The Theravāda school is ultimately derived from the Vibhajjavāda (or 'doctrine of analysis') grouping which was a continuation of the older Sthavira (or 'teaching of the Elders') group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE, during the reign of Emperor Asoka in India. Vibhajjavadins saw themselves as the continuation of orthodox Sthaviras and after the Third Council continued to refer to their school as the Sthaviras/Theras ('The Elders'), their doctrines were probably similar to the older Sthaviras but were not completely identical. After the Third Council geographical distance led to the Vibhajjavādins gradually evolving into four groups: the Mahīśāsaka, Kāśyapīya, Dharmaguptaka and the Tāmraparnīya. The Theravada is descended from the Tāmraparnīya, which means 'the Sri Lankan lineage'. Some sources claim that only the Theravada actually evolved directly from the Vibhajjavādins.
The name of Tamraparniya was given to the Sri Lankan lineage in India but there is no indication that this referred to any change in doctrine or scripture from the Vibhajjavadins, since the name points only to geographical location. The Theravadin accounts of its own origins mention that it received the teachings that were agreed upon during the Third Buddhist Council, and these teachings were known as the Vibhajjavada. In the 7th century, Chinese pilgrims Xuanzang and Yi Jing refer to the Buddhist school in Sri Lanka as ‘Sthavira’. In ancient India, those schools that used Sanskrit as their religious language referred to this school as the 'Sthaviras', but those that use Pali as their religious language referred to this school as the 'Theras'. Both 'Sthaviras' (Sanskrit) and 'Theras' (Pali) both literally mean 'The Elders'. The school has been using the name 'Theravada' for itself in a written form since at least the fourth century CE when the term appears in the Dipavamsa.
There is little information about the later history of Theravada Buddhism in India, and it is not known when it disappeared in its country of origin.
According to Sinhalese tradition, Buddhism was first brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, who is believed to have been the son of the Mauryan emperor Asoka, in the third century BCE, as a part of the missionary activities of the Asokan era. In Sri Lanka, Mahinda established the Mahavihara Monastery of Anuradhapura. Later it became divided into three subgroups, known after their monastic centers as the Mahavihara, the Abhayagirivihara, and the Jetavanavihara. In 1164, with the guidance of two monks from a forest branch of the Mahavihara, Sri Lanka King reunited all bhikkhus in Sri Lanka into the orthodox Mahavihara school.
A few years after the arrival of Sthavira Mahinda, Sanghamitta, who is also believed to be the daughter of Emperor Asoka, came to Sri Lanka. She started the first nun order in Sri Lanka, but the nun order died out in Sri Lanka in the 11th century and in Burma in the 13th. In 429 CE, by request of China's emperor, nuns from Anuradhapura were sent to China to establish the Nun Order. The order was then spread to Korea. In 1996, 11 selected Sri Lankan nuns were ordained fully as Bhikkhunis by a team of Theravada monks in concert with a team of Korean Nuns in India. There is disagreement among Theravada vinaya authorities as to whether such ordinations are valid. In the last few years the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka has carried out ordination ceremonies for hundreds of nuns. This has been criticized by some other leading figures in the Siyam Nikaya and Amarapura Nikaya, and the governing council of Burmese Buddhism has declared that there can be no valid ordination of nuns in modern times, though some Burmese monks disagree with this.
During the Asoka reign period, a missionary was also sent to Suvannabhumi where two monks Sona and Uttara, are said to have proceeded. Scholar opinions differ as to where exactly this land of Suvannabhumi is located, but Suvannabhumi is believed to be located somewhere in the area which now includes lower Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malay peninsula.
The Mon were one of the earliest people to inhabit lower Burma and are believed to have been Theravadin since 3rd century BCE. Archaeological findings have shown that the Mon had close contact with South India and Sri Lanka. The Burmese adopted the Mon religion and writing script (which is also used there as Pali script) when they conquered Thaton the Mon Kingdom in 1057. According to the local traditions, this was the area of Suvarnabhumi that was visited by missionaries from the Asokan court. The Mon were also one of the earliest people to inhabit Thailand. The Thai adopted the Mon religion when they conquered Hariphunchai, the Mon Kingdom in 1292.
However, despite its success in Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhism was never very successful in China, except in the few areas bordering Theravada countries.
The following modern trends or movements have been identified.
In Theravada, the cause of human existence and suffering (dukkha) is identified as the craving (tanha), which carried with it the defilements (which are anger, ill will, aversion, greed, jealousy, conceit, hatred, fear, sensual desire, obsession, passion, irritation, distraction, vengeance, depression, anxiety, clinging to the body, etc.). The defilements level can be coarse, medium, and subtle. It is a phenomenon that frequently arises, remains temporarily and then vanishes. Theravadins believe defilements are not only harmful to oneself, but also harmful to others. They are the driving force behind all inhumanities a human being can commit.
Theravadins believe these defilements are the habits born of ignorance (avijja) which infest the minds of all unenlightened beings. It is believed that unenlightened beings assume those mental defilements as their own “Self”, clinging to them through ignorance of the truth. But in reality, those mental defilements are nothing more than parasites that have infested the mind and create suffering and stress. It is also believed that unenlightened beings cling to the body, assuming it as their own “Self”, but in reality the body is an impermanent phenomenon formed from the 4 basic elements (often characterized by Earth, Water, Fire and Air) and after death the body will decompose and disperse. The mental defilements' frequent instigation and manipulation of the mind is believed to have prevented the mind from seeing the truth of reality.
It is believed that in order to be free from suffering and stress these defilements need to be permanently uprooted. Initially the defilements are restrained through mindfulness to prevent them from taking over the mind and bodily action. They are then uprooted through internal investigation, analyzing, experiencing and understanding the true nature of those defilements by using jhana. This process needs to be repeated for each and every defilement. The practice will then lead the meditator to realize the Four Noble Truths, Enlightenment and Nibbana. Nibbana is the ultimate goal of Theravadins. Nibbana is said to be the perfect bliss and the person is liberated from the repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death.
Theravadins believe that every individual is personally responsible for their own self-awakening and liberation, as they are the ones that were responsible for their own actions and consequences (Pali, kamma; Sanskrit, karma). Simply learning or believing in the concept of ultimate truth (or "reality") is not enough, the awakening can only be achieved if the individual personally knows it by direct experience and realizes the ultimate truth for themselves. They will have to follow and practice the Noble Eightfold Path as taught by the Buddha for the realization and verification of the ultimate truth. In Theravada belief, Buddhas, gods or deities are incapable of giving a human being the awakening or lifting them from the state of repeated cycle of birth, illness, aging and death (samsara). For Theravadins, Buddha is only a Teacher of the Noble Eightfold Path, while gods or deities are still subject to anger, jealousy, hatred, vengeance, craving, greed and delusion.
It is believed that some people who practice with earnestness and zeal can attain Nibbana within a single lifetime, as did many of the first few generations of Buddha's disciples. For others, the process may take multiple lifetimes, with the individual reaching higher and higher states of realization. Those that have attained Nibbana are called Arahant, literally "Winner of Nibbana". It is believed that the Nibbana is most quickly attained as a disciple of Buddha, since Lord Buddha is believed to have possessed the ultimate knowledge on how to guide a person through the process of enlightement.
In Theravada, the Nibbana attained by Arahants is believed to be identical to that attained by the Buddha himself, as there is only one type of Nibbana. Buddha was superior to Arahants because the Buddha had discovered the path all by himself, and has taught it to others (ie; metaphorically turning the wheel of Dhamma). Arahants, on the other hand, attained Nibbana due in part to the Buddha's teachings. Theravadins revere the Buddha as a single supremely gifted person but do recognize the existence of other such Buddhas in the distant past and future. Maitreya (Pali: Metteyya), for example, is mentioned very briefly in the Pali Canon as a Buddha who will come in the distant future.
Traditionally Theravadins can either have the conviction (or "faith") in the Buddha's teaching and practice the minor precepts in the hope of gaining some minor benefits or they can investigate and verify by direct experience the truth of the Buddha's teaching by practicing the jhana which is part of the Noble Eightfold Path for their own Enlightenment.
One thing that should be mentioned first and foremost is that the Theravada philosophy is a continuous analytical process of life, not a mere set of ethics and rituals.
The ultimate theory of Theravada uses the Four Noble Truths, also known as the Four Sublime Truths. In the simplest form these can be described as the problem, the cause, the solution and the pathway to solution (implementation).
1. Dukkha (suffering) - This can be somewhat broadly classified into three categories. Inherent suffering, or the suffering one undergoes in all the worldly activities, what one suffers in day-to-day life. Birth, Aging, Diseases, Death, Sadness, etc. In short, all that one feels from seperating from 'loving' attachments, and associating with 'hating' attachments is encompassed into the term. The second class of suffering, called Suffering due to Change, includes most of that is not covered above. The third, termed 'Sankhara Dukkha', is the most subtle. Things are suffering simply by being conditioned. 2. Dukkha Samudaya (cause of suffering) - Attachment and Bondage is the cause of suffering, according to what Theravada teaches. Formally, this is termed 'Tanha'. Taken at the most abstract level, 'Tanha' can be classified into three instinctive drives. 'Kama Thanha', or Attachment to worldly entities such as wealth, comfort, love, etc. 'Bhava Thanha' is the Attachment to be. More formally, it is the Tendency to Attach oneself to an ongoing process, the act of attaching oneself to a continuous process which is the means of attaining pleasure. 'Vibhava Thanha' is the opposite of what 'Bhava Thanha' is; it is the attachment to the negative of an ongoing process.
3. Dukkha Nirodha (cessation of suffering) - One cannot possible adjust the whole world to one's taste, so that he suffers no longer, and hope that it will remain so forever. It violates the chief principle of Change. Instead, one adjusts his own mind so that the Change, in whatever nature it may be, has no effect on his peace of mind. One does so by detaching himself from all possible bondages and attachments. Briefly stated, the third Noble Truth implies that elimination of the cause (attachment) eliminates the result (suffering). This is inferred in the scriptural quote by Lord Buddha, 'Whatever may result from a cause, shall be eliminated by the elimination of the cause'.
4. Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada (pathway to freedom from suffering) - This is the Noble Eightfold Pathway towards freedom or 'Nibbana', that is defined as the ultimate level of freedom one can expect to attain. The terms can roughly be rendered into English as good Vision, good intention, good speech, good actions, good living (way of life) good effort, good presence of mind and good training of mind, where the term 'good' collectively means 'active, positive, constructive and unbiased'.
These are the three characteristics of any object, person or an entity, according to Theravada, that lead to suffering.
1. Anicca (Change) - Change is. Everything in the world is subject to Change, including physical characteristics, qualities, assumptions, theories, knowledge, etc. Change is the force that drives the world. One can never stop Change, but merely is capable of altering its course. This theory is summarized by the popular quote "You can never swim in the same river twice". As the water flows, water is replaced every nanosecond, so the river itself as an entity, is never the same. So is the world, according to what Theravada states.
2. Dukkha (suffering) - What is not constant creates suffering. There is a tendency to lable things, conditions and practically everything in the world,as either 'good', 'comfortable' or 'satisfying', as opposed to 'bad', 'uncomfortable', and 'unsatisfying'. This is where the critical argument of Theravada comes in: it is we that label things in the world as either 'good' or 'evil', so we are the ones who create suffering in the first place. If one succeeds in giving up the tendency to label things and free himself from the instincts that drive him towards attaining what he himself labels collectively as 'good', he attains the ultimate freedom. The problem, the cause, the solution and the implementation, all of these are within oneself, not outside. This is the gist of Theravada teachings.
3. Anatta (non-self) - This is arguably the concept that has undergone most controversy over time in Buddhism. In Theravada it means that all phenomena making up a person – materiality, feeling (in the sense of hedonic tone), conception/perception, mental formations and consciousness – are not that person's self. What Therevada states is that Human (and for that purpose, any living or non-living entity) has no definite identity, for the concept of identity has no use for an entity subject to constant Change, in a context that is also subject to constant Change. This lack of an ultimate identity,or degeneracy of identity is what the term 'Anatta' means.
Understanding these three characteristics leads to freedom from worldly bonds and attachments, thus leading to the state where one is completely, ultimately free, the state which is termed 'Nibbana', which literally means 'Freedom'.
The pathway towards 'Nibbana', or the Noble Eightfold Pathway is sometimes stated in a more concise manner, known as the Three Noble Disciplines. These are known as 'Seela', or discipline, 'Samadhi', or training of mind, and 'Prajhna' or Enlightening.
In this context, Samatha Meditation makes a person skillful in concentration of mind. Vipassana allows one to see through the veil of ignorance (of the Four Noble Truths).
In the Pali Canon discourses, the Buddha instructs his disciples to practice various forms of meditation as the base for samadhi (concentration) in order to establish and develop jhana (full concentration). Jhana is also the instrument used by the Buddha himself to penetrate the true nature of phenomena (through investigation and direct experience) and to reach Enlightenment. Jhana can be developed from mindfulness with breathing, from visual objects (kasina), and repetition of phrases. The traditional list contains 40 objects of meditation to be used for Samatha Meditation(). Every object has a specific goal; for example, meditation on the parts of the body(Kayanupassana or Kayagathasathi) will result in a lessening of attachment to our own bodies and those of others; a reduction of sensual desires occurs. Mettā (loving kindness) generates the feelings of goodwill and happiness toward ourselves and other beings; metta practice serves as an antidote to ill-will,wrath and fear. Right Concentration (samma-samadhi) is one of the elements in the Noble Eightfold Path.
Through practice, (Theravadin) practitioners can achieve four degrees of spiritual attainment, which reflect on the state of mind:
The Pali Tipitaka consists of three parts: the Vinaya Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka. Of these, the Abhidhamma Pitaka is believed to be a later addition to the first two pitakas, which, in the opinion of many scholars, were the only two pitakas at the time of the First Buddhist Council. The Pali Abhidhamma was not recognized outside the Theravada school.
In the 4th or 5th century CE Buddhaghosa Thera wrote the first Pali commentaries to much of the Tipitaka (which were based on much older manuscripts, mostly in old Sinhalese), and after him many other monks wrote various commentaries, which have become part of the Theravada heritage. These texts, however, do not enjoy the same authority as the Tipitaka does. The Tipitaka is composed of 45 volumes in the Thai edition, 40 in the Burmese and 58 in the Sinhalese, and a full set of the Tipitaka is usually kept in its own (medium-sized) cupboard.
The commentaries, together with the Abhidhamma, define the specific Theravada heritage. Related versions of the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka were common to all the early Buddhist schools, and therefore do not define only Theravada, but also the other early Buddhist schools, and perhaps the teaching of Gautama Buddha himself.
Theravada Buddhists consider much of what is found in the Chinese and Tibetan scriptural collections to be apocryphal, meaning that they are not authentic words of the Buddha.
Traditionally, Theravada Buddhism has observed a distinction between the practices suitable for a lay person and the practices undertaken by ordained monks (and, in ancient times, nuns). While the possibility of significant attainment by laymen is not entirely disregarded by the Theravada, it occupies a position of significantly less prominence than in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. This distinction - as well as the distinction between those practices advocated by the Pali Canon, and the folk religious elements embraced by many monks - have motivated some scholars to consider Theravada Buddhism to be composed of multiple separate traditions, overlapping though still distinct. Most prominently, the anthropologist Melford Spiro in his work Buddhism and Society separated Burmese Theravada into three groups: Apotropaic Buddhism (concerned with providing protection from evil spirits), Kammatic Buddhism (concerned with making merit for a future birth), and Nibbanic Buddhism (concerned with attaining the liberation of nibbana, as described in the Tipitaka). He stresses that all three are firmly rooted in the Pali Canon. These categories are not accepted by all scholars, and are usually considered non-exclusive by those who employ them.
The role of lay people has traditionally been primarily occupied with activities that are commonly termed 'merit making' (falling under Spiro's category of kammatic Buddhism). Merit making activities include offering food and other basic necessities to monks, making donations to temples and monasteries, burning incense or lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting protective or merit-making verses from the Pali Canon. Some lay practitioners have always chosen to take a more active role in religious affairs, while still maintaining their lay status. Dedicated lay men and women sometimes act as trustees or custodians for their temples, taking part in the financial planning and management of the temple. Others may volunteer significant time in tending to the mundane needs of local monks (by cooking, cleaning, maintaining temple facilities, etc.). Lay activities have traditionally not extended to study of the Pali scriptures, nor the practice of meditation, though in the 20th Century these areas have become more accessible to the lay community, especially in Thailand.
A number of senior monastics in the Thai Forest Tradition, including Ajahn Buddhadasa, Luang Ta Maha Bua, Ajahn Plien Panyapatipo, Ajahn Pasanno, and Ajahn Jayasaro, have begun teaching meditation retreats outside of the monastery for lay disciples.
In the UK, Ajahn Chah a disciple of Ajahn Mun, set up a monastic lineage at Chithurst in West Sussex, "Cittaviveka", with his disciple Ajahn Sumedho, then "Amaravati" in Hertfordshire was founded which has a retreat center for lay retreats. Ajahn Sumedho extended this to Harnham in Northumberland as Aruna Ratanagiri under the present guidance of Ajahn Munindo, another disciple of Ajahn Chah.
Nibbana, the highest goal of Theravada Buddhism, is attained through study and the practice of morality, meditation and wisdom (sila, samadhi, panna). The goal of Nibbana (and its associated techniques) have traditionally been seen as the domain of the fully ordained monastic, whereas many of the same techniques can be used by laypeople to generate happiness in their lives, without focusing on Nibbana. Monastic roles in the Theravada can be broadly described as being split between the role of the (often urban) scholar monk and the (often rural or forest) meditation monk. Both types of monks serve their communities as religious teachers and officiants by presiding over religious ceremonies and providing instruction in basic Buddhist morality and teachings.
Scholar monks undertake the path of studying and preserving the Pali literature of the Theravada. They may devote little time to the practice of meditation, but may attain great respect and renown by becoming masters of a particular section of the Pali Canon or its commentaries. Masters of the Abhidhamma, called Abhidhammika, are particularly respected in the scholastic tradition.
Meditation monks, often called forest monks because of their association with certain wilderness-dwelling traditions, are considered to be specialists in meditation. While some forest monks may undertake significant study of the Pali Canon, in general meditation monks are expected to learn primarily from their meditation experiences and personal teachers, and may not know more of the Tipitaka than is necessary to participate in liturgical life and to provide a foundation for fundamental Buddhist teachings. More so than the scholastic tradition, the meditation tradition is associated with the attainment of certain supernatural powers described in both Pali sources and folk tradition. These powers include the attainment of Nibbana, mind-reading, supernatural power over material objects and their own material bodies, seeing and conversing with gods and beings living in hell, and remembering their past lives. These powers are called abhiñña. Sometimes the remain of the creamated bone fragment of an accomplished forest monk is believed able to transfom itself into crystal-like relics (sãrira-dhãtu).
The minimum age for ordaining as a Buddhist monk is 20 years, reckoned from conception. However, boys under that age are allowed to ordain as novices (samanera), performing a ceremony such as Shinbyu in Burma. Novices shave their heads, wear the yellow robes, and observe ten basic precepts. Although no specific minimum age for novices is mentioned in the scriptures, traditionally boys as young as seven are accepted. This tradition follows the story of the Lord Buddha’s son, Rahula, who was allowed to become a novice at the age of seven. Monks follow 227 rules of discipline, while nuns follow 311 rules.
In most Theravada countries, it is a common practice for young men to ordain as monks for a fixed period of time. In Thailand and Burma, young men typically ordain for the 3 month Rain Retreat (vassa), though shorter or longer periods of ordination are not rare. Traditionally, temporary ordination was even more flexible among Laotians. Once they had undergone their initial ordination as young men, Laotian men were permitted to temporarily ordain again at any time, though married men were expected to seek their wife's permission. Throughout Southeast Asia, there is little stigma attached to leaving the monastic life. Monks regularly leave the robes after acquiring an education, or when compelled by family obligations or ill-health.
Ordaining as a monk, even for a short period, is seen as having many virtues. In many Southeast Asian cultures, it is seen as a means for a young man to 'repay' his parents for their work and effort in raising him, because the merit from his ordination accrues to them as well. Thai men who have ordained as a monk may be seen as more fit husbands by Thai women, who refer to men who have served as monks with a colloquial term meaning 'cooked' to indicate that they are more mature and ready for marriage. Particularly in rural areas, temporary ordination of boys and young men traditionally gave peasant boys an opportunity to gain an education in temple schools without committing to a permanent monastic life.
In Sri Lanka, temporary ordination is not practiced, and a monk leaving the order is frowned upon. The continuing influence of the caste system in Sri Lanka may play a role in the taboo against temporary ordination and leaving the monkhood. Though Sri Lankan monastic nikayas are often organized along caste lines, men who ordain as monks temporarily pass outside of the conventional caste system, and as such during their time as monks may act (or be treated) in a way that would not be in line with the expected duties and privileges of their caste.
Some well-known Theravadin monks are: Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, Ajahn Chah,Ajahn Plien Panyapatipo, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Brahm, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhadasa, Mahasi Sayadaw, Nyanaponika Thera, Preah Maha Ghosananda, Sayadaw U Pandita, Ajahn Amaro, Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Walpola Rahula.
The practices usually vary in different sub-schools and monasteries within Theravada. But in the most orthodox forest monastery, the monk usually models his practice and lifestyle on that of the Buddha and his first generation of disciples by living close to nature in forest, mountains and caves. Forest monasteries still keep alive the ancient traditions through following the Buddhist monastic code of discipline in all its detail and developing meditation in secluded forests.
In a typical daily routine at the monastery during the 3 month vassa period, the monk will wake up before dawn and will begin the day with group chanting and meditation. At dawn the monks will go out to surrounding villages bare-footed on alms-round and will have the only meal of the day before noon by eating from the bowl by hand. Most of the time is spent on Dhamma study and meditation. Sometimes the abbot or a senior monk will give a Dhamma talk to the visitors. Laity who stay at the monastery will have to abide by the traditional eight Buddhist precepts.
After the end of the Vassa period, many of the monks will go out far away from the monastery to find a remote place (usually in the forest) where they can hang their umbrella tents and where it is suitable for the work of self-development. When they go wandering, they walk barefoot, and go wherever they feel inclined, and those requisites which are necessary will be carried along. These generally consist of the bowl, the three robes, a bathing cloth, an umbrella tent, a mosquito net, a kettle of water, a water filter, razor, sandals, some small candles, and a candle lantern.
The monks do not fix their times for walking and sitting meditation, for as soon as they are free they just start doing it; nor do they determine for how long they will go on to meditate. Some of them sometimes walk from dusk to dawn whereas at other times they may walk from between two to seven hours. Some may decide to fast for days or stay at dangerous places where ferocious animals live in order to aid their meditation.
Those monks who have been able to achieve a high level of attainment will be able to guide the junior monks and lay Buddhists toward the four degrees of spiritual attainment.
In Burma and Thailand, the monastery was and is still regarded as a seat of learning. In fact today about half of the primary schools in Thailand are located in monasteries. Religious rituals and ceremonies held in a monastery are always accompanied by social activities. In times of crisis, it is to the monks that people bring their problems for counsel.
Traditionally, a ranking monk will deliver a sermon four times a month: when the moon waxes and wanes and the day before the new and full moons. The laity also have a chance to learn meditation from the monks during these times.
It is also possible for a lay disciple to become enlightened. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, "The Suttas and commentaries do record a few cases of lay disciples attaining the final goal of Nibbana. However, such disciples either attain Arahantship on the brink of death or enter the monastic order soon after their attainment. They do not continue to dwell at home as Arahant householders, for dwelling at home is incompatible with the state of one who has severed all craving.