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Theravada (-văda) is one of the major divisions of Buddhism. The name can be translated as either "Teaching of the Elders" or "Ancient Teaching". The tradition recognizes both meanings. The name is first recorded in the Dīpavaṃsa (probably 4th century AD), but it is not clear whether it was a proper name, Teaching of the Elders, or just a descriptive phrase, teaching of the elders, before modern times, when it seems to have first been definitely used as a proper name in 1907, by the British monk Ānandametteyya.[1] As the name suggests, it claims to preserve the Buddha's original teachings. Scholars do not accept this as literally true, though most agree that it is extremely conservative.

Scholarly estimates for the number of Theravādins in the world seem to vary from 100,000,000[2] to 177,400,000,[3] mostly in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Theravada may be considered a single denomination, not being clearly subdivided. It, however, like other non-Western religious groups, does not fit the Western model of something with a permanent central organization, and it shows, and very likely always did show, a variety in belief and practice.

At least in theory, Theravada is based on the Pali Canon as its scripture, though the contents of editions published in Theravada countries vary somewhat. The Pali language is the normal liturgical language, and some literature continues to be written in it.

A central role is played in Asian Theravada (not always in the West) by the monastic order or sangha. There was once an order of nuns, subordinate to the monks, but this died out. One branch of the Sangha in Sri Lanka has recently restored it, but these ordinations are not generally recognized. The sangha is divided on various matters of interpretation of the rules (whereas the differences between the Theravada, Chinese and Tibetan sanghas include actual rule differences, albeit fairly minor), for example whether the robe should be worn over one shoulder or both. Relations between the different divisions vary, but the disagreements do not generally affect lay people.


  1. Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême Orient, July-December 1907, page 425; How Thervada is Theravada, ed Skilling et al, Silkworm Books, Chieng Mai, Thailand, 2012
  2. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Volume Two), page 837
  3. Johnson & Grim, The World's Religions in Figures, 2013, page 36