Theravada – Buddhism’s oldest existing school
Theravāda is the most commonly accepted name of Buddhism’s oldest existing school.
The school’s adherents, termed Theravādins, have preserved their version of Gautama Buddha’s teaching or Buddha Dhamma in the Pāli Canon for over a millennium.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The origin of Theravada’s teachings
- 2 - Terms, concepts & places in Theravāda practices
- 2.1 - Bhante
- 2.2 - Kathina
- 2.3 - Anapanasati
- 2.4 - Thero
- 2.5 - Tamrashatiya
- 2.6 - Śrāvakayāna
- 2.7 - Buddhism in Southeast Asia
- 2.8 - Buddhism in Sri Lanka
- 2.9 - Vassa
- 2.10 - Vāsanā
- 2.11 - Southern Esoteric Buddhism
- 2.12 - Relic of the tooth of the Buddha
- 2.13 - Passaddhi
- 2.14 - Moggaliputta-Tissa
- 2.15 - Mahanayaka
- 2.16 - Buddhism in Thailand
- 2.17 - Maechi
- 2.18 - Bhāṇaka
- 2.19 - Medhankara
- 2.20 - Nikāya
- 2.21 - International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University
- 2.22 - Gradual training
- 2.23 - Sangharaja
- 2.24 - Sri Lankan Forest Tradition
- 2.25 - Banishment of Buddhist monks from Nepal
- 2.26 - Theravāda Abhidhamma
- 2.27 - Atamasthana
- 2.28 - Asalha Puja
- 2.29 - Adam’s Peak
The origin of Theravada’s teachings
The Pāli Canon is the most complete Buddhist canon surviving in a classical Indian language, Pāli, which serves as the school’s sacred language and lingua franca.
In contrast to Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, Theravāda tends to be conservative in matters of doctrine (pariyatti) and monastic discipline (vinaya).
One element of this conservatism is the fact that Theravāda rejects the authenticity of the Mahayana sutras (which appeared c. 1st century BCE onwards).
The history of Theravāda Buddhism begins in ancient India, where it was one of the early Buddhist schools which arose after the first schism of the Buddhist monastic community.
After establishing itself in the Sri Lankan Anuradhapura Kingdom, Theravāda spread throughout mainland Southeast Asia through the efforts of missionary monks and Southeast Asian kings.
Terms, concepts & places in Theravāda practices
This is a list of terms, concepts and places related to the Theravāda practice.
Bhante, sometimes also called Bhadanta, is a respectful title used to address Buddhist monks and superiors in the Theravada tradition.
Kathina is a Buddhist festival which comes at the end of Vassa, the three-month rainy season retreat for Theravada Buddhists in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The season during which a monastery may hold Kathina is one month long, beginning after the full moon of the eleventh month in the Lunar calendar.
Ānāpānasati, meaning “mindfulness of breathing”, is a form of Buddhist meditation originally taught by Gautama Buddha in several suttas including the Ānāpānasati Sutta.
Thero is an honorific term in Pali for senior bhikkhus and bhikkhunis in the Buddhist monastic order. The word literally means “elder”. These terms, appearing at the end of a monastic’s given name, are used to distinguish those who have at least 10 years since their upasampada. The name of an important collection of very early Buddhist poetry is called the Therigatha, “verses of the therīs”.
The Tāmraśāṭīya, also called Tāmraparṇīya was one of the early schools of Buddhism and a branch of the Vibhajyavāda school based in Sri Lanka. It is thought that the Theravāda tradition has its origins in this school.
Śrāvakayāna is one of the three yānas known to Indian Buddhism. It translates literally as the “vehicle of listeners [i.e. disciples]”. Historically it was the most common term used by Mahāyāna Buddhist texts to describe one hypothetical path to enlightenment. Śrāvakayāna is the path that meets the goals of an Arhat—an individual who achieves liberation as a result of listening to the teachings of a Samyaksaṃbuddha. A Buddha who achieved enlightenment through Śrāvakayāna is called a Śrāvakabuddha, as distinguished from a Samyaksaṃbuddha or Pratyekabuddha.
Buddhism in Southeast Asia
Buddhism in Southeast Asia includes a variety of traditions of Buddhism including two main traditions: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Theravāda Buddhism. Historically, Mahāyāna Buddhism had a prominent position in this region, but in modern times most countries follow the Theravāda tradition. Southeast Asian countries with a Theravāda Buddhist majority are Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, all mainland countries.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Theravada Buddhism is the largest and official religion of Sri Lanka, practiced by 82.2% of the population as of 2022.
The Vassa is the three-month annual retreat observed by Theravada practitioners.
Taking place during the wet season, Vassa lasts for three lunar months, usually from July to October.
Vāsanā is a behavioural tendency or karmic imprint which influences the present behaviour of a person. It is a technical term in Indian philosophy, particularly Yoga, as well as Buddhist philosophy and Advaita Vedanta.
Southern Esoteric Buddhism
Southern Esoteric Buddhism and Borān kammaṭṭhāna are terms used to refer to certain esoteric practices, views and texts within Theravada Buddhism. It is sometimes referred to as Tantric Theravada due to its parallel with tantric traditions ; or as Traditional Theravada Meditation.
Relic of the tooth of the Buddha
The Relic of the tooth of Buddha is venerated in Sri Lanka as a cetiya relic of Gautama Buddha, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.
Passaddhi is a Pali noun that has been translated as “calmness,” “tranquillity,” “repose” and “serenity.” The associated verb is passambhati.
Moggaliputtatissa, was a Buddhist monk and scholar who was born in Pataliputra, Magadha and lived in the 3rd century BCE. He is associated with the Third Buddhist council, the emperor Ashoka and the Buddhist missionary activities which took place during his reign.
Mahanayaka theros are high-ranking Buddhist monks who oversee and regulate the Buddhist clergy in Theravada Buddhist countries. The title Maha Nayaka translates to English as ‘Great Leader’ and it is considered to be a very important position held by a monk in a Theravada Buddhist country. It is usually bestowed upon the senior Buddhist monks who are appointed the chief prelates of monastic fraternities known as Nikayas.
Buddhism in Thailand
Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school, which is followed by 95 percent of the population. Thailand has the second largest Buddhist population in the world, after China, with approximately 64 million Buddhists. Buddhism in Thailand has also become integrated with folk religion as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai Chinese population. Buddhist temples in Thailand are characterized by tall golden stupas, and the Buddhist architecture of Thailand is similar to that in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Cambodia and Laos, with which Thailand shares cultural and historical heritage. Thai Buddhism also shares many similarities with Sri Lankan Buddhism. Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Laos are countries with Theravada Buddhist majorities
Maechi or Mae chee are Buddhist laywomen in Thailand who have dedicated their life to religion, vowing celibacy, living an ascetic life and taking the Eight or Ten Precepts. They occupy a position somewhere between that of an ordinary lay follower and an ordained monastic and similar to that of the sāmaṇerī.
Bhāṇakas were Buddhist monks who specialized in the memorization and recitation of a specific collection of texts within the Buddhist canon. Lineages of bhāṇakas were responsible for preserving and transmitting the teachings of the Buddha until the canon was committed to writing in the 1st Century BC, and declined as the oral transmission of early Buddhism was replaced by writing.
Medhankara is the name of several distinguished members, in medieval times, of the Buddhist order:The oldest flourished about 1200, and was the author of the Vinaya Artha Samuccaya, a work in the Sinhalese language on Buddhist Canon law. Next after him came Araññaka Medhankara, who presided over the Buddhist council held at Polonnaruwa, then the capital of Ceylon, in 1250. The third, Vanaratana Medhankara, flourished in 1280, and wrote a poem in Pāli, Jina Carita, on the life of the Buddha. He also wrote the Payoga Siddhi. The fourth was the celebrated scholar to whom King Parākrama Bāhu IV of Ceylon entrusted in 1307 the translation from Pali into Sinhalese of the Jātaka book, the most voluminous extant work in Sinhalese. The fifth, a Burmese, was called the Sangharaja Nava Medhankara, and wrote in Pali a work entitled the Loka Padipa fara, on cosmogony and allied subjects.
Nikāya (निकाय) is a Pāli word meaning “volume”. It is often used like the Sanskrit word āgama (आगम) to mean “collection”, “assemblage”, “class” or “group” in both Pāḷi and Sanskrit. It is most commonly used in reference to the Pali Buddhist texts of the Tripitaka namely those found in the Sutta Piṭaka. It is also used to refer to monastic lineages, where it is sometimes translated as a ‘monastic fraternity’.
International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University
The International Theravāda Buddhist Missionary University is on the Dhammapãla Hill, Mayangon Township, in Yangon, Myanmar. It was inaugurated on 6th waxing moon of Nadaw, 1360 ME.
The Buddha sometimes described the practice (patipatti) of his teaching as the gradual training because the Noble Eightfold Path involves a process of mind-body transformation that unfolds over a sometimes lengthy period.Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this discipline of Dhamma (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training (anupubbasikkhā), a gradual performance (anupubbakiriyā), a gradual progression (anupubbapatipadā), with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch.
Sangharaja is the title given in many Theravada Buddhist countries to a senior monk who is the titular head either of a monastic fraternity (nikaya), or of the Sangha throughout the country. This term is often rendered in English as ‘Patriarch’ or ‘Supreme Patriarch’.
Sri Lankan Forest Tradition
Sri Lankan Forest Monks’ Tradition claims a long history. As the oldest Theravada Buddhist country in the world, several forest traditions and lineages had been existed, disappeared and re-emerged circularly in Sri Lanka. The current forest traditions and lineages in Sri Lanka have been influenced by the Burmese and Thai traditions which descend from the ancient Indian and Sri Lankan traditions.
Banishment of Buddhist monks from Nepal
The banishment of Buddhist monks from Nepal was part of a campaign by thee erstwhile Rana government to suppress the resurgence of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal in the early decades of the 20th century. There were two deportations of monks from Kathmandu, in 1926 and 1944.
The Theravāda Abhidhamma is a scholastic systematization of the Theravāda school’s understanding of the highest Buddhist teachings (Abhidhamma). These teachings are traditionally believed to have been taught by the Buddha, though modern scholars date the texts of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka to the 3rd century BCE. Theravāda traditionally sees itself as the vibhajjavāda, which reflects the analytical (vibhajjati) method used by the Buddha and early Buddhists to investigate the nature of the person and other phenomena.
Atamasthana (අටමස්ථාන) or Eight sacred places are a series of locations in Sri Lanka where the Buddha had visited during his three visits to the country. The sacred places are known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya, Ruwanwelisaya, Thuparamaya, Lovamahapaya, Abhayagiri Dagaba, Jetavanarama, Mirisaveti Stupa and Lankarama. They are situated in Anuradhapura, the capital of the ancient Anuradhapura Kingdom.
Asalha Puja is a Theravada Buddhist festival which typically takes place in July, on the full moon of the month of Āsādha. It is celebrated in Indonesia, Cambodia (ពិធីបុណ្យអាសាឡ្ហបូជា), Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Myanmar and in countries with Theravada Buddhist populations. In Indonesia, the festival is centered at Mendut Temple and Borobudur Temple, Central Java.
Adam’s Peak is a 2,243 m (7,359 ft) tall conical mountain located in central Sri Lanka. It is well known for the Sri Pada, i.e., “sacred footprint”, a 1.8 m rock formation near the summit, which in Buddhist tradition is held to be the footprint of the Buddha, in Hindu tradition that of Hanuman or Shiva, i.e., “Mountain of Shiva’s Light”, and in some Islamic and Christian traditions that of Adam, or that of St. Thomas.