January 8, 2019

“Theravada” or “Early Buddhism”? Why “Early Buddhism” More Accurately Reflects IMS’s Roots

Early Buddhism is a living spiritual tradition based on the original teachings of the historical figure known as the Buddha, or Awakened One, who lived in northern India in the fifth century BCE. The term can also refer to the doctrines and practices taught by the Buddha, including understandings such as the Four Noble Truths, guidance on conduct such as the Five Precepts, and meditation practices like insight (vipassana), mindfulness, and lovingkindness. Today in Asia the followers of Early Buddhism are found primarily in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Many IMS teachers trained in these countries before bringing the teachings to the West.

Until recently the tradition of Early Buddhism was more commonly known as Theravada, or Way of the Elders. In fact IMS originally considered itself to be a Theravadan center. However, modern scholarship has revealed that Theravada is just one of some eighteen schools of Early Buddhism, each with its own views and foundational texts. Early Buddhists today agree that the discourses of the Buddha (collectively, the Dhamma) and his monastic code (the Vinaya) are authoritative. The Theravadan school also considers the Pali Abhidhamma and commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga to be authoritative, while other Early Buddhists may not. Hence Early Buddhism and Theravada are not synonymous, although there is much overlap.