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What is Buddhism Theravada?

August 7, 2023

Theravada (more or less pronounced “terra-VAH-dah”), the “Doctrine of the Elders,” is the branch of Buddhism that gets its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which most academics say is the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. Theravada has long dominated Sri Lanka, as well as mainland Southeast Asia’s countries of Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. There are currently well over 100 million Theravada Buddhists worldwide. Theravada has started to spread in the West in recent years.

The religion that the Buddha the “Awakened One” founded was known as Dhamma-vinaya “the doctrine and discipline.” The Buddha founded the order of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis (nuns)—the Sangha to provide a social structure supportive of the practise of Dhamma-vinaya (or Dhamma for short [Sanskrit: Dharma]), and to preserve these teachings for future generations. The Sangha still exists today and continues to transmit the Buddha’s teachings to successive generations of laypeople and monastics alike.

After the Buddha’s death, the Dhamma continued to expand throughout India, but as it did, various interpretations of the original teachings evolved, causing schisms within the Sangha and the development of up to eighteen different sects of Buddhism. A reform movement that called itself Mahayana (the “Greater Vehicle”) and derisively referred to the other schools as Hinayana (the “Lesser Vehicle”) eventually emerged from one of these schools.

Only one of those early non-Mahayana schools has survived, and that is what we now refer to as Theravada.[5] Today, it is typical to use more unbiased terminology to distinguish between these two major schools of Buddhism rather than the derogatory connotations conveyed by the words Hinayana and Mahayana. Theravada is frequently referred to as “Southern” Buddhism since it historically predominated southern Asia, whereas Mahayana, which travelled from India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea, is regarded as “Northern” Buddhism.

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