What is Theravada Buddhism? And why it’s important to learn about it? Before we get into the heart of the matter, let’s admit that studying Buddhism is hard. If you tried to research Buddhism, you probably encountered small text, long paragraphs, and confusing terms.
That is why I decided to write about it in my own way, and make it easy for anyone interested to understand it all. Here’s a brief overview of the things I will cover in this article.
-The importance of Theravada: why it’s a great starting point for our study if we’re new to Buddhism.
-Name: why it’s called Theravada Buddhism and the main difference from Mahasanghika.
-Location: what countries adhere to this school and how it got there.
-Language: why this school of Buddhism uses the Pali language as opposed to Sanskrit.
-The scripture: in this section, I will talk about the ancient text that this school considers “The Word of the Buddha.”
-The teaching: here, I will give a brief overview of the primary teaching of Theravada Buddhism.
Everything I mentioned above can be used as a pointer for further research and investigation.
Why It’s Important to Learn About Theravada Buddhism in the First Place
We may ask, “Why should we even bother learning about Theravada Buddhism? Can we just skip it and jump right to, let’s say, Zen Buddhism?”
That’s a fair question and a good starting point for our exploration.
First of all, Theravada Buddhism is considered the most conservative of all Buddhist schools out there.
Conservative (or orthodox) shouldn’t be understood in a negative sense. It’s actually a good thing that it’s very conservative.
Its teaching has undergone little change since it was first committed to writing in the 1st century BCE.
So this comes as close as it can possibly get to what historical Gotama Buddha taught after his enlightenment.
By exploring Theravada school, we expose ourselves to the most ancient and authentic account of the Buddha’s teaching in its purest form.
Learning about Theravada will give us a solid foundation for exploring other Buddhist schools and compare them to the conservative (original) teaching.
So if we’re just starting to learn about Buddhism and wondering, “Where should we start learning about Buddhism if we know nothing about it?”
Then our answer is to start with Theravada Buddhism and then continue exploring other schools. Although agreeing on core teachings, we will find out different schools diverge on many other things.
Name: Theravada vs. Mahasanghika
The word Theravada consists of two words: thera, which can be translated as ‘elder’ and vada — ‘word.’ Put together, they mean ‘teaching of the elders.’
So who were these elders? The elders were great elderly monks who presided over the First Buddhist Council after the death of the Buddha.
During the first council, they recited the Buddha’s teaching and compiled two collections. The first one was the Collection of the Buddha’s Teachings (Pali: Sutta Pitaka). The second one was the Collection of Discipline (Pali: Vinaya Pitaka), a set of monastic rules of life.
A hundred years later, during the Second Buddhist Council, the community split for the first time into Theravada and Mahasanghika. The former was a conservative side, and the latter was a more liberal side.
The split occurred when a group of monks had a disagreement over specific rules, forcing them to form their own separate community (sangha) and call their own Great Council (mahasangiti). From the Theravada’s perspective, the Mahasanghika was a group of expelled monks, not an authentic school.
So if we look at Theravada as the upholders of the tradition of great elders (mahatheras) of the First Buddhist Council, we can regard it as orthodox Buddhism.
Geography: Southern Buddhism vs. Northern Buddhism
The ancient texts tell us a story of how Theravada Buddhism got to ancient Ceylon in 250 BCE.
The monk who brought Theravada to Ceylon was Mahinda, son of great Buddhist king Asoka. He was accompanied by a group of five monks required to perform an ordination ceremony for new monks.
Later, his sister Sanghamitta, joined him to establish the Order of Nuns in Ceylon. The legend says she brought the branch of the Bo tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment. It took root in the city of Anuradhapura, where it’s worshipped to this day.
After reaching Ceylon in 250 BCE, Theravada existed for a thousand years, mainly in Ceylon and southeast India. In the 11th century, it went from Ceylon to Burma. Then, over the next two centuries, it spread to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
We can contrast this with what can be called northern Buddhism, which traveled from India to the north to such countries as China, Tibet, Korea, etc.
This offers us another way of looking at Theravada Buddhism from a geographical perspective. In which case, we can regard it as southern Buddhism.
Language: Pali vs. Sanskrit
When reading about Buddhism, many of us have encountered different spellings of its central terms:
Dhamma, Nibbana, Kamma, as opposed to Dharma, Nirvana, Karma. The first three are written in Pali and the last three in Sanskrit.
What important to know here is that at the time of the Buddha, Sanskrit was the sacred language of Hindu priests called Brahmins. Brahmins were the preservers of “sacred knowledge” (Veda). Veda was eternally true and told men what to do.
The Buddha was a heterodox (non-conformist) thinker of his time. He denied the authority of Veda as the final truth and power of Brahmins as the arbiters of that truth.
That’s why he was opposed to using Sanskrit and instructed his monks to spread his teaching in local languages.
There are a lot of disputes about the origin of Pali. Everyone seems to agree that it’s a language created from a mixture of local languages of that time. Eventually, it became the language of Theravada and its scriptures.
So from the standpoint of its primary language, Theravada Buddhism can also be called the Pali tradition.
Scripture: Tipitaka or Three Baskets
I have mentioned earlier that during the Second Buddhist Council, the community split into two factions: Theravada and Mahasanghika.
It didn’t stop there, and during the following two centuries, they split into 18 different schools.
Each school had its own collection of texts that they considered canonical and true.
However, these old schools were lost when Muslims invaded northern India in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The only complete collection of texts that was able to survive belonged to Theravada school. Since it was transplanted from India to Ceylon in 250 BCE, it was able to escape the destruction other schools faced in the motherland.
The primary doctrinal scripture of Theravada Buddhism is called Tipitaka — Three Baskets or Three Compilations. It’s regarded by Theravadins as Word of the Buddha (Pali: buddhavacana).
The three compilations are:
1. The Compilation of Discipline (Pali: Vinaya Pitaka) – rules for monks and nuns intended to regulate life in the monastic order (sangha).
2. The Compilation of Teaching (Pali: Sutta Pitaka) – contains the teaching of the Buddha in verse and prose.
3. The Compilation of Philosophy (Pali: Abhidhamma Pitaka) – the philosophical systematization of the Buddha’s teaching.
The Teaching of Theravada Buddhism
The teaching of Theravada Buddhism is centered around:
The Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering (dukkha), the truth of the cause of suffering – craving (tanha), the truth of the end of suffering (Nibbana), and the truth of the path leading to the end of suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path)
The Noble Eightfold Path consists of virtue – sila (right speech, right action, right livelihood), concentration – samadhi (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), and wisdom – panna (right view and right resolve).
By developing the Noble Eightfold Path, we overcome ignorance (avijja) of the Four Noble Truths and become released from an endless cycle of birth and death called samsara.
The ideal or the aim is to become an awakened one – arahant. Arahant is someone who fully developed the path, realized the four truths, escaped the cycle of endless rebirth, and attained enlightenment.