The "Doctrine of the Elders"
Theravada (Pali: thera "elders" + vada "word, doctrine"), the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the
name for the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which scholars generally
accept as the oldest record of the Buddha's teachings. For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of
Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand; today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide. In recent decades Theravada has
begun to take root in the West, primarily in Western Europe and North America.
The many names of Theravada
Theravada Buddhism goes by many names. The Buddha himself called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya, "the doctrine
and discipline," in reference to the two fundamental aspects of the system of ethical and spiritual training he taught.
Owing to its historical dominance in southern Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma), Theravada is also identified as "Southern
Buddhism," in contrast to "Northern Buddhism," which migrated northwards from India into China, Tibet, Japan,
and Korea. Theravada is often equated with "Hinayana" (the "Lesser Vehicle"), in contrast to "Mahayana"
(the "Greater Vehicle"), which is usually a synonym for Zen, Ch'an, and other expressions of Northern Buddhism.
The use of "Hinayana" as a pejorative has its origins in the early schisms within the monastic community that ultimately
led to the emergence of what would later become Mahayana. Today scholars of many persuasions use the term "Hinayana"
without pejorative intent, although many prefer the more neutral "Early Buddhism".
Pali: The language of Theravada
The language of the Theravada canonical texts is Pali, a relative of Magadhi, which was probably spoken in central India during
the Buddha's time. Most of the sermons the Buddha delivered were memorized by Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close personal
attendant. Shortly after the Buddha's death (ca. 480 BCE), the community of monks -- including Ananda -- convened to recite
all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha's forty-five year teaching career. Each recorded sermon (sutta) therefore
begins with the disclaimer, Evam me sutam -- "Thus have I heard." The teachings were passed down within the monastic
community following a well-established oral tradition. By about 100 BCE the Pali Canon (Tipitaka) was first fixed in writing
in Sri Lanka by Sinhala scribe-monks.
It can never be proven beyond doubt that the Pali Canon contains the actual
words uttered by the historical Buddha (the archaeological record from the Buddha's era is hopelessly incomplete). But practicing
Buddhists have never found this problematic. Unlike the scriptures of some of the world's other great religions, the Pali
Canon is not meant to be taken as gospel, containing unassailable statements of divine truth, revealed by a prophet, to be
accepted purely on faith. Instead, its teachings are meant to be assessed firsthand; we are challenged to put them into practice
in our lives, to find out for ourselves if they do, in fact, yield the promised results. It is the truth towards which the
words in the Canon point that ultimately matters, not the words themselves. Although academics will undoubtedly continue to
speculate about the authorship of passages from the Canon for years to come (and thus miss the point of these teachings entirely),
the Canon will quietly continue to serve -- as it has for centuries -- as an indispensible guide for millions of followers
in their quest for Awakening.
Many students of Theravada find that learning the Pali language -- even just a little
bit here and there -- greatly deepens their practical understanding of the Buddha's teachings.
A brief summary of the Buddha's teachings
What follows is a brief synopsis of some of the key teachings of Theravada Buddhism.
Shortly after his Awakening,
the Buddha ("the Awakened One") delivered his first sermon, in which he laid out the essential framework upon which
all his later teachings were based. This framework consists of the Four Noble Truths, four fundamental principles of nature
(Dhamma) that emerged from the Buddha's honest and penetrating assessment of the human condition and that serve to define
the entire scope of Buddhist practice. These truths are not statements of belief. Rather, they are categories by which we
can frame our direct experience in a way that is conducive to Awakening:
1. Dukkha: suffering, unsatisfactoriness,
2. The cause of dukkha: the cause of this dissatisfaction is craving (tanha) for sensuality,
for states of becoming, and states of no becoming;
3. The cessation of dukkha: the relinquishment of that craving;
4. The path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: the Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right resolve,
right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
of these Noble Truths the Buddha assigned a specific task which the practitioner is to carry out: the first Noble Truth is
to be comprehended; the second is to be abandoned; the third is to be realized; the fourth is to be developed. The full realization
of the third Noble Truth paves the way for the direct penetration of Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), the transcendent freedom
that stands as the final goal of all the Buddha's teachings.
The last of the Noble Truths -- the Noble Eightfold
Path -- contains a prescription for the relief of our unhappiness and for our eventual release, once and for all, from the
painful and wearisome cycle of birth and death (samsara) to which, thanks to our own ignorance (avijja) of the Four Noble
Truths, we have been bound for countless aeons. The Noble Eightfold Path offers a comprehensive practical guide to the development
of those wholesome qualities and skills in the human heart that must be cultivated in order to bring the practitioner to the
final goal, the supreme freedom and happiness of Nibbana. In practice, the Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path to his followers
according to a "gradual" system of training, beginning with the development of sila, or virtue (right speech, right
action, and right livelihood, which are summarized in practical form by the five precepts), followed by the development of
samadhi, or concentration and mental cultivation (right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration), culminating in
the full development of paa, or wisdom (right view and right resolve). The practice of dana (generosity) serves as a support
at every step along the path, as it can help erode the heart's habitual tendencies towards craving and as it can teach valuable
lessons about the causes and results of one's actions (kamma).
Progress along the path does not follow a simple
linear trajectory. Rather, development of each aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path encourages the refinement and strengthening
of the others, leading the practitioner ever forward in an upward spiral of spiritual maturity that culminates in Awakening.
Seen from another point of view, the long journey on the path to Awakening begins in earnest with the first tentative
stirrings of right view, the first flickerings of wisdom by which one recognizes both the validity of the first Noble Truth
and the inevitability of the law of kamma (Sanskrit: karma), the universal law of cause and effect. Once one begins to see
that harmful actions inevitably bring about harmful results, and wholesome actions ultimately bring about wholesome results,
the desire naturally grows to live a skillful, morally upright life, to take seriously the practice of sila. The confidence
built from this preliminary understanding inclines the follower to place an even greater trust in the teachings. The follower
becomes a "Buddhist" upon expressing an inner resolve to "take refuge" in the Triple Gem: the Buddha (both
the historical Buddha and one's own innate potential for Awakening), the Dhamma (both the teachings of the historical Buddha
and the ultimate Truth towards which they point), and the Sangha (both the monastic community that has protected the teachings
and put them into practice since the Buddha's day, and all those who have achieved at least some degree of Awakening). With
one's feet thus firmly planted on the ground by taking refuge, and with the help of an admirable friend (kalyanamitta) to
help show the way, one can set out along the Path, confident that one is indeed following in the footsteps left by the Buddha
Buddhism is sometimes navely criticized as a "negative" or "pessimistic" religion
and philosophy. After all (so the argument goes) life is not all misery and disappointment: it offers many kinds of joy and
happiness. Why then this pessimistic Buddhist obsession with unsatisfactoriness and suffering? The Buddha based his teachings
on a frank assessment of our plight as humans: there is unsatisfactoriness and suffering in the world. No one can argue this
fact. Were the Buddha's teachings to stop there, we might indeed regard them as pessimistic and life as utterly hopeless.
But, like a doctor who prescribes a remedy for an illness, the Buddha offers hope (the third Noble Truth) and a cure (the
fourth). The Buddha's teachings thus give cause for an extraordinary degree of optimism in a complex, confusing, and difficult
world. One modern teacher summed it up well: "Buddhism is the serious pursuit of happiness."
claimed that the Awakening he re-discovered is accessible to anyone willing to put forth the effort and commitment required
to pursue the Noble Eightfold Path to its end. It is up to each of us individually to put that claim to the test.