views updated May 23 2018


Theravāda is the dominant form of Buddhism in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, and Thailand. It remains a central component of the Buddhism of Vietnam, even after its formal unification with Mahayana forms in the 1960s. The tradition is followed by the Baruas, Chakma, and Magh ethnic groups in Bangladesh, and the Shans of southern China. Historically, the Theravada school was also important in South India, and had a wider presence in South and Southeast Asia more generally, including Indonesia. In the modern period, Theravāda has spread worldwide through diaspora and mission. The school has been instrumental in the Buddhist revival in India and has begun to replace traditional Newari Buddhism in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal. Missionary monks worldwide serve both diasporic and convert Buddhists, often as separate congregations. In the two relatively recent phenomena of Western convert and engaged Buddhism, Theravāda is likely to be universalized rather than culturally specific, and to be mixed or at least in dialogue with other forms of Buddhism and even other religions. There are an estimated 100 million Theravada Buddhists worldwide.

Scriptural authority

Among the key features of traditional Therāvada Buddhism are the use of Pāli as a sacred language and the acceptance of the Pāli Buddhist canon (tipiṭaka) as the highest scriptural authority. This remains true nominally even where the tipiṭaka is not directly relevant to belief or practice, and in spite of so-called apocrypha and numerous other religious texts that teach noncanonical practices.

Theravāda's doctrinal tradition derives from the distinctive Abhidhamma Piṭaka of its aforementioned tipiṭaka. Because of the form of analytical doctrine (Pāli, vibhajjavāda) represented in this abhidhamma (Sanskrit, abhidharma) section of its canon, some scholars have suggested that Theravāda is better identified as the Vibhajjavāda school.

Theravāda is also characterized by an ordination tradition based on its distinctive VinayaPiṭaka. Although various branches of Theravāda may historically have used other vinayas, modern variations within the school relate principally to differing interpretations of the traditional 227 rules of conduct for monks outlined in the Pāli vinaya. Thus there are different nikāyas (ordination lineages) within Theravāda, and numerous sub-nikāyas.

Commentarial tradition and historiography

The scriptural authority of the Pāli tipiṭaka continues through strata of commentaries and compendia, dominated by works attributed to the fifth-century Indian scholar-monk Buddhaghosa. Buddhaghosa is often considered to be the authoritative arbiter of Theravāda orthodoxy, although this status has been challenged, for example, by proponents of Burmese-style vipassanĀ (Sanskrit, vipaŚyanĀ) meditation in Sri Lanka in the twentieth century.

One explanation for Buddhaghosa's dominance over Theravāda scholasticism lies in the use made of him by another key figure in the commentarial tradition, the twelfth-century scholar-monk Sāriputta. Sāriputta emerged as the premier scholastic figure in Theravāda following King Parakramabahu I's unification of the central Sri Lankan saṅgha groups under the Mahāvihāra monastic tradition. Sāriputta based much of his interpretation of vinaya and doctrine on Buddhaghosa. Because of the political dominance of Sri Lanka at the time and the Mahāvihāra tradition's reputation as the representative of Theravāda orthodoxy and orthopraxy, many monks on mainland Southeast Asia sought ordination in the Mahāvihāra lineage. Mahāvihāra-derived lineages subsequently gained political support in mainland Southeast Asia, and Sāriputta's influence shaped literary developments within Theravāda over subsequent centuries.

The legacy of Mahāvihāra dominance has had an enormous impact on our understanding of the history of Theravāda more generally. Theravāda's own historiography is preserved mainly within the vaṂsa (chronicle) tradition of the Mahāvihāra and traditions derived from it. These chronicles emphasize the significance of the Mahāvihāra, Sri Lanka, and Pāli orthodoxy, and appear to have obscured local traditions.

According to the commentarial and vaṃsa tradition, Theravāda is original Buddhism. Like the sutta (Sanskrit, sūtra) and vinaya texts of its tipiṭaka, its abhidhamma texts too are attributed directly to the Buddha, who is said to have taught them to his mother in heaven, where they were witnessed for posterity by the Buddha's disciple Sāriputta (Sanskrit, ŚĀriputra). Theravāda even claims that its commentaries were compiled at the First Council following the Buddha's death. All the texts in its canon were rehearsed again at a second council one hundred years later. While the term Theravāda, meaning "doctrine of the elders," could be understood to indicate Buddhism in contrast to other religious traditions, the term becomes associated with a specific school in the Theravāda account of the schism between the MahṄsṄṂghika school and more orthodox Sthaviras (the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pāli term Thera) that is said to have occasioned the Second Council. Theravāda sees itself as the continuation of this orthodox Sthavira branch of the early Buddhist tradition. The ambiguity of the term theriya, which can mean either "elder Buddhist monk" or "follower of the Thera school," complicates attempts to trace the school's early history. According to Theravāda tradition, its orthodoxy was again defended under Emperor AŚoka in the third century b.c.e., this time against the corruption of heretics, which set a precedent for state intervention in the affairs of the saṅgha, which has shaped so much of the subsequent history of Theravāda.

After this purification, Aśoka had his son Mahinda and daughter Saṅghamitta ordained. They are credited with bringing Theravāda and its orthodox canon and commentaries to Sri Lanka, the same commentaries that Buddhaghosa later redacted back into the original Pāli from Singhalese. The vaṃsas also record that two monks, Sona and Uttara, took Theravāda to mainland Southeast Asia around this time. Trade links had certainly already been forged between the Indian mainland, Sri Lanka, and mainland Southeast Asia by the third century b.c.e., although archaeological evidence suggests that the introduction of Buddhism into these new regions occurred in piecemeal and diverse fashions.

Sometimes it is hard to relate inscriptions and other archaeological finds to a specific school and the association of Pāli exclusively with Theravāda may prove anachronistic. Theravāda seems to have flourished in parts of Burma and Thailand from the fourth century onward, becoming particularly strong in the lower Burmese kingdom of Pyu and the Dvāravatī polity of Thailand. While Theravāda on the whole seems to have coexisted in mainland Southeast Asia with other traditions of Buddhism, as it had to a lesser extent in Sri Lanka, it sometimes became almost a quasi-state religion. This happened, for example, under King Aniruddha of the Pagan kingdom of upper Burma in the eleventh century, under King Ramkhamhaeng of central Thailand in the thirteenth century, and under King Tilokarāt of northern Thailand in the fifteenth century.


The buddhology of Theravāda is dominated by the figure of Gotama (Sanskrit, Gautama) Buddha, the historical Buddha, who lived in the sixth century b.c.e. according to Theravāda chronology. Also important are the other four buddhas of the current world age, in particular the future buddha Metteyya (Sanskrit, Maitreya). There is formally a tradition of twenty-four previous buddhas recorded in the Buddhavamsa (Chronicle of the Buddhas) text of the Sutta Piṭaka, but they rarely figure in iconography or narrative, except in relation to the career of Gotama Buddha in his former lives. Other important cultic figures include localized Indic and Buddhicized local deities, as well as heroic and mythic figures. Nāgas, mythical serpent beings that can take human form, are frequently represented as protectors of Buddhism. The process of localization, whereby divinities and spirits local to the host culture of Buddhism are adopted as protectors of Buddhism, has been important in Buddhism's adaptation to new cultures. As Theravāda ousted other forms of Buddhism in mainland Southeast Asia, it has incorporated figures such as Upagupta, GavĀṂpati, and Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja, who are thought to have been more important originally in other Buddhist schools, such as the Sarvāstivāda. Consequently, the identity and significance of various deities and protective and other cultic figures varies greatly between different areas, and even between individual villages. They often serve some of the this-worldly functions of Theravāda religion.

Sacred landscape

The sacred landscape of Theravāda is dominated by monastic complexes. These complexes typically incorporate monastic dwellings, a building or area for sermons, a stŪpa in commemoration of the historical Buddha, a bodhi tree, a Buddha image, often in an enclosed temple, along with other traditional representations of the Buddha, such as his sacred footprint. In many villages the local temple is the dominant feature. Temples are often decorated with carvings outside and, inside, with paintings of episodes in Gotama Buddha's former lives (jĀtaka) or final life, images of hells, and legends relating the coming of Buddhism to the region. Deities may also be featured in a subordinate position in the temple layout or contributory landscape. It is often believed that a guardian deity resides within the stūpa, tree, or image, in addition to the inherent Buddha power. Stūpas are often believed to contain relics of Gotama Buddha. Shrines, images, and stūpas are also found independent of the monastic complex. Other features of the sacred landscape are forest and mountain hermitage sites for meditation monks, and, since the 1950s, meditation and retreat centers for laypeople.

The three refuges in religious practice and the role of ordination

Much Theravāda practice revolves around the three refuges of the Buddha, dhamma (Sanskrit, dharma), and saṄgha. Appropriate treatment of all three is a key focus of merit and meritmaking, a principal focus of religious practice in Theravada.

Worship of the Buddha varies from daily and incidental personal worship to annual festivals involving the entire community. The annual festival of Wesak, named after the lunar month in which it takes place (April/May), celebrates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. Celebrations of other events, such as his former births, in particular the very popular Vessantara-jātaka, may also form a significant component of festivals that are not primarily Buddhist in focus, such as annual harvest festivals or ancestor rites. Occasional ceremonies include consecrations of images and inaugurations of both sacred and secular buildings. Worship involves offerings of flowers, rice, and lamps to the Buddha image and circumambulation of the stūpa. While the Buddha in human form may have died, his powers are thought to remain accessible through his relics and images. A legend known throughout the Theravāda world states that the Buddha himself commissioned his own first image, and imbued it with all his own qualities so that it might remain to protect the dhamma. Some relics and statues are associated with the security of the nation, as is the case with the tooth relic enshrined in Kandy, Sri Lanka, or the Emerald Buddha in Thailand. Vaṃsas record visits the Buddha made during his lifetime to the later strongholds of Theravāda Buddhism, in which he predicts the future glory of the religion and the monarchs who protect it in the region, and sometimes leaves behind relics. The predicted continuation of the dhamma in a particular region or in association with a particular royal lineage has been used to authorize the saṅgha-state interaction that dominates Theravāda history. Pilgrimages to sites associated with Gotama or previous buddhas—both in different Theravāda countries and the area of north India in which the historical Buddha lived—continue to be a popular form of merit-making.

The monk represents the ideal of enlightenment, even if this is nowadays thought by most to be unattainable, and in some traditions the ordinand ritually reenacts the life of the Buddha at ordination. Ordination of men is mainstream. In Sri Lanka, lifelong ordination remains the dominant intention, although monks often secede from the order, sometimes after becoming established in a career, and there is an increasing tendency toward ordination as a form of retirement. In mainland Southeast Asian traditions that have not been undermined by communism, most Buddhist men will ordain at some point in their lives, even if only for a short period. In these societies, ordination fulfills the function of a coming-of-age ceremony and is also seen as a way of providing one's parents, in particular one's mother, with merit to ensure a heavenly rebirth, thus repaying her for the agony of childbirth. The earliest age for novice ordination (the lower of the two levels of ordination) varies from very young boys in Myanmar, to eight-year-olds and above in Sri Lanka, and teenagers and upward in Thailand. The availability of education through non-monastic state and private educational institutions has altered ordination patterns, as has the need to fit temporary ordination into the schedule of compulsory education. While temporary ordinations used to last for the three months of the annual rains-retreat, some are now designed to fit into the long university vacation. In communist countries, the loss of prestige and the lack of continuity in ordination traditions have reduced the dominance of ordination, especially in urban areas.

Full ordination for women died out in the medieval period and some Theravāda traditions have only recently attempted to revive it through reimportation of a Buddhist ordination lineage from East Asia (in 1996 in Sri Lanka, in 2002 in Thailand). For this reason, manifestations of female renunciation in the Theravada school are quite diverse. Many women have pursued a life of celibate renunciation by undertaking either individually or in an institutionalized group most or all of the ten precepts traditionally undertaken by a novice monk. Sometimes nunneries are attached to monasteries, and nuns may essentially serve the domestic needs of monks. Sometimes nuns have separate institutions and are independent of monks, a situation only fully possible in the absence of full ordination, since full ordination for women requires the participation of monks. The prestige and opportunities accorded Theravāda nuns have greatly increased over the past few decades. Nevertheless, it is the exception rather than the rule for nuns to form a significant focal point in the religious life of a Theravāda layperson.

By contrast, monks are the focus of lay religious practice at a whole range of ceremonies, from large annual celebrations to incidental homage paid when a layperson meets a monk. Perhaps the most significant of the annual ceremonies is the kaṭhina ceremony, at which robes (kaṭhina) and other gifts are offered to monks at the end of the rains-retreat.

In addition to representing and pursuing the ideal of nibbāna (Sanskrit, nirvĀṆa), monks fulfill a number of other roles. They are the preservers and communicators of the dhamma. They are the formalized recipients of the generosity and esteem of laypeople and thereby serve as a source of merit for the laity. They act as spiritual teachers, particularly through providing sermons on holy days and on special occasions. They may act as advisers to rulers and governments. Some monks have even become members of parliament, trade union heads, and directors of charities. They have traditionally been educators, especially before the introduction of state education. Finally, monks fulfill the function of priests and ritual specialists, and sometimes even serve as astrologists. As ritual specialists monks have a role in administering the refuges and precepts to laypeople, and in performing funerals. They are often engaged to perform apotropaic rituals, which focus on the protective power of the Buddha and the dhamma.


The most common manifestation of such protective rituals is the recitation of paritta and rakṢĀ texts, which are considered to offer powerful protection in warding off dangers and appeasing malevolent spirits. Paritta recitation can last throughout the night or even for seven days and nights. During the ceremony further objects may be imbued with protective qualities, including string, sacred water, and amulets and talismans. In mainland Southeast Asia it is common for men to wear protective amulets in the form of small Buddha images, images of famous monks or kings, mythical figures, or even phallic shapes. Other forms of visual protection include yantras, which may be drawn on cloth or used as the pattern for a tattoo. They portray heroic figures and sacred writing of Buddhist formulae in Pāli, sometimes in the form of geometric designs and outlines of the Buddha.

Attempts to classify Theravāda

Much Theravāda religious activity includes ritualized interaction with the Buddha, dhamma, and saṅgha in combination in one or more of the forms described above. As such, Theravāda has much in common with other forms of Buddhism. In scholarship it is often strongly demarcated from other traditions, although the viability of such distinctions is currently under scrutiny.

One such distinction can be summarized on the basis of the relative value in Theravāda of self-transformation through meditation and ritual. Paraphrasing the work of Melford Spiro, Theravāda religion may be said to fall into three categories. First, nibbānic Theravāda focuses on self-transformation, chiefly through meditations aimed at developing the emotional responses and level of insight of individuals so that they become enlightened and escape from saṂsĀra. Second, kammatic religion focuses on merit-making and ethical action, to improve one's future life and lives within saṃsāra. Third, apotropaic Buddhism uses magic in the form of amulets and rituals to deal with this-worldly concerns, either in distinction to or outside of the law of karmic cause and effect.

Tibetan Buddhism has been similarly categorized by Geoffrey Samuel. His three categories are: first, bodhi-oriented practices that focus on often ritualized altruism and higher levels of tantric ritual; second, karma-oriented merit-making to improve future life within saṃsāra; and third, pragmatic religion for this-worldly concerns, using tantric ritual.

If we align these two analyses we see that in terms of the two categories of seeking improved life within saṃsāra and this-worldly concerns, Theravāda and Tibetan Buddhism are directly parallel. It is at the soteriological end that Theravāda putatively eschews ritual and magic, whereas Tibetan Buddhism invokes it. However, there is a tradition of ritualized soteriology in Theravāda too that was found throughout the Theravāda world in the premodern period. This tradition involved ritual identification with the Buddha and the assimilation of the Buddha's qualities, much as are found in Tibetan tantra, yet using only Theravāda categories and nomenclature. Thus, Theravāda also employs ritual practices that might be designated magical at the nibbānic/bodhi end of the spectrum, a convergence that minimizes the distinction between Tibetan and Theravāda Buddhist practices. It further suggests that the apparent Theravāda focus on forms of meditation found in the tipiṭaka and Buddhaghosa may be the result of a narrowing of the tradition caused in part by the close state-saṅgha relationship that shaped dominant forms of Theravāda.

A more widespread generalization often made regarding Theravāda is that it is the sole surviving form of HĪnayĀna Buddhism. The supposed Mahāyāna-Hīnayāna dichotomy is so prevalent in Buddhist literature that it has yet fully to loosen its hold over scholarly representations of the religion. Hīnayāna (literally, "inferior way") is a polemical term, which self-described Mahāyāna (literally, "great way") Buddhist literature uses to denigrate its opponents. As such, Hīnayāna is a designation that has no clearly identifiable external referent. Some of the first attempts to categorize forms of Buddhism as either Hīnayāna or Mahāyāna are found in the accounts of early Chinese pilgrims to South Asia. But there are additional reasons for the modern association of Theravāda with Hīnayāna. The first is that one body of Mahāyāna texts, the PrajÑĀpĀramitĀ literature, propounds the lack of self of all dharmas, a critique of the analytical categories of the abhidharma. This position is refuted in the Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy), a text of the Theravāda Abhidhamma Piṭaka, which purports to discuss points of debate with other religious traditions raised at the Third Council. The second is that one supposed characteristic of the Mahāyāna involves the proliferation of multiple buddhas in parallel world systems. The possibility of more than one buddha living at a time is a view also rejected in the Kathāvatthu. The most common reason made to distinguish Mahāyāna and Theravāda is thoroughly flawed. This is the distinction made between Mahāyāna as the path of the bodhisattva and Theravāda as the path of the arhat or śravaka (disciple). Even Buddhaghosa recognized three levels of practice: that of the Buddha through the path of the bodhisatta (Sanskrit, bodhisattva); that of the paccekabuddha (Sanskrit, pratyekabuddha); and that of the arhat. Furthermore the bodhisattva ideal is present throughout Theravāda history, even if it never became ritualized and institutionalized to the same degree as it did in other Buddhist traditions. Although the bodhisattva ideal in Theravāda is more commonly associated with Gotama Buddha himself and with kings, it is also found expressed by those of humbler position. It is, for example, a common vow made by manuscript copyists in the colophons to Theravāda texts.

See also:Cambodia; Commentarial Literature; Councils, Buddhist; Folk Religion, Southeast Asia; Laos; Mainstream Buddhist Schools; Myanmar; Pāli, Buddhist Literature in; Sri Lanka; Thailand; Theravāda Art and Architecture; Vietnam


Assavavirulhakarn, Prapod. "The Ascendancy of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia." Ph.D. diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1990.

Crosby, Kate. "Tantric Theravāda: A Bibliographic Essay on the Writings of François Bizot and Other Literature on the Yogavacara Tradition." Journal of Contemporary Buddhism 1, no. 2 (2000): 141–198.

Gombrich, R. F. Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

Gunawardana, R. A. L. H. Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1979.

Samuel, Geoffrey. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington, DC, and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Samuels, Jeffrey. "The Bodhisattva Ideal in Theravāda Buddhist Theory and Practices: A Re-evaluation of the Bodhisattva-Śrāvaka Opposition." Philosophy East and West 47, no. 3 (1997): 399–415.

Smith, Bardwell L., ed. Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka. Chambersburg, PA: ANIMA, 1978.

Spiro, Melford. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. London: Allen and Unwin, 1971.

Swearer, Donald S. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, revised edition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Terwiel, B. J. Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand (1975), 3rd revised edition. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Press, 1994.

Kate Crosby


views updated Jun 27 2018

Theravāda (Pāli, ‘teaching of the elders (of the order)’; Chin., Shang-tso-pu; Jap., Jōzabu; Korean, Sangjwabu). An early school of Buddhism, derived from Vibhajjavādins and associated with Sthaviras. As the major survivor of this line, the term became synonymous with Buddhism derived from, and defensive of, the Pāli canon—in contrast to Mahāyāna. Theravāda is the form of Buddhism in Śri Lankā and SE Asia. Mahāyāna (‘Large Vehicle’) calls Theravāda ‘Hīnayāna’, ‘Small Vehicle’, and this term, despite its contemptuous associations, still persists. Theravāda, though strictly inaccurate, is preferable, even though Theravāda was simply one among many early Buddhist schools.


views updated May 11 2018

Theravada (‘Doctrine of the Elders’) Older of the two major schools of Buddhism. The doctrine originated early in the history of Buddhism as a contrast to Mahayana (‘greater vehicle’). Theravada Buddhism stresses that sorrow and suffering can be conquered only by the suppression of desire. Desire can be suppressed only if the individual realizes that everything is always in a state of flux and the only stable condition is nirvana, an indefinable state of rest. This type of Buddhism is widespread in Sri Lanka and se Asia.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Theravada the more conservative of the two major traditions of Buddhism (the other being Mahayana), which developed from Hinayana Buddhism. It is practised mainly in Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.