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Buddhism - The Sutras

Siddhartha Gautama, the BuddhaDuring the life of Buddha no record of events, no sacred code containing the sayings of the master, was wanted. His presence was enough, and thoughts of the future seldom entered the minds of those who followed him. It was only after Buddha had left the world to enter into Nirvana that his disciples attempted to recall the sayings and doings of their departed friend and master. Then everything that seemed to redound to the glory of Buddha, however extraordinary and incredible, was eagerly welcomed, while witnesses who would have ventured to criticise or reject unsupported statements, or detract in any way from the holy character of Buddha, had no chance of being listened to.

And when, in spite of all this, differences of opinion arose, they were not brought to the test of a careful weighing of evidence, but the names of 'unbeliever' and 'heretic' were quickly invented in India as elsewhere, and bandied backwards and forwards between contending parties, till at last, when the doctors disagreed, the help of the secular power had to be invoked, and kings and emperors convoked councils for the suppression of schism, for the settlement of an orthodox creed, and for the completion of the sacred Canon. King Asoka, the contemporary of Seleucus, sent his royal missive to the assembled elders, and telling them what to do and what to avoid, warning them also in his own name of the apocryphal or heretical character of certain books which, as he thinks, ought not to be admitted into the sacred Canon.

The sacred lore of the Buddhists is based on the canonical books, a complete collection of which is technically called Tripitaka (Tipitaka), i. e. the three Baskets: 1. Vinaya, Sutra (Sutta), and Abhidharma (Abhidhamma). Of all the collections going by that name the Pali Tipitaka, representing the version acknowledged by the orthodox Theras or Vibhajyavadins of Ceylon, is the only one which forms a well arranged whole and is sufficiently known to admit of a critical disquisition into the relative age of its component parts, at least to a certain extent.

The Sutras are the Buddhist scriptures. While counts vary, there are up to 84,000 individual sutras in three collections, many of which are considered to be the words of the Buddha. Each tradition focuses on sutras (usually one to three volumes of the 84,000) that most typify its teaching. It is recommended, but not always required, that the individual Buddhist have a personal copy of the sutras important to his/her tradition.

All accounts agree that shortly after Buddha's death the first council was held at Rajagriha, while Ajatasatru was still reigning. Five hundred of the most distinguished disciples were said to have met there under the presidency of Kasyapa, and there the three divisions of Buddhist doctrine are said to have been compiled, from the recollected discourses of the deceased master. That of the Vinaya, or discipline, was repeated by Upali, a Sudra; that of the Sutras, or discourses of Buddha, by Buddha's cousin, Ananda; and that of the Abhtdharm i, or metaphysics, by the president. Each rehearsed what he remembered, to the assembly, and the whole assembly afterwards repeated with a loud voice what they had heard. Nothing is said as to anything having been committed to writing; and it is quite certain that, if such a collection was then made, it could have been only of the heads of the discourses. The very title, sutras, which is a well-known technical term, and applied in Sanskrit only to a series of concise aphorisms, seems to shew that the original memoranda so called could not have been the voluminous and tautological works which at present bear that name. These three divisions are collectively called the tripitakat "triple basket."

The second general council, according to the southern tradition, was held at Vaisall under the presidency of Sarvakimin, where 700 monks met to consider some irregular deviations from traditional customs which had arisen in a great monastery in that city. The vinaya was the main object of their deliberations, and no doubt it was re-arranged and extended. This led to the first Buddhist schism, that of the Mahasanghikas. The southern Buddhists (of Ceylon) place this council 100 years after Buddha's death in the reign of Kalasoka, the sixth successor of Ajitasatru, but the very existence of this prince is in the highest degree problematical. The northern Buddhists (of Nepal) fix it 110 years after that event in the reign of Dharmasoka, or in other words their second council is what the southern Buddhists reckon as the third.

According to the southern authorities, the third council was held 235 years after Buddha's death [most sources use 543 BC, which would place it in 308 BC], in Pataliputra, in the seventeenth year of the reign of Dharmasoka; according to the northern it was held in Cashmir, more than 400 years after Buddha's death, in the reign of Kanishka, apparently the Kanerki of the Indo-scythian coins. Dharmasoka is, alike in Buddhist and Hindu tradition, the grandson of the Chandragupta, who, born of low origin, overthrew the nine Nandas who previously held the throne; but the traditions differ as to the names of the kings between these Nandas and Ajatasatru.

Here the great point of contact between Greek and Indian history is Chandragupta, who has long been identified as the Sandracottus (or Sandracoptos) of classical writers. The identificntion is almost certain; and in the utter confusion of all Hindu chronology it may well be called a "sheet-anchor," for everything in Indian chronology depends on it. This synchronism enabled western scholars to grope their way in the maze of legend, and suppose Chandragupta to have begun to reign about BC 315. All accounts agree that he reigned twenty-four years, so that his son Bindusara would begin his reign BC 291. Bindusara is said to have reigned twenty-five or twenty-eight years; this will give BC 265 or 263 for the date of his son Asoka's accession, but his inauguration is said to have taken place four years afterwards. Taking the latter date BC 263 (the Ceylonese), that of his inauguration would be BC 259, and the council would be held in 242 BC; and this gives 477 BC the supposed date of Buddha's death, but of course this is only conjectural. Most sources use 543 BC.

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Page last modified: 08-11-2011 19:38:55 ZULU