Theravada Buddhism ("doctrine of the elders") is the oldest and most orthodox of Buddhism's three major sects. Regarded as the belief closest to the one taught by The Buddha himself, it is based on the recollections of The Buddha’s teachings amassed by the Elders—the elder monks who were Buddha’s companions. Theravada Buddhism is strongest in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and the Mekong Delta areas of Vietnam. It is sometimes called 'Southern Buddhism'.

Theravada Buddhism stresses spirituality, the enlightenment of the individual, self-discipline, the importance or pure thought and deed, the importance of the monastic life and the strict observance of the ancient Vinaya code It has distinct roles for monks and lay people, emphasizes that each individual is responsible for his or her salvation and takes the position that only monks are capable of reaching nirvana. Theravada Buddhism believes that it has remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. However, it does not necessarily over-emphasize these teachings in a conservative, fundamentalist way, rather they are viewed as tools to help people understand the truth, and not as having merit of their own.

In the name 'the doctrine of the elders' - the elders refers to senior Buddhist monks. This school of Buddhism believes that it has remained closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. However, it does not over-emphasise the status of these teachings in a fundamentalist way - they are seen as tools to help people understand the truth, and not as having merit of their own. [Source: BBC]

Theravada Buddhism was one of 18 schools that existed in centuries after The Buddha’s death. It spread from India to Sri Lanka and then to Southeast Asia and remained close to the original Pali canon. The other 17 schools disappeared when Muslims swept into northern India and destroyed the Buddhist monasteries that existed there. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as Hinayana (‘Lesser Vehicle’) Buddhism by Mahayana Buddhists.

By the third century B.C., Buddhism had spread widely in Asia, and divergent interpretations of the Buddha's teachings had led to the establishment of several sects. The teachings that reached Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) were given in a final written form in Pali (an Indo-Aryan language closely related to Sanskrit) to religious centers there in the first century A.D. and provided the Tipitaka (the scriptures or "three baskets"; in Sanskrit, Tripitaka) of Theravada Buddhism. This form of Buddhism reached what is now Thailand around the sixth century A.D. Theravada Buddhism was made the state religion only with the establishment of the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai in the thirteenth century A.D.

See Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism encompasses a wide range of philosophical schools, metaphysical beliefs, and practical meditative disciplines. It is more widespread and has more followers than Theravada Buddhism and includes Zen and Soka-gakkai Buddhism. It is practiced primarily in northern half of the Buddhist world: in China, Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Japan. "Mahayana” means "the Great Vehicle.” The word vehicle is used because Buddhist doctrine is often compared to a raft or ship that carries one across the world of suffering to better world. Greater is reference to the universality of its doctrines and beliefs as opposed to narrowness of other schools. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes referred to in a somewhat dismissing way as the Hinayana (‘Lesser Vehicle’) sect.

Mahayana Buddhism evolved around the A.D. 1st century during the second phase of Buddhist development as a reinterpretation of the Theravada rules for monks. It teaches that there is only one path to enlightenment and it is open to all beings; holds Bodhisattvas in great reverence; and places an emphasis on ritualistic practices, sutras and meditation and discourages forming attachments on the basis they are impermanent.

Mahayana spread to more distant lands than Theravada Buddhists because it allowed monks to travel more freely and was able to assimilate and accommodate local religions by using the concept of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists have great reverence for Bodhisttavas, the future Buddha Maitreya and Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise and the Buddhist equivalent of a savior who helps followers get into "heaven.”

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism and the two main branches of Buddhism. Theravada means “Way of the Elders,” an implication that it is literally what Buddha taught. Mahayana means “Greater vehicle,” a derogatory reference that it superior to Theravada Buddhism, the Lesser Vehicle. One of the main difference between the two is that the ideal of Mahayana is becoming a Bodhisattva (Buddha to be). Buddha only referenced himself as this and never gave instructions on how one should become a Bodhisattva. Sutra that address this matter were created after he died. During his life, The Buddha stressed the need to end suffering in this very life and try for the highest goal Arhatship. Theravada Buddhists resist the idea of Bodhisattvas and regard their system of beliefs as being purer and close to what The Buddha taught.

Confusing matters is the fact that Buddha referred to himself as an Arhat (Pali for "one who is worthy" or a "perfected person" who achieved Nirvana). This seems to have implied that heas no different from any of his enlightened disciples who attained this state. The only difference was that he was a full master of all the powers and great perfections that go with being elightened, things that others didn't necessarily have. One inference of Mahayana Buddhism is that in attaining perfections and striving for nirvana one must forestall full enlightenment to continuously work on the perfections. [Source:]

Most of Mahayana is based on the Lotus Sutra, which, according to to legend, was brought from the Nagas by Nagarjuna, regarded as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things.Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible also the Heart Sutra.

The fact that Buddha never stressed the Bodhisattva ideal as the goal of teaching has created strain between the Theravada and Mhayana Buddhist schools. The highest version of the Bodhisattva Ideal is based on Avalokiteshvara, who wanted to achieve enlightenment only when all being did so first, hence this high level means that Mahayana has a focus on compassion.

Development of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Sanskrit scholar R.P. Hayes wrote: “Between 100 to 200 years after the passing away of the Buddha, the Sangha (the monastic community) split over the political question of 'Who runs the Sangha?' A controversy over some monastic rules was decided by a committee of Arahats (fully Enlightened monks or nuns) against the views of the majority of monks. The disgruntled majority resented what they saw as the excessive influence of the small number of Arahats in monastery affairs. From then on, over a period of several decades, the disaffected majority partially succeeded in lowering the exalted status of the Arahat and raising in its place the ideal of the Bodhisattva (an unenlightened being training to be a Buddha). [Source: R.P. Hayes, Buddhist Society of Western Australia, Buddha Sasana =|=]

“Previously unknown scriptures, supposedly spoken by the Buddha and hidden in the dragon world, then appeared giving a philosophical justification for the superiority of the Bodhisattva over the allegedly 'selfish' Arahat. This group of monks and nuns were first known as the 'Maha Sangha', meaning 'the great (part) of the monastic community'. Later, after impressive development, they called themselves the 'Mahayana', the 'Greater Vehicle' while quite disparagingly calling the older Theravada 'Hinayana', the 'Inferior Vehicle'. =|=

Mahayana still retains most of the original teachings of the Buddha (in the Chinese scriptures these are known as the 'Agama' and in the Tibetan version as the 'Kangyur') but these core teachings were mostly overwhelmed by layers of expansive interpretations and wholly new ideas. The Mahayana of China, still vibrant in Taiwan, reflects an earlier phase of this development, the Mahayana of Vietnam, Korea and Japan (mostly Zen) is a later development, and the Mahayana of Tibet and Mongolia is a much later development still. =|=


Nagarjuna (A.D. c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is regarded by many as the second greatest teacher in Buddhism. Some people even feel that Nagarjuna is the second Buddha who The Buddha prophesied would come sometime after to clarify things. Nagarjuna did much to clarify the nature of emptiness and is responsible for the Heart Sutra.

Nagarjuna is widely considered the most important Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple Aryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñaparamita sutras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nagas (water spirits often depicted in the form of serpent-like humans). Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nalanda. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Very little is reliably known of the life of Nagarjuna, since the surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries after his death. According to some accounts, Nagarjuna was originally from South India. Some scholars believe that he was an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty. Archaeological evidence at Amaravati indicates that if this is true, the king may have been Yajña Sri Satakari, who ruled between A.D. 167 and 196. On the basis of this association, Nagarjuna is conventionally placed at around 150–250 CE. +

According to a 4th/5th-century biography translated by Kumarajiva, Nagarjuna was born into a Brahmin family in Vidarbha (a region of Maharashtra) and later became a Buddhist. Some sources claim that in his later years, Nagarjuna lived on the mountain of Sriparvata near the city that would later be called Nagarjunakoa ("Hill of Nagarjuna"). The ruins of Nagarjunakoa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh. +

Nagarjuna Writing and Philosophy

A number of influential Buddhist texts have attributed to Nagarjuna though many of the claims have dubious evidence to back them up. A lively debate over which are his authentic works continues to this day. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna's is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven chapters. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to Christian Lindtner, the works definitely written by Nagarjuna are: Mulamadhyamaka-karika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way); Sunyatasaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness); Vigrahavyavartani (The End of Disputes); Vaidalyaprakaraa (Pulverizing the Categories); Vyavaharasiddhi (Proof of Convention); Yuktiaika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning); Catustava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality); Ratnavali (Precious Garland); Pratityasamutpadahdayakarika (Constituents of Dependent Arising); Sutrasamuccaya; Bodhicittavivaraa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind); Suhllekha (Letter to a Good Friend); Bodhisabhara (Requisites of Enlightenment). +

“From studying his writings, it is clear that Nagarjuna was conversant with many of the Sravaka philosophies and with the Mahayana tradition. However, determining Nagarjuna's affiliation with a specific nikaya is difficult, considering much of this material has been lost. Nagarjuna assumes a knowledge of the definitions of the sixteen categories as given in the Nyaya Sutras, the chief text of the Hindu Nyaya school. +

Nagarjuna's major thematic focus is the concept of sunyata, or "emptiness," which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anatman "not-self" and pratityasamutpada "dependent origination", to refute the metaphysics of some of his contemporaries. For Nagarjuna, as for the Buddha in the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are "selfless" or non-substantial; all phenomena (dhammas) are without any svabhava, literally "own-being", "self-nature", or "inherent existence" and thus without any underlying essence. They are empty of being independently existent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhava circulating at the time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism. This is so because all things arise always dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being. Chapter 24 verse 14 of the Mulamadhyamakakarika provides one of Nagarjuna's most famous quotations on emptiness: “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.” +

As part of his analysis of the emptiness of phenomena in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna critiques svabhava in several different concepts. He discusses the problems of positing any sort of inherent essence to causation, movement, change and personal identity. Nagarjuna makes use of the Indian logical tool of the tetralemma to attack any essentialist conceptions. Nagarjuna’s logical analysis is based on four basic propositions: 1) All things (dharma) exist: affirmation of being, negation of non-being. 2) All things (dharma) do not exist: affirmation of non-being, negation of being. 3) All things (dharma) both exist and do not exist: both affirmation and negation. 4) All things (dharma) neither exist nor do not exist: neither affirmation nor negation.

Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Buddhism has long been a strong force in Southeast Asian culture and remains a major influence in everyday life. Almost every village and town has its own temple (Wat ), which is the focal point of village festivities and rituals.

Buddhism has a strong influence on the character and morality of individuals in Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check and stresses karma over determination, which often means people are more willing to accept their lot in life. This is sometimes is viewed by Westerners as a lack of ambition or unwillingness to work hard to improve their positions in life. See Thailand

Although Buddhism is clearly the dominate religion, people in Southeast Asia also pay homage to Hindu gods and animist spirits and practice ancestor spirits in hope of pacifying everyone and thus ensuring good fortune. Many ethnic minorities practice animism, which emphasizes a reverence for all living things.

See Buddhism

Early History of Hinduism in Southeast Asia

Hinduism preceded Buddhism into Southeast Asia. It was introduced around the sixth century B.C. to Southeast Asia by Indian merchants. Many of the great early civilizations of Southeast Asia-such as the Funan, the Chams in present-day Vietnam and the Khmer's in present-day Cambodia—were strongly influenced by India and Hinduism. Unlike Indian Hinduism, which favored deities like Vishnu and Shiva, Southeast Asian Hinduism revered nagas, who protected temples from evil spirits, and considered Garuda, the eagle mount of Vishnu, to be one of the most important gods.

Hinduism in Southeast Asia gave birth to the former Champa civilization in southern parts of Central Vietnam, Funan in Cambodia, the Khmer Empire in Indochina, Langkasuka Kingdom, Gangga Negara and Old Kedah in the Malay Peninsula, the Srivijayan kingdom on Sumatra, the Singhasari kingdom and the Majapahit Empire based in Java, Bali, and parts of the Philippine archipelago. The civilization of India influenced the languages, scripts, calendars, and artistic aspects of these peoples and nations. [Source: Wikipedia]

Indian scholars wrote about the Dvipantara or Jawa Dwipa Hindu kingdom in Java and Sumatra around 200 BC. Southeast Asia was frequented by traders from eastern India, particularly Kalinga, as well as from the kingdoms of South India. The Taruma kingdom occupied West Java around 400. There was a marked Buddhist influence starting about 425. These seafaring peoples engaged in extensive trade, which attracted the attention of the Mongols, Chinese and Japanese, as well as Islamic traders, who reached the Aceh area of Sumatra in the 12th century.

Arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Buddhism reached Sri Lanka about the middle of the 3rd century B.C. From there and from India, some centuries later, it spread to Southeast Asia, reaching Cambodia, Sumatra and Java by the A.D. 3rd century and Burma by at least by the A.D. 5th century. It also took hold to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong in there and in Indonesia until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century.

Buddhism may have arrived earlier. According to Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to Suvanaphoum (the Golden Land) is the 3rd century B.C. Suvanaphoum was an emerging area of Indian and Chinese culture is thought to have embraed southern Myanmar, Thailand and eastern Cambodia.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India’s Ashoka period, in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, when Indian missionaries are said to have been sent to a land called Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold). Suvannabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Myanmar, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in Thailand’s central river basin have long been called Suphanburi (City of Gold) and U Thong (Cradle of Gold). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

Mahayana Buddhism may have been the first form of Buddhism to really take hold in Southeast Asia. It arrived in northern Burma from India and remained there from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India. Buddhist monks from India and China also brought with the knowledge of medicine and science from those cultures. Mahayana Buddhism is believed to have arrived in southern Southeast Asia via the Kingdom of Srivjaya in Indonesia or Funan, where it was practiced in the A.D. fifth century.

In the 8th century the powerful Shrivijaya kingdom in Sumatra introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana to the Khmers in present-day Cambodia. The Khmers were originally Hindus. In the late 12th century, Jayavarman VII made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion. Mahayana was compatible with the form of Hinduism and the god-king concept that existed in Cambodia at that time. It was expressed in Sanskrit. The Khmers converted to Buddhism in the 12th century under king Jayavarman VII (See Javyavarman VII, Cambodia) but continued to acknowledge Hinduism and worship many Hindu gods, particularly Shiva and Vishnu. The Khmers spread Mahayana Buddhism across Southeast Asia until their kingdom collapsed in the 14th century.

Buddhism had all but died out its homeland of India when it arrived in Southeast Asia. It provided a philosophical and oral framework for people that extended from Tibet to Vietnam. Even though Buddhism became the predominate religion, Hinduism and animism and local religions remained alive and fused together in a way that was unique to the region, embracing some Hindu deities and cult practices and absorbing some animist spirits. Many legends that became part of local folklore have both Hindu and Buddhist elements. Sometimes even different elements of the same religion came together in unique ways. The god Hara-Hara, popular in Khmer art, was a combination of Shiva and Vishnu.

Arrival of Theravada Buddhist in Southeast Asia

Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and was introduced to Southeast Asia in southern Burma, when it was inhabited by people known as Mon, by way of eastern India and Sri Lanka. The religion took hold in Burma in A.D. 1040, when the Burmese monarch King Anawratha converted to it. Theravada Buddhism mixed with indigenous beliefs (particularly the belief in spirits called nats) and was spread with the help of rich patrons who supported the monasteries and established new monasteries across country that educated the people. In the process, Mahayana Buddhism disappeared.

The Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand owes little to China because it was carried their by monks from India. The texts were in the Pali language and derived from Sanskrit. The Buddhism that was introduced to Cambodia initially belonged to a now dead sect of Mahayana Buddhism called Sarvastivada. Theravada Buddhism did not appear there and in Laos until the 14th century. In Thailand, there is little evidence of it until the 13th century.

In the 13th century the Thai people arrived in northern Thailand from southern China. They absorbed Buddhism from the Mons in the central plains. In the 14th century Thai monks schooled in Sri Lanka returned with reformed concepts of Theraveda Buddhism, and helped spread the religion to Laos and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism arrived in Cambodia slowly in beginning in the 11th century from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. It offered a new ideology and undermined the Hinduism and the god-king elements of Khmer rule. Theravada Buddhism gained a stronger foothold in Cambodia when the Thais conquered Angkor in 1431 and was the dominate form of Buddhism by the 15th century. It was expressed through the Pali language.

Theravada Buddhism in Thailand

Theravada Buddhism is the religion of more than 80 percent of the Thai people, They include not only the core Thai, but most other Tai speakers, as well as the Khmer, the Mon, and some members of other minorities, among them the Chinese. Relatively few Thai were adherents of Mahayana Buddhism or other religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, Taoism, animism, and Islam. Of these only Islam, largely identified with but not restricted to Southern Thai of Malay origin, was a dominant religion in a specific geographic area. [Source: Library of Congress*]

Theravada Buddhism was the established religion, in that there were formal organizational and ideological links between it and the state. Thai rulers (the king formerly, and the military and bureaucratic oligarchy subsequently) sought or--if they thought it necessary--commanded the support of the Buddhist clergy or sangha, who usually acquiesced to (if not welcomed) the state's support and protection. A Thai religious writer pointed out that Thailand was the only country in the world where the king was constitutionally required to be a Buddhist and upholder of the faith. *

Buddhism's place in Thai society was by no means defined solely by its relation to the state. The role of religious belief and institutions in Thai life had changed, and, with increasing commercialism and urbanization, some observers questioned the prevalence of Thai piety and good works. However, the peasant's or villager's view of the world remained at least partly defined by an understanding of Buddhist doctrine, and significant events in his or her life and community were marked by rituals performed or at least supervised by Buddhist clergy. Often, the villager's city-dwelling siblings would return to the home village for significant events such as weddings and funerals. Additionally, much of Thai village life--social, political, economic, and religious--centered on the local wat. *

As is often the case when a scripturally based religion becomes dominant in a largely agrarian society, the religious beliefs and behavior of most Thai were compounded of elements derived from both formal doctrine and other sources. The latter either developed during the long history of Buddhism or derived from religious systems indigenous to the area. Implementation of the same Buddhist rite and tradition often varied from region to region. In Central Thailand, for example, praiseworthy priests were selected and honored by the king, whereas in the Northeast this recognition was bestowed by the people. *

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Last updated September 2018

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