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Theravada Buddhism: Basic Terms and Concepts

Theravada Buddhism: Basic Terms and Concepts

Theravada Buddhism refers to the branch or school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which is claimed to contain the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. Theravada has been one of the predominant religions of Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka.

1. Theravada (from Pali words ‘thera,’ meaning ‘elders,’ and ‘vada,’ meaning  ‘word’ or ‘doctrine’), the ‘Doctrine of the Elders,’ is the name for the school of Buddhism that takes its scriptural inspiration from the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which is generally acknowledged as the oldest record of the Buddha’s teachings.

2. Buddhism’s ‘Tripitaka’ (‘Tipitaka’ in Pali) is the earliest collection of Buddhist teachings and the only text acknowledged as canonical by Theravada Buddhism. The schools of the Mahayana (‘Greater Vehicle’) branch also revere it, yet regard as scripture additional writings that are not accepted by Theravada.

3. The first basket, the ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ (Discipline Basket) was recalled by a monk named Upali. The earliest and smallest basket, it provides for the rules and regulations for the monastic community (the ‘sangha’), comprising 227 rules for monks, supplementary regulations for nuns, and rules for the interaction between the sangha and the laity. These rules were basically taken from the Buddha's responses to particular situations in the community.

4. The second basket, the ‘Sutra Pitaka’ (Discourse Basket) was recited by Ananda, Buddha's cousin and considered as his closest companion. The largest basket, it contains the Buddha's teachings on doctrine and behavior, focusing especially on meditation techniques. It encompasses doctrinal sermons and ethical discourses attributed to the Buddha or, in a few cases, to his disciples.

5. The third basket, the ‘Abhidharma Pitaka’ (Higher Knowledge or Special Teachings Basket), was recited by Mahakashyapa, the Buddha’s successor. It is essentially a collection of miscellaneous writings, including songs, poetry, and stories of the Buddha and his past lives. Basically a schematization of doctrinal material from the sutras, its primary subjects are Buddhist philosophy and psychology.

6. Also within the Abhidharma Pitaka is the ‘Dhammapada,’ a popular Buddhist text consisting of the Buddha’s sayings  and simple discussions of Buddhist doctrine based on the Buddha’s daily life.

7. The Four Noble Truths comprise the crux of Buddha's teachings. They are (1) the truth of suffering, (2) the truth of the cause of suffering, (3) the truth of the end of suffering, and (4) the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. More simply put, (1) suffering exists; (2) it has a cause; (3) it has an end; and (4) it has a cause to bring about its end. The fourth truth essentially refers to following the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering.

8. The First Truth recognizes the presence of suffering. The reality of ‘Dukkha’ is acknowledged as part of conditioned existence. Dukkha literally means "that which is difficult to bear". It can mean suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction or unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha can be gross or very subtle, from great physical and mental pain and torment to mild inner conflicts and existential malaise.

9. The Second Truth aims to identify the cause of suffering. In Buddhism, at least two things serve as major cause of suffering: desire and ignorance. By desire, Buddhists mean craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be fully satisfied. Consequently, desiring them can only generate disappointment or suffering. Ignorance, on the other hand, refers to not perceiving the world as it actually is. “Without the capacity for mental concentration and insight, Buddhism explains, one's mind is left undeveloped, unable to grasp the true nature of things. Vices, such as greed, envy, hatred and anger, derive from this ignorance” (“Buddhism,” n.d.).

10. The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the end of suffering, takes dual meaning. It connotes either the end of suffering in this life on earth, or in the spiritual life, through attaining Nirvana. Spiritual enlightenment is said to have been reached when one has attained Nirvana, which is a transcendent state free from suffering and worldly cycle of birth and rebirth.

11. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Noble Truth of the Path that leads to Awakening. It is explained that Awakening is not "made" by anything: it is not a product of anything including the Buddha's teachings. It is said that our true nature is already always present and we are just not awake to this reality. The Fourth Noble truth thus charts the method for Awakening and attaining the end of suffering, known to Buddhists as the Noble Eightfold Path.

12. The Noble Eightfold Path
Simply put, the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path are (1) Right Understanding, (2) Right Thought, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (7) Right Concentration. Buddha.net nonetheless clarifies the meaning of these steps, thus (“The Eight-Fold Path,” n.d.):

13. The Law of Dependent Origination is one of the most significant teachings of the Buddha which is very philosophical. Its philosophical foundation is that life or the world is built on a set of relations, in which the arising and cessation of factors depend on some other factors which condition them.

14. The Impermanence of Things
The doctrine on impermanence is known in Buddhism as ‘anicca.’ According to which, impermanence is an irrefutable and inevitable fact of human existence and nothing in this world is ever free from it. 

15. The Law of Dependent Origination also avows that nothing is permanent. In this sense, Dependent Origination relates to the doctrine of ‘Anatman,’ a doctrine which states that there is no ‘self’ in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence.
 
Part II
1. The Law of Dependent Origination is one of the most significant teachings of the Buddha which is very philosophical. Its philosophical foundation is that life or the world is built on a set of relations, in which the arising and cessation of factors depend on some other factors which condition them.

2. The core teaching of Theravada Buddhism is that life is suffering; suffering is due to craving; there is a way to overcome craving; and the way to overcome craving is the Eight-fold Path, the Middle Way (between pleasure and mortification). The central philosophy of this branch of Buddhism is therefore its Four Noble Truths.
 
3. Also within the Abhidharma Pitaka is the ‘Dhammapada,’ a popular Buddhist text consisting of the Buddha’s sayings  and simple discussions of Buddhist doctrine based on the Buddha’s daily life.

4. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in the sixth century B.C. in what is now modern Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the Sakya people, and Siddhartha grew up living the extravagant life of a young prince.

5. The second basket, the ‘Sutra Pitaka’ (Discourse Basket) was recited by Ananda, Buddha's cousin and considered as his closest companion. The largest basket, it contains the Buddha's teachings on doctrine and behavior, focusing especially on meditation techniques. It encompasses doctrinal sermons and ethical discourses attributed to the Buddha or, in a few cases, to his disciples.

6. Dukkha literally means "that which is difficult to bear". It can mean suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction or unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha can be gross or very subtle, from great physical and mental pain and torment to mild inner conflicts and existential malaise.

7. Spiritual enlightenment is said to have been reached when one has attained Nirvana, which is a transcendent state free from suffering and worldly cycle of birth and rebirth.

8. The Law of Dependent Origination also avows that nothing is permanent. In this sense, Dependent Origination relates to the doctrine of ‘Anatman,’ a doctrine which states that there is no ‘self’ in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence.

9. The doctrine on impermanence is known in Buddhism as ‘anicca.’ According to which, impermanence is an irrefutable and inevitable fact of human existence and nothing in this world is ever free from it. 

10. On the question “Do Buddhists believe in god?” the Buddhist Ven S. Dammika, writing for Buddhanet.net, categorically answers, “No, we do not.” He then offers several reasons for this.
 
Part III
1-3 The three baskets in Tripitaka
1. The first basket, the ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ (Discipline Basket) was recalled by a monk named Upali. The earliest and smallest basket, it provides for the rules and regulations for the monastic community (the ‘sangha’), comprising 227 rules for monks, supplementary regulations for nuns, and rules for the interaction between the sangha and the laity. These rules were basically taken from the Buddha's responses to particular situations in the community.

2. The second basket, the ‘Sutra Pitaka’ (Discourse Basket) was recited by Ananda, Buddha's cousin and considered as his closest companion. The largest basket, it contains the Buddha's teachings on doctrine and behavior, focusing especially on meditation techniques. It encompasses doctrinal sermons and ethical discourses attributed to the Buddha or, in a few cases, to his disciples.

3. The third basket, the ‘Abhidharma Pitaka’ (Higher Knowledge or Special Teachings Basket), was recited by Mahakashyapa, the Buddha’s successor. It is essentially a collection of miscellaneous writings, including songs, poetry, and stories of the Buddha and his past lives. Basically a schematization of doctrinal material from the sutras, its primary subjects are Buddhist philosophy and psychology.

The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths comprise the crux of Buddha's teachings.
1.the truth of suffering,
2.the truth of the cause of suffering
3.the truth of the end of suffering, and
4.the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.

There are usually three themes into which the Eightfold Path is divided:
1. good moral conduct (Understanding, Thought, Speech);
2. meditation and mental development (Action, Livelihood, Effort), and
3. wisdom or insight (Mindfulness and Concentration).

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