Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in most of southeast Asia -- Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand. It claims about 100 million adherents worldwide. Its doctrines are taken from the Pali Tipitaka or Pali Canon, and its basic teachings begin with the Four Noble Truths.
Theravada also is one of the two primary schools of Buddhism; the other is called Mahayana. (Some will tell you there are three primary schools, and the third is Vajrayana. But all schools of Vajrayana are built upon Mahayana philosophy and call themselves Mahayana, also.)
Above all, Theravada emphasizes direct insight gained through critical analysis and experience rather than blind faith. For further explanation of this, see "The Perfection of Discerning Wisdom: A Theravada Teaching."
The Oldest School of Buddhism?
Theravada makes two historical claims for itself: One, that it is the oldest form of Buddhism being practiced today; and two, that 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.
Read More: Origins of Theravada Buddhism
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.
Theravada emphasizes individual enlightenment; 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.
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 Tipitika 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 Versus 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.
For more on Theravada Buddhism see:
- The Basics: What the Buddha Taught
- Buddha: Man, Ideal, Symbol
- Becoming a Buddhist
- A History of Buddhism
- Glossary of Buddhist Terms
- Theravada Buddhism
- Mahayana Buddhism
- The Sacred Texts of Buddhism
- Major Figures in Buddhist History and Current Events
- Major Figures in Buddhist Art and Literature
- Buddhist Holidays
- The Basics of Buddhism
- Every Moment, Every Step: The Practice of Buddhism
- Growth and Change Over 25 Centuries
- Updated Articles and Resources