Part of the article on Theravada Buddhism
Part of a series on the
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

Origin of the school

The Theravāda school is ultimately derived from the Vibhajjavāda (or 'doctrine of analysis') grouping[1] 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."[2] 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.[3] In the 7th century, Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yi Jing refer to the Buddhist school in Sri Lanka as ‘Sthavira’.[4][5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8][9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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[14][15] 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.[16][17]

  • 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.[18])
  • 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.[19] 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.[20] Foreign, especially British rule had an enervating effect on the sangha.[21] 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.[21] Many monks in post-colonial times have been dedicated to undoing this paradigm shift.[22] Movements intending to restore Buddhism's place in society have developed in both Sri Lanka and Burma.[23]

  1. See "On the Vibhajjavādins", Lance Cousins, Buddhist Studies Review 18, 2 (2001)
  2. Indian Buddhism by A.K. Warder Motilal Banarsidass: 2000. ISBN 8120817419 pg 278[1]
  3. Hirakawa Akira (translated and edited by Paul Groner), 'A History Of India Buddhism', Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1993, page 109.
  4. 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"
  5. 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"
  6. it is used in the Dipavamsa (quoted in Debates Commentary, Pali Text society, page 4), which is generally dated to the fourth century
  7. Smith, Hudson. Novak, Philip. Buddhism. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003
  8. History Of Indian Buddhism by Etienne Lamotte, Peeters Publishers: 1988 ISBN: 906831100X pg 540
  9. "Mapping the Mahāyāna: Some Historical and Doctrinal Issues" by Mario D'Amato. Religion Compass 2008, Vol II, Issue 4. pg 550
  10. Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, page 187.
  11. See the article on this subject in Buddhist Studies Review, 24.2 (2007)
  12. Translated by Wilhelm Geiger, Mahavamsa : The great chronicle of Ceylon', Pali Text Society, 1912, Page 82 and 86
  13. Bob Hudson, The Origins of Bagan, Thesis for University of Sydney,2004, page 95.
  14. Bob Hudson, The Origins of Bagan, Thesis for University of Sydney,2004, page 36.
  15. 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]
  16. Indian Insights, ed Connolly & Hamilton, Luzac, London, 1997, pages 187-9
  17. "Modern Theravada". 
  18. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, volume 28 (part 2), page 302 (2005)
  19. 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.
  20. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pages 35-36.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, page 28.
  22. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, page 29.
  23. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed? The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pages 63-64.

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