Theravada (Pāli: theravāda; Sanskrit: स्थविरवाद sthaviravāda; literally, "the Teaching of the Elders" or "the Ancient Teaching") is the world's oldest surviving Buddhist school, with an uninterrupted lineage of thought and practice extending over two thousand years. The most distinctive characteristic of Theravadin practice is the central importance of monastic life, such that ultimate religious attainment is often seen as exclusive domain of the bhikkhus (religious renunciants). The tradition's ideal, the arhat, represents a monk/nun who has successfully followed the historical Buddha's teachings, which allow them to break the chains of dependent arising (pratitya-samutpada) and escape from the cycle of samsara. The particularized nature of this soteriology has led some to criticize the school as a Lesser Vehicle to salvation (Hinayana), though such criticism ignores the school's unimpeachable historical pedigree.
For many centuries, Theravada Buddhism has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka (about 70 percent of the population) and most of continental Southeast Asia (including Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand). It is also a significant minority religion in many other Asian countries, as it is commonly practiced in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as by the Shan and Tai peoples in parts of southwest China, the Khmer Krom people in Vietnam, and the Baruas, Chakma, and Magh minorities in Bangladesh. Today, Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide, and in recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in Singapore, Australia, India, and (to a lesser extent) elsewhere in the West.
The earliest reliable historical accounts situate the origins of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka circa 200 B.C.E., where it was originally taught by Mahinda, a missionary monk who is believed to have been the son (or brother) of the Mauryan emperor Asoka. In addition to his importance in disseminating Buddhist doctrine, this enterprising monk is also credited with establishing the Mahavihara Monastery of Anuradhapura—a structure that was central to Theravadin spirituality for over a thousand years. This school of teaching came to be known in India as Tamraparniya, which can be simply translated as "the Sri Lankan lineage." Later, doctrinal and praxical debates caused this school to become divided into three subgroups, the Mahavihara, the Abhayagirivihara, and the Jetavanavihara, each of which was named after the monastery that provided its locus. This dissension was largely quelled in 1164, when the Sri Lankan king, under the guidance of two monks from a forest branch of the Mahavihara school, reunited all bhikkhus into a single orthodox sangha.
Accounts from this period attest to the enthusiastic adoption and institutional character of this faith among the Sri Lankan populace during the religion's first millennium in the region:
These sources suggest that monks lived as more or less permanent residents in monasteries (vihara, arama) that usually consisted of a number of buildings: Residential quarters, a teaching hall, and a posadha hall (for the fortnightly recitation of the monastic rule). The religious heart of a monastery was threefold: a stupa (containing relies, ideally of the Buddha or of some acknowledged "saint"), a Bodhi-tree (an asvattha or ficus religiosa—the type of tree the Buddha gained awakening under—often growing on a platform), and finally a shrine hall or image house. All three would have been the object of considerable devotional practice by monks and laity alike. Monasteries varied enormously in size. Fa-hsien records that the Abhayagiri Vihara at Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, housed 5,000 monks. …Whether or not the figures of the Chinese pilgrims are exaggerated, the remains of these ancient monastic complexes are impressive in themselves and bear witness to their grand past. Patronized by royalty and the wealthy, many monasteries had considerable endowments in the form of property, lands, and other material goods.
During the reign of Asoka, missionaries (such as the two monks Sona and Uttara) were also sent to a mysterious kingdom named Suvannabhumi. Scholarly opinions differ concerning the exact location of this realm, but most theorize that it was located somewhere in the area that now includes lower Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Malay peninsula. Evidence for this claim includes the fact that the Mon people of lower Myanmar are believed to have been Theravadin since third century B.C.E., as evidenced in extant texts and inscriptions describing the region's contact with South India and Sri Lanka. The Burmese adopted the Mon religion (and the Pali script) when they conquered Thatön—then the capital of the Mon Kingdom—in 1057. The Thai people also adopted the Mon religion when they conquered Haripunjaya (the Mon Kingdom) in 1292.
A few years after Mahinda's arrival in Sri Lanka, Sanghamitta, who is believed to have been the daughter of Emperor Asoka, also came to the country as a missionary. While there, she created the first sororal order in the history of Buddhism. The successors of these early nuns "in later times transmitted the women's ordination lineage to China, where it survived, even though it eventually died out in Sri Lanka."
Hirakawa, Tsomo, and Miura summarize the spread of female Theravadin monasticism to China:
The first full ordination of bhiksuni [in China] was performed later since it required a Sangha of ten bhiksu and a Sangha of ten bhiksuni. According to the Biographies of Eminent Monks, in the sixth year of the Yuen Chia era (426 C.E.), … the nun Hui-kuo and her companions were officially the first bhiksuni in China who were properly ordained. When they were ordained, the Sri Lankan bhiksuni constituted a full Bhiksuni Sangha and administered the bhiksuni ordination. Therefore, the precepts that were transmitted would have been those of the Theravada school.
From China, these precepts were gradually disseminated throughout the remainder of East Asia, including Korea and Japan.
In an attempt to revitalize this tradition in the modern age, the year 1996 saw eleven Sri Lanka nuns ordained as full Bhikkhunis by a team of Theravada monks, operating in concert with a team of Korean Nuns. Though there is disagreement among more conservative vinaya authorities as to whether such ordinations are valid, they can be seen to follow the historically accepted practices of the school.
While there is no definitive evidence attesting to the existence of Theravada Buddhism in the period prior to the Third Buddhist Council (c. 250 B.C.E.), modern scholarship suggests that the school likely emerged from the Vibhajjavāda movement, itself a subset of the the older Sthavira schools. After this Council, the Vibhajjavādins are generally thought to have evolved into four related groups (the Mahīśāsaka, Kāśyapīya, Dharmaguptaka and the Tāmraparnīya), of which the Tāmraparnīya (literally "the Sri Lankan lineage") can be seen as a direct antecedent of the modern Theravada school.
In particular, the Vibhajjavadins saw themselves as extending the teachings of the orthodox Sthaviras, such that they continued referring to themselves as the Sthaviras/Theras ("The Elders") after the Third Council. Historical evidence corroborates this identification, as in the case of seventh century Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yi Jing, who describe the Buddhist school in Sri Lanka as Sthavira. In fact, the Sanskrit term "Sthaviras," when transliterated into Pali, provided the indigenous name for the group—"Theravada"—a term whose use can be traced to the fourth century.
The goal of Theravadin practice is liberation from suffering, as outlined in the Four Noble Truths. This is attained in the achievement of Nibbana ("unbinding"/"extinguishing"), a process that entails the cessation of the repeated cycle of birth, old age, sickness and death (samsara). Theravada teaches that Nibbana is most quickly attained as an enlightened noble disciple of Buddha: An Arahant (lit. "worthy one," "winner of Nibbana").
In the Theravadin view, the state of Nibbana attained by Arahants is the same as that attained by the Buddha himself. The difference was that the Buddha was superior to Arahants because the Buddha had discovered the path all by himself, and was able to teach others. Arahants, on the other hand, experience Nibbana due in part to the Buddha's teachings. Theravadins revere the Buddha as a single supremely gifted person but do recognize the existence of other such Buddhas in the distant past and future. Maitreya (Pali: Metteyya), for example, is mentioned very briefly in the Pali Canon as a Buddha who will come in the distant future.
In Theravadin belief, some people who practice with earnestness and zeal can achieve Enlightenment (Nibbana) within a single lifetime, as did many of the first few generations of Buddha's disciples. For others, the process may take multiple lifetimes, with the individual gradually reaching higher and higher states of awareness with each rebirth. In practice, Theravada promotes the concept of Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis." This doctrine states that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith. However, the scriptures of the Theravadin tradition also emphasize heeding the advice of the wise, and suggest that all practices should be judged based on a combination of sage advice and thorough, objective self-evaluation.
Theravadin doctrine states that, through practice, adherents can achieve four degrees of spiritual attainment, which are commensurate with their respective states of mind:
The Theravada school upholds the Pali Canon or Tipitaka as the most authoritative collection of texts on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The Tipitaka is the oldest historical collection of texts on Buddhism, having its roots in the First Buddhist Council of the fifth century B.C.E. The content of the Sutta and Vinaya portions of the Tipitaka shows considerable overlap with the Agamas, the parallel collections used by non-Theravada schools in India, Tibet, and elsewhere in East Asia. On this basis, most scholars assume that both these sets of texts are the oldest and most authoritative documents in the Buddhist canon.  It is also believed that the Pali Canon, which is still used by Theravāda communities, was transmitted to Sri Lanka during the reign of Asoka. After surviving in orally transmission for about four centuries, it was finally committed to writing between 35 and 32 B.C.E., during the fourth council, in Matale, Sri Lanka. Indeed, the Theravada school is one of the first Buddhist sanghas to commit its entire scriptural corpus into writing.
The Pali Tipitaka consists of three parts: the Vinaya Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka. Of these, the Abhidhamma Pitaka is believed to be a later addition to the first two pitakas, which, in the opinion of many scholars, were the only two pitakas at the time of the First Buddhist Council. The Pali Abhidhamma was not recognized outside the Theravada school. The Tipitaka is composed of 45 volumes in the Thai edition, 40 in the Burmese and 58 in the Sinhalese, and a full set of the Tipitaka is usually kept in its own (medium-sized) cupboard.
In the fourth or fifth century C.E., Buddhaghosa Thera wrote the first Pali commentaries on much of the Tipitaka, which prompted many later monks to pen their own commentaries. These texts have also become part of the Theravada heritage, despite the fact that they do not enjoy the same authority as the Pali Canon itself. The commentaries, together with the Abhidhamma, define the specific Theravada heritage.
Theravada Buddhists typically view the Mahayana sutras as extra-canonical at best and utterly apocryphal at worst.
Traditionally, Theravada Buddhism has observed a distinction between the practices suitable for a lay person and the austerities practiced by ordained monks and nuns. While the possibility of significant attainment by laypeople is not entirely disregarded by the Theravada, it occupies a position of significantly less prominence than in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. This distinction—as well as the distinction between those practices advocated by the Pali Canon, and the folk religious elements embraced by many monks—have motivated some scholars to consider Theravada Buddhism to be composed of multiple separate traditions, overlapping though still distinct. Most prominently, the anthropologist Melford Spiro in his work Buddhism and Society separated Burmese Theravada into three groups: Apotropaic Buddhism (concerned with providing protection from evil spirits), Kammatic Buddhism (concerned with making merit for a future birth), and Nibbanic Buddhism (concerned with attaining the liberation of nibbana, as described in the Tipitaka). These categories are not accepted by all scholars, and are usually considered non-exclusive by those who employ them.
Nibbana, the highest goal of Theravada Buddhism, is attained through study and the practice of morality, meditation and wisdom (sila, samadhi, panna). The goal of Nibbana (and its associated techniques) have traditionally been seen as the domain of the fully ordained monastic, whereas many of the same techniques can be used by laypeople to generate happiness in their lives, without focusing on Nibbana. Monastic roles in the Theravada can be broadly described as being split between the role of the (often urban) scholar monk and the (often rural or forest) meditation monk. Both types of monks serve their communities as religious teachers and officiants by presiding over religious ceremonies and providing instruction in basic Buddhist morality and teachings.
As a result of this monastic focus, the role of lay people has traditionally been relegated to 'merit making' activities (and thus falling under Spiro's category of kammatic Buddhism). These pursuits include offering food and other basic necessities to monks, making donations to temples and monasteries, burning incense or lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting protective or merit-making verses from the Pali Canon. Some lay practitioners have always chosen to take a more active role in religious affairs, while still maintaining their lay status. Dedicated lay men and women sometimes act as trustees or custodians for their temples, taking part in the financial planning and management of the temple. Others may volunteer significant time in tending to the mundane needs of local monks (for example, by cooking, cleaning, and maintaining temple facilities). However, lay activities have traditionally not extended to study of the Pali scriptures, nor the practice of meditation, though in the twentieth Century these areas have become more accessible to the lay community, especially in Thailand. For instance, A number of senior monastics in the Thai Forest Tradition, including Ajahn Buddhadasa, Luang Ta Maha Bua, Ajahn Pasanno, and Ajahn Jayasaro, have begun teaching meditation retreats outside of the monastery for lay disciples. Amongst westerners, it is very common for the focus to be more to the actual practice and theory of Theravada Buddhism, and this attitude is spreading amongst Asians as well.
In Myanmar and Thailand, the monastery was and is still regarded as a seat of learning. In fact today about half of the primary schools in Thailand are located in monasteries. Religious rituals and ceremonies held in monastery are always accompanied by social activities. In times of crisis, it is to the monks that people bring their problems for counsel.
In Pali, the terms for lay devotees are "Upasaka" (male) and "Upasika" (female). One of the duties of the lay followers, as taught by the Buddha, is to look after the needs of the monk/nuns. They are to see that the monks/nuns do not suffer from lack of the four requisites: Food, clothing, shelter and medicine. As neither monks nor nuns are allowed to have an occupation, they depend entirely on the laity for their sustenance. In return for this charity, they are expected to lead exemplary lives.
Though the vast majority of Theravadin sources suggest that the achievement of nibanna is ultimately reserved for monastics, some sources imply that it is also possible for a lay disciple to become enlightened. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, "The Suttas and commentaries do record a few cases of lay disciples attaining the final goal of Nibbana. However, such disciples either attain Arahantship on the brink of death or enter the monastic order soon after their attainment. They do not continue to dwell at home as Arahant householders, for dwelling at home is incompatible with the state of one who has severed all craving." This being said, it is still generally understood that monastic life is most expeditious path to enlightenment.
The minimum age for ordaining as a Buddhist monk is 20 years, reckoned from conception. However, boys under that age are allowed to ordain as novices (samanera), performing a ceremony such as Shinbyu in Myanmar. Novices shave their heads, wear the yellow robes, and observe ten basic precepts. Although no specific minimum age for novices is mentioned in the scriptures, traditionally boys as young as seven are accepted. This tradition follows the story of the Lord Buddha’s son, Rahula, who was allowed to become a novice at the age of seven. Unlike their youthful compatriots, monks are expected to follow 227 rules of discipline, while nuns follow 311 rules.
In most Theravada countries, it is a common practice for young men to ordain as monks for a fixed period of time. In Thailand and Myanmar, young men typically accept ordaination for the 3 month Rain Retreat (vassa), though shorter or longer periods of ordination are not rare. Traditionally, temporary ordination was even more flexible among Laotians. Once they had undergone their initial ordination as young men, Laotian men were permitted to temporarily ordain again at any time, though married men were expected to seek their wife's permission. Throughout Southeast Asia, there is little stigma attached to entering or leaving the monastic life. Monks regularly leave the robes after acquiring an education, or when compelled by family obligations or ill-health.
Becoming ordained as a monk, even for a short period, is seen as having many beneficial effects. In many Southeast Asian cultures, it is seen as a means for a young man to "repay" his parents for their work and effort in raising him, because the merit from his ordination accrues to them as well. Thai men who have been ordained may be seen as more fit husbands by Thai women, who refer to men who have served as monks with a colloquial term meaning "cooked" to indicate that they are more mature and ready for marriage. Particularly in rural areas, temporary ordination of boys and young men traditionally gave peasant boys an opportunity to gain an education in temple schools without committing to a permanent monastic life.
Conversely, temporary ordination is not practiced in Sri Lanka, and the thought of a monk leaving the order is frowned upon. The continuing influence of the caste system in Sri Lanka may play a role in the taboo against temporary ordination and leaving the monastic life. Though Sri Lankan monastic nikayas are often organized along caste lines, men who ordain as monks temporarily pass outside of the conventional caste system, and as such during their time as monks may act (or be treated) in a way that would not be in keeping with the expected duties and privileges of their caste.
The practices usually vary in different sub-schools and monasteries within Theravada. These variances are reasonably minimal, however, as most orthodox monasteries encourage their members to model the life of the Buddha (as preserved in the Vinaya codes) as strictly as possible. This discipline is most rigidly followed in forest monasteries, where monks follow the example of the Buddha and his first generation of disciples by living close to nature in forests, mountains and caves.
In a typical daily routine at the monastery during the 3 month vassa period, the monk will wake up before dawn and will begin the day with group chanting and meditation. At dawn, the monks will go out to surrounding villages bare-footed on alms-round and will have the only meal of the day before noon, eating from the bowl by hand. Other than these communal obligations, the majority of the aspirants time is spent on Dharma study and meditation. Laity who stay at the monastery will have to abide by the traditional eight Buddhist precepts.
After the end of the Vassa period, many of the monks will go out far away from the monastery to find a remote place (usually in the forest) where they can hang their umbrella tents and where it is suitable for the work of self-development. When they go wandering, they walk barefoot, carrying their (minimal) possessions. These generally consist of the bowl, the three robes, a bathing cloth, an umbrella tent, a mosquito net, a kettle of water, a water filter, razor, sandals, some small candles, and a candle lantern.
The monks do not fix their times for walking and sitting meditation, for as soon as they are free of the constraints of monastery life, they are expected to simply embody their months or years of training. As a result, some of them walk from dusk to dawn, whereas others may walk between two to seven hours. Some may decide to fast for days or stay at dangerous places where ferocious animals live in order to aid their meditation. Those monks who have been able to achieve a high level of attainment will be able to guide the junior monks and lay Buddhists toward the four degrees of spiritual attainment.
Similarities between the Therapeutae and Buddhist monasticism, combined with Indian evidence of Buddhist missionary activity to the Mediterranean around 250 B.C.E. (the Edicts of Ashoka), have been pointed out. The Therapeutae could have been the descendants of Ashoka's emissaries to the West, and would have influenced the early formation of Christianity.
Different orders, which are referred to as nikayas, has not resulted in the development of separate doctrines. Historically, the Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha, the highest ranking monk in a country, may come from any of these Nikayas, and is appointed by the king. The demise of monarchies has resulted in the suspension of these posts in some countries, but there is still a supreme Patriarch in the Kingdom of Thailand.
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