The Importance of Venerable Purana

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It is generally agreed within the extant texts of the various Buddhist traditions, that some months after the Buddha’s death, a Council was held at Rajagaha to recite the teachings as remembered by the elderly bhikkhus who resided there.[1]  In the received teachings of the conservative Theravada School, this event is represented as something of a ‘universal’ affair, with every Buddhist in India attending.  However, logic dictates that in the ancient India of the time, and depending upon the dating of the passing of the Buddha, this is a very unlikely assumption.[2]  It is more likely that a group of elderly bhikkhus convened a ‘local’ Council that has since undergone a mythic transformation into an ‘international’ event, similar to that perpetuated through modern technology.  However, as the Buddha’s teachings had spread far and wide – carried by migrating monks – it is logical to assume that most of the bhikkhus living in other, and far more remote areas, did not know about this Council, were not invited to this Council, or thought it irrelevant to the practice of their Dharma.  As the Buddha taught the same message in different ways, it is entirely possible that there was no ‘orthodoxy’ (as retrospectively established by the Theravada School) at this time.  What a group of elderly monks thought or did in Rajagaha was of little interest to bhikkhus who lived in very different climatic and socio-economic conditions.  Such latitude in approach to the teaching of the Dharma may well have represented the ‘democratic’ spirit of the Buddha’s original teachings.  It is said that the Council of Rajagaha was called because a bhikkhu named ‘Subhadda’ insulted the Buddha by stating that the Sangha was well rid of him, and that they nolonger had to live with him criticising this behaviour or extolling that behaviour.[3]  This prompted the local elders to call a gathering of Buddhists in the area to recall and chant all the Suttas and every part of the Vinaya.  This recension has come down to modern times as the Theravada Doctrine.  Of course, this story is not objective, but rather the product of how these elderly bhikkhus viewed themselves.  These elderly bhikkhus appear to have been in the process of establishing an ‘ideology’ of Buddhism where none previously existed, premised upon the justifying notions of ‘loyalty’ and ‘respect’ to the Buddha’s original message.  Although no ‘decent’ is recorded at this Council (presumably because hardly anyone was present to disagree, or offer a different perspective), the Suttas and Vinaya were recited and agreed upon as being a truthful representation of the Buddha’s teaching.  However, all was not what it seemed.  After this local Council’s recension, an elderly bhikkhu from another area (presumably after hearing about these events), travelled to Rajagaha with a group of monks. The Theravada Vinaya records the ensuing conversation in the following manner:

‘When he (Purana) was seated, the Thera Bhikkhus said to him: “The Dhamma and the Vinaya, friend Purana, have been chanted over by the Thera Bhikkhus. Do thou then submit thyself to and learn the texts, so rehearsed by them?”

“The Dhamma and the Vinaya, sirs,” replied Purana, “have been well sung by the Theras.  Nevertheless, even in such manner as it has been heard by me and received by me from the mouth of the Blessed One, in that manner will I bear it in memory.”’[4]

What is interesting here, is that the elderly bhikkhus include this incident in their account, despite its critical nature.  The Ven. Purana must have been a Buddhist monk of some considerable authority to be treated with this measure of respect by a group of bhikkhus attempting to establish their understanding of the Buddha-Dharma over all others in existence.  Such a situation as this, might well demonstrate the rather precarious nature of such an undertaking so soon after the Buddha’s Parinirvana, when India was probably full of enlightened male and female Buddhists.  Purana’s response implies that a) although the Rajagaha recension was essentially ‘correct’, it was ‘limited’ in scope, and that b) he, Purana, (and bhikkhus living in other areas), followed a more ‘complete’ version of the Dharma.  Purana’s response is in fact a very polite criticism of the Rajagaha recension, that is quite damning for the following reasons (from a civilised Buddhist perspective).  The Buddha specifies in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta that there are four ways to establish correct authority for his Dharma (I.e. ‘Mahapadesa’, or ‘Great Authorities’) which are:

1) Buddha as authority

2) Community as authority

3) Many elders as authority

4) One elder as authority[5]

The Ven. Purana uses the authority of the first Mahapadesa to invalidate the lesser authority of the third Mahapadesa, and in so doing, he is stating that the elder bhikkhus of the Rajagaha area are acting only with an incomplete authority, or to put it another way, the ‘Council’ of Rajagaha (which is viewed as the ideological foundation of the Theravada School), did not possess the authority to do what it assumed it was doing – speak for the Buddha – as we may logically assume that there were many like the Ven. Purana who had been taught directly from the Buddha, and did not necessarily acknowledge the ‘limited’ understanding as represented by the Rajagaha Council.  It is without doubt that the details of this first Council were compiled at a later date to the assumed era within which they are supposed to have happened.  Sukumar Dutt states:

‘Besides, the whole account is vitiated by anachronism.  The assembly is said to have been held shortly after the Lord’s demise.  If so, two impossible assumptions underlie the report of the proceedings, – first, that so soon after the Lord’s decease the Buddhists had reached that stage of monastic development where the idea of ‘separate sanghas’, the rules of validity of sanghakammas, their procedural forms like Natti (Resolution) and Anussavana (Proclamation), etc., had already been classified into five nikayas, of which at least the fifth nikaya, called the Khuddaka-nikaya, could not possibly have been made up, as some of the texts it includes set forth ideas and doctrines which belong undoubtedly to a much later and developed stratum of Buddhism.’[6]

With the historicity of the first Council in doubt, (in at least it’s received form), it is even more remarkable that the presence of Ven. Purana is included.

[1] Rahula, Walpola, The Heritage of the Bhikkhu, Grove Press, (1974), Pages 13-15 for brief overview of the first three ‘Councils’ recognised by the Theravada School.

[2] The modern Theravada School tends to follow the Western dating for the Buddha as being that of 563-483BCE (with slight variations of), but the traditional dating of the Buddha lifetime extant within the Chinese Buddhist tradition is given as ‘1028/29-948/49BCE’. Recent archaeological finds within Nepal, Pakistan and India point towards an earlier date for the Buddha, and may well eventually prove the Chinese dating to be correct.

[3] Dutt, Sukumar, The Buddha – and Five Hundred After Centuries, Luzac, (1957), Page 102

[4] Ibid Page 103

[5] Ibid Page 98

[6] Ibid Page 104

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