By Ranga Kalansooriya –
Many voices are being heard from many quarters on the need to conduct a Sangāyanā for the betterment of Buddha Sāsana. It has been in the work plan of the government since its inception as well.
Good thoughts. And probably a well-timed move as well. But there are several concerns that one should take into account before moving in this direction.
There had already been six Buddhist synods in three different countries – India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar – since the demise of the Buddha with four main purposes, protecting the original Buddha’s word; keeping authenticity of the teaching of the Buddha; keeping the unblemished practice, extinguishing defilements (greed, hatred and delusion); realization the highest truth for attaining highest bliss – Nibbāna and longevity of the Sāsana for the benefits of many.
The definition of Saṅgīti or Saṅgāyanā, the Buddhist synod or councils is “Saṃ ekato katvā gāyitabbā kathetabbā’ti “saṅgīti” – having gathered (all scattered teaching) as whole; should be recited by the one who are in concord (sāmaggi). Both “Saṅgīti” and “Sangāyanā” are in Pali but the former is the most common in tradition, though the latter is more familiar among the Sinhalese tradition in the present context.
All six former Saṅgīti or the councils had been to resolve one or the other challenging issues to Sāsana of that particular period. Learning about these six noble events would certainly shed a light on the necessity, lessons learnt and way forward for the proposed seventh Saṅgāyanā in Sri Lanka.
The first council was held in Sattapaṇṇi cave pavilion at Mount Vebhāra near the city of Rajagaha in India, in the same year of the Buddha’s death, due to an uttering of Bikkhu Subaddha. Fearful that the community would dissolve through uncertainty over the founder’s teachings, mainly with such attitudes of some monks like Subaddha, the Sangha held a council to preclude that possibility. Maha Kashyapa Thera, one of the Buddha’s chief-disciples, was appointed president of the council and selected five hundred Arahat monks participated. Functionally, this important event established authority for the group in the absence of its leader for thousands of years to come.
The second synod took place just around one hundred years after the Parinibbana (demise) of the Buddha in the city of Vaisali (visālāmahanuwara) to resolve a dispute over supposedly illicit monastic behavior, such as accepting gold and silver – equal to money of the day. Imagine, disputes over the discipline of the monks had erupted even such a short period after the demise of the Buddha and this council deliberated such ten issues of possibly inappropriate monastic behavior including the use of money. Each point was rejected by the council, the offending practices were outlawed, and concord reestablished, although significant disagreements had obviously begun to appear in the still-unified Buddhist community. It is widely believed that Buddhist sectarianism began shortly after this council.
King Ashoka organized the third council in the city of Pataliputra around 250 BC under the guidance of Moggaliputtatissa Maha Thera with the objective of establishing the orthodoxy of the Dhamma. It said that 60000 ascetics infiltrated into the Sangha Order, polluted the Saasana by their corrupt lives ad heretical views. A thousand monks were assembled to the council, various viewpoints were considered and either sanctioned or rejected, with the proponents of rejected views being expelled from the city.
Before the fourth synod held in Matale Aluviharaya, there had been a locally recognized Vinaya synod at Thūpārāmaya, Anurādhapura, Srilanka. However, the fourth council was held due to the challenges of maintaining the oral tradition and Dhamma was recited and inscribed on palm leaves. This was during the regime of Vaṭṭagāmini Abhaya alias king Valagambā, in 94 BC.
Both fifth and sixth synods were held in Myanmar, or the then Burma. The fifth council was convened at Mandalay in Myanmar in November 1871 at Dhakkhinārāma monastery supported by King Mindon. It was held basically to ensure the presence of entire Tipitaka in the country with no errors and also to find a long lasting solution in maintaining palm leaf inscription.
However, the most significant was the sixth council which was held in line with the 2500 Buddhajayanthi anniversary. The event held on the full moon day of “Kason” (May -June )1954 in the Mahāpāsāna Guhā (great cave), Kabā-Aye, Yangon, had two main objectives – purification of the teaching and the propagation of the Sāsana within the country and internationally. It not only reviewed the canonical Pāli Tipiṭaka but also the commentaries and sub-commentaries were re-examined for the authenticity. Several Sri Lankan learned Theras including Most Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Maha Thera played a key role in this synod. It was a great success mainly due to the fact that it initiated a state Saṅgha Mahanayaka Committee comprising all sects (nikāya) in the country while recognizing and uniting nine such Nikāyas. It translated some texts into English while founding two State-Pariyatti-Saasana Universities for standardization though the country had a good Monastery education. Following the practice of third council, there were Buddhist missions to different states of the country as well as to foreign countries while perpetuating and propagating the Sāsana for moral enhancement of the entire nation.
The proposed seventh Sangāyanā should be considered within this context, especially on how to contribute to this process with our existing capacity. Some leading monks question the necessity to review the entire Tripitaka and its commentaries (Atuwawa) since there exists an unchallengeable literature, mainly with Buddhajayanthi literature both in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The issue is the practice of these teachings, mainly the Vinaya (discipline) aspect due to various interpretations and offending practices. Thus, as it happened during the second and third synods, this proposed Sangāyanā should target a massive clean-up of its practitioners.
Such an exercise should examine – purely according to Vinaya teaching – whether the monks could enter into governance by directly contesting elections, get engaged in state sector (or even private sector) jobs and draw monthly salaries, mobilize masses against another ethnic community and drive them for violence – and the list could continue.
But the challenge would be securing necessary learned, knowledgeable and well-disciplined Buddhist leaders within the clergy not in dozens but in hundreds in conducting such a massive exercise. The process could continue for months under a divided responsibilities system, yet knowledge should be deep, well versed in Theravāda Buddhist text and language skills – mainly Pali – should be second to none. Personally I have my own doubts on this issue of necessary skills unless we look at Myanmar or Thailand. In any case this will not be a Sri Lankan Sangāyanā – but for entire Sasana wherever it exists. But the necessity is mainly here, especially for the massive clean-up through a robust review of Dhamma and Vinaya based on pure order and teaching which has to be reestablished within this Dharmadveepa.
This exercise should also take the lead from the sixth council in Myanmar and embark on digitalization of Theravāda – Tripiṭaka with commentary and relevant texts as it required a Nano space today we can re-elaborate and expand all the shorten portions in various texts.
Another contemporary issue that needs such high level attention is the Teravada-Bhikkhuni (the Buddhist-nun tradition) which is impossible to reestablish now. But providing women with proper recognition to learn, practice and live a spiritual life is not impossible. For example, Dasasīl Maata in Sri Lanka, Sayalay in Myanmar, or such organizations should be recognized without contradicting their lives with teaching. These practices should be renamed or re-interpreted.
There could be a few other objectives such as establishing a sound Buddhist academic system in Sri Lanka. However, we need to define the objective of the proposed Sangāyanā first and then outline the agenda and its necessities. The order of the deliberations is purely based on consensus. If we do not get into the right way of conducting such a gigantic and sensitive exercise, it could do more harm than good. Crucial deliberations could be manipulated, consensus be reached according to hidden agenda and wrong perceptions would be established and documented. That could be a disaster to Sasana.