The Patna Congress and the "Man"
C. A. F. RHYS DAVIDS
The Journal Of The Royal Asiatic Society of
Great Britain And Ireland
THE substance of the following was given in an
address at the Oxford Congress of Orientalists, 1928.
It makes no pretensions to do more than put forward a
few suggestions concerning the so-called Third
Buddhist Council-suggestions which may help when
historians are reconsidering the miserably poor
materials, which are all we have to throw light on
what was the most momentous crisis and decision in
the whole history of Buddhism.
"Congress of Patna" (or Paa.taliputta) is a more
suitable term than " council ". To picture it, we
must recall the factors in our own recent if less
momentous ecclesiastical crisis: a council with
revisional labours of twenty years, the whole Church
of England and the House of Commons. Kern was in
error in describing it as a mere " party meeting...
after the schism",(1) by which he seems to mean
"secession ", of the Mahaasanghikas. If we are to
believe Buddhaghosa, this and the other schools or
"sects" (aacariyakulaa) had not seceded from the
Sangha. They are expressly included in the one Sakya
Sangha as distinct from teachers and teaching which
were " outside this ".(2) It was the very presence of
such schools, notably of Mahaasanghikas (or
Vajjiputtiyas) in the Sangha, which contributed to
bring about the " Council" and make it so momentous.
The Congress took place during the reign of King,
or Emperor, Asoka round about the middle of the third
century B.C. Our authorities,as to the event are not
contemporaneous. They are the Diipava.msa and the
Mahaava.msa of Ceylon, and the commentaries on the
Vinaya and Kathaavatthu. These appear to have been
written, or to have taken written form,
(1) Indian Buddhism, p. 110.
(2) Kathaavatthuly. ÿ
between six and seven centuries later. As records of
a great work and a great crisis they are one and all
meagre, jejune, all but childish. The Ceylon " epics
" were the work of " men of letters " more anxious to
interest reader and listeners than to recover the
true. Buddhaghosa was earnest, but in him the
historical sense is totally absent. Kern's damning
the records as " full of glaring untruths " is too
fierce a bark, but, albeit he too much mixes up event
with "story ", and Patna with Ceylon, he does bring
us to this important statement: " the object of the..
(congress) ... was 'to prove that the
Vibhajjavadins'... were the real and original sect,
i.e. 'the Sangha'."
But who were the Vibhajjavaadins, or analysts,
and whence the name? The four records deliberately
affirm that the founder of the Sakya was " Analyst ",
and hence such were all his right followers. Kern
sees in the term an invention of the Ceylon
(Mahaavihaara) monks. To that I would suggest that at
leisure, far from the bustle and stress of the Patna
crisis, it is highly improbable that the victorious
and hence orthodox majority in the Sangha would have
invented such a name. Once victorious, any specific
name, serving as a, slogan, was unnecessary. So, at
the Council of Nicaea, Athanasian fought Arian and
won. Thereafter the name "Athanasian" survived only
to distinguish an elaborated fixed wording of a
creed; the term Arian, Arianism for a large "sect"
lingered on. It was not "orthodox", not "authentic",
not the Church. For me this word "the Analysts ",
appearing as it does only in the accounts of the
Congress, not, I believe, before or after, is a party
slogan invented, probably not by the party so named,
but by the lay world, interested in a great and
long.struggle, into which monarchy itself was drawn.
So our own English spoke lately of " Revisionist", "
Anti-revisionist ". Our history abounds in such
labels, discarded in the case of the winning side.
Dr. Walleser, in his recent discussion of the
term, submits a possible explanation in the idea,
much exploited nowadays,
that there had always been in the Sakya two ways of
regarding certain terms: either the conventional, or
people's meaning, and the meaning of philosophical
intuition. And in considering the chief bone of
contention at the time in the Sangha, namely, the
reality of the " man " (over and above body and
mind), he suggests, that the party who were careful
to " distinguish " in which of those two meanings "
the man " was taken were known as the Dividers or
Dr. Walleser does not stress the plausibility of
this view, and I do not think it can survive
historical sifting. Had the distinction been thought
out and named: sammuti-kathaa, paramattha-kathaa-at
any time preceding the Congress, we may be quite sure
of one thing: it would, as a potent "silencer", have
been brought forward by the orthodox debater (the
"Our Speaker") in the opening and most important
debate in the Kathaa-vatthu, ascribed, as his
compilation, to the President Moggaliputta-Tissa. But
"Our Speaker" never makes use of it. The first time
we meet with it is in the Milindapa~nho, between two
and three centuries later. There, anyway, such double
meaning in teaching is not fathered on to the
Founder. But some three centuries later we find both
doctrine and libelled Father,(1) full grown, not, in
the text commented upon, where it should have been
used, but was not; but in the Commentary, i.e. on the
Kathaavatthu. If is set forth as the peroration of
the comments on that first and momentous debate. Can
historical evidence, short of definite narrative,
speak more plainly?
It would not, of course, help the " distinction "
theory were the Kathaavatthu assigned a more recent
date.(2) Such a hypothesis overlooks the old "Asokan"
Pali in the first debate of the book, where ke stands
for ko, and vattabbe for vattabbo, vattabba.m,
archaisms in Buddhaghosa's time, and corrected by him
(Comm., pp. 9, 20).
We come then to what I venture to suggest is a
(1) He repudiated a dual way of teaching.
(2) Cf. Die Sekten des alten Buddhismus, by M.
view of the sort of "hustings" term I think
Vibhajjavaadin was. Let us glance at the situation.
The Founder's message: The Way (through the
worlds) for Everyman, Everyman walking as self-guided
by inner "dhamma" --a' message cruelly "edited" as
for the " recluse " only--was not the founding of a
church of recluses over against a layworld. Hence he
made no arrangements to secure church authority or
church doctrine with reference to that world. He and
his followers formed themselves (first as teachers)
into such a dual body of religieux and laymen. But,
there being no hierarchy and at first only a moral
code, while the laity looked on, criticized, and
supported, the monkworld began very industriously to
disagree with itself, from the Founder's day onward.
With the rise of the Mauryan hegemony, a new broader
conception of unity must have stared the now
preponderant Sakyan community in the face, at Patna
and elsewhere. To this political development they
presented a glaring contrast. They were in a fairly
chaotic state of disunity. Their ablest divines, if
Tissa be not a unique case, had retired from the city
monastery in disgust to hillside viharas. But to win
over the patronage of the busy, sagacious king to
their support was of great moment. A good shopfront,
paying him the compliment of imitating the new
political unity, was necessary. The Congress was
summoned, and like Cincinnatus or Venizelos, Tissa
was induced to come back and preside over the work of
The records of the Congress make three
statements, which from their obvious improbability
call for criticism. A small highly efficient
executive could alone cope with the gigantic task of
revision, and of testing members of the Sangha by its
results. We are told that the executive numbered a
thousand, that the work of " dhamma-sangaha.m"(1)
took nine months, and that the expulsions of the
monks, not holding views then pronounced unorthodox,
preceded the revision by which alone
(1) So Mhv. Buddhaghosa uses this and the traditional
term " reciting ": sangiiti.
their orthodoxy could be tested. I would suggest as a
truer account that, albeit, as with the League of
Nations Council, the full personnel of each general
meeting was large, the actual revisers and judges may
well have been, according to precedent, only
eight.(1) The work of revision to be carefully done
must have lasted years. With plenty of books and
writing and typing materials, our own little Prayer
Book Revision took twenty years. With plenty of MSS.
around, the output of the gentlemen, now compiling an
"authentic" version of the Mahaabhaarata at Poona, is
one fasciculus per annum. But at Patna there were not
even written MSS., nor any but few and awkward
writing materials. There will have been repeaters,
bhaanakas, from different viharas eminent as
living-recordviharas: I suggest the six repositories
referred to, with a distinctive opening to certain
Suttas, in the Sa.myutta Nikaaya, to which I have
drawn attention(2) : Saavatthi, Kapilavatthu, .
Benares, Saaketa, Raajagaha, and Patna itself. And
these: bhaanakas will have come in sections before
the judges, according as they were Diighabhaanakas,
and so forth, and have repeated, one at a time, some
" bhaanavaara, " or portion of one, something like a
Welsh Eisteddfodd. Where they were all in verbal
agreement, if this ever was the case, the judges may
not have dared to revise, had they wished to. Where
there were variant versions, one had to be selected
as the standard version; the rest would be either
ruled out, or committed to those miscellanies we find
in the third and fourth Nikaayas. Thus the Magga will
have been finally entered up as "eightfold"; not
because there was any inherent necessity for eight,
as either logical or exhaustive, or as the one and
only version, but because, down the ages, teachers
and so, repeaters had elaborated the probably
original " thought, word, and deed " of the really
ancient tradition into variants of these, and
finally, of these, eight were selected; the tenfold
Way, for instance, being relegated to miscellaneous
(1) As at the second " Council ".
(2) Kindred Sayings, iv, Introduction.
(3) Diigha Summaries, M. ii. 29, S. and A.V.
And as to the inverted order in time of revision
and expulsions, this may have arisen from a
preliminary expulsion of those ascetics, who, to get
material support, "without entering,the Sangha...
donned the yellow robes" and frequented the viharas.
Lacking a duly attested ordination, these intruders
could be summarily dealt with. To this extent I judge
the order of events in the records correct; but no
further. The drastic expulsion of ordained monks can
only have been carried through when a unified,
standardized, authoritative (' Word " had emerged as
sanction. It was the one traditional sanction handed
down in the Sakya as accredited to the Founder's own
injunction: " The disciples' Teacher was to be Dhamma
and Vinaya."(1) The Founder, did he actually say so,
will have meant " your inward monitor (conscience)
and your outer code of rules". But Dhamma had come to
mean verbalized sets of teachings. And with Dhamma,
and Vinaya now edited, revised, reworded in a Revised
Version, it only remained to get rid of those whose
views did not run on all fours with those of the
On what did disparity in views chiefly hinge? Let
us compare the test-questions put to monks with the
contents of the book Kathaavatthu. In the book, any
acquaintance with it, as well as with its commentary,
will leave no doubt as to the paramount importance,
of the opening debate: "Is the 'man' got at(2)('
caught', Hume would have said) in the true and
supreme-meaning sense? " Yet not nearly enough
significance has been attached to this signpost of
the past. It can only mean that the question of the
man's real nature, either as a being using the
body-mind khandhas, or as only those khandhas, was
the chief question at issue in the fight for unity of
teaching. Is our teaching to be of man as attan, with
all that the venerable word implies in ancient Indo-
(1) Mahaaparinibbaana Sta.
(2) Upalabbhati. Comy.: "known."
Aryan tradition, or an-attan? Divorced from their
early mentor, the Saankhyaa, first analyser of "mind"
as distinguishable from the " man ", the majority in
the Sangha had plumped for anatta, and had carried
out the revision so as to make this appear as
authoritative as repeaters' versions made possible.
But they could not well put the damning
test-questions save in terms sanctioned by oldest,
most revered tradition, to wit, terms which were
already used for wrong views in the Brahmajaala
Suttanta, chanted as far back as the First Council.
The views, there condemned, which were selected as
tests do refer to the nature of the " man ", but not
as to whether " got at " or unget-at-able. They turn
on whether he survives death: that mighty test
yesterday, to-day, and for ever. If the "man"
survived death-not this death only, of course; the
Indian mind was more logical than ours--then he was
divine, i.e.imperishable, unchanging, not-dukkha. If
he did not survive, this was the despised nihilism
These ancient wordings sufficed for the
expelling. Either view was inadmissible, let alone
the other subterfuge views of the Suttanta.(1) But
there remained a third alternative view, by which it
had come to be held, a monk's orthodoxy might be
passed. This had come, during the Congress, to be
popularly known as that of the Vibhajjavaadins.
Having respect to the great preoccupation about the
"man", we may conclude the nickname was because of
their view about just that. If only the compiler of
the "Man-talk" in the Kathaavatthu had been as clear
in positive statement of " Our" view, as he was in
negativing the "Man"-speaker's arguments, we should
not now be groping. But if we may conclude positively
for him, we may say that his "Analysis" of man's
nature had brought him curiously near, save in space
and time, to David Hume. Namely, he does not deny
that the man exists in some way. That came later; in
(1) "Some only survive, " and " we don't know anyway"
and in the commentaries, notably in that on the
Kathaavatthu. But, analysing the concrete individual,
he only finds the very "man" in the mind. And mind,
as his Suttas entitled him to say, is "multiple,
manykinded, manifold,"(1) not a unity. And there he
left him. All attempts to explain survival by
physical analogies in terms of result belong to later
thought. The Vibhajjavaadin, following his Abhidhamma
as was the vogue, pulled his "man" to pieces as so
many dhammas, mental phenomena. Process in dhammas
belongs to post-Patna Abhidhamma.
This, then, I suggest, is how the historian of
Buddhism may rightly interpret this curious name for
the new orthodoxy: Vibhajjavaadin. I suggest it is no
invention of later records, for it is incredible that
the Sangha would have called itself by a name without
lofty traditional sanction. It does not occur in the
(contemporary) Kathaavatthu, but, then, no party
names of any kind do occur, so we can disregard that.
It was left to the commentary to supply these, and
that on the " Five Books " (Abhidhamma, iii-vii)
makes no claim to derive from early sources as do
those on the Five Nikaayas. Suddenly the name appears
and as suddenly disappears. I have suggested why.
While the little " Council " had been pursuing its
long arduous labours with the coming and going of
summoned bhaanakas, companies of monks from the
corresponding viharas and others will have been
mustering at Patna, and, as our young people would
say, no end of a hoo-ha was going on in waves of
discussion, culminating in a great crescendo as it
became known that the revision was nearing completion
and the day of the Congress elections drew nigh. So
viewed, it is not strange that a catchword or slogan
should have arisen, maybe among the populace, maybe
among the king's men (police, army, court), maybe
among monks themselves, for the formidable party, now
at last become corporate and articulate as such: the
party, who saw; in "the man ", one who could
actually, when analysed,
(1) Majjhima ii, 26.
only be traced, beyond his bodily factor, in the
manifold of the mind. Rather would it be strange had
some such name not been lit upon.
" Man is not to be valued save in terms of body
and mind," and as such comes under the category
"an-atta":--this, I suggest, is the milestone in
Buddhist thought attained at the Patna Congress, and
not to be confounded with the further milestone
reached in the Milinda questions, or with the yet
further milestone revealed in Buddhadatta and
Buddhaghosa. The position at Patna was not one of
sudden growth. It may be seen at work in the
Pi.takas. But how much of what we find in these was
work of earlier growth, how much was done at the
Patna revisings: here is for us a problem at present
insoluble. For instance, to which of the two agencies
do we owe the substitution of " mind " for the more
natural " man " in many passages in the Nikaayas?(1)
Or the timid omission of the "man ", the attan, the
satta, in the parable of the Jetavana wood?: Surely
to compare body and mind to faggots being gathered
and borne to burning (as at death) from the wood, and
then leave the inference: " the wood remains to
blossom afresh, but 'you', 'tumhe', you do not
remain, for you are not, save in the faggots " is a
funny, a sorry jumble unworthy of the august speaker!
Is it odd that we writers on Buddhism have so
slurred over all this growing divergence from the
time of the Founder's caveat, that the "man " was not
his body or his mind (spoken when to have denied the
" man's " reality had been the teaching of a mad man)
to Asoka's day? Is it odd that we feel no jolt as we
pass over the intrusions and gaps in the documented.
teachings, so strangely un-Aryan as to be losing
sight, in their chequered history, of the truth that,
whatever factors the "man " may be vibhajja-ed into,
he is, before all, " he ", the user of them? the
analyser in every analysis? " Jolt," indeed? Have we
not rather felt a
(1) E.g. Majjhima i, 295; Sa.myutta v, 218; iii, 2.
smoother going in our exploring the Pi.takas, as we
noted this "mind " (manas, citta, vi~n~naa.na)
functioning where, and as, other old documents would
have made the " man ", the self, functioning? We have
commended " Buddhist psychology" as akin to our own,
at least to that of yesterday.
"Akin to our own"-that's why we've slurred,
that's why there was no jolt. The Analysts at Patna
put the very "man"--I don't like "soul"--may I say
the "man-in-man "? --behind a curtain as "
unget-at-able ". But we have done the same. Our new
psychology has, not so long ago, weaned itself from
its mother philosophy, has analysed mind, that is,
minding; and has thrown the minder, or must I say the
metempirical self, back into the mother's lap. And
there it leaves him. Early Buddhism, that is, Sakya
was caught by the Saankhyaa vogue, in which the "man"
was, as a new experiment, distinguished from" mind ",
and mind analysed. And it " went one better " (or
worse), adapting the Saankhyan formula: "This I am
not," etc., but negating, where the Saankhyaa only
accented difference. It is we who have quite
unawares, but as the outcome of a somewhat similar
cause, followed the Sakya. We, too, have lost sight
of the wood for the faggots-ay, our philosophers do
not always see it. " I grant your 'man ', if you see
him as a complex: of events "... so runs a letter to
me from one of them. The Founder of the Sakya told
inquirers they could see themselves, if they would,
in a mirror. Perhaps if we can see an episode of our
own history of ideas in this Buddhist mirror, the way
of a new and wiser psychology of our human nature may
not be far off. ÿ ÿ ÿ