Theravada Buddhism Through its Figures

Buddhism changed in two ways as it expanded out of its original homeland in Northern India. Disputes within the Buddhist community generated a series of sectarian movements. All this started after the Second Buddhist Council.

The Doctrine of The Elders

Many of these early sects are really historical objects at this point. We can study them or we can read about them in texts, but we can’t meet them on the street. They don’t represent the Buddhist tradition today.

One of these early sects, however, is still active today. This is the Theravada tradition. The word “Theravada” simply means the “Doctrine of the Elders”. It is in its designation a conservative tradition. It expanded into Sri Lanka and the to the rest of South East Asia. It maintains today many aspects of the Buddhist tradition that would had been practiced in India during those early centuries after the death of the Buddha.

Three Essential Figures

I will try to give you a taste of the history of the Theravada by looking at three representative figures who have shaped the development of the Theravada tradition as we know it today.

The first figure I have in mind is King Ashoka, the ancient king of the Maurya dynasty who became a prototype of the righteous king and who’s son, according to Buddhist legend, became the first missionary to carry the Buddhist tradition down into South East Asia.

The second figure is King Mongkut of Thailand. He reigned from 1851 to 1868. Before he became king, he spent twenty-five years in the monastery as a monk. When he was instituted as king he began a reform movement to modernize the Thai Sangha. As king, he had an enormous impact on Buddhist life in Thailand. He crystallizes an important aspect of modern Theravada Buddhism.

The third figure is one of the most intriguing modern figures in the Buddhist tradition. A woman named Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the leader of the democratic protest movement in Burma and was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Price in 1991. She also shows us the Buddhist tradition in a fascinating and modern way.

Why These?

You might ask why of all the possible figures of Theravada Buddhist history I’ve chosen to focus on these three political leaders. There are two reasons for this. One is to raise the issue of the relationship between Buddhism and Politics. It is not something you normally think of as being consistent with traditional Buddhist values. You see the Buddha as a monk, it is hard to imagine him as a politician.

The relationship between Buddhist values and politics has been a deeply rooted theme in Buddhist life. It is important for us to consider it in order to develop a full understanding of Buddhist society and to see how Buddhism wove its way into the life of other civilizations in Asia.

The second reason for choosing these figures is to raise the question of modernity. It is very easy to imagine that the Buddhist tradition is only an historical artifact, something associated with the teaching of the Buddha in a distant civilization, distant from us not just geographically but also historically. The truth is that Buddhism and Buddhist people had been involved in the process of modernization just the way religious people had been in other cultures. It is useful for us to see in King Mongkut and Aung San Suu Kyi some of the subtle and powerful ways that Buddhism has been brought into relationship with the challenges of modernity.

This article is part of the series about Theravada Buddhism.

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