Formation Of Theravada Buddhism
According to legend, the first of the Buddhist councils, where monks from all over North India met to collate the Buddha's teachings, occurred just after the Buddha's passing away, and several more were held in the years following. In these councils, the earliest forms of the Buddhist canon were developed. Texts, originally orally recited by monks, were divided into three main divisions or "baskets" (pitakas): vinaya (rules for monastics), sutra (discourses), and abhidharma (metaphysics). While different traditions have different recensions (in different languages) and even different texts in their canon, all follow this basic division of the sacred scripture into the "three baskets."
It was in the second of these councils, held some one hundred years after the Buddha's parinirvana, that sectarian differences led to a division between a group of monks called the "Elders" (Sthaviras) and a breakaway set of groups known collectively as the "Great Assemblists" (Mahasanghikas). While the exact reason for the schism is not known with certainty, it seems as though the Mahasanghikas were the more liberal of the two groups while the Sthaviras were the more conservative, preserving what they regarded as the original purity of the Buddha's teachings. Other schisms and divisions into schools and subschools also occurred, but the Sthaviravadins survived as the "Theravadins" (the Pali name for "teachings of the elders") in South India, especially Sri Lanka, and from there into Southeast Asia.
Prior to the eleventh century, Theravada was but one of the several forms of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka. While it, like all other forms of Buddhism, represents itself as "pure" and "original," it is in fact a syncretistic blend of a variety of elements and practices. Various reforms sponsored by royal patrons have attempted to recover the "original purity" of Theravada, and among the monastics movements of conservative "forest monks" have at various times insisted on going back to the meditative base of the tradition. As the form of Buddhism that came to predominate in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Theravada is sometimes also called "southern" Buddhism.
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