The Theravada Buddhism
(a.k.a. Southern Tradition)
It is impossible to specify dates on the early history of Buddhism, because
the year of Buddha's death is unknown. Various scholars and traditions have
suggested dates ranging from 380 to 544 BCE.
Many unique schools of Buddhism were established in the first century after
Buddha's death. Of these original forms, only Theravada Buddhism -- the "Doctrine of the
Elders" -- still survives. 1 It later spread
from northern India throughout most of Southeast Asia:
Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand. The other major yana (vehicle or
path) in Buddhism is Mahayana; it was created about a century after the Buddha's
death in an attempt to make the religion more accessible to the general
The First Council: Consolidation of the Buddha's teaching:
The Buddha passed his teachings to his followers in oral form. Three months
after his death, one of his most accomplished students, the Venerable
Mahakassapa, assembled 500 senior monks in what was to be called the First
Council. It was held in Rajagriha, Magadha in what is now India. Their goal was
to give the Buddha's teachings a degree of consistency for use by the Sangha
(the Community of Buddhists).
The Second Council, and first schism:
The Second Council was held a century after the first, in Vesali. Seven
hundred arhats (enlightened followers) were present. The Elders of the
council felt that discipline within the Sangha needed tightening. Some monks
The fundamental conflict at the Council was whether Buddhism was:
- To continue as a religion focused on meditation and concentration, to be
pursued primarily by monks in monasteries, or
- To be simplified so that it could be practiced by the "common people."
A group of monks, the Vajjians, argued that the Ten Precepts
should be relaxed. They also wanted lay people to have equal representation. The Vajjian monks were outvoted, and left the council to form
a different Buddhist tradition: the Mahayana school.
It means literally "The Greater Ox-Cart" since many more people could come on
board. They referred to the monastic version of Buddhism, Theravada, with the
derogatory term "Hinayana," which means "Lesser Vehicle" -- a Buddhism
restricted to specialists. 3
The Third Council and expansion:
During the third century BCE, King Ashoka ruled a large part of India which
he had conquered by force. A particularly fierce battle during his eighth
year left as many as 100,000 people dead. The king was so
shaken by the experience that he became open to a religious conversion. He met a
Buddhist monk who convinced him to use his power for good instead of evil. The
king organized the Third Council involving 1,000 attendees. Under his leadership,
Buddhist monks were sent into neighboring countries; thousands of stupas and
monasteries were built. (Stupas are sacred Buddhist shrine-monuments which often
containing a relic.)
Author Jacky Sach wrote:
"King Ashoka was largely responsible for the spread of Buddhism beyond
India's borders and its emergence as one of the world's great religions. He
practiced tolerance and respect for other religious disciplines, promoted
peace instead of war, and established schools, hospitals, and orphanages for
his people. He was living proof that it is possible to rule a great nation
with kindness and open-mindedness, promoting peace and goodwill."
The Fourth Council and the Pali Canon:
This council was held during the first century BCE in
Sri Lanka. The Pali Canon -- the Theravada Buddhist scripture -- was recorded on
palm leaves and passed intact to the present day. Its name is derived from the Pali language in which the scriptures were written. Today, they would fill several thousand pages.
The Canon consists of three parts:
- Vinaya Pitaka: This contains instructions on how to keep the sangha
- Sutta Pitaka: The core teachings of Theravada Buddhism.
- Abhidhamma Pitaka: A very precise and detailed description of the "principles
behind the mental and physical processes of the Buddha's teaching."
The goal of followers of Theravada Buddhism:
Monks focus on a personal goal to become an arhat -- an enlightened person
without worldly desires or suffering. Author Jacky Sach wrote:
"Theravada Buddhists relied on rationality, rules and
education...Theravada emphasizes wisdom, scholarship and intellectual
There are two main methods by which a monk attempts to become an arhat:
- Meditation and insight (vipashyana-dhura). This involves "... insight
meditation, the practice of tranquility and the quieting of the mind."
- Study (gantha-dhura). This involves "... the study of the Buddhist
canon, the scriptures, and the path to knowledge and wisdom."
Theravada Buddhism initially reserved the practice
of meditation to monks. The laity were "... encouraged to engage in
merit-making activities to improve their future rebirth status." However, in
recent times, the laity have embraced meditation and aspire "to more dramatic
progress along the path to nirvana."
Comparison of the Theravadan & Mahayanan traditions:
Graeme Lyall writes:
"Many Buddhists, especially Westerners, tend to see both the Theravada and Mahayana approaches as not being contradictory or in opposition but rather as complimentary to each other. The Mahayana is often seen as an expansion of or commentary on Theravadan teachings."
Intense, dedicated and time-consuming effort required to attain
|Intense, dedicated and time-consuming effort required toattan enlightenment.|
Enlightenment is achieved through a normal life with
varying degrees of spiritual involvement.
|Reaching Nirvana is the ultimate goal of the Theravada Buddhist.
|Vow to be reborn in order to help all other sentient
beings reach Nirvana first.|
| Strives for wisdom first .
|Compassion is the highest virtue.
Centers on meditation, and requires major personal dedication such as being
a monk or nun.
|Encourages practice in the world and among the general community.
Followed as a teaching or Philosophy.
|Followed with reference to higher
beings, more like a religion.
Moved primarily South and West covering Indochina and Ceylon (Sri-Lanka).
|Moved Primarily North and West, covering China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet.
Early work written in Pali (e.g. kamma, dhamma).
|Early texts are in Sanskrit (e.g. karma, dharma)
Emphasizes rules and education
|Emphasizes intuition and
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still
Op Cit. Sach: Page 112.
Op Cit. Sach: Page 118.
Op Cit. Trainor, Page 121.
Resources for further study:
- "Theravada," Wikipedia, at:
- John Bullitt, "What is Theravada Buddhism," Access To Insight, at:
- "What Theravada Buddhists Believe," Beliefnet, at:
- "Theravada Buddhism," Washington State University, at:
- "Theravadan traditions," listing of monasteries and communities, at:
- "Theravada Buddhism," Believe religious information source, at:
Books on Theravada
Copyright © 2007 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Initial posting: 2007-APR-04
Latest update: 2010-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson with some input from J.S. Brown