(Pali: thera "elders" + vada "word, doctrine"),
the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the name for the
school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from
the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which scholars generally accept
as the oldest record of the Buddha's teachings. For many centuries,
Theravada has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka, Burma,
and Thailand; today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million
world-wide. In recent decades Theravada has begun to take root
in the West primarily in Europe, Australia and the USA.
names of Theravada
Buddhism goes by many names. The Buddha himself called the religion
he founded Dhamma-vinaya, "the doctrine and discipline,"
in reference to the two fundamental aspects of the system of
ethical and spiritual training he taught. Owing to its historical
dominance in southern Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma),
Theravada is also identified as "Southern Buddhism,"
in contrast to "Northern Buddhism," which migrated
northwards from India into Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea. Theravada
is sometimes identified as "Hinayana" (the "Lesser
Vehicle"), in contradistinction to "Mahayana"
(the "Greater Vehicle"), which is usually a synonym
for Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Ch'an, and other expressions of Northern
Buddhism. The use of "Hinayana" as a pejorative has
its origins in the early schisms within the monastic community
that ultimately led to the emergence of what would later become
Mahayana. Today, however, scholars of every Buddhist (and non-Buddhist)
persuasion often use the term "Hinayana," without
the language of Theravada
of the Theravada canonical texts is Pali, a relative of Magadhi,
the language probably spoken in central India during the Buddha's
time. Most of the sermons the Buddha delivered were memorized
by Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close personal attendant.
Shortly after the Buddha's death around 480 BCE, the community
of monks -- including Ananda -- convened to recite all the sermons
they had heard during the Buddha's forty-five years of teaching.
Each recorded sermon (sutta) therefore begins with the disclaimer,
Evam me sutam "Thus have I heard." The teachings
were passed down within the monastic community following a well-established
oral tradition. By about 100 BCE the Tipitaka was first fixed
in writing in Sri Lanka by Sinhala scribe-monks.
it can never be proved that the Pali Canon contains the actual
words uttered by the historical Buddha (and there is ample evidence
to suggest that much of the Canon does not). The wisdom the
Canon contains has nevertheless served for centuries as an indispensable
guide for millions of followers in their quest for Awakening.
of Theravada find that learning the Pali language even
just a little bit here and there greatly deepens their
understanding of the path of practice.
summary of the Buddha's teachings
is a brief synopsis of some of the key teachings of Theravada
Buddhism. I've left out a great deal, but I hope that even this
much will be enough to get you started in your exploration.
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 fixed dogmatic principles, but living experiences
to be explored individually in the heart of the sincere spiritual
1. The Noble
Truth of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness, stress): life
is fundamentally fraught with unsatisfactoriness and disappointment
of every description;
2. The Noble
Truth of the cause of dukkha: the cause of this dissatisfaction
is tanha (craving) in all its forms;
3. The Noble
Truth of the cessation of dukkha: an end to all that unsatisfactoriness
can be found through the relinquishment and abandonment of craving;
4. The Noble
Truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha: there
is a method of achieving the end of all unsatisfactoriness,
namely the Noble Eightfold Path;
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.
of the Noble Truths -- the Noble 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 through our
own ignorance (avijja) of the Four Noble Truths we have
been bound for countless aeons. The Noble 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 eight
qualities to be developed are: right view, right resolve, right
speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right
mindfulness, right concentration.
practice, the Buddha taught the Noble 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), culminating in
the development of panna, or wisdom (right view and right resolve).
The practice of dana (generosity) serves as a support at every
step along the path, as it helps foster the development of a
compassionate heart and counters the heart's habitual tendencies
along the path does not follow a simple linear trajectory. Rather,
development of each aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path encourages
the refinement and strengthening of the others, leading the
practitioner ever forward in an upward spiral of spiritual maturity
that culminates in Awakening.
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 wholesome actions
ultimately bring about wholesome results, the desire naturally
grows to live a skilful, morally upright life, to take seriously
the practice of sila. The confidence built from this preliminary
understanding inclines the follower to put one's trust more
deeply 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 (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.
is sometimes 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?
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 Noble Truth).
It is important
to keep in mind that the Buddha never denied that life
even an "unenlightented" life holds the possibility
of many kinds of great beauty and happiness. But he also recognized
that the kinds of happiness to which most of us are accustomed
cannot, by their very nature, give truly lasting satisfaction.
If one is genuinely interested in one's own and others' welfare,
one must sometimes be willing to give up one kind of happiness
for the sake of something much better. This understanding lies
at the very heart of the Buddha's method. Whether instructing
a layman on the blessings of treating one's parents and relatives
with respect, or instructing a celibate monk or nun on the finer
points of meditation, the Buddha's system of gradual training
consistently encourages the disciple to move on to a deeper
level of happiness, one that is greater, nobler, and more fulfilling
than what he or she had previously known. Each level of happiness
has its rewards, but each also has its drawbacks -- the most
conspicuous of which is that it cannot, by its very nature,
endure. The highest happiness of all, and the one to which all
the Buddha's teachings ultimately point, is the lasting happiness
and peace of the transcendent, the Deathless, Nibbana. Thus,
the Buddha's teachings are concerned solely with guiding people
towards the highest and most expansive happiness possible; there
is nothing pessimistic here. In the words of one teacher, "Buddhism
is the serious pursuit of happiness."
claimed that the Awakening he rediscovered is accessible to
anyone willing to put forth the effort and commitment required
to pursue the Noble Eightfold Path to its end. It is up to each
of us individually to put that claim to the test.
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.
of the 21st century presents both opportunities and dangers
for Theravada in the West: Will the Buddha's classical 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
the many different schools of Buddhism lead to the emergence
of a strong new form of Buddhism unique to the West, or will
it simply lead to the dilution and confusion of all these priceless
teachings? These are open questions; only time will tell.
seriously interested in the study and practice of Dhamma, it
is important to remember that the most reliable source of authentic
Theravada teachings continues to be as it has been for
the past two and one-half millennia the Pali Canon and
the monastic community.
to explore Theravada
to the web pages below invite you to explore the Buddha's teachings
for yourself, from the Theravada perspective. If you're not
sure where to begin, see the article "Befriending the Suttas:
Some Suggestions for Reading the Pali Discourses."
mind that these teachings aren't meant just to be studied, critiqued,
analyzed, and wondered about; they are meant to be put into
practice, to be put to the test in your own heart. They challenge
us to awaken within ourselves the same truths that the Buddha
discovered long ago on that full-moon night in the month of
May, in the forest near Gaya, India.
to Insight Website for Theravada text.
"Theravada" is pronounced (more or
less, in American English) like "terra vodda." The
"th" sound in Pali is not like the "th"
in "thick"; it's pronounced more like the "th"
combination in "hothouse".