Theravada (literally, "the Teaching of the Elders", or "the Ancient Teaching") is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, and for many centuries has been the predominant religion of Sri
Lanka and most of continental South east Asia including
Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia.
It is also practised by minorities in parts of southwest China
by the Shan and Tai ethnic groups, Vietnam (by the Khmer
Krom, Bangladesh by the ethnic groups of Baruas, Chakma,
and Magh, Malaysia and Indonesia, whilst recently gaining popularity in
Singapore and Australia
Today Theravada Buddhists number over 100 million worldwide, and in
recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West and in the Buddhist
revival in India
Theravada promotes the concept of Vibhajjavada,
literally "Teaching of Analysis." This doctrine says that insight must
come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and
reasoning instead of by blind faith; however, the scriptures of the
Theravadin tradition also emphasize heeding the advice of the wise,
considering such advice and evaluation of one's own experiences to be
the two tests by which practices should be judged.
The Theravadin goal is liberation (or freedom) from suffering, according to the
Four Boble Truths. This is attained in the achievement of Nibbana,
or Unbinding which also ends the repeated cycle of birth, old age,
sickness and death. Theravada teaches that Nibbana is most quickly
attained as an enlightened noble disciple of Buddha: an Arahant (lit. "worthy one", "winner of Nibbana").
In the Theravadin view, the Nibbana attained by Arahants is the same as that attained by the Buddha himself.
The difference was that the Buddha was superior to Arahants because the
Buddha had discovered the path all by himself, and was able to teach
others. Arahants, on the other hand, experience Nibbana due in part to
the Buddha's teachings. Theravadins revere the Buddha as a single
supremely gifted person but do recognize the existence of other such
Buddhas in the distant past and future.: Metteyya, for example, is mentioned very briefly in the Pali Canon as a Buddha who will come in the distant future.
In Theravadin belief, some people who practice with earnestness and
zeal can achieve Enlightenment (Nibbana) within a single lifetime, as
did many of the first few generations of Buddha's disciples. For
others, the process may take multiple lifetimes, with the individual
reaching higher and higher states of awareness.