Many Buddhisms, One Dhamma-Vinaya
The Buddha — the "Awakened One" — called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya — "the doctrine and discipline." To provide a social structure supportive of the practice of Dhamma-vinaya (or Dhamma for short [Sanskrit: Dharma]), and to preserve these teachings for posterity, the Buddha established the order of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis (nuns) — the Sangha — which continues to this day to pass his teachings on to subsequent generations of laypeople and monastics, alike.
As the Dhamma continued its spread across India after the Buddha's passing, differing interpretations of the original teachings arose, which led to schisms within the Sangha and the emergence of as many as eighteen distinct sects of Buddhism.3 One of these schools eventually gave rise to a reform movement that called itself Mahayana (the "Greater Vehicle")4 and that referred to the other schools disparagingly as Hinayana (the "Lesser Vehicle"). What we call Theravada today is the sole survivor of those early non-Mahayana schools.5 To avoid the pejorative tone implied by the terms Hinayana and Mahayana, it is common today to use more neutral language to distinguish between these two main branches of Buddhism. Because Theravada historically dominated southern Asia, it is sometimes called "Southern" Buddhism, while Mahayana, which migrated northwards from India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea, is known as "Northern" Buddhism.6
The language of the Theravada canonical texts is 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.7 Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close personal attendant, committed the Buddha's sermons (suttas) to memory and thus became a living repository of these teachings.8 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.9 Most of these sermons therefore begin with the disclaimer, "Evam me sutam" — "Thus have I heard." More>>