The Theravada form of Buddhism is dominant in southern Asia, especially in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. For this reason it is sometimes known as "Southern Buddhism."
Theravada means "The Way of the Elders" in Pali, reflecting the Theravadins' belief that they most closely follow the original beliefs and practices of the Buddha and the early monastic Elders.
The authoritative text for Theravadas is the Pali Canon, an early Indian collection of the Buddha's teachings. The later Mahayana sutras are not recognized.
The purpose of life for Theravadins is to become an arhat, a perfected saint who has acheived nirvana and will not be reborn again. As a result, Southern Buddhism tends to be more monastic, strict and world-renouncing than its Northern counterpart, and its approach is more philosophical than religious.
There are four stages to becoming an arhat:
- Sotapanna ("stream-enterer") - a convert, attained by overcoming false beliefs
- Sakadagamin ("once-returner") - one who will only be reborn once more, attained by diminishing lust, hatred and illusion
- Anagamin ("never-returner") - one who will be reborn in heaven, where he or she will become an arahant
- Arhat ("worthy one") - one who has attained perfect enlightenment and will never be reborn
Because of this focus on personal attainment and its requirement that one must renounce the world to achieve salvation, Mahayana Buddhists refer to Theravada Buddhism as the "Lesser Vehicle" (Hinayana).
In Theravada, it is thought to be highly unlikely, even impossible, that a layperson can achieve liberation. Because Mahayana disagrees, it regards itself as providing a "Greater Vehicle" to liberation, in which more people can participate.