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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". 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. 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. In such a condition the perception or conclusion made will be based on that being's own illusion of reality. 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. 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.
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