Theravada Buddhism


Buddhism (bŏŏd´Ĭzəm), religion and philosophy founded in India c.525 BC by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha. There are over 300 million Buddhists worldwide. One of the great world religions, it is divided into two main schools: the Theravada or Hinayana in Sri Lanka and SE Asia, and the Mahayana in China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. A third school, the Vajrayana, has a long tradition in Tibet and Japan. Buddhism has largely disappeared from its country of origin, India, except for the presence there of many refugees from the Tibet region of China and a small number of converts from the lower castes of Hinduism.

Basic Beliefs and Practices

The basic doctrines of early Buddhism, which remain common to all Buddhism, include the "four noble truths" : existence is suffering (dukhka); suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment (trishna); there is a cessation of suffering, which is nirvana; and there is a path to the cessation of suffering, the "eightfold path" of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism characteristically describes reality in terms of process and relation rather than entity or substance.

Experience is analyzed into five aggregates (skandhas). The first, form (rupa), refers to material existence; the following four, sensations (vedana), perceptions (samjna), psychic constructs (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana), refer to psychological processes. The central Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatman) asserts that in the five aggregates no independently existent, immutable self, or soul, can be found. All phenomena arise in interrelation and in dependence on causes and conditions, and thus are subject to inevitable decay and cessation. The casual conditions are defined in a 12-membered chain called dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) whose links are: ignorance, predisposition, consciousness, name-form, the senses, contact, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, old age, and death, whence again ignorance.

With this distinctive view of cause and effect, Buddhism accepts the pan-Indian presupposition of samsara, in which living beings are trapped in a continual cycle of birth-and-death, with the momentum to rebirth provided by one's previous physical and mental actions (see karma). The release from this cycle of rebirth and suffering is the total transcendence called nirvana.

From the beginning, meditation and observance of moral precepts were the foundation of Buddhist practice. The five basic moral precepts, undertaken by members of monastic orders and the laity, are to refrain from taking life, stealing, acting unchastely, speaking falsely, and drinking intoxicants. Members of monastic orders also take five additional precepts: to refrain from eating at improper times, from viewing secular entertainments, from using garlands, perfumes, and other bodily adornments, from sleeping in high and wide beds, and from receiving money. Their lives are further regulated by a large number of rules known as the Pratimoksa. The monastic order (sangha) is venerated as one of the "three jewels," along with the dharma, or religious teaching, and the Buddha. Lay practices such as the worship of stupas (burial mounds containing relics) predate Buddhism and gave rise to later ritualistic and devotional practices.

Early Buddhism

India during the lifetime of the Buddha was in a state of religious and cultural ferment. Sects, teachers, and wandering ascetics abounded, espousing widely varying philosophical views and religious practices. Some of these sects derived from the Brahmanical tradition (see Hinduism), while others opposed the Vedic and Upanishadic ideas of that tradition. Buddhism, which denied both the efficacy of Vedic ritual and the validity of the caste system, and which spread its teachings using vernacular languages rather than Brahmanical Sanskrit, was by far the most successful of the heterodox or non-Vedic systems. Buddhist tradition tells how Siddhartha Gautama, born a prince and raised in luxury, renounced the world at the age of 29 to search for an ultimate solution to the problem of the suffering innate in the human condition. After six years of spiritual discipline he achieved the supreme enlightment and spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching and establishing a community of monks and nuns, the sangha, to continue his work.

After the Buddha's death his teachings were orally transmitted until the 1st cent. BC, when they were first committed to writing (see Buddhist literature; Pali). Conflicting opinions about monastic practice as well as religious and philosophical issues, especially concerning the analyses of experience elaborated as the systems of Abhidharma, probably caused differing sects to flourish rapidly. Knowledge of early differences is limited, however, because the earliest extant written version of the scriptures (1st cent. AD) is the Pali canon of the Theravada school of Sri Lanka. Although the Theravada [doctrine of the elders] is known to be only one of many early Buddhist schools (traditionally numbered at 18), its beliefs as described above are generally accepted as representative of the early Buddhist doctrine. The ideal of early Buddhism was the perfected saintly sage, arahant or arhat, who attained liberation by purifying self of all defilements and desires.

The Rise of Mahayana Buddhism

The positions advocated by Mahayana [great vehicle] Buddhism, which distinguishes itself from the Theravada and related schools by calling them Hinayana [lesser vehicle], evolved from other of the early Buddhist schools. The Mahayana emerges as a definable movement in the 1st cent. BC, with the appearance of a new class of literature called the Mahayana sutras. The main philosophical tenet of the Mahayana is that all things are empty, or devoid of self-nature (see sunyata). Its chief religious ideal is the bodhisattva, which supplanted the earlier ideal of the arahant, and is distinguished from it by the vow to postpone entry into nirvana (although meriting it) until all other living beings are similarly enlightened and saved.

The bodhisattva is an actual religious goal for lay and monastic Buddhists, as well as the name for a class of celestial beings who are worshiped along with the Buddha. The Mahayana developed doctrines of the eternal and absolute nature of the Buddha, of which the historical Buddha is regarded as a temporary manifestation. Teachings on the intrinsic purity of consciousness generated ideas of potential Buddhahood in all living beings. The chief philosophical schools of Indian Mahayana were the Madhyamika, founded by Nagarjuna (2d cent. AD), and the Yogacara, founded by the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th cent. AD). In this later Indian period, authors in different schools wrote specialized treatises, Buddhist logic was systematized, and the practices of Tantra came into prominence.

The Spread of Buddhism

In the 3d cent. BC the Indian emperor Asoka greatly strengthened Buddhism by his support and sent Buddhist missionaries as far afield as Syria. In succeeding centuries, however, the Hindu revival initiated the gradual decline of Buddhism in India. The invasions of the White Huns (6th cent.) and the Muslims (11th cent.) were also significant factors behind the virtual extinction of Buddhism in India by the 13th cent.

In the meantime, however, its beliefs had spread widely. Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism in the 3d cent. BC, and Buddhism has remained its national religion. After taking up residence in Sri Lanka, the Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa (5th cent. AD) produced some of Theravada Buddhism's most important scholastic writings. In the 7th cent. Buddhism entered Tibet, where it has flourished, drawing its philosophical influences mainly from the Madhyamika, and its practices from the Tantra.

Buddhism came to SE Asia in the first five centuries AD All Buddhist schools were initially established, but the surviving forms today are mostly Theravada. About the 1st cent. AD Buddhism entered China along trade routes from central Asia, initiating a four-century period of gradual assimilation. In the 3d and 4th cent. Buddhist concepts were interpreted by analogy with indigenous ideas, mainly Taoist, but the work of the great translators Kumarajiva and Hsüan-tsang provided the basis for better understanding of Buddhist concepts.

The 6th cent. saw the development of the great philosophical schools, each centering on a certain scripture and having a lineage of teachers. Two such schools, the T'ien-t'ai and the Hua-Yen, hierarchically arranged the widely varying scriptures and doctrines that had come to China from India, giving preeminence to their own school and scripture. Branches of Madhyamika and Yogacara were also founded. The two great nonacademic sects were Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, whose chief practice was sitting in meditation to achieve "sudden enlightenment," and Pure Land Buddhism, which advocated repetition of the name of the Buddha Amitabha to attain rebirth in his paradise.

Chinese Buddhism encountered resistance from Confucianism and Taoism, and opposition from the government, which was threatened by the growing power of the tax-exempt sangha. The great persecution by the emperor Wu-tsung (845) dealt Chinese Buddhism a blow from which it never fully recovered. The only schools that retained vitality were Zen and Pure Land, which increasingly fused with one another and with the native traditions, and after the decline of Buddhism in India, neo-Confucianism rose to intellectual and cultural dominance.

From China and Korea, Buddhism came to Japan. Schools of philosophy and monastic discipline were transmitted first (6th cent.–8th cent.), but during the Heian period (794–1185) a conservative form of Tantric Buddhism became widely popular among the nobility. Zen and Pure Land grew to become popular movements after the 13th cent. After World War II new sects arose in Japan, such as the Soka Gakkai, an outgrowth of the nationalistic sect founded by Nichiren (1222–82), and the Risshokoseikai, attracting many followers.


See H. C. Warren, Buddhism in Translations (1896, repr. 1963); D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism (1956); A. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (1959, repr. 1979); E. Conze, Buddhism (1953, repr. 1959), Buddhist Scriptures (1959), and Buddhist Thought in India (1962, repr. 1967); E. Zürcher, Buddhism (1962); K. S. S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China (1964, repr. 1972); W. T. de Bary, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan (1969); T. Ling, The Buddha (1973); R. Lester, Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia (1973); W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (2d ed. 1974); D. and A. Matsunaga, Foundations of Japanese Buddhism (1974–76); S. J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer (1976); L. Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (1976); R. H. Robinson, The Buddhist Religion (3d ed. 1982); and R. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism (1988); J. Ishikawa, The Bodhisattva (1990).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo
Richard F. Gombrich.
Routledge, 1988
The Two Wheels of Dhamma: Essays on the Theravada Tradition in India and Ceylon
Gananath Obeyesekere; Frank Reynolds; Bardwell L. Smith.
American Academy of Religion, 1972
Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil: A Study in Theravada Buddhism
T. O. Ling.
George Allen and Unwin, 1962
The Dhammapada
John Ross Carter; Mahinda Palihawadana.
Oxford University Press, 2000
The Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaptation in Mainland Southeast Asia
Charles F. Keyes.
University of Hawaii Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Development of Theravada Buddhist Civilization in Mainland Southeast Asia" and Chap. 3 "Rural Life in the Theravada Buddhist Societies"
The Path of the Buddha: Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists
Kenneth W. Morgan.
Ronald Press, 1956
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "The Fundamental Principles of Theravada Buddhism" and Chap. Three "Buddhism in Theravada Countries"
The Theravada Buddhist Engagement with Modernity in Southeast Asia: Whither the Social Paradigm of the Galactic Polity?
Schober, Juliane.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, September 1995
Relics, Oaths and Politics in Thirteenth-Century Siam
Wyatt, David K.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, February 2001
A History of Indian Buddhism: From Sakyamuni to Early Mahayana
Hirakawa Akira; Paul Groner; Paul Groner.
University of Hawaii Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "The Development of Nikaya Buddhism"
Localising the Universal: Women, Motherhood and the Appeal of Early Theravada Buddhism
Andaya, Barbara Watson.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, February 2002
Is Violence Justified in Theravada Buddhism?
Deegalle, Mahinda.
The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 55, No. 2, April 2003
Buddhism Unshackled: The Yuan 'Holy Man' Tradition and the Nation-State in the Tai World
Cohen, Paul T.
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 2001
The Vision of Buddhism: The Space under the Tree
Roger J. Corless.
Paragon House, 1989
Librarian’s tip: "Mahayana and Hinayana" begins on p. 219 and "Theravada and Mahayana" begins on p. 289
The Worldliness of Buddhism
Swearer, Donald K.
The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring 1997
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