Theravāda Buddhism is a Buddhist school that came to prominence during the reign of king Asoka the Great around 250 BC, after the purification of the Sangha (order of monks) which was by that time infested with corrupt monks. Nowadays it is the main form of Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia, especially Sri-Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar.
Theravāda can be translated as ‘the teaching of the Elders’, respectfully pointing out it’s direct descendance from the Buddha and his disciples, or as ‘the ancient teaching’, a reference to the unchanging and universal nature of the truths that the Buddha rediscovered. Truths which have been preserved in their most original form in this orthodox Buddhist school.
From a practical perspective, Theravāda Buddhism is very traditional, placing great emphasis on the importance of one’s own effort, namely the patient practice of morality (sila) and concentration (samādhi) to slowly but surely develop wisdom (panna).
Often the rational and logical approach of Buddhist practice is prominent within Theravāda, as for example in the Abhidhamma’s exposition of dhamma theory.
The Abhidhamma is a psycho-epistemological phenomenology that describes samsaric experience as arising and ceasing through the interplay of processes, wherein phenomena condition each other in complex, nested feedback loops but can nonetheless be delineated from each other into individual “dhammas,” like the individual ingredients of a well-blended soup can be nonetheless be distinguished in the flavor of the broth.
In addition to the Abhidhamma, Theravāda Buddhism invokes the ancient writings of the Pali Canon as the authentic teachings of the Buddha.
Some examples of inspiring suttas (teachings) from the Pali Canon are:
- The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Characteristic of Nonself, a brief teaching in which the Buddha reflects on one of the most important insights that arise from Buddhist meditation, namely that there is no ‘I’, no ‘self’, no ‘mine’, and that holding on to these concepts creates suffering.
- The Kalama Sutta: The Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry in which the Buddha utters the very well known quote: “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”
- The Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life, one of the gems of the Pali Canon, in which the Buddha summarizes the entire Buddhist path, from the practice of morality, through the development of concentration, to the resulting liberating insight.
When reading the above one might be led to the wrong conclusion that Theravāda Buddhism is a very ‘dry’ form of Buddhism, but devotion plays an important role in Theravāda Buddhism as well.
Yet in contrast to other belief systems or Buddhist schools this devotion should not originate from blind faith, from mere ‘belief’. Instead, it should be a natural expression of a deep faith that begins with the desire for freedom from suffering and grows through one’s own experiences, developing alongside them as one’s practice bears fruit.
The First Step
Most people know the saying ‘a thousand-mile journey begins with the first step’. This also applies to the gradual Theravāda Buddhist path of morality, concentration and wisdom. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes beautifully about in his book The All-Embracing Net of Views:
It is the experience of suffering (dukkha) that impels a person to seek the teachings of the Buddha, but it is wisdom or understanding that leads one to accept the teaching and set foot on the path.
For, in order to enter the path one must come to understand that suffering is not a mere accidental encroachment on life that can be relieved by simple palliatives, but something inherent in sentient existence itself; and one muct come to realize that its cause is not some set of avoidable circumstances, but one’s own delusions and desires, which one can set right by following the prescribed path.
This is the first essential step without which the great march to liberation could never begin. And just as the last step of a lengthy journey does not differ in nature from the first, but only in its position in the series, so the final breakthrough of wisdom by which ignorance is shattered and enlightenment gained does not differ in essence, but only in strength, clariry, and power of penetration, from the first stirring of wisdom that led a person to begin that long and trying march.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276