ASCII Transliteration: Theravaada
Literally the "way (vada) of the Elders (thera)". The only remaining "living" school of Hinayana Buddhism. Its teachings are based on the Tipitaka, or Pali Canon, a body of scripture and commentary attributed to the Buddha and his prominent followers and commentators first written down in Sri Lanka. Recorded in Pali, a formalized Prakrit tongue, the Tipitaka reresents some of the oldest recorded teachings of the Buddha, and the only completely intact canon of the earliest Buddhist schools.
Dominant school of Buddhism in southeast Asia, especially associated with Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, where many popular teachers and writers have emerged. Though it is also the primary school in Laos and Cambodia, the teachings of these countries are less well known, due to years of Communist repression of local religious institutions. In Cambodia, for instance, most of the country's educated monks were killed in the anti-intellectual purges of the Khmer Rouge. Also influenced the Buddhism of Vietnam.
Sometimes regarded as the oldest still-existent school of Buddhism, though establishing when any particular tradition 'begins' is tenuous at best. The teachings of Theravada form the core of the other schools of Buddhism, including several varieties of meditation, and the ideas of karma, nirvana, and the Triple Gem(tiratana).
The Theravada is known for its emphasis on the humanity of the Buddha, and for its cosmological simplicity in comparison to the elaborate systems of bodhisattvas and protective deities found in Mahayana and especially Tibetan Buddhism. Of the Mahayana schools, Theravada is often said to be closest to Zen (Chaan) because of its austerity and discipline, but the Theravada does not reject intellectual effort as these schools do. Study of suttas and their commentaries, particularly the obscure and complex teachings of the Abhidhamma are seen as a valid route to enlightenment, and a significant tradition of monastic scholarship exists in most Theravada nations.
The Theravada is also often defined in terms of its emphasis on the ideal of the arhat(arahant), rather than the bodhisattva; in the Theravada tradition, a bodhisattva is only someone who has undertaken to become a Buddha- in the Jataka stories, the Buddha is referred to as the Bodhisattva. Critics of the Theravada (frequently, these were Mahayana polemicists writing in areas of the world (such as China) where there had never been a living Theravada presence) construed this to mean that Theravada practitioners were seeking a selfish goal of personal salvation, without regard for other beings, making the Theravada arhat a 'lesser' form of Buddhism. Theravada thinkers would reply (had there been any around to read these criticisms) that the Buddha had clearly taught that no individual could enlighten or take on the karma of another, and as such the best way to serve others is to rid oneself of desire, preserve and teach the Dhamma, and seek to avoid adding to the already pervasive suffering of the world.
In the West, the Theravada is most commonly encountered through the teachings of vipassana, or insight, meditation. These method, which involves both concentration and analysis of the states of the mind, was popularized in the West in the 1970's, after teachers such as Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield began to teach to Western audiences through organizations like the Barre Insight Meditation Center in Barre, MA.
Unfortunately, the popularity of vipassana meditation has lead many westerners to believe that this is all there is to the Theravada tradition. While certain monks and monastic institutions have focused on the practice (particularly the Thai Forest Tradition and other reformist movements), even these movements have continued to emphasize the other traditional practices and teachings of the Theravada. These teachings include a strong emphasis on morality (sila) and discipline, multiple meditation practices, the literature of the Pali Canon, and a rich ritual tradition that includes a Pali liturgy and the 'economy of merit' that governs the relationship between lay supporters and ordained monks.
The Theravada is generally considered to be a conservative school of Buddhism, though it has certainly given rise to its share of firebrands and reformists. In Thailand and Sri Lanka, the Theravada Sangha has significant influence in the government, and is often directly supported by the government. Additionally, many Theravada countries have laws designed to protect the local Buddhist institutions.
This situation has, of course, lead to abuses. In Thailand, where many young men ordain as monks for short periods of time with no intention of making a life of it, scandals involving the sexual and/or drunken exploits of monks are not uncommon. Sri Lanka has suffered scandal of a different sort; there, the monastic institution and many lay supporters have been accused of using religion to motivate prejudicial laws and outright violence that contributed to the ongoing civil war between the Buddhist-majority Sinhala government and the Hindu Tamil minority.
The Theravada is also sometimes seen as being less favorable to women than other Buddhist schools. This is based not only on gender practices within Theravada nations, but also on the absence of a Theravada nuns order (which died out in Burma in the 14th Century), which limits leadership roles for Buddhist women. Female leaders have emerged, however, both in the West and in traditionally Theravada countries, and efforts have been made to revive the nuns order- with mixed success and approval. See bhikkhuni for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon.
Important Concepts & Teachings
Theravada Holidays & Observances
Theravada Scriptures & Canon
- Canonical Figures
- Classical Commentators and Scholars
- Modern Era Figures
Reform Movements and Sects
Misc. Pali vocabulary & Other Terminology
Books About the Theravada (non-Pali)
Other relvant information
Metanode-age always under construction. Please /msg with additions or suggestions.