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What is Theravada Buddhism

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by John Bullitt

Note: Links within this article will take you to Access To Insight, an excellent site for additional resources. The site includes a library of more than 800 suttas and several hundred articles and books.

Copyright © 2002 John Bullitt

Theravada (pronounced — more or less — "terraVAHduh", the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the texts of the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which scholars generally accept as containing the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings. For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos) and Sri Lanka; today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide. In recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West.

Many Buddhisms, One Dhamma-vinaya

The Buddha called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya, "the doctrine and discipline" (or Dhamma[Sanskrit: Dharma], for short). To provide a social structure supportive of the practice of Dhamma, and to preserve these teachings for posterity, the Buddha established the order of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis (nuns) — the Sangha —who continue to this day to pass his teachings on to subsequent generations of laypeople and monastics, alike. But within two centuries after the Buddha's passing, as the Dhamma spread across much of India, several different interpretations of some of the Buddha's original teachings arose, leading to schisms within the Sangha and the emergence of as many as eighteen distinct sects of Buddhism.[1] One of these sects (the Mahasanghika) eventually gave rise to a reform movement that called itself Mahayana (the "Greater Vehicle") [2] and that referred to the other schools disparagingly as Hinayana (the "Lesser Vehicle"). What we call Theravada today is the sole surviving school of those early non-Mahayana schools. To avoid the pejorative tone implied by the terms Hinayana and Mahayana, many people today prefer to use more neutral language to distinguish between these two main branches of Buddhism. [3] Since Theravada has historically dominated southern Asia, it is sometimes called "Southern Buddhism," while Mahayana, which principally migrated northwards from India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea is called "Northern Buddhism". [4]

Pali: The Language of Theravada Buddhism

The language of the Theravada canonical texts is known as Pali (lit., "text"), which is based on a dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan that was probably spoken in central India during the Buddha's time.[5] Most of the sermons (suttas) the Buddha delivered were memorized by Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close personal attendant; those sermons at which Ananda was not present are said to have been repeated to him later on. Shortly after the Buddha's death (ca. 480 BCE), five hundred of the most senior monks — including Ananda — convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha's forty-five year teaching career. Most of these sermons therefore begin with the disclaimer, Evam me sutam  — "Thus have I heard."

The teachings were passed down orally within the monastic community, in keeping with an oral tradition that long predated the Buddha. By 250 BCE the Buddha's teachings had been systematically arranged and organized into three basic divisions: the Vinaya Pitaka (the "basket of discipline"; the texts concerning the rules and customs of the Sangha), the Sutta Pitaka (the "basket of discourses"; the sermons and utterances by the Buddha and his close disciples), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the "basket of higher [or special] doctrine"; a detailed philosophical and psychological analysis of the Dhamma). Taken together these three are known as the Tipitaka — the "three baskets". In the third century BCE Sri Lankan monks began compiling a series of detailed commentaries to the Tipitaka that were finally collated and translated into Pali beginning in the fifth century CE. The Tipitaka plus the post-canonical Pali texts ( commentaries,chronicles, etc.) together constitute the complete body of classical Theravada texts.

Pali was originally a spoken language with no alphabet of its own. It wasn't until about 100 BCE that the Tipitaka was first fixed in writing, by Sri Lankan scribe-monks writing the Pali phonetically in their own Sinhala alphabet. Since then the Tipitaka has been transliterated into many different scripts (Devanagari, Thai, Burmese, Roman, Cyrillic, to name a few). Although English translations of the most popular Tipitaka texts abound, many students of Theravada find that learning the Pali language — even just a little bit here and there — greatly deepens their understanding and appreciation of the of the Buddha's teachings.

Of course, no one can prove that the Tipitaka contains any of the actual words uttered by the historical Buddha. But practicing Buddhists have never found this problematic. Unlike the scriptures of many of the world's other great religions, the Tipitaka is not meant to be taken as gospel, containing unassailable statements of divine truth, revealed by a prophet, to be accepted purely on faith. Instead, its teachings are meant to be assessed firsthand, to be put into practice in one's life so that one can find out for oneself if they do, in fact, yield the promised results. It is the truth towards which the words in the Tipitaka point that ultimately matters, not the words themselves. Although scholars will undoubtedly continue to speculate about the authorship of passages from the Tipitaka for years to come (and thus miss the point of these teachings entirely), the Tipitaka will quietly continue to serve — as it has for centuries — as an indispensable guide for millions of followers in their quest for Awakening.

A Brief Summary of the Buddha's Teachings

The Four Noble Truths

Shortly after his Awakening, the Buddha ("the Awakened One") delivered his first sermon, in which he laid out the essential framework upon which all his later teachings were based. This framework consists of the Four Noble Truths, four fundamental principles of nature (Dhamma) that emerged from the Buddha's honest and penetrating assessment of the human condition and that serve to define the entire scope of Buddhist practice. These truths are not statements of belief. Rather, they are categories by which we can frame our direct experience in a way that is conducive to Awakening:

1. Dukkha: suffering, unsatisfactoriness, discontent, stress;

2. The cause of dukkha: the cause of this dissatisfaction is craving (tanha) for sensuality, for states of becoming, and states of no becoming;

3. The cessation of dukkha: the relinquishment of that craving;

4. The path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: the Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right resolve, right speech,right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, andright concentration.

To each of these Noble Truths the Buddha assigned a specific task which the practitioner is to carry out: the first Noble Truth is to be comprehended; the second is to be abandoned; the third is to be realized; the fourth is to be developed. The full realization of the third Noble Truth paves the way for the direct penetration of Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), the transcendent freedom that stands as the final goal of all the Buddha's teachings.

The Eightfold Path

The last of the Noble Truths — the eightfold path — contains a prescription for the relief of our unhappiness and for our eventual release, once and for all, from the painful and wearisome cycle of birth and death (samsara) to which, thanks to our own ignorance (avijja) of the Four Noble Truths, we have been bound for countless aeons. The eightfold path offers a comprehensive practical guide to the development of those wholesome qualities and skills in the human heart that must be cultivated in order to bring the practitioner to the final goal, the supreme freedom and happiness of Nibbana. The Buddha taught the eightfold path to his followers according to a "gradual" system of training, beginning with the development of sila, or virtue (right speech,right action, and right livelihood, which are summarized in practical form by the five precepts), followed by the development of samadhi, or concentration and mental cultivation (right effort,right mindfulness, and right concentration), and culminating in the full development of pañña, or wisdom (right view and right resolve). Despite the stepwise structure of the eightfold path, progress along the path does not follow a simple linear trajectory. Rather, development of each aspect of the eightfold path fosters the refinement and strengthening of the others, leading the practitioner ever upward in a continuing spiral of spiritual maturity that leads, step by patient step, towards Awakening.

Seen from another point of view, the long journey on the path to Awakening begins in earnest with the first tentative stirrings of right view, the first flickerings of wisdom by which one recognizes both the validity of the first Noble Truth and the inevitability of the law of kamma (Sanskrit: karma), the universal law of cause and effect. Once one begins to see that harmful actions inevitably bring about harmful results, and that wholesome actions ultimately bring about wholesome results, the desire naturally grows to live a skillful, morally upright life, to take seriously the practice of sila. The confidence built from this preliminary understanding inclines the follower to place an even greater trust in the teachings. The follower becomes a "Buddhist" upon expressing an inner resolve to "take refuge" in the Triple Gem: the Buddha (both the historical Buddha and one's own innate potential for Awakening), the Dhamma (both the teachings of the historical Buddha and the ultimate Truth towards which they point), and the Sangha (both the monastic community that has protected the teachings and put them into practice since the Buddha's day, and all those who have achieved at least some degree of Awakening). With one's feet thus firmly planted on the ground by taking refuge, and with the help of an admirable friend or teacher (kalyanamitta) to help show the way, one can set out along the Path, confident that one is indeed following in the footsteps left by the Buddha himself.

Meditation and the Practice of Dhamma

The eightfold path is an active one — there is real work to be done — and the Buddha laid out a broad array of concrete tools and practices to help the practitioner stay on course. The deliberate practice of virtue (sila) ensures that one doesn't stray wildly off the path and into harm's way. The practice of generosity (dana) helps erode the heart's habitual tendencies towards cravingand teaches valuable lessons about the motivations behind, and the results of, skillful action (see kamma). The cultivation of loving kindness (metta) helps to undermine anger's seductive grasp. The ten recollections include practical methods to help alleviate doubt (recollection of the Buddha), accept physical pain (recollection of the Sangha), maintain a healthy sense of self-respect (recollections of one's past generosity and virtue), overcome laziness and complacency (recollection of death), and moderate lust (contemplation of the unattractiveness of the body). And there is much more. The good qualities that naturally emerge and deepen as a result of these practices not only smooth the way for the journey to Nibbana; they also have the immediate effect of helping the practitioner become a more generous, loving, compassionate, peaceful, and clear-headed member of society. There is thus no basis to the charge occasionally leveled at Theravada Buddhism that it is somehow a "selfish" path.

Each of these methods helps strengthen, to varying degrees, the path factors of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The meditation practices that utilize the four frames of reference (or "foundations of mindfulness"), mindfulness of the body, and mindfulness of breathing take this development a step further, by balancing the twin qualities of tranquillity (samatha) and clear-seeing, or insight (vipassana). As these qualities mature, and as the meditator becomes more adept at applying the combined powers of samatha-vipassana to investigate deeply into the nature of mind and body, even the most subtle flickerings of dukkha are brought into exquisitely sharp focus.[6] At the same time, the root cause of dukkha — craving — is gradually brought into the light of awareness. Eventually, after persistent practice, craving is left with fewer and fewer places to hide, the entire karmic process that fabricates dukkha begins to unravel, the eightfold path reaches its climax, and the meditator gains, at long last, his or her first unmistakable glimpse of the Unfabricated (Nibbana).

This enlightenment experience, known as stream entry (sotapatti), is the first of four progressive stages of Awakening, each of which entails the irreversible shedding or weakening of some of the fetters (samyojana), the manifestations of ignorance that bind a person to the cycle of birth and death. Stream entry marks an unprecedented and radical turning point both in the practitioner's current life and in the entirety of his or her long journey in samsara. For it is at this point that any lingering doubts about the truth of the Buddha's teachings fall away; it is at this point that any belief in the purifying efficacy of rites and rituals evaporates; and it is at this point that the long-cherished notion of an abiding personal "self" disappears. The stream-enterer is said to be assured of no more than seven future rebirths (all of them favorable) before eventually attaining full Awakening. But full Awakening is still a long way off. As the practitioner presses on with diligence, he or she passes through two more significant landmarks: once-returning (sakadagati), which is accompanied by the weakening of the fetters of sensual desire and ill-will, and non-returning (agati), in which these two fetters are uprooted altogether. The final stage of Awakening — arahatta — occurs when even the most refined and subtle levels of craving and conceit are extinguished, once and for all. At this point the practitioner — now an arahant, or "worthy one" — has finally arrived at the end-point of the Buddha's teaching. With suffering, stress, and rebirth having all come to an end, the arahant at last can utter the victory cry that was first proclaimed by the Buddha upon his Awakening:

Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for the sake of this world. [MN 36]

The arahant lives out the rest of his or her life inwardly enjoying the bliss of Nibbana, secure from the possibility of any future rebirth. Although language cannot describe what, exactly, takes place when the arahant finally dies, the Buddha likened the event to what happens when a fire goes out, having at last burned up all its fuel.

"The serious pursuit of happiness"

Buddhism is sometimes naïvely criticized as a "negative" or "pessimistic" religion and philosophy. After all (so the argument goes) life is not all misery and disappointment: it offers many kinds of joy and happiness. Why then this pessimistic Buddhist obsession with unsatisfactoriness and suffering? The Buddha based his teachings on a frank assessment of our plight as humans: there is unsatisfactoriness and suffering in the world. No one can argue this fact. Were the Buddha's teachings to stop there, we might indeed regard them as pessimistic and life as utterly hopeless. But, like a doctor who prescribes a remedy for an illness, the Buddha offers hope (the third Noble Truth) and a cure ( the fourth). The Buddha's teachings thus give cause for an extraordinary degree of optimism in a complex, confusing, and difficult world. One modern teacher summed it up well: "Buddhism is the serious pursuit of happiness."

Theravada Comes West

Until the late 19th century, the teachings of Theravada were little known outside of Southern and Southeast Asia, where they had flourished for some two and one-half millennia. In the last century, however, the West has begun to take notice of Theravada's unique spiritual legacy and teachings of Awakening. In recent decades, this interest has swelled, with the monastic Sangha from the various schools within Theravada establishing dozens of monasteries across Europe and North America. In addition, a growing number of lay meditation centers in the West, operating independently of the Sangha, currently strain to meet the demands of lay men and women — Buddhist and otherwise — seeking to learn selected aspects of the Buddha's teachings.

The turn of the 21st century presents both opportunities and dangers for Theravada in the West: Will the Buddha's teachings be patiently studied and put into practice, so that they may be allowed to establish deep roots in Western soil, for the benefit of many generations to come? Will the current popular climate of "openness" and cross-fertilization between spiritual traditions lead to the emergence of a strong new form of Buddhist practice unique to the modern era, or will it simply lead to the dilution and confusion of these priceless teachings? These are open questions; only time will tell.

Fortunately, the Buddha gave some very clear guidelines to help us find our way through the perplexing maze of purportedly "Buddhist" teachings that are available to us today. Whenever you find yourself questioning the authenticity of a particular teaching, heed well the Buddha's advice to his stepmother:

The qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion; to being fettered, not to being unfettered; to accumulating, not to shedding; to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty; to discontent, not to contentment; to entanglement, not to seclusion; to laziness, not to aroused persistence; to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome': You may definitely hold, 'This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Vinaya, this is not the Teacher's instruction.'

As for the qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome': You may definitely hold, 'This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.' [AN VIII.53]

The truest test of these teachings, of course, is whether they yield the promised results in the crucible of your own heart. The Buddha presents a challenge; the rest is up to you.


  1. Nyanatiloka Mahathera, Guide Through The Abhidhamma Pitaka (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1971), pp. 60ff. [Go back]
  2. Mahayana today includes Zen, Ch'an, Nichiren, Tendai, and Pure Land Buddhism. [ Go back]
  3. A third major branch of Buddhism emerged much later (ca. 8th century CE) in India: Vajrayana, the "Diamond Vehicle." Vajrayana's elaborate system of esoteric initiations, tantric rituals, and mantra recitations eventually spread north into central and east Asia, leaving a particularly strong imprint on Tibetan Buddhism. [Go back]
  4. For more about the complex history of the many schools of Buddhism see The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (fourth edition) by R.H. Robinson & W.L. Johnson (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1997). [Go back]
  5. Modern scholarship suggests that Pali was probably never spoken by the Buddha himself. In the centuries after the Buddha's death, as Buddhism spread across India into regions that spoke different dialects, Buddhist monks increasingly depended on a common tongue for their discussions of Dhamma and their recitations of memorized texts. It was out of this necessity that the language we now know as Pali emerged. See Bhikkhu Bodhi's Introduction in Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1999), pp. 1ff, and n. 1 (p. 275) and "The Pali Language and Literature" by the Pali Text Society (www.palitext.demon.co.uk/subpages/lan_lite.htm; 15 April 2002). [Go back]
  6. This description of the unified role of samatha and vipassana is based upon the Buddha's meditation teachings that appear in the suttas (see " One Tool Among Many" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). The Abhidhamma and the Commentaries, by contrast, clearly state that samatha and vipassana are two distinct meditation paths (see, for example, The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation by H. Gunaratana, ch. 5). It is difficult to reconcile these two views of samatha's role just from studying the texts; any remaining doubts and concerns about meditation are probably best resolved through the actual practice of meditation. [Go back]

Revised: Sun 19-Oct-2003
You can find the original article at accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bullitt/theravada.html

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