Theravada is also
referred to as hinayana (the lesser way), although
this is a rather negative term coined by other
groups to describe a type of Buddhism that they thought was too narrow
in its focus. At one time there were at least 18 hinayana schools
(“denominations”) in India. A resurgence of Hinduism along with the
Islamic conquest of large portions of India virtually eliminated all
hinayana schools except the one known as Theravada – "the way of
the elders." Today, Theravada Buddhism is the dominant form of Buddhism
found in Sri Lanka, Thailand and most of Southeast Asia.
There are three main distinctive features of
1. A limited canon that emphasizes the
Buddha’s teachings. Theravada especially emphasizes the notion that each
person is responsible for his/her own enlightenment. According to
Buddhist tradition, the first attempt to collect the teachings of the
Buddha took place shortly after his death. This took place at what
became known as the First Council (483 BC?).
The canon became known as the Tipitaka
(“three baskets”) because of its division into three sections. Because
these scripture are written in the Pali dialect, they also became known
as the Pali Canon.
These three sections are:
Sutras: These are discourses that
contain the Buddha's basic teachings.
Vinaya: This section deals with questions about
monastic discipline. It comprises six volumes in English
Abhidharma: The abhidharma consists of seven scholastic treatises based on the
teachings of the Buddha.
In addition to the Tipitaka, the Jataka Tales are
extremely popular among Theravada Buddhists. The Jataka tales are
547 folk tales, many of which describe the deeds of the Buddha before in
his previous lives. These are popular among all branches of Buddhism.
2. The Triple Gem
other Buddhist groups, Theravada Buddhists are committed to what is
known as the "triple gem."
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the dharma.
I take refuge in the sangha.
A word of explanation is needed for each of these statements.
First, for Theravada Buddhism, to "take refuge in the Buddha" simply
means to honor and respect the Buddha as a great teacher. Buddha
is not worshiped as a divine being or a god; rather he is revered as a
great teacher who has shared his wisdom with his pupils.
Second, to take refuge in the dharma is to study and apply the
teachings of the Buddha.
Finally, to take refuge in the sangha is to participate in the
monastic community (sangha) founded by the Buddha. For Theravada
Buddhism in particular, following the teachings of Buddha is a full time
commitment requiring a great deal of discipline. Consequently, the
Buddha organized his followers into monastic communities in which men
and women could devote themselves to the pursuit of enlightenment. In
addition to keeping the five precepts required of all Buddhists, members
of the sangha take as many as 227 additional vows pertaining to all
aspects of life. Most members of the sangha live a simple life and
depend upon lay people for food and shelter.
It should be noted that in many places, young men may be expected to
join the sangha for a short period of time. This serves as a rite of
passage into adulthood as well as a time of intense religious training.
A another characteristic of Theravada Buddhism is a type of
meditation known as Vipassana Meditation. Vipassana can be
translated as insight or mindfulness. Rather than a trance-like state,
the vipassana can be decribed as "a series of reflections, a series of
thoughts to be pondered, but while sitting in the formal posture."
(Lopez, The Story of Buddhism, 210). The purpose is to make
one mindful of the nature of reality; that is, the impermanence of all
things. One may be asked to contemplate one's own breathing, a
bowl of water, a corpse or any other object. One is directed simply to
note one's feelings and responses without judging them: emotions, like
all things are impermanent. Through mindfulness meditation, Theravada
Buddhists seek to discover truth and free the mind.
4. The Laity
Theravada Buddhism is generally a
path for monks and nuns rather than the laity.
people participate in Theravada Buddhism through:
- Veneration of relics thought to be from the Buddha and
housed in stupas. From the beginning stupas are very important in Buddhism. When the
Buddha was dying he gave specific instructions about how to construct the
stupas that would house his remains. Supposedly, he demonstrated what a
stupa should look like by placing his begging bowl on top his folded robe.
- Learning from monks and nuns.
- Giving alms to support the sangha. It is believed
that giving alms to the sangha allows one to acquire merit or "good" karma.
In many ways, the sangha is something of a merit-making factory. The
merit accrued by the good works and insight of the monks can be
transferred to the laity who support them.