Theravāda (Pali, literally “school of the elder monks”) is a branch of Buddhism that uses the Buddha’s teaching preserved in the Pāli Canon as its doctrinal core. The Pali canon is the only complete Buddhist canon which survives in a classical Indic Language, Pali, which serves as the sacred language and lingua franca of Theravada Buddhism. Another feature of Theravada is that it tends to be very conservative about matters of doctrine and monastic discipline. As a distinct sect, Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and spread to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Theravada also includes a rich diversity of traditions and practices that have developed over its long history of interactions with varying cultures and religious communities. It is the dominant form of religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and is practiced by minority groups in Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and Vietnam. In addition, the diaspora of all of these groups as well as converts around the world practice Theravāda Buddhism.
The name Theravāda comes from the ancestral Sthāvirīya, one of the early Buddhist schools, from which the Theravadins claim descent. After unsuccessfully trying to modify the Vinaya, a small group of “elderly members”, i.e. sthaviras, broke away from the majority Mahāsāṃghika during the Second Buddhist council, giving rise to the Sthavira sect. According to its own accounts, the Theravāda school is fundamentally derived from the Vibhajjavāda “doctrine of analysis” grouping, which was a division of the Sthāvirīya.
The Theravāda is said to be descended from the Tāmraparṇīya sect, which means “the Sri Lankan lineage”. Missionaries sent abroad from India are said to have included Ashoka’s son Mahinda (who studied under Moggaliputta-Tissa) and his daughter Sanghamitta, and they were the mythical founders of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, a story which scholars suggest helps to legitimize Theravāda’s claims of being the oldest and most authentic school.
In the 7th century, the Chinese pilgrim monks Xuanzang and Yijing refer to the Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka as Shàngzuòbù (上座部), corresponding to the Sanskrit Sthavira nikāya and Pali Thera Nikāya. Yijing writes, “In Sri Lanka the Sthavira school alone flourishes; the Mahasanghikas are expelled”.
The Sri Lankan Buddhist Sangha initially preserved the Buddhist scriptures (the Tipitaka) orally as it had been traditionally done, however during the first century BCE, famine and wars led to the writing down of these scriptures.
Over much of the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, three subdivisions of Theravāda existed in Sri Lanka, consisting of the monks of the Mahāvihāra, Abhayagiri vihāra and Jetavana.
According to the Mahavamsa, a Sri Lankan chronicle, after the conclusion of the Third Buddhist council, a mission was sent to Suvarnabhumi, led by two monks, Sona and Uttara. Scholarly opinions differ as to where exactly this land of Suvarnabhumi was located, but it is generally believed to have been located somewhere in the area of Lower Burma, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, or Sumatra.
Before the 12th century, the areas of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia were dominated by Buddhist sects from India, and included the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In the 7th century, Yijing noted in his travels that in these areas, all major sects of Indian Buddhism flourished.
Theravāda promotes the concept of vibhajjavāda “teaching of analysis”. This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant’s experience, application of knowledge, and critical reasoning. However, the scriptures of the Theravadin tradition also emphasize heeding the advice of the wise, considering such advice and evaluation of one’s own experiences to be the two tests by which practices should be judged.
The Theravāda school upholds the Pali Canon or Tipitaka as the most authoritative collection of texts on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The Sutta and Vinaya portion of the Tipitaka shows considerable overlap in content to the Agamas, the parallel collections used by non-Theravāda schools in India which are preserved in Chinese and partially in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tibetan, and the various non-Theravāda Vinayas. On this basis, both these sets of texts are generally believed to be the oldest and most authoritative texts on Buddhism by scholars. It is also believed that much of the Pali Canon, which is still used by Theravāda communities, was transmitted to Sri Lanka during the reign of Ashoka. After being orally transmitted (as was the custom in those days for religious texts) for some centuries, were finally committed to writing in the last century BCE, at what the Theravāda usually reckons as the fourth council, in Sri Lanka. Theravāda is one of the first Buddhist schools to commit the whole complete set of its Buddhist canon into writing.
Theravāda orthodoxy takes the seven stages of purification as its basic outline of the path to be followed.
The seven purifications are:
- Purification of Conduct (sīla-visuddhi)
- Purification of Mind (citta-visuddhi)
- Purification of View (ditthi-visuddhi)
- Purification by Overcoming Doubt (kankha-vitarana-visuddhi)
- Purification by Knowledge and Vision of What Is Path and Not Path (maggamagga-ñanadassana-visuddhi)
- Purification by Knowledge and Vision of the Course of Practice (patipada-ñanadassana-visuddhi)
- Purification by Knowledge and Vision (ñanadassana-visuddhi)
The Theravāda Path starts with learning, to be followed by practise, culminating in the realization of Nirvana.
Throughout the Pali Canon, two characteristics of all saṅkhāra (conditioned phenomena) and one characteristic of all dhammas are mentioned. The Theravāda tradition has grouped them together. Insight into these three characteristics is the entry to the Buddhist path:
- Anicca (impermanence): All conditioned phenomena are subject to change, including physical characteristics, qualities, assumptions, theories, knowledge, etc. Nothing is permanent, because, for something to be permanent, there has to be an unchanging cause behind it. Since all causes are recursively bound together, there can be no ultimate unchanging cause.
- Dukkha (suffering): Craving causes suffering, since what is craved is transitory, changing, and perishing. The craving for impermanent things causes disappointment and sorrow. There is a tendency to label practically everything in the world, as either “good”, “comfortable” or “satisfying”; or “bad”, “uncomfortable”, and “unsatisfying”. Labeling things in terms of like and dislike creates suffering. If one succeeds in giving up the tendency to label things, and freeing himself from the instincts that drive him towards attaining what he himself labels collectively as “liking”, he attains the ultimate freedom. The problem, the cause, the solution and the implementation, all of these are within oneself, not outside.
- Anatta (not-self): all dhammas lack a fixed, unchanging ‘essence’; there is no permanent, essential ātta (self). A living being is a composite of the five aggregates (khandhas), which are the physical forms (rupa), feelings or sensations (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vinnana), none of which can be identified as one’s Self. From the moment of conception, all entities (including all living beings) are subject to a process of continuous change. A practitioner should, on the other hand, develop and refine his or her mind to a state so as to see through this phenomenon. Truly understanding this counter-intuitive concept of Buddhism requires direct and personal experience. This is given in vipassanā practice, closely watching the continuous changes in the Five Aggregates.
The Four Noble Truths are described as follows:
- Dukkha (suffering): This can be somewhat broadly classified into three categories. Inherent suffering, or the suffering one undergoes in all the worldly activities, what one suffers in day-to-day life: birth, aging, diseases, death, sadness and so on. In short, all that one feels, from separating from “loving” attachments, and/or associating with “hating” attachments, is encompassed into the term. The second class of suffering, called Suffering due to Change, implies that things suffer because of attaching themselves to a momentary state which is held to be “good”; when that state is changed, things are subjected to suffering. The third, termed Sankhara Dukkha, is the subtlest. Beings suffer simply by not realizing that they are mere aggregates with no definite, unchanging identity.
- Dukkha Samudaya (cause of suffering): Craving, which leads to Attachment and Bondage, is the cause of suffering. Formally, this is termed Tanha. It can be classified into three instinctive drives. Kama Tanha is the Craving for any pleasurable sense object (which involves sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and mental perceptives). Bhava Tanha is the Craving for attachment to an ongoing process, which appears in various forms, including the longing for existence. Vibhava Tanha is the Craving for detachment from a process, which includes non-existence and causes the longing for self-annihilation.
- Dukkha Nirodha (cessation of suffering): One cannot possibly adjust the whole world to one’s taste in order to eliminate suffering and hope that it will remain so forever. This would violate the chief principle of Change. Instead, one adjusts one’s own mind through detachment so that the Change, of whatever nature, has no effect on one’s peace of mind. Briefly stated, the third Noble Truth implies that elimination of the cause (craving) eliminates the result (suffering). This is implied by the scriptural quote by The Buddha, ‘Whatever may result from a cause, shall be eliminated by the elimination of the cause’.
- Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada (pathway to freedom from suffering): This is the Noble Eightfold Pathway towards freedom or Nirvana. The path can roughly be rendered into English as right view, right intention, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Theravāda Buddhist meditation practices fall into two broad categories: samatha and vipassanā. This distinction is not made in the sutras, but in the Visuddhimagga.
Meditation (Pali: Bhavana) means the positive reinforcement of one’s mind. Meditation is the key tool implemented in attaining jhāna. Samatha means “to make skillful”, and has other renderings, among which are “tranquilizing, calming”, “visualizing”, and “achieving”. Vipassanā means “insight” or “abstract understanding”. In this context, Samatha Meditation makes a person skillful in concentration of mind. Once the mind is sufficiently concentrated, vipassanā allows one to see through the veil of ignorance.
In order to be free from suffering and stress, Theravadins believe that the defilements need to be permanently uprooted. Initially the defilements are restrained through mindfulness to prevent them from taking over mental and bodily action. They are then uprooted through internal investigation, analysis, experience and understanding of their true nature by using jhāna. This process needs to be repeated for each and every defilement. The practice will then lead the meditator to realize Nirvana.
The practices usually vary in different sub-schools and monasteries within Theravāda. But in the most orthodox forest monastery, the monk usually models his practice and lifestyle on that of the Buddha and his first generation of disciples by living close to nature in forest, mountains and caves. Forest monasteries still keep alive the ancient traditions through following the Buddhist monastic code of discipline in all its detail and developing meditation in secluded forests.
Traditionally, Theravāda Buddhism has observed a distinction between the practices suitable for a lay person and the practices undertaken by ordained monks (in ancient times, there was a separate body of practices for nuns). While the possibility of significant attainment by laymen is not entirely disregarded by the Theravāda, it generally occupies a position of less prominence than in the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, with monastic life being hailed as a superior method of achieving Nirvana.
Edited from Wikipedia