Theravada is the earliest form of Buddhism to have taken root outside of India, and it adheres most closely to teachings and practices that are associated with the some of the oldest forms of the religion. Its guidelines are the sermons, discourses, and teachings assembled in the Pali canon, which includes some of the earliest written records of the dharma. (Dharma is often translated as teachings, but it can also refer to the ultimate reality that teaching points to.)
The teachings of Theravada are the basic tenets of Buddhism, which appear across traditions. But while other schools may promote additional teachings, Theravada is typically more selective about what it considers canonical and places a greater emphasis on the fundamental teachings encapsulated in the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path.
First, according to the Buddha, we must apprehend the truth of the four noble truths—that dukkha (suffering, or dissatisfaction) is a fact of life, that our clinging and craving is the origin of dukkha, that we are capable of putting an end to dukkha and experiencing lasting, unconditional happiness, and that there is a strategy for ending dukkha, outlined in the noble eightfold path. Through intense diligence and commitment, the Buddha teaches, we can develop the qualities and skills we need to shed the greed, hatred, and delusion that keep us trapped in the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth known as samsara.
At the root of these teachings is the principle of karma, the universal law of cause and effect. From the Theravada perspective, all of Buddhism can be parsed in terms of karma. Our actions—what we do, say, and think—determine what happens to us. The Buddha’s instructions for awakening guide us in dropping negative intentions and harmful behavior, and developing skillful actions that lead to lasting happiness.
Theravada also places special emphasis on cultivating ethical behavior (sila), the focus of three factors of the noble eightfold path—right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Virtuous behavior is viewed as imperative for anyone on the path, a gateway to developing concentration and insight. For laypeople, and particularly non-meditators, ethical behavior can be an important practice unto itself.
As with all Buddhist traditions, Theravada has changed over time, accruing practices specific to the cultures and places where the dharma flourished. However, the tradition continues to value the transformative power of practice, maintaining that the heart of Theravada teachings is the goal of individual awakening, or becoming an arahant (Skt, arhat), an awakened one who through solitary effort attains nirvana.
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