Membership, Community, Diversity

Who are Theravada Buddhists?

Theravada Buddhists are members of a more or less homogenous community of faith and worship built around the notion that the Buddha was a human being who taught by example. The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was the last of many nonhuman and human reincarnations of the Buddha-to-be. A separate school from the second council on in the fourth century B.C.E., their main scriptures are called collectively the Pali Canon.

Theravadins seek deliverance from rebirth by eliminating craving and ignorance through self-discipline. The ideal and model of the enlightened life is the arhat. Arhats benefit others chiefly by their example, and they possess no saving power as such. They embody primarily the virtue of wisdom. Their ultimate goal, nirvana, is a state beyond this world of samsara in which the liberated person experiences neither desire nor impressions of any kind. Theravada sources describe nirvana as a permanent pleasant state of knowledge, freedom, and peace that is largely the result of a process of personal effort. When Theravadins pray, their primary intent is more to honor the Buddha than to worship him. All good acts, including religious ritual, done with proper intent can help one gain merit toward the eradication of negative karma. For most Theravada Buddhists, the concepts of merit making and merit transfer are more basic and accessible than the kind of lofty ethical and spiritual discipline embodied in an arhat. There are, of course, some regional and cultural variations in Theravada expression and practice, but considerably less so than in the other main branches of Buddhist tradition.


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