Written by Paul Towsey
The Theravada Buddhist tradition is the oldest school and as far as we can ascertain is the closest representation of what the Buddha taught.
Theravada Buddhism is based on the oldest written record of the teachings of a North Indian prince turned renunciate and sage, Siddartha Gotama who is known to history as the Buddha. Historians differ on the exact dates of the Buddha’s life but around 500 years BCE is close enough to a general consensus. This written record is in the ancient North Indian dialect known as Pali, hence the naming of this record as the Pali Canon although prior to this the teachings were preserved and transmitted orally for several hundred years.
The Pali Canon gives us an account of the circumstances and events that saw the emerging of the key teachings, which we now know as Buddhism, and also gives us numerous explanations and elaborations of these basic teachings in its pages.
Briefly the Canon gives us an account of a privileged and wealthy young man born into a ruling family who was never the less deeply troubled by the universality of suffering beyond the reaches of privilege and also an awareness that privilege itself could not offer any real protection as all men will die, get old or sick and the web of circumstances that supports life and personal welfare is very fragile indeed. This awareness led him to forsake the life of privilege for that of a homeless ascetic in search of a profound understanding of the human condition. This search was successful and the profound penetrative understanding of the human condition he finally arrived at crystallized into a teaching known as the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths is a concentrated summary of the whole Pali Canon.
The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering or in Pali, Dukkha. There is an ingrained tendency, an absence of understanding in the human mind that leads people to take phenomenal existence – the flow of experience through the senses, including the imagination and mind, which in Buddhism, is regarded as another sense – for more than it actually is. To expect it to be stable, reliable and fulfilling. This expectation will constantly be disappointed and results in suffering and disappointment. This suffering or Dukkha is the First Noble Truth.
The Second Noble Truth focuses more on the origin of that suffering rather than the experience of suffering itself even though the two are intertwined. That origin is termed Tanha in Pali which is a grasping desire born of ignorance (in Pali, Avijja) which takes phenomenal existence as substantial, stable and capable of fulfilling and thus worth desiring and grasping at. This grasping desire leads to suffering. This is the Truth of the Origin (Samudaya) of suffering.
The Third Noble Truth is Nirodha or the Cessation of suffering. This teaching encapsulates the Buddha’s conviction that the type of ‘ignorant suffering’ described in the first two Noble Truths is not inevitable. It can be eliminated or transcended by eliminating its causes – the grasping desire born of ignorance.
In the Fourth Noble Truth the Buddha sets out the Path(Magga) by which suffering may be eliminated. If the cause of suffering, ignorance and desire is eliminated so is suffering, therefore the Path is one that eliminates these causes. Desire born of ignorance leads to a life of ‘me first’ or selfishness. The Buddha’s Path by contrast sets out an ethical path of kindness and regard for others (human and non-human) in body, speech and mind. It also sets out a path of ‘meditation’ in which this unselfish orientation can come to a fruition of understanding the true nature of reality and thus attain freedom from suffering. It goes beyond the scope of this brief survey to give a detailed account of what is implied by the term ‘meditation’ in Buddhism. This can be left to another contributor to this website.
Buddhism as it developed took on different forms reflecting the different cultures of the areas it moved into and the different needs of those who heard its message. There are the traditions of Buddhism known collectively as Mahayana, which are to be found in the northern reaches of Asia – Tibet, China, Japan and Korea. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant tradition in the southern reaches of the Asian continent. Sri Lanka is the oldest centre of Theravada Buddhism in the world and where some 2000 years ago the Pali Canon was first committed to writing. Theravada Buddhism is also the majority religion in the South-East Asian bloc of countries, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Theravada Buddhism is also to be found in some districts in Bangladesh and China bordering the South-East Asian countries and is also starting to re-establish itself in its ancient homeland of India as well as some other ancient centres of the tradition where it had all but disappeared with the advance of Islam in the middle ages, namely what is now Malaysia and Indonesia. Over the last 130 years and particularly since the mid 20th century Buddhism in all its traditions has been attracting a growing interest and following in both Europe and America.
Buddhism traditionally rests on 3 refuges and practising Buddhists remind themselves of this daily by repeating these refuges either individually or in a group of other Buddhists. These refuges are the Buddha, the Teaching (Dhamma), and the Disciples (Sangha). We have discussed the Buddha and the Dhamma. The Sangha is basically the monastic order the Buddha founded which is still very much alive today, following precepts and wearing robes not much different from the Buddha’s time. These monks do not marry or hold personal property so are able to fully exemplify the Buddhist path of non-attachment and act as exemplars and inspiration to lay Buddhists. The Leicester Buddhist Vihara is a home for a group of such monks and any member of the public who wishes for closer contact and knowledge of Buddhism can contact the Vihara to speak to one of the monks. There is also an ongoing program of meetings, classes and religious services
A more in-depth look at Theravada Buddhism can be found in the article A note on Theravada Buddhism written by Dr Senarath Perera on page 2.