Theravada (Pali; Sanskrit: Sthaviravada) is one of the eighteen (or twenty) Nikāya schools that formed early in the history of Buddhism. These developed in India during the century subsequent to the death of the Buddha. The name of the school means "Teachings of the Elders" which implies that this was the most conservative school of Buddhism, a school that has attempted to conserve the original teachings of the Buddha. Adherents trace their lineage back to the Sthaviras (Pali: Theras; "Elders") of the First Buddhist Council.
Theravada is the longest surviving of the twenty schools, and for many centuries Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (parts of southwest China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand) and Sri Lanka. It has been incorrectly labeled as Hinayana ("Inferior Vehicle"), but this was a derogatory term by Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle"), which sees itself as superior. Today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide, and in recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West.
During the reign of Emperor Asoka in India, the third Council was held in Pataliputta (308 BCE). The President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu attempting to refute what he saw as the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council was known as Theravada. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included at this Council. Thus the modern Theravada Pali Canon was born. These books were sent to different places in India and Sri Lanka, and are still in use today by Theravadins.
Theravada promote the concept of Vibhajyavada (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 Theravadins goal is the achievement of the state of Arahant (lit. "worthy one", "winner of Nibbana"), a life where all (future) birth is at an end, where the holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done has been done, and whereupon there is no more returning to the worldly life.
Theravada Buddhism focuses on meditation and understanding. By meditating, a practitioner can gain valuable insight on himself/herself as well as understanding the concepts of Dhamma better. Meditation techniques include:
Meditation in Theravada was separated into 4 levels:
- First Jhana - In this level, meditator achieves detachment from sensual desires and impure states of mind through analysis and reflection and thereby attains an emotional state of satisfaction and joy.
- Second Jhana - In this level, intellectual activities are abated to a complete inner serenity; the mind is in a state of "one-pointedness" or concentration, joy, and pleasantness.
- Third Jhana - In this level, every emotion, including joy, has disappeared, leaving the meditator indifferent to everything while remaining completely conscious.
- Fourth Jhana - In this level, the abandoning of any sense of satisfaction, pain, or serenity because any inclination to a good or bad state of mind has disappeared. The meditator thus enters a state of supreme purity, indifference to everything, and pure consciousness.
Through practice, Theravadins (both monks and laity) 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. 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. After they die they will be born in the deities 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.
Theravada Religious festivals:
Vassa (Rain Retreat)
In Myanmar and Thailand, young men were traditionally expected to be ordained as monk for a period of time (usually for 3 month during Vassa). Those Thai men that were never ordained as monks would be at disadvantage in finding a bride because they were considered as immature by Thai women. But in Sri Lanka, it was considered a taboo for a monk to disrobe.
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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.
- Sri Lanka - Siam Nikaya, Amarapura Nikaya and Ramanna Nikaya.
- Thailand - Thammayut Nikaya and Maha Nikaya.
- Myanmar - Thudhamma Nikaya and Shwekyin Nikaya.
The diversity of Buddhist thought has sometimes led to criticism of Theravada by other schools, although it is important to note that such criticism is far from universal, and that Buddhists of different schools often interact on terms of mutual respect. Common critiques of Theravada made by Mahayana Buddhists are that Theravada monks aim to win enlightenment only for themselves, and that they lack compassion. However, supporters of Theravada emphasize that their religion does not recognize a self at all—famously, as noted in the canonical Dhammapada, verse 279, sometimes translated as "all phenomena are not-self". As for supposed lack of compassion, metta (often translated as "loving kindness" or "good will") is among Theravada's 10 perfections. Theravadans frequently meditate on metta and several sutras that are key to the Theravada tradition focus on metta.
Theravada monks have sometimes also been criticized for following their monastic rules blindly, although, in fact, they are allowed to break the rules in extreme situations, such as to save another person's life. Some others schools have also charged that Theravada practice is the slowest path to enlightenment, taking many eons to reach its goal. However, from their own perspective, Theravada Buddhists see the Buddha and the ancient arhats as examples of practitioners who became enlightened in one lifetime. Naturally, every school will differ on what exactly is the most effective and efficient path to realize the dhamma.
Last updated: 08-17-2005 19:34:38
Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12