The 3rd Buddhist council took place about 236 years after the Buddha’s passing (c. 250 BCE). It was held at Asokarama in Pataliputta. Royal Patronage of 3rd council was King Asoka. The Elder Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa selected 1,000 monks to recite and reaffirm the Dhamma and Vinaya. This took 9 months to complete. This occurred at the 17th year of rule of King Asoka when he was 72 years old. He closed the council with a great ceremony. Why conduct 3rd Buddhist Council?
Asoka used his vast wealth to build countless stupas, temples and viharas throughout India and provided generous support to the Sangha. He ruled his country based on dhamma but this led to many unwholesome and greedy people joining the Sangha who held wrong views and preached heretical teachings.
Teachers of other faiths with not enough support and sustenance entered the order. Some did not join the order but merely shaved off their hair, donned yellow robes, entered the monasteries especially during meal times. Some practiced what they believed to be the holy fire cult and heat asceticism.
All 18 schools of Buddhism with their own Dhamma and Vinaya texts abound. They had differing ideas on the doctrine (purity of Arahants, Omniscence of Buddha from time of conception, Bodhisattva’s path, belief in pudgala, sarva, Alaya consciousness). These monks proclaimed their own doctrines as that of the Buddha and carried on their own practices. They were non-Theravadan practices. Thera Moggaliputta Tissa refused to perform Uposatha with the hereticical monks at Asokarama. He left Asokarama and moved alone up the Ganges and settled in Ahoganga Mountain where he was in solitary retreat for 7 years. During this time, there were no uposatha at all aramas (viharas).
When King Asoka became aware of this, he tried to help settle the matter by letting Asokarama be the venue for the Uposatha. But the monks refused to hold the uposatha with the heretics. The minister in his show of authority decapitated several theras. The king’s brother, Tissa quickly put a stop to this. King Asoka was greatly disturbed by this act as he was uncertain who was guilty of this grievous act.
He was told that Thera Moggaliputta Tissa might be able to settle his worries. He requested for Thera Moggali Putta Tissa who had to be invited three times by several theras. He finally agreed as he was asked to protect the Sasana (religion) and was brought by ship on the Ganges. The king received the venerable personally from the ship. The king asked whether he was responsible for beheading the monks. Thera Moggaliputta Tissa assured the king that he was not responsible as there was no intent to kill the monks. The king studied the Dhamma for seven days under Thera Moggaliputta Tissa. King Asoka then called all the monks to Asokarama, and questioned them on the teachings of the Buddha.
He asked them “ What is the teaching of the Buddha, O monks?” Some of them replied, “Sassata Vadi” – Eternalism. Others replied, “Uccheda Vadi” – Nihilism. 60,000 monks who were adherents of the false doctrines of nihilism or eternalism were expelled. They were asked to disrobe and were offered white to wear instead and were free to practise their own religions. The orthodox monks who were similarly asked, replied that the Buddha taught Vibhajja vadi, the teaching of discrimination, differentiation, analytical and critical teaching.
Thera Moggaliputta Tissa called for the third Buddhist council in order to protect the Dhamma and the Sasana. He wanted to refute point by point the views put forth by the non- Theravadan believers. This was compiled into Kathavatthu.
Results of 3rd Buddhist Council:
1. Theravadan teachings considered orthodox. The Asoka’s schism pillar edict engraved in his 21st year of rule was erected to put an end to the disruptive elements, which threatened the orthodox school of the time.
2. Kathavatthu (Abhidhamma) refuted non Theravadan doctrines In short, the 5th book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka called the Kathavatthu, was compiled to examine and refute the heretical teachings. (or elaborate a bit below but optional).
At the council, Venerable Moggaliputta Tissa averted all bases of heresy that had arisen and that might arise in the future into 500 orthodox statements and 500 unorthodox statements into Kathavatthu. He remained the faithful and innovative interpreter of early Buddhism when he put together this book, which became the 5th text amongst the 7 books of Abhidhamma. Kathavatthu refuted the doctrines of the non-Theravadans and put an end to unorthodox views. The points of controversy were refuted according to the 1. Pali Canonical order 2. Subject of discourse 3. Dissentient Schools
Under the Canonical order, there were 23 Books covering topics like existence of a personal entity; knowledge; doubt of Arahants; Powers; emancipation; salvation; classification of things; diverse destinies; present past and future; cessation; mental consciousness.
Under the subject of discourse, points of controversy were of the Buddha; Ariyans; Worldling; Devas; Order; Religion; Individual; Cosmology, Unconditioned and ethical points.
Under the dissentient schools, the points of controversy were discussed over the non Theravadan views of the other 17 schools like the Mahasangikas, Vajjiputakas, Sammitiyas, Sarvastivadins, Mahisassakas, Kassapikas, etc
Significance of the 3rd Buddhist Council
Possibly the most significant achievement of this Council was the sending of missionary monks to 9 different regions around India to spread Buddhism. Theras were sent to the neighbouring countries to spread the Dhamma. Each delegation had 5 monks. A community of 5 is competent to perform ordination and most sanghakamma.
The most important significance was the overseas missions: Kashmir & Gandhara (N. Punjab) Mahisamandala (South of Vindhyan mountains) Vanavasi (N Kanara) Aparantaka (N. Gujarat, Kathiawar, Kacch & Sind) Maharattha (country of the Marathi, modern Bombay) Yona countries (clans of foreign race on NW frontier, Greeco-Bactrian kingdom) Himavanta (Himalayan region) Suvannabhumi (Lower Myanmar, Thailand, Java and even Malaya) Tambapanni (Sri Lanka)
The most important and successful mission was to Sri Lanka. It was led by King Asoka’s own son, Ven. Mahinda, who converted the Sri Lankan king, and eventually all his subjects, to Buddhism. The Tipitaka was also brought over and eventually compiled into writing in Sri Lanka about 300 years later.
Conclusion The most significant contribution of King Asoka was his effort to spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka and South East Asia after the 3rd Buddhist council. Also during 3rd Buddhist council, orthodox teachings of the Buddha was reaffirmed so that the real teachings remained. This allowed the teachings of the Buddha to survive till this age when Buddhism dwindled in India, birthplace of Buddhism, during the wartimes. South east Asia and Sri Lanka in turn helped each other to sustain the essence of the teachings when war and royal patronage challenged the religion during turmoil times.