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Petit Futé

What is Theravada Buddhism ? (part I)

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by John Bullitt
Copyright © 2002 John Bullitt For free distribution only.

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Theravada (pronounced -- more or less -- "terraVAHduh"), the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the texts of the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which scholars generally accept as containing the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings.
For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos) and Sri Lanka; today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide. In recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West.

Many Buddhisms, One Dhamma-vinaya

The Buddha called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya, "the doctrine and discipline" (or Dhamma [Sanskrit: Dharma], for short). To provide a social structure supportive of the practice of Dhamma, and to preserve these teachings for posterity, the Buddha established the order of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis (nuns) -- the Sangha -- who continue to this day to pass his teachings on to subsequent generations of laypeople and monastics, alike.
But within two centuries after the Buddha's passing, as the Dhamma spread across much of India, several different interpretations of some of the Buddha's original teachings arose, leading to schisms within the Sangha and the emergence of as many as eighteen distinct sects of Buddhism.[1]
One of these sects (the Mahasanghika) eventually gave rise to a reform movement that called itself Mahayana (the "Greater Vehicle")[2] and that referred to the other schools disparagingly as Hinayana (the "Lesser Vehicle").
What we call Theravada today is the sole surviving school of those early non-Mahayana schools. To avoid the pejorative tone implied by the terms Hinayana and Mahayana, many people today prefer to use more neutral language to distinguish between these two main branches of Buddhism.[3] Since Theravada has historically dominated southern Asia, it is sometimes called "Southern Buddhism," while Mahayana, which principally migrated northwards from India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea is called "Northern Buddhism".[4]

Pali: The Language of Theravada Buddhism

The language of the Theravada canonical texts is known as Pali (lit., "text"), which is based on a dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan that was probably spoken in central India during the Buddha's time.[5] Most of the sermons (suttas) the Buddha delivered were memorized by Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close personal attendant; those sermons at which Ananda was not present are said to have been repeated to him later on.
Shortly after the Buddha's death (ca. 480 BCE), five hundred of the most senior monks -- including Ananda -- convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha's forty-five year teaching career.
Most of these sermons therefore begin with the disclaimer, Evam me sutam -- "Thus have I heard." The teachings were passed down orally within the monastic community, in keeping with an oral tradition that long predated the Buddha.

By 250 BCE the Buddha's teachings had been systematically arranged and organized into three basic divisions:
- the Vinaya Pitaka (the "basket of discipline"; the texts concerning the rules and customs of the Sangha),
- the Sutta Pitaka (the "basket of discourses"; the sermons and utterances by the Buddha and his close disciples), and
- the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the "basket of higher [or special] doctrine"; a detailed philosophical and psychological analysis of the Dhamma). Taken together these three are known as the Tipitaka -- the "three baskets".
In the third century BCE Sri Lankan monks began compiling a series of detailed commentaries to the Tipitaka that were finally collated and translated into Pali beginning in the fifth century CE.

The Tipitaka plus the post-canonical Pali texts (commentaries, chronicles, etc.) together constitute the complete body of classical Theravada texts.
Pali was originally a spoken language with no alphabet of its own. It wasn't until about 100 BCE that the Tipitaka was first fixed in writing, by Sri Lankan scribe-monks writing the Pali phonetically in their own Sinhala alphabet. Since then the Tipitaka has been transliterated into many different scripts (Devanagari, Thai, Burmese, Roman, Cyrillic, to name a few). Although English translations of the most popular Tipitaka texts abound, many students of Theravada find that learning the Pali language -- even just a little bit here and there -- greatly deepens their understanding and appreciation of the of the Buddha's teachings.

Of course, no one can prove that the Tipitaka contains any of the actual words uttered by the historical Buddha. But practicing Buddhists have never found this problematic. Unlike the scriptures of many of the world's other great religions, the Tipitaka 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, to be put into practice in one's life so that one can find out for oneself if they do, in fact, yield the promised results. It is the truth towards which the words in the Tipitaka point that ultimately matters, not the words themselves.
Although scholars will undoubtedly continue to speculate about the authorship of passages from the Tipitaka for years to come (and thus miss the point of these teachings entirely), the Tipitaka will quietly continue to serve -- as it has for centuries -- as an indispensable guide for millions of followers in their quest for Awakening.

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