What is Theravada Buddhism?
the sects that arose after the Buddha’s death, what we now call
Theravada, the “way of the elders,” is the sole surviving strand. As the
oldest of the three main Buddhist traditions, it is the one most
closely associated with the teachings of the historical Buddha. The
school is rooted in the Tipitaka (Sanskrit, Tripitaka), “the three
baskets,” three collections of texts. Collected in the Tipitaka are some
of the earliest known Buddhist texts: the Suttas (Sanskrit, sutras),
accounts of hundreds of oral teachings given by the Buddha and his
senior disciples; the Vinaya, rules of the monastic order; and the
Abhidhamma (Sanskrit, Abhidharma), later scholarly commentaries on the
teachings. Together they form the Pali canon, a collection of
foundational texts that comprise the doctrinal basis of Theravada.
rests on core Buddhist teachings including the four noble truths and
eightfold path to enlightenment, the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, and
sangha), and concepts such as impermanence, non-self, karma, rebirth,
and dependent origination (the co-arising of phenomena), along with
ethical precepts and the meditation practices of samatha (calm abiding)
and vipassana (insight).
the Buddha set out ethical guidelines for lay practitioners, Theravada
is essentially a monastic tradition, emphasizing vows of renunciation
and self-purification. For the Theravadin, the spiritual ideal is the
arahant (Sanskrit, arhat), or “accomplished one,” who through solitary
effort attains nirvana—liberation from the suffering of cyclic existence
that marks samsara, or worldly life. In classical Theravada, a
layperson could become a “stream-enterer”—the first of four levels of
attainment on the path to enlightenment. But the disciplined life of a
monastic was deemed essential to reach the highest level—a non-returner
like the Buddha, whose “final nirvana” experienced at his death freed
him from rebirth.
has sometimes been called “Southern Buddhism”: from its origins in
northern India, it fanned out across southern Asia and today remains the
predominant form of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma),
Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, and it is also practiced in Europe, the
Americas, and beyond.