Modern Theravada

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A "modern" form of Buddhism and Theravada is sometimes known as "Modern Theravada" or "Early Buddhism."

Modern Theravada is actually the "modern movement of getting back to the earliest teachings of the Buddha / Buddhism" and thus, could more accurately be called Early Buddhism or EBT for Early Buddhist Texts. See: Early Buddhist Texts for a list of the early texts typically used for study and practice for Modern Theravadins / EBT Buddhists.

For a detailed explanation of how Modern Theravada differs from Classical Theravada, see the excellent booklet by Bhante Sujato: How early Buddhism differs from Theravada.

Mode of practice

The practice generally proceeds with the formula of:

  1. Bhavana (meditation practice)
  2. Study
  3. Sila (morality)
  4. Dana (generosity)
  5. Bhavana (meditation practice)
  6. Nibbana (the goal)

Many convert Buddhists or others interested in Buddhist meditation tend to become attracted to the Modern Theravada because of its flexibility and ability to adapt to specific cultures, especially those from areas normally defined as "Western" nations. There tends to be a focus on meditation first and then as they progress, further studies are done and gradually some adopt more Buddhist principles. According to Modern Theravada, this would be an example of skilful means and not any deviation from the Buddha's teachings.

According to Modern Theravadins, the irony of the term “Modern” Theravada is that it is in line with the early teachings of the Buddha. Listed below are some core principles (that differentiate it from the literalist or fundamentalist views):

Main points

1. There is an equal importance to the practices of meditation, sutta study, discussion, and devotional practices. But there is especially an emphasis on meditation and sutta study over rites, rituals, and ceremonies.

2. Men and women can practice together in a monastic environment.

3. The Dhamma can be taught in English or other language of the local community.

4. An international electronic sangha can exist.

5. All Buddhist traditions are not only vehicles toward complete perfect enlightenment but that they can teach each other.

6. Lay persons can not only teach other lay persons but can teach monks as well.

7. Women can teach men . . . and monks.

8. Women can become fully ordained bhikkhunis (nuns), if they so choose.

9. One can interpret the planes of existence as physical places or as mental states and neither view precludes one from being called a Buddhist.

10. A tendency to move toward vegetarianism and concern for the environment. Modern Theravadins would most likely be vegetarian or at least mostly vegetarian.

Sutta References for above:

There are several suttas that provide support for the above, but listed below are some examples for each point above:

1. “It is bhikkhus, because he has developed and cultivated one faculty that a bhikkhu who has destroyed the taints declares final knowledge thus. What is that one faculty? The faculty of wisdom.” Samyutta Nikaya 48

“And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views; uncertainty; attachment to rites, rituals, and ceremonies; sensual desire; and ill will.” Anguttara Nikaya 10.13

2. In the modern world, there may not be enough centers to provide for gender segregation of monastic communities, especially in countries that are predominantly non-Buddhist. This is in keeping with the Buddha’s wish for the Dhamma to be spread far and wide:

“Wander forth, O bhikkhus, for the welfare of the multitude, for the happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans. Let not two go the same way. Teach, O bhikkhus, the Dhamma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end, with the right meaning and phrasing.” Samyutta Nikaya 4.453

3. “I allow you, O Bhikkhus, to learn the word of the Buddhas each in his own dialect.” Cullavaga, Vinaya

4. Also in keeping with spreading of the Dhamma, as number 2 above, Samyutta Nikaya 4.453

5. “Another person has practiced the making of merit by giving as well as by moral discipline to a high degree; but he has not undertaken the making of merit by meditation. With the breakup of the body, after death, he will be reborn among humans in a favorable condition. Or he will be reborn in the company of the devas of the Four Great Kings.” Anguttara Nikaya 4.241-243

6. “But he who lives purely and self assured, in quietness and virtue, who is without harm or hurt or blame, even if he wears fine clothes, so long as he also has faith, he is a true seeker.” Dhammapada, chapter 10, verse 142

“There is no fetter bound by which Citta the householder could return to this world.” Samyutta Nikaya 41.9 (Citta was a non-returner and a lay man)

“I say there is no difference between a lay follower who is liberated in mind and a bhikkhu who has been liberated in mind, that is, between one liberation and the other.” Samyutta Nikaya 55.54

7. “The bhikkhuni Dhammadina is wise, Visakha, the bhikkhuni Dhammadina has great wisdom. If you had asked me the meaning of this, I would have explained it to you in the same way that the bhikkhuni Dhammadina has explained it. Such is its meaning and you should remember it.”

Majjhima Nikaya 44.31 (On the occasion of bhikkhuni Dhammadina giving a Dhamma talk to a man with the Buddha listening.)

8. “I will not take final Nibbana till I have nuns and female disciples who are accomplished, till I have laymen and laywomen followers who are accomplished.” Digha Nikaya 16.3.8

9. Mara’s three offspring are named Lobha, Dosa and Moha, meaning Greed, Hatred and Delusion (mental states). Samyutta Nikaya 1 Mara-samyutta

10. “Monks, a lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.” Anguttara Nikaya 5.177

“He should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should he incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.” Khuddaka Nikaya, Sutta Nipata, Dhammika Sutta

Origin of the term

The term Modern Theravada may have originated first at E-Sangha where there was a sub-forum in Theravada called Modern Theravada where the informaton above was posted by Dr. David Snyder. The information is also posted at the discussion forum for Dhamma Wiki, at Dhamma Wheel.

There are some who note that the "Modern Theravada" views should more precisely be called "Early Buddhism" since it follows the earliest known teachings. But this could cause some disagreements among those who refer to themselves as Classical Theravada. Perhaps a way to correct this would be to describe Modern Theravada as the "modern" movement to get back to the earliest teachings of the Suttas and Vinaya. Others still, argue that Modern Theravada is not Theravada since they mostly reject the Commentaries or see them as not very authoritative. But this is mistaken because if we look at the earliest definitions of Buddhism, we see that Early Buddhism without the Commentaries was called Theravada:

Without getting into a discussion of all the various early schools, If we look at a quick timeline of what Buddhism was called, early Buddhism before the Commentaries was called Theravada:

  • The time of the Buddha: "Buddhism" is called Dhamma-Vinaya
  • First Council: Dhamma-Vinaya (483 BCE)
  • Second Council: Dhamma-Vinaya (350 BCE)
  • Third Council: Vibhajjavada ("doctrine of analysis") and shortly thereafter: Theravada (250 BCE)
  • Fourth Council: Theravada (100 BCE)

The Abhidhamma became a part of the Canon at the Third Council.

The Commentaries were written from 300 CE to 13 century CE, after the Fourth Council.

Thus, someone who follows the "Theravada" as it was set to be from the First to Third Councils, would be a "Theravadin" although today they might be known as "Modern Theravada."

Those who hold the Commentaries in high regard are also Theravadins, since they also use the Tipitaka as their teachings, but simply have added the teachings of the later elders.

See also

External Links and References