Theravada Buddhism relies heavily on religious texts, while other forms of Buddhism, such as Zen, reject the idea of looking to texts for religious enlightenment. Theravada comprises the words thera, meaning elders, and vada, meaning doctrine. Because of the reliance on a canon of literature, Theravada Buddhists believe their practice is the most authentic form of Buddhism, and the one that most resembles the teachings of the Buddha.
The Buddha and Buddhist Beliefs
Theravada Buddhism shares common beliefs with other Buddhist denominations. It teaches that Siddhartha Gautama was an ordinary human who became enlightened and achieved the title the Buddha when he discovered the way to alleviate life's pain. Theravada Buddhists follow Four Noble Truths: pain and disappointment, called dukkha, are a part of life; desire and dissatisfaction cause dukkha; ending these cravings will end dukkha; and the way to do so is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path instructs Buddhists to practice the correct form of thinking, speaking, acting, earning a livelihood, concentrating, effort, mindfulness and view. Buddhists follow five precepts that forbid harming living things, lying, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct and taking mind-altering drugs or alcohol.
When the Buddha died around 480 B.C., his cousin Ananda and other followers continued reciting his sermons. The sermons acquired written forms in the first century, and received their final version in the third century. Because they derived from the oral tradition, the texts begin with the line "Thus I have heard." The texts, known as the Pali Canon, are divided into three "baskets," called Tripitaka: The first, Vinaya Pitaka, lists 227 rules for monks and nuns; the second, Sutta Pitaka, presents teachings from the Buddha; and the third, Abhidamma Pitaka, includes additional Buddhist philosophies. Scholars believe these writings to be the oldest Buddhist texts, and Theravada Buddhists view them as the foundation of their faith.
While some Theravada Buddhists acknowledge the divine, gods do not play a central role in the faith. Instead, Buddhists turn inward to find enlightenment, not outward to a deity. All people have the responsibility to find enlightenment for themselves, and meditation serves to accomplish the process, by purifying the mind. Theravada Buddhists practice two forms of meditation: Samatha, common in other religions, calms the mind and moves practitioners to a higher level of consciousness known as jhanic; and Vipassana, which helps Buddhists recognize the true nature of the universe, and defer their own thoughts and misconceptions about it.
Monks and Nuns
Theravada Buddhists view monastery life as an ultimate goal of the religion, though it is not necessary to practice the faith. Children as young as seven join the monastery for a period of time. Monks attempt to attain enlightenment, and to transform into an Arhat, or worthy one. In addition to the five precepts that guide all Buddhists, monks follow 227 rules, while nuns have to follow even more rules. Some of these include not eating after the middle of the day and not handling money. Monks and nuns often volunteer at local centers to receive basic necessities of life. People in the monastic life dedicate themselves to meditation and study of sacred texts.
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