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7.2.1: Theravada Buddhism

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    Theravada Buddhism now predominates in Southeast Asia, with the exception of Vietnam. It makes the claim (which is contested by Mahayanists) to be the oldest, original, and most authentic form of Buddhism. Its scriptures in the ancient Pali language-a nonliterary, vernacular dialect derived from the Sanskrit language and featuring devices facilitating several centuries of oral transmission-portray a master teacher in touch with common folk and addressing eminently practical problems. By comparison with Mahayana teachings, Theravada teachings are simple, direct, down to earth, and wholly practical-in the manner of an old-fashioned medical doctor who is concerned to have his patient focus solely on recovering from his disease. They give little encouragement to the speculative intellect, and so disinterested are they in whether gods exist and how they should be worshiped that Theravada seems atheistic. (The worship of conventional gods and goddesses, especially of the variety found in Hinduism where Buddhism first arose, is deemed by all forms of Buddhism to be irrelevant to the attainment of Enlightenment and a serious distraction from the kind of effort necessary to its attainment. Such beings are deemed subject to conditioned existence and the round of rebirth. Accordingly, they do not share in the unconditioned realityo of nirvana/nibbana)

    Theravada Buddhism is marked by the prominence and esteem it gives to the monastic pursuit of Enlightenment, and thus to a distinction between monastic followers and lay followers of the Buddha.5 Actually, there are two options of monastic life: life in a community (usually in or near a larger population area) under the rule of an abbot or abbess, the most popular form, and the more rigorous life of a homeless mendicant (usually in uninhabited or sparsely inhabited regions). In Theravada at least, lay and monastic Buddhists are not regarded as on a common level spiritually; monastics are conceived as being on a distinct, more advanced level on a path beginning not in the current life but, in terms of the doctrine of "reincarnation" (samsara), in an unfathomable past and continuing, one life following another, up to the present. In other words, only some are considered ready in this life to undertake the advanced rigors of monastic discipline and even fewer to attain Enlightenment thereby. One's destiny (kamma), as far as one's present life is concerned, is deemed to have been set by the choices one has made and the merit one has accumulated in previous lives. The ultimate goal, however, is not a better rebirth but Enlightenment, which is supposed to be a deliverance from having to continue in the cycle of rebirth.

    In any case, the teaching of the Buddha and the rules of monastic discipline ideally keep monks and nuns focused on cultivating panna ("wisdom"), through the analysis and comprehension of suffering, its arising, and its overcoming-involving the study and assimilation of the Buddhist scriptures; sila ("ethical virtue"), the practice of moral and ascetic disciplines as stipulated in the rules of monastic life; and samadhi ("mental concentration"), a step-by-step progressive develop("mental concentration"), a step-by-step progressive development of inward calmness and intensified awareness. As the three legs of a threelegged stool are each indispensable to the others, these three are the mutually indispensable parts of the Buddha's Eightfold Path to Enlightenment: panna encompasses right understanding and right thought; sila encompasses right speech, right action, and right livelihood; and samadhi encompasses right effort, right awareness, and right concentration. The goal is a mystical realization for oneself of Enlightenment, attained through a systematic uprooting of egoistic desire (attachment to pleasure), egoistic aversion (antipathy to pain), and confused or ignorant states of mind that fuel the condition of suffering that is the transmigrating

    "ego." In practice, this amounts to a balanced synthesis of the ways of reasoned inquiry, right action, and mystical quest, with primacy of emphasis, as this author understands it, given to mystical quest in terms of what in Theravada is called vipassana ("insight") meditation 6 Vipassana involves the development of an utterly calm and detached intense awareness of the most mundane of ordinary activities.7 Within the religious life of monastic Theravada Buddhism, the only other way of being religious that is apparent is a diminished and subordinate expression of the way of sacred rite supporting the monastic pursuit of Enlightenment. This is exemplified in the daily and monthly cycle of monastic activities (i.e., meditation, study, begging for food, eating, chanting, sleeping-actually, even seated meditation has an archetypal ritual aspect to it), ritualized relationships between members of the monastic community, seasonal rituals of the monastic community, pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites, and ordination ceremonies (initiation for novices and higher ordination for full-fledged monastics).

    The religious life of lay followers and their relations with the monastic community in Theravada Buddhism has given rise to other ways of being religious as well as other expressions of the ways already mentioned.8 For example, because laypersons are deemed unable to make much direct progress on the rigorous path to which monks and nuns devote themselves 9-though they sometimes do practice scaled-down versions of panna, sila, and samadhi in a distant or shortterm emulation of monastic life-they are reliant upon the compassionate aid ("grace"?) of ultimate realityo embodied in the Buddha and the monastic community in terms of Buddhist teaching, spiritual guidance, conduct of seasonal and life cycle rituals, and bestowal of spiritual power for well-being. In this respect, the devotion they express toward the Buddha (as focused in shrines, temples, relics, and images), toward the Sangha (the monastic community), and toward individual monks and nuns (by way of homage, gifts of food and other necessities, reliance for advice and instruction, and solicitation of spiritual blessings) exemplifies many typical features of the way of devotion.10 Aspects of sacred rite within Theravada lay religious life are more prevalent and significant-more sacramental it appears-than those associated with monastic life. Within the Hindu context of its origins, Buddhist laypersons would have relied upon Hindu Brahman priests to administer domestic and community rituals. But when Buddhism moved into cultural contexts where there was no developed ritual system or where Buddhism may have displaced such indigenous systems, Buddhist monastics more and more came to assume these priestly functions. The symbolic structure of relationships between lay and monastic Buddhists is largely governed by sacred ritual. For auspicious occasions, Buddhist monks are called upon regularly to chant specially selected words of the Buddha (called the performance of paritta and thought to hold great sacred power), for the purpose of ensuring that things go well. In some respects, participation in sacred rite is shared between lay and monastic Buddhists-in pilgrimage, for example, and in visits to the sacred symbolic spaces such as those of a temple or relic shrine (stupa).

    Some aspects of the way of shamanic mediation sometimes show up in relations between Buddhist monastics and laypersons. 11 Reference to the extraordinary spiritual powers of the Buddha and monks of high attainment can be found throughout Buddhist literature, and, although these are not to be sought for their own sake or manipulated for egoistic motives, they may be used in compassion to benefit others. 12 Also, according to scripture, magical spells were explicitly allowed by the Buddha to ensure protection against evils such as snakebite, and talismans are frequently used among Theravada Buddhists.13 In rural areas of Southeast Asia the boundary between indigenous healing shamanic practices and Buddhist practice appears to be often difficult to discern.

    Finally, the way of right action among lay Theravada Buddhism has at times taken on a life of its own, particularly in relation to civic life and social welfare. 14 The precedent for this development is due to the legacy of the mid-third-century B.C.E. monarch Ashoka, who is sometimes called the second founder of Buddhism. Largely because of his initiative and vision, there developed a lay tradition parallel to the Theravada sangha dedicated to achieving Buddhist ideals within the political and social order. A very recent development that has placed first priority on the way of right action is the movement founded by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) and called Ambedkar Buddhism. It has concentrated on improving the lot of the untouchable castes in India. 15

    This page titled 7.2.1: Theravada Buddhism is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.