Buddhism: Theravāda


Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Religious Buildings


Temples are the most common religious or spiritual setting for Buddhists. Although Buddhist temples differ structurally throughout Theravādin countries, the buildings are usually designed to foster a sense of inner and outer peace. Temples are often part of a broader complex that contains other buildings and the surrounding natural landscape.

Some temples contain shrines or prayer halls, which allow for collective or individual chanting and meditation. A lay Buddhist may visit a temple for various reasons, such as to show veneration to the Buddha, for a festival, or to arrange or participate in funerary rites. Temples within villages may also sometimes serve purposes; for instance, for markets or non-religious festivals.


A monastery is the place where a community of male or female monastics reside and devote their life to religious practice. Buddhist monasteries are established to support the endeavours of monks and nuns by providing them a relatively secluded place usually in natural settings like forests. Some monasteries may be located in or near villages, towns or cities where monks and nuns may simultaneously fulfil their practices of quiet contemplation and serve the spiritual needs of lay supporters. Others may be located in more secluded areas for more quiet and meditative lifestyles. Monasteries traditionally maintain an interdependent relationship with the lay community, as in the case of Saṅgha and exchanges.


A thūpa (Pāli, stūpa in Sanskrit) is a funerary monument for the ashes of spiritually significant people. The original thūpas are believed to contain the ashes of the Buddha. Today, thūpas may contain relics of the Buddha or ashes of monks. Thūpas are popular places for the to visit to show veneration and gain merit.


There are a number of important etiquette practices to consider when entering a Buddhist temple, monastery or thūpa:

  • Show respect towards sacred images and objects (such as depictions of the Buddha).
  • Remove shoes and leave them outside the main worship precinct.
  • Shoulders and knees should be covered.
  • Do not touch, sit on or climb on a statue of the Buddha.
  • Be considerate of gendered interactions with monastics of the opposite gender.



It is common for lay Theravāda Buddhists to decorate a statue, image or altar of the Buddha with various offerings. The most common offerings include flowers (especially lotus flowers), incense, candles, fruit, food and water.

Statues and Images

Statues and images of the Buddha are prolific throughout Buddhist buildings and inside the personal spaces of lay Buddhists. There are five particular depictions of the Buddha that are common, all of which relate to his life narrative: his birth; his ascetic practices, his attainment of enlightenment, his first sermon and his death. The style of the artwork varies across Buddhist countries. The Buddha is also sometimes depicted with non-anthropomorphic symbols, such as a wheel to represent the Dhamma, a bodhi tree, a footprint, an empty throne, a lotus and a lion.

Begging Bowl

A begging bowl or alms bowl is the bowl used by monastics to collect alms or food offerings from lay supporters. Alms bowls come in many shapes and sizes, and the style of the bowl varies from place to place.


Relics are the material remains of a person or object considered holy. In Buddhism, relics include bodily remains of the Buddha, the cremated remains of monastics, and any object associated with the Buddha or influential monastics (e.g. robes, bowls, statues, texts). These bodily relics are enshrined in funeral mounds. In some cases, relics are popular pilgrimage sites.


Generally, lay Buddhists do not have a prescribed dress code. Many tend to dress modestly by covering their shoulders and knees, though specific dress expectations differ from country to country. Often in Theravādin countries, the will wear white clothing when visiting a temple or monastery. In some places, special amulets, jewellery or a simple thread may be worn for various reasons (as a part of a protective rite, for example). Buddhist monastics have a special dress code. They are required to shave their heads and wear a traditional robe. The colour of the robe varies on the tradition and from place to place.

Dietary Practices

There are no prescribed dietary requirements in Theravāda Buddhism. However, many Buddhists are vegetarian on the basis of non-violence (avihiṃsā) or due to the belief that a vegetarian diet is inferred from the Buddha’s teachings. Views on vegetarianism vary between different groups, with some more strict than others. Some may avoid livelihoods related to meat such as trading meats or butchery. 

Monastics follow a strict dietary code. Fully ordained Theravādin monastics are usually not permitted to purchase or prepare their own foods. Whatever food is offered during almsgiving is accepted, including meat, but it is typically up to the monastic as to what they eat from their bowl. However, meat that has been purposely slaughtered for the monastic is generally prohibited.

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