21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Theravada (School of the Elders) is the oldest of the currently existing schools included in the number of eighteen early Buddhism schools

The Theravada term (which literally means School of the Elders in Pali) originated from the name of one of the early Buddhism schools (Sthāvirīya). The Theravadins consider themselves to be its followers.

This tradition is one of the most conservative in terms of doctrine and monk discipline. Since the nineteenth century, meditation practices have been renewed and have begun to gain in popularity among common people in countries traditionally propagating Theravada, and in Western countries also.

The followers of Theravada maintained their interpretation of Buddha Gautama’s doctrine and still preach it in Asian countries and in Western Europe.


Theories of the doctrine

Theravada positions itself to be the doctrine of analysis, but it is also concentrated on the development of moral behavior, preserving the teachings of Buddha and the attainment of good karma via Dana (generous donations).

The main principles of Theravada Buddhism are contained in the Pali Canon.

Dhamma theory

Dhammas are the factors, psychic characteristics and events caused by various conditions. They constitute part of the sensory experience and the ‘building blocks’ which form the world, despite the absence of material content.

According to Abhidhamma, there are eighty-two possible types of Dhamma in Theravada, and only one of them is unconditional (Nirvana).

Other conditional Dhammas are divided into:

  • consciousness (Chitta);
  • mind related to consciousness (Cetasika);
  • physical reality or materiality (Rupa).

The Abhidhamma philosophy categorizes various types of consciousness and accompanying mind factors, as well as their conditional relations (Pali Rassaua).

These psychic factors are divided into:

  • the universal (sabbacittasādhāraṇa cetasikas in Pali), fulfilling of basic and residual functions subject to learning;
  • the accidental or special (pakiṇṇaka cetasikas in Pali);
  • the unbeneficial (akusala cetasikas in Pali), accompanied by one of three non-benevolent roots (greed, hatred and ignorance);
  • the beneficial (sobhana cetasikas in Pali), which follow the benevolent roots (generosity, love, kindness and wisdom).

Dhammas are notable for their variability, discreteness and independence from one another; at the same time, their mutual relations are conditional. They always appear, change and vanish.

Theory of two truths

For Theravada, the theory of two truths divides reality into Sammuti (the worldly designations) and Paramattha (the absolute supreme truths). The differences between these terms are not about separate truths, but about two ways of representing the same truth. The Theravada version of two truths is that they do not compete in terms of truthfulness or falseness and superiority over each other. Both categories express that which is the truth, but they are parallel at the same time.

Issues of the differences of theravada from other schools

The position of the doctrine regarding other schools of early Buddhism is represented in the Pali scripture of Kathavatthu (Points of Controversy). It contains several bases for various approaches regarding the issues of Arakhanta (the enlightened person), Buddha, philosophy of time, rebirth and Bhavanga (the intermediate condition), as well as Rupa (the nature of fabric).

Currently the Theravada doctrine is influenced by Western philosophic ideas. Apart from studying Buddhist texts, doctrines and the Pali language, Western educational subjects are introduced to the system of monk education. Modern literature has spread the idea of socially oriented Buddhism and Buddhist economics have appeared also.

The practice of theravada

The Pali Canon describes the methods of Buddhist practice in various ways. Most followers observe the Noble Eightfold Path which means correctness of:

  • opinions;
  • motivations;
  • speech;
  • actions;
  • the way of life;
  • efforts;
  • awareness; and
  • concentration.

The main way of observation is by passing seven stages of purifications united into three groups in the Visuddhumagga scripture:

  • the first is dedicated to disciplinary roles and explanations as to how to correctly find a temple and a teacher to practice;
  • the second describes the practice of calming down (samatha) and mentions various stages of meditation;
  • the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh describe some practices and various forms of knowledge thus appearing.

The last block is an example of great analytical achievements of the Buddhist philosophy.

The following three sacred disciplines are related to the Noble Eightfold Path: moral behavior, meditation and wisdom.

Moral behavior includes correct speech, actions and ways of being as they are  understood through the karma doctrine. The meaning is that all previous conscious actions have a significant influence on the present time of life of every creature. Karma depends upon the intention with which the action was performed.

Meditation of Theravada is translated from the Pali as improvement and refers to the positive development of the mind. The followers of Theravada practice meditations of two wide practice categories: samatha and vipassana (research or understanding). Samatha means ‘calming down’ and includes meditation techniques of mind concentration on a single object which leads to Samadhi (complete clearness of the consciousness). The representatives of traditional Theravada define Samadhi as the basis of vipassana (enlightenment).

Buddhists meditate in order to reach worldly and spiritual wisdom (i.e. enlightenment towards Nirvana). To do so, one has to pass four stages of enlightenment:

  1. Sotapanna: being in the state of stream, where the first three boundaries are downcast. These are false opinion of one’s own ‘I’, doubt about virtue and harm and being attached to rituals and instructions.
  2. Sakadagamin: returning to this world only once and free from the three lower boundaries (sensory attractions, hatred and ignorance).
  3. Anagamin: not returning; a noble student who has downcast the five lowest boundaries.
  4. Arahant: complete awakening which means leaving the samsara and not being born in any world in the future.

Reaching absolute wisdom, aka Nirvana, encompasses the attainment of complete freedom from impermanence and the continuous cycle of birth, diseases and death. The Theravadins believe that Buddha is above the Arahants, because it was he who opened the way to liberation and showed it to others.

The practice of theravada

Theravada is the most widespread in:

  • Thailand;
  • Myanmar;
  • Sri Lanka;
  • Cambodia; and
  • Laos.

Theravada is also practiced by minorities in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Each country has two groups of monks who are Theravada followers. The main goal of both of these is to reach Nirvana by research and meditation. The urban monks pay attention to studying sacred texts and preserving Pali literature.  The forest monks are the practitioners who dedicate their life to meditation; therefore, their source of knowledge is meditation experience.

There are about one hundred and fifty million followers of Theravada all over the world. Today this branch is actively developing in Western countries.

Theravada is considered to be a popular religious doctrine because it is based on moral principles. Benevolent deeds are the base of a peaceful and happy life; therefore, every person is responsible for their own destiny and salvation, regardless of the will of supreme beings.