Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. From there it has spread to Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. There are over 100 million Theravada Buddhists nowadays, and Theravada has begun to take root in the West. Theravada (literally: "Way of the Elders"), like so many other Buddhist schools, claims to be closest to the original teachings of Buddha. Theravada thus accepts a canon of ancient Indian Buddhism as it is handed over in the Pali language, a relative of Sanskrit.
During the first centuries after the death of Buddha, the community broke up into several sects. At the Third Buddhist Council the Teravada teachings were known as the Vibhajjavada, and somewhere around AD 1000 the lineage adopted the name Theravada.
Typical Thinking in Theravada
Theravada promotes the "Teaching of Analysis", which says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning, and not blind faith. Still, the scriptures of the Theravadin tradition also emphasise (1) heeding and considering the advice of the wise, and (2) evaluating one's own experiences and progress. Practices should be measured according to a neat approach along such lines.
The goal is freedom from suffering by winning Nirvana (Pali: Nibbana). It is an inner state, the one that Buddha got to in his time. Some who practices with earnestness and zeal can reach Nirvana in a single lifetime, as the first few generations of Lord Buddha disciples are recorded to have done. The ideal of Theravada Buddhism is the arhat (Pali: arahant), who wins Enlightenment by his own efforts. Theravadins who do not consider it possible for laypersons to gain enlightenment and do not pay homage to the many buddhas of Mahayana.
Nirvana and Classifications of People
Nirvana, the highest goal, is attained through study and the practice of morality, meditation and wisdom (sila, samadhi, panya).
Four degrees of spiritual attainment are talked of:
A Pali Heritage
Books of Buddha's sayings were nearly all written in India within 500 years after his death. The Theravada school claims their recordings - the Pali Canon or Tipitaka (Sanskrit: Tripitaka) - is the most authoritative collection of texts they ascribe to Gautama Buddha. The Tipitaka consists of three parts: the Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka.
The Sutta and Vinaya portion of the Tipitaka is quite close to the content of collections used by other Buddhist schools in India - collections preserved in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Chinese and Tibetan . On this basis Sutta and Vinaya part of the Tipitaka are believed by scholars to be the oldest and most authoritative texts on Buddhism. The Abhidhamma Pitaka is believed to be a later addition to the first two pitakas. Abhidhamma is not (much) recognized outside the Theravada school.
Around 500 AD Buddhaghosa Thera wrote the first commentary to the Tipitaka. The commentaries and the Abhidhamma clarify parts of the All-Buddhist heritage since related versions of the Sutta Pitaka and Vinaya Pitaka were common to all early Buddhist schools.
The Place of Monks, Nuns, and Laypeople
In Theravada common people - who sustain monks and nuns - go for less by monks and nuns than the monk - and nuns themselves. In Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions the status of lay followers is less awkward. But in Theravada the role of lay people has traditionally been - and still is - that of making merits by such as offering food and other basic necessities to monks, making donations to temples and monasteries, burning incense or lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting protective or merit-making verses from the Pali Canon.
Lay activities have traditionally not extended to study of the Pali scriptures or to contemplative meditation, but Westerners that get interested in Buddhism manage to focus better on the actual practice and theory. This attitude is spreading today. Handed-over techniques can be used by laypeople to ensure deep happiness and decent progress in their lives, without focusing on Nirvana. (It comes when it comes.)
Ordaining another a monk, even for a short period, is not altogether to be frowned upon as long as the young novice and monk is not required to swear things he or she do not understand the future significance and possible bonds of, and as long as they do not get embittered and eventually break their words along the way. Today, monks regularly leave the robes after getting an education, and in Southeast Asia there is little stigma attached to leaving the monastic life - there should not be any. The benefits of meditation and reading available texts do not belong to monks alone.
Monks of forest monasteries will wake-up before dawn and will begin the day with group chanting and meditation. At dawn the monks will go out bare-footed, perhaps where there are snakes in the grass. They are heading to to surrounding villages on alms-round and will have the only meal of the day before noon by eating from the bowl by hand.
At the rain retreat period, many of the monks will go out barefoot from the monastery to find a remote place. They most often carry along a bowl, a tent, a mosquito net, sandals, a candle lantern, and a few other things. Some may decide to fast for days where wild animal live. Such practices and hazards are unnecessary to the lay practitioner who can profit from modern life and its benefits.
Lay followers look after the needs of the monk and nuns and see to that they do not lack food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Monks and nuns depend throughout on the laity. In return the monastics are expected to live by the ancient rules and thus "lead exemplary lives" so that offering them help brings merits.