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Theravada (Pāli: theravāda; Sanskrit: स्थविरवाद sthaviravāda; literally, "the Way of the Elders") is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, and for many centuries has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka (about 70% of the population) and continental Southeast Asia (parts of southwest China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand). It is also gaining popularity in Singapore and Australia. Today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide, and in recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West.
The Theravāda school is ultimately derived from the Vibhajjavāda grouping which emerged amongst the older Sthavira group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council (circa 250 BCE), during the reign of Emperor Asoka in India. After the Third Council, the Vibhajjavādins gradually split into four groups: the Mahīśāsaka (P: Mahiṃsāsaka), the Kāśyapīya (P: Kassapiya), the Dharmaguptaka (P: Dhammaguttaka) and the Tāmraparnīya (P: Tambapanniya).
According to Sinhalese tradition, Buddhism was first brought to Sri Lanka in 246 BCE by Mahinda, who is believed to have been the son of the Mauryan emperor Asoka, 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 Abhayagirivihara, and the Jetavanavihara. In 1164, with the guidance of two monks from a forest branch of the Mahavihara, Sri Lanka King reunited all bhikkhus in Sri Lanka into the Mahavihara school.
A few years after the arrival of 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 around the middle of first millennium CE. In 429 CE, on the request of China Han Dynasty emperor the nun from Anuradhapura was sent to China to establish the Nun Order. The order was then spread to Korea. In 1996, 11 selected Sri Lanka nuns were ordained fully as Bhikkhunis by a team of Theravada monks in concert with a team of Korean Nuns in India.
During the Asoka reign period, a missionary was also sent to Suvannabhumi where two monks Sona and Uttara, are said to have proceeded. 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 Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malay peninsula.
The Mon were one of the earliest people to inhabit lower Myanmar and are believed to have been Theravadin since 3rd century BCE. Archaeological findings have shown that the Mon had close contact with South India and Sri Lanka. The Burmese adopted the Mon religion and writing script (which is Pali) when they conquered Thaton the Mon Kingdom in 1057. According to the local traditions, this was the area of Suvarnabhumi that was visited by missionaries from the Asokan court. The Mon were also one of the earliest people to inhabit Thailand. The Thai adopted the Mon religion when they conquered Haripunjaya, the Mon Kingdom in 1292.
Theravada promote the concept of Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis" which uses critical methods of investigation as opposed to blind faith. With this method the answer has to be discovered by the aspirant, after being convinced by valid thought and experience, in order to reach the first glimpse of the goal.
The Theravadin goal is the achievement of Nirvana as an Arahant (lit. "worthy one", "winner of Nibbana"), which is the final liberation from the cycle of rebirths, and therefore also freedom from ever-repeated suffering and deaths.
In the Theravadin view, the attainment of Arahatship is equal in every way to the realization attained by the Buddha himself. The Buddha remains a figure of reverence even for Arahats because the Buddha was fully complete in all psychic powers (whereas Arahants by definition have fully attained Nibbana, but not necessarily the psychic powers).
The Buddha was able to attain Nibbana without the aid of any teacher or outside instruction—he is said to be 'fully self-enlightened'. It was the Buddha who discovered the path to nibbana and taught it to ordinary people so they could follow the path and become enlightened Arahants themselves.
In Theravadin belief, someone who practices with earnestness and zeal and who dwells in seclusion can achieve Arahatship within a single lifetime, as the first few generations of Lord Buddha disciples.
The Theravada school upholds the Pali Canon or Tripitaka as the most authoritative collection of texts on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The Tipitaka is the oldest historical collection of texts on Buddhism, having its roots in the First Buddhist Council of the 5th century BCE. 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 Sanskrit, Prakrit, Chinese 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 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 about 4 centuries, it was written down in about 30 BCE, in Sri Lanka.
The Pali Tipitaka consists of three parts: the Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka. Of these, the Abhidhamma Pitaka is believed to be a later addition to the first two pitakas, which 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 and 5th centuries CE Buddhaghosa Thera wrote the first commentary to the Tipitaka (which was based on much older manuscripts), and after him many other monks wrote various commentaries, which have become part of the Theravada heritage. These scriptures, however, do not enjoy the same authority as the Tipitaka does. The Tipitaka is composed of 46 large individual books in the Thai edition, 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 the teaching of Gautama Buddha himself.
Lay and Monastic Life
Traditionally, Theravada Buddhism has observed a distinction between the practices suitable for a lay person and the practices undertaken by ordained monks (and, in ancient times, 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 nibbana, as described in the Tipitaka). 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. A number of senior monastics in the Thai Forest Tradition, including Ajahn Buddhadasa, Ajahn Maha Bua, Ajahn Pasanno, and Ajahn Jayasaro, have begun teaching meditation retreats outside of the monastery for lay disciples. Amongst westerners it is very common for the focus to be more to the actual practice and theory of Theravada Buddhism, and this attitude is spreading amongst Asians as well.
Nibbana, the highest goal of Theravada Buddhism, is attained through study and the practice of morality, meditation and wisdom (sila, samadhi, panya). The goal of Nibbana (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 Nibbana. 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 religious teachers and officiants by presiding over religious 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 Abhidammika, 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 Nibbana, 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. This powers are called the abhinyanas.
By meditating, a practitioner can gain valuable insight on himself/herself as well as understanding the concepts of Dhamma better. Meditation techniques include:
Levels of Attainment
- Main article: Four stages of enlightenment
Through practice, Theravadins practitioner can attain four degrees of spiritual attainment:
- Stream-Enterers - Those who have destroyed the three fetters (self-belief, doubt, and faith in the efficacy of rituals and observances), will be safe from falling into the states of misery (they will not be born as an animal, peta (hungry ghost), or hell being). At most they will have to be reborn only seven more times before attaining Nibbana.
- Once-Returners - Those who have destroyed the three fetters (self-belief, doubt, and faith in the efficacy of rituals and observances), and the lessening of lust, hatred, and delusion. They will attain Nibbana after being born once more in the world.
- Non-Returners - Those who have destroyed the five lower fetters (that bind beings to the world of the senses). They will never again return to the human world and after they die will be born in the heavenly worlds, there to attain Nibbana.
- Arahant - Those who have reached Enlightenment, awakened to the Nibbana and have reached the quality of deathlessness, free from all the fermentations of defilement; whose ignorance, craving, attachments, and karma have ended.
Festivals and customs
Theravada Religious festivals:
- Magha Puja
- Vesakha Puja
- Asalha Puja
- Vassa (Rain Retreat)
The minimum age for ordaining as a Buddhist monk is 20 years. However, boys under that age are allowed to ordain as novices (samanera). 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 Myanmar, 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.
The practices usually vary in different sub-school and monastery within Theravada. But in the most orthodox forest monastery, the monk usually models its 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. On 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 was spend on Dharma study and meditation. Sometimes the abbot or a senior monk will give Dharma talk to the visitors. Laity who stays at the monastery will have to abides 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 could hang their umbrella tents and where it was suitable for the work of self-development. When they go wandering, they walk barefoot, and go wherever they feel inclined, and those requisites which are necessary will be carry along, it generally consists 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 did not fix their times for walking and sitting meditation for as soon as they were free they just started doing it; nor did they determine for how long they would go on meditate. Some of them sometimes walked 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 staying at dangerous places where ferocious animal lives to helps their meditation effort.
Those monk whose have been able to attain a high level attainment will be able to guide the junior monks and lay Buddhist toward the four degrees of spiritual attainment.
In Pali the word for a male lay devotee is "Upasaka" and "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 Monk/Nun, to see that Monk/Nun do not suffer from lack of the four requisites, namely food, clothing, shelter and medicine. As Monk/Nun are not allowed to follow any occupational activities, they entirely depend on the laity for their existence. In return, Monk/Nun is expected to lead anexemplary lives.
In Myanmar and Thailand, the monastery used to be and is still regarded as seats of learning. In fact today about half of the primary school in Thailand is located inside the monastery. Religious rituals and ceremonies held in monastery are always accompanied by social activities. In times of crisis, it is to the monks that people bring their problems for counsel.
It have been tradition for the monk to deliver sermon four times a month, which was done during the waxing, waning and the day before new moon day. The laity also have the chance to learn meditation.
Buddhist orders within Theravada
Different orders, which are referred to as nikayas, has not resulted in the development of separate doctrines. The Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha, the highest ranking monk in any given country, may come from any of these Nikayas.
- Sangharaj Nikaya
- Mahasthabir Nikaya
- Myanmar (Burma):
- Thudhamma Nikaya
- Vipassana tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw and disciples
- Shwekyin Nikaya
- Thudhamma Nikaya
- Sri Lanka:
- Siam Nikaya
- Waturawila (or Mahavihara Vamshika Shyamopali Vanavasa Nikaya)
- Amarapura Nikaya
- Kanduboda (or Swejin Nikaya)
- Tapovana (or Kalyanavamsa)
- Ramañña Nikaya
- Galduwa (or Kalyana Yogashramaya Samsthava)
- Siam Nikaya
- Maha Nikaya
- Tradition of Ajahn Chah (Forest Tradition)
- Thammayut Nikaya
- Forest Tradition of Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Maha Boowa
- Maha Nikaya
- Ajahn Chah
- Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
- Supreme Patriarch of Thailand
- The World Factbook: Sri Lanka. CIA World Factbook. URL accessed on 2006-08-12..
- Buddhanet world Buddhist directory & information resource
- Buddhist Meditation in the Theravada tradition
- Definition of Theravada and links to more information
- Access to Insight Theravada Resource, an outline of the Pali Canon, with modern translations of more than 900 important suttas, all indexed by sutta name, subject, proper names, and similes.
- Forest Dhamma BooksEnglish translations of the Dhamma teachings and writings from the Buddhist masters of the Thai forest tradition.
- How old is the Sutta-pitaka by Alexander Wynn, St John's College, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, UK (2003)
- Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery - Sri Lanka
- BuddhaChat.org - A Buddhist Learning Community.
- Sadhu! Theravada Web Directory
- Nibbana Resource
- Tipitaka Resource Network
- Sleutel tot inzicht, Dutch Theravada text translations
- Theravada Buddhism Forum
- Theravada Buddhism in Thailand
- Mahayana vs. Theravada: a Multiform Comparison
- The Buddhist Society of Western Australia An archive of hundreds of dhamma talks based on the forest tradition of SE Asia.
- Bayou Lotus: Theravada Buddhism in Southwestern Louisiana by Carl L. Bankston III
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