Buddhism A–Z
What is Theravada Buddhism?

Theravada, the longest-surviving school of Buddhism, is known for its strong emphasis on preserving the Buddha’s teachings as they are found in the Pali Canon. It is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. It is also the main source of the Insight Tradition, which is widespread in the West, as represented, for example, by the Insight Meditation Society.

Theravada Principles

Theravada adheres to the path of the Buddha as laid out in the three baskets of the Pali Canon: the Suttas (discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya (rules of conduct), and Abhidharma (Buddhist psychology). These teachings emphasize the renunciation of worldly desires and meditation practice leading to complete insight into the true nature of existence as impermanent (Pali, anicca), marked by suffering (Pali, dukkha), and free of a continuously existing self (Pali, anatta)—thereby achieving nirvana and liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth (samsara).

Precise Meaning of Theravada

It’s unclear what group the term Theravada (Pali, “Way of the Elders”) may have referred to in ancient times, but during the twentieth century, it started to be used to refer to what is also known as “Southern Buddhism” (the Buddhism of Sri Lanka and South Asia), as opposed to the “Northern Buddhism” of Tibet and East Asia. As such, Buddhists who identify as Theravada follow closely the path laid out in the Pali Canon and in the commentaries that emerge from it, such as The Path of Purification (Pali, Visuddhimagga), a summary of commentaries produced in the fifth century by the great teacher and translator Buddhaghosa and a prominent source of core meditation teachings.

Contemporary Theravada in the West

Theravada Buddhism in America first took shape in the 1960’s when the Washington Buddhist Vihara was established by monks from Sri Lanka. In the late 1960’s Thai monks joined with American practitioners to form the Buddhist Study Center in New York City. In both cases, these temples served both Asian-Americans and others, offering a combination of ritual practices and simple meditation practice.

Several other Sri Lankan monks exerted a strong influence on the development of Theravada Buddhism in the modern world. Walpola Rahula Thero (1907-1997) became the first Buddhist monk to hold a professorship at a Western University. His 1959 book, What the Buddha Taught, quickly became a classic and is still widely read. Similarly, the German-born, Sri Lankan-trained monk Nyanaponika Thera (1901-1994) released The Heart of Buddhist Meditation in 1962, which laid out the basic meditation technique in simple terms. He also founded the Buddhist Publication Society, one of the leading publishers of Theravada literature. Bhante Gunaratana (1927-present) arrived in the late 1960’s, eventually becoming the head of the Washington Buddhist Vihara and a highly influential exponent of Theravada, especially through his 1992 book, Mindfulness in Plain English. 

An explosion of interest and involvement in Theravada in America occurred during the 1970s, cementing its long-term influence on the spread of Buddhism in the West. This was largely through the work of three Americans, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg, who traveled in Asia, where they studied with Theravada teachers, practiced in temples, and attended retreats. They studied with, among others, the pioneering Burmese meditation masters Mahasi Saydaw (1904-1982) U Ba Khin (1889-1971), and U Pandita (1921-2016); the renowned Thai forest tradition monk Ajahn Chah (1918-1992); the Bengali teacher Anagarika Munindra (1915-2003); the Vipassana exponent SN Goenka (1924-2013); and the Indian vipassana and metta adept Dipa Ma (1911-1989). They also studied with the Indian-American professor, Rina Sircar, who facilitated Theravada teachers coming from Asia and who co-founded the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, CA, and its associated practice center in San Francisco.

Influenced by these teachers, in 1975, they established the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, MA, to “provide a secluded retreat environment for the practice of meditation in the Theravada Buddhism tradition.” It soon offered a full retreat schedule, inviting teachers from Asia to teach there while also developing Western students as teachers in their own right. Early on, IMS established an annual three-month retreat following strict Theravadan guidelines, including taking no food after mid-day. On the strength of what they had learned at IMS, students and teachers began to form local “Insight” meditation groups in cities and towns throughout the US, and Insight, or Vipassana, became one of the main terms for Theravada Buddhism in America.

A West Coast counterpart to IMS, Spirit Rock, was established in 1988 in Woodacre, California. On property adjacent to IMS, in 1989, together with several other Insight teachers, Joseph Goldstein established the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, as the leading center for advanced Theravada studies in the West. in 2003, the Forest Refuge, a center dedicated to long-term individual retreat practice, opened.

Nyanaponika Thera handed over the leadership of the Buddhist Publication Society to Bhikku Bodhi (1944-present), an American who was ordained in Sri Lanka. Bodhi returned to the United States in 2002, becoming president of the Buddhist Association of the United States (which has a NYC temple and a monastery in upstate New York) and founder of Buddhist Global Relief, which works against hunger and promotes the empowerment of women worldwide.

Related Reading

Theravada Practice Off the Cushion

A roundtable discussion with Gil Fronsdal, Michael Liebenson Grady and Marcia Rose. Introduction by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

American Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century

The oldest lineage of Buddhism, Theravada is known for sharing the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha. Building on this ancient lineage, Theravada today is innovative and diverse. Derek Pyle reports on the tapestry of communities that make up American Theravada.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.