Mary Jo Meadow. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Theravada Buddhism comes from the teachings of the Buddha, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. The Theravada (School of the Elders, in the Pali language) is the sole surviving branch of the earliest Buddhism. Its primary emphasis was on monastic life, with the single goal of individual liberation through enlightenment, until the early twentieth century, when it became more widely available. Laypeople are encouraged to practice generosity (dana) and morality (sila) in hopes of a better rebirth with the opportunity for more meditation practice.
The number of Theravadins within the worldwide Buddhist community is difficult to assess since many contemporary Western Buddhists freely incorporate elements of various Buddhist groups in their practice. The Theravada are sometimes pejoratively called the Hinayana (Lesser, or Smaller, Vehicle) by other branches of Buddhism. Its disparagers see it as a teaching for only an elite few.
The Buddha taught in what is modern-day India and Nepal. A sangha (community) of monks and nuns was well established by the time of his death. He apparently did not intend to found a religion. He said he taught one thing only: suffering and how to end suffering.
The growth of Buddhism in India was greatly enhanced in the third century B.C.E. by the emperor Ashoka, a warrior who became disenchanted with battle after a particularly bloody victory. He found the teachings of the Buddha on nonviolence appealing and established the Buddha’s teachings as the moral background of his realm. His reign constituted a high point of early Buddhist culture. Trade and the growth of cities enhanced the growth of Buddhism. Buddhism in India later declined, in part due to the rise of Islam there in the thirteenth century. By that time, however, it had pervaded most of Southeast Asia.
Within several hundred years of the Buddha’s birth, at the second major assembly of fully enlightened monks, schisms within the sangha led to new schools that wrote additional scriptures. The groups that formed Mahayana (Greater, or Large, Vehicle) Buddhism migrated north into China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. This branch produced a more popularized form of the Buddha’s teachings that incorporated strains of folk religion and other philosophies indigenous to the regions into which it traveled.
Although practiced worldwide, the Theravada has remained mainly Southeast Asian in its culture. It has major strongholds in Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Nepal, Laos, and other Southeast Asian countries, but only remnants of it are now found in India. Since the middle of the twentieth century, it has held a strong presence in the West, where it tends to attract more educated people.
Theravadin teachings arrived in Great Britain in the late nineteenth century. They reached the United States later than the Mahayana, becoming established in the mid-1970s. They were brought mainly by young people returning from Peace Corps duty in Asia and by wayfarers searching Asia for spiritual riches. Although traditionally the Theravada emphasized monasticism, few observant monasteries exist in the West. England, Australia, and the United States have a few. The Theravadin presence in the West is sustained mainly by meditating laypeople.
Theravadins share belief in the core teachings of the Buddha with all schools of Buddhism. The core teaching that the Theravada emphasizes is summarized in the Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha taught in his first sermon. These truths are that human existence is ultimately unsatisfactory and made up of suffering; that this suffering is caused by craving; that suffering ceases when craving ends; and that a path of practice leading to liberation from suffering exists.
Theravadins commonly divide the fourth noble truth, which outlines the path to liberation from suffering, into three main parts: morality (sila), stability of mind (samadhi), and wisdom (panna). The wisdom steps are right understanding and right intention. The morality steps are right livelihood, right conduct, and right speech. The steps involved in meditation, which lead to stability of mind and, ultimately, wisdom are right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Such distinctions are important to Theravadins since their tradition has a strong base in monastic discipline and meditation.
Theravadins often speak of kamma (karma) in terms of their cosmology’s realms of existence. This law of moral cause and effect states that chosen actions create states of mind, and that this has consequences. At death the quality of a mind creates its next experience. Having a mind dominated by an unwholesome state of mind brings about rebirth in a lower realm of suffering. For example, minds dominated by hatred create hell realms for themselves, and those dominated by greed, a hungry ghost existence. Those in voluntary ignorance or delusion, such as that caused by polluting the mind with intoxicants, will be reborn in an animal realm. Excessive egotism and self-concern produce the demon realms.
Rebirth in the human realm can be gained through possession of some minimum of morality and generosity. This realm is considered the most propitious for spiritual practice since it has enough suffering to be motivating and enough happiness to prevent becoming overwhelmed. Those with highly developed morality and generosity can inhabit the realms of devas, or lesser gods. The brahma realms are attained through mental purity, such as being highly concentrated on beautiful states of mind. All of these realms are temporary and fall short of the fruition of nibbana (nirvana), which is explained below.
Theravadins teach that not all kamma necessarily ripens, or has a determining influence on future realms of existence. Although actions plant seeds, other factors determine whether or not the seed will ripen. Weighty kamma, however, will override all other factors. Some examples of negative weighty kamma are killing a parent or harming a very holy person. These inevitably earn a long sojourn in the deepest hell. Attaining the first degree of enlightenment is positive weightykamma. Those who attain this will never again be born in a realm lower than the human one.
The Theravada and Mahayana schools share a fundamental belief in the paramis (perfections of the Buddha). Theravadins describe 10 paramis in a list that differs somewhat, however, from the usual Mahayana paramitas, but there is considerable overlap. Theravadins hold that, from the moment when he vowed to become a Buddha for the good of all beings, Gautama set about developing these 10 attributes to a high degree of perfection. When they appear in any being’s life, they signal that some spiritual progress has been made, though their attainment remains a continuing spiritual task throughout life.
The foremost parami is dana (generosity). Generosity reflects the openhandedness needed for spiritual development; it is the opposite of the grasping that causes suffering. Asian laypeople commonly sign up months in advance to supply a day’s food to a monastery, for example. Sila (morality), which is right conduct, is explained below in MORAL CODE OF CONDUCT. Renunciation is surrendering whatever stands in the way of coming to nibbana. Wisdom, or correct understanding and intention, is a fruit of spiritual practice and the final liberator of beings. Diligence, often called effort, energy, or courage, is persistent application to right living and spiritual practice. This quality appears in more Theravadin lists than any other as a necessary attribute to develop.
Patience involves acceptance of the rate of growth and of what happens in the process of growth. Truthfulness goes beyond the morality of not lying. It requires that a being become truth. When truthful beings give their word, they will follow though. They see themselves clearly and without sham. Resolution or resolve is staying with the task of spiritual work; sometimes this involves taking special vows to further the work. Metta is loving-kindness or gentle friendliness practiced toward all beings without discrimination. Finally, equanimity is having a balanced mind that is not altered by changes in fortune.
Theravadins teach four basic realities: nibbana, consciousness, matter, and mental formations. The latter are “colorations” of or contents in the mind through which all else is experienced. For example, when a person is angry, all is perceived through that filter or “dye” of anger. Each of the four realities exists in its own right, and all butnibbana are conditioned—that is, subject to laws of cause and effect. Theravadin thought defines laws governing matter, life, mind, volition (the law of kamma), and the dispensation of the Buddhas.
Like other Buddhists, Theravadins emphasize three characteristics of conditioned reality: impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and “no-self” (anatta), the condition of there being no permanent essences. The latter is considered the most difficult of the Buddha’s teachings. Contemporary teachers commonly approach it in terms of the interconnectedness and the mutual interdependence of all things. The Pali canon offers unique details for understanding these characteristics.
Dukkha is classified according to several types. First are things easily seen as dukkha. They include the discomforts of many bodily processes (dukkha dukkha), including hunger, tensions, aches, accidents, illness, aging, and death. There are also the torments of the mind—unwelcome emotions, obsessive patterns of thought, unpleasant moods, the inability to control the mind, mental illness. All entail a loss of happiness (viparinama dukkha).
Incessant change that cannot be altered or controlled is also a form of dukkha (anicca dukkha); since nothing lasts, nothing can be relied on as a dependable support. Samsara dukkha is the ceaseless battering of the senses with harassing experiences. Finally, there is the deep dukkha of being an apparently individual being, of attachment to the processes making up that being, and of clinging to the sense of being a separate self. The mind creates this prison.
Theravadins also speak of conventional realities created and sustained by human thought. Such realities do not have the basic status of matter, mind states, consciousness, and nibbana. They continue to exist only so long as human minds hold them in existence. All of culture, religions, political systems, philosophies, and other human creations have the same reality status as dreams and trains of thought; their survival depends upon human minds continuing to support them.
Theravadins see the nature of nibbana somewhat differently from other Buddhist schools, and differences exist even within the Theravada. Nibbana is most commonly considered the sole unconditioned reality—the unborn, undying, unchanging, and completely satisfying. In contrast to some other groups, Burmese Theravadins tend to see it as beyond consciousness, which contrasts with a Mahayana notion of nirvana as a state of consciousness. Some Thai Theravadins consider nibbana to be the pure released mind resting in objectless, pure consciousness.
The Pali scriptures also describe nibbana as haven, rest, and perfect satisfaction. It is the ultimate goal of spiritual practice, a point on which other Buddhists have taken the Theravada to task as lacking a social dimension. Theravadins note, however, that spiritual practice, which requires getting deeply in touch with suffering, necessarily brings compassion in its wake.
Theravadins commonly refer to nibbana as a cessation experience. It involves the “blowing out” of the fires of desire. Sometimes it is called the “coolness” that follows the extinguishing of desire. Others speak of it as the cessation of “thingness” or separateness. The Pali canon portrays the Buddha as emphasizing that nibbana is neither nonexistence nor a state of existence as we commonly think of such states. It is also not annihilation or extinction, nor is it a realm of existence. Theravadins tend to see enlightenment as the result of considerable personal effort sustained over a long period of practice. This contrasts with some Mahayana schools, which speak of sudden, seemingly unbidden, breakthroughs.
While other schools have different maps of the journey, the Theravadin Vissuddhimagga (Path of Purification) says thatnibbana is “touched” at four levels on the path to full enlightenment. The first touch is called “stream entry” and makes the practitioner a noble being. It soundly establishes faith in spiritual practice, rules out the possibility of faults serious enough to merit a disastrous rebirth, removes all notions of “magical” religion, and grounds the practitioner in recognizing anatta, or “no-self.” The second enlightenment greatly reduces greed and hatred, and the third eliminates them. The fourth removes all remaining hindrances, including conceit and restlessness, and is the culmination of the path.
For Theravadins, the final level of enlightenment means that, upon death, the enlightened will “die into” nibbana and never again be reborn into the rounds of existence, or samsara. This represents the ultimate goal of practice. With their understanding of the bodhisattwa (bodhisattva), the Mahayana developed the ideal of the fully developed being who returns to assist all others. This teaching is one basis for the dismissal of the Theravada by some Mahayana schools as lacking social consciousness.
Moral Code of Conduct
Buddhists all tend to accept the same basic moral code, though even within schools some differences of opinion exist. Morality is extremely important in the Theravadin tradition, which sometimes refers to itself as an ethical psychology. Morality offers guidelines about what causes suffering so one can avoid harmful action. It is never seen as commandments or injunctions handed down by authority.
Theravadins have deeply analyzed the three morality steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. Regarding right livelihood, professions that necessarily involve infliction of suffering are to be avoided. Theravadins are not to be butchers or soldiers. They are not to deal in weapons, intoxicants, or living beings. For laypeople the moral code for right speech and right action is most commonly expressed in five precepts or guidelines for conduct. Detailed lists in the Pali canon describe the conditions that must apply for a violation of right action to have occurred.
The first precept, of not striking at any being’s life force, has produced differences of opinion regarding vegetarianism. The Buddha allowed his monks, who were itinerant beggars, to eat what was given them so long as no one killed an animal especially for them and the food was clearly leftovers. Some Theravadins, including some monks, continue to accept this guideline. Other contemporary people, invoking knowledge of the law of supply and demand, argue for vegetarianism. All agree that directly taking life, even that of insects, is forbidden.
The second precept is not to take what is not given. It covers various forms of stealing and fraud, which the Pali scriptures carefully detail. Many contemporary Buddhists add that the right to use something should not be assumed and that borrowing without permission is not acceptable.
The third precept is to avoid sexual misconduct; it is often expanded to include control regarding all sensory appetites. The underlying principle is not to use sensuality in a way that harms anyone. Two major guidelines require honoring the sexual commitments of all parties and avoiding sexual contact with inappropriate partners, which include children and criminals. Contemporary Buddhists have added to this list relationships in which there is an imbalance of power, such as those with clients or students. Most rule out casual sexual contact because it cannot be known what harm it might cause. Homosexual contact is a debated issue.
The fourth precept of avoiding wrong speech has four major parts. Lying is always seriously wrong, as is speech that foments discord among people, such as malicious gossip, slander, and tale bearing. This latter is seen as an especially serious offense that can lead to expulsion from a monastic community. The third guideline is to avoid unnecessarily harsh speech; one should not speak in anger or other uncontrolled states. Finally, frivolous speech without a purpose should be avoided. What is spoken is to be said at appropriate times and in appropriate situations.
The fifth precept is to avoid the use of intoxicants that cloud consciousness and dull awareness. Most in the monastic communities hold that this prohibits all mind-altering substances, including alcohol. Some contemporary Buddhists argue that it means that such substances should not be used to the point of intoxication.
Some laypeople take additional precepts, especially at the time of an important feast, the new moon, or the full moon. The most common are to avoid eating after noon, to refrain from adorning the body, to avoid certain forms of entertainment, to eschew high and luxurious beds and chairs, and to avoid handling money, gold, or silver.
Contemporary nuns commonly follow 8 or 10 precepts, based on these additional precepts, although initially their code of conduct was more extensive than that of monks. The monks have an elaborately detailed monastic code with precepts governing minute details of life.
At an uncertain date, believed to be within 100 years of the Buddha’s death, an organizational assembly of 500 fully enlightened monks met to discuss teachings and writings. They formed three major divisions of the scriptures (Tipitika): the Vinaya, which deals with monastic discipline; the Dhamma, the sermons of the Buddha; and the Abhidhamma, which presents a philosophy and psychology. They are all written in Pali, a dialect of Sanskrit, and are thus known as the Pali canon. The Theravada recognizes only this canon and does not use the later Mahayana texts.
Legend says that the Buddha’s beloved disciple Ananda was present at every discourse of the Buddha and committed to perfect memory each word said. His recollection formed the basis of the suttas (sutras [sermons]) of the Buddha, the major component of the Dhamma. These sermons begin with “Thus have I heard,” citing Ananda’s recall of the Buddha’s words. The Vinaya was said to come from another monk’s perfect recall of the precepts of the monastic discipline.
The Theravada uses few symbols in contrast to many other Buddhist schools, some of which make great use of icons and other sacred objects. Theravadin altars often bear flowers. A symbol for the Triple Gem of the Buddha, dhamma(teachings), and sangha (community) is sometimes present. Stupas, sacred mounds originally designed to hold relics of the Buddha, dot the landscape in many Theravadin countries. Various icons and statues are found all over Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and other Buddhist locations. In Afghanistan the Taliban destroyed many stone Buddhas.
Theravadins generally do not consider the Buddha divine, although some of the laity have divinized and worshiped him. Officially the Theravada reveres the Buddha as a great man who found a solution to a common human problem. A statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha commonly sits on the altar in monasteries. It shows the Buddha reaching down to touch the ground, responding to the challenge of Mara (evil personified) by calling upon the earth to bear witness to his years of spiritual practice and his right to seek enlightenment.
Early and Modern Leaders
Until fairly recently Theravada Buddhism remained relatively hidden in its monasteries in Southeast Asia. In the early twentieth century the Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-82) made the Theravada more universally available by opening meditation practice to the laity with his mental noting method for vipassana, or insight meditation. Somewhat later U Ba Khin (1889-1971) developed the body scanning method and began teaching the laity. The chief contemporary leaders of the schools of Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin are U Pandita Bivamsa (born in 1921) and S.N. Goenka (born in 1924), respectively.
Joseph Goldstein (born in 1944) and Sharon Salzberg (born in 1952), who were taught primarily in India by the late Anagarika Sri Munindra (1913 -2003), a disciple of Mahasi Sayadaw, have remained guiding teachers of the Insight Meditation Society, the first major center in the United States, which has a Burmese flavor. Jack Kornfield (born in 1945), who was also instrumental in founding this group, later established a West coast center. Two U.S. monasteries have a Burmese flavor. Bhante Gunaratana (born in 1927) guides one in West Virginia, and Bhante Silananda (born in 1927) guides another in California.
The late Thai master Ajahn Chah (1918-92) had many disciples. Some of them have founded major centers in Australia and England with the flavor of the Thai Theravada. Ajahn Sumedho (born in 1934), a major disciple of Ajahn Chah, guides an English center, Amaravati.
Major Theologians and Authors
Although not considered scripture, Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, composed around 500 C.E., is the major classic Theravadin Buddhist work. Some important contemporary Theravadin writers include Bhikkhu Bodhi (born in 1944), Bhikkhu Nyanamoli (died in 1960), Nyanaponika Thera (born in 1901), Matara Sri Nanarama (1901-92), Narada Maha Thera (1898-1993), Nyanatiloka Thera (1878-1957), Piyadassi Thera (born in 1914), Sayadaw U Pandita Bivamsa, Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield.
The Theravada has no central authority. Monastic houses are relatively autonomous and are overseen by a head monk. A hierarchy within the monastery is based on length of time served as a monk, and monks usually eat in the order of the date of their ordination. In Asia men commonly precede women in all matters; this is usually not true in the West. Laypeople look to monks for teaching and to receive their vows.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
The holiest place for the Theravada is Bodh Gaya, in central India, which is considered the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. A temple marks the reputed spot of enlightenment and a bodhi tree, said to be a descendent of the original tree under which the Buddha sat, is adjacent to the temple. Nearly as important is Sarnath, north of Benares, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. The original deer park where the sermon was given no longer exists, but the site is adorned with statues of figures involved in that first sermon. Near both sites various groups have built monasteries.
Many lay Theravada Buddhists travel to practice at monasteries for full-moon days or more extended periods of time. Stupas, reliquaries of the Buddha, are also holy sites where people often choose to meditate. Although sacred space has been established in other locations worldwide, India contains the holiest sites.
What is Sacred?
Although a lay devotional life exists, most Theravadin Buddhists acknowledge no high gods. They consider heaven realms to be temporary abodes on the path to nibbana. They revere enlightened beings. They tend not to celebrate other holy beings, such as bodhisattwas, who defer full and final enlightenment to help other beings. Some practice devotion to devas, lesser gods in the realms just superior to the human one, who are believed to help moral and generous humans.
Theravadins hold sensate life forms sacred and do not choose to take life. Contemporary Theravadins also tend to be highly environmentally conscious.
Holidays and Festivals
There is one major feast day for the Theravada. Vesak (Wesak), which honors the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death (parinibbana), is celebrated on the first full-moon day of May. Uposatha days, whose dates are determined by the phases of the moon, are times throughout the year for extra meditation practice and the taking of vows.
Mode of Dress
As in most other Buddhist groups, Theravadin monks and nuns wear monastic robes. The color varies from country to country. Most common for monks are russet, saffron, or brown and, for nuns, pink, peach, or gray. Laypeople who bind themselves to the eight-vow system of precepts sometimes wear white and refer to themselves as anagarika (homeless). The laity has no common mode of dress, though many wear white on special days, such as full-moon days.
Theravadin monastics do not eat until day has broken and commonly refrain from eating solid foods after the noon meal. Monasteries differ on whether they allow caffeine after midday. Laypeople often adopt these practices on full-moon days or on extended meditation retreats. Some Theravadins practice vegetarianism. Rice gruel is sometimes served on special practice days.
While some Buddhist traditions have elaborate rituals, others are starker. The Theravadin has the fewest rituals, and meditation remains the chief practice. There are vow ceremonies to become a monk or nun. Often “taking refuge” in the Buddha, the dhamma, and the sangha is chanted along with the moral precepts. Buddhist monastics frequently confess their faults. Some monasteries chant a loving-kindness practice in the evening, and some Theravadins practice sharing merit. Suttas are sometimes chanted, and occasionally other chants are sung. At Mother Teresa’s funeral a Buddhist monk chanted “anicca vata sankara”; this chant proclaims the peace that results from accepting impermanence. Some laypeople meditate, and some practice devotions (puja) to the Buddha and heavenly beings. In some cases civic ceremonies are imbued with a Buddhist flavor.
Meditation develops the three meditation steps of the noble Eightfold Path: effort or diligence in practice, concentration or steadiness of mind, and mindful awareness of the ongoing flow of experience. It leads to the wisdom steps of the path of right intention (mostly compassionate care and non-harming) and right wisdom (clearly seeing and understanding reality).
As Theravadins describe the process, seven important qualities of mind develop through meditation practice. In addition to diligence, concentration, and mindfulness, these are raptness or captivated attention, investigation or having insights into reality, calm or stillness or mind, and equanimity or balanced acceptance of all experience. The path develops through alternating periods of ease and difficulty during which the wisdom knowledges unfold. These include understanding body and mind, kamma and cause-effect relationships, the characteristics of conditioned reality, right practice, and, ultimately, nibbana.
Rites of Passage
Theravadins do not sacralize most life transitions. Taking refuge in the Buddha, dhamma, and sangha, by which one becomes a Buddhist, is the major one. Entry into monastic life is also celebrated. Often a dying person is reminded of his or her good deeds, and scripture is read to him or her. Theravadin marriage ceremonies are also available.
Although historically some Theravadins proselytized, contemporary ones usually do not do so actively. Compassion leads them to make teaching available to anyone who is interested enough to inquire. Western groups maintain websites and publish newsletters and schedules of retreats, which are sent to parties that have expressed interest. There has been outreach to some particular groups, such as prison inmates, minority populations, and the gay and lesbian community.
As with many Buddhists, tolerance is probably the cardinal virtue for Theravadins. They do not attempt to impose their beliefs or practices on anyone. Some Theravadins, like some in the Zen community, have entered into dialogue with other monastics—most commonly Christians. Many support the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and Resources for Ecumenical Spirituality offers retreats combining Theravadin and Christian teachings.
Historically the Theravadin tradition has not been a prime mover regarding social justice issues, and some other Buddhist groups have faulted them for this. Many contemporary Theravadins, however, especially in the West, are part of the movement called “engaged Buddhism.” They are involved with many social justice issues—most notably, peace issues, environmental concerns, criminal justice issues and prison ministry, and the treatment of minorities. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship has many Theravadin members. In recent times Myanmar and Sri Lanka have seen considerable active work for social justice among Buddhists.
In contrast to some other Buddhist schools, monastic life is the most highly valued Theravadin lifestyle. In Asia monks are almost a caste apart from other men and all women, including nuns. For the laity Theravadin positions are similar to those of all Buddhist groups. Honesty and fidelity are considered extremely important for those engaged in relationships. Parents are to be responsible for their children without forcing their own views upon them, and children are to respect their parents. The Buddha reportedly said that carrying a parent on your back for your entire life would not be adequate repayment for the gift of life.
Although the Theravadin tradition is strongly sexist in Asia, Western Theravadins have achieved relative gender equality. In the West positions of leadership are fairly evenly divided between the genders.
With regard to abortion, debates occur about when a fetus becomes a sensate being, since the taking of sensate life is forbidden. Vegetarianism and the moderate use of alcohol are also debated issues. Beyond the guidelines of non-harming, little is said of personal sexual morality and issues like birth control or sexual orientation. While some monastics frown on homosexuality, some Western Theravadin centers invite those with alternative lifestyles to participate.
Traditionally Theravadins have considered investment in artistic production a worldly distraction. Nevertheless, some religious art is associated with the Theravada. It began with the stupas and progressed to the building of other temples and shrines. Early carvings of groups of the laity and monks assembled to hear the Buddha speak did not depict the Buddha. At some uncertain date representations of the Buddha began to appear, and some areas, especially Sri Lanka, boast magnificent stone statues of the Buddha. The Shakyamuni Buddha statue, discussed above in SACRED SYMBOLS, derives from the Theravada, as do some symbolic depictions of the Triple Gem of the Buddha, dhamma, and sangha.