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"Big Buddha", the 12 meter high Buddha statue on Koh Samui , Thailand

The Theravada ( Pali : School of the Elders ) is the oldest existing school tradition of Buddhism . It traces its origin back to the monastic community that was one of the first adherents of the Buddha . Today Theravada is mainly in Sri Lanka , Myanmar , Thailand , Cambodia , Laos and partly also in Vietnam and the PR China (in Yunnan ). The Mahayana counts it as a Hinayana , while this assignment was rejected by the Theravada itself as historically incorrect and derogatory in terms of content. In the meantime, however, the word has lost its discriminatory meaning and is also used by its followers.


Three months after the Buddha's death, his disciples met in Rajagaha , today Rajgir in the Indian state of Bihar, for the first council to record the Dhamma , the doctrine and the Vinaya , the rules of the order according to the Buddha's discourses [Cullavagga XI]. Here the basic stock of the later Pali canon was established. The tradition was initially only oral, as writing was not considered appropriate for spiritual texts in India at that time. About 100 years later the second council took place in Vesali [Cullavagga XII]. The main reason was the deviation of the monks of Vesali from Buddha's instruction that ordained people should not accept money and gold. In total the monks of Vesali had put up 10 "theses" that led to the controversy: 1. "Salt squirrels", d. H. salt can also be used after noon; 2. "two fingers' breadth", i.e. H. After the zenith (highest point of the sun) one could continue to eat until the shadow had moved two fingers further; 3. "go to the village", d. H. after one has eaten and refused further food, then something else to eat; 4. "Monastery", d. H. different (monastic) communities hold Uposatha separately; 5. "Consent"; d. H. an incomplete group may conduct religious procedures; 6. "Habit" i.e. H. one follows the customs of the superior, even if it does not seem quite right; 7. "Untouched", i.e. H. consume milk that has not (yet) fully fermented after the meal has ended; 8. "Drinking fermented foods", d. H. drink something that cannot quite be called a binge yet; 9. "Unhemmed Seat Pad"; d. H. the use of such; 10. the acceptance or use of gold and silver (i.e. money). Interestingly, the text of the Sutta Pitaka was not recited or revised at this council, but only those questions of religious order were clarified.

In addition, there were ambiguities about the demands on an arahant, an awakened one, as well as differing ideas about the character of the Buddha himself. Some saw him no longer as a human being, but rather as a divine (transcendent) being that was ritually worshiped was true. These views were rejected by those who henceforth called themselves Sthaviravāda , "School of the Ancients". The group that deviated from this split off, declared itself to be the majority, the "Great Sangha", Mahasanghika , and went its own way from then on. It split up into sub-schools and dissolved after a few centuries or passed into the new Mahayana schools.

The usual statement that from now on there were a total of 18 different schools of Nikaya or even sects of Indian Buddhism is not tenable, since this number is a purely symbolic number that is often used in India in a wide variety of contexts (just like the numbers 108 and 84,000), as in Western parlance the expression “a dozen”. In fact, far more names of monk groups have come down to us, but they do not stand for sects or schools, but mostly only for the place where they spread.

Approx. 200 years later, however, for the first time there were different conceptions of teaching on fundamental questions in connection with the systematization of Buddhist philosophy and psychology that has now arisen under the name Abhidhamma (Pali) or Abhidharma (Sanskrit). During the middle of the 3rd century BC Chr. Occurred in Pataliputra (now Patna), under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka and chaired by the monk Moggaliputta Tissa together, the third council. The aim of the meeting was to clarify the different views and to determine again which discourses should be part of the text canon that has been handed down together. The doctrines represented here were described in the book of Kathavatthu after the council and became part of the 7 books of the Abhidhammapitaka . Insofar as the Pali-Abhidhamma is not known in the Mahayana tradition, this council report is also not known there. Together with the Sutta-pitaka , the Buddha 's discourses , which were written down for the first time some time later, and the Vinayapitaka , the collection of the rules of the order and the history of the order, the Abhidhamma texts, the Tipitaka written in Pali , form the “three basket” (also known as the “Pali canon “Called) the oldest completely preserved collection of Buddhist texts in an Indian language.

The texts and doctrines of the Pali canon were recognized by the council as the authentic basis of Buddhist teaching. The school of Sarvastivada , which was defeated at the council and was later seen by the Mahayana as (the actual) Hinayana school, had to shift its local focus to the area of ​​the Greek-ruled and influenced kingdoms in Kashmir , Pakistan and Afghanistan ( Gandhara and Bactria ). From there, this school was able to spread over the famous Silk Road leading through this area to Central Asia and to China , Korea and Japan in the following centuries .


Wat Phra Sri Mahathat , meditation temple in Bang Khen , North Bangkok

After the end of the 3rd Council, the monk Mahinda and the nun Sanghamitta , Ashoka's son and daughter, brought Tipitaka to the Kingdom of Sri Lanka , where Buddhism in the form of Theravada became the state religion and is still there today. A few centuries later, he was from Sri Lanka by Buddhist missionaries across the sea even after Southeast Asia in the area now Myanmar , then a kingdom of the Mon transmitted. Local traditions date this transmission to the time of the reign of Emperor Ashoka or even earlier. The occurrence of Theravada in this region is only certain from the 5th century . From there it was also spread further east, in the area of ​​today's Thailand . Here, too, traditions tell of early missionaries from Emperor Ashokas who came to Nakhon Pathom , one of the oldest cities in Thailand and was then inhabited by Mon, and traveled the country from there. Finds show a spread from the 6th century . The Thai , who had immigrated to Southeast Asia from southern China since the 6th century , took over the Theravada from the local population. When they finally penetrated the plains of central Thailand in the 11th and 12th centuries and founded their first kingdoms, Sukhothai and later Ayutthaya (see also History of Thailand ), Theravada became the state religion. At the same time, the inhabitants of the kingdom around Luang Prabang , i.e. today's Laos , also adopted this form of Buddhism. In the 13th century ascended Srindravarman (reigned 1295-1309) the throne of the Khmer -Königreiches Kambuja (now Cambodia ). He was the first of the Angkor kings to be a follower of Theravada. Although Kambuja gradually lost power and influence with and after him, Theravada has since become the most widespread religion in Cambodia and southern Vietnam .

Currently around 80% of Sri Lankans, 89% of Burmese, 94% of Thais, 60% of Laotians and 95% of Cambodians profess Theravada. There are also followers in Vietnam and Southwest China (Yunnan). Since independence from the British, encouraged by Dr. Ambedkar , fellow campaigner of Gandhi and author of the Indian constitution, the number of Theravada Buddhists today, especially among the Dalit caste , the “untouchables”, is increasing again considerably, as they see the conversion to Buddhism, a path derived from Indian culture itself to avoid discrimination by the Hindu caste system .

Teaching (Pali Dhamma)

Nibbana (extinction)

The ultimate goal of every student of Theravada is the liberation from self-inflicted suffering ( dukkha ) and the attainment of "nibbana" ( Sanskrit : nirvana ), the overcoming of any attachment caused by delusion, desire and aversion (also called greed, hatred and delusion) ( upadana ) on an illusory self, d. H. an (eternal) soul (atta, atman ) and just as illusory things ( sankhara ) and thus leaving the cycle ( samsara ) - in good English "hamster wheel" or "vicious circle" - painful reincarnations (not to be confused with the Christian concept of rebirth ). Nibbana is also not comparable to the concept of paradise in Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Neither the ego nor a soul, let alone the body, nor happiness are, according to Buddhist teaching, eternal and permanent. Everything exists in a constant flow and mutual relationship. Nibbana means the recognition of the processuality and interconnectedness of all things and states and the overcoming of the spiritual "grasping" and "clinging" to the superficial phenomena of the world. The attainment of nibbana is not to be equated with death either. Siddhattha Gotama (Sanskrit: Siddhartha Gautama ), the historical Buddha himself, lived and taught for 45 years after he had experienced Bodhi ("awakening") and thus achieved Nibbana.

Buddha was a Samma-Sambuddha , that is, a Buddha who was able to preach to a whole world the Four Noble Truths , which exist regardless of whether a Buddha appears or not.

Bodhi (awakening)

According to Theravada teaching, there are three types of bodhi through which a Buddhist can attain nibbana :

  • Savaka-Bodhi is attained by those who attain Bodhi as a disciple of a spiritual teacher. Such an awakened one is called an arahant (also an arhat ). Arahats are themselves helpful teachers for others, not least because of their own experience.
  • Pacceka-Bodhi is achieved without the help or instruction of teachers. One who is awakened in this way is called Pratyeka-Buddha ("individual awakened "). In the Tipitaka it is stated that such Buddhas can appear in larger numbers, but only in times when the teaching ( Dhamma ) is lost. The ability of a Pratyeka Buddha to help other people on the path to awakening is less than that of the other two manifestations of the Buddhas.
  • Samma-Sambodhi is the highest, perfect form of Bodhi (awakening). Like a Pratyeka Buddha, a Samma Sambuddha (“Fully Awakened One”) attains Bodhi through its own strength, without the instruction of others. But he also has the ability to pass on the Dhamma to others and also to accompany them to Nibbana, the liberation from samsara . While the type of liberation is the same for all three beings, a Fully Awakened One is considered to be the highest authority because of his ability to teach.


In Theravada a bodhisattva is seen as someone who seeks redemption in order to subsequently help others on their way. Buddha himself had been a Bodhisattva in his earlier incarnations before he was born Siddhartha Gautama. This is also reported in the texts of the Jataka (birth stories), which tell of the Buddha's earlier life and are part of the Tipitaka's Suttapitaka . They are often used as a source of inspiration by Buddhist laypeople. Every practitioner who feels committed to the Bodhisattva ideal and practices the 10 Paramitas (Pali: Paramis) = perfections such as generosity, meditative contemplation etc. is considered a Bodhisattva (or Pali: Bodhisatta) in Theravada. This has to do with the fact that it is the mindset that makes you a bodhisattva, not the vehicle in which you formally practice.

Differences from Mahayana

While the Theravada, with very few exceptions, practically exclusively accepted the texts of the Pali-Tipitaka as the basis for the teaching and life of monks and nuns as a special practice ideal, a final canon of scriptures was never established in Mahayana , the doctrine adapted to cultural peculiarities, and in part also abandoned the monastic ideal in favor of secular orientation. Although the Sanskrit Tipitaka forms the core of the tradition here too, other sutras have also been used, for example, to name just a few of the most important, the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita Sutra), the Diamond Sutra (Vajrachhedikaprajnaparamita Sutra) and the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika Sutra).

Another essential difference is that the three ways of attaining Bodhi and thus Nibbana, as known in Theravada, were shifted in Mahayana in favor of Bodhisattvahood. The focus is not on attaining Nibbana through one's own strength, as it is known in Theravada, but on the ideal of the Bodhisattva , who renounces the Parinibbana , the final absorption in Nibbana after death, in order to instead give others on their way to awakening help. The Mahayana knows a multitude of bodhisattvas. Along with Maitreya , Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri are two of the most important.

See also


  • Sayadaw U Pandita: All life lies in the moment. Buddha's way of liberation. OW Barth Verlag, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-502-61024-X .
  • Walpola Rahula: What the Buddha Teaches . Origo Verlag, Bern 1982, ISBN 3-282-00038-3 .
  • HW Schumann: Handbook Buddhism - The Central Teachings: Origin and Present. Diederichs (Hugendubel) 2000, ISBN 3-7205-2153-2
  • André Bareau: Les sectes bouddhique du Petit Vehicule. (= Publications de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. 38). École française d'Extrême-Orient, Paris 1955.
  • Jean Varenne: Theravada. In: l'Encyclopædia Universalis / Dictionnaire du bouddhisme (recueil d'articles de l'Encyclopædia Universalis ).
  • Fritz Schäfer: The Buddha did not only speak for monks and nuns. 2nd Edition. Werner Kristkeitz Verlag, 2002, ISBN 3-921508-80-0 .
  • AK Warder: Indian Buddhism. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi 2000.
  • Nalinaksha Dutt: Buddhist Sects in India. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private, Delhi 1998.
  • Richard F. Gombrich: The Theravada Buddhism. From ancient India to modern Sri Lanka. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart / Berlin / Cologne 1997, ISBN 3-17-014007-8 .

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