What is the origins of the name "Theravāda"

I will hazard a guess as to where @cjmacie was referring to in Sects & Sectarianism, if I am incorrect, I trust him to correct me! :sweat_smile::

Today we call this school [the Mahāvihāravāsins] ‘Theravāda’, but this name invites various forms of confusion. In particular it is a mistake to identify this school with the 'Sthaviras" who split from the Mahāsaṅghikas at the first schism. Rather, the Mahāvihāravāsins are just one branch of the Sthaviras who became established in Sri Lanka with their headquarters at the Mahāvihāra in Anuradhapura.
(p. 13)

Assuming that “Theravāda” is an exonym, from whence and where does it originate? Who was the first person to say “Theravāda” with reference to “Theravāda”?

Here I put together a number of quotes from Amaro Bhikku, from his introduction to "The collected teachings of Ajahn Chah; Food for the heart, 2002, Wisdom Publications. pg’s 13-14.

From the time of the Buddhas death, for approximately the next 100 years the teachings were formalised and established into the Pali Canon. "A hunderd years later, they had a second Council, again to go over all the teachings, in an attempt to keep everyone in accord."
At this time a split in the Sangha occurred, the larger part wanting to change some of the rules, and the smaller group wanting to keep things as they were.
“Rather they (the smaller group) felt; ‘Well whether it makes sense or not, we want to do things the way the Buddha and his original disciples did’. Those in the small group were know as Sthaviras (sanskrit) or Theras (Pali), meaning elders”.

“After about another 130 years, they gave rise to the Theravada school. Theravada literally means ‘way of the elders’”.

1 Like

This is one particular narrative, I’m tempted to call it the “traditional” one, but it also contradicts the above passage from Sects & Sectarianism.

Ok, It’s just that I coincidentally read this last night, so thought I’d pass it on. Sects and Sectarianism is on my reading list :slight_smile:

1 Like

Well, I’m sure that the author would be the first one to state that Sects & Sectarianism is hardly an infallible text. That being said, that is, what you presented, the traditional narrative as far as I am familiar with it. That aforementioned text problematizes it.

It will be interesting to see if anyone in the know latches on to this thread to tell us more!

Almost everything in this quote is wrong.

This ignores the other sects and makes it look like the Pali was the only collection. In fact the translation to Pali probably happened something over 150 years after the Buddha. And texts were added to the canon for at least 300 years.

Nothing in any of the canonical accounts of the Second Council mentions textual redaction: it was a Vinaya issue. Some later accounts, it is true, mention textual redaction, and I think there was textual redaction, if not actually at the council at least in the same circles of monks.

This directly contradicts every canonical source for the Second Council, which all say there was no schism at this time.

  • There is no reason to think the Theravada was smaller and the Mahasanghika larger. This is just repeating an implausible speculation, inferred from the names of the schools, and which was debunked many years ago by Lance Cousins, IIRC.
  • None of the early sources say anything about any school wanting to change the Vinaya rules.
  • All of the schools believed that they were maintaining things in the correct form.
  • The actual cause of the schism was not Vinaya, but a (much later) dispute on the nature of the arahant.

Really? Did they? They felt that way? How very Californian of them.

Whether it makes sense or not”?!

Words fail me. This does not happen often.

This assumes that Sthavira/Thera and Theravāda are two separate schools. There is no difference; it is just that conventionally historians often use sthavira when referring to the group of schools descending from the original schism. The school we know as “Theravada” today is simply the branch of the sthaviras that ended up in Sri Lanka.

No, it literally means “Doctrine of the Elders”.



At least the text I gave served as a good basis for eliciting better understanding!!

Thank-you Ven Sujato


Glad to be of service!