Theravada, one of the two major paths of contemporary Buddhism, means the “Way of the Elders.” After the death of the Buddha, by the third century BC, Buddhism broke down into eighteen schools or sects.
Theravada is an accurate name for the group, which until the middle of the last century was also called “Hinayana,” the “lesser vehicle” or lesser way, compared to the other of the two main streams of Buddhism, “Mahayana, or “great vehicle.”
The term Hinayana was offensive to Buddhists in that tradition, because it suggested that the ancient tradition was not as accessible to all and was more concerned with personal enlightenment.
Theravada Buddhism is also known as southern Buddhism, because it is strongest in Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, while the Mahayana or northern school of Buddhism is predominant in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, and Vietnam.
Buddhist countries that were under China’s influence now follow Mahayana Buddhism. It should be noted that both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism honor the same Buddha and his basic teachings.
Theravada scriptures, written in the Pali language, are the oldest Buddhist teachings. Theravada Buddhism differs from Mahayana Buddhism by stressing one’s own liberation, while the Mahayana emphasizes the liberation of all sentient beings, a concept which developed from scriptures, preserved in languages other than Pali, which most Buddhists believe were written later.
Although it is claimed that the Mahayana scriptures are translations from Pali teachings of the Buddha, some of these later Buddhist texts exist only in the so-called translations.
In Myanmar, we have seen a problem that Theravada Buddhism has often experienced in that country, in Thailand, and in other countries. As a “state religion,” enjoying the support of the government, the material needs of the Buddhist establishment were met and its security in the society assured.
In exchange, the monks had to serve the interests of the State and came to be divided into those monks who concentrated on their own spiritual development and those who took on social roles as teachers and clerics.
In Theravada Buddhism, the stress is on Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, but not on the other non-historical buddhas and bodhisattvas that enrich Mahayana Buddhist teachings. Theravada Buddhism emphasizes the historical Buddha and his historic teachings, applying the term Bodhisattva mainly to the previous incarnations of Buddha Sakyamuni.
Those schools of Buddhism that have a distinct name, such as Zen, Nichirin, or Pure Land, are in the Mahayana tradition. In the United States, most converts to Buddhism have been drawn to the Mahayana.
There are an amazing number of ethnic Theravada temples throughout the United States; in Australia, most Buddhist converts follow Theravada Buddhism. Again, in the basic affirmation of the teachings of the Buddha, these different “buddhism” have more uniting them than dividing them.
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