Introduction to Theravada Buddhism and the life of the
Theravada Buddhism Theravada Buddhism plays an important part of the lives of the majority of people living in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar/Burma. Buddhism is one of the most adhered to “religions” in the world and yet according to Davids (1894: 151) it is unlikely Gautama (the Buddha) “intended, either at the beginning or the end of his career, to be the founder of a new religion,” instead it has been speculated the Buddha was interested in building upon the then existing Hindu religion as practiced in the area. Is Buddhism primarily a religion or a philosophy? After all, “The Buddha did not create the world, is no longer alive and does not exist,” (Kaw 2005: 27) and therefore the Buddha is not a supernatural being who can intervene in the lives of people living today. Metaphysics and questions such as the origin of the universe are not main concerns of Theravada Buddhism; instead Buddhism in Southeast Asia is primarily concerned with ethics (King 1964: 1) and Theravada Buddhism “has no dogmas, superstitions, necessary rituals, mediating priests or blind faith in an unknown (and unknowable) God” (King 1964: 2). Therefore Buddhism is sometimes classified as a philosophy instead of a religion. Yet, for many lay believers “praying” to and worshiping Buddha images is an extremely common practice (Schober 1989: 32); this practice would appear to have much in common with the Christian, Hindu, or Muslim concepts of religious prayer to the supernatural. It needs to be kept in mind there is a wide divergence between doctrinal Buddhism and the popular Theravada Buddhism of the masses (Jackson 2003: 61, 306). This has been the case for a considerable amount of time; in 1922 Saunder (42) noticed, “There is a marked difference between the theoretical Buddhism of early days, reflected in the standard literature of Southern Buddhism [Theravada Buddhism], and the Buddhism of the present day.” Studying the vast literature that comprises the Buddhist canons, as is done by Buddhist scholars and theologians, gives only a partial picture of Theravada Buddhism and how it affects millions of people living in Southeast Asia. One could not expect to understand modern Islam by solely studying the Koran, nor would one be expected to understand the part that Christianity has played in the history of Europe and North
America from only reading the Bible. The same principle applies to the study of the effects of Theravada Buddhism on the history of Southeast Asia and the lives of its citizens today. The way Theravada Buddhism is interpreted and practiced in Southeast Asia is filled with contradictions, complexities, and nuances. Theravada Buddhism stresses the fact that the path to enlightenment is an individual endeavor and must be learned from within and cannot be taught, and yet to devote one’s life to seeking enlightenment normally requires one to become a monk, live in a regimented communal environment, and strictly follow a large number of rules and regulations. Kaw (2005: 122) states, “critical or independent thinking is not at all foreign to traditional monastic schools,” and yet “[i]n Theravada Buddhism there is more emphasis on correct practices, or orthopraxy, as the basis of authoritative presentations of doctrine than on correct belief” (Jackson 2003: 17). The seeking of enlightenment could be thought of as a selfish endeavor and “becoming a disciple-son of the Buddha may involve a considerable amount of personal struggle between what counts as good for oneself and what counts as good for the wider context” (Carbine 2004: 107). Furthermore, Theravada Buddhism is primarily a path for celibate monks who are striving for enlightenment by separating themselves from secular activities and yet a place for lay worshipers is necessary for the religion to thrive (Carbine 2004: 27). Theravada Buddhism, in theory, is apolitical in nature; however, monks in Southeast Asia have often been involved in politics and, at times, even in military matters (Bode 1898: 61, Jerryson 2009; Kaw 2005: 122; McCargo 2009). It would appear the interpretation of core Theravada Buddhism values can differ to some extent depending on time, place, and individual interpretation; nevertheless the core of the religion/philosophy affects the actions, beliefs, and thoughts of millions of people across the region on a daily basis. First and foremost, Theravada Buddhism is a path for celibate monks to search for enlightenment; however, in order for the religion to survive and thrive for over 2,000 years, a strong connection between monastic life and lay people has been necessary. Monks and lay people have very different religious goals. In theory, monks are striving to reach nibbana (nirvana) in this life, while the main focus of lay people is to strive to be born in the next life with higher status or on a higher level of existence (Crosby 2006). Another conflicting pressure comes from the need for Theravada Buddhism to balance maintaining the purity and traditions of the religion with pressures for the religion to adapt to an ever modernizing world. Schober (1989: 30) wrote:
Religious practices among the lay community is largely confined to the lower stages of the path to enlightenment. Due to the inherent imperfections of lay life, a lay person who masters the exceedingly difficult task of becoming an arahat [Buddhist saint] may not continue to exist in the lay domain. He must either join the sangha [order of Buddhist monks] or become extinct and enter parinibbana [nibbana].