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The Theravada Buddhism
(a.k.a. Southern Tradition)

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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 population.

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 disagreed. 2

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." 2

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 working harmoniously.
  • 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." 4

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 training. 5

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." 5

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."

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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." 6
Intense, dedicated and time-consuming effort required to attain enlightenment.

Theravada Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism

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 practice

Politically conservative

Politically liberal

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Kevin Trainor, "Buddhism: The illustrated guide," Duncan Baird Publ., (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

  2. Jacky Sach, "Essential Buddhism: Everything you need to understand this ancient tradition," Adams Media, (2006), P. 109. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

  3. "Mahayana Buddhism," at: http://www.wsu.edu/
  4. Op Cit. Sach: Page 112.
  5. Op Cit. Sach: Page 118.
  6. Graeme Lyall "The Rise of Mahayana," at: http://www.zip.com.au/
  7. Op Cit. Trainor, Page 121.

Resources for further study:

Books on Theravada

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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

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