Travel Guide

Theravada or Southern School

The Southern School, which is followed by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, is more properly known as “Theravada” or “Doctrine of the Elders”, that is, the elders of the first Buddhist Council held at Rajagaha shortly after the Buddha’s passing away. It is also refered to as “Hinayana” or the “Lesser Vehicle”.

Followers of Theravada accept the Pali canon of ancient Indian Buddhism as their legitimate source and trace their lineage back to the Sthaviras (Pali: Theras; "Elders"), who followed in the tradition of the senior monks of the first Buddhist sangha.

During the reign of the emperor Ashoka (3rd century BC), the Theravada school traveled to Sri Lanka, where it divided into three subgroups, known after their monastic centres as the Mahaviharavasi, the Abhayagiriviharavasi, and the Jetavanaviharavasi.

Photo:<< Novice monks clasp their hands during a ceremony in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Thailand is one of the places on earth where Theravada Buddhism is still a living tradition

The Mahavihara form of the Theravada tradition became a principal feature in Sri Lanka at the beginning of 2nd AD. It gradually spread eastward, becoming established in Myanmar in the late 11th century, in Thailand in the 13th century, and in Cambodia and Laos by the 14th century.

Beliefs, doctrines, and practices

In the Theravada school of thought, Dhammas are divided and subdivided into many groups. It interprets Buddhism in a radically pluralistic way, that is, with the belief that there are not one or two but many ultimate substances (dhamma), e.g. the concept of the fundamentals of air, earth, fire and water. Theravadins tend more towards being rationalistic, treating Truth in an intellectual and deductive manner;

The key teachings are those which concerns the psychophysical person, such as the five aggregates (skandhas; Pali: khandhas), the 12 sense bases (ayatana), and the 18 sensory elements (dhatu). The lists converge and overlap because the teaching was codified in different ways.

The five aggregates, or skandhas, are: (1) rupa or form, (2) vedana or feelings of pleasure or pain or the absence of either one, (3) sañña or cognitive perception, (4) sankhara, the forces that cooperate to condition the psychic activity of an individual, and (5) viññana (Sanskrit: vijñana), consciousness.

The 12 bases, or ayatanas, include the five sense organs and the mind (manas),
as well as the five related sense fields and a cognizable object--that is, not an
object as such but, rather, an object as it is reflected in mental perception.

The 18 elements, or dhatus, comprise the five sense organs and the mano-dhatu (mind element), their six correlated objects, and the six consciousnesses (viññana) of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and manas.

Clearly in the Theravada tradition, Buddhism is not concerned with issues on metaphysics, but focuses on the analysis of the psychosomatic components of the human personality. This is due to the emphasis that only through an awareness of the interrelation, combination, and operation of these components, and of the way to cultivate some and to suppress others, that a person can arrive at the state of an arhat (Pali: arahant; "worthy one"). Its aim is not to promulgate any form of metaphysics, but to liberate oneself by using their psychic abilities in such a way as to stop the operation of karma (Pali: kamma).

Through such classification of dhammas, a person is seen as an aggregate of many elements working together, his “becoming of being” influenced by the law of karma, whether good or bad, and thus destined to suffer good or bad consequences.

All this rests on the assumption that there is no permanent, metaphysical entity such as an "I" or atman (Pali: atta) outside of time but that there is a continuously changing, psychosomatic aggregate situated in time. This aggregate has the freedom of choice that allows it to perform this or that act, which can be with or without outflows, and thus capable or not capable of generating consequences.

Such classifications are gathered as preparatory distinctions which guide whoever accepts the teaching of the Buddha in passing from the temporal to the atemporal plane and overcoming the cycle of rebirths. They do not have any doctrinal goal.

To further pursuit the goal of Enlightenment, here enter the seven factors of enlightenment (bhojangga): clear memory, the exact investigation of the nature of things, energy and sympathy, tranquility, impartiality, and a disposition for concentration. These are assisted by subsidiaries, such as love for all living creatures, compassion, delight in that which is good or well done, and, again, impartiality. The last four are known as the "four sublime states," the necessary preconditions for liberation from karma and samsara.

Stages leading to arhatship

The ideal of the Theravada doctrine is the Arhat or Holy One who has attained enlightenment for himself alone. Though the Theravadin arhat naturally "took refuge in the Buddha," his emphasis was not on the grace of the Saviour but on His Dhamma. It is within this argument that the Theravada stresses on each individual’s mastering himself so that he may reach self-purification. To augment this aspect, Theravada taught that the Buddha is primarily human.

Photo: Hand >>

As the sonum bonum of Buddhism, Theravadins insists that Nirvana was beyond the realm of empirical reality and that the Buddha who had founded the religion could be distinguished from the Dhamma that he taught. They maintained that monks and laymen have different roles to play both in society and in religion. The way that leads the disciple to the stages of arhatship traverses an immense number of lives, during which the aspirant gains true insight into the nature of things.

According to the Theravadins, one who gains true Buddhist insight passes through four stages:

1) The first stage is that of the stream winner or stream enterer - i.e., the one who has seen the truth, who has experienced the first real intimations of nirvana, and who will not undergo more than seven additional rebirths.

2) The second stage is that of the once-returner--i.e., the one who has moved further toward the goal so that no more than one additional rebirth will be required to attain it fully.

3) The third stage is that of the non-returner, who will achieve complete release in the present life, or, at the very least, before another rebirth occurs. One who has reached this stage has broken free from the lower bonds: belief in a permanent self, doubt, faith in the results generated by rituals, sensual passion, and malice.

4) The fourth and final stage is that of the arhat, who has attained complete freedom by completing all that has to be done. The arhat is free from all bonds including the desire for existence in the formed or formless worlds, as well as ignorance, excitability, and ambition.

It can be said that the Theravadin emphasis is almost entirely scholastic, mainly concerned with the personal aspect of spiritual development. The human aspect of the Buddha is emphasized.

The Buddha

The state of the Buddha, the perfectly Enlightened One, is nirvana (Pali: nibbana)--an attainment from which one does not return. It is beyond death, not caused, not born, not produced; it is beyond all becoming and devoid of all that makes up a human person. There are two kinds of nirvana. One is achieved by the Buddha while still alive, but he remains alive only until the last and most tenuous remains of karma have been expended. When these disappear, the Buddha dies and then enters the nirvana that is not burdened by any karmic residue at all.

The Buddha has been given many other names, the most common of which are Arahant and Tathagata ("He Who Has Thus Attained"). The Theravadin scriptures, in the later stages, express a belief in previous buddhas before Gotama (six in one list, more in others) and also in a future buddha, Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), who presently dwells in the Tusita Heaven and who will come into the world when the proper time arrives.


In the Theravada tradition two basic forms of meditation (Pali: jhana; Sanskrit: dhyana) have been practiced in various forms and combinations. The first of these is closely related to a Hindu tradition of yoga practice involving a process of moral and intellectual purification associated with four stages of jhanic attainment. In the Theravada context the meditator achieves detachment from sensual desires and impure states of mind through analysis and reflection and thereby attains an emotional state of satisfaction and joy.

Photo:<< The practice of meditation: Samatha and Vipassana

In the second stage, intellectual activities are abated to a complete inner serenity; the mind is in a state of "one-pointedness" or concentration, joy, and pleasantness. In the third stage, every emotion, including joy, has disappeared, leaving the meditator indifferent to everything while remaining completely conscious. The fourth stage is the abandoning of any sense of satisfaction, pain, or serenity because any inclination to a good or bad state of mind has disappeared. The meditator thus enters a state of supreme purity, indifference to everything, and pure consciousness.

At this point the meditator begins the samapattis (or the higher jhanic attainments). Beyond all perception of form, withdrawn from the influence of perception, immune to the perception of plurality, concentrating on infinite space, the meditator reposes in the condition of spacial infinity. Going beyond this stage, the meditator concentrates on the limitlessness of consciousness and attains it. 

Proceeding further and concentrating on the nonexistence of everything whatsoever, he achieves a state in which there is absolutely nothing. Even further on, the meditator attains the highest level of realization in which there is neither perception nor non-perception.

The second form of Theravada meditation is called vipassana, or insight meditation. This kind of meditation requires concentration (produced by exercises such as concentrating on one's breathing), which lead to one-pointedness of mind. This one-pointedness of mind is then used to attain--directly--Buddhist insight into the saving truth that all reality is without self and impermanent and is filled with suffering, even the exalted jhanic states of consciousness.

This insight, from the Buddhist perspective, gives direct access to progress along the path and to the actual attainment of nirvana itself. In the classical Theravada texts the emphasis is placed on the jhanic forms of meditation, though the vipassana forms are never completely ignored. In recent years, however, there has been an increasing emphasis on practices in which the vipassana approach is predominant.

The Pali canon (Tipitaka)

Theravada Buddhists claim that they adhere to the most orthodox and pristine doctrines as found in early Buddhism. The Pali Canon or Tipitaka (“Three Baskets”) form the most comprehensive and oldest Buddhist canon extant today. In general, the Theravada Buddhists and the Sthaviravada, the school from which the Theravada developed, were noted for their strict adherence to the letter of the tradition, which they guarded with the utmost devotion.

The Pali Tipitaka is the earliest systematic and most complete collection of early Buddhist sacred literature. Its arrangement reflects the importance that the early followers attached to the regulations of the monastic life (Vinaya), to the discourses of the Buddha (Sutta), and subsequently to the interest in scholasticism (Abhidhamma).

The Vinaya Pitaka

The Pali Vinaya Pitaka, which is still in theory the rule in Theravada monasteries, although large sections have fallen into disuse, is divided into five major parts grouped into three divisions - Sutta-vibhanga ("Division of Rules"), Khandhakas ("Sections"), and Parivara ("Accessory").

The Sutta Pitaka

By far the largest of the three "baskets" is the Sutta Pitaka ("Basket of Discourse"), which consists of five collections (nikayas) containing the discourses attributed to the Buddha. Although, from a literary viewpoint, many of the discourses seem to be drawn out and repetitive, they nevertheless make rewarding reading because of the sublimity of thought and the richness and beauty of the illustrative similes that they contain. The discourses, reported by the Buddha's disciples, begin with the affirmative statement "Thus I have heard" and then relate the place and occasion of the discourse. At the end they affirm that the listeners are delighted and that they rejoice in what the Buddha has said. It is obvious that these discourses do not represent the exact words of the Buddha, although some phrases may have been accurately remembered. Still, they reveal the personality, the didactic technique, and the spirit of the founder. The discourses are chiefly in prose, except for stanzas illustrating or summing up a particular point.

The grouping of the discourses into nikayas does not rest on any kind of topical basis. Apparently there existed two groups of teachers (bhanakas), who memorized certain suttas ("discourses," or "sermons") and handed them down to their disciples orally. Reciters of lengthy verses were called Dighabhanakas, and reciters of middle-length verses Majjhimabhanakas. The third and fourth nikayas (Samyutta and Anguttara) seem to reflect a later development, their aim being to rearrange the topics dealt with in the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka

The third of the three "baskets," the Abhidhamma Pitaka ("Basket of Scholasticism"), comprises seven works that, although based on the contents of the Buddha's discourses, deal with selected and specific topics which form the basis for the later philosophical interpretations. The Pali version is a strictly Theravada collection and has little in common with the Abhidhamma works recognized by other schools of Buddhism.

It consists of seven works:

  1. Dhammasangani ("Summary of Dhamma"), an enumeration of the entities constituting reality,
  2. Vibhanga ("Division"), a definition of these entities from various points of view,
  3. Dhatukatha ("Discussion of Elements"), a classification of the elements of reality according to various levels of organization,
  4. Puggalapaññatti ("Designation of Person"), an interesting psychological typology in which people are classified according to their intellectual acumen and spiritual attainments,
  5. Kathavatthu ("Points of Controversy"), a later work discussing the controversial doctrinal points among the various ancient schools,
  6. Yamaka ("Pairs"), dealing with basic sets of categories arranged in pairs of questions, and
  7. Patthana ("Activations"), a voluminous work discussing 24 kinds of causal relations.


a)    Encyclopedia Britannica 1991-1994
b)    Buddhism and Asian History

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