- by Ven. Chuen Phangcham, Ph.D.
- The Midwest Buddhist Meditation Center
Definition and Historical Background
The Buddha's Teaching following by the Elder Buddhist monks since the years after the Buddha's death. The Order of the Sangha following the teaching of the Buddha without changing any rules and regulations led down by the Buddha approved by the Sangha during the life time of the Buddha.
Theravada Buddhism is the Early Buddhism, Southern school and monastic Buddhism, the practice or Doctrine of the Elders who formed the First Buddhist Council only three months after the Buddha's death. The term was coined by Mahayanists to distinguish this school of Buddhism from Mahayana in putting emphasis on one own liberation, whereas the teaching of Mahayana school of attainment of Buddhahood for all sentience beings. When we talk about Theravada Buddhism, we need to talk about Mahayana Buddhism too how these two streams of tradition have been developed.
How Theravada Buddhism come about
Treat back to history, three months after the Buddha's death, the First Buddhist Council was held by 500 enlightened monks/Arahants at Rajagri/Rajagaha city, Bihar State, eastern India today. The purpose of the Council was to fix the doctrine and discipline taught and led down by the Buddha, the Council was led by Venerable Maha Kassapa/Kassayapa and under the sponsorship of King Ajatasattu of Magadh kingdom. Two very important personalities who specialized in the two different areas of what the Buddha taught namely; Venerable Ananda specialized in Dhamma and Venerable Upali specialized in Vinaya.
Lacking discipline of Vajjiputta monks at Vesali /Visali city. The elders monks of the order tried to correct their views, but they ignored the advice. As the result, 700 Arahants held the Second Buddhist Council 100 years after the death of the Buddha. The purpose of the Council was to revise and confirm what the Buddha taught. The Buddhism, then was divided into two groups, the elders of the Council belonged Theravada, meanwhile the Vijjiputta monks developed Mahayana school known as Mahasanghika at that time. In the Second Council, only matters pertaining to the Vinaya were discussed and no controversy about the Dhamma is reported.
In the 3rd Century B.C., during the time of Emperor Ashoka, the Great of India, the Third Buddhist Council was held to purge the undisciplined monks and to preserve the teachings of the Buddha. The Council was held at Pataliputta city, Pattana city a capital of Bihar State of India at present, 236 years after the Buddha passed a ways under the sponsorship of king Ashoka. There were 1,000 Arahants, enlightened monks presided over by Venerable Moggulliputta Tissa Thera. After the Third Council, nine Buddhist missions of the elders were sent by the Council sponsored by King Ashoka to preach Buddha Dhamma in the different states and countries. This is the first time Buddhism was spread out of India. The teachings approved by this Council was known as Theravada, the Abhidhamma Pitaka* was included at this Council, there was nothing known as Mahayana at that time. Theravada Buddhism was some times called Southern School of Buddhism because it covered southern countries and Mahayana Buddhism was called Northern School of Buddhism because it covered Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan at those days. These two schools of Buddhism are spreading all over the world. There were two terms, Mahayana and Hinayana appeared in Saddharma Pundarika Sutra or the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law later.
Theravadins believe mainly in Gautama Buddha and the Bodhisattava Maitriya, but not in the numerous transhistorical Buddhas and Bhodhisattavas of the Mahayana tradition. This is because Theravada Stresses the historical Buddha and His early teachings, applying the term Bodhisatva mainly to the previous incarnations of Gautama Buddha.
In Thailand Theravada Buddhism is the National religion, 95% of population are Buddhists. This tradition has been developed and concentrated in this country more than two thousand years.
How Mahayana come about
About the 2nd Century A.D. Mahayana became clearly defined. Nagarjuna developed the Mahayana philosophy of Sunyata and proved that everything is void (Madhyamika-karika). After the 1st Century A.D. the Mahayanist tooke definite stand only then the Mahasanghika (Mahayana) and Hinayana were introduced. About 4th Century two writers, Asanga and Vasubandhu, wrote enormous amount of works on Mahayana.
We must not confuse Hinayana with Theravada because the terms are not synonymous. Theravada Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Lao and Cambodia during the 3rd Century B.C. when there was no Mahayana at all. Hinayana sect developed in India during that time.
Today there is no Hinayana sect in existence anywhere in the world. In 1950, therefore, the World Fellowship of Buddhists inaugurated in Colombo unanimously decided that the term Hinayana should be dropped when referring to Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Lao, and Cambodia.
Theravada Believe and Practice
Theravada Buddhists believed in Tipitaka, what the Buddha taught and recorded from
the first, the Second and the third Buddhist Council held in Rajagaha city 3 months (three months), 100 years (one hundred years) and 236 years (two hundred and thirty six years) after the Buddha passed a way respectively. Theravada Buddhists believed in Four Noble Truth which consisted of Suffering, Cause of Suffering, Extinction of Suffering and Noble Eightfold Path leading to the Extinction of Suffering. The training in Theravada tradition can be summarized in three categories namely;
moral training, Sila
mind training, Samadhi
wisdom training, Panna
They believed in three characteristics of existence namely impermanence (aniccam), suffering (dukkham) and no self or selflessness (anatta). The goal is Nibbana or supreme enlightenment. Triple Gems are the Buddha founder of Buddhism, the Dhamma what the Buddha taught (Four Noble Truths) and the Sangha the communities of Buddhist monks.
Theravadins follow the main principles of what the Buddha taught on the full moon day of the third lunar month known as Ovadapatimokkha at Veluvanaram, bamboo grove, namely;
1. sabbapapassa akaranam- not to do bad,
2. kusalassupasampada - to do good,
3. sajitta pariyodapanam - to purify the mind from impurities.
Theravada Buddhists believed that the Four Noble Truths, Dukkha (suffering),
samudaya (causes), Niroda (uprooting the causes) and magga (path) are the main and original teachings of the Buddha.
1. The goal of life for the monks is Nibbana/Nirvana, enlightenment, perfect peace.
2. Goal of life for lay people is happiness by following the Five Precepts and
observing Gihipatipatti, Household Dhamma, to be healthy, wealthy and happy.
3. The way leading to the enlightenment is Eightfold Path.
4. Accepting the change of all conditioned things, they are coming, appearing,
changing and disappearing not thing can be hold as "self", "I", "my", "me",
aniccam (impermanence), Dukkham (suffering) and anatta (selflessness)
5. Believing in rebirth and reincarnation.
What is difference between Theravada and Mahayana?
Regarding to fundamental teachings;
1. Both accepted Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.
2. The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.
3. The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.
4. The paticca-samuppada/dependent origination is the same in both schools.
5. Both rejected the idea of supreme being who created and governed this world.
6. Both accept three characteristic of existence, anicca, Dukkha and Anattta
7. Both accepted three levels of training namely; Sila, Samadhi and Panna without any difference.
Some points are different such as the emphasis, Mahayana emphasizes on Bodhisatva and reincarnation Idea leading to Buddhahood (in Tibet) while Theravada emphasizes on Arahantaship. But remember that the Buddha is also Arahant/Arahat, the disciples also can be Arahant.
In the early days, Theravada Buddhism was concentrated in India (including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh), Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao. Theravada Buddhism is now spreading all over the world as well as Mahayana Buddhism does.
1. Gems of Buddhist Wisdom; Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda. 1997
2. The Buddha and His Teachings; Narada. 1998
3. The Buddha and His Teachings; Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. 1997
4. Buddhism, Thai National Religion; National Visakha Committee '84
5. The Seeker's Glossary of Buddhism; Sutra Translation Committee of the United States of America and Canada. 1998
6. Tipitaka for People; Mahamakut Buddhist University. 1992
* The Buddhist Texts consisting of Three Baskets namely; Vinaya Pitaka consisting of Rules and regulation for the Monks and Nuns, Sutta Pitaka consisting of Sermons given by the Buddha during 45 years of His mission and Abhidhamma Pitaka consisting of Buddhist psychology and Philosophy.
Editor : Ven. Chuen Phangcham, Ph.D.