Buddhism is one of the most popular religions across the world. Originating from India, the philosophy of Buddhism traveled far and wide. Its simplistic approach towards life encouraged people to incorporate it into their life. As such today Buddhism is practiced in various forms. Here, in this blog, we will be discussing one of the most prominent schools of Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism, its philosophies, and teachings.

Evolved from Buddhist Teachings, Theravada Buddhism like all other types of Buddhism believes in Buddha and his philosophies. It is the orthodox school that follows the original Buddhist sutras (texts) to the word without any changes since the inception.

Theravada Buddhism is the older of two major Buddhist traditions (Theravada and Mahayana) that follow the teachings of the Buddha. In Pali, the original language of Buddha’s teachings, Theravada means ”The Way of the Elders”. It is the most orthodox of traditions among the types of Buddhism that closely relates to the original teachings of Gautam Buddha. To understand Theravada Buddhism, we must discuss its philosophy, beliefs, and practices.

Wat Phra Dhammakya: Theravada Buddhism
Wat Phra Dhammakya: Largest Theravada Temple in Thailand

Theravada Buddhism: An Overview

After the inception of Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha were mostly oral traditions that were passed down through generations. As such the teachings were open to interpretations. This led to the evolution of different types of Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism was one of them. Around 500 B.C. in India, Theravada Buddhism established as a sect that followed the original teachings of Buddha in the Pali language. With the spread of Buddhism, the Theravada form of Buddhism too spread in the world, mostly South Asia. Countries like Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand primarily practice the Theravada philosophy.

Ruwanwelisaya Stupa: Theravada Buddhism
Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, Sri Lanka

The attainment of nirvana, the ultimate state of enlightenment is the main aspiration of the believers of Theravada Buddhism. Nirvana ends the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth which is characterized by pain and suffering. The Theravada Buddhist sect believes that similar to Gautam Buddha, nirvana can be attained by following the teachings laid out by Buddha himself. It states that the path to nirvana lies in following arhat (meaning a perfect saint in Pali, the original language of Buddha’s teachings).

Theravada Buddhists follow the teachings from the sacred texts of Buddhism, known as the Tripitaka. The texts are believed to be the original preachings narrated by the Buddha himself.  It is also a reason that Theravada Buddhism believes in a monastic approach, clearly differentiating between monks and layman when it comes to practicing this branch of Buddhism. Arhat is worshipped as the only idol and no other Bodhisattvas or learned ones are revered. To summarize, Theravada Buddhism is the most traditional path of following Buddha’s teachings that negates the existence of God.

Basic Ideology of Theravada

Image of Gautam Buddha in meditating pose: Theravada Buddhism
Gautam Buddha in Meditating Pose

Theravada Buddhism is based on the Buddha’s philosophy of life is an illusion of suffering and that living in penance and giving up all worldly attachments is the path to nirvana (enlightenment).  Theravada Buddhists emphasize on attaining liberation through techniques that include meditation, studying the sutras, and following the Noble Eightfold Path stated by Buddha himself. Concentrating the mind through meditation is the key to enlightenment.  The followers of this form of Buddhism have to accumulate the good, refrain from all kinds of evil, and purify their minds.

Meditation is one of the main religious practices of Theravada Buddhists. Monks spend a great time in meditation and chanting. Theravada Buddhist chanting is a daily practice that clears the mind for the meditative rituals. The sect followers believe that with the daily practice of meditation, chanting and other religious rituals, one can achieve liberation and become an Arhat ‘a worthy person’. It emphasizes on the monastic attempt to recreate the life of the Buddha and his way of attaining enlightenment as their core ideology.

Theravada Buddhism in Daily Life

The Theravada school of Buddhism largely believes in monastic practices and living in a sangha (monastic community). But, that does not mean that a common man (layman) cannot practice Theravada Buddhism. One can practice restrain from evil and purify their minds while living their lives with the family. The relationship between monks and common people acts as a strong foundation of this branch of Buddhism. It is the common people who provide the monks with food, shelter, and other offerings while the monks offer them blessings.

The Theravada Buddhists who undertake the training of the monastic order (the Vinaya) try to adhere to a Buddhist way of life. They become monks and nuns, detach themselves from the world. There is no age boundary for one to join the monastery and one can join at any age. However, there are 227 precepts that monks and nuns have to follow while for others who wish to follow the philosophy without living a monastic life, the rules are not that strict. Common people following Theravada philosophy must abide by five Precepts (to abstain from harming living beings, sexual misconduct, taking anything which is not freely given, ill-mannered speech, taking intoxicating drink or drugs).

Theravada Buddhism in Singapore

Theravada Buddhism is a major form of Buddhism accepted in Singapore along with Mahayana Buddhism. Of the one-third Buddhist population of Singapore, one-thirds are Theravada Buddhists. Monasteries in Singapore are the habitat of the monks who have accepted the Way of Elders as the path to Buddha. They follow all the traditions including chanting and meditation as observed by Theravada Buddhists all around the world. The Vesak Day which marks the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (passing away) of Gautam Buddha is celebrated in all its glory in Singapore wherein followers of all Buddhist sects participate.