What is Theravāda? (2012)

Theravāda – the ‘Teaching of the Elders’ – is a form of Buddhism that at first seems easy to define. It can be recognized by its icons, its culture and its teachings. So: a monk in a saffron robe is a Theravādin and a Buddhist from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos or Cambodia is a Theravādin. As for teachings: Four Noble Truths; Eightfold Path; Morality, Meditation and Wisdom; Abhidhamma – that’s Theravāda. Its scriptural language is Pāli, a language moulded out of a range of North Indian dialects in accordance with the Buddha’s recommendation to ‘teach in the vernacular.’ And yet Theravāda is also diverse. Most followers are not monastics, and some not convinced of the validity of the tradition or of all the teachings – ‘is there such a thing as rebirth?’ Even amongst its Sangha, there are a range of divergent training standards, views and practices. The diversification is also due to the fact that Theravāda teachings have travelled to countries as distinctly different as New Zealand, Nepal, Uganda and Italy, not to mention North and South America – and these cultures naturally bring their concerns and attitudes to bear on how Theravāda presents itself. There is a broad common ground, but as for Theravāda being the original teachings of the Buddha – well, that’s not quite true either.

The most useful classification is that ‘Theravāda’ refers to a range of lineages that developed in cultures geographically centred around the Bay of Bengal, and to teachings whose axis is the Pāli Canon. Its basis is a tradition rather than a history – the difference being in a tradition, some elements are historical and some mythical; the meaning is what counts. History purports to establish facts about the past, but a tradition aims to validate its present ethos by referring to a bygone age. Most of Buddhist ‘history’ before the Common Era is really a matter of tradition – or of different traditions with different chronicles.

What the accounts that we have now do show is that the word ‘Theravāda’ doesn’t appear until the 4th Century CE, when it’s used in the Dīpavamsa of Sri Lanka to define the national Buddhist lineage. Furthermore, by the middle of the 7th Century, the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang noted not one, but two Sri Lankan lineages: the ‘Mahāyāna’ Theravādins of the Abhāyagiri Monastery, and the ‘Hīnayāna’ Theravādins of the Mahāvihāra Monastery. So the term ‘Theravāda’ seemed to be an honorific occasionally applied to the Elders of respective lineages. It wasn’t originally a counterpoise to Mahāyāna, although it became subsequently defined, and has defined itself, as such. In fact, the terms ‘Mahāyāna’ came into being around the first century, long before the term ‘Theravāda’ was applied to a ‘school’ of Buddhism. The German scholar, Hermann Oldenberg referred to ‘Theravada’ to describe the Pali Vinaya texts he was translating – and published in 1879, but it wasn’t until the early years of the twentieth-century that the term ‘Theravāda’ was employed (by the English bhikkhu, Ven Ananda Metteyya) to describe the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Burma and S.E.Asia. Even then the term was not officially used in the Asian homelands until the gathering of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Colombo in 1950.

Therefore, the term ‘Theravāda’ is problematic. However there is a line of transmission of texts and Sangha that although diverse, gradually clarifies and strengthens over the centuries, into enough of a coherence to be seen as a close association of lineages and doctrines to be referred to as a ‘school.’ Bearing this relative and developing coherence, I use the term ‘Theravāda’ anachronistically to outline the process.

Formation – a Brief History
All traditions refer to a period after the Buddha’s decease (probably, but arguably, around 400-410 BCE) when his teachings were gathered and collected. This is said to have been initiated by a ‘First Council’ of arahant disciples – and indeed something of that nature must have occurred, though perhaps there were a series of meetings during which material was woven into orally memorized ‘suttas’. At this time, the history of the Sangha, along with its disciplinary rules, was collected as ‘Vinaya.’ This process continued for about 80-100 years until there was a ‘Second Council’, occasioned over a dispute over matters of discipline. The Second Council concluded with the resolution of these disputes, but some time after that and before the reign of Asoka (269?267?–232 BCE), divergences again occurred, some over Vinaya, and some over approaches to Dhamma. One group, the Mahāsānghika (‘Great Assembly’) was interested in the nature of the Buddha and how he differed from an arahant, and how some practitioners might commit to delaying their own enlightenment in order to attain Buddhahood with its incomparable blessings for all beings. The Mahāsānghikas also felt that the group that they were diverging from, the Sthaviravādins (‘Teaching of the Elders’) were introducing new and stricter Vinaya rules than those originally laid down. The Sthavirs for their part thought that the Mahās were getting lax, and also absolutizing, and hence deifying, the Buddha as some transcendent Self. For their part, they were interested in analyzing not the Buddha, but his Dhamma, and to do so developed ‘Abhidhamma’/ ’Abhidharma’. In this way, they hoped to curtail any view of self, personal or transcendent, by presenting experience in terms of ‘phenomena’ (dhamma).

One might assume that the Sthavirs were the Theravādins, but that’s not quite so, although they are their forbears. Actually, the Sthavirs themselves split into divergent schools, of whom the most important were the Sarvāstivādins; there was also a group that they called the Vibhajjavādins. ‘Vibhajjavādin’ means ‘One Who Discriminates’ – the characteristic of this group being their analysis of dhammas and the dependent relationships through which mental and physical phenomena, skilful and unskilful arise. The dividing line between them and the Sarvāstivādins was that the Vibhajjavādins discriminated between dhammas of the past, future and present. The Sarvāstivādins held that all three had finite atomic existence or ‘self-nature’, while the Vibhajjavādins held that dhammas have no substantial existence, but are purely reference points to how mental factors co-arise and affect each other in the present. It was a point that Nāgārjuna (who was later labeled as a ‘Mahāyānist’) extensively argued 400 years later: that the Middle Way was (to use his term) ‘empty’ of any abiding essence. Nāgārjuna’s is the more famous refutation of the solidity of dhammas, but this (to the uninitiated, obscure) point had already been made in the Ashokan era by the Vibhajjavādins. Debates over this point, with the Emperor’s own teacher, Moggaliputta Tissa promoting the Vibhajjavādin point of view, had apparently resulted in a parting of the ways round about 250BCE as result of which the Sarvāstivādins withdrew to Gandhāra (approximately the region of N.W. India and Pakistan.

Thus the first distinguishing mark of what became Theravāda was an Abhidhamma in which Moggalliputta’s thesis on the controversies of the day (Kathāvatthu) occupies a defining role. This Abhidhamma, and many other later works (including legends of the Buddha’s previous lives – Jātaka), were recorded in Pāli and became part of what is now the Theravāda Canon. So these texts, composed after the time of the Buddha, are now established as part of the Theravāda transmission.

Another distinction between what we now call ‘Buddhist schools’ arose around the Apadāna (Avadāna in Sanskrit) – fables which detail the results of meritorious deeds. Those interested in how one became a Buddha developed a theory that it was through making merit – doing good, or making vows – in the presence of a ‘field of merit’, such as that of a previous Buddha, or stūpa. Physically or mentally offering to such merit-fields was a qualitative leap, which would place one on a path to Buddhahood. Consequently, Buddhist thinkers proposed a three-path map – Srāvakayāna (Disciple – aimed at arahantship), Pratyekabuddhayāna (Solitary Enlightenment) and Bodhisattvayāna (Path to Buddhahood). For Moggalliputta’s followers, the Srāvaka Path made most sense: with the teachings as a reliable raft to nibbāna, their priority was to learn how to steer that, rather than undergo many lifetimes of training in boat-building. Arahantship, rather than Buddhahood was their major concern. So, although the separation between those practising the Arahant path and those following the Bodhisattva Way was never complete and divisive – there are ‘Bodhisatta’ practitioners in Theravāda to this present day – one aspect of what has later been seen as a division between Mahāyāna and Theravāda developed around the choice of Path. Mahāyāna gradually formed as a movement which prioritized the Bodhisattva Path, and also included new mystical and philosophical teachings. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the Common Era, its more polemical followers had begun labelling non-Mahāyānists ‘Lesser Vehicle’ (Hīnayāna) , a derogatory term that was transferred to Theravāda and caused strained relations.

However, around the middle of 3rd century BCE, and before this one-upmanship had got going, Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, and daughter, Sanghamitta, had successfully introduced Dhamma-Vinaya to Sri Lanka, or ‘Tambannīya’, as it was then called.

Sri Lanka and S.E.Asia– the matrix of Theravāda
This Tambapannīya Sangha still wasn’t Theravāda as we know it. Of the two major Sri Lankan monasteries, the most influential, Abhayagiri, housed four schools of Buddhism, including the Vibhajjavādins, but was in a protracted state of rivalry with the Mahāvihāra. However, the near-extinction of the oral transmission through the famines and the Chola invasions of the 2nd century BCE triggered the mission to finalize a coherent written form of the Buddha’s Dhamma – which had amazingly been preserved through an oral transmission for around 500 years. The project to write the scriptures onto ola-leaves was completed by around 30BCE.

A written transmission allows for a greater amount of teachings than even the prodigious memories of diligent Buddhists could manage. So with writing, came more texts. One consequence of that was that the Mahāyāna movement was precipitated into a creative flow of sutras, new material that, while purporting to be the Buddha’s words, belittled or dismissed the old ‘Srāvaka’ way. Accordingly the need to survive in a world dominated by Indian invaders, Mahāyāna polemics and the Brahminical revival became a major Sri Lankan pre-occupation, and one that has given Theravāda its conservative and empirical flavour. ‘Indian and Mahāyāna is what we’re not. Preserving the Buddha’s original teachings is our primary duty.’

This conservative mission, and the intention to get every aspect of the Dhamma clear and authorized, generated a mass of commentaries and sub-commentaries on the Suttas, Vinaya and Abhidhamma. That literature then had to be edited and verified. The single most important agent in this process was Acariya Buddhaghosa, who came to Sri Lanka in the 5th century CE at the invitation of the Mahāvihāra. His job was to collect the commentaries that were preserved by the Mahāvihāra, to translate them into Pāli, and to write a manual on meditation – the Visuddhimagga – that represented the received wisdom of the tradition. His work is still held as authoritative today. With Buddhaghosa then, another foundational piece of Theravāda was laid down. It has to be said however, that with Visuddhimagga, a division between samatha and vipassanā approaches to meditation was established, contrary to the word of the Buddha, that still creates uncertainties to this day.

By Buddhaghosa’s time, the Buddha’s teachings were established in Burma, and parts of the region that later became Thailand. Although the Asokan overseas missions may be a legend, connections to India and Sri Lanka had carried the Dhamma far afield. This was just as well. In the eleventh century, King Anawrahtā of Burma, himself a Theravādin, gave his support to Sri Lanka in driving out the Cholas (again) and, as the Sangha there was on the point of extinction, sent bhikkhus to reinstate the Theravāda ordination. However, he didn’t send bhikkhunis, so the bhikkhuni lineage wasn’t re-established in Sri Lanka, and died out in Burma with the fall of Pagan to the Mongols in 1287. Both of those precedents – the transnational co-operation in supporting or regenerating sanghas that had collapsed, and the absence of bhikkhunis – have also become characteristic of Theravāda. It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century that a bhikkhuni revival movement began within the Sri Lankan Sangha; Thailand and Burma still have no official Bhikkhuni Sangha.

In this period (fifth to eighteenth centuries) important Theravāda themes were established: no new teachings, and Sangha consolidation under royal patronage. From the point of view of the nation, the Theravāda Sangha came to act as a spiritual support – a function that has sometimes distracted it from the goal of nibbāna. The social integration of the monasteries manifested also at the village level, with the monastery serving as an orphanage, school, and repository of folk-wisdom around healing, spirit propitiation and village affairs, as well as a place of Dhamma-instruction. Forest monasteries were rarer, but provided support for stricter renunciate and meditative training. People could stay in the monastery for a break from domestic concerns; entering the Sangha on a temporary basis was also an option. To this day, the pattern persists and ‘temporary’ monks and nuns outnumber the ‘lifers’ many times over.

The process of collapses and revivals within the Theravāda Sangha has tended to prune and consolidate the lineages, with renewal always coming from a return to the forest standards. Thus, by the 12th century, the Sri Lankan Sangha unified around the forest monks of the Mahāvihāra fraternity. This Sangha was then invited to lower Burma and Thailand in the early 14th century; and to Burma again in the 15th. In the 18th century, the Sri Lankan Sangha itself disappeared and was revived by an import from Thailand, then known as ‘Siam.’ Hence the oldest lineage in Sri Lanka today is the Siyam Nikaya.

Theravāda – revival and the West
European colonialism, despite its negative effects, introduced Sanskrit and Pāli to the West, and in this respect helped the dissemination of the Dhamma. With the establishment of the Pāli Text Society in 1881, and through British interest in the cultures of Sri Lanka and Burma, Theravāda teachings became available in the West, at an earlier date than the Buddhism of Tibet, China or Japan. Colonialism also unconsciously stimulated a Theravāda revival as a means of preserving national identity. For example, having been deprived of Lower Burma by the British, King Mindon decided to promote Buddhism by encouraging what was held to be the highest teachings of Theravāda Dhamma – vipassanā. The ‘Mahasi’ lineage, which has been perhaps the most popular source of meditation instruction in the Theravāda West, directly descends from Thilon Sayadaw, King Mindon’s spiritual advisor. King Mindon also convoyed a Sixth Buddhist Council in Mandalay in 1879.

Under the pressure of colonialism, which brought missionary Christianity with it, Buddhism helped to define and strengthen the national identity in Burma and Sri Lanka. In the latter country, the revival of Buddhism was further encouraged by the American convert, Col. Olcott, (touring Sri Lanka in 1881) and inspired Anagārika Dharmapala to found the Maha Bodhi Society (1891) and initiate the Herculean task of bringing Theravāda back to India. His was the precedent by which Theravāda has picked up a certain missionary (dhammadhuta) ideal. The Maha Bodhi Society and the Buddhist Publication Society still sustain this global mission.

Thailand never directly experienced colonial rule, but its kings, notably King Mongkut and his successor, Chulalongkorn, were alert to the surrounding presence of both the French and the British, and this encouraged them to develop the associated regions of Siam into ‘Thailand’, a centralized nation-state. Mongkut had been a bhikkhu before he became king, and, concerned at the state of the Thai Sangha, had personally initiated a reform movement, the Dhammayut. This movement eventually became a separate branch (or Nikāya) within the Thai Sangha, one that enjoyed royal patronage and that, through its stricter adherence to Vinaya, attracted sincere practitioners. Many forest masters, notably Ajahns Sao and Ajahn Mun belonged to this Nikāya, and their influence on the development of the Sangha and on forest monasticism in Thailand has been immense.

The centralization programme of the Thai government has also extended to a centralized Sangha administration. The Thai Sangha now establishes government-backed temples overseas to support both the teaching of the Buddha and the Thai communities outside their native land. This dual role, which is undertaken by many Theravāda monasteries, can have a blurring effect on the propagation of Dhamma. A Thai or Sri Lankan temple in the West may offer a mix of meditation and sutta study in a setting that is bound up with aspects of the culture of the mother country, and sometimes a Westerner gets confused as to which is Buddhism and which is Asian custom.

As far as the West is concerned, most of the Theravāda Canon was translated into English and German throughout the twentieth century, and its institutions have increased from the establishment of the Buddhistische Haus in Berlin in 1924 to the (Sri Lankan) London Buddhist Vihāra in 1928 and subsequently to the many vihāras and Dhamma centres in Europe and America today.

As its homelands, its literature and its thriving monastic culture were easily accessible, Westerners began taking ordination in Theravāda Asia in the late nineteenth century. The ‘lineage’ begins with the Irish U Dhammaloka in the late 1890s, and with two Britons – Ven Asoka in 1900 and Ananda Metteyya in 1902. The Germans also went forth, led by Ven Nyānatiloka (in 1904) who established the Island Hermitage (1911) while his disciple Ven Nyānaponika established the Forest Hermitage (1946) and the Buddhist Publication Society, all in Sri Lanka. Another pioneer the Italian, Lokanatha, entered Sangha life in Burma in 1925, was active in the Buddhist revival in post-war Burma, and encouraged Dr. Ambedkar to convert to Buddhism – with great consequences for the ‘Untouchable’ class in India. Meanwhile in Britain the English Sangha Trust, established in 1956 by Kapilavaddho Bhikkhu in order to give men the opportunity to enter the Sangha and train in the West, has continued to support a Western Sangha in the UK to this day. It went dormant through a lack of interest in the early 70s, but revived under the auspices of Ajahn Sumedho, an American who took the robe in Thailand and trained under Ajahn Chah, a forest master and disciple of Ajahn Mun. Initially based in London in 1976, Ajahn Sumedho established the first Theravāda forest monastery in Britain in1979, at Chithurst in West Sussex. Subsequently, other disciples of Ajahn Chah, and also of Ajahn Sumedho, now guide forest monasteries in Britain, the USA, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, another disciple of Ajahn Chah based in Britain, the English Ajahn Khemadhammo, has established a chaplaincy, ‘Angulimāla’ in order to bring Dhamma to those in prison.

All schools of Buddhism are amply represented in the West. With Theravāda, there are numerous lay teachers who use teachings from the Pāli transmission, and some of whom learned from Theravāda teachers, but who don’t define themselves as Theravādins. This loosely-connected group focuses primarily on meditation and is called the ‘Vipassana tradition.’ From the 1970s onwards its lay teachers – such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzburg and Christina Feldman to name a few, have established the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock (in USA) and Gaia House (in UK). There are many other such centres around the world that provide support for the growing interest in meditation.

Theravāda today
Theravāda today is a result of all this and more. It has Abhidhamma enthusiasts, Sutta commentators, meditation intensives, and even tantric forms. People often take one or two pieces of the whole and make a Way out of that. Its institutions carry the overlays of its diverse cultures – or the more psychologically-nuanced approach of many of its Western lay teachers. Its monastic presence is one of its offerings to the West – an indication that morality, renunciation and supporting a culture of generosity is part of the Way. Whether the average person knows or cares whether dhammas are substantial or empty, this brings across an essential message – Buddhism is not just about adopting some ideas or even sitting peacefully; the Buddha’s Dhamma is about a complete and committed way of life.