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25 Oct 2019 | 16:16 | Suwachaseela

Buddhist Councils have been held to preserve the teachings of Gautama Buddha, by various means, and the time is ripe for another but this should be different. It should have not only scholarly monks but also lay experts as well, for a critical analysis so that myths built around the great teachings can be discarded. The analytical genius of Gautama Buddha, especially relating to mind and consciousness, had not been surpassed by science and it is our duty to ensure the true teachings of Gautama Buddha be available for the entire humanity to benefit.

Let Gautamism be re-established as true Buddhism; not a religion, but as a philosophy and a way of life.

The choice for us, Theravada Buddhists, seem either to continue with the present adulterated form of Buddhism or seek actively what Gautama Buddha did actually teach; the latter being the obvious choice for me, an avowed Gautamist. In an erudite academic analysis of how Buddhism transformed to a‘Beggism’, printed in the Midweek Reviews of 3rd and 10th August, Professor M M J Marasinghe describes in detail the part played by Venerable Buddhaghosa in bringing about this transformation and goes to the extent of stating "It is not at all clear whether he and his friend Buddhamitta came to Sri Lanka or were sent here on a definite mission." This statement suggests that there was a sinister movement to reverse the radical deviations Gautama Buddha made from the existing religions in India. I have no hesitation in concurring with him, as I have expressed my concerns too in two ‘Island’ articles; ‘Belittling Gautama Buddha’s achievements’ (June 4th) and ‘Gautama Buddha; Unbelievable stories’ (July 9th)

Professor Marasinghe states: "The new Buddhism of Buddhaghosa has two principal constituents, Vandana and Puja both of which are ritualized forms of entreating or supplicating." How true! Across the land, most Buddhist temples excel in these activities to the detriment of the true message of Gautama Buddha. He describes in very accurate detail how these two introduced concepts have distorted the practice of Buddhism but I get the impression that the order of printing of the two-part article has been reversed, due to some technical error; surely, his concluding remarks would be "Thus, the so-called Punya(merit) Buddhism of Buddhaghosa is a crazy chase after merit accumulation through physical activities which have not been accepted as productive of merit leading to the next step in the scheme of gradual training leading to Nibbana. Buddhaghosa’s claim of direct access to Nibbana through merit accumulation is a Micchaditthi which cannot be accepted according to the teaching of the Buddha Gotama".

Many still consider Buddhaghosa to be the authority on Theravada Buddhism and this is what ‘Wikipedia’, the website we often refer to for information, states: "Buddhaghoṣa was a 5th- century Indian Theravada Buddhist commentator and scholar. His best-known work is the Visuddhimagga "Path of Purification", a comprehensive summary and analysis of the Theravada understanding of the Buddha's path to liberation. The interpretations provided by Buddhaghosa have generally constituted the orthodox understanding of Theravada scriptures since at least the 12th century CE. He is generally recognized by both Western scholars and Theravadins as the most important commentator of the Theravada."

Though his best-known work is Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa was responsible for synthesising and translating a large number of commentaries written in Sinhala on the Pali Canon. Though Mahavamsa ascribes many books to him, doubts have been raised about this. In view of the great reputation he developed, it looks as books written by others have been ascribed to him. Two historical facts lead to suspicions about his work:

  1. On completing the translations he returned to India and nothing is known about him since; he simply disappears into history.
  2. The original Sinhala manuscripts he worked on are lost for ever and it is claimed that he collected and burnt them; an act acknowledged in the introduction to the English translation of Visuddhimagga by Venerable Nanamoli (an Oxford-educated British intelligence officer, born Osbert John Moore in June 1905, who became a Buddhist monk and lived in The Island Hermitage till his premature death in 1960)

The burning of the originals, surely, is not an act of a great scholar or for that matter a Buddhist priest and leads to the justified conclusion that his translations were biased. He may have resorted to this act of vandalism to prevent subsequent verification. It looks as if the monks of Mahavihara were taken for a ride and Professor Marasinghe has done a great service by challenging the concepts of Buddhaghosa which have distorted the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Another noteworthy fact about Buddhaghosa is, though in Visuddhimagga he describes the path to attaining Nibbana, in a postscript he states that he wishes to be born in heaven, as a result of merit acquired by this work, to await the appearance of Maitreya Buddha to attain enlightenment after listening to His preachings. Not an expression of confidence on Gautama Buddha!

What can be done?

From the time of the Parinibbana of the Buddha, the method used to ensure His teachings continue unadulterated, unaltered has been the Councils of the Sangha, Dhamma Sanghayana. In fact, it is this practice that led to the term Theravada and to the notion that Theravada is the ‘purest’ form of Buddhism.

The First Council was held shortly after the death of the Buddha in 400BCE, under the patronage of King Ajasattu and presided over by Arahant Mahakassapa. It is said to have been triggered by an inappropriate comment made by a priest named Subhadda: "Friends, since Buddha is dead there is no one to tell us what to do and what not to do. Hence we can do whatever we want." During this council, Arhant Mahakassapa questioned Arahant Upali about Vinaya, as he heard from the Buddha, and Ananda, who had just attained Arahanthood by sheer perseverance, about the rest of the Dhamma. All the assembled Arahants had recited the Suttas after Ananda and it had taken seven months to complete.

The Second Council was held a hundred years after the Parinibbana, during the time of King Kalashoka and presided over by Revatha Mahathera to consider the ten-point request about Vinaya rules by Bhikkus of Vajji, which was refused after due consideration.

The Third Council, held in 251 BCE, was under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka and was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa Mahahera with the purpose of purifying the Buddhist movement from opportunistic groups that have been attracted by royal patronage. Following this Council, emissaries were sent all over including Sri Lanka, Thambapanni.

The Fourth Council was held in the first century BCE in Alu Vihara during the time of King Vattagamani-Abhaya but the king was not the patron as he was a supporter of Mahayana. In fact, one of the reasons for the Council was persecution of Theravada and the other was the unstable political situation due to constant invasions. It was conducted by the monks of Mahavihara but a leader had not been named. The most important achievement of this Sangayana was putting the entire Pali Canon to writing.

The Fifth Council was held in 1871 in Mandalay, Burma during the time of King Mindon. It was attended by 2400 monks and lasted five months during which all the teachings of the Buddha were recited. The Council also approved the Tripitaka to be inscribed in Burmese, for posterity, in 729 marble slabs which were then housed in miniature ‘Pitaka’ Pagodas which still stand in Kuthodaw Pagoda, at the bottom of Mandalay Hill and referred to as ‘the world’s largest book’

The Sixth Council was also held in Burma in 1954, but this time in Rangoon sponsored by the Burmese Government headed by Prime Minister U Nu. A special cave, Maha Passana Guha, was constructed to simulate Sattapanni Cave where the First Council was held. 2500 learned monks from eight countries; Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal took part, two monks of German origin, Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera and Ven. Nyanaponika Thera being included in the Sri Lanka delegation. The work of this council ended on the evening of Vesak Full Moon day in 1956, exactly 2500 years after the Parinibbana of the Buddha.

Time for another Council?

Buddhist Councils have been held to preserve the teachings of Gautama Buddha, by various means, and the time is ripe for another but this should be different. It should have not only scholarly monks but also lay experts as well, for a critical analysis so that myths built around the great teachings can be discarded. The analytical genius of Gautama Buddha, especially relating to mind and consciousness, had not been surpassed by science and it is our duty to ensure the true teachings of Gautama Buddha be available for the eentire humanityto benefit.

Let Gautamism be re-established as true Buddhism; not a religion, but as a philosophy and a way of life.