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The History Of Buddhism
Soon after Buddha\'s death or parinirvana, five hundred monks met at the first council at Rajagrha, under the leadership of Kashyapa. Upali recited the monastic code, Vinaya, as he remembered it. Ananda, Buddha\'s cousin, friend, and favorite disciple, and a man of prodigious memory, recited Buddha\'s lessons, the Sutras. The monks debated details and voted on final versions. These were then committed to memory by other monks, to be translated into the many languages of the Indian plains. It should be noted that Buddhism remained an oral tradition for over 200 years after the first council, for the simple reason that India did not as yet have an alphabet.
In the next few centuries, the original unity of Buddhism began to fragment. The most significant split occurred after the second council, held at Vaishali 100 years after the first. After debates between a more liberal group and traditionalists, the liberal group left and labeled themselves the Mahasangha, "the great sangha." They would eventually evolve into the Mahayana tradition of northern Asia.
The traditionalists, now referred to as Sthaviravada, "way of the elders" or, in Pali, Theravada, developed a complex set of philosophical ideas beyond those elucidated by Buddha. These were collected into the Abhidharma or "higher teachings." But they, too, encouraged disagreements, so that one splinter group after another left the fold. Ultimately, 18 schools developed, each with their own interpretations of various issues, and spread all over India and Southeast Asia. Today, only the school stemming from the Sri Lankan Theravadan survives.
One of the most significant events in the history of Buddhism is the chance encounter of the monk Nigrodha and the emperor Ashoka Maurya. Ashoka, succeeding his father after a bloody power struggle in 268 bc, found himself deeply disturbed by the carnage he caused while suppressing a revolt in the land of the Kalingas. Meeting Nigrodha convinced Emperor Ashoka to devote himself to peace. On his orders, thousands of rock pillars were erected, bearing the words of the Buddha, in the new brahmi script, the first written evidence of Buddhism. The third council of monks was held at Pataliputra, the capital of Ashoka\'s empire.
There is a story that tells about a poor young boy who, having nothing to give the Buddha as a gift, collected a handful of dust and innocently presented it. The Buddha smiled and accepted it with the same graciousness he accepted the gifts of wealthy admirers. That boy, it is said, was reborn as the Emperor Ashoka.
Ashoka sent missionaries all over India and beyond. Some went as far as Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. St. Origen even mentions them as having reached Britain. The Greeks of one of the Alexandrian kingdoms of northern India adopted Buddhism, after their King Menandros was convinced by a monk named Nagasena, the conversation immortalized in the Milinda Pañha. A Kushan king of north India named Kanishka was also converted, and a council was held in Kashmir in about 100 ad. Greek Buddhists there recorded the Sutras on copper sheets which, unfortunately, were never recovered.
It is interesting to note that there is a saint in Orthodox Christianity named Josaphat, an Indian king whose story is essentially that of the Buddha. Josaphat is thought to be a distortion of the word bodhisattva.
Emperor Ashoka sent one of his sons, Mahinda, and one of his daughters, Sanghamitta, a monk and a nun, to Sri Lanka, Ceylon, around the year 240 bc. The king of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiyatissa, welcomed them and was converted. One of the gifts they brought with them was a branch of the bodhi tree, which was successfully transplanted. The descendants of this branch can still be found on the island.
The fourth council was held in Sri Lanka, in the Aloka Cave, in the first century bc. During this time as well, and for the first time, the entire set of Sutras were recorded in the Pali language on palm leaves. This became Theravada\'s Pali Canon, from which so much of our knowledge of Buddhism stems. It is also called the Tripitaka, or three baskets. The three sections of the canon are the Vinaya Pitaka, the monastic law, the Sutta Pitaka, words of the Buddha, and the Abhidamma Pitaka, the philosophical commentaries.
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