What is Theravada Buddhism? Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion
Theravada (pronounced — more or less — „terra-VAH-dah“), the „Doctrine of the Elders,“ is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings.1 For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos) and Sri Lanka. 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 Dhamma-vinaya
The Buddha — the „Awakened One“ — called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya — „the doctrine and discipline.“ To provide a social structure supportive of the practice of Dhamma-vinaya (or Dhamma for short [Sanskrit: Dharma]), and to preserve these teachings for posterity, the Buddha established the order of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis (nuns) — the Sangha — which continues to this day to pass his teachings on to subsequent generations of laypeople and monastics, alike.
As the Dhamma continued its spread across India after the Buddha’s passing, differing interpretations of the original teachings arose, which led to schisms within the Sangha and the emergence of as many as eighteen distinct sects of Buddhism.3 One of these schools eventually gave rise to a reform movement that called itself Mahayana (the „Greater Vehicle“)4 and that referred to the other schools disparagingly as Hinayana (the „Lesser Vehicle“). What we call Theravada today is the sole survivor of those early non-Mahayana schools.5 To avoid the pejorative tone implied by the terms Hinayana and Mahayana, it is common today to use more neutral language to distinguish between these two main branches of Buddhism. Because Theravada historically dominated southern Asia, it is sometimes called „Southern“ Buddhism, while Mahayana, which migrated northwards from India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea, is known as „Northern“ Buddhism.6 Pali: The Language of Theravada Buddhism pon which all his later teachings were based. This framework consists of the Four Noble Truths, four fundamental principles of nature (Dhamma) that emerged from the Buddha’s radically honest and penetrating assessment of the human condition. He taught these truths not as metaphysical theories or as articles of faith, but as categories by which we should frame our direct experience in a way that conduces to Awakening:
1. Dukkha: suffering, unsatisfactoriness, discontent, stress; 2. The cause of dukkha: the cause of this dissatisfaction is craving (tanha) for sensuality, for states of becoming, and states of no becoming; 3. The cessation of dukkha: the relinquishment of that craving; 4. The path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: the Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
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