Theravada Buddhism is a school that grew out of the teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE) and was recorded in the Pali language around the 1st century BCE. Literally meaning the “school of the elders,” Theravada Buddhism represents the old orthodoxy of Buddhism. At its core is a set of doctrines that are common to all Buddhist sects and designed to promote the deliverance of individual humans from the suffering of life. Featuring a monastic life of austerity, Theravada Buddhism is followed primarily in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and parts of Vietnam, Malaysia, China, and Bangladesh. Despite its asocial nature, this school has a sense of historical time, and it developed a conceptualization of temporality that is dualistic, pertaining to the phenomenal and ultimate reality respectively.
Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to as Hinayana Buddhism, a term that is no longer used in informed circles. Its problem lies in the derogatory meaning that hina assumes in Sanskrit texts when it appears in contrast to good or in juxtaposition with terms such as ignoble and harmful. Rather than denoting “lesser vehicle,” Hinayana can be taken to mean “vehicle of despicable quality.” Consequently the World Federation of Buddhists recommends that it be avoided.
Gautama, the Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama was born to King Suddhodana Gautama and Queen Maya in Lumbini (now in Nepal). The young prince applied himself assiduously to the ascetic practices of Hinduism and Jainism. In addition, he sought out some of the most famous spiritual and philosophical teachers of his time. Years later, however, it occurred to him that neither the traditional religions and philosophies nor asceticism had brought him closer to true wisdom.
The king was determined to do everything within his power to stop the prince from choosing a spiritual life over the throne. However, at the age of 29, Siddhartha renounced the world of luxury and embarked on a long journey to seek the true nature of reality through the eyes of a wanderer. On the night of his 35th birthday, he entered into the deepest of meditations under a tree in Gaya, India, and was able to attain enlightenment after persevering through the most excruciating temptations. It marked the birth of Gautama, the Buddha (Enlightened One). He spent the next 45 years traveling from place to place to preach and spread the doctrines of Buddhism. Parallel to his preaching was the way of life he led: Walking barefooted, he held an alms-bowl in one hand and a walking stick in the other, with his head shaven clean of hair and his body wrapped in a plain robe of saffron. The Buddha died at the age of 80 in Kusinara, India. Virtuous and wise, the Gautama Buddha was also known as Sakyamuni or Shakyamuni (sage of the Sakyas kingdom).
Fundamental Teachings of Buddhism
The essence of the Buddhist teachings is stated in the Four Noble Truths. This doctrine runs as follows: Human existence is suffering (dukkha); suffering is caused by desire and attachment (trishna); the cessation of suffering comes with the removal of desire and attachment (nirvana); and the way to the cessation of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path, which serves to bring about the extinction of desire and attachment.
To pursue the Noble Eightfold Path is to cultivate right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This model of spiritual cultivation has three prongs: Sali, or physical activities (right speech, action, livelihood); Samadhi, or mental cultivation (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration); and Panna, or development of wisdom (right understanding and thought). Together they define the Buddhist ideal of a virtuous and moral life.
Buddhism stresses the impermanence of life. According the Buddhist philosophy, what we call a “being” is no more than a combination of the Five Aggregates of Attachment: matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Each of these aggregates is an ever-changing force that arises out of conditions and operates in a conditioned state. There is no unchanging substance in a “being” or “self” or “soul,” all of which are false ideas. As our physical and mental being has no immutable and independent existence, life is transitory and impermanent. Moreover, Buddhism sees a parallel between impermanence and suffering, as was stated by the Gautama Buddha himself: “What is impermanent is dukkha.”
A major form of suffering is samsara (circle of continuity), in which living beings are trapped in a continual cycle of birth and rebirth. The momentum to rebirth is shaped by the volitional activities of one’s previous life, which have karmic effects. The theory of karma is a theory of cause and effect. Moral intention and behavior yield good karma that impacts one’s next life positively, whereas immoral intention and behavior yield bad karma that affects one’s next life negatively, including condemnation to the misery of a nonhuman creature. The main spiritual goal of Buddhism, however, is to seek total liberation from samsara, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. To this end, one must awaken to the true nature of reality and transcend false desire and attachment.
The Pali Canon
The earliest scriptures of Buddhism are represented by the Tripitaka (three baskets of law). Written in Pali and compiled from an oral tradition, the Tripitaka did not take shape until some 400 years after the death of Siddhartha Gautama. There were conflicting memories with regard to what Gautama Buddha had actually said and meant. As it is, the text tends to reflect the memories and views of those who were close to the Buddha, such as his prominent disciples Kayshapa and Ananda. As the most important of all Buddhist scriptures, the Pripitaka comprises three books: Rules of Conduct (vinaya Pitaka), Discourse (Sutta Pitaka), and Analysis of Doctrine (Abhidhamma).
The various sects of early Buddhism were founded on a relatively literary interpretation of the Pali canonical tradition. One of these sects was named Theravada and is held to be representative of the orthodoxy of early Buddhism. The Theravadins were found mostly in Sri Lanka rather than India by the time Buddhism was bifurcated into two major schools of thought: old and new. The new one was named Mahayana, whereas the old one came to be known as Theravada or Hinayana, a coinage attributed to the Mahayanists.
The Theravada Tradition
Early Buddhism, as represented by the Theravada sect, arose in rejection of the Brahmanical tradition, vedic ritual, and caste theology of Hinduism. It maintained that all human beings were equal but vulnerable to the suffering of life. Only in Buddhism could one find an ultimate solution to such suffering and misery. In prescribing this “ultimate solution,” Theravada Buddhism stresses the importance of following the original teachings of the Pali canon. More specifically, it professes devotion to taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (order of monks)—the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
The Theravada school of thought held that the Buddha was a human being, and that he owed his attainment of nirvana to human endeavors and intelligence rather than inspiration from any external power or god. There is a noticeable absence of metaphysical statements about the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. For its followers, the Buddha is a teacher par excellence, who sees reality in its true form and achieves the perfect wisdom. To take refuge in the Buddha is to follow the teachings and example he left behind.
The teachings expounded by the Buddha are known as the Dharma. It sheds light on the true nature of reality and provides impersonal laws in place of God. Ignorance is the root cause of all evil, and it is to be overcome by taking refuge in the Dharma. Devotion to the Dharma is devotion to the Buddha Gautama. It means rigorous adherence to his original teachings and adamant opposition to reinterpreting them liberally.
Following the Buddha’s example, Theravada practitioners see the attainment of nirvana as their immediate goal. It is their final exit from the world. But such liberation is entirely personal, and no assistance from outside is possible.Enlightenment can be achieved only through one’s own effort—by leading a monastic life of austerity and taking refuge in the Sangha in addition to the Buddha and the Dharma. Literally meaning “group” or “community,” the Sangha serves to awaken human intelligence and initiate one into the quest of individual enlightenment.
Such is the attitude of Theravada Buddhism toward the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Just as noteworthy is its interpretation of dukkha. While the Buddhist philosophy stresses the impermanence of entity (i.e., being), it emphasizes the persistence of processes (i.e., samsara). In the Theravada tradition, dukkha is very real, whether it denotes “impermanence” or “change” or “suffering.” As a process, it contrasts sharply with entities such as desire and attachment, which are illusory.
Historical Awareness and Time Concept
Legend has it that the historical Gautama started his spiritual journey after he had seen an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a recluse. These four signs turned his mind away from the world into the wilderness. If this legend were any indicator, then the goal of Theravada Buddhism was to seek liberation from the grip of change and becoming by way of enlightenment. It appeared asocial and ahistorical of Theravada Buddhism to urge a complete severance from the phenomenal world in quest of enlightenment. Nonetheless, this school developed a historical awareness in order to relate the biography of Gautama, chronicle the events in his life, and discuss the intellectual heritage of its saints. The concept of historical time is necessary for learning hagiologies and convincing the faithful. Temporality, however, was perceived differently in relation to the two different orders of reality: relative and ultimate.
Theravada Buddhism does not subscribe to the theory of sunyata, or total emptiness of reality. Although time is only a successive flow of components and aggregates, it is not unreal. In the relative or phenomenal order of reality, the operations of time are characterized by momentariness and cyclicity. Human existence is like a fleeting bubble. Between birth and death, sentient beings live in moments, because nothing is free from change, and its long-lasting duration is merely illusory. Burdened with desires and wants, human existence is condemned to an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, which is the doing of karma.
Cyclic time, in turn, is the manifestation of dha- manta, which is the law of the universe. Literally “rule” or “norm,” dhamantâ dictates an iron chain of causality. There is, however, more than simple recurrence in the workings of dhamantâ, for the causation of recurrence is multilateral. It involves a concatenation of several causative factors activated together situationally. As a result, each living being is unique and different from what it was in a previous life. Theravada Buddhism denies that any sentient being exists or perishes eternally in the phenomenal world.
Cyclic time is to be measured in terms of cyclic becoming. Although there is no single cause in becoming, karmic effects are decisive. This makes sentient beings the arbitrator of their own becoming. By will and volition, one can choose to accumulate good karma in order to eventually rise above cyclic becoming.
In the ultimate or transcendental order of reality, historical time is irrelevant; so are the momentariness and cyclicity of time. There is no past or future. What is left is an eternal present, in which wisdom of eternal laws and rules prevails. Time is cumulative and no longer measured in terms of cyclic becoming. It is divided into great units called the kappas (eons), each represented by the appearance of a Buddha. Notably, the Buddha Gautama is said to have refused to speculate whether the world is eternal or not, probably because it contains more than one order of existence: animal, human, and divine.
See also Mahayana Buddhism; Zen Buddhism
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Rahula, W. S. (1974). What the Buddha taught (2nd ed.).
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