Theravāda (pronounced — more or less — "terra-VAH-dah"), the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipiṭaka, or Pāḷi canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings. For many centuries, Theravāda has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos) and Sri Lanka. Today Theravāda Buddhists number well over 100 million worldwide. In recent decades Theravāda has begun to take root in the West.
Many Buddhisms, One Dhamma-vinaya
The Buddha — the "Awakened One" — called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya — "the doctrine and discipline." To provide a social structure supportive of the practice of Dhamma-vinaya (or Dhamma for short [Sanskrit: Dharma]), and to preserve these teachings for posterity, the Buddha established the order of bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis (nuns) — the Saṅgha — which continues to this day to pass his teachings on to subsequent generations of laypeople and monastics, alike.
As the Dhamma continued its spread across India after the Buddha's passing, differing interpretations of the original teachings arose, which led to schisms within the Saṅgha and the emergence of as many as eighteen distinct sects of Buddhism. One of these schools eventually gave rise to a reform movement that called itself Mahāyāna (the "Greater Vehicle") and that referred to the other schools disparagingly as Hīnayāna (the "Lesser Vehicle"). What we call Theravāda today is the sole survivor of those early non-Mahāyāna schools. To avoid the pejorative tone implied by the terms Hinayana and Mahāyāna, it is common today to use more neutral language to distinguish between these two main branches of Buddhism. Because Theravāda historically dominated southern Asia, it is sometimes called "Southern" Buddhism, while Mahāyāna, which migrated northwards from India into China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea, is known as "Northern" Buddhism.
Pāḷi: The Language of Theravāda Buddhism
The language of the Theravāda canonical texts is Pāḷi (lit., "text"), which is based on a dialect of Middle Indo-Aryan that was probably spoken in central India during the Buddha's time. Ven. Ānanda, the Buddha's cousin and close personal attendant, committed the Buddha's sermons (suttas) to memory and thus became a living repository of these teachings. Shortly after the Buddha's death (ca. 480 BCE), five hundred of the most senior monks — including Ānanda — convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha's forty-five year teaching career. Most of these sermons therefore begin with the disclaimer, "Evaṃ me sutaṃ" — "Thus have I heard."
After the Buddha's death the teachings continued to be passed down orally within the monastic community, in keeping with an Indian oral tradition that long predated the Buddha. By 250 BCE the Saṅgha had systematically arranged and compiled these teachings into three divisions: the Vinaya Piṭaka (the "basket of discipline" — the texts concerning the rules and customs of the Saṅgha), the Sutta Piṭaka (the "basket of discourses" — the sermons and utterances by the Buddha and his close disciples), and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka (the "basket of special/higher doctrine" — a detailed psycho-philosophical analysis of the Dhamma). Together these three are known as the Tipiṭaka, the "three baskets." In the third century BCE Sri Lankan monks began compiling a series of exhaustive commentaries to the Tipiṭaka; these were subsequently collated and translated into Pāḷi beginning in the fifth century CE. The Tipiṭaka plus the post-canonical texts (commentaries, chronicles, etc.) together constitute the complete body of classical Theravāda literature.
Pāḷi was originally a spoken language with no alphabet of its own. It wasn't until about 100 BCE that the Tipiṭaka was first fixed in writing, by Sri Lankan scribe-monks, who wrote the Pāḷi phonetically in a form of early Brāhmī script. Since then the Tipiṭaka has been transliterated into many different scripts (Devanāgarī, Thai, Burmese, Roman, Cyrillic, to name a few). Although English translations of the most popular Tipiṭaka texts abound, many students of Theravāda find that learning the Pāḷi language — even just a little bit here and there — greatly deepens their understanding and appreciation of the Buddha's teachings.
No one can prove that the Tipiṭaka contains any of the words actually uttered by the historical Buddha. Practicing Buddhists have never found this problematic. Unlike the scriptures of many of the world's great religions, the Tipiṭaka is not regarded as gospel, as an unassailable statement of divine truth, revealed by a prophet, to be accepted purely on faith. Instead, its teachings are meant to be assessed firsthand, to be put into practice in one's life so that one can find out for oneself if they do, in fact, yield the promised results. It is the truth towards which the words in the Tipiṭaka point that ultimately matters, not the words themselves. Although scholars will continue to debate the authorship of passages from the Tipiṭaka for years to come (and thus miss the point of these teachings entirely), the Tipiṭaka will quietly continue to serve — as it has for centuries — as an indispensable guide for millions of followers in their quest for Awakening.
"What is Theravada Buddhism?", by John T. Bullitt. Access to Insight, 18 May 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bullitt/theravada.html . Retrieved on 3 February 2013.