[Author’s Note: The Buddha was clearly a feminist well-ahead of his time, who accepted women as equal members of the four-fold spiritual community: laywomen, laymen, nuns and monks. Before giving women full ordination as nuns, he first readily accepted them as householder/lay students. However, this was not without challenges from the sexist, misogynist Shakya men[iii]. However, as Wendy Garling says regarding the women’s insistence on being accepted as students: “
“The story is extraordinary for the women’s forceful claim to legitimacy and equal rights based specifically on their sex. How dare men exclude women, the very bearers and nurturers of buddhas! Not only that, but the Sakya women were demonstrably equal to the men in their enthusiasm and capacity to learn the dharma. In a much broader context, this exceptional story relates an organized women’s protest against misogyny and patriarchy that took place more than twenty-five hundred years ago. Could this have been the first such protest? And that was just the beginning for the Sakya women, as five years later they marched again to the Nigrodha Grove to request the Buddha’s permission to ordain as nuns (to be discussed in a later chapter). Indeed, contemporary women can take heart from our fierce foremothers who struggled and overcame obstacles not dissimilar from ours today.
What we learn from this “forgotten” story is how the Sakya women became upasikas first and did not plunge directly into monasticism without prior experience of the Buddha and the dharma. It only makes sense that they took this first step during the Buddha’s first visit home and on his subsequent visit felt prepared to make the commitment to ordain as nuns.”
It seems from the textual sources that Buddha was hesitant to accept women as nuns though. There are slightly differing accounts of how that happened. Generally, it is accepted that Buddha did initially refuse requests but changed his mind after a discussion with one of his senior male students, Ananda[ii]. However, this does not mean Buddha was sexist or misogynist at all:
“…as Analayo points out, the Buddha (being the Buddha) would not have needed reminding that women had the same potential as men, or that there was the precedent of the fourfold assembly, or for that matter, that he himself had made a commitment to forming a fourfold assembly shortly after his enlightenment. The Buddha would have known exactly what was going on and had his own unique handle on how this important karmic event was meant to play out. We can’t know what that was, but one way or another, we can be glad that it did. A Sinhala passage reflects his omniscience on this matter as he speaks to Ananda:
“Are the Buddhas born in the world only for the benefit of men? Assuredly it is also for the benefit of females as well. When I delivered the Tirokudha-sutra, many women entered the paths, as did also many goddesses when I delivered the Abhidhamma in Trayastrimsa. Have not Visakha and many other upasikas entered the paths? The entrance is open for women as well as men.””–excerpt from Garling (2021).]
The incredible courage and strength of Buddha – accepting and respecting all castes, creeds, rich and poor
“Basically, the Buddha’s students could be found from all social backgrounds and levels of society, high and low. Some were siblings, parents, or in the same clan; some were friends. There was no distinction of male or female or old and young. If you consider the best or most senior of his students, there were more than 1,250. We might think ‘oh that is nothing special and not very much. In our Kagyu Monlam when we get together we have 3-4000 sangha members.’ However, at that time in India, the population was much smaller and travel was not so easy either, so for that amount to gather is amazing. Also, as I said before, I am speaking about Buddha’s best students, I am not talking about all the followers and students he had.
At that time, many different religions and philosophies were all competing with each other in terms of superiority. Yet only Buddhism was able to become one of the world’s most supreme religions. If you ask why that must be so, there are many different reasons, causes and conditions. From one perspective, if we compare Buddhism with the Brahmanical religions of that time, it was much more comprehensive and had a much broader way of thinking.
Also, Buddhism was in many ways a rebellion against the customs of caste, asceticism, and a reaction against being rules and regulations and being deceived by rituals. It if was only focused on the external aspects of religion, it was not deemed to be alright. Buddhism was a big reaction against all that.
However, the Buddha himself paid great respect to spiritual practitioners of that time, including Brahmans and the shramanas. He treated everyone with respect. The reason he gave them respect was nothing to do with their caste; but because he recognised that the Brahmans had good prajna and conduct. What Buddha saw was related to their intelligence and conduct but not related to their caste. There was the Buddha’s final student Subhadra who asked the Buddha about those who say they are best and supreme and how to decide among them. The answer the Buddha gave was not connected to social status or caste but whether or not they kept the eight branches of the noble path, the prajna, and ethical conduct. We should distinguish who is supreme in terms of their practice, not based on the individual. Sutras such as the Theravadan “Assalayana Sutta” and “Kannakatthala Sutta” show clearly the vast and broad view of the Buddha. It is clearly described in these Sutras.
Another good example of this vast view is Upali, who although he came from a low-caste family, was praised and respected for having the purest discipline and being learned in the Vinaya by the other sravaka disciples. This is also good evidence of the Buddha viewing everyone equally regardless of caste and social status.”
The lower-caste Sunidha’s testimony
“There is also the “Sutra of Verses on Dhyana” in the Theravadan tradition. Within this it speaks of another great disciple, whose name we have been unable to find in the Tibetan tradition. In Tibetan, his name is Shunide, or Sunidha in Pali. Within this Sutra he speaks about himself, and I have translated this roughly:
“First, I was born in a low caste and am very poor and deprived. I always have to hurry about as someone else’s servant. I am a sweeper.”
In the “Sutra of the Wise and Foolish” it says that Sunidha cleaned toilets, frankly speaking, his job was to clear the excrement out of toilets. He had a very difficult job. He says:
“Everyone looks at me and ridicules me. Everyone looks down at me and out of the corner of their eyes. They see me as inferior and bad and no other way. Yet, no matter how they consider me, I always have to be subservient and respectful to everyone and bow to them. However,. one day, I followed some of the great disciples and by chance, met the Buddha on the way. When I met him, I took all the things I was holding and threw them on the ground and immediately knelt before the Buddha. The loving and compassionate Buddha stopped walking and came to me. I immediately prostrated at his feet and asked him to accept me as his student. Then the Buddha, the Teacher who has no rival on this earth, turned his face towards me, and said, “Very well, bhikshu” That was the first dharma I heard from the Buddha”.
What this shows is that the Buddha saw poor and disadvantaged people like friends. Sunidha had not yet become a fully-ordained monk, but Buddha still recognised him as one. Among the Buddha’s students, the highest status was that of a Bhikshu.
Master Aśvaghosa’s “Treatise of the Great Multitude” I have not seen in Tibetan, also describes in great detail how Sunidha and Upali went forth. The reason for writing it was to show the Buddha’s extraordinary courage and strength. Normally, we only speak about Buddha’s miracles, but actually in terms of the strength of the Buddha it is an extraordinary characteristic. Buddha even showed respect to those viewed as the lowest in society and cared for them with great love and compassion. He even gave them the opportunity to practice the Dharma. This reveals the exceptional quality of the Buddha, his loving compassion and his blessings.”
First time teachings given and recited in colloquial language and the ‘offence’ of forcing people to recite in Sanskrit
“Another thing we need to take note of is that the Buddha taught the Dharma in colloquial language (Pali), which had never happened before. This is really special because up until that point no-one had done that.
Much evidence for this is found in the twenty-fifth book of the Vinaya of the Mahīśāsaka school and the 38th book of the Sarvastivāda Vinaya. To give an example, two Brahmans went forth and became monks and were reciting sutras with other sangha members, but the pronunciation of the words and the grammar were all completely different with Sanskrit. Everyone was reciting the sutras in all the different colloquial dialects. The Brahmans became very angry and unhappy about it.
One day, they went and explained this to the Buddha. They said,
“The Bhikshus are from different castes and clans and have disparate levels of education (some have education and some do not). There are various levels. When they are reciting the sutras in their own local dialects and colloquial languages, it is like an offence against the Buddha’s words”.
They were expressing the traditional Brahmanical view. When the Brahmans recited the Vedic texts they believed that to make even one mistake in pronunciation was an offence against the gods. There was huge emphasis on reciting the Sanskrit correctly. So with the Buddha they were reciting it as they wanted, and the Brahmans felt it gave them a headache and they didn’t want to stay there! Thus, the Brahmans suggested that in the future, when reciting sutras, it was best to recite them in Sanskrit. Rather than reciting them like goats and sheep, which only reduces the majesty of the Buddha’s teachings.
The Buddha answered:
“It is not necessary to recite sutras in languages or scripts that come from elsewhere. It is fine to recite them in your own dialect or colloquial language. In the future, if instead of using your own native language, you use a foreign language, that’s an offence.”
So what they asked for and what the Buddha responded were completely opposite. Buddha was saying we do not need to recite them in Sanskrit, recite them in whatever language you know. You do not need to learn a new language to recite them, and if you do need to learn a new language to do it, that is an offence.
The main point here is the Buddha’s intent was that the dharma is taught in order to benefit all sentient beings. The blessings of the Dharma needs to strike all beings, not just some and exclude others. Thus, the Buddhist scriptures have to be simple and easy to understand. If they are, many people will be able to understand and study them. if they have to recite them in Sanskrit, only people who have studied that will be able to understand them. I asked an Indian scholar how long it would take to study Sanskrit, and he told me ten to twenty years. So, to know it one has to study for that long, or from since one was a child. During that time, one would have no chance to practice the Dharma. That is why the Buddha taught the Dharma in colloquial language and allowed his students to recite it in their own language. This is beginning a new tradition to allow sentient beings to understand the meaning of the Dharma. That’s why he established that way of doing things.
If we speak about this in terms of Mahayana, most people accept the Buddha’s way of attaining enlightenment. However, the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma shows many Mahayana features. Why is that? After the Buddha attained awakening, he had achieved the benefit for himself. As he had done that, he could have just stayed alone and not taught at all. Nobody was around him then and nobody was compelling the Buddha to teach the dharma, and he could have chosen to stay within the peaceful expanse. he didn’t have any job or role to teach it. We might say to someone who has the title ‘teacher’ that they have the responsibility to teach. Buddha did not have that role or giving him that responsibility. There was no difference to Buddha whether he taught the Dharma or not. Who was there a difference for? For other sentient beings. This shows the courage of the Mahayana; it is a sign of the Mahayana. Among all the different Sutras, if we are looking for a symbol of the Mahayana, it is teaching the Dharma to sentient beings, is the sign of the greatest qualities of the Mahayana.”
The Eight Sacred Sites of Buddhism and the spread of the teachings
What happened after the Buddha passed away, how did the organisation or sangha develop? Originally, the Buddhist community was mainly located in northern central India in Magadha. In the north of central India, there are Lumbini where the Buddha was born and Kushinagar where he passed into nirvana. In the south, there is the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya where he attained enlightenment; and, in the west, the Deer Park in Sarnath, where he turned the wheel of Dharma for the first time. So these are called the ‘Four Sacred Sites’ of Buddhism and these are well-known now. All these sites are in the central region of India. Magadha. Three are in India, one is in Nepal.
Later we spoke about the ‘Eight Sacred Sites’
“After the Buddha’s parinirvana, the sangha gradually spread outwards from this central region, disseminating the teachings. First, it spread gradually westwards and then southwards. To the south of the central regions, there were the Vindhya mountains that made a natural boundary, and to the east, it was very hot and not used that much by people. Buddhism’s following in the south-west increased daily, but it spread slowly in the west, due to the firm belief people of those regions had in the Brahmanical religion.
Among the ten great srāvakas, there was Mahā Kaccana from Avanti. He returned to his homeland and taught many people the dharma, as clearly described in the Vinaya scriptures. There is also Purṇa, son of Mettiya, from Sunāparanta, probably on the western coast of India. Later, they found an Ashokan pillar in that area. These days, it is in the region of Mumbai. Purṇa also returned to his homeland and taught many the dharma and gained many students. Thus, the Dharma began to spread to different regions of India.
Also, many merchants came from all over India to the central regions and became Buddhist. As they returned to their homelands, they spread the dharma there, which was very influential in spreading it. Similarly, Kattiyana spread the dharma in Mathurā, which is near present-day Delhi.
If we think about the ‘mother’ or the basis of spreading the Dharma, it was the sangha. the responsibility for that was the monastics. Their job, or work, is that. Lay practitioners also practice Dharma but they also have many household duties and activites and don’t have as much time as monastics.
When we speak of the sangha, we mean the “harmonious sangha or community. The Buddha’s followers considered him as the satthar or teacher, the one who taught them the path and had one-pointed faith in him. The reason his followers were called śrāvaka (Pali: sāvaka), which means “those who listen or listener”, was because they listened to the Buddha teaching the dharma. It is not only a term used in the Theravadan tradition.
There is a sutra from the Theravadan tradition where the sangha is compared to the ocean. I want to introduce it to you. We do not have much discussion of this in our Tibetan tradition:
The sangha is said to have eight wondrous qualities (see Tibetan above):
1. Just as the ocean gets deeper, the sangha also gradually trains in the path and their qualities of realisation grow greater.
2. Just as the ocean’s waves do not cross the shoreline, the śrāvakas do not violate discipline.
3. Just as corpses do not stay in the ocean but are cast upon the shores, those among the sangha who violate discipline have offences.
4. Just as a hundred different rivers enter the ocean and disappear into it, the sangha members come from many different castes and clans, these are discarded and they are called the children of the Buddha, Shakyamuni.
5. Just as the entire ocean has a salty taste, likewise the entire sangha has the same flavour of liberation.
6. Just as a hundred rivers flow into the ocean and it never decreases or increases, likewise no matter how many individuals in the sangha achieve nirvana, the sangha never decreases or increases.
7. Just as there are many jewels in the great ocean, such as pearls and so on, the sangha also has many wondrous qualities of intelligence, discipline, and so forth.
8. Just as there are many large fish among the fish in the ocean, likewise there are many superior individuals in the sangha.
The simple lifestyle of a monastic – the six requisites: three robes, a bowl, water cup and a mat
Those who wished to enter the sangha, whoever they were from any caste or social class or ethnicity, high or low, were allowed to enter. Whereas in some religions, only people of their ethnic group are allowed to enter, right? This was not like that.
The life of a monastic was primarily a wandering lifestyle. As I mentioned before, when speaking about the history of the Hindus, there are four phases of life, one of which was where they must move without staying in a fixed location. Thus, what they needed for their livelihood was extremely simple because they had to be able to travel easily from place to place.
For clothing, they had the three dharma robes. For food, an alms bowl to eat from, a water filter. To sleep, a mat to spread on the ground.
Originally the robes were mainly made from cotton, but later they were also made from linen, silk, and wool. A lot of material was needed to make the three dharma robes as they are quite big. Thus it was difficult to get them from begging, so, for that reason, sangha members had to use the same robes continually, and didn’t have extra robes to change into when they wished.
Also, they were never sure when and where they would be going to. They wouldn’t know they would have a place to stay and so on. Frequently, the bhikshus often had to stay unpopulated, wild places outside in the open or under trees. However, the best thing about India is that other than the rainy season, it is quite sunny and warm, so it is not so difficult to stay beneath trees. There were many among the śrāvaka disciples who wanted to practise special austerities. Later these practices were compiled and called “the twelve qualities of austerity”. Some texts say twelve, some say thirteen. Some members of the sangha were known for practicing these qualities. For example, Maha Kashyapa became famous for remaining with these qualities of austerity.”
The First Council – compiling the ‘Three Baskets (Tripitaka) ’ of Buddha’s teachings: Sutras, Vinaya and Abhidharma and the two main disciples, Ananda and Upali
“After the Buddha passed into parinirvana, how did the Buddhist scriptures come about? For example, the Kangyur is the words of the Buddha. There are many different positions about this and I will not speak about them all.
Maha Kashyapa realised that if the teachings of the Buddha were left without being taken care of properly, they would quickly disappear. He had the idea of holding a council or saṃgīti. He gathered the elders, the bhikshus together, shared his concerns with them and they agreed. After agreeing, five hundred senior disciples of the Buddha met at Rajgir and compiled the teachings of the Buddha. This is known as the First Council. The word ‘council’ also has a meaning of “reciting together”. Perhaps what happened was that the disciples recited together the texts they had memorised; there were no written records of them then. Perhaps each person would have the sutras they had memorised and they then wrote them down.
Many later scholars assert that there was not a First Council . However, as it is recorded in the texts of the eighteen different schools, there is a lot written about the First Council. I think it’s probable that it happened, maybe with differing details about it.
There were two primary disciples among the 500 gathered at the council. One was Ananda, his primary responsibility was to teach and recite the dharma. He had accompanied the Buddha everywhere and heard everything he taught. The second disciple was Upali. His main responsibility was the Vinaya, as he was regarded as the most learned in Vinaya.
I am explaining it now in terms of the Theravadan tradition, it is explained quite differently to the Tibetan tradition. These became the basis of the two baskets of the Tripitaka; the Basket of Sutras and the Basket of Vinaya. But what happened to the Abhidharma? This was recited later became part of the Tripitaka, as commentaries on the Sutras. In order to make it easy to memorise the Sutras and Vinaya, important points were recorded simply in the sutras and also arranged in verses called the “gathas”.
Later some commentaries were added to the sutras and some background stories to the gathas. These were compiled and were known as the “gateways to the dharma”. Later, sutras also appeared in prose form, but the word sutta implies short verses easily memorised. Many of these prose sutras appeared approximately one hundred years after the Buddha’s parinirvana, according to the estimations of many researchers.”
[Author’s Note: It is interesting to see that nuns and laywomen do not appear to have been present at this Council, despite their inclusion as full and equal members of Buddha’s community. This may well explain why the status of nuns and women deteroriated significantly due to the prevailing sexism and patriarchy of the men at that time.]
Karmapa’s compilation of a ritual about the Buddha’s deeds
The Karmapa concluded by explaining that he had to stop the teachings, as from morning to evening he had been working and had not rested at all, so he had to stop otherwise it would be bad for his health.
Even though he had said how rituals can be pointless, the Karmapa had also compiled a ritual himself, based on a Kadampa ritual for the Buddha Shakyamuni, in the Treasury of Precious Instructions and is also in the Ocean of Jewels compiled by the Jonang master, Taranatha. The Karmapa explained that this short ritual would be performed tomorrow.
I am not sure about doing an Autumn teaching, there is not much time. Maybe we can do one in the future. In the winter, we have the Kagyu Goncho teachings, so I have an idea what I could teach but would like to ask the Khenpos to discuss it and tell me what you think would be most beneficial. Then I will share my ideas too.”
[i] Ashoka (Asoka, IAST: Aśoka), also known as Ashoka the Great, was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE. grandson of the Maurya dynasty’s founder Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka promoted the spread of Buddhism across ancient Asia.[Considered by many to be one of India’s greatest emperors, Ashoka expanded Chandragupta’s empire to reign over a realm stretching from present-day Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east. It covered the entire Indian subcontinent except for parts of present-day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. The empire’s capital was Pataliputra (in Magadha, present-day Patna), with provincial capitals at Taxila and Ujjain.
Beyond the Edicts of Ashoka, biographical information about him relies on legends written centuries later, such as the 2nd-century CE Ashokavadana (“Narrative of Ashoka”, a part of the Divyavadana), and in the Sri Lankan text Mahavamsa (“Great Chronicle”). The emblem of the modern Republic of India is an adaptation of the Lion Capital of Ashoka. His Sanskrit name “Aśoka” means “painless, without sorrow” (the a privativum and śoka, “pain, distress”). In his edicts, he is referred to as Devānāmpriya (Pali Devānaṃpiya or “the Beloved of the Gods”), and Priyadarśin or Priyadarshi (Pali Piyadasī or “He who regards everyone with affection”). His fondness for a tree is the reason for his name being connected to the “Ashoka tree” or Saraca indica, and this is referenced in the Ashokavadana.
In The Outline of History (1920), H.G. Wells wrote, “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star.”
The name “A-shoka” literally means “without sorrow”. According to an Ashokavadana legend, his mother gave him this name because his birth removed her sorrows.
The name Priyadasi is associated with Ashoka in the 3rd–4th century CE Dipavamsa. The term literally means “he who regards amiably”, or “of gracious mien” (Sanskrit: Priya-darshi). It may have been a regnal name adopted by Ashoka.
[ii] Here is an excerpt on that discussion from Garling (2021: Chapter 8):
“Returning to our story, a lot of back and forth concerning the women’s request for ordination now begins between Mahaprajapati (standing outside the monastery, presumably weeping) and Ananda and the Buddha who are inside talking it over. Nothing new emerges as we hear once again that granting women ordination would shorten the duration of the dharma (with lengthy analogies), as well as the Buddha’s positive assurances that women and men have equal potential to realize the fruits of the path, or arhatship. In the Mahasamghika-Lokottaravada Vinaya, we find rich elaboration on this last detail when Ananda reminds the Buddha of the precedent of a fourfold community. Their exchange goes as follows:
Blessed One, how many assemblies did former Tathagatas, arhats, Fully Awakened Ones have?
Former Tathagatas, arhats, Fully Awakened Ones had four assemblies, namely monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.
Blessed One, can women who dwell alone, diligent, energetic, and secluded, realise these four fruits of recluseship, namely the fruit of stream-entry, the fruit of once-return, the fruit of non-return, and the supreme fruit of arhatship?…
Ananda, women who dwell alone, diligent, energetic, and secluded, realise these four fruits of recluseship, namely the fruit of stream-entry…up to…the supreme fruit of arhatship.
Blessed One, since former Tathagatas, arhats, Fully Awakened Ones had four assemblies, namely monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen and [since] women who dwell alone, diligent, energetic, and secluded, realise these four fruits of recluseship, namely the fruit of stream-entry…up to…the supreme fruit of arhatship [therefore] it would be good if women could attain the going forth and the higher ordination, the state of being a nun, in the teaching and discipline declared by the Tathagata.60″
[iii] “However, the Buddha is already fully aware of the rising tension between the Sakya women and men. Skillfully accommodating the concerns of both sides, he suggests to his father that women and men attend his teachings on alternate days:
‘The Buddha knew [the women’s] thoughts and then told the king: “From now on, you order that men and women are allowed to hear my preaching every day in turn, one day for each group.”
The women are delighted with this outcome and arrive in droves to the Nigrodha Grove on their first appointed day. The men, however, are decidedly unhappy. The young Sakya men in particular bombard the women with insults as they come and go from the Buddha’s discourse, denigrating them for what the men perceive as the inability of women to understand the dharma due to their sex. A war of words definitely follows, but it is not always clear from the text fragments which insults are directed at whom! It appears to be the men who accuse the women of being “(without) conscience, ungrateful and passionate, a stain on moral conduct.” They blame women for the same worldly sufferings the Buddha is preaching about.
As the fur flies, the women counter sharply, pointing out what to them could only be obvious (the text does not flow smoothly here, but the following lines provide the gist). Taking a powerfully feminist stance, they declare,
“Women have carried Siddhartha in their womb, women have given birth to him, women have raised him….
“Therefore do not send us back from hearing the Law because of words of the arrogant Sakyas!…
“We have come (to meet the Buddha-god the teacher). May he not put blame on us! Therefore let us go listen to the Law!”
At one point the women meet with the Buddha and express their indignation. The text is badly damaged here, but he appears to extol the five virtues of women, which include the fact that women give birth to buddhas:
‘The Sakya women went to the Buddha-god the teacher. The Buddha-god the teacher (understood) the thought of women….
[The Buddha said:] “From women, Buddhas, Pratyekabuddhas,…(have come into this world).”’
Having heard that, and having become glad, the women say: “Shame on the denouncers…we will hear the Law!” Thereupon the Buddha-god the teacher preached the Law in such a way to the Sakya women.
Now the results of the Buddha’s glorious dharma are reflected in the Sakya women as well. Thousands upon thousands benefit from his salvific teachings and begin to attain higher levels of realization. Having achieved their heartfelt goal to become upasikas, they return to their households as part of the growing sangha of laywomen in the new Buddhist faith.
The story is extraordinary for the women’s forceful claim to legitimacy and equal rights based specifically on their sex. How dare men exclude women, the very bearers and nurturers of buddhas! Not only that, but the Sakya women were demonstrably equal to the men in their enthusiasm and capacity to learn the dharma.
In a much broader context, this exceptional story relates an organized women’s protest against misogyny and patriarchy that took place more than twenty-five hundred years ago. Could this have been the first such protest? And that was just the beginning for the Sakya women, as five years later they marched again to the Nigrodha Grove to request the Buddha’s permission to ordain as nuns (to be discussed in a later chapter). Indeed, contemporary women can take heart from our fierce foremothers who struggled and overcame obstacles not dissimilar from ours today.
What we learn from this “forgotten” story is how the Sakya women became upasikas first and did not plunge directly into monasticism without prior experience of the Buddha and the dharma. It only makes sense that they took this first step during the Buddha’s first visit home and on his subsequent visit felt prepared to make the commitment to ordain as nuns.” (Garling 2021: Chapter 8).