Theravāda | History


1. Theravāda | History

Theravāda (Pāli, lit. "School of the Elders") is the most commonly accepted name of Buddhism's oldest extant school.

The school's adherents, termed Theravādins, have preserved their version of Gautama Buddha's teaching in the Pāli Canon. The Pāli Canon is the only complete Buddhist canon surviving in a classical Indian language, Pāli, which serves as the school's sacred language and lingua franca.

For over a millennium, Theravādins have endeavoured to preserve the Dhamma as recorded in their school's texts. In contrast to Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, Theravāda tends to be conservative in matters of doctrine and monastic discipline.

Modern Theravāda derives from the Mahāvihāra sect, a Śrī Lankan branch of the Vibhajjavādins, a sub-sect of the Indian Sthāvira Nikāya, which began to establish itself on the island from the 3rd century BCE onwards.

It was in Śrī Lanka that the Pāli Canon was written down and the school's commentary literature developed.

From Śrī Lanka, the Theravāda Mahāvihāra tradition subsequently spread to the rest of Southeast Asia:

It is the dominant religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Śrī Lanka, and Thailand and is practiced by minorities in India, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, and Vietnam.

The diaspora of all of these groups, as well as converts around the world, also practice Theravāda.

During the modern era, new developments have included Buddhist modernism, the Vipassanā movement which reinvigorated Theravāda meditation practice and the Thai Forest Tradition which reemphasized forest monasticism.


2. Origins

Anurādhapura in Śrī Lanka

The name Theravāda comes from Sthāvirīya, one of the early Buddhist schools from which Theravādins trace their school's descent:

The Sthāvira Nikāya emerged from the 1st schism in the Buddhist Saṅgha:

At issue was its adherents' desire to add new Vinaya rules tightening monastic discipline, against the wishes of the majority Mahāsaṁghika.

According to its adherents' accounts, the Theravāda school derives from the Vibhajjavāda "doctrine of analysis" group, which was a division of the Sthāvirīya.

Theravādins' own accounts of their school's origins mention that it received the teachings that were agreed upon during the putative Third Buddhist council held around 250 BCE under the patronage of Indian Emperor Aśoka. These teachings were known as the Vibhajjavāda.

Emperor Aśoka is supposed to have assisted in purifying the Saṅgha by expelling monks who declined to agree to the terms of Third Council.

The elder monk Moggaliputta-Tissa chaired the Third Council and compiled the Kathāvatthu ("Points of Controversy"), a refutation of various opposing views which is an important work in the Theravāda Abhidhamma.

Later, the Vibhajjavādins, in turn, is said to have split into 4 groups:

1. Mahīśāsaka,
2. Kāśyapīya,
3. Dharmaguptaka in the North
4. Tāmraparṇīya in South India

The Tāmraparṇīya (later Mahā Vihāravāsins), was established in Śrī Lanka (at Anurādhapura) but active also in Andhra and other parts of South India (Vanavasa in modern Karnataka) and later across South-East Asia:

Inscriptional evidence of this school has been found in Amaravati and Nāgārjunakoṇḍā.

Theravāda spread rapidly south from Avanti Kingdom into Maharashtra and Andhra and down to the Chola country (Kānchī), as well as Śrī Lanka.

For some time they maintained themselves in Avanti Kingdom as well as in their new territories, but gradually they tended to regroup themselves in the South:

The Great Vihāra (Mahāvihāra) in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Śrī Lanka, becoming the main centre of their tradition, Kānchī a secondary centre and the northern regions apparently relinquished to other schools.

3. Transmission to Śrī Lanka

Theravāda is said to be descended from the Tāmraparṇīya sect, which means "the Śrī Lankan lineage".

Missionaries sent abroad from India are said to have included Aśoka's son Mahinda (who studied under Moggaliputta-Tissa) and his daughter Saṅghamittā:

They were the mythical founders of Buddhism in Śrī Lanka, a story which scholars suggest helps to legitimize Theravāda's claims of being the oldest and most authentic school.

According to the Mahāvaṁsa chronicle, they arrived in Śrī Lanka during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anurādhapura (307–267 BCE) who converted to Buddhism and helped build the first Buddhist Stūpas.

The rapid spread of Buddhism and the emergence of an extensive organization of the Saṅgha were closely linked with the secular authority of the central state.

There are no known artistic or architectural remains from this epoch except for the cave dwellings of the monks, reflecting the growth and spread of the new religion.

The most distinctive features of this phase and virtually the only contemporary historical material, are the numerous Brāhmī inscriptions associated with these caves. They record gifts to the Saṅgha, significantly by householders and chiefs rather than by kings.

The Buddhist religion itself does not seem to have established undisputed authority until the reigns of Dutthagāmanī and Vattagāmanī (c. mid-2nd century BCE to mid-1st century BCE).

The first records of Buddha images come from the reign of the King Vasabha (65–109 CE), and after the 3rd century CE the historical record shows a growth of the worship of Buddha images as well as Bodhisattvas.

In the 7th century, the Chinese pilgrim monks Xuanzang and Yijing refer to the Buddhist schools in Śrī Lanka, corresponding to the Sanskrit Sthāvira Nikāya and Pāli Thera Nikāya.

Yijing writes, "In Śrī Lanka, the Sthāvira school alone flourishes; the Mahāsāṁghika is expelled".

The school has been using the name Theravāda for itself in a written form since at least the 4th century, about 1000 years after the Buddha's death, when the term appears in the Dīpavaṁsa.

Between the reigns of Sena I (833–853) and Mahinda IV (956–972), the city of Anurādhapura saw a "colossal building effort" by various kings during a long period of peace and prosperity, the great part of the present architectural remains in this city date from this period.

4. Development of Pāli textual tradition

The Śrī Lankan Buddhist Saṅgha initially preserved the Buddhist scriptures (the Tipiṭaka) orally as it had been traditionally done, however during the 1st century BCE, famine and wars led to the writing down of these scriptures.

The Śrī Lankan chronicle The Mahāvaṁsa records:

"Formerly clever monks preserved the text of the Canon and its commentaries orally, but then, when they saw the disastrous state of living beings, they came together and had it written down in books, that the doctrine might long survive."

This was probably the earliest record we have of Buddhist scriptures being committed to writing anywhere. With few exceptions, surviving Theravādin Pāli texts derive from the Mahāvihāra (monastic complex) of Anuradhapura, the ancient Śrī Lankan capital.

Later developments included the formation and recording of the Theravāda commentary literature (Aṭṭhakathā). Theravāda tradition holds that a tradition of Indian commentaries on the scriptures existed even during Mahinda's early days.

Prior to the writing of the classic Theravādin Pāli commentaries, there were also various commentaries on the Tipiṭaka written in the Sinhala language, such as the Mahā Aṭṭhakathā ("Great commentary"), the main commentary tradition of the Mahāvihāra monks.

Of great importance to the commentary tradition is the work of the great Theravāda scholastic Buddhaghoṣa (4-5th century CE), who is responsible for most of the Theravāda commentarial literature that has survived (any older commentaries have been lost).

Buddhaghoṣa wrote in Pāli, and after him, most Śrī Lankan Buddhist scholastics did as well:

This allowed the Śrī Lankan tradition to become more international through a lingua franca so as to converse with monks in India and later Southeast Asia.

Theravāda monks also produced other Pāli literature such as historical chronicles (e.g. Mahāvaṁsa), hagiographies, practice manuals, summaries, textbooks, poetry, and Abhidhamma works such as the Abhidhammattha-sangaha and the Abhidhammāvatāra.

Buddhaghoṣa's work on Abhidhamma and Buddhist practice outlined in works such as the Visuddhimagga and the Atthasālinī are the most influential texts apart from the Pāli Canon in the Theravādin tradition.

Other Theravādin Pāli commentators and writers include Dhammapāla and Buddhadatta:

Dhammapāla wrote commentaries on the Pāli Canon texts, which Buddhaghoṣa had omitted, and also wrote a commentary called the Paramatthamañjusā on Buddhaghoṣa's Visuddhimagga.

5. Śrī Lankan Theravāda sects

Over much of the early history of Buddhism in Śrī Lanka, there were 3 subdivisions of Theravāda, consisting of the monks of the Mahāvihāra, Abhayagiri Vihāra and Jetavana, each of which were based in Anuradhapura:

The Mahāvihāra was the first tradition to be established, while Abhayagiri Vihāra and Jetavana Vihāra were established by monks who had broken away from the Mahāvihāra tradition.

The Indian Mahīśāsaka sect also established itself in Śrī Lanka alongside the Theravāda, into which they were later absorbed. Northern regions of Śrī Lanka also seem to have been ceded to sects from India at certain times.

When the Chinese monk Faxian visited the island in the early 5th century, he noted 5000 monks at Abhayagiri, 3000 at the Mahāvihāra, and 2000 at the Cetiyapabbatavihāra.

The Mahāvihāra ("Great Monastery") school became dominant in Śrī Lanka at the beginning of the 2nd millennium CE and gradually spread through mainland Southeast Asia:

It established itself in Myanmar in the late 11th century, in Thailand in the 13-14th centuries, and in Cambodia and Laos by the end of the 14th century.

Although Mahāvihāra never completely replaced other schools in Southeast Asia, it received special favour at most royal courts. This is due to the support it received from local elites, who exerted a very strong religious and social influence.

6. Mahāyāna influence

Abhayagiri Theravādins maintained close relations with Indian Buddhists over the centuries, adopting many of the latter's teachings, including many Mahāyāna elements, whereas Jetavana Theravādins adopted Mahāyāna to a lesser extent.

Xuanzang wrote of 2 major divisions of Theravāda in Śrī Lanka, referring to the Abhayagiri tradition's adherents as "Mahāyāna Sthāviras" and those of the Mahāvihāra tradition as "Hīnayāna Sthāviras".

Xuanzang also wrote that the Mahā Vihāravāsins reject Mahāyāna as heretical, whereas Abhayagiri Vihāravāsins study "both Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna".

Abhayagiri was an influential University and centre for the study of Mahāyāna from the reign of Gajabahu I until the 12th century.

It saw various important Buddhist scholars working in Sanskrit and Pāli:

These include Upatissa (who wrote the Vimuttimagga), Kavicakravarti Ānanda (authored the Saddhammopāyana), Āryadeva, Āryaśūra, and the tantric masters Jayabhadra, and Candramāli.

It is known that in the 8th century, both Mahāyāna and the esoteric Vajrayāna form of Buddhism were being practised in Śrī Lanka, and 2 Indian monks responsible for propagating Esoteric Buddhism in China, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, visited the island during this time.

Abhayagiri Vihāra appears to have been a centre for Theravādin Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna teachings.

7. Reign of Parakkamabāhu I

The trend of the Abhayagiri Vihāra being a dominant sect changed in the 12th century, when the Mahāvihāra sect gained the political support of Parakkamabāhu I (1153–1186), who completely abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana traditions.

The Theravāda monks of these 2 traditions were defrocked and given the choice of either returning to the laity permanently, or attempting re-ordination under the Mahāvihāra tradition as "novices" (Sāmaṇera).

Though the chronicle says that Parakkamabāhu I reunited the Saṅgha, this expression glosses over the fact that what he did was to abolish the Abhayagiri and Jetavana Nikāyas:

He laicized many monks from the Mahā Vihāra Nikāya, all the monks in the other two – and then allowed the better ones among the latter to become novices in the now Unified' Saṅgha, into which they would have in due course to be re-ordained.

It seems that part of the reason for these radical moves was that Parakkamabāhu I saw the Saṅgha as being divided, corrupt and in need of reform, especially the Abhayagiri.

The Cūḷavaṁsa laments that at this time Theravāda monks had "turned away in their demeanour from one another and took delight in all kinds of strife".

This chronicle also claims that many monks in the Śrī Lankan Saṅgha had even begun to marry and have children, behaving more like lay followers than monastics.

Parākramabāhu's chief monastic leader in these reforms was Mahāthera Kassapa, an experienced monk well versed in the Scriptures and the Monastic discipline.

Parakkamabāhu I is also known for rebuilding the ancient cities of Anurādhapura and Polonnaruwa, restoring Buddhist Stūpas and Vihāras (monasteries).

He appointed a Saṅgharaja, or "King of the Saṅgha", a monk who would preside over the Saṅgha and its ordinations in Śrī Lanka, assisted by 2 deputies.

The reign of Parakkamabāhu I also saw a flowering of Theravāda scholasticism with the work of prominent Śrī Lankan scholars such as Anuruddha, Sāriputta Thera, Mahākassapa Thera of Dimbulagala Vihāra and Moggallāna Thera:

They worked on compiling of sub-commentaries on the Tipiṭaka, texts on grammar, summaries and textbooks on Abhidhamma and Vinaya such as the influential Abhidhammattha-sangaha of Anuruddha.

8. Spread to Southeast Asia

According to the Mahāvaṁsa, a Śrī Lankan chronicle, after the conclusion of the Third Buddhist Council, a mission was sent to Suvarṇabhūmi, led by 2 monks, Sona and Uttarā.

Scholarly opinions differ as to where exactly this land of Suvarṇabhūmi was located, but it is generally believed to have been located somewhere in the area of Lower Burma, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, or Sumatra.

In 8-12th centuries Indian Buddhist traditions arrived in Southeast Asia via the Bay of Bengal from India.

Before the 12th century, the areas of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia were dominated by Buddhist sects from India, and included the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

In the 7th century, Yijing noted in his travels that in these areas, all major sects of Indian Buddhism flourished.

After the 12th century Buddhism mostly disappeared from India and Theravāda Buddhism came to dominate Southeast Asia.

9. Myanmar

Though there are some early accounts that have been interpreted as Theravāda in Myanmar, the surviving records show that most Burmese Buddhism incorporated Mahāyāna, and used Sanskrit rather than Pāli.

After the decline of Buddhism in India, missions of monks from Śrī Lanka gradually converted Burmese Buddhism to Theravāda,

and in the next 2 centuries also brought Theravāda Buddhism to the areas of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where it supplanted previous forms of Buddhism.

The Mon and Pyu were among the earliest people to inhabit Myanmar. The oldest surviving Buddhist texts in the Pāli language come from Pyu city-state of Śrī Kṣettra. The text, which is dated from the mid-5th to mid-6th century, is written on 20-leaf manuscript of solid gold.

Scholars say that there is firm evidence for the dominant presence of Theravāda in "the Irrawaddy and Chao Phraya basins, from about the 5th century CE onwards", though he adds that evidence shows that Mahāyāna was also present.

The Burmese slowly became Theravādin as they came into contact with and conquered the Pyu and Mon civilizations beginning in the 11th century during the reign of the Bamar king Anawrahta (1044–1077) of the Pagan Kingdom:

He acquired the Pāli scriptures in a war against the Mon as well as from Śrī Lanka and built Stūpas and monasteries at his capital of Bagan.

Various invasions of Burma by neighbouring states and the Mongol invasions of Burma (13th century) damaged the Burmese Saṅgha and Theravāda had to be reintroduced several times into the country from Śrī Lanka and Thailand.

10. Cambodia and Thailand

The Khmer Empire (802–1431) centred in Cambodia was initially dominated by Hinduism:

Hindu ceremonies and rituals were performed by Brahmins, usually only held among ruling elites of the king's family, nobles, and the ruling class.

Tantric Mahāyāna Buddhism was also a prominent faith, promoted by Buddhist emperors such as Jayavarman VII (1181–1215) who rejected the Hindu gods and presented himself as a Bodhisattva King.

During his reign, King Jayavarman VII (c. 1181–1218) sent his son Tamalinda to Śrī Lanka to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and study Theravāda Buddhism according to the Pāli scriptural traditions in the Mahāvihāra monastery.

Tamalinda then returned to Cambodia and promoted Buddhist traditions according to the Theravāda training he had received, galvanizing and energizing the long-standing Theravāda presence, which had existed throughout the Angkor Empire for centuries.

During the 13-14th centuries, Theravādin monks from Śrī Lanka continued introducing orthodox Theravāda Buddhism, which eventually became the dominant faith among all classes.

Monastics replaced members of the local priestly classes, purveying religion, education, culture, and social service for Cambodian villages. This change in Cambodian Buddhism led to high levels of literacy among Cambodians.

In Thailand, Theravāda existed alongside Mahāyāna and other religious sects before the rise of Sukhothai Kingdom:

During the reign of King Rām Khamhaeng (c. 1237/1247–1298) Theravāda was made the main state religion and promoted by the king as the orthodox form of Thai Buddhism.

Despite its success in Southeast Asia, Theravāda Buddhism in China has generally been limited to areas bordering Theravāda countries.

11. Tantric and esoteric innovations

During the pre-modern era, Southeast Asian Buddhism included numerous elements which could be called tantric and esoteric (such as the use of mantras and yantras in elaborate rituals):

This is sometimes called a Tantric Theravāda, and some textual studies show that it was a major tradition in Cambodia and Thailand. Some of these practices are still prevalent in Cambodia and Laos today.

Later Theravāda textual materials show new and somewhat unorthodox developments in theory and practice:

These developments include what has been called the "Yogāvacara tradition" associated with the Sinhala Yogāvacara's manual (c. 16-17th centuries) and also Esoteric Theravāda also known as Borān kammaṭṭhāna ('ancient practices').

These traditions include new practices and ideas which are not included in classical orthodox Theravāda works like the Visuddhimagga, such as the use of mantras (such as Araha), the practice of magical formulas, complex rituals and complex visualization exercises.

These practices were particularly prominent in the Siam Nikāya before the modernist reforms of King Rāma IV (1851–1868) as well as in Śrī Lanka.

12. Modernisation and spread to West

In the 19th century began a process of mutual influence of both Asian Buddhists and Hindus, and a Western audience interested in ancient wisdom.

Theravāda was also influenced by this process, which led to Buddhist modernism:

- especially Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, founders of the Theosophical Society, had a profound role in this process in Śrī Lanka.

Simultaneously, Vipassanā-meditation was re-invented, and in Theravāda countries a lay Vipassanā practice developed:

This took a high flight in East Asia from the 1950s onwards with the Vipassanā-movement, and from the 1970s also in the West, with western students who popularized Vipassanā-meditation in the West, giving way to the development and popularisation of mindfulness-practice.

13. Reaction against Western colonialism

Buddhist revivalism has also reacted against changes in Buddhism caused by colonialist regimes:

Western colonialists and Christian missionaries deliberately imposed a particular type of Christian monasticism on Buddhist clergy in Śrī Lanka and colonies in Southeast Asia, restricting monks' activities to individual purification and temple ministries.

Prior to British colonial control, monks in both Śrī Lanka and Burma had been responsible for the education of the children of lay people, and had produced large bodies of literature.

After the British takeover, Buddhist temples were strictly administered and were only permitted to use their funds on strictly religious activities.

Christian ministers were given control of the education system and their pay became state funding for missions.

Foreign, especially British, rule had an enervating effect on the Saṅgha:

According to Walpola Rāhula, Christian missionaries displaced and appropriated the educational, social, and welfare activities of the monks, and inculcated a permanent shift in views regarding the proper position of monks in society through their institutional influence upon the elite.

Many monks in post-colonial times have dedicated themselves to undoing these changes. Movements intending to restore Buddhism's place in society have developed in both Śrī Lanka and Myanmar.

One consequence of the reaction against Western colonialism has been a modernization of Theravāda Buddhism:

Western elements have been incorporated, and meditation practice has opened to a lay audience. Modernized forms of Theravāda practice have spread to the West.

14. Śrī Lanka

In Śrī Lanka, Theravādins were looking to Western culture for means to revitalize their own tradition:

Christian missionaries were threatening the indigenous culture. As a reaction to this, Theravādins became active in spreading Buddhism and debating Christians.

They were aided by the Theosophical Society, whose members were dedicated to searching for wisdom within ancient sources.

Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933) was one of the Theravāda leaders with whom the Theosophists sided.

Dharmapāla reached out to the middle classes, offering them religious practice and a religious identity, which were used to withstand the British imperialists.

As a result of Dharmapāla’s efforts, lay practitioners started to practise meditation and study Buddhism, which had been reserved specifically for the monks.

The Pāli Text Society's translation and publication of the Pāli Canon improved its availability to lay audiences in the both the West and the East.

The Theosophical Society promoted western-lay interest in Theravāda Buddhism, which endured until the beginning of the 20th century.

Interest rose again during the 1970s, leading to a surge of Westerners searching for enlightenment, and republication of the Pāli Canon, first in print, and later on the Internet.

15. Myanmar

An influential modernist figure in Myanmar Buddhism was King Mindon Min (1808–1878):

He promoted the Fifth Buddhist Council (1871) and inscribed the Pāli Canon into marble slabs, creating the world's largest book in 1868.

During his reign, various reformist sects came into being such as the Mahādvāra Nikāya and the Shwegyin Nikāya, who advocated a stricter monastic conduct than the mainstream Thudhamma tradition.

During colonial Burma, there were constant tensions between Christian missionaries and Buddhist monks (which included one of the first Western convert monks, U Dhammaloka).

After independence, Myanmar was also the place for the Sixth Buddhist Council (Vesak 1954-1956), which was attended by monks from 8 Theravāda nations to recite the Pāli Canon.

The Council synthesized a new redaction of the Pāli texts ultimately transcribed into several native scripts. In Myanmar, this Chaṭṭha Saṅgīti Piṭaka (6th’s council Piṭaka) was published by the government in 40 volumes.

Modern Vipassanā meditation practice was re-invented in Myanmar in the 19th century:

The "New Burmese method" was developed by U Nārada and popularized by his student Mahāsī Sayādaw and Nyanaponika Thera. Another prominent teacher is Bhikkhu Bodhi, a student of Nyanaponika.

The New Burmese Method strongly emphasizes Vipassanā over Śamatha:

It is regarded by traditionalists as a simplification of traditional Buddhist meditation techniques, suitable not only for monks but also for lay practitioners.

The method has been popularized in the West by teachers of the Vipassanā movement such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Gil Fronsdal and Sharon Salzberg.

The Ledi lineage begins with Ledi Sayadaw. S. N. Goenka is a well-known teacher in the Ledi-lineage:

According to S. N. Goenka, Vipassanā techniques are essentially non-sectarian in character, and have universal application.

Meditation centres teaching the Vipassanā popularized by S. N. Goenka exist now in India, Asia, North and South America, Europe, Australia, Middle East and Africa.

16. Thailand and Cambodia

With the coming to power in 1851 of King Mongkut, who had been a monk himself for 27 years, the Saṅgha, like the kingdom, became steadily more centralized and hierarchical, and its links to the state more institutionalized.

Mongkut was a distinguished scholar of Pāli Buddhist scripture.

Moreover, at that time the immigration of numbers of monks from Burma was introducing the more rigorous discipline characteristic of the Mon Saṅgha.

Influenced by the Mon and guided by his own understanding of the Tipiṭaka, Mongkut began a reform movement that later became the basis for the Dhammayuttika Nikāya.

Mongkut advocated a stricter adherence to the Vinaya (monastic discipline).
He also emphasized study of the scriptures, and rationalism.

His son King Chulalongkorn created a national structure for Buddhist monastics and established a nationwide system of monastic education.

In the early 1900s, Thailand's Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo and his student, Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, led the Thai Forest Tradition revival movement:

It was later spread globally by Ajahn Mun's students including Ajahn Thate, Ajahn Mahā Bua and Ajahn Chah and several Western disciples, among whom the most senior is Luang Por Ajahn Sumedho.

Modern Buddhism in Cambodia was strongly influenced by Thai Buddhism:

The Dhammayuttika Nikāya was introduced into the country during the reign of King Norodom (1834–1904) and benefited from royal patronage.

The rule of the Khmer Rouge effectively destroyed Cambodia's Buddhist institutions by disrobing and killing monks and destroying temples.

After the end of the regime the Saṅgha was re-established.

An important figure of modern Cambodian Theravāda is Mahā Ghosānanda who promoted a form of Engaged Buddhism to effect social change.

17. Modern trends

The modern era saw new developments in Theravāda scholarship due to the influence of Western thought:

Although monastic education is still grounded in the study of Buddhist texts, doctrine, and the Pāli language, the curricula of monastic colleges and universities also reflect subject matter and disciplines associated with Western education.

Buddhist modernist trends can be traced to figures like Anagārika Dhammapāla and King Mongkut. They promoted a form of Buddhism that was compatible with rationalism and science, and opposed to superstition.

Another phenomenon is Buddhist philosophers educated in the West, such as K. N. Jayatilleke (a student of Wittgenstein) and Hammalawa Saddhatissa, going on to write modern works on Buddhist philosophy (Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, 1963 and Buddhist Ethics, 1987 respectively).

The colonial clash with Christianity also led to debates (such as the Pānadura debate) and doctrinal works written in defence of Buddhism or attacking Christian ideas, such as Gunapala Dharmasiri's A Buddhist critique of the Christian concept of God (1988).

Another development has been modern literature promoting socially Engaged Buddhism and Buddhist economics from thinkers such as Buddhādasa, Sulak Sivaraksa, Prayudh Payutto, Neville Karunatilake and Padmasiri de Silva.

Modern scholarship by Western Buddhist monks such as Nyanaponika Thera was also a new development in the modern era.