Theravada (Pāli: थेरवाद theravāda (cf Sanskrit: स्थविरवाद sthaviravāda); literally, "the Teaching of the Elders", or "the Ancient Teaching") is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It was founded in India. It is relatively conservative, and generally closest to early Buddhism, and for many centuries has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka (about 70% of the population) and most of continental Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand). It is also practiced by minorities in parts of southwest China (by the Shan and Tai ethnic groups), Vietnam (by the Khmer Krom), Bangladesh (by the ethnic groups of Baruas, Chakma, and Magh), Malaysia and Indonesia, whilst recently gaining popularity in Singapore and Australia. Today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide, and in recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West and in the Buddhist revival in India.
Origin of the school
The Theravāda school is ultimately derived from the Vibhajjavāda (or 'doctrine of analysis') grouping which was a continuation of the older Sthavira (or 'teaching of the Elders') group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE, during the reign of Emperor Asoka in India. Vibhajjavadins saw themselves as the continuation of orthodox Sthaviras and after the Third Council continued to refer to their school as the Sthaviras/Theras ('The Elders'), their doctrines were probably similar to the older Sthaviras but were not completely identical. After the Third Council geographical distance led to the Vibhajjavādins gradually evolving into four groups: the Mahīśāsaka, Kāśyapīya, Dharmaguptaka and the Tāmraparnīya. The Theravada is descended from the Tāmraparnīya, which means 'the Sri Lankan lineage'. Some sources claim that only the Theravada actually evolved directly from the Vibhajjavādins. The name of Tamraparniya was given to the Sri Lankan lineage in India but there is no indication that this referred to any change in doctrine or scripture from the Vibhajjavadins, since the name points only to geographical location. The Theravadin accounts of its own origins mention that it received the teachings that were agreed upon during the Third Buddhist Council, and these teachings were known as the Vibhajjavada. In the 7th century, Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yi Jing refer to the Buddhist school in Sri Lanka as ‘Sthavira’. In ancient India, those schools that used Sanskrit as their religious language referred to this school as the 'Sthaviras', but those that use Pali as their religious language referred to this school as the 'Theras'. Both 'Sthaviras' (Sanskrit) and 'Theras' (Pali) both literally mean 'The Elders'. The school has been using the name 'Theravada' for itself in a written form since at least the fourth century CE when the term appears in the Dipavamsa. There is little information about the later history of Theravada Buddhism in India, and it is not known when it disappeared in its country of origin. The Theravada school had also reached Burma around the time it arrived in Sri Lanka and something of a synergy gradually developed. Around the end of the tenth century C.E, for example, war in Sri Lanka had extringuished Buddhism, and a contingent of Burmese monks had to be imported to rekindle it. Burmese and Sri Lankan Theravada reinforced each other sufficiently, so that by the time Buddhism died out in India in the eleventh century, it has established a stable home in these countries. Gradually the Theravada form of Buddhism spread to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
History of the tradition
According to Sinhalese tradition, Buddhism was first brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, who is believed to have been the son of the Mauryan emperor Asoka, in the third century BCE, as a part of the missionary activities of the Asokan era. In Sri Lanka, Mahinda established the Mahavihara Monastery of Anuradhapura. Later it became divided into three subgroups, known after their monastic centers as the Mahavihara, the Abhayagirivihara, and the Jetavanavihara. In 1164, with the guidance of two monks from a forest branch of the Mahavihara, Sri Lanka King reunited all bhikkhus in Sri Lanka into the orthodox Mahavihara school. A few years after the arrival of Sthavira Mahinda, Sanghamitta, who is also believed to be the daughter of Emperor Asoka, came to Sri Lanka. She started the first nun order in Sri Lanka, but the nun order died out in Sri Lanka in the 11th century and in Burma in the 13th. In 429 CE, by request of China's emperor, nuns from Anuradhapura were sent to China to establish the Nun Order. The order was then spread to Korea. In 1996, 11 selected Sri Lankan nuns were ordained fully as Bhikkhunis by a team of Theravada monks in concert with a team of Korean Nuns in India. There is disagreement among Theravada vinaya authorities as to whether such ordinations are valid. In the last few years the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka has carried out ordination ceremonies for hundreds of nuns. This has been criticized by some other leading figures in the Siyam Nikaya and Amarapura Nikaya, and the governing council of Burmese Buddhism has declared that there can be no valid ordination of nuns in modern times, though some Burmese monks disagree with this. During the Asoka reign period, a missionary was also sent to Suvannabhumi where two monks Sona and Uttara, are said to have proceeded. Scholar opinions differ as to where exactly this land of Suvannabhumi is located, but Suvannabhumi is believed to be located somewhere in the area which now includes lower Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malay Peninsula. The Mon were one of the earliest people to inhabit lower Burma and are believed to have been Theravadin since 3rd century BCE. Archaeological findings have shown that the Mon had close contact with South India and Sri Lanka. The Burmese adopted the Mon religion and writing script (which is also used there as Pali script) when they conquered Thaton the Mon Kingdom in 1057. According to the local traditions, this was the area of Suvarnabhumi that was visited by missionaries from the Asokan court. The Mon were also one of the earliest people to inhabit Thailand. The Thai adopted the Mon religion when they conquered Hariphunchai, the Mon Kingdom in 1292. However, despite its success in Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhism was never very successful in China, except in the few areas bordering Theravada countries; in Chinese historiography, it is normally referred to as Hinayana, a term which Theravada Buddhists most often find derogatory.
Fundamentals of Theravada
The ultimate theory of Theravada uses the Four Noble Truths, also known as the Four Sublime Truths. In the simplest form these can be described as the problem, the cause, the solution and the pathway to solution (implementation).
A formal description of the Four Noble Truths follow:
1. Dukkha (suffering) - This can be somewhat broadly classified into three categories. Inherent suffering, or the suffering one undergoes in all the worldly activities, what one suffers in day-to-day life: birth, aging, diseases, death, sadness, etc. In short, all that one feels from separating from 'loving' attachments and or associating with 'hating' attachments is encompassed into the term. The second class of suffering, called Suffering due to Change, implies that things suffer due to attaching themselves to a momentary state which is held to be 'good'; when that state is changed, things are subjected to suffering. The third, termed 'Sankhara Dukkha', is the most subtle. Beings suffer simply by not realizing that they are mere aggregates with no definite, unchanging identity.
2. Dukkha Samudaya (cause of suffering) - Craving, which leads to Attachment and Bondage, is the cause of suffering. Formally, this is termed 'Tanha'. It can be classified into three instinctive drives. 'Kama Tanha' is the Craving for any pleasurable sense object (which involves sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and mental perceptives). 'Bhava Tanha' is the Craving for attachment to an ongoing process, which appears in various forms, including the longing for existence. 'Vibhava Tanha' is the Craving for detachment from a process, which includes non-existence and causes the longing for self-annihilation.
3. Dukkha Nirodha (cessation of suffering) - One cannot possibly adjust the whole world to one's taste in order to eliminate suffering and hope that it will remain so forever. This would violate the chief principle of Change. Instead, one adjusts one's own mind through detachment so that the Change, of whatever nature, has no effect on one's peace of mind. Briefly stated, the third Noble Truth implies that elimination of the cause (craving) eliminates the result (suffering). This is inferred in the scriptural quote by Lord Buddha, 'Whatever may result from a cause, shall be eliminated by the elimination of the cause'.
4. Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada (pathway to freedom from suffering) - This is the Noble Eightfold Path way towards freedom or Nibbana. The path can roughly be rendered into English as right view, right intention, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
1. Anicca (impermanence): Change is. All conditioned phenomena are subject to Change, including physical characteristics, qualities, assumptions, theories, knowledge, etc. Nothing is permenant, because, for something to be permenant, there has to be an unchanging cause behind it. Since all causes are recursively bound together, there can be no ultimate unchanging cause.
2. Dukkha (suffering) - Craving causes suffering, since what is craved is transitory, changing, and perishing. It is the impermanence of the object of craving that causes disappointment and sorrow. There is a tendency to label practically everything in the world, as either 'good', 'comfortable' or 'satisfying', as opposed to 'bad', 'uncomfortable', and 'unsatisfying'. It is we that label things in the world in the term of 'liking' or 'dislike', so we are the ones who create suffering in the first place. If one succeeds in giving up the tendency to label things and free himself from the instincts that drive him towards attaining what he himself labels collectively as 'liking', he attains the ultimate freedom. The problem, the cause, the solution and the implementation, all of these are within oneself, not outside.
3. Anatta (not-self) - The concept 'Anatta' can be rendered as lack of fixed, unchanging identity; no phenomenon constitutes an individual's permanent, essential Atman (Buddhism). A living being is a composite of the five aggregates (khandhas), which is the physical forms (rupa), feelings or sensations (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vinnana), none of which can be identified as one's Self. From the moment of conception, all entities (including all living beings) are subject to a process of continuous change. A practitioner should, on the other hand, develop and refine his or her mind to a state so as to see through this phenomenon.
Direct realization of these three characteristics leads to freedom from worldly bonds and attachments, thus leading to the state where one is completely, ultimately free, the state which is termed 'Nibbana', which literally means 'Freedom'.
The pathway towards 'Nibbana', or the Noble Eightfold Path way is sometimes stated in a more concise manner, known as the Three Noble Disciplines. These are known as discipline (sīla), training of mind (Samadhi (Buddhism)) and wisdom (paññā).