Dharma Data: Savakayana

Later traditions usually called the Savakayana Hinayana, a derogatory name meaning the Little or Narrow Vehicle. However the name Savakayana, meaning the Vehicle of the Hearers, is both more courteous and more accurate in that for at least the first 300 years the Buddha’s teachings were orally transmitted i.e. they had to be heard in order to be learned by heart and transmitted.

The only Savakayana school that still flourishes is the Theravada which was introduced into Sri Lanka at the time of King Asoka (approximately 250 BC) and later spread from there throughout South-East Asia. The Savakayana as represented by the Theravada school is characterised by minimal doctrinal development from the earliest versions of the Buddhist teachings and by an emphasis on Vinaya by monks.

Theravada is still found in Sri Lanka and Burma, where it successfully weathered Western colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in Thailand. In Cambodia, it was decimated by Communism in the 1970s. Today, Theravada has gained many new adherents in India, Malaysia, Singapore and particularly in Indonesia. It has also gained a significant following in the West.

W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. London 1959; R.Gombrich Theravada Buddhism. London, 1988.