Buddhism vs. Theravada

What's the Difference?

Buddhism is a religion and philosophy that encompasses various traditions, one of which is Theravada. Theravada, also known as the "Doctrine of the Elders," is considered the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism. While Buddhism as a whole focuses on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Theravada specifically emphasizes the original teachings and practices ascribed to him. It places great importance on meditation, mindfulness, and the pursuit of enlightenment through personal effort and self-discipline. Theravada is prevalent in Southeast Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar, where it is deeply ingrained in the culture and daily life of its followers. Overall, Theravada can be seen as a specific school within the broader framework of Buddhism, embodying its core principles and offering a path towards liberation from suffering.


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FounderSiddhartha Gautama (Buddha)Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha)
ScripturesTipitaka (Pali Canon)Tipitaka (Pali Canon)
Belief in GodNo belief in a supreme beingNo belief in a supreme being
GoalAttaining NirvanaAttaining Nirvana
Path to EnlightenmentEightfold PathEightfold Path
MonasticismMonks and nunsMonks and nuns
Emphasis on MeditationYesYes
ReincarnationBelief in reincarnationBelief in reincarnation
WorshipNo worship of deitiesNo worship of deities
Photo by Shivam Dewan on Unsplash

Further Detail


Buddhism is a major world religion that originated in ancient India and has since spread across various parts of Asia and beyond. Within Buddhism, there are different schools or traditions, each with its own unique characteristics and practices. One of the oldest and most prominent schools is Theravada Buddhism, which is often referred to as the "Doctrine of the Elders." In this article, we will explore the attributes of Buddhism as a whole and compare them to the specific teachings and practices of Theravada Buddhism.

Origins and Beliefs

Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, emerged around the 5th century BCE. The core belief of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths, which state that life is suffering (dukkha), suffering arises from attachment and craving, suffering can be overcome, and the path to overcoming suffering is the Eightfold Path. These fundamental principles are shared by all Buddhist traditions, including Theravada.

Theravada Buddhism, however, places a strong emphasis on the original teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon, a collection of scriptures written in the ancient Pali language. Theravada practitioners believe that the path to enlightenment can be achieved by following the teachings of the Buddha as closely as possible. They strive to attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death (samsara) through individual effort and meditation.

Monasticism and Lay Followers

Both Buddhism and Theravada have a strong tradition of monasticism, with monks and nuns playing a central role in the religious community. Monastic life is seen as a means to dedicate oneself fully to the pursuit of spiritual awakening and the practice of meditation. Monks and nuns follow a strict code of conduct, including celibacy, renunciation of worldly possessions, and adherence to a set of precepts.

While monasticism is highly valued in Theravada Buddhism, it is not the only path to enlightenment. Lay followers, who make up the majority of Buddhist practitioners, also play a significant role. Lay Buddhists strive to live virtuous lives, uphold ethical principles, and support the monastic community through acts of generosity and devotion. They may engage in regular meditation practice and seek to cultivate wisdom and compassion in their daily lives.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is a central practice in both Buddhism and Theravada. It is seen as a means to develop mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Buddha himself attained enlightenment through meditation, and he taught various meditation techniques to his followers.

Theravada Buddhism places a strong emphasis on Vipassana meditation, also known as insight meditation. This practice involves observing the mind and body with clear awareness, cultivating a deep understanding of the impermanent and selfless nature of all phenomena. By developing insight into the true nature of reality, practitioners aim to overcome ignorance and attain liberation.

While meditation is a common practice in all Buddhist traditions, other schools may also incorporate different forms of meditation, such as concentration-based practices or visualization techniques. However, the core goal of meditation in Buddhism, including Theravada, remains the same – to cultivate mindfulness and develop a deeper understanding of the mind and the nature of existence.

Textual Authority and Interpretation

Both Buddhism and Theravada rely on sacred texts for guidance and inspiration. However, the specific texts and their interpretation may differ between traditions.

In Buddhism as a whole, various collections of scriptures are considered authoritative, including the Pali Canon, the Mahayana sutras, and the Tibetan Buddhist texts. Different schools within Buddhism may prioritize different texts and place varying degrees of importance on them.

Theravada Buddhism, being rooted in the Pali Canon, places a particular emphasis on these ancient scriptures. The Pali Canon is believed to contain the most accurate and authentic teachings of the Buddha. Theravada scholars and practitioners devote themselves to studying and preserving these texts, ensuring that the original teachings are passed down through generations.


While Buddhism and Theravada share many common attributes, such as the belief in the Four Noble Truths and the practice of meditation, Theravada Buddhism distinguishes itself through its strong adherence to the original teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon. The emphasis on monasticism, the role of lay followers, and the focus on Vipassana meditation are all key characteristics of Theravada. However, it is important to remember that Buddhism is a diverse and multifaceted religion, with various schools and traditions offering different paths to spiritual awakening. Ultimately, the choice of practice and interpretation lies with the individual practitioner.

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