August 22nd Reading: Theravada – The Way of Liberation

“Theravada”—literally, The Teachings of the Elders—is an ancient Buddhist tradition that has nurtured practices and teachings

of wisdom, love and liberation for over two thousand years. Liberation, the pivotal point around which the tradition revolves, is a deep seeing into and participation in the reality of “things as they are:” the world we live in when seen without the filters of greed, hatred and delusion.

With the ever-present, timeless immediacy of “things as they are” as a central reference point, the Theravada school is a fluid and varied tradition evolving in response to the particular personal, historical, and cultural circumstances of those who participate in it. Today there are over one hundred million Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Currently, the three most influential Theravada countries are Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, and it is from these countries that the tradition has come to the West.

Theravada Buddhism in North America

Since the 1960s, the Theravada tradition has slowly but surely found a home in North America. The two major turning points for its establishment here were the founding in 1966 of the first American Buddhist vihara, or monastic temple, by the Sri Lankan Buddhist community inWashington D.C., and ten years later the establishment of the Vipassana meditation center in Barre, Massachusetts known as the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). These two centers represent two divergent and distinct forms that Theravada Buddhism has taken in North America, namely the monastic-centered traditions and temples of the Southeast Asian immigrant groups on the one hand, and on the other the lay-centered Vipassana movement made up mostly of Americans of European descent. The former tend to be fairly conservative, replicating in America the various forms of Buddhism found in their native countries. The latter take a more liberal and experimental approach in finding ways Theravada Buddhism can be adapted to its lay-based American setting.

The newest form of Theravada Buddhism in the United States fits into neither of these categories. It is represented by monastic centers run and supported predominantly by Euro- Americans. An example is Abhayagiri Monastery, founded by the English monk Ajahn Amaro in 1996 in Redwood Valley, California. In addition, two other monastic centers—Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, California, and the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia—are making monastic practice available toWesterners while remaining firmly connected to their traditional Asian communities. Within these centers we could well be seeing the beginnings of an American version of Theravada monasticism.

Considered an ideal lifestyle for study, practice, service, and the purification of the heart, monasticism has long been a cornerstone of the Theravada tradition. However, in the twentieth century and especially in the modern West, the full range of Theravada meditation practices has been made available to the laity in an unprecedented manner. This being the case, monasticism is no longer seen as the sole carrier of the tradition, although it remains an anchor and a force of preservation.

While it is too early to tell what American Theravada Buddhism will eventually look like, it will probably exhibit at least as much diversity as it does in its Southeast Asian homeland. Perhaps it will even stretch the boundaries of what has traditionally defined it.

Basic Teachings

The Buddha encouraged people not to believe blindly but to “come and see” for themselves. Consequently, his teachings emphasize practice rather than belief or doctrine. In this spirit, many Theravadan practices are awareness practices, simple in themselves but powerful in their sustained application. In addition, the tradition also teaches practices to strengthen generosity, service, ethics, loving-kindness, compassion and right livelihood. These practices nurture the growth of an awakened and liberated heart, and help us to live wisely and compassionately.

The Theravada tradition traces its practices and teachings back to the historical Buddha. While the Buddha has been the object of great veneration, the tradition has, down through the centuries, maintained that the Buddha was human, someone who pointed out the path of practice that others may follow. The Theravada school preserves much of its collection of the Buddha’s teaching in a large body of scriptures, or Suttas, written in Pali, the Theravada equivalent of Church Latin. These remarkable texts contain highly revered and thorough descriptions of practices, ethics, psychology, and teachings on the spiritual life. They also contain a strong warning not to give up one’s own judgment in favor of the tradition and its texts, as well as a warning about simply following one’s own judgment without listening to others. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha says that in deciding the truth or falsity of spiritual teachings,

Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, “The ascetic is our teacher.”

But when you know for yourselves, “These things are unwholesome, these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering,” then you should abandon them.

But when you know for yourselves, “These things are wholesome, these things are blameless these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should engage in them.

A key reason for such a pragmatic criterion for determining spiritual truth or falsehood is that the Buddha was not particularly interested in establishing correct metaphysical views.He was more concerned with pointing out how to move from suffering to freedom from suffering, from suffering to liberation. Thus, the central doctrine of the Theravada tradition is found in the “Four Noble Truths.” Here the word “Truths” refers to that which is spiritually or therapeutically true and helpful. The Four Noble Truths are:

1. Suffering occurs

2. The cause of suffering is craving

3. The possibility of ending suffering exists

4. The cessation of suffering is attained through the Noble Eightfold Path

Suffering (dukkha in Pali) here does not refer to physical and empathetic pain, conditions that we inevitably experience. Rather, it refers to the dissatisfaction and tension we add to our lives through clinging. The first and second Noble truths are a call to recognize clearly both our suffering and the many variations of grasping and aversion that make up the clinging underlying such suffering. One reason the Theravada tradition stresses awareness practices is to help us with this recognition. The third and fourth Noble truths point to the possibility of ending such clinging-derived suffering, and of living with a liberated heart.

The experience of being free of clinging-derived suffering is known as nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit) and is popularly called enlightenment or awakening in English. While the Theravada tradition sometimes describes nibbana as a form of great happiness or peace, more often it has been defined simply as the complete absence of clinging or craving. The primary reason for this negative definition is that nibbana is so radically different from what can be described through language that it is best not to try. Furthermore, the tradition discourages attachments to any particular ideas of enlightenment as well as to pointless philosophical or metaphysical speculation. Indeed, part of the brilliance of the Four Noble Truths is that they offer a guide to the spiritual life without the need to adhere to any dogmatic beliefs.

Excerpt from : “The Issue at Hand” by Gil Fronsdal – Full text can be found here.