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Theravada Buddhism

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 Theravada Buddhism:

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

Along with other Buddhist groups, Theravada Buddhists are committed to what is known as the "triple gem."


1.      I take refuge in the Buddha.

2.      I take refuge in the dharma.

3.      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.

3. 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.  Nevertheless,  lay 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.

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