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THERAVĀDA . The term Theravāda Buddhism refers, first, to a "school" and closely related "orientations" within the history of Buddhist monasticism and, second, to forms of Buddhist religious, political, and social life in various Buddhist countries. Although these two aspects of Theravāda Buddhism must be distinguished, they overlap and interact in various ways at different points in Theravāda history. In the present article, the specifically monastic aspects will receive priority, but reference will be made to the civilizational dimension as well.

What is the best way to identify the school and the related orientations that should appropriately be considered under the Theravāda rubric? This is a very difficult question, and there is no answer that proves appropriate in all circumstances. For our purposes, however, the following characterization may be helpful. The Theravāda school and orientations within Buddhist monasticism are those that have been self-consciously identified with the "Way of the Elders" (Skt., Sthaviravāda; Pali, Theravāda) and have maintained Pali as the language in which they have preserved what they hold to be the authentic teaching of the Buddha. Within the larger divisions of the Buddhist community, the Theravāda is the sole surviving member of the so-called Eighteen Schools, the eighteen (by traditional reckoning) nikāya s that together made up what its detractors would come to call Hīnayāna Buddhism, the "lesser vehicle" to salvation. With the other Hīnayāna schools, the Theravāda shares a soteriology centered around the figure of the arahant (Skt., arhat ), forms of community life strictly regulated by the Vinaya, or code of monastic conduct, and a canon that rejects the authenticity of the Mahāyāna sūtra s. Theravāda remains today, as it has been for nearly a thousand years, the dominant Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

Once this way of identifying the scholastic expressions and orientations of Theravāda Buddhism has been established, the identification of Theravāda forms of Buddhist civilization is much easier. Quite simply, Theravāda forms of Buddhist civilization are those that have been strongly influenced by the Theravāda school (including its conceptions and prescriptions relevant to society as a whole as well as to the monastic community) and heavily supported by Theravāda monks.

The recognition of these two dimensions of Theravāda Buddhism, and the specification of very general criteria for identifying each of them, does not resolve the very serious problems involved in generating an adequate historical description. It does, however, establish parameters that will facilitate the discussion.

Origins and Early Development

Theravāda Buddhism, like other forms of Buddhism, had its origin in the life of the early Buddhist community. However, during the earliest stages of Buddhist development schools had not yet crystallized in any formal sense. Although the claim to represent the earliest Buddhism is doctrinally important, none of the schools that developed later can be considered, on the basis of purely historical scholarship, to be the sole inheritor and preserver of the original form of Buddhist teaching and practice.

The first centuries

We know that not longer than 110 years after the death of the Buddha the different emphases that existed within the earliest community culminated in a major schism. The school known as the Mahāsāghika ("those of the great assembly") was more populist in its attitude toward doctrinal matters, disciplinary practices, and modes of communal organization. By contrast, the Sthaviravāda school was more conservative in its approach to doctrine and practice and was more hierarchical in its patterns of community life.

Although a Theravāda tradition using Pali as its sacred language probably existed in the earliest days, its differentiation from other related traditions at this point was still quite nascent. The preferences for versions of the received tradition according to language or dialect were, as far as we know, not yet correlated with particular differences in doctrinal or practical orientation. Nor had the issues that later led to the more refined scholastic divisions been formulated in any hard and fast way.

Similarly, it is impossible to identify "Buddhist civilization," much less its Theravāda form, during the first centuries of Buddhist history. This is not to say that the Buddhist tradition generally, and the Theravādins in particular, did not have civilizational aspirations. From texts dating to this period, it seems clear that they did. But at this point the opportunity for implementation had not yet arisen.

Aśoka and after

By the period of the reign of Aśoka (third century bce) the initial division of the Buddhist community into those of the "Great Assembly" and those of the "Way of the Elders" had subdivided further. Exactly how many groups existed, what range of languages or dialects were used to preserve their Master's teachings, and how sharply these groups were divided remains problematic. But according to Theravāda accounts dating from at least the fourth century ce, Aśoka himself sponsored a council that clarified the major differences.

According to these later accounts, Aśoka requested that a Buddhist council be held under the leadership of his monastic preceptor, a Theravāda monk named Moggaliputtatissa. At this council, the Theravādins claim to have bested their opponents in heated debates on numerous disputed issues. Not only was the Third Council supposed to have upheld the Theravādins' orthodoxy but also to have resulted in the expulsion of the defeated heretics from the sagha (Pali, sangha ), or monastic order. The lack of corroboration from non-Theravāda sources casts doubt on the ecumenical character of the Third Council; however, most scholars accept that some sort of council was held.

Further Theravāda accounts record that Aśoka sponsored Buddhist missions that traveled beyond the frontiers of his considerable empire. These accounts date the founding of the Theravāda school in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka to Aśoka's missions to Suvaabhūmi (ce, Southeast Asia) and Tambapai (ce, Sri Lanka), respectively. Aśoka's Pillar Edicts corroborate only that he sponsored the mission to Tambapai. Other inscriptional evidence, however, supports the chronicles' accounts about a mission to Himavanta (typically identified with the Himalayan areas), whereas again the Pillar Edicts are silent. Therefore, the chronicles' accounts about a mission to Suvaabhūmi may well be accurate.

There is no substantial reason to doubt that by Aśoka's time the Theravādins formed a distinctive group within the Buddhist sangha. They preserved the teachings of the Buddha in Pali through their oral tradition; by the Third Buddhist Council or shortly thereafter, the Theravādins held their own positions on specific points of doctrine and practice. They also actively contributed to the Buddhist missionary activity during the third and second centuries bce. It may nevertheless be premature to speak of Theravāda's influence as having achieved civilizational scale apart from its role within the Indian sangha as a whole. During the centuries that followed Aśoka's death, the Theravāda tradition continued to spread its influence in India, but as one school among many (eighteen is the traditional number given). Specific information remains scanty.

Sri Lanka and the Dhammadīpa tradition

In Sri Lanka, however, the situation was quite different. Within this distinctive provincial area, Theravāda traditions became firmly established and prospered. The Pali chronicles compiled and preserved by the Sinhala monks, inscriptions, and extensive archaeological remains make it possible to reconstruct a comparatively full picture of Theravāda Buddhism in the Sri Lanka of the first century bce.

For example, the Pali chronicle written in fifth-century Sri Lanka and known as the Mahāvasa (Great Chronicle) records the momentous decision to commit the Theravāda canon, preserved and transmitted for centuries by oral tradition, to writing. According to the Mahāvasa, between the years 29 and 17 bce Sri Lanka was threatened by foreign invasion and famine, and the Theravāda monks feared that the monastic community would be dispersed and the oral tradition broken and lost. In an effort to prevent this, they gathered together and committed to writing the Tipiaka (Skt., Tripiaka; "three baskets"), that is, the Buddhist canon. As a result, this aspect of the tradition was solidified in a basic form that has remained largely intact through Theravāda history.

The first two Piakas, or "baskets," are the Sutta Piaka, which contains sermons, discourses, and sayings attributed to the Buddha, and the Vinaya Piaka, which contains stories about the Buddha that introduce rules concerning the conduct for monks and nuns and the proper functioning of the monastic order. These two baskets comprise many strata of traditions ranging in dates from the time of the Buddha himself up to at least the time of Aśoka. Most of the material that they contain is present also in the traditions preserved by other Buddhist schools in various forms of Prakrit and Sanskrit, sometimes in slightly different form and often much embellished.

However, in the case of the third Piaka, called the Abhidhamma, or "Higher Teaching," the situation is quite different. Here we have a collection of seven compositions, each unique to the Theravāda school. These seven compositions represent a relatively late scholastic formulation, compiled possibly during the Aśokan or early post-Aśokan period. Together they present and summarize Buddhist teachings in a systematic form that differentiates Theravāda scholasticism from that of the other schools that were developing during the same period. This Theravāda distinctiveness is perhaps most explicitly expressed in the Kathāvatthu, an Abhidhamma text attributed to Moggaliputtatissa and associated with the Third Council. In this forensic and polemic text over two hundred Theravāda positions are defended against opposing doctrines. For example, the doctrine of anatta ("no-self") is defended against an opponent who asserts the existence of some kind of continuing personal entity (a view usually associated with the Pudgalavāda school); the doctrine of anicca (momentariness) is defended against an opponent who affirms the existence of past, present, and future times (a view usually associated with the Sarvāstivāda school); and the attainments of the arahant s (Skt., arhat s; fully perfected saints) are defended against opponents who questioned their perfection (a view associated most often, but not exclusively, with the Mahāsāghikas).

There is strong evidence to suggest that before the beginning of the common era an extensive tradition of commentaries on many portions of the Pali Tipiaka already existed in the Sinhala vernacular. To what extent the original forms of these commentaries were brought to Sri Lanka by the legendary missionaries of Aśokan times is unclear. Nor can we be sure to what extent these commentaries were composed in India in Pali and subsequently translated into Sinhala and to what extent they were actually composed or adapted in Sri Lanka. Since none of these commentaries has survived in its early Sinhala form, the contents cannot be determined with certainty. We know only that before the beginning of the common era a significant corpus of Tipiaka commentaries, preserved in Sinhala, formed an integral component of the Theravāda tradition in Sri Lanka.

By this time, too, Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka had become a civilizational religion. It may be, as the later chronicles maintain, that the civilizational character dates to the time of the Aśokan missionaries to Sri Lanka. Said to have been the son of Aśoka, the monk named Mahinda (Skt., Mahendra) supposedly succeeded in his missionary goal of establishing the Theravāda lineage in Sri Lanka and converting the Sinhala king, Devānapiyatissa. Shortly thereafter, according to the texts, Aśoka's daughter, the nun Sanghamittā, brought to Sri Lanka the ordination lineage for women. King Devānapiyatissa is credited with founding the famous Mahāvihāra monastery, which not only encompassed the king's capital within its boundaries, but later housed the monks who authored the chronicles that we now possess.

Another possible point for the emergence of Theravāda as a civilizational religion is the reign of the Sinhala hero, King Duhagāmaī (r. 161137 bce). According to the fifth-century Mahāvasa account (whose preeminent hero is Duhagāmaī, as opposed to the fourth-century Dīpavasa account, whose hero is Devānapiyatissa), Duhagāmaī sought to evict the South Indians who had established their hegemony in northern Sri Lanka. While still a prince he organized a campaign in which the struggle to establish centralized rule and the struggle to establish Theravāda Buddhism as the "national" religion became closely identified. With the victory of Duhagāmaī and his construction of the Mahāthūpa (a funerary mound that enshrined relics of the Buddha and formed a key monument within the Mahāvihāra's monastic complex) in the capital of Anurādhapura, the civilizational character of Theravāda found a powerful vehicle of expression. Certainly, by the end of the first century bce, after the Pali scriptures had been committed to writing, the Theravāda ideal of Sri Lanka as the Dhammadīpa, the "Island of the Dhamma," seemed well-developed not only in Sri Lankan religious and political institutions, but in Sinhala identity as well.

TheravĀda Buddhism in Greater India

The history of Theravāda Buddhism in India and Southeast Asia during the first millennium ce continues to be extremely obscure. We know that Theravādins held sway in a number of important Buddhist centers in India, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. And we also know that several of the most famous Theravāda scholars were of Indian origin and, among these, some did their primary work in Indian monasteries.

In Southeast Asia, specifically among the Burmese of Lower Burma and the Mon peoples of Lower Burma and Thailand, the Theravāda tradition became firmly rooted and exerted a significant civilizational influence. Later legends trace the founding of this tradition to Soa and Uttara, the two missionaries reportedly dispatched to Suvaabhūmi by Moggaliputtatissa. The first archaeological evidence of Buddhism's presence has been found along inland and coastal trade routes, and dates to early in the first millennium ce. In Lower Burma inscriptions have been found that confirm a preeminent Theravāda presence in Pyu/Burmese royal centers beginning from the fifth century ce, and some sort of Theravāda influence is attested in Pagan somewhat later. In Thailand, similar evidence indicates that the Theravāda tradition was an important, perhaps central, religious element in the Mon civilization of Dvāravatī that flourished over a wide area of central, northern, and northeastern Thailand from the sixth to the eleventh century. Such sources notwithstanding, information concerning the kind or kinds of Theravāda Buddhism that existed among the Burmese and Mon is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, there is little data that illumines the relationship between the various Theravāda traditions and the other schoolsnotably other Hīnayāna schools that used Sanskrit as their sacred languagethat were also very influential throughout the mainland areas of Southeast Asia.

In Sri Lanka, literary and archaeological remains provide many more details regarding local Theravāda history. According to fifth-century chronicle accounts, the first major division within the Theravāda sangha in Sri Lanka occurred soon after the Pali Tipiaka was commited to writing, probably between 29 and 17 bce. A famous monk named Mahātissa evidently built, with royal support, an impressive new monastery in Anurādhapura. Sometime thereafter, monks of the long-established Mahāvihāra fraternity (by whose account this story is preserved) accused Mahātissa of violating the monastic discipline and tried to expel him from the sangha. Monks loyal to Mahātissa then formed the fraternity of the Abhayagiri monastery, which became for some time the Mahāvihāra's archrival. The Abhayagiri lineage maintained independent institutional traditions that eventually gave rise to branch monastic communities as far distant as Java.

Like the Mahāvihāra, the Abhayagiri came to include an order of nuns among its residents. These nuns seem to have been very active and were responsible for transmitting the women's ordination lineage to China in the fifth century. With an extensive network of affiliated monasteries, the Abhayagiri controlled its own sizable collection of wealth and property. This new fraternity also came to possess its own version of the Pali Tipiaka, its own distinctive version of certain aspects of Theravāda doctrine, and its own interpretation of particular points of monastic discipline. In additionin contrast to their Mahāvihāra rivalsthe Abhayagiri nikāya, like the communities that supervised the great monastic universities of India, welcomed into their midst monks from other Hīnayāna schools, and from various Mahāyāna and, later, Tantric traditions as well.

This willingness of the Abhayagiri Theravādins to welcome Mahāyāna adherents into their company generated, some three centuries after its founding, a schism within its own ranks. In the middle of the fourth century three hundred monks declared their aversion to the presence of Mahāyāna monks at the Abhayagiri, withdrew from that fraternity, and formed an independent group that came to be known as the Jetavana fraternity. The new Jetavana nikāya acquired affiliated monasteries and also considerable land and other wealth. But compared to the Mahāvihāra and Abhayagiri nikāya s, the Jetavana remained relatively small. From time to time, it became associated with particular doctrinal and disciplinary interpretations of its own, but a sustained distinctive orientation never emerged to compete seriously with its two rivals. Although by the end of the third century the Theravāda sangha in Sri Lanka had become divided, certain tendencies remained common to all three nikāya s. For example, the Theravāda scholasticism that blossomed during the fifth century drew scholars from the Mahāvihāra and from other nikāya s as well.

The most influential scholar associated with this efflorescence, if not Theravāda scholasticism generally, was Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa. Probably a native of northern India, Buddhaghosa traveled to Sri Lanka in order to translate the Sinhala commentarial tradition, preserved by the Mahāvihāravāsins, into Pali, which by this time was recognized as the lingua franca of the international Theravāda community. Buddhaghosa's industriousness during his residence at the Mahāvihāra produced a rich and extensive corpus of Pali commentarial literature that became a fundamental resource for subsequent scholarship and practice throughout the Theravāda world. In addition, Buddhaghosa produced a comprehensive meditational guide and doctrinal summary known as the Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification). Rich with historical anecdotes, the Visuddhimagga remains an authoritative resource for Theravāda scholars and adherents from his own time to the present. Although there is no corroborating evidence, a Southeast Asian tradition records that Buddhaghosa traveled to Burma late in his life and that his influence inaugurated a renascence of Burmese Theravāda.

Two monks from South India, Buddhadatta, a younger contemporary of Buddhaghosa, and Dhammapāla, his successor, also made significant contributions to the new literature in Pali. And many scholars believe that it was a monk from the Abhayagiri monastery who composed a manual entitled Vimuttimagga (The Path of Liberation), which, while not as wide-ranging, was nevertheless remarkably parallel to Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga. Some scholars suggest there may be a common source for both of these manuals that has parallels or variations in India as well.

Another movement in Sri Lanka that drew interested monks from all Theravāda nikāya s was ascetic in character and led to the rise of at least two prominent groups. The first group, known as the Pasukūlikas ("those who wear robes made from rags"), began to play an important role during the seventh century and continued to be noted in historical records until the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Although little is known about the group, it is quite possible that at least some of the Pasukūlikas were strongly influenced by Tantric trends that were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the Buddhist world, including Sri Lanka.

The second group, which attracted many proponents, especially from among the Mahāvihāravāsins, first began to be mentioned in tenth-century records. Referred to as āraññika s ("forest dwellers"), these monks declined to reside in the rich monasteries of the capital and established their own monastic centers in the countryside. They adopted a more stringent discipline than their urban contemporaries, and emphasized more rigorous modes of scholarship and meditation.

Throughout the entire first millennium ce, as Sri Lankan Theravāda Buddhism developed its monastic teaching and modes of practice, it also developed various civilizational aspects of its orientation. There was often serious and sometimes destructive competition between segments of the monastic community for royal support in particular and lay support in general. Serious disagreements among different Theravāda groups concerned various matters such as the propriety of monastic land ownership and wealth, the status and authority of the king, the appropriateness of various forms of ritual practice, and the like. But despite the differences, several general trends emerged. For example, over the course of the millennium monastic institutions controlled increasing amounts of land and accumulated increasing amounts of wealth. With regard to royalty, the Theravāda notion of kingship became gradually more exalted until, by the end of the period, the king was generally portrayed as a bodhisatta (future Buddha). Various relics of the Buddha, especially the tooth relic and the alms bowl relic, came to be regarded as palladia of the kingdom, and also became centers around which large-scale "national" festivals were celebrated.

The Great Revival and Beyond

During the first centuries after the turn of the second millennium ce, the center of gravity in the Theravāda world shifted significantly to the east. In India, Buddhism, including Theravāda Buddhism, succumbed almost completely to the pressures exerted by Hinduism and Islam. But in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, Theravāda gained new vitality and spread to new areas. Establishing centers in the Mekong Valley, the Theravādins attained preeminence by the mid-fourteenth century both among the Khmer (Cambodians) and the Lao.

At the beginning of the period Theravāda fortunes were at a low ebb. In Sri Lanka, the Theravāda sangha had suffered serious setbacks as a result of Cōa invasions from South India and the collapse of the hydraulic civilization of northern Sri Lanka. In Southeast Asia, the Pyu-Burmese and Mon civilizations in which the Theravādins had played a major role had lost much of their vitality. During this period, the kingdom of Pagan seemed to be more oriented toward Hinduism and Sanskritic forms of Buddhism than toward Theravāda. And with hegemony over most of what is now Thailand, the powerful and expansive Khmer court at Angkor was strongly oriented toward Hinduism and Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Accounts of the beginnings of the Theravāda resurgence that occurred in the latter half of the eleventh century vary according to the tradition that has preserved them. However, one primary fact stands clear both in Sri Lanka and in Burma: Theravāda became the favored tradition at the major centers of political power. In Sri Lanka this occurred after the explusion of the Cōa invaders and the restoration of Theravāda-oriented Sinhala royalty by Vijayabāhu I. In Burma, it occurred through the conquest of the Mon by King Aniruddha of Pagan, his introduction of Mon Theravāda monks and their traditions to Pagan, and the subsequent recognition in Pagan of the preeminence of the Theravāda sangha.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the revitalized Theravāda tradition was given an important new direction in the twelfth century when, during the reign of Parākramabāhu I, a major reform and reorganization of the sangha was implemented. Parākramabāhu I requested the Mahāvihāra-oriented āraññika s, who had begun to appear on the scene two to three centuries earlier, to preside over a council. The goal of the council, not dissimilar from the goals of previous but less successful royal policies, was to purify and unify the Sri Lankan sangha. This time a number of factors contributed to success. On one hand, the nikāya s had been weakened by the recent confiscation of monastic property by King Vikramabāhu I (r. 11111132) and, on the other, there was a respite in the warring between Sinhala and South Indian groups.

The council "purified" the sangha, which meant that the code of proper monastic conduct was ascertained and monks who refused to comply were expelled. The reforms then unified the sangha by bringing all the remaining factions (and it is clear there were many) together into a single communal order. In so doing, the reforms provided the basis for a new structure of ecclesiastical organization that was established either at that time or shortly thereafter. The new system involved the appointment, by the king, of a mahāsvami or sangharāja to act as the monastic head of the sangha as a whole, and also the appointment (under him) of two mahāsthavira s to supervise the gāmavāsin, or village-dwelling monks, and the vanavāsin, or forest-dwelling monks (also called āraññika s), respectively.

The reform movement that the council expressed and abetted also generated a tremendous burst of literary creativity that matched and perhaps even exceeded the literary achievements of Buddhaghosa and others some seven centuries earlier. This new literary efflorescence had two very important dimensions. The first was the production, primarily by a monk named Sāriputtaa leading figure at the council who later seems to have held the position of mahāsvami and his disciples, of a whole new strata of Pali literature. The new Pali compositions included a series of subcommentaries on the commentaries of Buddhaghosa, especially on Vinaya; also included were a number of very important texts dealing with the lineages or histories (vasa ) of various relics of the Buddha and monuments to him, as well as the more wide-ranging historical chronicles that brought the narrative of the Mahāvasa up to date. This new literary dynamism also generated new genres of Pali and Sinhala literature that were often permeated with devotional themes. This literature vividly expressed the new reformist concern to convey the Theravāda message in linguistic and religious idioms acceptable both to monastic and lay constituencies in the countryside as well as in the urban centers.

This reformed tradition by and large remained preeminent and creative in Sri Lanka up to the coming of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, and persisted for some centuries thereafter. The sangha retained its symbiotic relationship with the Sinhala kings, and the monasteries acquired new lands and wealth. However, during the period after 1500, when the authority of the indigenous Buddhist kingdom was increasingly confined to the inland highlands, the sangha suffered a serious erosion of standards. By the early eighteenth century, the level of monastic scholarship and discipline had reached a very low level indeed.


In Southeast Asia, the resurgence of Theravāda proceeded rather differently. At the time King Aniruddha came to the throne in Pagan (eleventh century) the Mon in Lower Burma preserved a very ancient Theravāda tradition associated with the Aśokan missionaries Soa and Uttara. Through the reforms initiated by Aniruddha and his monastic preceptor, Shin Arahan, and renewed by his successor, King Kyanzittha, a strong Theravāda tradition was established in Upper Burma and given powerful royal support. In the twelfth century a further reformist element was introduced at Pagan by a monk named Chapaa, who had gone to Sri Lanka during the reign of Parākramabāhu I and had been reordained in the newly purified and unified Sri Lankan sangha. Thus, by the end of the twelfth century, when the Pagan dynasty was still a very powerful force, the Theravāda tradition had become firmly established as the preeminent religion in Burma. What is more, the three major subtraditions that were to coexist and compete with one another through the entire premodern periodthose associated with Lower Burma, Upper Burma, and Sri Lankawere all more or less firmly in place.

The Burmese monastic reforms, which in some respects corresponded to those that had been implemented in twelfth-century Sri Lanka, took place when the fifteenth-century Mon king named Dhammaceti assumed the throne in Lower Burma. Formerly a monk, King Dhammaceti sponsored a delegation of eighteen monks to be reordained in Sri Lanka. When these monks returned, Dhammaceti insisted that all those within his realm who wished to remain in the sangha be reordained by the new fraternity. Following this "purification" and unification process, the king proceeded to establish a monastic hierarchy whose responsibility it was to maintain strict adherence to the Vinaya rules. King Dhammaceti's efforts served to emphasize the influence of Sinhala monastic traditions in Burma. Moreover, his activities gave impetus to a new tradition of Pali Abhidhamma scholarship and commentaries that has been a hallmark of Burmese Buddhism ever since.

Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos

Farther to the east, the Theravāda resurgence developed later than it had in Burma. The first hint that an expansion of Theravāda influence might be in the offing came from the report that one of the five monks who accompanied Chapaa on his journey to Sri Lanka in the late twelfth century was a member of the royal court of Angkor. However, it is not until the latter part of the thirteenth century that hard evidence becomes available. Based on the report of a Chinese visitor, Theravādapossibly with connections both to Mon and Sinhala traditionshad become one of the major factors in the religious life at the Khmer/Cambodian capital at Angkor.

The newly established (thirteenth-century) Thai kingdoms of Lānnā in northwestern Thailand and Sukhōthai in central Thailand assumed the reigns of power from their Mon predecessors in areas formerly defined by the ancient Dvāravatī civilization. Like their Mon predecessors, the Thais also venerated Theravāda traditions. But during the mid-fourteenth century, Mon Theravāda traditions had to make way for a Sinhala reformist movement that spread from a center at Martaban in Lower Burma to several Thai capitals including Ayutthayā, Sukhōthai, and Chiangmai (Lānnā).

Theravāda monasteries continued to proliferate throughout the region. By the latter part of the fifteenth century the Lānnā capital of Chiangmai had emerged as one of the major intellectual centers in the Theravāda world. In central Thailand, where the locus of power gradually shifted from Sukhōthai to Ayutthayā, the Theravāda presence was consolidated. Farther east in Cambodia, Theravāda gradually displaced the deeply entrenched traditions of Hinduism and Mahāyāna Buddhism, a transition facilitated by the abandonment of the old capital of Angkor in the mid-fifteenth century. According to chronicle accounts, Theravāda became the preeminent tradition in Laos beginning with the conversion of a Laotian prince during his exile in the court of Angkor in the mid-fourteenth century. He subsequently became the ruler of the powerful Laotian kingdom of Luang Prabang. Through the entire area during this period, appropriation of reformist Theravāda influence from Sri Lanka continued. Indeed, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, reformist Sinhala fraternities dominated in all of the major royal centers and in many of the lesser ones as well.

Throughout the later premodern period in Southeast Asia there were a number of Theravāda kingdoms that held sway over various geographical areas for varying periods of time. A succession of such kingdoms constituted and fostered a loosely linked "national" tradition in Burma, and a more stable Thai kingdom was governed from Ayutthayā. A series of leading Theravāda kingdoms succeeded one another in Laos, and in Cambodia still another royal center was established. Since the pattern and development of Theravāda religion, both monastic and civilizational, varied from area to area and from kingdom to kingdom, generalizations are necessarily problematic. However, at least two important characteristics can be observed across the entire area.

First, monastic history, punctuated as it has been by reform movements, has necessarily also been subject to the considerable tensions intrinsic to that process. In Southeast Asia a continuing tension, more or less explicit, characterized relations between reformist movements and other Theravāda traditions that continued to coexist with them. Reformist groups vied with each other and indigenous groups over the purity and authenticity of their monastic observances. An extremely sensitive matter, monastic factionalism could readily be interpreted as a sign of the king's inability to maintain order in his kingdom (and often was). By way of demonstrating their authority to rule, royal sponsors had to act judiciously to balance the often contradictory demands of monastic purity and unity.

Generally speaking, the reformists were associated with Sinhala fraternities and sooner or later with royal sponsors. On the other hand, the Theravāda fraternities that resisted these reforms (fraternities that were often themselves the products of earlier reforms) typically maintained their own traditions about monastic discipline and the propriety of monastic wealth. In some instances these latter groups preserved texts and practices originally derived from Sanskrit Buddhist schools that had once exerted considerable influence in the area. They were often involved with localized modes of sacrality and were very resistant to attempts from the capital to exert centralized authority. In addition, they often utilized both Pali and vernacular texts, as well as mystical and magical modes of practice, that were clearly Tantric in character. It should be noted, however, that beliefs in the magical power of properly intoned soundsespecially Pali wordsto effect order or secure protection seem to have been common to both groups.

The second characteristic of the premodern Theravāda tradition throughout Southeast Asia was the distinctive manner and extent of its civilizational role. Like the Theravāda sangha in Sri Lanka, the Theravāda sangha in Southeast Asia maintained symbiotic relationships with the various kings who ruled in specific areas. The sangha supported the veneration of thūpa s and Buddha images that had connections with political and social life at every level. Also like the Theravāda sangha in Sri Lanka, the sangha in Southeast Asia developed a textual tradition in Pali and in the various vernaculars (some translated, some originally composed) that addressed the religious, social, and moral concerns of all groups from court to village. But in Southeast Asia there was a special practice that further enhanced the civilizational impact of Theravāda, namely, the temporary participation of a significant segment of the male population in the life of the monastic order. In some areas this involved a temporary ordination as a novice. In other areas it involved temporary ordination, or several temporary ordinations, as a full-fledged member of the Order. But whatever form this practice took, it provided the context for a monastic acculturation that has given the societies of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos their distinctive Theravāda flavor.

TheravĀda Buddhism since 1750

During the past two and a half centuries Theravāda Buddhism has retained its basic structure, and the major regional traditions have maintained many of the particularities that had come to characterize them during premodern times. However, during this period there have been important developments in the Theravāda world, some the result of internal dynamics and others the result of the external pressures of colonialism and "modernity." Since most of these developments have appeared throughout the Theravāda world, we will pursue our discussion thematically. However, since these developments took very different forms in different areas, it will be necessary to give careful attention to regional and national differences.

In the monastic context the stage was set for the developments of the modern period by major reforms that were implemented in each of the three major Theravāda regions. In Sri Lanka the relevant reform took place in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Centered in the independent kingdom of Kandy and led by the sangharāja named Välivita Saranamkara, this movement received royal support. Believing their ordination lineage to be defective, the reformers invited Thai monks to Sri Lanka to reintroduce an authentic Theravāda lineage. Through their efforts a new Siyam (Thai) nikāya was established.

Later in the eighteenth century King Bodawpaya (r. 1781-1819) succeeded in uniting Burma under his rule and in establishing a considerable degree of royally regulated discipline within the Burmese sangha. Through his efforts Bodawpaya officially resolved the long-standing and rancorous dispute between monastic factions about the proper way of wearing the monastic robes. Having more or less unified the sangha, Bodawpaya's reforms established the basis for the Thudhamma segment of the Order that has continued to include the majority of Burmese monks.

In Indochina the corresponding reforms were sponsored by King Rāma I, the founder of the Thai kingdom of Bangkok. Having claimed the throne after a period of severe disruption following the destruction of the former Thai capital of Ayutthayā, the first ruler of the new Cakkrī dynasty introduced a series of reforms that unified the sangha and strengthened discipline within its ranks. This more or less unified fraternitylater called the Mahanikāyahas never lost its majority position within the Thai sangha. In Cambodia and Laos closely related, although less reformed, Mahanikāya fraternities were dominant at the beginning of the modern period and have held that position ever since.

During the nineteenth century there emerged within the sangha in each area a major competing faction or factions. In Sri Lanka two competing fraternities appeared on the scenethe Amarapura nikāya (so called because it received its new ordination lineage from the branch of the Burmese sangha that was recognized at the Burmese capital of Amarapura) and the Rāmañña nikāya (so called because it received its new ordination lineage from the Mon sangha that had its center in the Rāmañña country of Lower Burma). The Amarapura nikāya came into being because ordination in the Siyam nikāya had quickly become limited to members of the highest (goyigama ) caste. Although the intrusion of caste distinctions into the Theravāda sangha in Sri Lanka was not a new phenomenon, such discrimination led, in the early nineteenth century, to the formation of a competing fraternity. This new fraternity wasand remains todaya rather loose confederation of several smaller groups from various other castes that are especially prominent in southwestern Sri Lanka.

The Rāmañña nikāya was established in 1864 when a group of monks with a more uncompromising attitude toward any kind of caste distinctions within the sangha and a more "modernist" approach to all aspects of Buddhist teaching and practice formed their own independent fraternity. ("Modernist" in this article refers to a skeptical attitude toward traditional beliefs regarding cosmology, the existence of gods and spirits, and the efficacy of rituals.) Although this stricter and more modernist Rāmañña nikāya has remained by far the smallest of the Sinhala fraternities, it has nevertheless exerted considerable influence on the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka.

During the nineteenth century many of the same factors and orientations were present in Burma as in Sri Lanka, but a different kind of political and social context led to a much greater proliferation of nikāya and similar groups called gaing s. In Burma, much more than in Sri Lanka, the nineteenth-century British conquest disrupted the fabric of social life. In response to a disrupted environment, numerous small, more tightly organized groups formed alongside the majority Thudhamma monks who continued to accept the authority of the royally sponsored Thudhamma Council through the reign of King Mindon Min (d. 1878). These various groups both complemented one another and competed with each other for purity of monastic observance and its attendant lay support. Among these groups the Thudhamma monks and the Shwegyin fraternity came to play the most important role. In comparison with the Thudhamma monks, the Shwegyin group succeeded in maintaining a more rigorous level of scholarship and discipline. The Shwegyin and the other smaller reformist communities, although less explicitly "modernist" in their orientation than the Rāmañña fraternity in Sri Lanka, had close affinities with it.

In western Indochina during the nineteenth century a single new nikāya, the Thammayut, emerged to complement and compete with the established Mahanikāya fraternity. The Thammayut (Dhammayuttika) nikāya was founded in Thailand in the mid-nineteenth century by the future king Mongkut (Rāma IV) during his more than twenty years in the sangha. Clearly modernist in its orientation, the group received its ordination lineage from the same Mon tradition to which modern-oriented reformists in other Theravāda countries also turned. But unlike the Rāmañña fraternity in Sri Lanka and the Shwegyin fraternity in Burma, the Thammayut fraternity received special support from Thailand's unconquered monarchy all through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This, plus the closely related fact that its members were drawn largely from the highest levels of the Thai elite, enabled it to exert a powerful influence on the much larger Mahanikāya. The Thammayut's favored status and elite membership also enabled it to play an important role in drawing provincial traditions into the central Thai sangha, and in extending central Thai influence into the sangha s of Cambodia and Laos as well.

Thus, by the beginning of the twentieth century the various fraternities that still constitute the Theravāda sangha s in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia had already come into being. But there is one related twentieth-century development that should also be mentioned, namely the very tentative and controversial reemergence of the order of nuns. For almost a millennium the order had not existed in the Theravāda context, although in some Theravāda areas there were many, typically older women who adopted a celibate mode of life and frequented the monastic environs. But in recent years a few determined women from Theravāda countries have gone to Taiwan, where they have been ordained into the lineage of nuns that had been transmitted from Sri Lanka to China in the fifth century. The number of such nuns in Theravāda countries is currently still minuscule, and the authenticity of their ordination is not recognized by the great majority of Theravāda monks and laity. But the seeds for a possible revival have clearly been planted.

During the modern period these essentially monastic developments have been complemented by a number of civilizationally oriented movements, all of which have drawn on long-established Theravāda traditions. But at the same time they have appropriated and adapted these traditions in new ways. Four movements may be cited as examples.

  1. Millenarian movements, which constitute the first example, may be subdivided into at least two major types. The first type, which has appeared primarily in Burma and other Southeast Asian countries, is represented by more mystical, politically passive movements that have at their respective centers a cult devoted to a charismatic personage (sometimes identified with the future Buddha Metteyya) who is expectedat some very indefinite future timeto usher in a new age. The second type is represented by more activist movements that have arisen in periods and contexts where crises of power have occurred. Such politically active millenarian movements appeared in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia during the period of British and French colonial conquest. They have appeared within the colonial context itselfmost notably in the famous Saya San rebellion in Burma. They have also appeared when indigenous governments (particularly in Burma and Thailand) have sought to extend their authority into outlying areas.
  2. A closely related set of movements that has been particularly strong in Southeast Asia has involved the cultivation of meditational practice. Many of these movements have coalesced around charismatic individuals who have achieved advanced meditational states and are in some instances rumored to be arahant s, or fully perfected saints. Often in such cases these meditationally advanced individuals make their power available to their followers in the form of appropriately blessed amulets and other sacred objects. On the other hand, many of the movements in this set emphasize the importance of meditation for all. Special forms of practice have been developed for less committed monks and for the laity. Numerous lay-oriented meditation centers have been set up in Burma where the contemporary meditational emphasis began to take form in the early twentieth century, in Thailand where lay meditation has enjoyed great popularity in recent years, and increasingly in Sri Lanka as well.
  3. A third set of movements that have had a significant impact are those that can be characterized as "modernist" in the specific sense noted above. In the monastic context, modernist concerns were very much involved in the formation of several of the monastic fraternities that developed in various Theravāda countries during the nineteenth century. Equally important, major lay movements with modernist ideologies have appeared and taken root. In Sri Lanka in the late nineteenth century, Anagārika Dharmapala and those who shared his views emphasized a "this-worldly" mode of lay asceticism (Anagārika is a title designating a lay ascetic) and rejected many traditional Buddhist beliefs and practices as superstitious and useless. During and since Dharmapala's time many other modernist movements and associations have developed among the laity all across the Theravāda world, particularly in the urban areas. The influence of these movements and associations has been most evident in Sri Lanka and Thailand, but they have beenat certain pointsactive components in the Theravāda communities in Burma and, to a lesser extent, in Cambodia and Laos as well. It is also important to note that several of these modernist movements and associations have been instrumental in the establishment and maintenance of a significant Buddhist ecumenical organization known as the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
  4. Considering Theravāda Buddhism's civilizational character, it is not surprising that it became involved in the political processes and ideological trends that have affected the various Theravāda countries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Sri Lanka and Burma certain segments of the Theravāda community, including the monastic community, became very deeply involved with movements for national independence. These same groups were also involved with attempts, during the postindependence period, to build new, democratically structured societies that would be both Buddhist and socialist. In the 1950s such hopes were strongly expressed in the context of the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha's death, celebrated in 1956. These celebrations included a much-heralded "sixth" Buddhist Council that was sponsored by the Burmese government of U Nu.

Since the late 1950s the situation in both countries has changed considerably. In Sri Lanka the early hopes for Buddhist nationhood have been seriously eroded, and a nonsocialist government has come to power. Moreover, some Sinhala spokesmen representing both the left and the right have used a Buddhist idiom in the rhetoric surrounding communal violence between the Sinhala majority and the substantial Tamil minority. In Burma the hopes for Buddhist nationhood also dimmed, and the military government that took over in the early 1960sdespite its nominal support for Buddhist socialismsought to keep Buddhism isolated from the mainstream of national life. But in the Burmese case it should also be noted that in recent years the military government has taken a significantly new tack by initiating a reform of the monastic order that is intended to "purify" it, demonstrate government interest in monastic affairs, and open channels of communication between the government and the sangha.

Further east, the interactions between Theravāda Buddhism, politics, and ideology have been equally important but quite different in character. In Thailand the affinity between the Theravāda tradition and nationalism has been as strong as in Sri Lanka or Burma. But since Thailand was never conquered by a Western nation, this affinity has resulted in a basically cooperative relationship between Buddhism and the established government, and a rather stable continuation of the traditional symbiotic relationship between the sangha and state. In recent years Buddhism has become closely associated with capitalist development, while socialismBuddhist or otherwisehas remained on the political and ideological periphery.

In Cambodia and Laos an early continuity with the received tradition was followed by a break that has been both dramatic and devastating. The continuity that characterized the religio-political situation during the colonial period was made possible by the fact that the Frenchwho were the colonial overlords in the areachose to rule at a distance and to leave the established religious and political order largely intact. The radical break was, of course, the result of the disruption caused by the war that racked the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and by the victory of the Communists in both countries. In Cambodia, the Communist devastation of Buddhism during the Pol Pot regime (19751980) was widespread and brutal. In Laos (and, since 1980, in Cambodia), the approach of the Communist authorities has been considerably more restrained; but even in these contexts traditional Buddhist institutions have suffered serious damage and traditional Buddhist values have been directly and severely challenged.

TheravĀda Today

Theravāda Buddhism remains very much alive in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, both as a monastic tradition and as a civilizational force. The sangha, despite its many problems, carries on its traditions of Pali scholarship and meditational practice. It continues to produce persons with intellectual substance and spiritual prowess. And it continues to generate movements (often conflicting movements) aimed at monastic reform, spiritual development, and societal well-being.

In addition, Theravāda Buddhism continues to exert its influence on the institutions and values of the societies in the traditionally Theravāda areas. This influence takes quite different forms in Sri Lanka, where ethnic differences often involve religious differences; in Burma, where the nation's leaders have sought to insulate the populace from many aspects of "modernity"; in Thailand, where the pace of "modernization" is rapid indeed; and in Cambodia and Laos, where Theravāda Buddhism has been "disestablished" by recently installed Communist governments. But in each instance Theravāda Buddhism continues to provide meaning in the everyday life of its adherents.

See Also

Arhat; Aśoka; Buddhaghosa; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Southeast Asia; Burmese Religion; Duhagāmaī; Khmer Religion; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia; Lao Religion; Moggaliputtatissa; Mongkut; Sagha; Sinhala Religion; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Mainland Cultures; Thai Religion; Vinaya; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in Southeast Asia.


Unfortunately there is no one book that adequately covers Theravāda Buddhism as a whole. Perhaps the most comprehensive single study for the premodern period is Kanai Lal Hazra's History of Theravāda Buddhism in South-East Asia (New Delhi, 1982), which touches on Indian and Sri Lankan developments as well. This book needs to be supplemented by other works that deal with particular aspects of the tradition, such as Wilhelm Geiger's Pali Literature and Language, 2d ed., translated by Batakrishna Ghosh (Delhi, 1968); John C. Holt's Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka (Delhi, 1981); John Ross Carter's Dhamma: Western Academic and Sinhalese Buddhist Interpretations (Tokyo, 1978); Stephen Collins's Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravāda Buddhism (Cambridge, 1982); Winston L. King's Theravāda Meditation (University Park, Pa., 1980); and Bhikkhu Nyanatiloka's Guide to the Abhidhamma-pitaka, 3d ed., revised and enlarged by Nya-naponika Thera (Kandy, 1971). Many of the civilizational aspects are covered in two related books edited by Bardwell L. Smith, Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka and Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos, and Burma (both, Chambersburg, Pa., 1978). Similar themes are explored in Heinz Bechert's three-volume Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft in den Ländern Theravāda-Buddhismus (Frankfurt, 19661973). Two other studies written for more general audiences are Robert C. Lester's Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia (Ann Arbor, 1973) and Donald K. Swearer's Buddhism and Society in Southeast Asia (Chambersburg, Pa., 1981).

Because of vast translation efforts, primarily by the Pali Text Society, the nonspecialist has access to a large body of Theravāda literature. Virtually the entire Tipiaka has been translated into English and is included in either the "Sacred Books of the Buddhists" or the "Translation Series" of the Pali Text Society. Among the most important postcanonical texts that are available in English are Wilhelm Geiger's translation of The Mahāvasa, or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon (London, 1964); Bhikkhu Ñyanamoli's translation of Buddhaghosa's fifth-century work, The Path of Purification, 2d ed. (Colombo, 1964); and Frank E. Reynolds and Mani B. Reynolds's translation of Phya Lithai's fourteenth-century cosmological treatise, Three Worlds according to King Ruang (Berkeley, 1982).

A useful introduction to the Theravāda tradition in Sri Lanka is provided in Two Wheels of Dhamma, edited by Bardwell L. Smith, Frank E. Reynolds, and Gananath Obeyesekere, "American Academy of Religion Monograph Series," no. 3 (Chambersburg, Pa., 1973). This introduction should be supplemented by the R. A. L. H. Gunawardhana's excellent Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka (Tucson, 1979) and Kitsiri Malalgoda's Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 17501900 (Berkeley, 1976). For two books that deal with quite different dimensions of the "contemporary" tradition, see Michael Carrithers's The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka: An Anthropological and Historical Study (Delhi, 1983) and Richard F. Gombrich's Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon (Oxford, 1971).

The most comprehensive overview of Theravāda Buddhism in Burma is provided by Melford E. Spiro in his Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Vicissitudes (New York, 1970). Serious students will also want to consult E. Michael Mendelson's very important study, Sangha and State in Burma: A Study of Monastic Sectarianism and Leadership, edited by John Ferguson (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975); Emanuel Sarkisyanz's Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution (The Hague, 1965); and Manning Nash's The Golden Road to Modernity: Village Life in Contemporary Burma (New York, 1965).

The Theravāda tradition in Thailand has been comprehensively studied by Stanley J. Tambiah in a trilogy of excellent books: World Conqueror and World Renouncer (Cambridge, 1976), Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, 1970), and The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets (Cambridge, 1984). Other items of interest include Donald K. Swearer's Wat Haripuñjaya (Missoula, Mont., 1976) and our "Sangha, Society and the Struggle for National Integration: Burma and Thailand," in Transitions and Transformations in the History of Religions: Essays in Honor of Joseph M. Kitagawa, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Theodore M. Ludwig (Leiden, 1980), pp. 5688.

Studies that deal with Theravāda Buddhism in Laos and Cambodia are much less adequate and are virtually all in French. The best introductions are probably the articles on Buddhism in the collections edited by René de Berval in France-Asie entitled Présence du royaume Lao (Saigon, 1956), translated by Mrs. Tessier du Cros as Kingdom of Laos (Saigon, 1959), and Présence du Cambodge (Saigon, 1955). Two books that provide overviews of sorts are Marcel Zago's Rites et cérémonies en milieu bouddhiste Lao (Rome, 1972) and Adhémard Leclère's Le bouddhisme au Cambodge (Paris, 1899). The most important new studies are three short but erudite works by François Bizot that highlight an important Tantric influence in the Pali Buddhist traditions in Cambodia and draw implications for our understanding of the Theravāda tradition more generally. These have appeared under the titles Le figuier à cinq branches (Paris, 1976), "Le grotte de la naissance," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient 66 (1979); and Le don de soi-même (Paris, 1981).

Further bibliographical informationincluding annotations of many of the works cited herecan be obtained by consulting the relevant sections in Guide to Buddhist Religion by Frank E. Reynolds et al. (Boston, 1981), or in Reynolds's "Buddhism," in A Reader's Guide to the Great Religions, edited by Charles J. Adams, 2d ed. (New York, 1977), pp. 156222.

New Sources

Andaya, Barbara Watson. "Localising the Universal: Women, Motherhood, and the Appeal of Early Theravada Buddhism." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33 (February 2002): 131.

Anderson, Carol. Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhism Canon. Richmond, U.K., 1999.

Berkwitz, Stephen C. "History and Gratitude in Theravada Buddhism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71 (September 2003): 579605.

Burford, Grace G. Desire, Death, and Goodness: The Conflict of Ultimate Values in Theravada Buddhism. New York, 1991.

Carter, John Ross. On Understanding Buddhists: Essays on the Theravada Tradition in Sri Lanka. Albany, 1993.

Gombrich, Richard Francis. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Columbo. New York, 1988.

Holt, John Clifford, Jacob N. Kinnard, and Jonathan S. Walters. Constituting Communities: Theravada Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia. New York, 2003.

Leve, Lauren G. "Subjects, Selves, and the Politics of Personhood in Theravada Religion in Nepal." Journal of Asian Studies 61 (August 2002): 833861.

Swearer, Donald K. Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand. Princeton, 2004.

Trainor, Kevin. Relics, Ritual and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Theravada Tradition. New York, 1997.

Frank E. Reynolds (1987)

Regina T. Clifford (1987)

Revised Bibliography