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The Thuparamay Stupa in Sri Lanka, dating back to the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (247–207 BCE).

Theravāda refers to the form of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka and the Southeast Asia nations of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. While there are a variety of practices and traditions that are subsumed under the name Theravāda, all of these traditions share the same set of core texts and the same monastic lineage, both of which are inherited from the tradition of the "Great Monastery" (Mahāvihāra), of ancient Sri Lankan capital of Anurādhapura.[1]

The core texts of this tradition include the Pali canon and related commentaries that were codified in Sri Lanka over many centuries, beginning in around 250 BCE. The structure of the Pali canon was firmly established by 500 CE,[1][2] and the traditional Pali commentaries were largely developed by around 1000 CE.[1] This group of texts are the core texts of the Pali textual tradition.

The monastic lineage of the Theravada also traces its roots back to the "Great Monastery" (Mahāvihāra) in Sri Lanka. According to tradition, this lineage was brought to Sri Lanka by the son and daughter of King Ashoka around 250 BCE.

The Theravada branch of Buddhism is also referred to as "Southern Buddhism" or "Southeast Asian Buddhism." The name "Theravada" as a designation for this branch of Buddhism only came into common usage in the early twentieth century.[3][4] This name was adopted in Southeast Asia partly as a means to distinguish this branch of Buddhism from East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism.

Formation of the textual tradition

According to widely-accepted tradition, shortly after the Buddha's death (ca. 480 BCE), five hundred of the most senior monks in India convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha's forty-five year teaching career. These teachings were passed down orally for several hundred years, in keeping with an oral tradition of India that predated the Buddha.[5]

In 250 BCE, the Indian Emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda to Sri Lanka, to spread the word of the Buddha. Mahinda and his group of fellow monks brought the Buddha's teachings with them in their memories, and transmitted this oral tradition to a group of Sri Lankans, who were also ordained as the first monks of Sri Lanka.

As was the custom in India at the time, the orally transmitted teachings, representing the "word of the buddha" (buddhavacana), were divided into three categories, called pitakas (literally "baskets") in Pali. Mahinda also transmitted some commentaries that explained the texts the three pitakas.

"These [teachings] continued to be orally transmitted until around 20 BCE, when invasion and famine" threatened the lives of the monks who retained the transmitted teachings in their memories.[6] Due to this concern, a council was convened where it was decided to put the transmitted teachings into writing. The three pitakas, representing the word of the buddha, were written down in the Pali language, and the commentaries were written in the local Sinhala dialect.[6]

In this way, the "three pitakas" of the Pali Canon were first fixed in writing by a group of Sri Lankan monks. The collection is traditionally referred to as the Tipitaka.

In the third century BCE, Sri Lankan monks began compiling a series of exhaustive commentaries to the Tipitaka.[5]

In the fifth century, the Indian monk Buddhaghosa heard that extensive commentaries on the scriptures had been written in Sri Lanka, and he visited the "Great Monastery" in Anurādhapura.[6] "He was allowed to translate these [Sri Lankan commentaries] into Pali, edit them and add certain thoughts of his own. To prove his suitability for this task, he first composed the Visuddhimagga, or ‘Path of Purification’, a masterly survey of meditation and doctrine which became the classic expression of Theravda Buddhism (Berkwitz, 2010: 113–17)."[6]

Rupert Gethin states:

The fifth century also saw the basic content and structure of the Pali canon finally established: (1) a Vinaya comprising two principal works; (2) a Sutta Piṭaka comprising the four primary Nikāyas and the fifteen works of the Khuddaka Nikāya; (3) an Abhidhamma Piṭaka comprising seven works.[1]

Buddhagosa also wrote additional commentaries. And other important commentaries were written by scholars such as Dhammapāla, Buddhadatta, Upasena and Mahānāma.

Rupert Gethin states:

The initial formative phase of Theravāda Buddhism was completed by 1000 CE. This is not to say that there are no subsequent developments or changes, but that Theravāda Buddhism largely defines itself by reference to traditions and teachings that were established between the fifth and tenth centuries in Sri Lanka; the twelfth and thirteenth centuries should also be seen as a significant creative period.

"The [three pitakas] plus the post-canonical texts (commentaries, chronicles, etc.) together constitute the complete body of classical Theravada literature."[5]

Formation of the monastic lineage

According to tradition, the sangha of monks began in 250 BCE, when the Indian Emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda to Sri Lanka. Mahinda and his fellow India monks ordained the first monks in Sri Lanka and thus initiated the first Sangha of monks at the Anurādhapura Mahāvihāra.

Soon afterward, Ashoka sent his daughter Saṅghamittā to Sri Lanka, and Saṅghamittā ordained the first group of nuns.

Over time, this monastic lineage was transmitted to Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. The monastics in all of these countries follow the monastic code of the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Gethin 1998, s.v. Chapter 10.
  2. Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2017, s.v. Chapter 4, Section "Early Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
  3. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Theravāda.
  4. McDaniel 2021.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Access to insight icon 50px.png What is Theravada Buddhism?, Access to Insight
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Harvey 2013, s.v. Chapter 7.


Further reading

  • Berkwitz, Stephen C. (2010), South Asian Buddhism: A Survey, Routledge 
  • Braun, Erik (2013), The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw, University of Chicago Press 
  • Crosby, Kate (2013), Theravada Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity, and Identity, Wiley-Blackwell 
  • Gombrich, Richard F (2006), Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, Routledge 
  • Access to insight icon 50px.png Perera, H.R. (2007),  Buddhism in Sri Lanka:A Short History, Access to Insight
  • Sujato, Bhikkhu (2006), Sects and Sectarianism, Santi Forest Monastery 
  • Access to insight icon 50px.png What is Theravada Buddhism?, Access to Insight
  • 32px-Wikipedia-logo-v2.svg.png Theravāda, Wikipedia