Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What is "Theravada" Buddhism? (Part 1)

John Bullitt (Buddhanet.net); Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero, Wisdom Quarterly

Buddhismo Hispano (btmar.org)
Theravada (Pali language: thera "elders" + vada "word, doctrine") means the "Doctrine of the Elders." [The "elders" are the first disciples -- enlightened monks and nuns -- of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.] 
  • See Part 2
  • NOTE: "Theravada" in American English is pronounced "terra vodda" becuase the "th" sound in Pali is pronounced like the "th" combination in "hothouse." 
"Theravada" is the name for the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Pali canon, or Tipitaka ["Three Baskets" containing the sutras, monastic discipline, and Higher Teaching], which scholars generally accept as the oldest record of the Buddha's Teachings or Dharma.

For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia; today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide. In recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West -- primarily in Europe, Australia, and the United States.
The many names of Theravada
The Buddha addresses the Five Ascetics and sets rolling the Wheel of the Dharma.
Theravada Buddhism goes by many names. The Buddha himself called the spiritual movement he founded Dhamma-Vinaya, "the Doctrine and Discipline," in reference to the two fundamental aspects of the system of ethical and spiritual training he taught.

Owing to its historical dominance in southern Asia (India/Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos), Theravada is also identified as "Southern Buddhism." By contrast "Northern Buddhism" migrated north from India/Afghanistan into Tibet, China, Japan, Korean, Mongolia, Siberia, Russia (the USSR's Central Asian "stans" and North Asia).
Theravada is sometimes misidentified as "Hinayana" (the "Lesser Vehicle"), in contradistinction to the self-proclaimed "Mahayana" (the "Great Vehicle"), which is usually a synonym for Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Ch'an, and other expressions of Chinese Buddhism.

But the use of "Hinayana" as a pejorative insult has its origins in earlier schisms within the monastic community that ultimately led to the emergence of what would later become Hindu-influenced Mahayana.

Today, however, scholars of every Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) persuasion often use the term "Hinayana" without pejorative intent [-- and attempt to attach it to Theravada as the only remaining early school. The actual Hinayana schools all, such as the Sarvastivada, all went extinct.]
Pali (not Sanskrit): the language of Theravada
Students help revive ancient Pali language in modern India (indiatimes.com).
The language of the Theravada canonical texts is Pali, a relative of Magadhi, the language probably spoken in central India during the Buddha's time. Most of the sutras the Buddha delivered were memorized by Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close personal attendant.

Shortly after the Buddha's final-nirvana around 480 BCE, the monastic community -- including Ananda -- convened to recite all the sutras they had heard during the Buddha's 45 years of teaching.

Each recorded discourse therefore begins with the indicator/disclaimer, Evam me sutam -- "Thus have I heard." The teachings were passed down within the monastic community following a well-established oral tradition. By about 100 BCE the Tipitaka was first fixed in writing in Sri Lanka by Sinhalese scribe-monks.

Of course, it can never be proven that the Pali canon contains the actual words uttered by the historical Buddha (and there is ample evidence to suggest that much of the canon does not). The wisdom the canon contains has nevertheless served for centuries as an indispensable guide for millions of followers in their quest for enlightenment or awakening from delusion and dream-like suffering.

Many students of Theravada find that learning the Pali language -- mainly just a little bit here and there -- greatly deepens their understanding of the Buddha's path of practice toward the realization of nirvana in this very life.
A brief summary of the Buddha's Teachings

What follows is a brief synopsis of some of the key teachings of Theravada Buddhism, leaving out a great deal, but leaving in enough that even this much will be enough to get one started on the way of investigation and exploration.

Shortly after his great awakening, the Buddha ("the Awakened One") delivered his first discourse, in which he laid out the essential framework upon which all later teachings were based. It consists of the Four Noble Truths, four fundamental principles of nature (Dharma) that emerged from the Buddha's penetrating assessment of the human (and deva) condition that serve to define the entire scope of Buddhist practice.

These ennobling truths are not fixed dogmatic principles, but living experiences to be explored individually in the heart of the sincere spiritual seeker:
  • 1. The Noble Truth of [the Truth of] dukkha (disappointment, unsatisfactoriness, suffering, distress): life is fundamentally fraught with unsatisfactoriness and disappointment of every description.
  • 2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of dukkha: the cause of our dissatisfaction is craving (tanha) in all its forms.
  • 3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of dukkha: an end to all that unsatisfactoriness can be found through the relinquishment and abandonment of craving.
  • 4. The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the cessation of dukkha: there is a way of achieving the end of all unsatisfactoriness, namely the Noble Eightfold Path.
To each of these Four Noble Truths the Buddha prescribed a specific task the practitioner can carry out: the first Noble Truth is to be comprehended; the second abandoned; the third realized; the fourth developed.

The full realization of the third Noble Truth paves the way for the direct penetration (personal experience) of nirvana, the transcendent freedom (liberation, deliverance, emancipation, release, moksha) that stands as the final goal of all of the Buddha's varied teachings.

The ultimate Noble Truth -- the Path -- contains a prescription for the relief of all unhappiness and for our directly experienced release, once and for all, from the painful and wearisome cycle of rebirth and death (samsara) to which -- through our own ignorance (avijja) of the Four Noble Truths -- we have been bound for countless aeons. CONTINUED IN PART 2

No comments: