Theravada (pronounced -- more or less -- "terraVAHduh"),
the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural
inspiration from the texts of the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which scholars generally
accept as containing the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings.
For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental
Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos) and Sri Lanka; today
Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide. In recent decades Theravada
has begun to take root in the West.
Many Buddhisms, One
The Buddha called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya,
"the doctrine and discipline" (or Dhamma [Sanskrit: Dharma], for short). To provide
a social structure supportive of the practice of Dhamma, and to preserve these
teachings for posterity, the Buddha established the order of bhikkhus (monks)
and bhikkhunis (nuns) -- the Sangha -- who
continue to this day to pass his teachings on to subsequent generations of laypeople
and monastics, alike.
But within two centuries after the Buddha's passing,
as the Dhamma spread across much of India, several different interpretations of
some of the Buddha's original teachings arose, leading to schisms within the Sangha
and the emergence of as many as eighteen distinct sects of Buddhism.
of these sects (the Mahasanghika) eventually gave rise to a reform movement that
called itself Mahayana (the "Greater Vehicle") and that referred to the other
schools disparagingly as Hinayana (the "Lesser Vehicle").
What we call Theravada
today is the sole surviving school of those early non-Mahayana schools. To avoid
the pejorative tone implied by the terms Hinayana and Mahayana, many people today
prefer to use more neutral language to distinguish between these two main branches
of Buddhism. Since Theravada has historically dominated southern Asia, it is
sometimes called "Southern Buddhism," while Mahayana, which principally migrated
northwards from India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea is called "Northern
Pali: The Language of Theravada Buddhism
The language of the Theravada canonical texts is known as
Pali (lit., "text"), which is based on a dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan that was
probably spoken in central India during the Buddha's time. Most of the sermons
(suttas) the Buddha delivered were memorized by Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin
and close personal attendant; those sermons at which Ananda was not present are
said to have been repeated to him later on.
Shortly after the Buddha's death
(ca. 480 BCE), five hundred of the most senior monks -- including Ananda -- convened
to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha's forty-five
year teaching career.
Most of these sermons therefore begin with the disclaimer,
Evam me sutam -- "Thus have I heard." The teachings were passed down orally within
the monastic community, in keeping with an oral tradition that long predated the
By 250 BCE the Buddha's teachings had been systematically arranged
and organized into three basic divisions:
- the Vinaya
Pitaka (the "basket of discipline"; the texts concerning the rules
and customs of the Sangha),
- the Sutta Pitaka
(the "basket of discourses"; the sermons and utterances by the Buddha and his
close disciples), and
- the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the
"basket of higher [or special] doctrine"; a detailed philosophical and psychological
analysis of the Dhamma). Taken together these three are known as the Tipitaka
-- the "three baskets".
In the third century BCE Sri Lankan monks began compiling
a series of detailed commentaries to the Tipitaka that were finally collated and
translated into Pali beginning in the fifth century CE.
The Tipitaka plus
the post-canonical Pali texts (commentaries, chronicles, etc.) together constitute
the complete body of classical Theravada texts.
Pali was originally a spoken
language with no alphabet of its own. It wasn't until about 100 BCE that the Tipitaka
was first fixed in writing, by Sri Lankan scribe-monks writing the Pali phonetically
in their own Sinhala alphabet. Since then the Tipitaka has been transliterated
into many different scripts (Devanagari, Thai, Burmese, Roman, Cyrillic, to name
a few). Although English translations of the most popular Tipitaka texts abound,
many students of Theravada find that learning the Pali language -- even just a
little bit here and there -- greatly deepens their understanding and appreciation
of the of the Buddha's teachings.
Of course, no one can prove that the
Tipitaka contains any of the actual words uttered by the historical Buddha. But
practicing Buddhists have never found this problematic. Unlike the scriptures
of many of the world's other great religions, the Tipitaka is not meant to be
taken as gospel, containing unassailable statements of divine truth, revealed
by a prophet, to be accepted purely on faith. Instead, its teachings are meant
to be assessed firsthand, to be put into practice in one's life so that one can
find out for oneself if they do, in fact, yield the promised results. It is the
truth towards which the words in the Tipitaka point that ultimately matters, not
the words themselves.
Although scholars will undoubtedly continue to speculate
about the authorship of passages from the Tipitaka for years to come (and thus
miss the point of these teachings entirely), the Tipitaka will quietly continue
to serve -- as it has for centuries -- as an indispensable guide for millions
of followers in their quest for Awakening.
- Page 2