Theravada Buddhism

Originally published in
The Laughing Man Magazine

Number 2


Literally, "Theravada" means "the path of the elders." It is the tradition which is founded upon the Pali language Canon of the Buddhist scriptures, as opposed to the Sanskrit Canon of the later texts. The Pali Canon was written in the few centuries immediately following Gautama the Buddha's lifetime, around 500 B.C. Though no records were actually kept of the Buddha's discourses during his life, these Pali scriptures almost certainly represent his actual teachings more accurately than some of the later Buddhist writings.

These later Sanskrit teachings, which began to take shape shortly after the beginning of the Christian era in the West, came to be known as the Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") tradition, and Mahayanists regarded the ' Pali Canon as, partial wisdom, calling it the Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle") of Buddhism. The Theravada tradition is often equated with Hinayana Buddhism., but in fact it is only one of at least eighteen Hinayana schools. It is, however, the only one that has survived.


Theravada in the Twentieth Century

Western intellectuals, artists, and spiritual seekers have had a long-standing infatuation with the Mahayana Buddhism of Northern India, the Zen tradition of China and Japan and, more recently, the Tantric tradition of Tibet. "There is only a limited expression in `the world today of the genuine esoteric Mahayana tradition (though the devotional, ceremonial sect of "Pure Land--Buddhism" and some other largely exoteric forms flourish in Japan). But Western scholars have worked with the classical Mahayana texts for the better part of this century, and have become thoroughly familiar with their complex, doctrinal distinctions and their astonishing flights of poetic fancy into the realms of subtle Buddhas and ascended Bodhisattvas, miracles, and radiant visions. Later, especially around the

'50s, some Westerners began a long-standing flirtation with the simple, paradoxical, intuitive way of Zen. Nowadays our curiosity and fascination have shifted to the Tantric forms of Buddhism, largely because of the Tibetan Buddhists' exodus from their homeland after the Chinese takeover and their emigration to India and the West. We haven't been exposed nearly as much to the other major esoteric Buddhist tradition, Theravada, or "Hinayana," and what we have heard has usually been colorless historical information. So in the West the Theravada tradition is generally regarded as a quaint curiosity.

Thus, it may be surprising to learn that Theravada is in fact the largest living Buddhist tradition. In Southeast Asia, primarily in Burma, Ceylon, Thailand, and Laos, there are over half a million 'practicing Theravadin monks.

Like any of the world's great traditions, Theravada is largely a popular religion. Only ten percent of the monks are involved directly with meditation practices, and in Thailand, for instance, monastic life is often largely social and cultural, not directly involved with the transforming spiritual process. Most monks participate in the everyday life of their villages and regions, and in the ordinary political and economic life of their cultures. Many monks (and nuns) perform social service, from instructing children to rehabilitating drug addicts. Others are scholars, immersed in study of the Pali language and scriptures. Some are priests of the popular religion, which stresses the importance of accumulating merit, living a moral life, and participating in Buddhist ritual. The millions of lay Buddhists, for their part, consider it a responsibility to support the Theravadin monks and nuns. And those monastics who actually are involved in the esoteric paths of meditation form an elite which is universally respected. Theravadin meditation Masters are among the best known and most highly regarded members of Southeast Asian society.

Only a small minority of the tens of thousands of Theravadin monasteries -are devoted to meditation. But, together with the centers for intensive meditation retreats, they are the chief seats of the living tradition of Theravadin meditation. At these monasteries there is very little social interaction. Even where the whole day is not devoted entirely to intensive meditation, the ordinary activities of life are often undertaken as extensions of meditation practice. In any case, esoteric Theravadin Buddhism is almost always practiced in a quiet environment with few external distractions. The sleeping places and meditation cottages or halls are usually simple and bare, the food bland and unadorned. Monastic rules structure the entire day. Every aspect of life is designed to minimize the reinforcement of sensual and mental cravings of all kinds. One who lives such a life is faced with few decisions. The teachings stress discipline and morality, simplifying the form of life, and eliminating guilt and complication.

The hundreds of living Theravadin meditation teachers recommend a startling range of seemingly incompatible practices. In addition to the concentration and insight techniques, there are mantras, breathing exercises, visualizations of internal lights and patterns, concentration on parts of the body, and maintenance of meditative postures. Teachers who are not oriented exclusively towards meditation also employ simple service as a spiritual practice. Even the esoteric healing arts are taught among Theravadins. Rules of monastic discipline sometimes become a form of practice in - themselves and in some monasteries there are literally thousands of rules. Life in such a place must mightily frustrate a man's preferences and desires!

Nevertheless, if we examine it closely, we see that the tradition itself is not limited to particular qualities. For instance, some teachers take the role of the close but wiser friend, while others assume a role like that of the traditional Hindu guru, as an object of devotion; and their students undertake all sorts of ritual ceremonies. (This devotional aspect of Theravada is the backbone of the popular religion, although popular devotion is usually directed to the Buddha as The Perfected One, rather than to a Master) Again, some teachers are extremely goal-oriented, stressing rigid discipline and unyielding effort, but others simply direct the meditator to quiet his mind gently, observe, and perhaps develop "metta" or "loving-kindness" towards all beings.


Theravadin Practice

Theravadin literature is primarily concerned with the fundamentals of Buddhist doctrine. There are repeated elucidations of the Eightfold Path, the doctrine of "dependent origination" which views every element of life and mind as a dependent aspect of a single inclusive process, and the doctrine of "anatta" or "not-self"-which denies the reality of any separate entity. Much of the" psychology and theory of Theravada provides a systematic categorization of nearly every aspect of mind and life. There are the "ten. defilements of mind," the "four objects of mindfulness," the "four stages of enlightenment," and on and on. Complicated as they may seem, these doctrinal intricacies only serve to elaborate and clarify the essentials of Theravadin practice.

The most significant practice is satipatthana or mindfulness. This practice may involve mindfulness of breath, contemplation of the parts of the body, of sense objects, feelings, or mind-forms. Theravadins teach two basic forms of meditation, samatha and vipassana. Practitioners and teachers of vipassana usually assert its seniority to samatha, although many teachers include both forms of meditation practice. Samatha is translated as tranquility, stillness,' or concentration. Vipassana means insight, and it involves passive, intelligent awareness of the present moment, no matter what is happening in the body or mind. When accompanied by the strength of mind developed through samatha practice, vipassana reveals the whole process of mind and body as just that - -a mere process without personal implications, characterized by impermanence and suffering. Thus, vipassana intentionally destroys the "defilements of mind" (such as aversion, greed, and hatred) including the basic illusion of the ego. Through this practice the monk seeks freedom from samsara, the "wheel of birthand-death" in the world which is the essence of suffering.

Meditators sometimes develop blissful states or occult powers in the course of practice, but Theravadin tradition is consistent and vehement in denying the value of these phenomena. The meditator is instructed to persist in his practice of insight, regarding all these as another aspect of samsara. One is always directed back to the point of view-of the impersonal, mindful witness.

The Buddhism of Southeast Asia views life as impermanent, devoid of individual self, and essentially as suffering, or dukkha. This being the case, the only real value of human existence lies in the attainment of enlightenment, nibbana. As you will see in the following articles, the Theravadin tradition retains an apparently negative quality in many of its teachings and practices. Practitioners are always grounded in the simple. unadorned fact of dukkha, and the necessity of insight, wisdom, and liberation.

There are few great paeans to the glory of enlightenment or the miraculous qualities of the subtle Buddha-realms such as we find in Mahayana texts; few humorous celebrations of the enlightened man's freedom and of the beauty of nature such as we find in Zen poetry; and few of the intricate subtle methodologies or ecstatic songs of realization that we find in Tantra. Nevertheless, Theravada is not without joy. Alan Watts noted in his last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, that the peoples of the countries in which Theravada flourishes "are an unaccountably joyous and sociable folk." But Theravada is firmly rooted in rationality, in the mind and life of man in this world. It is directly concerned with setting him free of the binding influences of samsara through mental strength and balance, mindfulness, and insight.


Satipatthana Meditation
by Nyanaponika Thera

The following article is written by one the most highly reputed authorities on Theravadin Buddhism of this century. Nyanaponika Thera is a Ceylonese master of satipatthana, or the practice of mindfulness, and he is also the foremost educator of his tradition. As editor of The Buddhist Publication Society, Nyanaponika Thera has helped make available a vast array of writings relating to Theravadin teachings and practice. The following article is reprinted with permission from his book The Power of Mindfulness, published in the United States by Unity Press of Santa Cruz, California. It outlines the fundamentals of satipatthana, or mindfulness, the practice of "bare attention.

Here, the author emphasizes the non coercive nature of mindfulness practice. Among the teachers of Theravada represented in this issue, Nyanaponika Thera is most consistent in his denial of the efficacy of force as a tool of meditation. For him, meditation does not involve techniques- of concentration or violent effort. It is always a practice of the "light but sure touch" bare attention.

Both the world surrounding us and the world of our own mind are full of unwanted experiences and frustrations, of hostile and conflicting forces. Man knows from his own bitter experience that he is not strong enough to meet and conquer in open combat each one of these antagonistic forces around him and within him. He knows that, in the external world, he "cannot have everything as he wants it," and that, in the inner world of his mind, passions and impulses, whims and fancies, are often victorious over the voices of duty, reason and, higher aspirations.

Man knows further that often an undesirable situation will even worsen if excessive pressure is used against it. Thus passionate desires may grow in intensity if one tries to silence them by sheer force of will. Disputes and quarrels will go on endlessly and grow fiercer, if they are fanned again and again by angry retorts or by vain attempts to crush the other man's position entirely. A disturbance during work, rest or meditation, will be felt more strongly and will have a longerlasting impact if one reacts to it by resentment, _anger, ~ or by attempts to suppress it.

Again and again man will meet with situations in life where he cannot force issues. But there are ways of mastering some of the vicissitudes of life and ma- - ny of the conflicts of mind, without an application of force, by nonviolent means, which may often succeed where attempts of coercion, internal or external, have failed. Such a way of nonviolent mastery of life and of mind is satipatthana. By the methodical application of bare attention, being the basic practice in the development of right mindfulness, all the latent powers of a noncoercive approach will gradually unfold themselves, with their beneficial results and their wide and unexpected implications. Here, in this context, however, we are mainly concerned with benefits for the mastery of mind and for progress in meditation that may result from a noncoercive procedure. But we shall also throw occasional side glances to the repercussions on everyday life. It will not be difficult for a thoughtful reader to make more detailed application to his own problems.

The antagonistic forces that appear in meditation, and are liable to upset its smooth course, are of three kinds:

1. external disturbances, such as noise;

2. mental defilements, including lust, anger, dissatisfaction, sloth, which may arise at any time during meditation; and 3. various incidental stray thoughts, or surrender to daydreaming.

The occurrence of these distractions is the great stumbling block for a beginner in meditation who has not yet acquired sufficient dexterity to deal with them effectively. To give thought to those disturbing factors only when they actually arise at the very time of meditation will be quite insufficient. If caught unprepared in one's defense, one will struggle with them in a more or less haphazard and ineffective way, and with a feeling of irritation which will form an additional impediment. If disturbances of any kind and an unskillful reaction to them occur several times during one session, one will feel utterly frustrated and irritated, and may have to give up further attempts at meditating, at least fob`` the present occasion.

To all these facts about the three kinds of disturbing factors full weight must be given and the facts must be fully absorbed by our mind, if they are to shape our mental attitude. Then, in these three disturbing factors, the truth of suffering will manifest itself to the meditator very incisively through his own personal experience: "Not to obtain what one wants is suffering." Also the three other noble truths should be exemplified by reference to that very situation. In such a way, even when dealing with impediments, the meditator will be within the domain of satipatthana: he will be engaged in the mindful awareness of the four noble truths, being a part of the contemplation of mental objects. It is a characteristic of right mindfulness, and one of its tasks, to relate the actual experiences of life to the truths of the dharma, and to use them as opportunities for its practical realization. Already here, at this preliminary stage devoted to the shaping of a correct and helpful mental attitude, we have the first successful test of our peaceful weapons: by understanding our adversaries better, we have consolidated" our position, which was formerly weakened by an emotional approach; and by transforming these adversaries into teachers of the four noble truths, we have won the first advantage over them.


One Person

Monks, there is one person whose arising in the world is for the welfare of many folk, for the happiness of many folk, who comes out of compassion for the world, for the profit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. . . .

Monks, the manifestation of one person is the manifestation, of. great vision, of great light, of great 'radiance...

Monks, there is one person arising in the world who is unique, without a peer, without counterpart, incomparable, unequalled, matchless, unrivalled, the best of humans.

Who is that one person? It is a Tathagata, an Arahant, a Fully Enlightened, One. This, 0 monks, is that one Person.

The excerpts from... discourses of the Buddha printed in this section are translated from the original Pals. They are reprinted with kind permission from two works published by The Buddhist Publication Society in Ceylon, Anguttara Nikaya, an anthology o f discourses translated in two parts by Nyanaponika Thera, and The Discourse Collection translated by John D. Ireland.

There are three devices of countering disturbances which should be applied in succession whenever the preceding device has failed to dispose of the disturbance. All three are applications of bare attention, differing in the degree or intensity of attention given to the disturbance. The guiding rule here is: give no more mental emphasis to the respective disturbance than actually required by circumstances.

1. First, one should notice the disturbance clearly, but lightly; that is, without emphasis and without attention to details. After that brief act of noticing, one should try to return to the original object of meditation, and one may well succeed in it if the disturbance is weak by, nature, or one's preceding concentration of mind was fairly strong. If, at that stage, we are careful not to get involved in any "conversation" or argument with the intruders, we shall, on our part, not give them a reason to stay long; and, in a good number of cases, the disturbances will depart soon, like visitors who do not receive a very warm welcome. That curt dismissal of them may often enable us to return to our original meditation without any serious disturbance to the composure of mind.

The nonviolent device is this: to apply bare attention to the disturbance, but with a minimum of response to it, and with a mind bent on withdrawal. This is the very way in which the Buddha himself dealt with inopportune visitors, as described in the Mahasunnata-Sutra: ". . . with a mind bent on seclusion. . .and withdrawn, his conversation aiming at dismissing [those visitors]." Similar was Santideva's advice how to deal with fools: if one cannot avoid them, one should treat them "with the indifferent politeness of a gentleman."

2. If, however, the disturbance persists, one should repeat the application of bare attention again and again, patiently and calmly; and it may well be that the disturbance will vanish when it has spent its force. Here the attitude is: to meet the repeated occurrence of a disturbance by a reiterated "No," by a determined refusal to be deflected from one's course. It is the attitude of patience and firmness. The capacity of watchful observation has to be aided here by the capacity to wait and to hold one's ground.

These two devices will generally be successful with incidental stray thoughts, daydreams, etc., which are feeble by nature; but also the other two types of disturbances, the external ones and defilements, may yield quite often.

3. But if, for some reason or other, they do not yield, one should now turn one's full and deliberate attention to the respective disturbance, accept it as an object of knowledge, and transform it thus from a disturbance of meditation to a legitimate object of meditation. One may continue with that new object until the external or internal cause for attending to it has ceased, or one may even retain it for that session of meditation, if it proves satisfactory.

If there is, for instance, disturbance by persistent noise, we should give to it our undivided attention. But we should take care to distinguish it well from any reaction of ours concerning it, e.g., by resentment, which likewise should be clearly recognized in its own nature, whenever it arises. In doing so, we shall have undertaken the contemplation of mind objects, according to the following passage of the Discourse: "He knows the ear and sounds, and the fetter (e.g., resentment) arising through both." If the noise is intermittent or of varying intensity, one will be easily able to discern the rise and fall in its process, and to add, in that way, to one's direct insight into impermanency.

The attitude towards recurrent mental defilements, as thoughts of lust, restlessness, should be similar. One should face them squarely, but distinguish them from one's reaction to them, e.g., connivance, fear, resentment, irritation. In doing so, one is making use of the device of "naming," and one will reap its benefits which have been outlined before. In the recurrent waves of passion or restlessness one will likewise learn to distinguish gradually phases of "high" and "low," their "ups and downs," and may also gain other helpful knowledge about their behavior. By that procedure, one again remains entirely within the range of satipatthana, by practicing the contemplation of the state of mind and of mind objects (i.e., attention to the hindrances).

Advantages of Contemplating Not-self

When a monk sees six advantages, it should be enough for him to establish the perception of not-self as to all things, without exception. What six?

I shall be aloof from all the world. Notions of `I' will vanish in me. Notions of `Mine' will vanish in me. I shall be endowed with knowledge above the common. I shall clearly understand causes and the phenomena arisen by causes.

This method of transforming disturbances of meditation into objects of meditation. as simple as it is ingenious, may be regarded as the culmination of nonviolent procedure. It is a device very characteristic of the spirit of satipatthana, by making use of all experiences as aids on the path. In that way, enemies are turned into friends, because all these disturbances and antagonistic forces have become our teachers; and teachers, whoever they may be, should be regarded as friends.

Let the intruders come and go, like any other members of that vast, unceasing procession of mental and physical events that passes along before our observant eyes, in the practice of bare attention.

Our advantage here is the quite obvious fact that two thought moments cannot be present at one and the same time. Attention refers, strictly speaking, not to the present but to the moment that has just passed away. Thus, as long as mindfulness holds sway, there will be no "disturbance" or "defiled thought." This gives us the chance to hold on to that secure ground of an "observer's post," to the potential "throne of enlightenment."

By the quietening and neutralizing influence of detached observation as applied in our three devices, the interruptions of meditation will increasingly lose the sting of irritation, and, thereby, their disturbing effect. This will prove to be an act of true viraga ("dispassion"), which literally means "decoloring." That is to say, these experiences will lose their emotional tinge that excites towards lust and ' aversion, and they will appear as "bare phenomena."

The nonviolent procedure of bare attention endows the meditator with a "light but sure touch" that is so essential for handling the sensitive, evasive and refractory nature of our mind, as well as for dealing with various difficult situations and obstacles in life. When speaking of the even quality of energy required for attaining to the meditative absorptions, the "path of purification" illustrates it by describing a test which the ancient students of the art of surgery had to undergo as a proof of their skill. A lotus leaf was placed in a bowl of water, and the pupil had to make an incision through the length of the leaf, without cutting it entirely or submerging it. He who applied an excess of force either cut it into two or pressed it into the water, while the timid one did not even dare to scratch it. In fact, it is something like the gentle but firm hand of the surgeon that is required in mental training, and this skillful and well-balanced touch will be the natural outcome of the nonviolent procedure in the practice of bare attention.


Interview with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein