What is Theravada Buddhism?
V. A. Gunasekara
Generally three main schools of Buddhism have been identified.
These are Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. While this threefold
classification is useful it does not encompass the totality
of schools and approaches that one encounters in Buddhism, both
in the historical past as well as today. For instance the term
Mahayana covers a variety of schools ranging from Pure Land
Buddhism to Zen. Vajrayana usually refers to Tibetan Buddhism,
but even here we have a number of traditions and lineages. In
contrast to this diversity it was thought that Theravada referred
to a single and definitive strain of Buddhism, that which recognised
the Pali Canon as authoritative.
this is not the case. First of all there is no complete agreement
on what texts should be considered Canonical, and even if there
is scholars have identified a number of strata in the Pali Canon.
This article seeks to explore some of the strains of Theravada
Buddhism that we encounter.
digression into the historical origin of Theravada may be useful.
During the Buddhas lifetime the only schismatic movement was
that initiated by Devadatta, but with the downfall of Devadatta
this vanishes from the record. Thus at the time of the Buddha's
death there was no schisms in the ranks of his disciples. So
when three months after the death of the Buddha the Dhamma-Vinaya
was rehearsed at the First Council held at the Saptaparna Cave
near Rajagaha there was complete agreement. The Canon that was
agreed to at this Council probably included only the Vinaya
Pitaka and parts of the Sutta Pitaka. The latter probably included
the first four Nikayas of the Pali Canon (the Digha, the Majjhima,
the Anguttara and the Samyutta) with some of the books in the
Khuddhaka Nikaya like the Suttanipata and the Dhammapada. They
became the core of the Theravada Canon. There was a rapid expansion
of Buddhism from its cradle in North-Central India first to
Western India in the first century after the death of the Buddha,
then to the South and the North-West.
to historians of Buddhism the term Theravada first arose in
the disputes which arose about a hundred years after the Buddha's
death. The first of these disputes related to the validity of
certain Vinaya of practices indulged in by some monks in Central
India. Some ten practices were involved, some of them rather
trivial (like keeping salt in a horn) while others were more
substantial (like accepting gifts of gold and silver). The Second
Council was convened at Vesali to settle this issue. The views
of the monks who opposed the new practices and reiterated the
old Vinaya came to be known as the Theravada ("Doctrine
of the Elders"). Thus no doctrinal issues were at stake
in the Second Council and the Canon of the First Council was
again recited to reiterate its validity. Even though the Theravada
view became the official view of the Second Council a substantial
number of monks continued to hold on to the new practices, and
they came to be known as the Mahasanghika.
issue of greater doctrinal importance are the five points raised
by Mahadeva. Four of these questioned the attainments of the
arhat which was the Theravada ideal. Mahadeva claimed
that arhats may be sexually tempted, had not eliminated ignorance
completely, had doubts and would not have reached enlightenment
by their own effort. In addition he advanced the notion of instantaneous
enlightenment. These are reminiscent of later Mahayana views
but at this stage it is still too early to speak of Mahayana.
Mahadeva Indian Buddhism entered the great schismatic period.
The two earlier divisions of Theravada and Mahasanghika each
generated several schools. None of these however can be identified
with the later Mahayana. In fact scholars usually refer to them
as the "Hinayana schools". The exact number of schools
have been variously counted. Some eighteen schools are identified
in the Theravada literature as contesting one or the other of
its doctrines and practices. The French scholar Bareau names
some thirty-four schools.
emergence of these new views together with the continuing violation
of Vinaya rules by monks led to the convening of the Third Council
during the reign of King Asoka. Moggaliputta Tissa Thera who
was the leading monk behind this Council wrote the Kathavattu
to refute the new views put forward, and the monks violating
the Vinaya were expelled from the Sangha.
was during the Third Council that the final version of the Pali
Canon was compiled. It added a whole new Pitaka (the Abhidhamma)
as well as several new books the Khuddhaka Nikaya. It is this
enlarged Canon which was taken to Sri Lanka by the Arahat Mahinda
in 246 BCE. It was committed to writing in Sri Lanka in the
year 110 BCE at the Aluvihara Monastery, thus freezing it for
the original Buddhism should be confined only to the Dhamma-Vinaya
or whether it should include the entirety of the Pali Canon
as it now stands has been the subject of some debate. The term
Theravada is sometimes used to denote the Canon as it emerged
in the Third Council, while the Canons of the First and Second
Canon are sometimes referred to as original (or primitive) Buddhism.
If this is so then Theravada is not identical to original Buddhism,
but it could be argued that none of the material introduced
in the Third Council is in direct contravention of the the Dhamma-Vinaya
India itself new Pali texts came to be composed long after the
Third Council. These include the Milindapanha, which
is highly regarded by Theravadins, and in Burma is actually
included in the Canon. After this Theravada Buddhism entered
a phase of decline in India. However by this time Theravada
Buddhism had been established in Sri Lanka. It was here that
the Canon was first comitted to writing.
the compilation of the commentaries, mainly through the efforts
of Buddhaghosa Theravada Buddhism entered a new phase. The classic
statement of Theravada as it stood at this time is contained
in the Visuddhimagga (The Path to Purity) also written
by Buddhaghosa Thera. This represents the final form of Theravada.
Buddhist Society of Queensland