Buddhism: Theravāda

Doctrines and Philosophy

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Sacred Texts

The Buddhist corpus is expansive and not contained within one single book. Buddhist texts were first orally transmitted, then written down centuries after the Buddha’s death. The earliest forms of Buddhist texts reflect this nature, as they contain many repetitions, standardised phrasing and poetic rhythms to aid memorisation.

  • Tipiṭaka: The term ‘Tipiṭaka’ (Three Baskets) is traditionally used to refer to Buddhist scripture. In the Therāvada tradition, it is also sometimes referred to as the ‘Pāli canon’. The Tipiṭaka is divided into three collections: rules relating to monastic discipline (Vinaya Piṭaka), discourses attributed to the Buddha (Sūtta Piṭaka), and philosophical teachings (Abhidhamma Piṭaka). Each collection contains hundreds of texts within them. Moreover, virtually all contain commentary texts that explain and expand the contents further. The Tipiṭaka is the most sacred and authoritative collection of texts in Theravāda Buddhism. The Theravāda version of the Tipiṭaka is considered to be ‘closed’, meaning it is not open to additions.
  • Vinaya Piṭaka: The Vinaya Piṭaka is the collection of rules relating to monastic discipline. It primarily contains guidelines on ethical conduct and social behaviour for monks as well as institutional guidelines for the Saṅgha.
  • Sūtta Piṭaka: The Sūtta Piṭaka is the collection of discourses, anecdotes and examples, mostly attributed to the Buddha, that reflect his teachings and understanding of reality and the path to enlightenment.
  • Abhidhamma Piṭaka: The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is the collection of teachings that are “beyond the Dhamma”, focusing on the philosophy and of Buddhism. This set of teachings emerged centuries later than the previous collections.
  • Jātaka Tales: The Jātaka Tales are a set of stories contained with the Sūtta Piṭaka that detail the previous rebirths of the Buddha.
  • Other: Aside from the Pāli Canon, there is a more recent corpus of Theravāda literature, which includes commentaries and other works. Some texts were recorded in Pāli while others are written to fit the vernacular of the country. For instance, there are many important texts written in Lao, Burmese, Khmer, Thai and Sinhalese.

General Beliefs


The term ‘dhamma’ (dharma in Sanskrit) is a core concept in Buddhism that has various meanings. Generally, the term can refer to the natural order or universal law that underpins all existence at all times. This reality was realised (not invented) by the Buddha when he became enlightened. The term dhamma also refers to the totality of Buddhist teachings regarding this truth and particularly the way of practice to realise this truth. These teachings contain descriptions and explanations of the underlying universal law.

Cycle of Rebirth (Saṃsāra)

Saṃsāra (literally “wandering”) is a broad concept that refers to the beginningless and endless cycle of rebirth that beings undergo until they attain enlightenment (nibbāna). Individuals are thought to transmigrate from one existence to the next depending on their kamma (i.e. moral conduct). Ignorance (avijjā), which refers to ignorance of reality as represented in the insights of the Four Noble Truths, is said to be the root cause of rebirth. Ignorance is co-existent with the three roots of unwholesomeness known as greed, hatred and delusion. In Buddhist thought, being reborn as a human is a special birth as one has the ability to break the cycle of rebirth.

Dependent Origination

The doctrine of Dependent Origination is a profound teaching of a twelvefold chain of causation that underpins ordinary existence. It is said to be the primary insight that heralded in the Buddha’s enlightenment. The doctrine states that nothing comes into being simply through its own, or a creator’s, power or volition (such as a God or a soul), but rather that all phenomena arise in dependence on some other cause or condition. Dependent origination is often taught to help beings understand how both physical things and mental/emotional experiences arise and cease.


The concept of ‘kamma’ (Pāli, karma in Sanskrit) broadly refers to actions. It is often understood as a theory of ‘cause and effect’, whereby one’s freely chosen and intentional actions (whether wholesome or unwholesome) lead to some sort of effect or consequence. It is generally believed that an individual cannot escape the consequences of their actions, and as such, each person is responsible for their own moral well-being.  

It is thought that karmic repercussions can develop in a number of ways. For example, one may experience immediate misfortune from an unwholesome action. In other instances, an enormous amount of time may pass (e.g. multiple lifetimes) between one’s action and the consequence. It is also said that with the development of the mind through insight, wisdom and morality, the effects of previous unwholesome actions may be alleviated somewhat. According to Buddhist thought, an individual’s current life is determined to some extent by the actions of their previous lives. For many Buddhists, the doctrine of kamma also provides an explanation as to why they may have certain positive or negative experiences in their life, such as sickness or good fortune.

Absence of Self (Anattā)

In Buddhist thought, existence is seen as an interrelated flux of material and psychical events that have no permanent or independent existence on their own (see ‘Dependent Origination’). As such, there is no permanent or fixed ‘individual’, ‘self’ or ‘soul’, but rather, a ‘being’ is in a continuous process of change. Accordingly, it is the illusion of having a permanent unchanging self that fuels perpetual rebirth.

Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths refer to four foundational and interrelated propositions of Buddhist thought that were articulated by the Buddha in his first sermon. Interpretations of the doctrine may differ somewhat among the different branches and schools of Buddhism.

  1. The First Noble Truth: “There is ‘dukkha’”. The term dukkha is often translated into English as ‘suffering’, but the concept also refers to a sense of dissatisfaction or uneasiness. It points to the experience of ordinary existence as being unsatisfactory due to the inherent instability in the changing flux of conditions.
  2. The Second Noble Truth: “There is an origin of dukkha”, is the implicit or explicit craving for and attachment to experiences and sensations. For example, craving for a particular object only to experience a sense of dissatisfaction when the object breaks, or craving a pleasurable experience only to feel dissatisfied when the pleasurable experience ends. Moreover, craving is caused by ignorance about the universal laws that govern reality (i.e. dhamma). Thus, dukkha is ultimately a result of failing to realise that everything is in a constant state of flux.
  3. The Third Noble Truth: “There is the cessation of dukkha”, which is through realising the true nature of reality, and attaining nibbāna (literally translated as ‘extinguishing’ or ‘blowing out’, but often taken to mean ‘enlightenment’). When an individual attains enlightenment, the cause of dukkha has been identified and destroyed, which in turn also destroys any future effects (such as rebirth).
  4. The Fourth Noble Truth: “There is the path leading to the cessation of dukkha”. In the Theravāda tradition, this is the Noble Eightfold Path, which contains eight important interrelated factors that collectively lead to individual enlightenment.

Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path is the last of the Four Noble Truths that provides a set of practical guidelines which leads an individual out of the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) towards enlightenment (nibbāna). The eight components of the path provide a normative structure on how to live in the world in a skilful and spiritually aware way, as well as how to cultivate the mind and develop wisdom through calm and insight. Though the English translation of the term “right” within the path implies ‘correct’, a more accurate translation is ‘skilful’ as the guidelines seek to highlight what constitutes skilful and unskilful practices, both in terms of ethical qualities and qualities that provide insight into the nature of reality.

  • Right View: This refers to having a correct understanding or perspective on the laws that govern nature and existence as explained in the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination and the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra).
  • Right Intention: Sometimes referred to as ‘right thought’ or ‘right resolve’, this refers to cultivating the intentions to give up selfish or lustful desires, ill will, and harmful intentions in favour of cultivating emotional qualities such as kindness and compassion.
  • Right Speech: This refers to using speech in a truthful, positive, productive and kind way instead of harmful, divisive or irreverent speech, gossiping or lying.
  • Right Action: This refers to refraining from actions that cause harm, and supplementing such behaviour with acts that seek to help and protect others. This includes refraining from harming living beings (also see ‘avihiṃsā’), stealing and sexual misconduct.
  • Right Livelihood: This refers to pursuing a career or livelihood that does not involve causing harm, deception or selfish pursuits, such as exploiting others for personal gain.
  • Right Effort: This refers to directing one’s effort towards their spiritual practice, fostering wholesome states of mind and letting go of unwholesome states.
  • Right Mindfulness: This refers to paying close attention to the present, and being aware of what one is feeling, doing and thinking. It is usually cultivated in meditative practices by developing mindfulness of body, feelings and mind-states.
  • Right Concentration: This refers to the focus of the mind that is free of distraction and results in stillness and clarity of mind. Practising right concentration that places an individual’s full attention on various aspects of their experience enables one to gain deep insight into the nature of things.

Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.

Guaranteed secure stripe badge

A unified, searchable interface answering your questions on the world's cultures and religions

Sign up for free