Therefore, follow the Noble One, who is steadfast, wise, learned, dutiful and devout. One should follow only such a man, who is truly good and discerning, even as the moon follows the path of the stars.
Theravada Buddhism, the "Doctrine of the Elders," is one of the three major sects of Buddhism. It emerged out of a series of schisms that began in the 4th century B.C.E. in the Buddhist communities of India.
Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in most of southeast Asia, and between the 11th and 14th centuries Theravada became the established religion of Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.
The Theravada canonical writings, a collection of the Buddha's teachings written in the Pali language, are divided into the Buddha's sermons (the Sutta Pitaka), the monastic rules (the Vinaya Pitaka), and philosophical enumeration of the Buddha's teachings (the Abhidamma Pitaka).
Theravada doctrine is founded on the distinction between samsara (the cyclic realm of suffering) and nirvana (or nibbana, release). The ultimate goal of the Theravada is to escape samsara and enter nirvana.
Theravada is also one of the two primary schools of Buddhism; the other is called Mahayana. Some will tell you there are three primary schools, and the third is Vajrayana, But all schools of Vajrayana are built upon Mahayana philosophy and call themselves Mahayana, also.
Above all, Theravada emphasizes direct insight gained through critical analysis and experience.
Theravada claims that it is the oldest form of Buddhism being practiced today and the other is that it is directly descended from the original sangha. It developed from a sect called Vibhajjavada that was established in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE.
Theravada is distinctive from the other major school of Buddhism, Mahayana, in several ways. For the most part, unlike Mahayana, there are no significant sectarian divisions within Theravada.
There are variations in practice from one temple to another, but doctrines are not wildly different within Theravada.
Most Theravada temples and monasteries are administered by monastic organizations within national boundaries. Often, Theravada Buddhist institutions and clergy in Asia enjoy some government sponsorship but are also subject to some government supervision.
Theravada emphasizes individual enlightenment; the ideal is to become an arhat(sometimes arahant), which means "worthy one" in Pali. An arhat is a person who has realized enlightenment and freed himself from the cycle of birth and death.
Beneath the arhat ideal is an understanding of the doctrine of anatman -- the nature of the self . Theravada considers anatman to mean that an individual's ego or personality is a tether and delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana.
Theravada teaches that enlightenment comes entirely through one's own efforts, without help from gods or other outside forces.
Theravada accepts only the Pali Tipitika as scripture, and uses the Pali rather than the Sanskrit form of common terms.
The primary means of realizing enlightenment in the Theravada tradition is through Vipassana or "insight" meditation. Vipassana emphasizes disciplined self-observation of body and thoughts and how they interconnect.