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Theravada Buddhism

Sri Lanka
Cambodia • Laos
Burma • Thailand


Pali Canon


Pre-sectarian Buddhism
Early schools • Sthavira
Asoka • Third Council
Mahinda • Sanghamitta
Dipavamsa • Mahavamsa


Saṃsāra • Nibbāṇa
Middle Way
Noble Eightfold Path
Four Noble Truths
Enlightenment Stages
Precepts • Three Jewels

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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,[1] and for many centuries has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka (about 70% of the population[2]) and most of continental Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand). Theravada 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, while recently gaining popularity in Singapore and the Western World. 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.[3]


Origin of the school

The Theravāda school is ultimately derived from the Vibhajjavāda (or 'doctrine of analysis') grouping[4] which was a continuation of the older Sthavira (or 'teaching of the Elders') group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council around 250 BC, 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.

According to Buddhist scholar A.K. Warder, the Theravada “spread rapidly south from Avanti into Maharastra and Andhra and down to the Chola country (Kanchi), as well as Ceylon. For sometime they maintained themselves in Avanti as well as in their new territories, but gradually they tended to regroup themselves in the south, the Great Vihara (Mahavihara) in Anuradhapura, the capital of Ceylon, become the main centre of their tradition, Kanchi a secondary center and the northern regions apparently relinquished to other schools."[5] 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 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 Theravadan 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.[6] In the 7th century, Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yi Jing refer to the Buddhist school in Sri Lanka as ‘Sthavira’.[7][8] 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.[9]

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 extinguished the Theravadan ordination lineage, 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 had established a stable home in these countries. Gradually the Theravada form of Buddhism spread to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.[10]

Although the Theravada tradition was always reputed to be one of the more conservative schools, like the other Nikaya Buddhist schools in India at one point it included Mahāyāna practioners ("Mahāyāna-Theravāda" or "Mahāyāna-Sthaviravāda"), according to reports of Chinese pilgrims such as Xuanzang.[11][12] Royal houses in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia associated themselves closely with Buddhism. States in those areas strictly enforced orthodoxy, and ensured that Theravada remained traditionalist. This contrasts with the relationship of Buddhism to states throughout most of Buddhism's history in India.[13]

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 Abhayagiri Vihara, and the Jetavanavihara. In 1164, with the guidance of two monks from a forest branch of the Mahavihara, the Sri Lankan 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.[14]

According to Mahavamsa the Sri Lanka chronical, after the conclusion of the Third Buddhist Council, a missionary was also sent to Suvannabhumi where two monks Sona and Uttara, are said to have proceeded.[15] 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, Malay Peninsula and Sumatra Island.

The Mon and Pyu were among the earliest people to inhabit Burma. Recent archaeological research at a Pyu settlement in the Samon Valley (around 100 km south-east of Bagan) has shown that they had trade links with India from 500-400 BC and with China around 200 BC.[16] Chinese sources which have been dated to around 240 A.D. mention a Buddhist kingdom by the name of Lin-Yang, which some scholars have identified as the ancient Pyu kingdom of Beikthano[17][18] 300 km north of Yangon. The Burmese slowly became Theravadan when they came into contact with the Pyu and Mon civilization. The Thais also slowly became Theravadan as they came into contact with the Mon civilization.

Despite its success in Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhism in China has generally been limited to areas bordering Theravada countries.

Modern developments

The following modern trends or movements have been identified.[19][20]

  • modernism: attempts to adapt to the modern world and adopt some of its ideas; includes among other things
    • green movement
    • syncretism with other Buddhist traditions
    • women's rights
    • gay rights
  • reformism: attempts to restore a supposed earlier, ideal state of Buddhism; includes in particular the adoption of Western scholars' theories of original Buddhism (in recent times the "Western scholarly interpretation of Buddhism" is the official Buddhism prevailing in Sri Lanka and Thailand.[21])
  • ultimatism: tendency to concentrate on advanced teachings such as the Four Noble Truths at the expense of more elementary ones
  • neotraditionalism; includes among other things
    • revival of ritualism
    • remythologization
  • insight meditation
  • social action
  • devotional religiosity
  • reaction to Buddhist nationalism
  • renewal of forest monks
  • revival of samatha meditation

Buddhist revivalism has also reacted against changes in Buddhism caused by colonialist regimes. Western colonialists and Christian missionaries deliberately imposed a particular type of Christian monasticism on Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka and colonies in Southeast Asia, restricting monks' activities to individual purification and temple ministries.[22] Prior to British colonial control, monks in both Sri Lanka and Burma had been responsible for the education of the children of lay people, and had produced large bodies of literature. After the British takeover, Buddhist temples were strictly administered and were only permitted to use their funds on strictly religious activities. Christian ministers were given control of the education system and their pay became state funding for missions.[23] Foreign, especially British rule had an enervating effect on the sangha.[24] According to Walpola Rahula, Christian missionaries displaced and appropriated the educational, social, and welfare activities of the monks, and inculcated a permanent shift in views regarding the proper position of monks in society through their institutional influence upon the elite.[24] Many monks in post-colonial times have been dedicated to undoing this paradigm shift.[25] Movements intending to restore Buddhism's place in society have developed in both Sri Lanka and Burma.[26]

Overview of Philosophy

Theravada promotes the concept of Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis." This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith; however, the scriptures of the Theravadan tradition also emphasize heeding the advice of the wise, considering such advice and evaluation of one's own experiences to be the two tests by which practices should be judged.

In Theravada, the cause of human existence and suffering (dukkha) is identified as craving (tanha), which carries with it the defilements (kilesas). Those defilements that bind human to the cycle of rebirth are classified into a set of ten "Fetters", while those defilements that impede concentration (samadhi) are presented in a fivefold set called the "Five Hindrances".[27] The level of defilement can be coarse, medium, and subtle. It is a phenomenon that frequently arises, remains temporarily and then vanishes. Theravadans believe defilements are not only harmful to oneself, but also harmful to others. They are the driving force behind all inhumanities a human being can commit.

Theravadian's believe these defilements are the habits born of ignorance (avijja) which afflict the minds of all unenlightened beings. It is believed that unenlightened beings are under the influence of the defilements, unenlightened beings cling to them through ignorance of the truth. But in reality, those mental defilements are nothing more than taints that have afflicted the mind and create suffering and stress. It is also believed that unenlightened beings cling to the body, assuming it as their own "Self", but in reality the body is an impermanent phenomenon formed from the four basic elements. Often characterized by earth, water, fire and air, in the early Buddhist texts these are defined to be abstractions representing the sensorial qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility, respectively.[28] The mental defilements' frequent instigation and manipulation of the mind is believed to have prevented the mind from seeing the true nature of reality. Unskillful behavior in turn can strengthen the defilements, but following the Noble Eightfold Path can weaken or eradicate them.

It is also believed that unenlightened beings experience the world through their imperfect six sense doors (eye, ear, nose, tongue, tactile sense, and mind) and then use the mind clouded by defilements to form their own interpretation, perception and conclusion[29]. In such a condition the perception or conclusion made will be based on that being's own illusion of reality.[30] In the state of jhana (deep concentration), the five physical sense doors will fade, the mental defilements will be suppressed, and wholesome mental traits will become strengthened. The mind can then be used to investigate and gain insight into the true nature of reality.

There are three stages of defilements. During the stage of passivity the defilements lies dormant at the base of the mental continuum as latent tendencies (anusaya), but through the impact of sensory stimulus it will manifest (pariyutthana) itself to the surface of consciousness in the form of unwholesome thoughts, emotions, and volitions. If they gather additional strength, the defilement will reach the dangerous stage of transgression (vitikkama), which will then involve physical or vocal actions.

It is believed that in order to be free from suffering and stress these defilements need to be permanently uprooted. Initially the defilements are restrained through mindfulness to prevent them from taking over the mind and bodily action. They are then uprooted through internal investigation, analyzing, experiencing and understanding the true nature of those defilements by using jhana. This process needs to be repeated for each and every defilement. The practice will then lead the meditator to realize the Four Noble Truths, Enlightenment, and Nirvana (Sanskrit: निर्वाण, Nirvāṇa; Pali: निब्बान, Nibbāna; Thai: นิพพาน, Nípphaan). Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Theravadans. Nirvana is said to be the perfect bliss and the person is liberated from the repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death.

Theravadans believe that every individual is personally responsible for their own self-awakening and liberation, as they are the ones that were responsible for their own actions and consequences (Sanskrit: karma; Pali: kamma). Simply learning or believing in the true nature of reality as expounded by the Buddha is not enough, the awakening can only be achieved through direct experience and personal realization. An individual will have to follow and practice the Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha to discover the reality for themselves. In Theravada belief, Buddhas, gods or deities are incapable of giving a human being the awakening or lifting them from the state of repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death (samsara). For Theravadans, Buddha is only a Teacher of the Noble Eightfold Path, while gods or deities are still subject to anger, jealousy, hatred, vengeance, craving, greed, delusion, and death.

It is believed that some people who practice with earnestness and zeal can attain Nirvana 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 reaching higher and higher states of realization. One who has attained Nirvana is called an Arahant. It is believed that the Nirvana is most quickly attained as a disciple of Buddha, since Lord Buddha is believed to have possessed the ultimate knowledge on how to guide a person through the process of enlightenment.

According to the early scriptures, the Nirvana attained by Arahants is identical to that attained by the Buddha himself, as there is only one type of Nirvana.[31] Buddha was superior to Arahants because the Buddha had discovered the path all by himself, and has taught it to others (i,e., metaphorically turning the wheel of Dhamma). Arahants, on the other hand, attained Nirvana due in part to the Buddha's teachings. Theravadans 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.

Traditionally Theravadans can either have the conviction (or "faith") in the Buddha's teaching and practice the minor precepts in the hope of gaining some minor benefits or they can investigate and verify by direct experience the truth of the Buddha's teaching by practicing the jhana which is part of the Noble Eightfold Path for their own Enlightenment.

Fundamentals of Theravada

One thing that should be expressed first and foremost is that the Theravada philosophy is a continuous analytical process of life, not a mere set of ethics and rituals.

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).

The Four Noble Truths

A formal description of the Four Noble Truths follows:

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 The 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 Pathway towards freedom or Nirvana. 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.

The Three Characteristics

These are the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena in Theravada thought.

1. Anicca (impermanence): Change is. All conditioned phenomena are subject to Change, including physical characteristics, qualities, assumptions, theories, knowledge, etc. Nothing is permanent, because, for something to be permanent, 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. The craving for impermanent things 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'. Since we label things in terms of 'like' or 'dislike', we create suffering for ourselves. 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; there is no permanent, essential Self. 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 Nirvana, which literally means 'Freedom'.

The Three Noble Disciplines

The pathway towards Nirvana, or the Noble Eightfold Pathway is sometimes stated in a more concise manner, known as the Three Noble Disciplines. These are known as discipline (sīla), training of mind (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā).


Meditation (Pali: Bhavana) means the positive reinforcement of one's mind. Broadly categorized into Samatha and Vipassana, Meditation is the key tool implemented in attaining jhana. Samatha literally means "to make skillful", and has other renderings also, among which are "tranquilizing, calming", "visualizing", and "achieving". Vipassana means "insight", or "abstract understanding". In this context, Samatha Meditation makes a person skillful in concentration of mind. Once the mind is sufficiently concentrated, Vipassana allows one to see through the veil of ignorance.

In the Pali Canon discourses, the Buddha frequently instructs his disciples to practice samadhi (concentration) in order to establish and develop jhana (full concentration). Jhana is the instrument used by the Buddha himself to penetrate the true nature of phenomena (through investigation and direct experience) and to reach Enlightenment.[32] Right Concentration (samma-samadhi) is one of the elements in the Noble Eightfold Path. Samadhi can be developed from mindfulness with breathing (anapanasati), from visual objects (kasina), and repetition of phrases. The traditional list contains 40 objects of meditation (kammaṭṭhāna) to be used for Samatha Meditation. Every object has a specific goal; for example, meditation on the parts of the body (kayanupassana or kayagathasathi) will result in a lessening of attachment to our own bodies and those of others, resulting in a reduction of sensual desires. Mettā (loving kindness) generates the feelings of goodwill and happiness toward ourselves and other beings; metta practice serves as an antidote to ill-will, wrath and fear.

Levels of attainment

Through practice, (Theravadan) practitioners can achieve four stages of enlightenment:[33]

  1. Stream-Enterers - Those who have destroyed the first three fetters (false view of Self, doubt, and clinging to rites and rituals) will be safe from falling into the states of misery (they will not be born as an animal, peta (ghost, or hell being). At most they will have to be reborn only seven more times before attaining Nirvana.
  2. Once-Returners - Those who have destroyed the first three fetters and have lessened the fetters of lust and hatred will attain Nirvana after being born once more in the world.
  3. Non-Returners - Those who have destroyed the five lower fetters, which bind beings to the world of the senses. Non-returners will never again return to the human world and after they die, they will be born in the high heavenly worlds, there to attain Nirvana. Attaining the state of non-returner is portrayed in the early texts as the ideal goal for laity.[34]
  4. Arahants - Those who have reached Enlightenment, realized Nirvana, and have reached the quality of deathlessness are free from all the fermentations of defilement. Their ignorance, craving and attachments have ended. Attaining the state of arahant is portrayed in the early texts as the ideal goal for monastics.[34]


The Theravada school upholds the Pali Canon or Tipitaka as the most authoritative collection of texts on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The Sutta and Vinaya portion of the Tipitaka shows considerable overlap in content to the Agamas, the parallel collections used by non-Theravada schools in India which are preserved in Chinese and partially in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tibetan, and the various non-Theravada Vinayas. On this basis, both these sets of texts are generally believed to be the oldest and most authoritative texts on Buddhism by scholars. It is also believed that much of the Pali Canon, which is still used by Theravāda communities, was transmitted to Sri Lanka during the reign of Asoka. After being orally transmitted (as was the custom in those days for religious texts) for some centuries, were finally committed to writing in the last century BCE, at what the Theravada usually reckons as the fourth council, in Sri Lanka. Theravada is one of the first Buddhist schools to commit the whole complete set of its Buddhist canon into writing.[35]

Much of the material in the Canon is not specifically "Theravadan", but is instead the collection of teachings that this school preserved from the early, non-sectarian body of teachings. According to Peter Harvey:

The Theravadans, then, may have added texts to the Canon for some time, but they do not appear to have tampered with what they already had from an earlier period.[36]

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.

In the 4th or 5th century CE Buddhaghosa Thera wrote the first Pali commentaries to much of the Tipitaka (which were based on much older manuscripts, mostly in old Sinhalese), and after him many other monks wrote various commentaries, which have become part of the Theravada heritage. These texts, however, do not enjoy the same authority as the Tipitaka does. 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.

The commentaries, together with the Abhidhamma, define the specific Theravada heritage. Related versions of the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka were common to all the early Buddhist schools, and therefore do not define only Theravada, but also the other early Buddhist schools, and perhaps the teaching of Gautama Buddha himself.

Theravada Buddhists consider much of what is found in the Chinese and Tibetan scriptural collections to be apocryphal, meaning that they are not authentic words of the Buddha.[37]

Lay and monastic Life

Young monk

Young Burmese monk

Traditionally, Theravada Buddhism has observed a distinction between the practices suitable for a lay person and the practices undertaken by ordained monks (in ancient times, there was a separate body of practices for nuns). While the possibility of significant attainment by laymen 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 Nirvana, as described in the Tipitaka). He stresses that all three are firmly rooted in the Pali Canon. These categories are not accepted by all scholars, and are usually considered non-exclusive by those who employ them.

The role of lay people has traditionally been primarily occupied with activities that are commonly termed 'merit making' (falling under Spiro's category of kammatic Buddhism). Merit making activities 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 (by cooking, cleaning, maintaining temple facilities, etc.). Lay activities have traditionally not extended to study of the Pali scriptures, nor the practice of meditation, though in the 20th Century these areas have become more accessible to the lay community, especially in Thailand.

Monk on pilgrimage

Thai monks on pilgrimage in their saffron robes.

A number of senior monastics in the Thai Forest Tradition, including Ajahn Buddhadasa, Luang Ta Maha Bua, Ajahn Plien Panyapatipo, Ajahn Pasanno, and Ajahn Jayasaro, have begun teaching meditation retreats outside of the monastery for lay disciples.

In the UK, Ajahn Chah a disciple of Ajahn Mun, set up a monastic lineage at Chithurst in West Sussex, "Cittaviveka", with his disciple Ajahn Sumedho, then "Amaravati" in Hertfordshire was founded which has a retreat center for lay retreats. Ajahn Sumedho extended this to Harnham in Northumberland as Aruna Ratanagiri under the present guidance of Ajahn Munindo, another disciple of Ajahn Chah.

Nirvana, the highest goal of Theravada Buddhism, is attained through study and the practice of morality, meditation and wisdom (sila, samadhi, panna). The goal of Nirvana (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 Nirvana. 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 spiritual teachers and officiants by presiding over spiritual ceremonies and providing instruction in basic Buddhist morality and teachings.

Scholar monks undertake the path of studying and preserving the Pali literature of the Theravada. They may devote little time to the practice of meditation, but may attain great respect and renown by becoming masters of a particular section of the Pali Canon or its commentaries. Masters of the Abhidhamma, called Abhidhammika, are particularly respected in the scholastic tradition.

Meditation monks, often called forest monks because of their association with certain wilderness-dwelling traditions, are considered to be specialists in meditation. While some forest monks may undertake significant study of the Pali Canon, in general meditation monks are expected to learn primarily from their meditation experiences and personal teachers, and may not know more of the Tipitaka than is necessary to participate in liturgical life and to provide a foundation for fundamental Buddhist teachings. More so than the scholastic tradition, the meditation tradition is associated with the attainment of certain supernatural powers described in both Pali sources and folk tradition. These powers include the attainment of Nirvana, mind-reading, supernatural power over material objects and their own material bodies, seeing and conversing with gods and beings living in hell, and remembering their past lives. These powers are called abhiñña. Sometimes the remain of the cremated bone fragment of an accomplished forest monk is believed able to transfom itself into crystal-like relics (sārira-dhātu).


Candidate for the Buddhist priesthood is ordaining to is a monk in a church

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 Burma. 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. Monks 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 Burma, young men typically ordain 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 leaving the monastic life. Monks regularly leave the robes after acquiring an education, or when compelled by family obligations or ill-health.

Ordaining as a monk, even for a short period, is seen as having many virtues. 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 ordained as a monk 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.

In Sri Lanka, temporary ordination is not practiced, and 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 monkhood. 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 line with the expected duties and privileges of their caste.

Some well-known Theravadan monks are: Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, Ajahn Chah, Ledi Sayadaw, Ajahn Plien Panyapatipo, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Brahm, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhadasa, Mahasi Sayadaw, Nyanaponika Thera, Preah Maha Ghosananda, Sayadaw U Pandita, Ajahn Amaro, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Walpola Rahula, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, and Bhante Yogavacara Rahula.

Monastic practices


A Buddhist Monk chants evening prayers inside a monastery located near the town of Kantharalak, Thailand (January 2005).

The practices usually vary in different sub-schools and monasteries within Theravada. But in the most orthodox forest monastery, the monk usually models his practice and lifestyle on that of the Buddha and his first generation of disciples by living close to nature in forest, mountains and caves. Forest monasteries still keep alive the ancient traditions through following the Buddhist monastic code of discipline in all its detail and developing meditation in secluded forests.

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 by eating from the bowl by hand. Most of the time is spent on Dhamma study and meditation. Sometimes the abbot or a senior monk will give a Dhamma talk to the visitors. 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, and go wherever they feel inclined. Only those requisites which are necessary will be carried along. 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 they just start doing it; nor do they determine for how long they will go on to meditate. Some of them sometimes walk from dusk to dawn whereas at other times they may walk from 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.

Lay devotee

In Pali the word for a male lay devotee is Upasaka. Upasika is its female equivalent. 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 monk/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.

In Burma 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 a monastery are always accompanied by social activities. In times of crisis, it is to the monks that people bring their problems for counsel.

Traditionally, a ranking monk will deliver a sermon four times a month: when the moon waxes and wanes and the day before the new and full moons. The laity also have a chance to learn meditation from the monks during these times.

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 Nirvana. 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."[38]


According to the linguist Zacharias P. Thundy the word "Theravada" may have been Hellenized into "Therapeutae", to name a coenobitic order near Alexandria described around the 1st century CE. The similarities between the Therapeutae and Buddhist monasticism, combined with Indian evidence of Buddhist missionary activity to the Mediterranean around 250 BC (the Edicts of Asoka), have been pointed out. The Therapeutae would have been the descendants of Asoka's emissaries to the West, and would have influenced the early formation of Christianity.[39] However, the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism[40] states that theories of influences of Buddhism on early Christianity are without historical foundation.

Monastic Orders within Theravada

Theravada monks typically belong to a particular nikaya, variously referred to as monastic orders or fraternities. These different orders do not typically develop separate doctrines, but may differ in the manner in which they observe monastic rules. These monastic orders represent lineages of ordination, typically tracing their origin to a particular group of monks that established a new ordination tradition within a particular country or geographic area. In Sri Lanka caste plays a major role in the division into nikayas. Some Theravada Buddhist countries appoint or elect a sangharaja, or Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha, as the highest ranking or seniormost monk in a particular area, or from a particular nikaya. The demise of monarchies has resulted in the suspension of these posts in some countries, but patriarchs have continued to be appointed in Thailand. Burma and Cambodia ended the practice of appointing a sangharaja for some time, but the position was later restored, though in Cambodia it lapsed again.

Festivals and customs

Theravada Spiritual festivals:

  1. Magha Puja
  2. Vesakha Puja
  3. Asalha Puja
  4. Uposatha
  5. Vassa (Rain Retreat)

See also


  1. Gethin, Foundations, page 1
  2. "The World Factbook: Sri Lanka". CIA World Factbook. Retrieved 2006-08-12. .
  3. - See the citations under 'Theravada Buddhism - World'
  4. See "On the Vibhajjavādins", Lance Cousins, Buddhist Studies Review 18, 2 (2001)
  5. Indian Buddhism by A.K. Warder Motilal Banarsidass: 2000. ISBN 8120817419 pg 278[1]
  6. Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner), 'A History Of India Buddhism', Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, page 109.
  7. Samuel Beal, "Si-Yu-Ki - Buddhist Records of the Western World - Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang AD 629", published by Tuebner and Co, London (1884), reprint by the Oriental Book Reprint Corporation, New Delhi, (1983), Digital version: Chung-hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies, Taipei. In this book, Hiuen Tsiang refer to the Buddhist in Sri Lanka "They principally follow the teaching of Buddha, according to the dharma of the Sthavira (Shang-tso-pu) school"
  8. Samuel Beal, "The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang: By the Shaman Hwui Li. With an introduction containing an account of the works of I-tsing", published by Tuebner and Co, London (1911), Digital version: University of Michigan. In this book, I-tsing refer to situation in Sri Lanka as "In Ceylon the Sthavira school alone flourishes; the Mahasanghikas are expelled"
  9. it is used in the Dipavamsa (quoted in Debates Commentary, Pali Text society, page 4), which is generally dated to the fourth century
  10. Smith, Hudson. Novak, Philip. Buddhism. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003
  11. History Of Indian Buddhism by Etienne Lamotte, Peeters Publishers: 1988 ISBN: 906831100X pg 540
  12. "Mapping the Mahāyāna: Some Historical and Doctrinal Issues" by Mario D'Amato. Religion Compass 2008, Vol II, Issue 4. pg 550
  13. Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, page 187.
  14. See the article on this subject in Buddhist Studies Review, 24.2 (2007)
  15. Translated by Wilhelm Geiger, Mahavamsa : The great chronicle of Ceylon', Pali Text Society, 1912, Page 82 and 86
  16. Bob Hudson, The Origins of Bagan, Thesis for University of Sydney,2004, page 95.
  17. Bob Hudson, The Origins of Bagan, Thesis for University of Sydney,2004, page 36.
  18. Elizabeth Moore, Interpreting Pyu material culture: Royal chronologies and finger-marked bricks, Myanmar Historical Research Journal, No(13) June 2004, pp.1-57, page 6 & 7. Available[2]
  19. Indian Insights, ed Connolly & Hamilton, Luzac, London, 1997, pages 187-9
  20. "Modern Theravada". 
  21. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, volume 28 (part 2), page 302 (2005)
  22. Edmund F. Perry's introduction to Walpola Rahula's The Heritage of the Bhikkhu: A Short History of the Bhikkhu in the Educational, Cultural, Social, and Policital Life. Grove Press, New York, 1974, page xii.
  23. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pages 35-36.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, page 28.
  25. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, page 29.
  26. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pages 63-64.
  27. Bhikkhu Bodhi. "The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering". Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  28. Dan Lusthaus, "What is and isn't Yogacara." He specifically discusses early Buddhism as well as Yogacara. [3].
  29. The five sensory doors, together with the mind, are known in the Pali Canon as the “Six Sense Bases”"Salayatana-samyutta". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2008-12-04.  and "Salayatana-vibhanga Sutta". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2008-12-04. 
  30. "Vipallasa Sutta". Access to Insight edition. Retrieved 2008-12-04.  and "The Way of Wisdom: The Restraint of the Senses". Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved 2008-12-04. 
  31. Bodhi. "A Treatise on the Paramis: From the Commentary to the Cariyapitaka". Retrieved 2007-07-31. 
  32. "A Sketch of the Buddha's Life". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  33. "Lohicca Sutta". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2009-03-27. 
  34. 34.0 34.1 Shaw, Sarah. "Buddhist Meditation Practices in the West". Department of Continuing Education, Oxford University. pp. 8. Retrieved 2009-03-27. 
  35. Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 3.
  36. Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995, page 9.
  37. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004 (Volume Two), page 756
  38. Bhikkhu Bodhi,In the Buddha's Words, Wisdom Publications 2005; page 376
  39. "The Original Jesus" (Element Books, Shaftesbury, 1995), Elmar R Gruber, Holger Kersten
  40. (Volume One), page 159

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