Theravada Buddhism, also known as ‘Southern Buddhism’, is a prevalent school of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. This tradition is named after the ‘elders,’ the senior Buddhist monks, and is considered to be the closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. However, Theravada Buddhism does not hold a fundamentalist view of the Buddha’s teachings, considering them as tools to aid people in understanding the truth rather than as having the merit of their own.
The core beliefs of Theravada Buddhism revolve around the concept of self-awakening through meditation and not external supernatural powers. Although they acknowledge the existence of gods as various types of spiritual beings, there is no omnipotent creator God. Each individual must discover their path to enlightenment with the help of Buddha’s teachings, but the journey to liberation is their responsibility.
Meditation and concentration are crucial components of the path to enlightenment, and therefore, Theravada Buddhism emphasizes dedicating oneself to full-time monastic life. The practitioner is expected to abstain from evil, accumulate good, and purify their mind. Through meditation, one can transform oneself and attain liberation, after which they are called an Arhat or Arahat, a ‘worthy person.’
Theravada Buddhism has a strong emphasis on monastic life, and most monks live in monastic communities. Novices, called samaneras, can join as young as seven, while one can join at any age. Monks undertake the Vinaya, the training of the monastic order, consisting of 227 rules (more for nuns), including the Five Precepts. These precepts require the practitioner to refrain from harming living beings, taking that which is not freely given, sexual misconduct, wrong speech, and intoxicating drinks and drugs.
Theravada monks and nuns are not permitted to eat after midday or handle money, and while the tradition emphasizes monastic life, lay followers still have a substantial role and place in Theravada Buddhism.