Theravāda (Pali, literally “school of the elder monks”) is a branch of Buddhism that uses the Buddha’s teaching preserved in the Pāli Canon as its doctrinal core. The Pali canon is the only complete Buddhist canon which survives in a classical Indic Language, Pali, which serves as the sacred language and lingua franca of Theravada Buddhism. Another feature of Theravada is that it tends to be very conservative about matters of doctrine and monastic discipline. As a distinct sect, Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and spread to the rest of Southeast Asia.
Theravada also includes a rich diversity of traditions and practices that have developed over its long history of interactions with varying cultures and religious communities. It is the dominant form of religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and is practiced by minority groups in India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and Vietnam. In addition, the diaspora of all of these groups as well as converts around the world practice Theravāda Buddhism. Contemporary expressions include Buddhist modernism, the Vipassana movement and the Thai Forest Tradition.
The name Theravāda comes[b] from the ancestral Sthāvirīya, one of the early Buddhist schools, from which the Theravadins claim descent. After unsuccessfully trying to modify the Vinaya, a small group of “elderly members”, i.e. sthaviras, broke away from the majority Mahāsāṃghika during the Second Buddhist council, giving rise to the Sthavira sect. According to its own accounts, the Theravāda school is fundamentally derived from the Vibhajjavāda “doctrine of analysis” grouping, which was a division of the Sthāvirīya.
Buddhists from the Indian mainland appear originally to have regarded the Buddhists of Laṅkā as simply the ‘Laṅkā school’, thus Vasubandhu writing in the fourth century cites the notion of the bhavāṅga-vijñāna of the Tāmraparṇīya-nikāya as a forerunner of the ālaya-vijñāna. But beginning with Yijing’s account of his travels in India (671–695 ce ) and Vinītadeva’s eighth-century summary of the divisions of the Buddhist schools (Samaya-bhedoparacana- cakra-nikāya-bhedopadarśana-cakra), we find north Indian sources describing the Buddhist Saṅgha as comprising four nikāyas: (1) the Mahāsāṃghikas, (2) the Sthāviras, (3) the Sarvāstivādins, and (4) the Saṃmatīyas. Significantly, the Sthāviras in turn comprise three sub-nikāyas: the Jetavanīyas, the Abhayagirivāsins, and the Mahāvihāravāsins. The Buddhists of Laṅkā are thus no longer regarded as the ‘Laṅkā school’, they are the Sthāviras, despite the fact that both the Sarvāstivādins and the Saṃmatīyas were also understood as tracing their lineage to the Sthāvira side of the original split with the Mahāsāṃghikas. The reason for referring to the three Buddhist nikāyas of Laṅkā as the Sthāviras is probably not so much a recognition of an exclusive claim to be the authentic theravāda, as a reflection of the simple fact that the Laṅkā schools alone of the various Sthāvira schools continued to refer to themselves as theriya or theravāda in certain contexts.
According to Damien Keown, there is no historical evidence that the Theravāda school arose until around two centuries after the Great Schism which occurred at the Third Council. Theravadin accounts of its own origins mention that it received the teachings that were agreed upon during the putative Third Buddhist council under the patronage of the Indian Emperor Ashoka around 250 BCE. These teachings were known as the Vibhajjavada. Emperor Ashoka is supposed to have assisted in purifying the sangha by expelling monks who failed to agree to the terms of Third Council. The elder monk Moggaliputta-Tissa was at the head of the Third council and compiled the Kathavatthu (“Points of Controversy”), a refutation of various opposing views which is an important work in the Theravada Abhidhamma.