What is Theravada Buddhism

Theravada (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.

The many names of Theravada

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 pejorative intent.

Pali: the language of Theravada

The language 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.

Of course, 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.

Many students 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.

A brief summary of the Buddha’s teachings

What follows 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.

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 fixed dogmatic principles, but living experiences to be explored individually in the heart of the sincere spiritual seeker:

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;

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 last 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.

In 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 towards craving.

Progress 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.

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 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.

Buddhism 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?

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 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.”

The Buddha 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.

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 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.

For those 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.

An invitation to explore Theravada

The link 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.”

Keep in 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.

– John Bullitt

See the Access to Insight Website for Theravada text.

Note: “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”.