What does Theravada Buddhism stand for? What is the difference between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism?
Theravada (Pali, literally “school of the elder monks”) is a branch of Buddhism that uses the Buddha’s teaching preserved in the Pali Canon as its doctrinal core. The Pali canon is the only complete Buddhist canon which survives in a classical Indic Language. Pali, which serves as the sacred language and lingua franca of Theravada Buddhism. Another feature of Theravada is that it tends to be very conservative about matters of doctrine and monastic discipline. As a distinct sect, Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and spread to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Theravada also includes a rich diversity of traditions and practices that have developed over its long history of interactions with varying cultures and religious communities. It is the dominant form of religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and is practiced by minority groups in Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and Vietnam. In addition, the diaspora of all of these groups as well as converts around the world practice Theravada Buddhism. Contemporary expressions include Buddhist modernism, the Vipassana movement and the Thai Forest Tradition.
Theravada also one of the two primary schools of Buddhism, and the other is called Mahayana. It is said that there are three primary schools, and the third is Vajrayana. But all schools of Vajrayana are built upon Mahayana philosophy, so naturally call themselves as Mahayana also.
Read more: What Is Mahayana Buddhism?
Above all, Theravada emphasizes direct insight gained through critical analysis and experience rather than blind faith.
Theravada Buddhism is followed by countries and people around the globe, and is:
In South Asia: Nepal: Sri Lanka (by 70% of the population), Bangladesh (by 0.7% of the population), India (0.8%) mainly in Maharashtra and Seven Sister States;
In Southeast Asia: Cambodia (by 95% of the population), Laos (by 67% of the population), Myanmar (by 89% of the population), Thailand (by 90% of the population, 94% of the population that practises religion), Vietnam (by the Khmer Krom), Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore;
In other parts of Asia: China (mainly by the Shan, Tai, Dai, Hani, Wa, Achang, Blang ethnic groups mainly in Yunnan province ).
Theravada has also recently gained popularity in the Western world. Today, Theravada Buddhists, number over 150 million worldwide, and during the past few decades Theravada Buddhism has begun to take root in the West and in the Buddhist revival in India.
• Does Theravada is the Oldest School of Buddhism?
Theravada makes two historical claims for itself: One it is the oldest form of Buddhism being practiced today; and the other one it is directly descended from the original sangha — the Buddha’s own disciples — and Mahayana is not.
The first claim probably is true. Sectarian differences began to develop within Buddhism very early, probably within a few years of the historical Buddha’s death. Theravada developed from a sect called Vibhajjavada that was established in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE. Mahayana didn’t emerge as a distinctive school until early in the first millennium CE. The other claim is harder to verify. Both Theravada and Mahayana emerged from the sectarian divisions that occurred after the Buddha’s passing. Whether one is closer to “original” Buddhism is a matter of opinion. Theravada is distinctive from the other major school of Buddhism, Mahayana, in several ways.
• Little Sectarian Division
For the most part, unlike Mahayana, there are no significant sectarian divisions within Theravada. There are, of course, variations in practice from one temple to another, but doctrines are not wildly different within Theravada.
Most Theravada temples and monasteries are administered by monastic organizations within national boundaries. Often Theravada Buddhist institutions and clergy in Asia enjoy some government sponsorship but also are subject to some government supervision.
• Individual Enlightenment
Theravada emphasizes individual enlightenment; Mahayana emphasizes the enlightenment of all beings. The ideal is to become an arhat (sometimes arahant), which means “worthy one” in Pali. An arhat is a person who has realized enlightenment and freed himself from the cycle of birth and death.
Beneath the arhat ideal is an understanding of the doctrine of anatman — the nature of the self — that differs from that of the Mahayana. Very basically, Theravada considers anatman to mean that an individual’s ego or personality is a fetter and delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana.
Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic, separate self. Therefore, according to Mahayana, “individual enlightenment” is an oxymoron. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together.
Read More: What Is Enlightenment?
Theravada teaches that enlightenment comes entirely through one’s own efforts, without help from gods or other outside forces. Some Mahayana schools teach this also; others do not.
Theravada accepts only the Pali Tipitaka as scripture. There are a large number of other sutras that are venerated by Mahayana that Theravada does not accept as legitimate. See “Buddhist Scriptures: An Overview” for further explanation.
• Pali VS Sanskrit
Theravada Buddhism uses the Pali rather than the Sanskrit form of common terms. For example, sutta instead of sutra; dhamma instead of dharma.
The primary means of realizing enlightenment in the Theravada tradition is through Vipassana or insight meditation. Vipassana emphasizes disciplined self-observation of body and thoughts and how they interconnect. Some schools of Mahayana also emphasize meditation, but other schools of Mahayana do not meditate.