Friday, June 26, 2020

The Teaching of the Enlightened Elders

Access to Insight ( edited by Wisdom Quarterly, June 25, 2020

What is Theravada Buddhism?
Ther-a-va-da (\terra-VAH-dah\) means the "Teaching of the Elders." The "elders" (male theras and female theris) are the enlightened direct disciples of the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama.

This school of Buddhism is based on the Ti-pitaka ("Threefold Collection" of sutras and texts), the Pali language canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the historical Buddha's teachings [Note 1].

For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant Buddhist tradition of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos) and Sri Lanka, those countries surrounding ancient India.

Today, Theravada Buddhists number well over 100 million worldwide [2]. In recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West.

Many Buddhisms, one Dharma-Vinaya

The Buddha — or "Awakened One" — called the teaching revealed the Dharma-Vinaya, "the Doctrine and Discipline" leading to awakening or enlightenment and complete liberation (nirvana).

To provide a social structure supportive of the practice of Dharma-Vinaya, or Dharma (Pali Dhamma) for short, and to preserve these teachings for humans and devas (light beings), the Buddha established the monastic order of monks and nuns — the Sangha ("Community") — which continues to this day to pass the teachings on to subsequent generations.

As the Dharma continued its spread across ancient pre-India after the Buddha's passing into final nirvana, differing interpretations of the original teachings arose. This led to schisms within the monastic community and the emergence of as many as 18 distinct schools or sects of Buddhism [3].

One of these schools eventually gave rise to a reform movement that called itself Mahayana (the "Great Vehicle" [4]). It disparagingly referred to all other Buddhist schools as inferior Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") schools.

They all went extinct, and Theravada is a revival of the original teachings of the historical Buddha, a getting back to basics of what the Buddha taught. It is not one of the early non-Mahayana schools [5].

But it is often treated as such because it is closer to them than the very Hindu-influenced syncretism that is Mahayana, which amounts to a kind of Asian Catholicism, Christianity, or Krishna-centric Hinduism hybrid.

To avoid the pejorative and incorrect assumption that Theravada is a Hinayana school, the terms Lesser Vehicle and Great Vehicle are avoided. More neutral language distinguishes these two branches of Buddhism.

Because Theravada historically dominated Southern Asia, it is sometimes nicknamed "Southern Buddhism," while Mahayana, which migrated northwards from Central Asia and India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea, is loosely called "Northern" Buddhism [6].

Pali: The Language of the Buddha and Theravada Buddhism

The language of the canonical Theravada texts is Pali (Magadhan, lit., "text"), which is based on a dialect of Magadhi, a Middle Indo-Aryan likely spoken in what was to become central India during the Buddha's time [7].

Ven. Ananda, the Buddha's relative and close personal attendant, committed the Buddha's sutras to memory and became a living repository of the teachings [8].

Shortly after the Buddha's passing into final nirvana (circa 480 BCE), a large number of the most senior monastics — including Ananda — convened to recite and verify all the sutras they had heard during the Buddha's 45 year teaching career or dispensation [9].

Most of these sutras therefore begin with the words Evam me sutam, "Thus have I heard." Ananda is declaring that he heard these firsthand from the Buddha himself, who either said them to an audience with Ananda present or repeated what he had said to an audience when Ananda was not present. More
1. Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction (5th edition) by R.H. Robinson, W.L. Johnson, and Ven. Thanissaro (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), p. 46.
2. This estimate is based on faulty data appearing in CIA World Factbook 2004. South Asia's largest Theravada Buddhist populations are found in Thailand (61 million Theravadans), Burma (38 million), Sri Lanka (13 million), and Cambodia (12 million). [Over 1 billion Buddhists are left uncounted in officially communist China.]
3. Buddhist Religions, p. 46.
4. Mahayana today includes Zen, Ch'an, Nichiren, Tendai, and Pure Land Buddhism [and Vajrayana traditions of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Siberia, Mongolia].
5. Guide Through the Abhidhamma Pitaka by Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1971), pp. 60ff.
6. A third major branch of Buddhism emerged much later (ca. 8th century CE) in India: Vajrayana, the "Diamond Vehicle." Vajrayana's elaborate system of esoteric initiations, tantric rituals, and mantra recitations eventually spread north into Central and East Asia, leaving a particularly strong imprint on Tibetan Buddhism. See Buddhist Religions, pp. 124ff. and chapter 11.
7. Modern scholarship suggests that Pali was probably never spoken by the Buddha. [Because he moved to the kingdom of Magadha, he would have certainly spoken Magadhan or Magadhi Prakrit, a form of Pali.] In the centuries after the Buddha's passing, as Buddhism spread across India into regions using different dialects, Buddhist monastics increasingly depended on a common tongue for their Dharma discussions and recitations of memorized texts. It was out of this necessity that the language now known as Pali emerged. See Bhikkhu Bodhi's introduction in Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1999), pp. 1ff, and n. 1 (p. 275) and "The Pali Language and Literature" by the Pali Text Society (, 15 April 2002).
8. Great Disciples of the Buddha by Ven. Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 1997), pp. 140, 150.
9. Buddhist Religions, p. 48.
10. Brahmanism's Vedas, for example, predate the Buddha by at least a millennium (Buddhist Religions, p. 2). [They became the basis of later Hinduism or Indus-ism.]

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