After the Final Extinction (Parinirvana) of the Buddha, and the cremation of his body, the community of monks chose five hundred Arahants ('worthy ones', 'perfected ones') to work together to compile the doctrine and the discipline, in order to prevent the true doctrine from being submerged in false doctrines. Each of the recensions of the Vinaya now available contains an appendix which narrates how one of the senior monks, Mahakasyapa, presided over this assembly, which worked systematically through everything the Buddha was remembered to have said and produced an agreed canon of texts embodying it. The versions differ over the details but agree in broad outline. The Arahants met in Rajagrha, since that great city could most easily support such a large assembly for several months. The organisation of the Buddhists tended to centre on great cities as it was apparently not possible in any other way to convene a meeting large enough to be authoritative for the entire community, given its democratic constitution.
Ananda, who being the Buddha’s personal attendant, had heard the discourses more than anyone else, first recited the ‘doctrine’ (dharma). Mahakasyapa asked him about all the dialogues, etc., he remembered and the assembly endorsed his versions as correct. The doctrine compiled in this way became known as the Sutra Pitaka, the collection of sutras (the term pitaka probably signifies a 'tradition' of a group of texts). The discipline was similarly recited by Upali, a specialist in that subject, and codified as the Vinaya Pitaka. On the third pitaka (Abhidhamma) which should make up the Tipitaka ('Three Pitakas') there is disagreement. The Sthaviravada and Mahasamghika versions do not mention its recitation, and since the agreement of these two schools should establish the oldest available textual tradition it appears that originally there were only two Pitakas. However, even the Mahasamghika account mentions the Abhidhamma as among the texts handed down after the rehearsal. The Mahisasaka version makes no mention of a third Pitaka.The Sarvastivada and Dharmaguptaka Vinayas on the other hand have Ananda reciting the Abhidhamma as well as the Sutra. The Kasyapiya (=Haimavata) mentions the Abhidhamma Pitaka without saying who recited it. A later text of the Sarvastivada School, the Asokavadana states that Kasyapa recited the Matrka or Matrka Pitaka (two versions of the text). The same tradition is found in the Vinaya of the Mula Sarvastivada School, a late offshoot of the Sarvastivada which thoroughly revised and enlarged its Tipitaka. 'Whether a Matrka or Abhidhamma was actually recited at the First Rehearsal or not, all the early schools were equipped with a third, Abhidhamma Pitaka.
According to the consensus of the schools the Sutra Pitaka was arranged in five agamas, 'traditions' (the usual term, but the Sthaviravadins more often call them nikayas, 'collections'). The order also is generally agreed to be as follows: (1) Digha Nikaya. ('Long Tradition', about 30 of the longest sutras); (2) Majjhima Nikaya ('Intermediate Tradition', about 150 sutras of intermediate length; the short sutras, the number of which ran into thousands, and were classified in two Ways as) (3) Samyutta Nikaya ('Connected Tradition', sutras classified by topic, for example the sutras on conditioned origination); (4) Anguttara Nikaya ('One Up Tradition', sutras on enumerated items classified according to the numbers of the items in sections of ones, twos, threes . . . up to elevens) ; (5) Khuddaka Nikaya (outside the first four Nikayas, there remained a number of texts regarded by all the schools as of inferior importance, either because they were compositions of followers of the Buddha and not the words of the Master himself, or because they were of doubtful authenticity, these were collected in this 'Minor Tradition').
This order of the five 'traditions' happens also to be the order of their authenticity, probably because it was easier to insert short texts among a large number or to get a composition of doubtful origin admitted to the already doubtful Minor Tradition of a school. This is soon ascertained by comparing the various available recensions. It has been suggested that some schools did not have a Minor Tradition at all, though they still had some of the minor texts, incorporated in their Vinaya, hence the 'Four Nikayas' are sometimes spoken of as representing the Sutras.
The most noticeable feature of the Minor Tradition is that its texts are for the most part in verse as opposed to the prevailing prose of the rest of the Tipitaka. In other words, whatever else may be said about their authenticity, they are poetic compositions which may stimulate interest in the doctrine but are as remote as possible from being systematic expositions of it. We have naturally ignored them in investigating the teaching of the Buddha, but they are of much interest in themselves, as literature, and in connection with the popularisation of Buddhism in the centuries following the parinirvana when in fact many of them were composed.
The First Rehearsal is recorded to have taken place during the rainy season of the first year after the parinirvana, the latter event being the era from which the Buddhists have reckoned their chronology. It does not now appear to be possible to determine the exact extent and contents of the Tipitaka thus collected, in fact as we have seen it may at first have consisted of only two pitakas, not three, namely the Doctrine and the Discipline. It is clear that some texts were subsequently added, even before the schisms of the schools, for example the account of the First Rehearsal itself, an account of a second such rehearsal a century later and a number of sutras which actually state that they narrate something which took place after the parinirvana or which refer to events known to have taken place later. It is interesting that the account in the Vinaya records that at least one monk preferred to disregard the version of the Buddha's discourses collected at this rehearsal and remember his own, as he had received it from the Buddha. This was Purana, who returned from the South after the Rehearsal. The elders invited him to possess himself of the collection rehearsed but he politely declined. If there were a number of monks in distant parts who missed the First Rehearsal it is likely enough that quite a number of discourses remembered by them and handed down to their pupils existed, which were missed at the Rehearsal though perfectly authentic. Under these conditions it would seem reasonable to incorporate such discourses in the Tipitaka later, despite the risk of accepting unauthentic texts.
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra makes the Buddha himself lay down a rule to cover just this situation: if someone claims to be in possession of an authentic text not in the Sutras or in the Vinaya - again two pitakas only - it should be checked against the Sutra and Vinaya and accepted only if it agrees with them. Such agreement or disagreement may have seemed obvious enough at first. Later it was far from obvious and depended on subtle interpretations; thus the schools came to accept many new texts, some of which surely contained new doctrines.
It appears that during the Buddha's lifetime and for some centuries afterwards nothing was written down: not because writing was not in use at the time but because it was not customary to use it for study and teaching. It was used in commerce and administration, in other words for ephemeral purposes; scholars and philosophers disdained it, for to them to study a text presupposed knowing it by heart. To preserve a large corpus of texts meant simply the proper organisation of the available manpower. 'Few monks at any period seem to have' known the whole Tripitaka. The original division of the Sutras into several agamas, 'traditions', seems primarily to have reflected what monks could reasonably be expected to learn during their training. Thus in Sri Lanka, at least, in the Sthaviravada School, it is recorded that the monks were organised in groups specialising in each of the agamas or the Vinaya or the Abhidhamma, handing these texts down to their pupils and so maintaining the tradition. In fact even ten years after his full 'entrance' into the community a monk was expected to know, besides part of the Vinaya discipline obligatory for all, only a part, usually about a third, of his agama, and these basic texts are pointed out in the commentary on the Vinaya. A monk belonging to the Digha tradition, for example, should know ten of its long sutras, including the Mahaparinivana, the Mahanidana and the Mahasatipatthana. He was then regarded as competent to teach. Among the Sthaviravadins there were even slight differences of opinion on certain matters between the several traditions of the sutras. Thus the Digha tradition did not admit the Avadanas to have been a text authenticated by recital at the First Rehearsal, whereas the Madhyama tradition did: they thus differed as to the extent of the Tipitaka.
If there were a standard Tipitaka as established at the First Rehearsal one might expect its texts to be fixed in their actual wording, and therefore in their language. This, however ' does not appear to have been the case. The followers of the Buddha were drawn even during his lifetime from many different countries and spoke, if not completely different languages, at least different dialects. It has been shown that the early Buddhists observed the principle of adopting the local languages wherever they taught. Probably they owe much of their success in spreading the Doctrine and establishing it in many countries to this. The Buddha himself is recorded to have enjoined his followers to remember his teaching in their own languages, not in his language, nor in the archaic but respectable cadences of the Vedic scriptures of the Brahmans. The recensions of the Tipitaka preserved in different countries of India therefore differed in dialect or language from the earliest times, and we cannot speak of any 'original' language of the Buddhist canon, nor, as it happens, have we any definite information as to what language the Buddha himself spoke.' At the most, we can say that the recension in the language of Magadha may have enjoyed some pre-eminence for the first few centuries, since 'Magadhisms' have been detected even in non-Magahi Buddhist texts. This may have reflected the political supremacy of Magadha.
Extract from "Indian Buddhism" by A.K. Warder
Motilal Banarsidass Publishers PVT Ltd. Delhi