Thanks for your responses, Retro and Ben.
Let me first clarify (in case there's any misunderstanding) that I'm in no way trivialising the contributions of the Buddhists Councils. But I've become quite curious about them and am hoping to find readings that do more than just describe the proceedings.
Anyway, yes, I fully agree with you Retro that before the teachings were committed to writing, the crucial task facing the early Councils was the preservation of the 'words of the Buddha'. The Councils were probably also convened to resolve sectarian disputes. In any case, there was an unmistakable utilitarian purpose to those councils. And to that end, the early sangha deserves our utmost respect and gratitude.
However, I'm not sure if we can unambiguously
draw a line between the utilitarian and symbolic functions of the Councils, nor unambiguously designate one to be of primary importance and the other of secondary importance. Let me try to elaborate on what I've been considering....
By the time of Fifth and Sxith Councils in 1871 and 1954-6 respectively, the teachings have long been in print. So while the preservation of the teachings remained important it was probably not 'crucial' in the sense that it was millenia ago. There will, of course, always be problems relating to the translation and interpretation of the teachings and vinaya that need to be ironed out. So to that end, the Fifth and Sixth Councils still performed an important utilitarian function.
Yet, there also seems to be an important ritualistic, symbolic purpose to these two later Councils. I am thinking of the joint recitation by the elders in Fifth Council (which according to the wiki took place in the presence of over 2,000 monks and lasted five months), and the question and answer session between Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw and Ven. Bhadanta Vicittasarabhivamsa in the Sixth. It seems to me that these discursive activities were not merely about 'testing' or 'verifying' the accuracy of their knowledge of the Dhamma. Rather, it seems to me that they performed an important symbolic function in bringing the disciples of the Buddha together in fellowship and commonality--an affirmation of spiritual camaraderie through symbolic exchange.
I should point out here that I am interpreting these events with theories formulated in the social sciences about the role of communication in forging community. What I am suggesting about the Councils, and particularly the Fifth and Sixth ones, can be illustrated with modern day scenarios.
Take for example a conference. A conference typically has a number of speakers presenting ideas to an audience. One obvious function of a conference is the transmission of information. But a conference also has another function. This other function is exemplified by the figure of the keynote speaker who typically gives an address at the start or end of the proceedings. When the keynote speaker speaks she isn't merely transmitting information. Her speech also performs a ritualistic, symbolic
function--it declares the openinng or closing of the event, but it also serves to affirm the common purpose and fellowship of the people present.
Or to give another example of a wedding ceremony. At a wedding, a celebrant presides over the proceedings. Through the legal power that is bestowed on the celebrant, she completes the marriage process by pronouncing the couples married. In this regard, the celebrant performs a utilitarian function in transmitting the law to the couple. Yet, this utilitarian function is performed through symbolic
("I now pronounce you..."). In this instance, speech performs an act and the act is completed by speech
. Moreover, this speech-act is performed in the presence of the friends and relatives of the couple. Those well-wishers are there to bear witness to the speech-act. They do not technically 'do' anything. But simply by being present--simply by watching and hearing
--they affirm the authority of the declaration and in doing so also affirm the act of matrimony.
So comparing these two scenarios to the Councils analogously, I would say that is no clear cut distinction between the utilitarian and the symbolic. The utilitarian necessitates the symbolic; the symbolic fulfills the utilitarian.
In other words, the utilitarian and the symbolic are dependently originated
Why am I making all these speculations? These ideas developed as I was reflecting on what DhammaWheel means to me and what it might mean to others. But I see that I have, once again, rambled on too much--I apologise.
I shall stop here and post my thoughts about how this relates to DhammaWheel in another post.