What Is Theravada?

The Pali word thera means elder and refers to a monk who has been ordained for ten years or more while the word vada means opinion or view. Therefore the name Theravada could be translated as the Doctrine or View of the Elder Monks. Theravadians claim that their version of the Dhamma correspond exactly to the Buddha’s teachings as recorded in the Pali Tipitaka but this is true only to a certain extent. It would be more correct to say that Theravada is a particular interpretation of certain teachings from the Pali Tipitaka. The Pali Tipitaka contains a truly amazing variety of material from ethics to epistemology, from psychology to practical wisdom. It would be very difficult to encompass all this material into a single school or system and indeed Theravadins have certainly not done this. Rather, they have emphasized some of the Buddha’s doctrines and ideas and de-emphasized or even ignored others. For example, the four Expressions of Sympathy (sangha vatthuni) are frequently mentioned by the Buddha and could have important implications for a deeper understanding of love and compassion, particularly their social application. Mahayana used them to developed a whole philosophy of practical altruism but they are given almost no attention in Theravada. I notice that they are not included in Nanatiloka’s Dictionary and in 30 years of reading Theravadian literature I can never recall having seen them discussed or even referred to. To give another example, one of the central concepts of the Buddha’s teachings is dependent origination. There are two versions of this doctrine, one showing the arising of suffering and the other showing the arising of liberation and freedom. The first of these is arguably the most well-known, although not necessarily well understood, of all Buddhist doctrines. It features in virtually every book on Theravada, it is commonly depicted diagrammatically in charts and temple wall paintings and its 12 constituents are often chanted by monks during ceremonies. The second, and one would think the more important of the two, is virtually unknown, even by quite learned Theravadins. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the only Western Theravadin to ever draw attention to this important schema of dependent origination, says that ‘traditional commentators have hardly given the text the special attention it would seem to deserve.’ It would be more correct to say that they have ignored it almost completely. Caroline Rhys Davids called this positive version of dependent origination an ‘oasis’ and asked: ‘How might it have altered the whole face of Buddhism in the West if that sequence had been made the illustration of the casual law!’ Indeed, how might it have altered the whole face of Theravada in Asia?

Then when we examine just how the material chosen has been interpreted we find it has frequently been done in the most literal, stilted and unimaginative way or has simply been misunderstood. [1]

To give just two examples. The Buddha describes the enlightened person as having ‘a mind with the barriers broken down’ (cetasa vimariyada katena). What an extraordinary phrase! When a person has seen and seen through the conceptually created barriers of race, class, ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ they are able to love others unconditionally. The Visuddhimagga tells a story to illustrate how, according to Theravada, the term ‘a mind with the barriers broken down’ should be understood. A monk was sitting with three others – a friend, a stranger and someone who did not like him, when they were assailed by a band of thugs who wanted to take one of the four as a sacrifice to their god. The first monk was required to select the victim but because he had ‘a mind with the barriers broken down’ he was literally incapable of making any distinctions between himself and the others, and thus just sat there unable to make a decision. Apart from being absurdly simplistic, this contradicts the Buddha’s statement that a loving person would be even capable of giving his or her life for another (D.III,187). The terms papanca and papanca sanna sankha are of enormous importance in understanding meditation and psychology as taught by the Buddha. In his brilliant and groundbreaking book Concept and Reality, Bhikkhu Nanananda has shown that Theravada has seriously misunderstood the true significance of these terms. Interestingly, he had also shown that Mahayana preserved much of their original meaning and consequently their deeper philosophical implications.

This combination of selective emphasis and conservative, narrow or simplistic interpretation has made Theravada what it is. By highlighting different material from the Pali Tipitaka and interpreting it in different but equally or perhaps in even more valid ways, one could have quite a different type of Buddhism. And in fact this did happen. The Sravastavadians, Dharmaguptakas, Sautantikas, the Abhayagirivasins, etc., were different schools with a different ‘feel’ despite basing themselves on a Sutta and Vinaya Pitaka that were the same or substantially the same as the Pail ones. Unfortunately, all these schools disappeared leaving Theravadians holding the field as the sole ‘orthodox’ interpreters of the Buddha’s teaching in its earliest form. Of course, a Theravadin would say that it is dangerous or unnecessary to interpret or elaborate on the Buddha’s words. But drawing deeper or broader meanings from the Buddha’s words was being done even during his own lifetime. See for example how Maha Kacchyana very creatively reinterpreted one of the Buddha’s sayings from the Sutta Nipata (S.III,9). It seems that when it comes to something negative or theoretical Theravadin are able to be remarkably creative. It is only with the practical, the positive or anything outside the narrow orbit in which they have chosen to operate that they seem to be lost for words. It should come as no surprise that in its 2000 year history Theravada has produced no great religious thinkers, no Augustine, Aquinas or Erasmus, no Nagarjuna, Tsong Khapa or Dogen.

In the first few centuries after the Buddha’s parinirvana there were developments of doctrines and disagreements over them but these seem to have been relatively minor. Differences over Vinaya practice led to disunity within the Sangha but it is unlikely that the doctrinal differences were serious enough for the various groups to think of themselves as distinct schools. In about 270 B.C.E. the Mauryan emperor Asoka converted to Buddhism, perhaps the most important single event in the religion after the enlightenment of the Buddha himself. It appears that at least in certain circles at this time the social significance of many of the Buddha’s teachings were not just being discussed but also actively applied. Asoka was an individual as deeply concerned with his own spiritual well-being as he was with that of his subjects and while he generously supported the Sangha he also did much to apply the Dhamma to the social domain. Like many lay people at the time he was also well-versed in the suttas as is clear from the many words and phrases from them which appear in his edicts. Asoka convened a general council of the Sangha and although the details are scant, it seems this council expelled undisciplined monks, codified the Dhamma and sent missions throughout India and to different parts of Asia to spread the religion. The most successful of these missions was the one sent to Sri Lanka and led by Asoka’s son Mahinda. Buddhism was adopted as the state religion and gradually the entire Island became Buddhist. Naturally, certain practices changed to suit local conditions and as the Sri Lankan monks began exploring the Dhamma they began to interpret it according to their own understanding and experience. Politics had its influence too. As an ‘official’ interpretation emerged, soon to be given the name Theravada, it was patronized by the state while other interpretations received no support or were occasionally even persecuted.

From an early period the practice of meditation was given little emphasis in Sri Lanka. By the beginning of the Common Era the leading monks had decided that preserving the Dhamma was to take precedence over practicing it. This is reflected in the commentaries where it says: ‘Whether there is realization or practice is not the point, learning is sufficient for the continuation of the sasana. If the wise one studies the Tipitaka he does both…Thus the sasana is made firm when learning endures.’ In another place it says: ‘Even if there are a 100,000 monks practicing meditation there will be no realization of the Noble Path if there is no learning.’ One of the very few monastic documents from Sri Lanka that even mentions meditation, that of Mahinda IV dating from the 10th century and laying down the daily routine for monks at the great monastery at Mihintale, says that monks should rise at dawn and do the four protective meditations. [2]

This may be evidence of genuine meditation practice but it is more likely to refer to the perfunctory few minutes of sitting with eyes closed and legs crossed after the morning puja which still passes for ‘meditation’ even today. The code of monastic regulations drawn up by Dimbulagala Kassapa in the 12th century says that a monk should be directed towards meditation only if he is not bright enough to excel at studies. As a young man in the first decades of the 18th century Valivita Saranamkara traveled Sri Lanka trying to find someone who could teach him meditation, but without success. Later, he went on to become a great reformer and educator and always understood the importance meditation, but even then he could not find anyone who knew how to do it. In the numerous manuals and monastic guides he composed, Saranamkara only occasionally mentions meditation and then only in a brief and formulistic manner. All of this does not mean that there were never any meditating monks, but certainly their numbers were small and their influence on the development of Theravada minuscule. Of the vast store of Theravadin literature that has survived to the present there are no meditation manuals or other works on meditation dating from before the 20th century. It also seems that the developments of the Dhamma which had been taking place in India under Asoka were abandoned in favor more conservative, fundamentalist and clericocentric approach. For example, Asoka’s Buddhist polity was dropped in favor of the Brahminical theory and active lay involvement in the religion was discouraged.

In the 5th century C.E the monk Buddhaghosa composed commentaries on the Tipitaka in which he fixed the developments and interpretations that had taken place up till then. [3]

Since then, these commentaries have been considered the ultimate authority and Theravada has remained virtually unchanged. Richard Gombrich correctly says: ‘To this day Buddhaghosa’s Buddhism is in effect the unitary standard of doctrinal orthodoxy for all Theravada Buddhists.’ Theravadins see the Buddha’s words through the lens of these commentaries’ turgid and often fantastic pedantry rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. Most Theravadins will side with Buddhaghosa’s interpretation, even where it contradicts the Buddha’s words. The situation is in some ways similar to pre-Reformation Christianity where church tradition was considered more authoritative than scripture. At a later period sub-commentaries were written on the commentaries and in turn commentaries on those were composed but these consisted mainly of comments on grammar and syntax. Until the late 19th century when Western influence began to penetrate into Buddhist Asia nearly all Theravadin scholarship was little more than what N. C. Chaudhuri called ‘exegesis of exegesis.’ Conservative by nature, without the insights that meditation can give, and set within an extremely static society, Sri Lankan monks concentrated on preserving what had been handed down from the past rather than creating anything new. They heard and they repeated but they rarely inquired, explored or questioned. Commenting on the Mahayana term for Theravadins, ‘savaka’, meaning ‘a hearer’, Prof. Ishii says: ‘This etymology of savaka captures the essential character of the Theravadin monks, men devoted to upholding the Dhamma and Vinaya preached by the Buddha. Their totally passive attitude has virtually precluded any active development of the teachings they hear.’ Commenting education in pre-modern Burma, which was almost entirely religious and in the hands of the clergy, Aung San Suu Kyi says: ‘Traditional Burmese education did not encourage speculation. This was largely due to the view, so universally held that it appears to be part of the racial psyche of the Burmese, that Buddhism represents the perfect philosophy. It therefore follows that there was no need either to try to develop it further or to consider other philosophies. As a result, in spite of the essential tolerance of Buddhist teachings, religion in Burma was monolithic. It had broad but inflexible boundaries. Theological disputes, which were not numerous, centered on the interpretation of the monastic code, the Vinaya; so that the little sectarianism that did exist was confined to the monkhood.’ Put in the present tense and applied to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and to a lesser extent Sri Lanka too, this statement still holds true.

In Europe the church had various bodies to scrutinize new interpretations of doctrine to make sure they accorded with orthodoxy. Nothing like this was needed in Theravada; there was nothing new. Monks frequently quarreled over the interpretation of Vinaya rules but rarely over points of Dhamma. They also produced extraordinarily little literature of enduring value. The Milindapanha, the Visuddhimagga and the Abhidhammatthasangha are amongst the few Theravadin works still widely read or studied today, the rest of the literature being either so excruciatingly dull, superfluous or pedantic that it adds little or nothing to an understanding of the Dhamma. It is a very meager harvest after 2000 years of scholarship. Until about the 11th century Theravada was confined to Sri Lanka and small areas in south India and southern Burma. After that it spread all over Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and the lowlands of Laos. From the 1930s onward small communities of Theravadins began to emerge in Vietnam, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, Nepal and, after 1956, in India also. Theravada was the most well-known form of Buddhism in the West until the 1970s when Tibetan Buddhism quickly began to superseded it. In the West today it comes a distant third after Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. It is, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says: ‘a still backwater on the otherwise lively Western Buddhist frontier.’


  1. There are even cases where Buddhaghosa interprets the Tipitaka to mean the exact opposite of what it actually say; see for example Concept and Reality, 1971, p.46. [back]
  2. Recollection of the Buddha, metta meditation, the contemplation of the repulsiveness of the body and the contemplation on death. [back]
  3. Rhys David says of Buddhaghosa, ‘Of his talent there can be no doubt, it was equaled only by his extraordinary industry. But of originality, of independent thought, there is at present no evidence.’ [back]