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Theravada Buddhism ("Doctrine of the elders"): Key facts

Information: This section contains a brief summary of the history and key beliefs and practices of Theravada Buddhism (also known as the "Doctrine of the elders").

Theravada Buddhism is oldest of the three main Buddhist paths (or ways), and for that reason some might say it is the closet we will get to the actual teachings of the historical Buddha.

The word Theravada is pronounced in English as 'terra vodda'.

"The doctrine of the elders" (as a specific Buddhist group) emerged early on in Buddhist history, as revisions and changes to the Buddha's original teachings began to be suggested soon after he died. However, it was during the Third Buddhist Council (250BCE) when the final composition of the Pali Scriptures was agreed to, that the Theravada tradition was formally acknowledged.

There are no copies of the Pali Scriptures in their original language, and it was 200 years before anything of what people remembered the Buddha as saying was written down. As such, we cannot be certain that the Pali Scriptures contain the actual spoken words of the Buddha.

Theravada Buddhism is also known as 'Southern Buddhism" and is prominent in Sri Lanka and the South-east Asian countries (Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia).

It is said to have come to Sri Lanka around 250 BCE, after Emperor Asoka sent his son Mahinda on a mission to preach the Buddha's dharma (teachings) there.

In the Mahavamsa (a poetic account of the history of Sri Lanka) it is written that after the king converted to Buddhism he sent for a cutting from the Bodhi tree, under which Siddhartha had sat when he achieved Enlightenment. The tree that grew from this is called Sri Maha Bodhi, and having been planted in 288 BCE is said to be the oldest living human-planted tree in the world.

The Sri Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

The Sri Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka - Source: Wikipedia

Buddhism entered Burma and south-east Asia in the mid-5th Century CE, but was only truly established there in the 11th Century after King Anawrahta invaded the south and brought monks to the capital city of Pagan.


Theravadans believe their tradition has remained faithful to the Buddha's original teachings.

The Pali Scriptures of the Theravadan tradition are also known as the Tipitaka, which means 'Three baskets'.

It is said that the Pali Scriptures are called the 'Three Baskets' because the texts were first written on palm leaves, which were then kept in three different baskets

The three sections of the Pali Scriptures are: Vinaya (monastic rules and commentary), Suttas (five groups of sermons including the Dhammapada) and Abhidharma (discussion, explanation, and commentary on ideas in the Vinaya and Suttas).

Theravadans believe that only monks (Bhikkus) have the chance to attain Enlightenment (which is why they stress the importance of monastic life). This is contrast to Mahayana Buddhists, who believe anyone can reach Enlightenment and enter Nirvana, whether they are a Bhikku or not.

Due to its emphasis on the importance of monastic life, the tradition has been compared to someone trying to save a group of people from a burning building using only a horse and cart which carries two or three people at a time.

Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to by scholars as Hinayana (meaning 'lesser' or 'small vehicle). However, use of this label was rejected by The World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950 because it was held to be derogative. As such, it should no longer be used when talking about this school of Buddhism.

Theravadans believe that reaching Enlightenment (or even to become an arhat - a pure and holy person) is something no supernatural being can or should help people to do. So, for example, they reject the Pure Land Buddhist belief that Amitabha can help people reach Nirvana.

Bhikkus (monks) tend to live within range of local towns and villages, as they rely on the laity to provide them with food, clothes and medicine. In return for these gifts (alms), monks instruct people in the dharma and officiate at community festivals.

Giving alms to monks is an act which is said to accumulate merit (punna), just as teaching the dharma to the laity is a meritorious act for Bhikkus.

Although the Buddha eventually allowed women to join the sangha (Buddhist community), from the 5th Century CE onwards women have been denied full participation in the monastic community.

Ordination into the monastic sangha is a simple process, for the reason that many men will become monks for a short period of time in their life.

Monks on Golden Mount, Bangkok - Courtesy of

Monks on Golden Mount, Bangkok - Courtesy of

In Thailand boys have their head shaved when they are ordained.

Bhikkus are not allowed to undertake paid work but must rely on charitable donations from the laity, from whom they receive food and clothing.

According to the Vinaya, Bhikkus must go on their alms round in the morning, and eat before noon.

There are 227 rules for monks (Bhikkus) and 311 rules for nuns (Bhikkunis) in the Vinaya.

Although Theravada is a very conservative and spiritual form of Buddhism, in some countries the practice of spirit and demon worship and the presence of statues of gods in their temples can be seen. This shows that just as Tibetan (Tantric) Buddhism was influenced by the Bön religion, so Theravada Buddhism is also prepared to absorb indigenous religious beliefs and practices.

Theravada has become very popular in the West, and naturally resonates with those who reject the existence of God and want to embrace elements of the Buddhist worldview, without the metaphysical elements associated with Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

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