Theravada Buddhism: Definition, Beliefs & Rituals

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  • 0:04 Theravada Buddhism
  • 0:24 Definition
  • 0:57 Beliefs
  • 2:08 Temples
  • 2:24 Rituals
  • 3:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will define Theravada Buddhism, one of the two major Buddhist traditions; offer an overview of its beliefs; and briefly describe two of its most common rituals.

Theravada Buddhism

You've probably seen Buddhist monks on television or in the movies. They are usually depicted as quiet types with devastating martial arts skills. Actual Buddhist monks, however, are more complex. They lead disciplined lives of both quiet study and public ritual. Many subscribe to a form of Buddhism known as Theravada.


Theravada Buddhism is the older of two major Buddhist traditions that base their philosophies on the sutras, or teachings, of Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha. Theravada means ''Way of the Elders'' in Pali, the original language of these teachings. Theravadins only adhere to what they consider to be the original sutras. Theravada originated in India around 500 B.C. and has been practiced in numerous, mostly south Asian, countries. Today it is practiced primarily in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.


Theravadin Buddhists aspire to nirvana, or a perfect state of enlightenment. Nirvana comes with the recognition that the ego, or the self, is an illusion that causes us and others pain and suffering. For Theravadins, attainment of nirvana ends a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth characterized by this pain and suffering.

Theravadins believe that the path to nirvana lies in arhat, or becoming a perfected being. This path requires rigorous practice and is undertaken only by becoming a monk and passing through the following four stages:

Stage 1 - Sotapanna Stage 2 - Sakadagamin Stage 3 - Anagami Stage 4 - Arhat
Meaning ''one who enters the stream''; a person who realizes that he or she lives under an illusion and catches a glimpse of the true path Meaning ''one who returns once''; a person who has shed many of his attachments to worldly things and who will only have to be reborn once more before he can achieve nirvana Meaning ''one who never returns''; a partially enlightened person who will not return to the human world after death, but exists among other partially enlightened beings Meaning ''one who is worthy''; an enlightened one who will never again be reborn

Becoming an Arhat
Buddhist Monk


The path of the monks and the practices of laypeople often come together at Buddhist temples, which give Theravadin Buddhists a physical place in which to realize their spiritual pursuits. Here, monks can pursue their path to becoming arhats and laypeople can come to bring their offerings, chant, and meditate.

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