Buddha in a Somingyi Tempe at Bagan, Myanmar

The Noble Virtues of Therevada Buddhism are loving kindness, understanding, serenity and satisfaction for others’ well-being. Theravada Buddhism doctrine stresses the three principal aspects of existence: 1) "dukkha" (stress, suffering, pursuit of desire, disease, impurity); 2) "anicca" (impermanence, transience and temporary state of all things): and 3) "annayya" (the illusion and non-essentiality of reality and the non-existence of a permanent ‘soul’). Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “The truth of anicca holds that no experience, no state of mind, no physical object lasts; trying to hold onto experience , states of mind and objects that are constantly changing creates dukkha; anatta is understanding that there is no part of the changing world that we can pnint to and say ‘This is me’ or ‘This God’ or ‘This is the soul.’”[Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

According to the BBC: “Theravada Buddhism emphasises attaining self-liberation through one's own efforts. Meditation and concentration are vital elements of the way to enlightenment. The ideal road is to dedicate oneself to full-time monastic life. The follower is expected to "abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify their mind". Meditation is one of the main tools by which a Theravada Buddhist transforms themselves, and so a monk spends a great deal of time in meditation. When a person achieves liberation they are called a 'worthy person' - an Arhat or Arahat. Despite the monastic emphasis, Theravada Buddhism has a substantial role and place for lay followers. [Source: BBC]

The guiding principal in Theravada Buddhism is that nothing is permanent and attachment to things will only bring unhappiness and distract one from intrinsic spiritual matters. Anicca teaches that nothing lasts. Trying to embrace experiences, states of mind and objects only causes dukkha. Annatta is coming to the understanding that there is there is no point dwelling on one’s place in this world. In Theravada Buddhism worship and devotion to persons is frowned upon. The offerings of fruit and flowers made are temples are symbols of impermanence not an object of worship. Chants are not prayers but are reminders of the beneficence of The Buddha, Dharma and the monk community.

1) Merit is earned by giving alms to monks and making donations and offerings at temples. Buddhist believe by gaining merit they will improve their station in the next life. 2) The Triranta, or Triple Gems, respected by Theravada Buddhists are: A) the Buddha, B) the Dharma (teachings); and C) Sangha (the Buddhist brotherhood, monks). 3) The Dharma (Dhamma) is chanted every morning and evening and taught to everyone in primary school.

Theravada novice meditating in the forest

4) The Supernatural: Many faiths offer supernatural solutions to the spiritual problems of human beings. Buddhism does not. The basis of all forms of Buddhism is to use meditation for awakening (or enlightenment), not outside powers. Supernatural powers are not disregarded but they are incidental and the Buddha warned against them as fetters on the path. 5) The Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama was a man who became Buddha, the Awakened One - much in the same way as Jesus became Christ. Since his death the only contact with him is through his teachings which point to the awakened state. 6) God: There is no omnipotent creator God of the sort found in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Gods exist as various types of spiritual being but with limited powers.

7) The Path to Enlightenment: Each being has to make their own way to enlightenment without the help of God or gods. Buddha's teachings show the way, but making the journey is up to us. 8) Theravada Buddhism emphasises attaining self-liberation through one's own efforts. Meditation and concentration are vital elements of the way to enlightenment. The ideal road is to dedicate oneself to full-time monastic life. The follower is expected to "abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify their mind".

8) Meditation is one of the main tools by which a Theravada Buddhist transforms themselves, and so a monk spends a great deal of time in meditation. 9) When a person achieves liberation they are called a 'worthy person' - an Arhat or Arahat. 10) Despite the monastic emphasis, Theravada Buddhism has a substantial role and place for lay followers. 11) Four Misleadings and Biasness: A) mislead by desire, B) mislead by anger, C) mislead by fear, D) mislead by mismanagement.

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Religious Tolerance Page ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism ; Buddhist Centre; A sketch of the Buddha's Life ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ; Buddhist Tales ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi ; Victoria and Albert Museum ;

Theravada Buddhism: Readings in Theravada Buddhism, Access to Insight ; Readings in Buddhism, Vipassana Research Institute (English, Southeast Asian and Indian Languages) ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica ; Pali Canon Online ; Vipassanā (Theravada Buddhist Meditation) Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Pali Canon - Access to Insight ; Forest monk tradition ; BBC Theravada Buddhism

Differences Between Mahayana Buddhist and Theravada Buddhists

Mahayana Buddhists claim their doctrines are rooted in early teachings of Buddha and say they do not reject the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism, but have just expanded on them. Theravada Buddhists view Mahayana Buddhism as a corrupted form of Buddha?s teaching plus see it as too easy. Theravada Buddhists are taught that one must “work out one’s own salvation with diligence” whereas Mahayana Buddhists believe faith is enough to earn all believers eventual salvation. Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism differ greatly on the matter of Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhists recognize many of them as well as many Buddhas. Theravada Buddhists recognize just one, The Buddha.

The tenets of Mahayana Buddhism are more vague and all-encompassing than the strict tenets of Theravada Buddhism, but its followers often conform to a very regimented routine as is the case with Zen. Mahayana Buddhists believe in a multitude of heavens, hells and descriptions of nirvana and have great reverence for Bodhisattvas—Buddhist "saints" on the verge of nirvana who stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others.

Mahayana Buddhists believe that salvation is accessible to all those who have faith and regard their religion as a way of life that can be embraced by any one. They also enjoy philosophical discussion and intellectual gymnastics and enlist the help of female deities and magical forces and worship a pantheon of gods, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Mahayana Buddhists see The Buddha as the sum total of everything there is; discount his historical personage; view his life on earth in magical and transcendent terms; and have Bodhisattvas and Buddhas that address issues important to ordinary people. The Supreme Buddha became an all knowing force that pervaded every part of the universe, like a creator God.

Mahayana Buddhism places an emphasis on the process of attaining nirvana through the purification of the consciousness and has been “expanded” to respond to the needs of local people it severed. Its followers a number of mythologies and ontological doctrines. They see true reality as ‘Emptiness;’ define ten stages which Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood; and see everything being connected by a kind of cosmic thread rooted in true reality.

Theravada Buddhist Beliefs About Merit and Alms Giving

The most effective way to work actively to improve one's karma is to earn merit. Any act of benevolence or generosity can gain merit for the doer. Cambodian Buddhists tend to regard opportunities for earning merit as primarily connected with interaction with the sangha, contributing to its support through money, goods, and labor, and participating in its activities. Some of the favorite ways for a male to earn merit are to enter the sangha as a monk (after the age of twenty) or as a novice, or to live in the wat as a temple servant; in the case of a female (usually the elderly), the favorite way is to become a nun. Other activities that gain merit include sponsoring a monk or novice, contributing to a wat, feeding members of the sangha at a public meal, and providing food for either of the two daily meals of the sangha. *

Earning merit is an important aspect of Buddhist life. Buddhists earn merit by giving money, goods, and labor to the temples, or by providing one of the two daily meals of the monks. Children often look after the fruits trees and vegetable gardens inside their local wat, or temple. Boys can earn merit by becoming temple servants or novice monks for a short time. Most young men remain monks for less than a year. +

Theravada Buddhist Beliefs About Heaven, Hell and the Lives of the Buddha

Theravada Buddhists insist that Gautama, both as Siddhartha and The Buddha, was a man, not a god or myth or legend, and was subject to the same pain and suffering as other humans but sought a transcendent state beyond human life. They say The Buddha took a vow aeons ago under the First Buddha to pursue the enlightenment on his own, and was reincarnated hundreds of times in that quest before he became a Buddha. They view his death as such a complete break from material existence that is he so free from the human world that he no longer exists.

19th century Burmese depiction of hell

According to Theravada Buddhism. there are 31 planes, or forms of beings, 6 floors of heaven. and 7 floors of hell. They are: 1) 20 planes of Brahmas. or higher spiritual beings; 2)6 planes of Nats or Devas. or lower spiritual beings; 3) Human existence; 4) Animals; 5) Peta. Apaya beings-in-woe; 6) Asuraka. Apaya beings in-semi-woe; 7) Hell. beings-in-torment. composed of 8 floors. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information \\]

The last 10 lives of Buddha is most prominant. and many wrote about these in the past. They are: 1) Prince Taymi; 2) Zanekka; 3) Thuwunna Tharma; 4) Nay-mi; 5)Prophet Mahaw-tha-htar; 6) Bu-ri-dut; 7) San; 8)Nar; 9) Widura Minister; 10) King Weithantayar .\\

Buddha taught the followers that there are other planets. other different types of beings...Buddhists believe that there are 5 Buddhas on this planet earth. Out of the 5. four Buddha has came. and one more is to come: 1) Kotekathan Buddha; 2) Kawnargon Buddha; 3) Kuthapha Buddha; 4) Gawtama Buddha; 5) Areinmadeya Buddha (the up-coming Buddha). \\

Theravada Buddhists sometimes make wishes to avoid certain places in their everyday prayer. They are: 1) four lower beings (hell, animal, ghost,demon); 2) three disasters (starvation, war and plague); 3) eight places one can't reach (Nivirna, hell, animal, ghost, paganism,retarded, living where no god exist); 4) Five Enemies (water, fire, king, thief, who hates); four defects ( being in nether worlds,birth defects, being in bad society, doing only the bad); 5) five great losts (lost of relatives, lost of wealth, lost by disease, lost by misbelief, lost by misbehavior). \\

Monks in Theravada Buddhism

Thailand, Laos and Burma have among the highest monk to people ratios in the world. Monks are respected by everyone. Most Thai, Lao and Burmese men spend at least a few months of their lives living as Buddhist monks. Most Theravada monks live as part of monastic communities. Some join as young as seven, but one can join at any age. A novice is called a samanera and a full monk is called a bikkhu. The monastic community as a whole is called the sangha.

Because entering the monk hood is major merit-generating act. most men spend part of their lives as monks. A young man is initiated as a novice monk and remains in the monk hood—in most cases— temporarily for several days to several months. His initiation. a ritual reenactment of the Buddha's own renunciation of material wealth and assumption of monastic discipline. is a major festive occasion; the initiate's head is shaved. and he receives a new name. recites the monastic vows. and dons the monk's brown robe. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

monk examination in Bago, Myanmar

Thai villagers expect monks to be pious and to adhere to the rules. Beyond that, monks are expected to provide services to individual members of the laity and local communities by performing various ceremonies and chanting appropriate passages from the Buddhist scriptures on important occasions. The presence of monks is believed to result in the accrual of merit to lay participants.

In many villages monks play a key role in society by providing basic education to rural children. They are also involved in teaching trades and crafts to adults and organizing community development projects like building bridges, digging wells and constructing dams. Monks are allowed to travel free on buses and trains. Some river boats even have a special cabin for them.

Thai Buddhists generally do not expect monks to be directly involved in the working world; the monks' sustenance is provided by the members of the community in which the monks live. Their contribution to community life, besides their religious and ceremonial functions, is primarily educational. Beginning in the late 1960s, the government encouraged monks to engage in missionary activity in the remote, less developed provinces, particularly among the hill peoples, as part of the effort to integrate these groups into the polity. Leaders at the Buddhist universities have taken the stand that monks owe something to society in return for the support given them and that, in addition to the advanced study of Buddhism, the universities ought to include secular subjects conducive to the enrichment of the nation.

Most Theravada Buddhist monks have shaved heads and wear saffron or maroon robes. Buddhist monks in Thailand are prohibited from wearing anything other than saffron. Thai monks can be seen wearing various shades of robes, from dark brown to the familiar brilliant saffron. There are no rules, but the darker shades are preferred by monks in the Dharmmayuth sect and Thu-dong or forest monks. Forest monks generally make their own robes from cloth that is given. Plain white cotton is always useful (it can be dyed to the correct dull ochre). The basic 'triple robe' of, the Buddha is supplemented with sweaters, tee-shirts, socks, etc. and these, of an appropriate brown colour, can also be offered. The wearing of animal skin is particularly frowned upon. Monks are not even supposed to ride on animals.

Lay People and Monks

According to the BBC: “The code of behaviour for lay people is much less strict than that for monks. They follow the five basic Buddhist principles that have already been mentioned. Monasteries often have facilities for lay people to stay in retreat. The accommodation is usually basic and one has to abide by Eight Precepts (to abstain from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual activity, unskilful speech, taking intoxicating drink or drugs, eating after midday, wearing adornments, seeking entertainments, and sleeping in soft, luxurious beds). [Source: BBC |::|

“The relationship between monks and lay people in Theravada Buddhism is very strong. This type of Buddhism could not, in fact, exist in its present form without this interaction. It is a way of mutual support - lay people supply food, medicine, and cloth for robes, and monks give spiritual support, blessings, and teachings. But this is not a tit for tat situation. Monks are not allowed to request anything from lay people; and lay people cannot demand anything from the monks. The spirit of it is more in the nature of open-hearted giving. |::|

“The system works well and is so firmly established in most Theravadan countries that monks are usually amply provided for, depending on the wealth or poverty of the local people. Ceremonies and commemoration days There are numerous ceremonies and commemoration days which lay people celebrate, such as Wesak which marks the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha, and for these events everyone converges on the local temples.” |::|

monks in Thailand receiving alms

Three-Basket Tipitaka: Theravada Buddhist Doctrine

The doctrine of Theravada Buddhism can be found in the three-part Tipitaka. The first of the three baskets (or sections) sets forth the discipline governing the monastic order. The second presents the sermons or discourses of the Buddha and contains the dharma (literally, doctrine). The third comprises the commentaries and explications produced by learned monks in the centuries after the death of the Buddha. It is here that significant differences exist between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. [Source: Library of Congress*] In the first basket, and central to the structure of Buddhist belief, are the doctrines of karma, the sum and the consequences of an individual's actions during the successive phases of his existence, and samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Both doctrines were derived from the Indian thought of the Buddha's time, although he invested the concept of karma with very strong ethical implications. Broadly, these ideas taken together assert that evil acts have evil consequences for those committing them, and good acts yield good consequences, not necessarily in any one lifetime, but over the inevitable cycle of births and deaths. A concomitant to the belief in karma and samsara is the view that all forms of life are related because every form originated in a previous one. In the canonical view, but not in the popular one, the entity that undergoes reincarnation is not the soul (although the idea of soul exists) but a complex of attributes--actions and their consequences--that taken together are said to constitute the karma of an individual. It is karma in this sense that survives in another form. *

The second basket, containing the dharma, provides the essentials that define the way to nirvana. The foundation of the system lies in the Four Noble Truths: suffering exists, it is caused by craving or desire, it can be made to cease, and it can be brought to an end by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The last Noble Truth contains the eight precepts to be followed by Buddhists: right view, or having an understanding of the Four Noble Truths; right thought--freedom from lust, ill will, and cruelty; right speech, which means abstention from lying, gossiping, harsh language, and vain talk; right action, by which killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct are proscribed; right livelihood, which requires an individual's sustenance be earned in a way that is not harmful to living things; right effort, by which good thoughts are encouraged and bad thoughts are avoided or overcome; right mindfulness, or close attention to all states of the body, feeling, and mind; and right concentration, that is, concentration on a single object to bring about a special state of consciousness in meditation. Following the Noble Eightfold Path conscientiously is necessary if a person aspires to become an arhat (usually translated as saint), ready for nirvana. *

Virtually from the beginning, however, the Buddha acknowledged that it would be difficult for a layperson to follow all aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path singlemindedly. The conditions appropriate to such pursuit are available only to mendicant monks. The demands on the layperson are therefore less rigorous, and most interpret the doctrine as requiring acts gaining merit so that the layperson may achieve a condition in the next life that will allow stricter attention to the requirements of the path. *

The acts that bring merit are, in principle, those that conform as closely as possible to the ethical demands of the Noble Eightfold Path. Acts that support the brotherhood of monks are also included. Consequently, providing material support, e.g., food, to the members of the sangha, showing them deference, underwriting and participating in certain ceremonies, and supporting the construction and maintenance of the wat have come to be the chief methods of gaining merit. The powerful ethical content of the Noble Eightfold Path is reduced to five precepts or injunctions. The laity are expected to refrain from the following: taking life, stealing, lying, engaging in illicit sexual relations, and drinking intoxicating liquors. Thai Buddhists--like many followers of other religions--select only a few of the Buddha's teachings to guide them. Many Buddhist principles, while not actually practiced, are venerated as ideals. *

According to some observers, most Thai place little emphasis on the achievement of nirvana, whether as a final state after many rebirths or as an interior condition. What is hoped for is an improved condition in this life or the next. In Thai thinking, the ideas of merit and demerit so essential to the doctrine of karma are linked linguistically to those of good and evil; good and merit are both bun; evil and the absence of merit are bap. The Theravada idea of karma (and the Thai peasant's understanding of it) charges the individual with responsibility for good and evil acts and their consequences. Thai do not rely solely on the accumulation of merit, however gained, to bring that improved state into being. Other forms of causality, ranging from astrology to the action of spirits of various kinds, are also part of their outlook. *

Tipitaka scripture

Theravada Buddhist Texts

The fundamental teachings were collected into their final form around the 3rd century B.C., after a Buddhist council at Patna in India. The teachings were written down in Sri Lanka during the A.D. 1st century. They were written in Pali (a language like Sanskrit) and are known as the Pali canon. It's called the Tipitaka - the three baskets. [Source: BBC]

The three sections of the Tipitaka are: 1) the Vinaya Pitaka (the code for monastic life): These rules are followed by Buddhist monks and nuns, who recite the 227 rules twice a month. 2) the Sutta Pitaka (teachings of the Buddha); This contains the whole of Buddhist philosophy and ethics. It includes the Dhammapada which contains the essence of Buddha's teaching. 3) the Abhidamma Pitaka (supplementary philosophy and religious teaching). The texts have remained unaltered since they were written down. Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition consider it important to learn sections of these texts by heart.

Although these texts are accepted as definitive scriptures, non-Buddhists should understand that they do not contain divine revelations or absolute truths that followers accept as a matter of faith. They are tools that the individual tries to use in their own life.

Theravada Buddhist Meditation

Meditation occupies a central place in Buddhism and combines. in its highest stages. the discipline of progressively increased introversion with the insight brought about by wisdom. Meditation. though important in all schools of Buddhism. has developed characteristic variations within different traditions. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Theravada tradition has two forms of meditation: 1) Samatha: Calming meditation; and 2) Vipassana: Insight meditation. Samatha is the earliest form of meditation, and is not unique to Buddhism. It's used to make the mind calmer and take the person to higher jhanic states. (Jhanic states are hard to explain simply; 'states of consciousness' is probably the closest easily understandable definition.) The effects of Samatha meditation are temporary. [Source: BBC]

Vipassana is used to achieve insight into the true nature of things. This is very difficult to get because human beings are used to seeing things distorted by their preconceptions, opinions, and past experiences. The aim is a complete change of the way we perceive and understand the universe, and unlike the temporary changes brought about by Samatha, the aim of Vipassana is permanent change. [Source: BBC]

Vipassana: The Way of Meditation

abbot of Wat Kungtaphao meditating at Tat Hong waterfall

The practice of Vipassana or insight meditation is the effort made by the meditator to understand correctly the nature of psycho-physical phenomena taking place in his own body with a view to positive realization of the truths of impermanence, suffering and impersonality. Physical phenomena are the things or objects one clearly perceives around one. Mental phenomena are acts of consciousness or awareness. Both are clearly perceived to be happening whenever they are seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, or thought of. Every time one sees, hears, touches or thinks, one should make a note of the fact. With every act of breathing, the abdomen rises and falls, a movement that is always evident so one should begin by intently observing this movement. The rising should be noted mentally, but not verbally, as "arising," and the falling as "falling". Do not slow down the breathing or make it faster. Do not breathe too vigorously either, which will make you tired. Breathe steadily as usual and note the rising and falling of the abdomen as they occur.[Source: ==]

Vipassana is to keep the mind on the wisdom path and watch and realize the phenomena of mind and matter as they are. The physical body that we have is continuously forming and decaying from cradle to grave. It must be comprehended that impermanent (Anicca), suffering (Dukkha) and impersonal (Anatta) characteristics are the only realities that can be found. When body and mind are comprehended as Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta repeatedly, and the arising and dissolving phenomena are perceived, it is known to have reached the Udayabbaya nana. If one does not know these facts clearly beforehand, his or her progress will not be substantial. ==

False views and doubts are attached with the five aggregates of mind and matter. If one does not know the causes and effects of their becoming and disintegration, false views would adhere to that person. Therefore, we need to understand Paticcasamupadda, the cycle of dependant arising, if we want to have insight into the five aggregates. Only when we understand the cause and effect of Paticcasamupadda, we can detach ourselves from false views and doubts. If we know the cause of aggregates, we can eliminate the false views. If we do not, the false views will stay. If we realize that the effect of anything that happens in us is due to the causes of aggregates, then we can eliminate the false views totally. ==

Buddhist meditation is the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path, as taught by the Buddha, which can be divided into three parts. They are: high training in morality, concentration, and wisdom. 1) Morality is the common denominator of all religions. At the meditation centres, practitioners observe the five precepts of refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the use of drugs or intoxicants. By diligently observing this morality, one develops purity of physical and verbal actions. 2) Concentration: Beginning with this base, training in concentration (Anapana meditation - mindfulness of breathing) is taught. Through learning to calm and control the mind during the first days, the practitioner quickly appreciates the advantages of a steady and balanced mind. 3) Wisdom: The third training in wisdom or insight is introduced through Vipassana meditation, which is practiced throughout the remainder of the period. ==

children meditating

The aim of Vipassana meditation is to free oneself from all kinds of Dukkha - mental suffering and physical suffering - through realization of the body-mind process and their true nature. So if you are able to realize mental and physical phenomena as they really are, you can do away with all kinds of mental impurities or defilements which arise dependent on misunderstanding or ignorance of mental and physical phenomena and their true nature. That's why we have to practice Satipatthana Vipassana meditation, or insight meditation.

Vipassana meditation is of two types. The first Vipassana meditation is preceded by Samatha meditation while the second one is not. The first type of meditation is practiced by those who have ample time to devote to their meditation. They have to spend, say, three or four months on Samatha meditation. When they are satisfied with their attainment of Jnana concentration, they proceed with Vipassana meditation. Pure Vipassana meditation is practiced by those who do not have enough time to devote to their meditation. So they have to spend about ten days in retreat at meditation centres. Actually, this period is too short a time for a meditator to succeed in any noticeable experience in his meditation. Although you can spend just ten days on your meditation, you are able to have some new experience if you strive to attain the deep concentration with a strenuous effort without taking much interval in the course of your meditation. So the point is to practice as intensively and strenuously as you can. ==

See Meditation Under Buddhism

Vipassana (Meditation), Theravada Buddhism and Mindfulness of Breathing

Vipassana as practiced in the Theravada centers on mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence. The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta: 1) kaya (body or breath), 2) vedana (feeling or sensation), 3) citta (mind or consciousness), and 4) dhamma (mind objects). [Source: Wikipedia ]

Mindfulness of breathing is described throughout the Sutta Pitaka. The Satipatthana Sutta describes it as going into the forest and sit beneath a tree and then to simply watch the breath, if the breath is long, to notice that the breath is long, if the breath is short, to notice that the breath is short. By observing the breath one becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness. One can also be aware of and gain insight into impermanence through the observation of bodily sensations and their nature of arising and passing away. Contemplating on these perpetual changes one becomes aware of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and lack of an inherent, independent essence or self.

The Vipassana practitioner reaches the step where gross bodily sensations (Vedana) dissolve and there is a subtle flow of sensations throughout the body, which is called bhanganupassana ñana, knowledge of dissolution. This is an ongoing process, that continues to reveal layer upon layer of mental purification. The Vipassana yogi or yogini experiences increasing cessation of cravings (attachments) and aversions (fears), and eventually will reach the step of sankharupekkhañana, strongly founded knowledge of equanimity of all formations. In the Theravada tradition, Upekkha or equanimity is a Brahma state. If the state itself, the acts done that lead to that state, and any cravings are not seen with wisdom, then it does not lead to the attainment of nibba-na but to a new state.

Vipassana meditation is thought to develop insight into the impermanence of all phenomena, and thereby lead to a permanent liberation. Most Theravadin teachers refer to knowledges evolving during practice. The meditator gradually improves his perception of the three marks of existence. Some steps are described as vipassana jhanas, or simply as knowledges.


Vipassana Movement in Theravada Buddhism

The Vipassana movement, also called the Insight Meditation Movement, refers to a number of branches of modern Theravada Buddhism, especially the Thai Forest Tradition and the "New Burmese Method", which stress insight into the three marks of existence as the main means to attain awakening and reach Nirvana. [Source: Wikipedia ]

It finds its origins in modernist influences on the traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Thailand, and the innovations and popularisations by Therava-da teachers as Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah, and Dipa Ma, as well as nonsectarian derivatives from those traditions such as the movement led by S. N. Goenka (with his co-teacher wife Illaichi Devi) who studied with teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. The Vipassana- Movement includes contemporary American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Gil Fronsdal, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield In the Vipassana- Movement, the emphasis is on the Satipatthana Sutta and the use of mindfulness to gain insight into the impermanence of the self.

MRI were used to assess the thickness of the brains of twenty Westerners who had experience with Insight meditation. It was determined that their brains were thicker in regions of the brain involved with somatosensory, auditory, visual and interoceptive processing depending upon the amount of time that they'd spent practicing. The researchers suggest that this may slow cognitive decline typically associated with aging.

Theravada Buddhist Beliefs About Gender

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand”: “ Despite the rigidity of Thai gender-role manifestations, it is interesting to note that Thai people perceive transience in gender identity. In Buddhist philosophy, the notion of individual “personality” is false, because a being differs upon each incarnation. Gender differs in every life, with social position, fortune or misfortune, mental and physical dispositions, life events, and even the species (human, animal, ghost, or deity) and location of rebirth (strata of heavens or hells), all of which depend on the being's fund of merit accumulated through committing good deeds in past lives. In the Thai interpretation, women are commonly seen as lower on the hierarchy of merit because they cannot be ordained. Khin Thitsa observed that according to the Theravada view, “a being is born as a woman because of bad karma or lack of sufficient good merit.” [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s]

nuns and monks at Doi Inthanon in Thailand

In Susanne Thorbek's study, a woman illustrates her frustration with being a woman: In a minor domestic crisis, she shouts, “Oh, it's my evil fate to have been born a woman!” Somewhat more reservedly, a pious young woman in Penny Van Esterik's study, also admitted her desire to be reborn as a male in order to become a monk. Yet another more “worldly” woman, seemingly satisfied with her female gender and hoping to be reborn as a deity of the sensuous heavens, argued that those who desired a specific gender upon rebirth would be born of indeterminate sex. Even within a lifespan, men's transitions between the Sangha and the laity demonstrates the transient nature of gender as the two masculine gender roles are abruptly switched. As serious as they are in observing the gender codes, Thai men and women accept gender identities as important yet temporary. Even those in frustration learn to think life will be “better off the next time around,” especially as long as they do not question the inequity of their sometimes arduous, yet transient, states.

Many ideal images for men and women are found in religious folk tales, which the monks read or retell during sermons (thetsana). These sermons, although rarely translated from the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka or Phra Trai-pidok in Thai), are taken by most Thais as the authentic teachings of the Buddha. Similarly, other ritual traditions, folk operas, and local legends contain gender-relevant images in the depiction of men and women's lives, both sovereign and common, showing their sins and merits through their actions and relationships, all of which purportedly convey Buddhist messages. Thereby, the Theravada world view, both authentic and interpreted through the Thai eyes, has exerted enormous influences on the gender construction in Thailand.

Gender Roles in Theravada Buddhism and Their Implications

With a firm belief in karma and reincarnation, Thai people are concerned with accumulating merit in everyday life in order to attain an enhanced status in rebirth rather than striving for nirvana. In real life, men and women “make merit,” and the Theravada culture prescribes different ways for this quest. The ideal “merit making” for men is through ordination in the Sangha (order of monks, or in Thai, Phra Song). Women, on the other hand, are not allowed to be ordained. Although the order of Bhikkhuni (the female equivalent to the Sangha monks) was established by the Buddha with some reluctance, the practice disappeared from Sri Lanka and India after several centuries and never existed in Southeast Asia (Keyes 1984; P. Van Esterik 1982). Today, lay women can intensify their Buddhist practice by becoming mae chii, (often erroneously translated to “nun”). These are lay female ascetics who shave their heads and wear white robes. Although mae chii abstain from worldly pleasures and sexuality, the laity consider giving alms to mae chii a lesser merit-making activity than alms given to the monks. Hence, these women usually depend on themselves and/or on their relatives for the necessities of life. Obviously, mae chii are not as highly regarded as monks, and indeed many mae chii are even perceived negatively. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai)” by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; *]

girls dressed up like Apsaras at a festival in Laos

“The fact that the Buddhist religious roles for women are underdeveloped has led Kirsch to comment that women in Theravada societies are “religiously disadvantaged.” Conventionally, the exclusion of women from monastic roles has been rationalized by the view that women are less ready than men to attain the Buddhist salvation because of their deeper enmeshment in worldly matters. Instead, women's greatest contribution to Buddhism lies in their secular role through enabling the religious pursuit for the men in their lives. Hence, the role for women in religion is characterized by the mother-nurturer image: Women support and provide for Buddhism byway of “giving” young men to the Sangha, and “nurturing” the religion by alms givin. The ways in which Thai women constantly support Buddhist institutions and contribute to various spiritual functions in their communities have been well illustrated in Penny Van Esterik's work.” *

“This mother-nurturer image is also prominent in the Thai women's secular pursuits. Women are expected to provide for the well-being of their husbands, children, and parents. As pointed out by Kirsch (1985), this historical mother-nurturer role has had a self-perpetuating effect on the exclusion of women from monastic roles. Because women are barred from the monastic position, and because the weight of filial and family obligations falls more on women than on men, women are doubly locked in the same secular mother-nurturer role with no other options. They, therefore, are indeed enmeshed in worldly matters, and their redemption lies in the actions of the men in their lives. *

“Two important religious texts illustrate this condition. In the tale of Prince Vessantara, his wife, Queen Maddi, is praised because of her unconditional support of his generosity. In Anisong Buat (“Blessings of Ordination”), a woman with no merit is saved from hell because she had allowed her son to be ordained as a monk. In reality, the mother-nurturer image entails a certain life path for women, as noted by Kirsch: “Under typical circumstances young women could expect to remain rooted in village life, eventually snaring a husband, having children, and 'replacing' their mothers.” Men, as seen in the depiction of Prince Vessantara and the young son with religious aspirations in the “Blessings of Ordination,” are afforded autonomy, as well as geographic and social mobility, to pursue both religious and secular goals, therefore “affirming” the conventional wisdom that men are more ready than women to give up attachments. *

“Undoubtedly, these differential role prescriptions for men and women have led to a clear division of labor along gender lines. Thai women's role of mother and their routine merit-making activities necessitate their specialization in economic-entrepreneurial activities, such as small-scale trading, productive activities in the field, and craft work at home. Thai men, encouraged by the logistic freedom, prefer political-bureaucratic activities, particularly those in government service . The connection between monastic institutions and polity has always been salient to Thai people, therefore, positions in bureaucracy and politics represent a man's ideal pursuit should he choose to excel in the secular role. In the nineteenth century, more Thai men began to strive for secular success when the Buddhist reformation in Thailand demanded more intensified discipline in monks; this coincided with an expansion of government occupations that resulted from a bureaucratic system reorganization in the 1890s.

monks at a ceremony in Sri Lanka

“Becoming a temporary member of the monkhood has long been seen in Thailand as a rite of passage which demarcates Thai men's transformation from “raw” to “ripe,” or from immature men to scholars or wise men (bundit, from Pali pandit). In Sathian Kosed's “Popular Buddhism in Thailand”, young Buddhist men, upon turning 20 years old, are expected to become a monk for the period of about three months during the Buddhist Lenten period. Because the merit from ordination of a married man will be transferred to his wife (and because she must consent to his ordination), parents are understandably anxious to see that their sons are ordained before they get married. Traditionally, a “raw” unordained adult man would be seen as uneducated and, therefore, not a suitable man to be a husband or son-in-law. The man's girlfriend or fiancée, therefore, delights in his temporary monkhood as it should enhance her parents' approval of him. She often sees this as a sign of relationship commitment, and promises to wait patiently for the day he leaves his monkhood at the end of the Lenten period. In Thai society today, this practice of ordination has changed and is less significant, as men are more involved in secular education or occupied by their employment. Statistics show that today, members of the Sangha account for a smaller percent of the male population than in earlier times (Keyes 1984). As early as the late 1940s, when Sathian Kosed wrote Popular Buddhism in Thailand, there were already some signs of weakening customs around the Buddhist ordination.*

“Many other phenomena related to gender and sexuality in Thailand today can be traced to the Theravada world view. As will be more evident in subsequent discussions, the Thai culture exhibits a double standard, which gives men a greater latitude to express their sexuality and other “deviant” behaviors (e.g., drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex). Keyes has pointed out that whereas women are seen as inherently close to the Buddha's teachings about sufferings, men require the discipline of ordination in order to achieve this insight, for they tend to digress from the Buddhist Precepts. With Keyes' notion in mind, we can speculate that Thai men perceive that demeritorious behaviors can be amended through their eventual ordination. Up to 70 percent of all men in central Thailand become monks on a temporary basis (J. Van Esterik 1982). Other adult males renounce “worldly” living to be ordained to the Sangha, living a midlife or old age “robed in yellow” as is commonly said in Thai. With such redemptive options, Thai men may feel little need to suppress their passions and vices. These attachments are, after all, easy to give up and are insubstantial compared to the salvation available to them in their twilight years. *

“On the contrary, women's lack of access to direct religious salvation makes them work harder to maintain virtuous lives, which means refraining from and disapproving of sexual indulgences, in order to keep their demerit to a minimum. With no access to formal Buddhist scholastic activities, it is unlikely that women would be able to discern which virtues and sins were defined by the Theravada values and which by the local gender construction (see discussion of kulasatrii in Section 1A). Further, because women believe that their strongest merit is to be a mother of a son who is ordained, the pressure on women to marry and have a family is heightened. They must do everything to enhance their likelihood of marriage, perhaps including adherence to the ideal female images no matter how difficult. Viewed this way, both men and women in Thai society strongly endorse a double standard regarding gender and sexuality, albeit for different reasons.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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