The Theravada school is the most conservative of the extant schools of Buddhism and regards its doctrine and practice as close to the original teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha is remembered as one of three refuges of sentient beings, along with the Sangha (the community of monks) and the Dhamma (the teaching). The Buddha is seen as a great human being who came fully to understand the truth of the way things are and therefore to embody that truth. Theravada doctrine is based on the threefold canon of scriptures written in the Pali language. This is made up of the Sutta (the discourses of the Buddha); the Vinaya (the rules which form the basis of Theravadin monastic practice); and the Abhidhamma (the analysis of the doctrinal teaching).
The Theravada School is the only extant school of non-Mahayana Buddhism. Like other schools it traces its roots directly to the historical Buddha. Its predecessors, the Sthaviravadins divided off from the majority of the monks, the Mahasamghika, at around the time of the second Buddhist council at Vaisali (330-320 BCE), approximately one hundred years after the Buddha's death. The split may have been caused by differences in the understanding of the status of an arhat, but more likely by differences in the disciplinary code. The original Sthaviravadins were all monks of over ten years standing and therefore regarded as the elders of the community. The Sthaviravada school went on to divide further due in part to its geographical spread, but also because of developing disciplinary and doctrinal differences.
There are many symbols associated with Theravada Buddhism, for example the lotus which has its roots in the mud, representing samsara, but its buds and flowers in the clear air representing nirvana. The Buddha is often depicted seated on a lotus throne. A single footprint of Buddha also represents the presence of his teachings. Perhaps the most common symbol is the wheel or cakka often depicted with eight spokes representing the eight parts of the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment.
Theravada Buddhism is now practised in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and parts of India including Maharashtra. It is very difficult to estimate the numbers of adherents. In Myanmar and Thailand Buddhists form over eighty-five percent of the populations and in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos between seventy and eighty-five percent. There are probably about 400,000 Theravada monks distributed throughout these nations. Theravada Buddhism is one of several schools which have become popular in Western countries. Numbers of Western Buddhists are few in comparison with Asian populations but even so the interaction between Eastern and Western Theravada Buddhists has been influential particularly in raising the status of the practice of the laity.
There are many centres of Theravada Buddhism including large numbers of monasteries. A useful organization of lay Theravàda Buddhists is the World Fellowship of Buddhists, which may be contacted at: 33 Sukhumvit Road, Between Soi 1 and Soi 2, Bangkok 10110, Thailand.