What is Theravada Buddhism?

Dr. 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.

Unfortunately 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.

A 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.

According 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.

Another 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.

Following 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.

The 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.

It 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 all time.

Whether 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 established earlier.

In 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.

With 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