Theravada Buddhism – Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein


Originally published in
The Laughing Man Magazine

Number 2


Literally, “Theravada” means “the
path of the elders.” It is the tradition which is founded
upon the Pali language Canon of the Buddhist scriptures, as
opposed to the Sanskrit Canon of the later texts. The Pali
Canon was written in the few centuries immediately following
Gautama the Buddha’s lifetime, around 500 B.C. Though no
records were actually kept of the Buddha’s discourses during
his life, these Pali scriptures almost certainly represent
his actual teachings more accurately than some of the later
Buddhist writings.

These later Sanskrit teachings,
which began to take shape shortly after the beginning of the
Christian era in the West, came to be known as the Mahayana
(“Greater Vehicle”) tradition, and Mahayanists regarded the
‘ Pali Canon as, partial wisdom, calling it the Hinayana
(“Lesser Vehicle”) of Buddhism. The Theravada tradition is
often equated with Hinayana Buddhism., but in fact it is
only one of at least eighteen Hinayana schools. It is,
however, the only one that has survived.


Theravada in the Twentieth

Western intellectuals, artists, and
spiritual seekers have had a long-standing infatuation with
the Mahayana Buddhism of Northern India, the Zen tradition
of China and Japan and, more recently, the Tantric tradition
of Tibet. “There is only a limited expression in `the world
today of the genuine esoteric Mahayana tradition (though the
devotional, ceremonial sect of “Pure Land–Buddhism” and
some other largely exoteric forms flourish in Japan). But
Western scholars have worked with the classical Mahayana
texts for the better part of this century, and have become
thoroughly familiar with their complex, doctrinal
distinctions and their astonishing flights of poetic fancy
into the realms of subtle Buddhas and ascended Bodhisattvas,
miracles, and radiant visions. Later, especially around

’50s, some Westerners began a
long-standing flirtation with the simple, paradoxical,
intuitive way of Zen. Nowadays our curiosity and fascination
have shifted to the Tantric forms of Buddhism, largely
because of the Tibetan Buddhists’ exodus from their homeland
after the Chinese takeover and their emigration to India and
the West. We haven’t been exposed nearly as much to the
other major esoteric Buddhist tradition, Theravada, or
“Hinayana,” and what we have heard has usually been
colorless historical information. So in the West the
Theravada tradition is generally regarded as a quaint

Thus, it may be surprising to learn
that Theravada is in fact the largest living Buddhist
tradition. In Southeast Asia, primarily in Burma, Ceylon,
Thailand, and Laos, there are over half a million
‘practicing Theravadin monks.

Like any of the world’s great
traditions, Theravada is largely a popular religion. Only
ten percent of the monks are involved directly with
meditation practices, and in Thailand, for instance,
monastic life is often largely social and cultural, not
directly involved with the transforming spiritual process.
Most monks participate in the everyday life of their
villages and regions, and in the ordinary political and
economic life of their cultures. Many monks (and nuns)
perform social service, from instructing children to
rehabilitating drug addicts. Others are scholars, immersed
in study of the Pali language and scriptures. Some are
priests of the popular religion, which stresses the
importance of accumulating merit, living a moral life, and
participating in Buddhist ritual. The millions of lay
Buddhists, for their part, consider it a responsibility to
support the Theravadin monks and nuns. And those monastics
who actually are involved in the esoteric paths of
meditation form an elite which is universally respected.
Theravadin meditation Masters are among the best known and
most highly regarded members of Southeast Asian

Only a small minority of the tens of
thousands of Theravadin monasteries -are devoted to
meditation. But, together with the centers for intensive
meditation retreats, they are the chief seats of the living
tradition of Theravadin meditation. At these monasteries
there is very little social interaction. Even where the
whole day is not devoted entirely to intensive meditation,
the ordinary activities of life are often undertaken as
extensions of meditation practice. In any case, esoteric
Theravadin Buddhism is almost always practiced in a quiet
environment with few external distractions. The sleeping
places and meditation cottages or halls are usually simple
and bare, the food bland and unadorned. Monastic rules
structure the entire day. Every aspect of life is designed
to minimize the reinforcement of sensual and mental cravings
of all kinds. One who lives such a life is faced with few
decisions. The teachings stress discipline and morality,
simplifying the form of life, and eliminating guilt and

The hundreds of living Theravadin
meditation teachers recommend a startling range of seemingly
incompatible practices. In addition to the concentration and
insight techniques, there are mantras, breathing exercises,
visualizations of internal lights and patterns,
concentration on parts of the body, and maintenance of
meditative postures. Teachers who are not oriented
exclusively towards meditation also employ simple service as
a spiritual practice. Even the esoteric healing arts are
taught among Theravadins. Rules of monastic discipline
sometimes become a form of practice in – themselves and in
some monasteries there are literally thousands of rules.
Life in such a place must mightily frustrate a man’s
preferences and desires!

Nevertheless, if we examine it
closely, we see that the tradition itself is not limited to
particular qualities. For instance, some teachers take the
role of the close but wiser friend, while others assume a
role like that of the traditional Hindu guru, as an object
of devotion; and their students undertake all sorts of
ritual ceremonies. (This devotional aspect of Theravada is
the backbone of the popular religion, although popular
devotion is usually directed to the Buddha as The Perfected
One, rather than to a Master) Again, some teachers are
extremely goal-oriented, stressing rigid discipline and
unyielding effort, but others simply direct the meditator to
quiet his mind gently, observe, and perhaps develop “metta”
or “loving-kindness” towards all beings.



Theravadin literature is primarily
concerned with the fundamentals of Buddhist doctrine. There
are repeated elucidations of the Eightfold Path, the
doctrine of “dependent origination” which views every
element of life and mind as a dependent aspect of a single
inclusive process, and the doctrine of “anatta” or
“not-self”-which denies the reality of any separate entity.
Much of the” psychology and theory of Theravada provides a
systematic categorization of nearly every aspect of mind and
life. There are the “ten. defilements of mind,” the “four
objects of mindfulness,” the “four stages of enlightenment,”
and on and on. Complicated as they may seem, these doctrinal
intricacies only serve to elaborate and clarify the
essentials of Theravadin practice.

The most significant practice is
satipatthana or mindfulness. This practice may involve
mindfulness of breath, contemplation of the parts of the
body, of sense objects, feelings, or mind-forms. Theravadins
teach two basic forms of meditation, samatha and vipassana.
Practitioners and teachers of vipassana usually assert its
seniority to samatha, although many teachers include both
forms of meditation practice. Samatha is translated as
tranquility, stillness,’ or concentration. Vipassana means
insight, and it involves passive, intelligent awareness of
the present moment, no matter what is happening in the body
or mind. When accompanied by the strength of mind developed
through samatha practice, vipassana reveals the whole
process of mind and body as just that – -a mere process
without personal implications, characterized by impermanence
and suffering. Thus, vipassana intentionally destroys the
“defilements of mind” (such as aversion, greed, and hatred)
including the basic illusion of the ego. Through this
practice the monk seeks freedom from samsara, the “wheel of
birthand-death” in the world which is the essence of

Meditators sometimes develop
blissful states or occult powers in the course of practice,
but Theravadin tradition is consistent and vehement in
denying the value of these phenomena. The meditator is
instructed to persist in his practice of insight, regarding
all these as another aspect of samsara. One is always
directed back to the point of view-of the impersonal,
mindful witness.

The Buddhism of Southeast Asia views
life as impermanent, devoid of individual self, and
essentially as suffering, or dukkha. This being the case,
the only real value of human existence lies in the
attainment of enlightenment, nibbana. As you will see in the
following articles, the Theravadin tradition retains an
apparently negative quality in many of its teachings and
practices. Practitioners are always grounded in the simple.
unadorned fact of dukkha, and the necessity of insight,
wisdom, and liberation.

There are few great paeans to the
glory of enlightenment or the miraculous qualities of the
subtle Buddha-realms such as we find in Mahayana texts; few
humorous celebrations of the enlightened man’s freedom and
of the beauty of nature such as we find in Zen poetry; and
few of the intricate subtle methodologies or ecstatic songs
of realization that we find in Tantra. Nevertheless,
Theravada is not without joy. Alan Watts noted in his last
book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, that the peoples of the
countries in which Theravada flourishes “are an
unaccountably joyous and sociable folk.” But Theravada is
firmly rooted in rationality, in the mind and life of man in
this world. It is directly concerned with setting him free
of the binding influences of samsara through mental strength
and balance, mindfulness, and insight.


Satipatthana Meditation
by Nyanaponika Thera

The following article is written
by one the most highly reputed authorities on Theravadin
Buddhism of this century. Nyanaponika Thera is a Ceylonese
master of satipatthana, or the practice of mindfulness, and
he is also the foremost educator of his tradition. As editor
of The Buddhist Publication Society, Nyanaponika Thera has
helped make available a vast array of writings relating to
Theravadin teachings and practice. The following article is
reprinted with permission from his book The Power of
Mindfulness, published in the United States by Unity Press
of Santa Cruz, California. It outlines the fundamentals of
satipatthana, or mindfulness, the practice of “bare

Here, the author emphasizes the
non coercive nature of mindfulness practice. Among the
teachers of Theravada represented in this issue, Nyanaponika
Thera is most consistent in his denial of the efficacy of
force as a tool of meditation. For him, meditation does not
involve techniques- of concentration or violent effort. It
is always a practice of the “light but sure touch” bare

Both the world surrounding us and
the world of our own mind are full of unwanted experiences
and frustrations, of hostile and conflicting forces. Man
knows from his own bitter experience that he is not strong
enough to meet and conquer in open combat each one of these
antagonistic forces around him and within him. He knows
that, in the external world, he “cannot have everything as
he wants it,” and that, in the inner world of his mind,
passions and impulses, whims and fancies, are often
victorious over the voices of duty, reason and, higher

Man knows further that often an
undesirable situation will even worsen if excessive pressure
is used against it. Thus passionate desires may grow in
intensity if one tries to silence them by sheer force of
will. Disputes and quarrels will go on endlessly and grow
fiercer, if they are fanned again and again by angry retorts
or by vain attempts to crush the other man’s position
entirely. A disturbance during work, rest or meditation,
will be felt more strongly and will have a longerlasting
impact if one reacts to it by resentment, _anger, ~ or by
attempts to suppress it.

Again and again man will meet with
situations in life where he cannot force issues. But there
are ways of mastering some of the vicissitudes of life and
ma- – ny of the conflicts of mind, without an application of
force, by nonviolent means, which may often succeed where
attempts of coercion, internal or external, have failed.
Such a way of nonviolent mastery of life and of mind is
satipatthana. By the methodical application of bare
attention, being the basic practice in the development of
right mindfulness, all the latent powers of a noncoercive
approach will gradually unfold themselves, with their
beneficial results and their wide and unexpected
implications. Here, in this context, however, we are mainly
concerned with benefits for the mastery of mind and for
progress in meditation that may result from a noncoercive
procedure. But we shall also throw occasional side glances
to the repercussions on everyday life. It will not be
difficult for a thoughtful reader to make more detailed
application to his own problems.

The antagonistic forces that appear
in meditation, and are liable to upset its smooth course,
are of three kinds:

1. external disturbances, such as

2. mental defilements, including
lust, anger, dissatisfaction, sloth, which may arise at any
time during meditation; and 3. various incidental stray
thoughts, or surrender to daydreaming.

The occurrence of these distractions
is the great stumbling block for a beginner in meditation
who has not yet acquired sufficient dexterity to deal with
them effectively. To give thought to those disturbing
factors only when they actually arise at the very time of
meditation will be quite insufficient. If caught unprepared
in one’s defense, one will struggle with them in a more or
less haphazard and ineffective way, and with a feeling of
irritation which will form an additional impediment. If
disturbances of any kind and an unskillful reaction to them
occur several times during one session, one will feel
utterly frustrated and irritated, and may have to give up
further attempts at meditating, at least fob“ the present

To all these facts about the three
kinds of disturbing factors full weight must be given and
the facts must be fully absorbed by our mind, if they are to
shape our mental attitude. Then, in these three disturbing
factors, the truth of suffering will manifest itself to the
meditator very incisively through his own personal
experience: “Not to obtain what one wants is suffering.”
Also the three other noble truths should be exemplified by
reference to that very situation. In such a way, even when
dealing with impediments, the meditator will be within the
domain of satipatthana: he will be engaged in the mindful
awareness of the four noble truths, being a part of the
contemplation of mental objects. It is a characteristic of
right mindfulness, and one of its tasks, to relate the
actual experiences of life to the truths of the dharma, and
to use them as opportunities for its practical realization.
Already here, at this preliminary stage devoted to the
shaping of a correct and helpful mental attitude, we have
the first successful test of our peaceful weapons: by
understanding our adversaries better, we have consolidated”
our position, which was formerly weakened by an emotional
approach; and by transforming these adversaries into
teachers of the four noble truths, we have won the first
advantage over them.


One Person

Monks, there is one person
whose arising in the world is for the welfare of many folk,
for the happiness of many folk, who comes out of compassion
for the world, for the profit, welfare and happiness of gods
and men. . . .

Monks, the manifestation of
one person is the manifestation, of. great vision, of great
light, of great ‘radiance…

Monks, there is one person
arising in the world who is unique, without a peer, without
counterpart, incomparable, unequalled, matchless,
unrivalled, the best of humans.

Who is that one person? It is
a Tathagata, an Arahant, a Fully Enlightened, One. This, 0
monks, is that one Person.

The excerpts from…
discourses of the Buddha printed in this section are
translated from the original Pals. They are reprinted with
kind permission from two works published by The Buddhist
Publication Society in Ceylon, Anguttara Nikaya, an
anthology o f discourses translated in two parts by
Nyanaponika Thera, and The Discourse Collection translated
by John D. Ireland.

There are three devices of
countering disturbances which should be applied in
succession whenever the preceding device has failed to
dispose of the disturbance. All three are applications of
bare attention, differing in the degree or intensity of
attention given to the disturbance. The guiding rule here
is: give no more mental emphasis to the respective
disturbance than actually required by

1. First, one should notice the
disturbance clearly, but lightly; that is, without emphasis
and without attention to details. After that brief act of
noticing, one should try to return to the original object of
meditation, and one may well succeed in it if the
disturbance is weak by, nature, or one’s preceding
concentration of mind was fairly strong. If, at that stage,
we are careful not to get involved in any “conversation” or
argument with the intruders, we shall, on our part, not give
them a reason to stay long; and, in a good number of cases,
the disturbances will depart soon, like visitors who do not
receive a very warm welcome. That curt dismissal of them may
often enable us to return to our original meditation without
any serious disturbance to the composure of mind.

The nonviolent device is this: to
apply bare attention to the disturbance, but with a minimum
of response to it, and with a mind bent on withdrawal. This
is the very way in which the Buddha himself dealt with
inopportune visitors, as described in the Mahasunnata-Sutra:
“. . . with a mind bent on seclusion. . .and withdrawn, his
conversation aiming at dismissing [those visitors].”
Similar was Santideva’s advice how to deal with fools: if
one cannot avoid them, one should treat them “with the
indifferent politeness of a gentleman.”

2. If, however, the disturbance
persists, one should repeat the application of bare
attention again and again, patiently and calmly; and it may
well be that the disturbance will vanish when it has spent
its force. Here the attitude is: to meet the repeated
occurrence of a disturbance by a reiterated “No,” by a
determined refusal to be deflected from one’s course. It is
the attitude of patience and firmness. The capacity of
watchful observation has to be aided here by the capacity to
wait and to hold one’s ground.

These two devices will generally be
successful with incidental stray thoughts, daydreams, etc.,
which are feeble by nature; but also the other two types of
disturbances, the external ones and defilements, may yield
quite often.

3. But if, for some reason or other,
they do not yield, one should now turn one’s full and
deliberate attention to the respective disturbance, accept
it as an object of knowledge, and transform it thus from a
disturbance of meditation to a legitimate object of
meditation. One may continue with that new object until the
external or internal cause for attending to it has ceased,
or one may even retain it for that session of meditation, if
it proves satisfactory.

If there is, for instance,
disturbance by persistent noise, we should give to it our
undivided attention. But we should take care to distinguish
it well from any reaction of ours concerning it, e.g., by
resentment, which likewise should be clearly recognized in
its own nature, whenever it arises. In doing so, we shall
have undertaken the contemplation of mind objects, according
to the following passage of the Discourse: “He knows the ear
and sounds, and the fetter (e.g., resentment) arising
through both.” If the noise is intermittent or of varying
intensity, one will be easily able to discern the rise and
fall in its process, and to add, in that way, to one’s
direct insight into impermanency.

The attitude towards recurrent
mental defilements, as thoughts of lust, restlessness,
should be similar. One should face them squarely, but
distinguish them from one’s reaction to them, e.g.,
connivance, fear, resentment, irritation. In doing so, one
is making use of the device of “naming,” and one will reap
its benefits which have been outlined before. In the
recurrent waves of passion or restlessness one will likewise
learn to distinguish gradually phases of “high” and “low,”
their “ups and downs,” and may also gain other helpful
knowledge about their behavior. By that procedure, one again
remains entirely within the range of satipatthana, by
practicing the contemplation of the state of mind and of
mind objects (i.e., attention to the hindrances).

Advantages of Contemplating

When a monk sees six
advantages, it should be enough for him to establish the
perception of not-self as to all things, without exception.
What six?

I shall be aloof from all the
world. Notions of `I’ will vanish in me. Notions of `Mine’
will vanish in me. I shall be endowed with knowledge above
the common. I shall clearly understand causes and the
phenomena arisen by causes.

This method of transforming
disturbances of meditation into objects of meditation. as
simple as it is ingenious, may be regarded as the
culmination of nonviolent procedure. It is a device very
characteristic of the spirit of satipatthana, by making use
of all experiences as aids on the path. In that way, enemies
are turned into friends, because all these disturbances and
antagonistic forces have become our teachers; and teachers,
whoever they may be, should be regarded as

Let the intruders come and go, like
any other members of that vast, unceasing procession of
mental and physical events that passes along before our
observant eyes, in the practice of bare

Our advantage here is the quite
obvious fact that two thought moments cannot be present at
one and the same time. Attention refers, strictly speaking,
not to the present but to the moment that has just passed
away. Thus, as long as mindfulness holds sway, there will be
no “disturbance” or “defiled thought.” This gives us the
chance to hold on to that secure ground of an “observer’s
post,” to the potential “throne of

By the quietening and neutralizing
influence of detached observation as applied in our three
devices, the interruptions of meditation will increasingly
lose the sting of irritation, and, thereby, their disturbing
effect. This will prove to be an act of true viraga
(“dispassion”), which literally means “decoloring.” That is
to say, these experiences will lose their emotional tinge
that excites towards lust and ‘ aversion, and they will
appear as “bare phenomena.”

The nonviolent procedure of bare
attention endows the meditator with a “light but sure touch”
that is so essential for handling the sensitive, evasive and
refractory nature of our mind, as well as for dealing with
various difficult situations and obstacles in life. When
speaking of the even quality of energy required for
attaining to the meditative absorptions, the “path of
purification” illustrates it by describing a test which the
ancient students of the art of surgery had to undergo as a
proof of their skill. A lotus leaf was placed in a bowl of
water, and the pupil had to make an incision through the
length of the leaf, without cutting it entirely or
submerging it. He who applied an excess of force either cut
it into two or pressed it into the water, while the timid
one did not even dare to scratch it. In fact, it is
something like the gentle but firm hand of the surgeon that
is required in mental training, and this skillful and
well-balanced touch will be the natural outcome of the
nonviolent procedure in the practice of bare attention.


with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein