Theravada Buddhism

Theravāda (Sanskrit: Sthaviravāda 'doctrine of the elders') is one of the Nikaya schools that formed early Buddhism in India and preserved the Buddha's teachings in the Pāli Canon.

The Pāli Canon is the only complete surviving Buddhist canon in an Indo-Aryan language (Pāli) that serves as the sacred language and lingua franca of the Theravāda.

Another characteristic of the Theravāda school is its tendency to be very conservative with respect to doctrine (dharma) and monastic discipline (vinaya). As a distinct school of early Buddhism, Theravāda Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and subsequently spread to the rest of Southeast Asia.

Theravāda Buddhism is today the predominant religion in some Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and also in Sri Lanka.

In addition, the diaspora of all these groups, as well as converts from around the world, practice Theravāda Buddhism. Contemporary expressions include Buddhist modernism, the modern Vipassana movement and the Thai Forest Tradition.

The sacred Theravāda Buddhist literature was first known in the West through translations made in the 19th century, being currently completed in English and in the process of being completed in other languages.


The theravāda promotes the concept of vibhajyavāda ('teaching of analysis'). This doctrine holds that clear introspection should be the result of individual experience, critical inquiry and reasoning, as opposed to blind faith.

However, the traditional scriptures also emphasize following the advice of the sages, because they and the evaluation of one's own experiences should be the instruments for judging practices.

The theravāda goal is liberation (or freedom) from dukkha (suffering), according to the four noble truths, which is achieved by attaining nirvana, which also completes the continuous cycle of birth and death. The theravāda teaches that nirvana is attained first by being a noble disciple of the Buddha: an arahant.

The core of Theravāda doctrine is contained in the Nikayas of the Pali Canon, the only complete collection of early Buddhist texts surviving in a Middle Indo-Aryan language or Prakrit, called Pali. These ideas are shared by other early Buddhist schools, as well as by Mahayana traditions. They include central early Buddhist concepts such as:

Middle Way
The Four Noble Truths
Noble eightfold path
The three characteristics of existence (Transitoriness, Dukkha, Insubstantiality of a self)

Five aggregates
Conditioned arising
Karma and rebirth

The Bodhipakkhiyādhammā (qualities leading to enlightenment).
Klesas (afflictions of the mind)
Avidyā (Ignorance)

Unique sources of Theravāda

Since much of the suttas are shared with the other early Buddhist schools, the Vinaya (monastic discipline) and Abhidhamma are the most distinctive formal aspects of Theravada Buddhism.

The Vibhajjavāda ('analyst') school, a branch of the Sthāvira Nikaya from which Theravāda is derived, differed from other Buddhist schools in a variety of teachings. Differences in the systematization of Buddhist teachings were preserved in the Abhidharma texts of the different schools.

The unique doctrinal positions of the Theravada school are set forth in the Abhidhamma piṭaka, as well as in the Pali commentaries (Aṭṭha-kathā) and subcommentaries (ṭīkā). Because of the size of this literature, several manuals and doctrinal summaries emerged in the Pali tradition, the most influential of which are the Visuddhimagga and the Abhidhammaṭṭṭhasaṅgaha.

Abhidhamma is a formalization and systematization of Buddhist doctrine found in the suttas (discourses) of the Nikayas. Abhidhamma focuses on the analysis of experience and the intentional structure of consciousness, and thus has been compared to phenomenology and psychology by scholars such as Nyanaponika, Bhikkhu Bodhi, and Alexander Piatigorsky.

Theravāda has traditionally held the doctrinal position that the Buddha himself taught the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Modern scholarship holds that the Abhidhamma texts date back to the 3rd century BCE. C..

Theory of dhammas

In the suttas (discourses), the Buddha teaches through a method that explains experience using various conceptual groupings of physical and mental processes, which are called "dhammas."

Examples of lists of dhammas taught by the Buddha include the twelve 'spheres' of sense or ayatanas, the five aggregates or khanda, and the eighteen elements of cognition or dhatus.

Expanding on this model, the Abhidhamma Pali was concerned with analyzing the "ultimate truth" (paramattha-sacca) which is composed of all the dhammas and their relationships. The central theory of the Abhidhamma Pali is thus known as the "Dhamma theory. "

According to Y. Karunadasa, dhammas ('principles' or 'elements'), are "those elements that result when the process of analysis is brought to its final limits. " However, this does not mean that they have an independent existence, as they are postulated "only for the description" of experience.

Noa Ronkin defines dhammas as "the constituents of sensible experience; the irreducible 'building blocks' that create our world, though they are not static and certainly not substances. "

Noa Ronkin also argues that there was a gradual shift from the early canonical texts that tended to explain experience in terms of processes, to the Abhidhamma tradition that analyzed these processes into distinct mental events.

"Dhamma" has been translated as "factors" (Collett Cox), "psychic characteristics" (Bronkhorst), "psychophysical events" (Noa Ronkin) and "phenomena" (Nyanaponika Thera).

Dhammas are defined by the Theravada commentary, the Atthasalini, as that which "bears its own particular nature" and also as that which is "borne by conditions. "

In Theravada, dhammas are not permanent, discrete and separate entities, they are always in dependently conditioned relations with other dhammas and are always changing, arising and disappearing.

Therefore, just for the sake of description they are said to have their "self-nature" (sabhāva). According to Peter Harvey, the Theravāda view of sabhāva is that it refers to an individualizing characteristic (salakkhana) that "is not something inherent in a dhamma as a separate ultimate reality, but arises due to the supporting conditions of other dhammas and previous occurrences of that dhamma. "

Noa Ronkin argues that in the Abhidhamma of the Theravāda school, "sabhāva is predominantly used to determine the individuality of dhammas, not their existential status. "

Thus, while in the Abhidhamma of the Theravāda school, dhammas are the ultimate constituents of experience, they are not seen as substances, essences, or independent particulars, as they are empty (suñña) of a self (attā) and are conditioned. This is explained in the Patisambhidhamagga, which states that dhammas are empty of svabhava (sabhavena suññam).

According to Ronkin, the Abhidhamma Pali remains pragmatic and psychological, and "does not have much interest in ontology" in contrast to the Sarvastivada tradition.

Paul Williams also notes that the Abhidhamma remains focused on the practical aspects of meditation and leaves ontology "relatively unexplored. " However, Ronkin notes that later Theravāda sub-commentaries (ṭīkā) show a doctrinal shift toward ontological realism.

Classification of dhammas

The Abhidhamma Pali has a total of 82 possible types of dhammas. There are 81 dhammas that are conditioned (sankhata), while one is unconditioned, which is nibbana. The 81 conditioned dhammas are divided into three broad categories: consciousness (citta), associated mentality (cetasika) and materiality, or physical phenomena (rupa).

Each dhamma of consciousness, known as citta, arises associated (sampayutta) with at least seven mental factors (cetasikas). In Abhidhamma, all events of consciousness are characterized by intentionality and never exist in isolation.

A large part of Abhidhamma deals with the categorization of different consciousnesses and their accompanying mental factors (paccaya). The mental factors, for example, are divided into:

Universal mental factors (sabbacittasādhāraṇa cetasikas), which are basic and rudimentary cognitive functions.

Occasional or particular mental factors (pakiṇṇaka cetasikas).
Unwholesome mental factors (akusala cetasikas), accompanied by one or another of the three roots of evil: greed, hatred, and ignorance.
Beautiful mental factors (sobhana cetasikas), accompanied by the roots of good: generosity, benevolence, wisdom.

Two truths

According to Y. Karunadasa, for the Theravāda, the theory of the 'two truths' dividing reality into sammuti (worldly conventions) and paramattha (ultimate truths) is a doctrinal innovation of the Abhidhamma, but has its origins in some statements of the suttas.

In the Aṅguttara-nikāya for example, a distinction is made between statements that are nītattha (explicit, definite) and neyyattha (requiring further explanation). Karunadasa notes that in the Nikayas, "no preferential value judgment is made between nītattha and neyyattha. "

Another early source of this doctrine is the Saṅgīti-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, which lists four kinds of knowledge: (a) direct knowledge of doctrine (dhamme ñāna), (b) inductive knowledge of doctrine (anvaye ñana), (c) knowledge of analysis (paricchedeñana), and knowledge of linguistic conventions (sammuti-ñana).

However, in the early Nikayas, unlike the Abhidhamma, sammuti (conventions) is not analyzed to existing ones called paramattha (ultimates).

In the Theravada Abhidhamma, if this distinction arises, it refers to two levels of reality: that which is amenable to analysis (the conventional) and that which defies further analysis (an ultimate truth).

Thus, in the Abhidhamma Theravāda, when a situation is explained in terms of what cannot be empirically analyzed into smaller components with different characteristics (lakkhana), that explanation is paramattha-sacca (ultimate truth), and when explained in terms of what is further analyzable, that explanation is sammuti-sacca (truth by convention), and exists in a relative or conventional sense due to mental conception (attha-paññatti) and linguistic construction (nama-paññatti). 

However, even these ultimate components (the dhammas) are dependently originated, "necessarily coexistent and positionally inseparable (padesato avinibhoga). "

Unlike the Sanskrit-based Buddhist tradition that refers to conventional truth as samvrti (which has the meaning of concealing or covering), the term Pali Abhidhamma sammuti only means human convention and does not have this connotation of a lower truth concealing a higher truth.

Therefore, as K.N. Jayatilleke points out, the Theravāda version of the two-truth theory "does not imply that what is true in one sense is false in the other, nor that the one type of truth is superior to the other. "

Because of this, in the Abhidhamma Pali, even paramattha-sacca is explained through concepts, although 'the ultimate' is not a product of the conceptual function of the mind (paññatti), it cannot be explained without the means of paññatti.

Furthermore, according to Tse Fu Kuan, the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, "does not seem to hold that dhammas are ultimate realities as compared to conventional constructs such as persons." This text also states that "all dhammas are forms of designation (paññatti)," that "all dhammas are forms of interpretation (nirutti)," and that "all dhammas are forms of expression (adhivacana). "

Thus, the canonical Abhidhamma Pitaka does not hold the interpretation of the two truths as referring to primary ontological realities (as seen in later Theravada commentaries and also in Sarvastivada's Abhidharma).

Doctrinal differences with other Buddhist schools.

The doctrinal positions of the Theravāda school vis-à-vis other early Buddhist schools are presented in the Pali text known as Kathāvatthu, "Points of Controversy," compiled by the scholar Moggaliputta-Tissa (ca. 327 - 247 BC). It includes various philosophical and soteriological issues, including the following.

The Arhat and Buddha

In the opinion of the theravādins, the nirvana attained by the arahants is the same as that attained by the Buddha himself. But his is superior due to the fact that he attained it by himself and knew how to teach others. The arahants attain nirvana partly because of his teachings.

The theravādins also believe that an awakened arahant has an "incorruptible nature," unlike other early Buddhist schools such as Mahāsāṃghika who believed that arahants could regress.

The Theravādins also question the idea that an arahant could lack knowledge, or have doubts, or that they could have nocturnal emissions and thus still have some residual limit of sensuality. They also argued against the Uttarapathaka school's view that a layman could become an arahant and still live the family life.

The Theravāda school rejected the view of the Lokottaravada doctrines that held that absolutely all words spoken by the Buddha were transcendental. They also rejected the proto-Mahayana doctic view of the Vetulyaka school that the Buddha himself did not teach the Dharma, but was taught by his magical creation while he himself remained in Tavatimsa heaven.

Penetration is sudden and perfect

According to the Theravāda, "the progress of understanding or 'penetration' to wisdom comes all at once, it does not come gradually," a belief known as subitism. This is reflected in the Theravāda's account in the four stages of enlightenment, in which the attainment of the four paths appears suddenly and impurities are removed at once.

Philosophy of time

In the philosophy of time, the Theravāda tradition upholds presentism, the view that dhammas exist only in the present moment, as opposed to the eternalist view of the Sarvāstivāda tradition which held that dhammas exist in all three tenses: past, present, future.

The early theravādins who compiled the Kathāvatthu also rejected the doctrine of the moment (Skt., Kṣāṇavāda, Pali, khāṇavāda) held by other Buddhist schools of Abhidharma such as Sarvāstivāda, which held that all dhammas lasted for a "moment" which for them meant an atomistic unit of time, the shortest possible period of time.

According to Noa Ronkin, meanwhile, the theravādins used the term "moment" (khāṇa) as a simple expression for a "short time," "the dimension of which is not fixed, but may be determined by the context. "

In the Khanikakatha of the Kathavatthu, the theravādins also argue that "only mental phenomena are momentary, while material phenomena last for a period of time. "

Rebirth and Bhavanga

Regarding rebirth, the orthodox Theravādins who followed the Kathavatthu rejected the doctrine of the intermediate state (antarabhāva) between death and rebirth, holding that rebirth is immediate. Recently, however, some Theravada monks have written in favor of the idea, such as Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya.

The doctrine of Bhavanga (lit. "condition for existence") is an innovation of Abhidhamma, where it is a passive mode of consciousness (citta). According to Rupert Gethin, it is "the state in which the mind is said to rest when no active consciousness process is taking place," as in deep sleep. It is also said to be a process that conditions future rebirth consciousness.

Rupa (physical objects)

The orthodox theravāda position on the nature of the physical (rupa) is that it is one of two main processes of a person (as part of the complex called nama-rupa) originating dependently.

However, there is no dualism between these two, but rather they are groups of interacting processes, each depending on the other. As Buddhaghosa pointed out, each can only appear "supported by" (nissaya) the other; they are like a blind man carrying a crippled man, or two sheaves of reeds supporting each other.

Rupa is defined primarily in terms of the four mahabhuta, the "primary" physical phenomena: solidity (literally "earth"), cohesion (literally "water"), heat (literally "fire") and motion (literally "air"). In the Abhidhamma, the four primaries began to refer to the irreducible factors or data that make up the physical world.

These basic phenomena coalesce to form secondary physical phenomena, such as the sense organs. Thus, according to Y Karunadasa, Pali Buddhism does not deny the existence of the external world and is therefore a kind of realism.

However, Theravāda also follows the view that rupa, like all skandhas, is empty (suñña), vacuous (ritta), and without essence (asara). Rupa dhammas are thus not atomic ontological substances and are delineated simply as pragmatic descriptions of the world of experience.

According to Karunadasa, this leads to a middle path between the view that "everything is an absolute unity" (sabbam ekattam) and that everything is an absolute separation (sabbam puthuttam). Furthermore, according to Noa Ronkin, the canonical Abhidhamma pali did not incorporate the Northern Buddhist atomic theory into its system.

The Abhidhamma theravāda does not mention atoms (paramanu). Post-canonical texts do use the term kalapa (literally "bundle"), but this term only became standard in the literature of the sub-commentaries and is not a singular particle, but a collection of rupa-dhammas, which are inseparable and always occur simultaneously (sahajata).

Modern trends

The modern era saw new developments in theravāda scholarship due to the influence of Western thought. Donald K Swearer notes that:

Although monastic education is still based on the study of Buddhist texts, doctrine and Pali language, the curricula of monastic universities and colleges also reflect subjects and disciplines associated with Western education.

Modernist Buddhist trends can be traced back to figures such as Anagarika Dhammapala and the Thai King Mongkut. They promoted a form of Buddhism that was compatible with rationalism and science, and opposed superstition.

The Ceylonese philosopher monk Walpola Rahula's book, What the Buddha Taught, is an introduction to Buddhism in a modernist form and continues to be widely used in universities.

Another modern phenomenon is Western-educated Buddhist philosophers, such as K. N. Jayatilleke (a student of Wittgenstein) and Hammalawa Saddhatissa, who wrote modern works on Buddhist philosophy (Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, 1963 and Buddhist Ethics, 1987 respectively).

The colonial clash with Christianity also led to debates (such as the Panadura debate) and doctrinal works written in defense of Buddhism or attacking Christian ideas, such as Gunapala Dharmasiri's Buddhist critique of the Christian concept of God (A Buddhist critique of the Christian concept of God, 1988).

Another development has been the modern literature promoting socially engaged Buddhism and Buddhist economics by thinkers such as Buddhadasa, Sulak Sivaraksa, Prayudh Payutto, Neville Karunatilake and Padmasiri de Silva.

Modern scholarship by Western Buddhist monks such as Nyanaponika Thera was also a new development in the modern era.

Practice (paṭipatti)

In the Pali Canon, the path (magga) or way (patipada) of Buddhist practice is variously described as the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble eightfold path can be summarized as the Three Noble Disciplines of sīla (moral conduct or discipline), samādhi (meditation or concentration), and paññā (understanding or wisdom).

Theravāda also uses the "seven stages of purification" described in the Visuddhimagga (a major doctrinal summation of the tradition) as the basic outline of the spiritual path. In the Visuddhimagga the sequence of seven purifications are explained in three sections:

The first section (part 1) explains the rules of discipline and the method of finding a correct temple to practice in, or how to meet a good teacher.
The second section (part 2) describes samatha (calming) practice, object by object (forty traditional meditation objects or kammaṭṭhāna are named).

The third section (parts 3-7) is a description of the five khandhas, ayatanas, the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, and the practice of vipassanā through the development of wisdom.

This basic outline is based on the threefold discipline. The emphasis is on understanding the three characteristics of existence, which eliminates ignorance.

Moral conduct

Sila, moral conduct, defined as 'right speech', 'right action' and the 'right way of life', is understood primarily through the doctrine of karma. In Theravāda, present experience is strongly influenced by previous intentional actions.

The actions one intends later have consequences in the future, whether in this life or the next. Intention is central to the idea of karma; actions that are performed with good intentions, even if they have bad results, will not result in negative karmic consequences.

To guide right action, there are various precepts or moral trainings (sikkhāpada). Traditionally, theravāda laypeople take the five precepts (either for life or for a limited time) in front of a monastic after taking refuge in the three jewels.

Laypeople sometimes also take an extended set of eight precepts that include chastity on special occasions such as religious festivals.

Another important feature of theravāda ethics is the performance of good deeds, which are said to create "merit" (puñña), which will enable a better rebirth. A common list of good deeds are the "ten wholesome actions":

Generosity (dana); Giving "the four requisites" to monastics; Food, clothing, shelter and medicine. However, giving to the needy is also part of this.
Moral conduct (sila); Keeping the five precepts, generally non-violence.
Meditation (bhavana).

Transfer of merit; doing good deeds on behalf of someone who has died or on behalf of all beings.

Rejoicing in the merit of good deeds done by others; this is common in community activities.

Rendering service; caring for others.
Honoring others; showing proper deference, particularly to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and to elders and parents. Usually done by joining hands in añjali mudrā, and sometimes bowing.

Preaching the Dhamma; the gift of the Dhamma is seen as the highest gift.
Listening to the Dhamma
Having right views; Mainly the four noble truths and the three characteristics of existence.


Meditation (Pali: Bhavana, cultivation) means the positive development of the mind. Buddhist theravāda meditation practice varies considerably in technique and objects (traditionally 40 objects, known as kammaṭṭhāna, are taught). The Satipatthana sutta and the Anapanasati sutta are important sources for Theravāda meditation.

Buddhist theravāda meditation practices fall into two categories: samatha bhavana (calming) and vipassanā bhavana (inquiry, knowledge). Originally, they referred to the effects or qualities of meditation, but after the Buddhaghosa era, they also refer to two distinct types or paths (yāna) of meditation.

Some of the most popular meditations in modern Theravāda are mindfulness of the breath (anapanasati) and the four divine abodes. Deep meditation on these and other subjects is also said to lead to jhānas (absorptions), powerful altered states of joy and peace.

In the Pali Nikayas, the jhānas are states of mind used by the Buddha to attain awakening. In the Nikayas, right samadhi is defined as the four jhanas and is part of the Noble eightfold path. These states are seen as ways to calm (samatha), and unify or concentrate (samadhi) the mind for the work of vipassanā.

Vipassanā is traditionally seen as an insight into the three characteristics of dukkha (suffering), anicca (inconstancy), anatta (not-self), as well as an intuitive knowledge of dependent origination, the five aggregates, the sensory spheres, and the four noble truths.

The main method used in theravāda meditation to attain these insights is satipatthana (four applications of mindfulness), primarily mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of sensations (vedana), mindfulness of the mind (citta), and mindfulness of the dhammas. Vipassanā is considered to eradicate the impurities (kilesa), poisons (asavas), and fetters that keep beings in samsara.

It is generally considered that depending on the temperament of the individual, he or she may begin the practice through samatha or through vipassanā.

According to Vajiranāṇa Mahathera, it is held that there are two types of individuals: those of a passionate disposition (or those who enter the path by faith), attain awakening through vipassanā preceded by samatha, and those of a skeptical disposition (or those who enter through wisdom or intellect), attain it through samatha preceded by vipassanā.

Not all theravādins meditate, including monks. Some monasteries may specialize in meditation, particularly forest monasteries. Some lay theravāda also meditate, especially during special religious holidays or in their old age, when they have more free time to spend in a temple.

The phenomenon of lay meditation is more pronounced among reformers or Western converts, who often visit "meditation centers" rather than temples.

A revival of theravāda meditation practice occurred primarily in Myanmar during the 19th and 20th centuries, known as the vipassana movement. In the modern era, partly as a result of competition with colonial powers and their religions, there has been a tendency to present Buddhism as rational and scientific, and this has affected the way vipassana meditation has been taught and presented.

This has led at times to minimizing the older, non-empirical elements of Theravāda, associated with "superstition. " Vestiges of older, traditional Theravāda meditation known as "borān kammaṭṭhāna" still exist, but this tradition has been overshadowed primarily by modernist Buddhist meditation movements.

Other practices

Lay people and monks also perform various types of religious practices on a daily basis or during Buddhist vacations. One of these is to maintain a Buddhist altar with a Buddha image or statue for devotional practice in the home, mirroring the larger altars in temples.

It is common to offer candles, incense, flowers, and other objects to these altars. Gestures of respect are also made in front of Buddha images, primarily the respectful salutation with two joined hands (añjalikamma) and the five-limbed prostration (pañc'anga-vandana).

Buddhist forms of chanting are also practiced by monks and lay people, who may recite famous phrases such as taking refuge, metta sutta, and mangala sutta in front of their altar.

Chanting can also be part of the practice of remembrance (anussati), which refers to contemplating various themes, such as the sublime qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha, and the five themes for daily remembrance. This can be done as part of a daily puja ritual.

Another important religious practice for devotees is the celebration of special religious holidays known as Uposatha, which are based on a lunar calendar. Lay people take the eight precepts while visiting a temple or monastery and commit to focusing on Buddhist practice for the day.

Studying (ganthadhura) Buddhist texts and listening to Dhamma talks by monks or teachers are also important practices.

Attainments (samāpatti).

Apart from nirvana, there are several reasons why Theravāda Buddhism advocates meditation, including non-transcendental benefits such as psychological well-being, a good rebirth, supranormal powers, combating fear, and preventing danger. Recent modernist Theravādins have tended to focus on the psychological benefits.

The ultimate goal of the practice is to achieve worldly wisdom and transcendental wisdom. Worldly wisdom is insight into the three characteristics of existence.

The development of this insight leads to four transcendental paths and fruits; these experiences consist of a direct apprehension of nirvana. Transcendental wisdom (lokuttara) refers to that which transcends the world of samsara.

Theravāda teaches primarily four stages of awakening in which wisdom is attained:

Sotapanna: "one who enters the stream," those who have destroyed the first three fetters (samyojana; false view of self, doubt, and clinging to rites and rituals).
Sakadagami: "the one who returns only once", those who have destroyed the first three fetters and have diminished the fetters of craving and aversion.

Anagami: "the one who does not return", those who have destroyed the five lower fetters, which bind beings to the world of the senses.

Arahantes: Those who have attained Nirvana, are free from all impurities and the five higher fetters (desire for rebirth in material or immaterial worlds, presumption, restlessness and ignorance).


Nibbana (Sanskrit: nirvana, literally: blown out, extinguished) is the ultimate goal in Theravāda. It is a state where the fire of passions has been "blown out," and the person is freed from the repeated cycle of birth, disease, aging, and death.

In the Saṃyojanapuggala sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha describes four types of persons and tells us that the last person, the arahant, has attained nibbana by removing the 10 fetters that bind beings to samsara.

According to the early scriptures, the nirvana attained by the arahant is identical to that attained by the Buddha himself, since there is only one type of nirvana. The theravādins believe that the Buddha was superior to the arahants because the Buddha discovered the noble path (ariyamagga) alone and then taught it to others.

Arahantes, on the other hand, attain nirvana in part because of the Buddha's teachings. Theravadins revere the Buddha as a supremely gifted person, but also acknowledge the existence of other similar Buddhas in the distant past and future. Maitreya (Pali: Metteyya), for example, is briefly mentioned in the Pali Canon as a Buddha to come in the distant future.


Canon Pali

Theravāda Buddhism considers the Tipitaka ("triple basket") or Pali Canon as the ultimate authority of the Buddha's teachings. According to Bhikkhu Bodhi the Theravāda school considers this Canon to have been compiled at the three great Buddhist councils in the first three centuries after the Buddha's death.

The Tipitaka is composed of 45 volumes in the Thai edition, 40 in Burmese and 58 in Sinhalese.

The Tipitaka consists of three parts: Vinaya Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka. Of these, the Abhidhamma Pitaka is believed to be a later addition to the first two pitakas. The Pali Abhidhamma was not recognized outside the Theravāda school.

The Sutta portions of the Tipitaka show considerable overlaps with the contents of the Agamas, the parallel collections used by the other Buddhist schools that are preserved in Chinese and partially in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tibetan.

On this basis, these sets of texts are generally regarded as the oldest and most authoritative Buddhist texts on pre-sectarian Buddhism by modern scholars. It is also believed that much of the Pali Canon, which is still used by theravāda communities, was transmitted to Sri Lanka during the reign of Asoka.

After being transmitted orally (as was the custom in those days for religious texts) for some centuries, they were finally transmitted into writing in the first century B. C.

Much of the material in the canon is not specifically "Theravāda," but is the collection of teachings that this school retained from early, non-sectarian teachings. According to Peter Harvey:

The Theravādins may have added texts to the Canon for some time, but they do not seem to have altered what they already had from an earlier period.

Post-canonical literature.

In the fourth or fifth century, Buddhaghosa Thera wrote the first Pali commentaries to the Tipitaka (which were based on much older manuscripts, mostly in ancient Sinhala), including several commentaries on the Nikayas and his commentary on the Vinaya, the Samantapāsādikā.

After him, many other monks wrote various texts that have become part of the Theravāda heritage. These texts do not have the same authority as the Tipitaka, although Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga (The Way of Purification) is a central Theravāda text.

Another important genre of Theravāda literature is the short manuals and abstracts that serve as introductions and study guides for the larger works. Two of the most influential summaries are Sariputta Thera's Pālimuttakavinayavinicchayasaṅgaha, a summary of Vinaya and Anuruddha's Abhidhammaṭṭhasaṅgaha (Manual of Abhidhamma).

For many Theravāda Buddhists, Pali texts and language are symbolically and ritually important, however, most people are likely to access Buddhist teachings through vernacular literature, oral teachings, sermons, art, as well as film and internet media.

According to Kate Crosby, "there is a much greater volume of Theravada literature in vernacular languages than in Pali. "

An important genre of Theravāda literature in both Pali and vernacular languages is Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha's past lives. They are popular among all classes and come in a wide variety of formats, from cartoons to literature. The Vessantara Jātaka is one of the most popular of these.

Theravāda Buddhists consider much of what is found in the Mahāyāna collections of Chinese and Tibetan scriptures to be apocryphal, meaning that they are not authentic words of the Buddha.



The name Theravāda comes from 'Sthāvira' (elder), one of the earliest Buddhist sectarian divisions, from which the Theravādins claim descent. The nikāya sthavira arose during the first schism in the Buddhist sangha, due to their desire to add new disciplinary rules in the vinaya, against the wishes of the majority group called the Mahāsāṃghika who disagreed.

The theravādins' accounts of their own origins mention that they received the teachings that were agreed upon during the supposed third Buddhist council under the patronage of Emperor Asoka (c. 250 BC). These teachings were known as the Vibhajjavāda (doctrine of analysis).

Asoka is supposed to have helped purify the community by expelling monks who did not accept the terms of the third council.

Theravāda school sources say that the elder monk Moggaliputta-Tissa led the third council and compiled the Kathavatthu ("Points of Controversy"), a refutation of various opposing views, which is an important work in the Abhidhamma theravāda.

Later, the Vibhajjavādas divided into four groups: the Mahīśāsaka, Kāśyapīya, Dharmaguptaka in the north, and Tāmraparṇīya (Pali: Tambapaṇṇiya) in southern India.

From their original center in Avanti, the Tambapaṇṇṇiya (later called Mahāvihāravāsins, "those of the great monastery") spread southward into Maharashtra, Andhra, Karnataka, and Chola country (Kanchi being one of their important centers).

In time, the Great Monastery (Mahāvihāra) in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, became the main center of their tradition. Inscription evidence of this school has been found in the Indian cities Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda.

Transmission to Sri Lanka

The Theravāda is said to be descended from the Tambapaṇṇiya sect, meaning "the lineage of Sri Lanka." According to Sinhala tradition, Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, considered the son of Emperor Asoka in the third century BC. BC, as part of the missionary activities of the Maurya era.

According to the Mahavamsa chronicle, his arrival in Sri Lanka is said to have been during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura (307-267 BC) who converted to Buddhism and helped build Buddhist stupas.

A few years after Mahinda's arrival, Sanghamitta, considered the daughter of Emperor Asoka, came to Sri Lanka. She founded the first female monastic order in Sri Lanka (extinct in Sri Lanka in the 11th century and in Burma in the 13th century).

According to SD Bandaranayake, the Sinhalese state was crucial to the rapid spread of Buddhism on the island, however, the religion does not seem to have established undisputed dominance of the island until the reigns of Dutthagamani and Vattagamani (2nd to mid 1st century BC).

The earliest Buddha images come from the reign of Vasabha (65-109 BC), and after the 3rd century AD, the historical record shows a growth in the worship of images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas.

In the seventh century, the Chinese pilgrim monks Xuanzang and Yijing refer to the Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka as Shàngzuòbù (Chinese: 上座部), corresponding to the Sanskrit Sthavira nikāya and Pali Thera Nikāya. Yijing says, "In Sri Lanka only the Sthavira school flourishes; the Mahasanghikas are expelled. "

The school has been using the name Theravāda by itself in written form since at least the fourth century, about a thousand years after the Buddha's death, when the term appears in the Dīpavaṁsa.

Between the reigns of Sena I (833-853) and Mahinda IV (956-972), the city of Anuradhapura saw a "colossal building effort" by several kings during a long period of peace and prosperity. Much of the present architectural remains in this city date from this period.

Development of the Pali textual tradition.

The Sri Lankan Buddhist sangha initially preserved the Tipitaka orally as had been done traditionally, however, during the first century BC, they were transferred to palm-leaf manuscripts, in a time of famine and war. The Pali texts that have survived (with few exceptions) are derived from the Mahāvihāra sect.

Later developments included the formation of commentary literature (Atthakatha). The theravāda tradition records that even during the early days of Mahinda, there was already a tradition of Indian commentaries on the Tipitaka.

Before the development of Pali commentaries, there were also several commentaries on the Tipitaka written in the ancient Sinhala language, such as the Maha-atthakatha ("Great Commentary"), which was the main commentary tradition of the Mahāvihāra school.

Of great importance to the Theravāda tradition is the scholar Buddhaghosa (4th-5th centuries), who is responsible for most of the surviving Pali commentaries (earlier commentaries in Sinhala have been lost). Buddhaghosa wrote in Pali, and after him, most Sri Lankan Buddhist scholastics also used it.

This allowed the Sri Lankan tradition to become more international through a lingua franca, which was used to converse with monks in India and later throughout Southeast Asia.

Theravāda monks also produced other Pali publications such as historical chronicles (e.g., the Mahavamsa), hagiographies, practice manuals, textbooks, poetry, and Abhidhamma summaries such as the Abhidhammattha-sangaha and the Abhidhammavatara.

Buddhaghosa's work on Abhidhamma and Buddhist practice summarized in works such as the Visuddhimagga and the Atthasalini are the most influential texts in the Theravada tradition, apart from the Pali Canon.

Other Theravada Pali commentators and writers include Dhammapala and Buddhadatta. Dhammapala wrote commentaries on the texts of the Pali Canon that Buddhaghosa had omitted and also wrote a commentary on the Visuddhimagga called Paramathamanjusa.

Medieval Sri Lankan sects

For much of the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, there were three subdivisions of Theravāda, Mahāvihāra, Abhayagirivihāra and Jetavanavihihāra, all based in the capital of Anuradhapura.

The Mahāvihāra was the first tradition to be established, while Abhayagirivihāra and Jetavanavihāra were established by monks who had departed from the Mahāvihāra tradition.

According to A. K. Warder, the Indian Mahīśāsaka sect was also established in Sri Lanka along with the Theravāda, into which they were later absorbed. The northern regions of Sri Lanka also appear to have been ceded to other Indian sects at certain times.

When the Chinese monk Faxian visited the island in the early 5th century, he observed 5000 monks in Abhayagiri, 3000 in the Mahāvihāra and 2000 in the Cetiyapabbatavihihāra.

The Mahāvihāra ("Great Monastery") school became dominant in Sri Lanka in the early second millennium AD and gradually spread throughout mainland Southeast Asia. It was established in Myanmar in the late 11th century, in Thailand in the 13th and early 14th centuries, and in Cambodia and Laos in the late 14th century.

Although the Mahāvihāra never completely replaced other schools in Southeast Asia, it received special favor in most royal courts. This was due to the support it received from local elites, who exerted strong religious and social influence.


In Sri Lanka, the Abhayagiri Theravādins maintained relations with Indian Buddhists and adopted many new teachings from India, including elements of Mahāyāna, while the Jetavana Theravādins adopted Mahāyāna to a lesser extent. Xuanzang wrote about the two main divisions of Theravāda in Sri Lanka, referring to the Abhayagiri tradition as "Sthaviras Mahāyāna," and the Mahāvihāra tradition as "Sthaviras Hīnayāna."

Xuanzang also wrote that the Mahāvihāravāsins reject Mahāyāna as heresy, while the Abhayagirivihāravāsins study "both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. "

Abhayagiri was an influential university and center for the study of Mahāyāna from the reign of Gajabahu I until the twelfth century. It saw several important Buddhist scholars working in Sanskrit and Pali.

These included Upatissa (who wrote the Vimuttimagga), Kavicakravarti Ananda (author of the Saddhammopāyana), Aryadeva, Aryasura, and the tantric masters Jayabhadra and Candramali.

By the eighth century, both Mahāyāna and the esoteric form of Vajrayāna Buddhism are known to have been practiced in Sri Lanka, and two Indian monks responsible for propagating esoteric Buddhism in China, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, visited the island during this time.

Abhayagiri Vihāra appears to have been a center for Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna teachings.

Reign of Parakramabahu I

The prominence of Abhayagirivihāra came to an end in the 13th century, when the Mahāvihāra sect gained the political support of King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186), who completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana traditions, because he wanted to unify the sangha and eliminate corruption.

The Theravāda monks of these two traditions were given the option of returning to lay life permanently, or attempting reordainment under the Mahāvihāra tradition as novices.

It seems that part of the reason for these radical steps was that Parakramabahu saw the Sangha as divided, corrupt, and in need of reform, especially Abhayagiri. The Cūḷavaṁsa laments that at this time the Theravada monks had "turned away from their conduct and delighted in all sorts of conflicts. "

This chronicle also states that many monks in the Sinhala Sangha had even begun to marry and have children, behaving more like laymen than monastics. Parākramabāhu's main monastic leader in these reforms was Mahathera Kassapa, a monk well versed in scriptures and monastic discipline.

Parākramabāhu also rebuilt the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, restoring stupas and monasteries. He appointed a sangharaja, or "sangha king," a monk who would preside over the sangha and its ordinations in Sri Lanka, assisted by two deputies.

Parakkamabāhu's reign also saw a flowering of Theravada scholasticism with the work of prominent scholars such as Anuruddha, Sāriputta Thera, Mahākassapa Thera of Dimbulagala Vihara, and Moggallana Thera.

They compiled sub-commentaries on the Tipitaka, texts on grammar, abstracts, and textbooks on Abhidhamma and Vinaya, such as Anuruddha's influential Abhidhammattha-sangaha.

Southeast Asia

During the reign of Asoka two missionaries, Sona and Uttara, were sent to a place called Suvannabhumi. Scholastic opinions differ on the precise location, but it is believed to have been somewhere in the area between present-day lower Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and the Malay peninsula.

Prior to the 13th century, the areas of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia were dominated by Buddhist sects from India and included the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In the 7th century, Yijing noted in his travels that in these areas, all the major sects of Buddhism flourished.


Although there are some early accounts that have been interpreted as Theravāda in Myanmar, surviving records show that most early Burmese Buddhism incorporated Mahāyāna, and used Sanskrit rather than Pali.

After the decline of Buddhism in India, Sinhalese monk missions gradually converted Burmese Buddhism to Theravāda, and over the next two centuries also brought it to areas of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where it supplanted earlier forms.

The Mon and Pyu peoples were among the earliest inhabitants of lower Burma, and Peter Skilling concludes that there is firm evidence of a dominant Theravada presence in "the Irrawaddy and Chao Phraya basins from about the 5th century BC," although he adds that evidence shows that Mahayana was also present.

The Burmese adopted the religion and script of the Mon and Pyu peoples in the 11th century, during the reign of Bamar Anawrahta (1044-1077) of the Pagan Kingdom, who built stupas and monasteries in his capital of Bagan.

Several invasions of Burma by neighboring states and the Mongol invasions of Burma (13th century) damaged the Burmese sangha and Theravada had to be reintroduced several times into the country from Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Cambodia and Thailand

The Khmer Empire (802-1431) centered in Cambodia was initially dominated by Hinduism. Brahmins performed Hindu ceremonies and rituals, which were generally only for the elites. Tantric Buddhism and Mahayana was also a prominent faith, promoted by Buddhist emperors such as Jayavarman VII (1181-1215) who rejected Hindu gods and presented himself as a Bodhisattva king.

During his reign, King Jayavarman VII (c. 1181-1218) sent his son Tamalinda to Sri Lanka to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and study Theravada according to the Mahavihara Pali tradition.

Tamalinda then returned to Cambodia and promoted Buddhist traditions in accordance with the Theravada training he had received, galvanizing and energizing the Theravada presence that had already existed in the Angkor empire.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Theravada monks in Sri Lanka continued to introduce orthodox Theravada Buddhism, which eventually became the dominant faith among all classes. Monasteries replaced the local priestly classes, becoming centers of religion, education, culture, and social service for Cambodian villages. This change in Cambodian Buddhism significantly increased literacy among Cambodians.

In Thailand, Theravada existed alongside Mahayana and other religious sects before the rise of the Sukhothai Kingdom. During the reign of Ram Khamhaeng (c. 1237/1247 - 1298), Theravada became the main state religion and was promoted by the king as the orthodox form of Thai Buddhism.

However, despite its success in South Asia, Theravāda Buddhism never took root in China, except in some areas bordering Theravāda countries.

Innovations and esotericism

During the premodern era, Southeast Asian Buddhism included numerous elements that could be called tantric and esoteric (such as the use of mantras and yantras in elaborate rituals).

French scholar François Bizot has called this "tantric theravāda," and his textual studies show that it was an important tradition in Cambodia and Thailand. Some of these practices are still prevalent in Cambodia and Laos.

Later Theravāda textual materials show new and heterodox developments in theory and practice. These developments include what has been called the "yogāvacara tradition" associated with the Sinhala text called the Manual of the Yogāvacara (c. 16th to 17th centuries) and also a Thai esoteric tradition known as borān kammaṭṭhāna ("ancient practices").

These traditions include new practices and ideas not included in classical theravāda works such as the Visuddhimagga, such as the use of mantras (such as araham), the practice of magical formulas, complex rituals, and complex visualization exercises.

These practices were particularly prominent in the Siam Nikaya before the modernist reforms of King Rama IV (1851-1868), as well as in Sri Lanka.


The Buddhist revival in the Theravāda lands began partly as a reaction to colonialism. Western colonialists and Christian missionaries imposed their ideas of Christian monasticism on the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka and the colonies in Southeast Asia, restricting the activities of monks to individual purification and temple ministries.

Prior to British colonial control, monks in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar had been responsible for the education of the children of the laity and had produced large bodies of literature.

Thereafter, Buddhist temples were strictly administered and only allowed to use their funds for strictly religious activities. Christian ministers were given control of the educational system and their pay was converted into state funds for missions.

Foreign rule had an unnerving effect on the sangha. According to Walpola Rahula, Christian missionaries displaced and appropriated the educational and social activities of the monks, and instilled a change in views about the proper position of monks in society through their institutional influence.

Many monks in the postcolonial era have dedicated themselves to undoing these changes. Movements aiming to restore the place of Buddhism in society have developed in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

Another consequence of the reaction against Western colonialism has been the modernization of Theravāda Buddhism: Western elements have been incorporated and the practice of meditation has been opened up to a lay audience. Modernized forms of Theravāda practice have also spread to the West.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the Theravādins revitalized their tradition using Western concepts and saw Christian missionaries as a threat to their indigenous culture. In reaction to this, the Theravādins became active in spreading Buddhism and debating Christians.

They were aided by the Theosophical Society. The nineteenth century saw a process of mutual influence between Asian and Western Buddhists. A particularly influential figure for modern Theravada was Henry Steel Olcott, a member of the Theosophical Society. Anagarika Dharmapala was one of the modern leaders in Sri Lanka.

Dharmapala reached out to the middle classes, offering them religious practices and a religious identity, which were used to resist the British imperialists. As a result of Dharmapala's efforts, lay practitioners began to practice meditation and study Buddhism, which had been reserved specifically for monks.

The translation and publication of the Pāli Canon by the Pali Text Society made the Pali Canon better available to the public, not only in the West, but also in the East.


An influential modernist figure in Myanmar Buddhism was King Mindon Min (1808-1878). He promoted the fifth Buddhist council (1871) and inscribed the Pali Canon on marble slabs, creating the largest book in the world in 1868. During his reign, several reformist sects emerged, such as Dwaya and Shwegyin, which advocated stricter monastic conduct than the mainstream Thudhamma tradition.

During colonial Burma, there were tensions between Christian missionaries and Buddhist monks. After independence, the government supported the Sixth Buddhist Council (Vesak 1954 to Vesak 1956), which was attended by monks from eight Theravāda countries to recite the Pali Canon.

The council synthesized a rewording of the Pali texts that were eventually transcribed into several native languages. In Myanmar, the government published this Chaṭṭha Saṅgīti Piṭaka (Pitaka of the Sixth Council) in 40 volumes.

Theravāda in Myanmar has also had a profound influence on the modern practice of vipassanā meditation, both for lay practitioners in Asia and in the West. The "new Burmese method" was developed by U Nārada and popularized by his student Mahasi Sayadaw and Nyanaponika Thera. The new Burmese method strongly emphasizes vipassanā over samatha.

It is considered a simplification of traditional Buddhist meditation techniques, not only for monks but also for lay practitioners. The method has been popularized in the West by masters of the vipassana movement, such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg.

The Ledi lineage begins with Ledi Sayadaw. S. N. Goenka is a well-known teacher in the Ledi lineage. According to S. N. Goenka, vipassana techniques are essentially nonsectarian in nature and have universal application. Meditation centers teaching the vipassana popularized by S. N. Goenka now exist in India, Asia, North and South America, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Thailand and Cambodia

With the coming to power in 1851 of Thai King Mongkut, who had been a monk for twenty-seven years, the sangha, like the Thai kingdom, became increasingly centralized and institutionalized. Mongkut was a distinguished scholar of Pali Buddhist scripture.

Moreover, at that time, the immigration of Burmese monks was introducing the more rigorous monastic discipline of the Mon. Influenced by the Mon sangha and guided by his own understanding of the Tipitaka, Mongkut began a reform movement that later became the basis for the Dhammayuttika Nikaya.

Mongkut advocated stricter adherence to vinaya (monastic discipline). He also emphasized scriptural study (suttas), and rationalism. His son, King Chulalongkorn, created a national structure for Buddhist monastics and established a national system of monastic education.

In the early 1900s, the monk Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo and his student, Mun Bhuridatta, led a monastic movement, called the Thai Forest Tradition. In the 20th century, notable practitioners included Ajahn Thate, Ajahn Maha Bua and Ajahn Chah. It was later spread globally by Western students of these monks, among whom the most senior is Luang Por Ajahn Sumedho.

Modern Buddhism in Cambodia was influenced by Thai Buddhism. The Dhammayuttika Nikaya was introduced into the country during the reign of King Norodom (1834-1904) and benefited from royal patronage. The Khmer Rouge government effectively destroyed Cambodia's Buddhist institutions, killing monks and destroying temples.

After the end of the regime, the Sangha was reestablished. An important figure in modern Cambodian Theravada is Maha Ghosananda, who promoted a form of Buddhism committed to bringing about social change.


Theravāda Buddhism is followed by countries and people all over the world:

In South Asia:
Sri Lanka (by 70% of the population).
Bangladesh (by 0.7% of the population) mainly in Chittagong and Kuwakata.
India, mainly in the Northeast.

In Southeast Asia:
Cambodia (by 95% of the population).
Laos (by 67% of the population)
Myanmar (by 89% of the population)
Thailand (by 90% of the population, 94% of the population practicing the religion)

Vietnam (by the Khmer Krom in the southern and central parts of Vietnam and Tai Dam in northern Vietnam)
Malaysia (in Peninsular Malaysia, especially in the northwestern parts of Malaysia, mainly by the Malaysian Siamese and Sinhalese of Malaysia)

In East Asia:
China (mainly by the Shan, Tai, Dai, Hani, Wa, Achang, Blang ethnic groups, mainly in Yunnan province).
Today, Theravāda Buddhists, also known as Theravadins, number more than 150 million worldwide, and over the past few decades Theravāda Buddhism has begun to take root in the West and in the Buddhist renaissance in India.