Theravada (Pali for “the Teaching of the Elders”) is one of Buddhism’s two main denominations, the other being Mahayana. Theravada Buddhism has about 124 million followers, comprising over a quarter of all Buddhists. With its roots in the third century BCE Third Buddhist Council, Theravada is the oldest surviving Buddhist school, preserving many characteristics of early Buddhism. Theravada emphasizes religious practice for monks; the central religious obligation for the laity has traditionally been to support the monastic community. The tradition teaches that enlightenment is a result of self-discipline and free will, and that each person must achieve enlightenment for him or herself. For most adherents, only the Pali Canon (Tipitaka), the earliest Buddhist writings, is considered sacred scripture.
Theravada Buddhism is the dominant form of religion in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Traditionally, it has shaped the cultures and societies of continental Southeast Asia through its conservative philosophy and its stratified division between monastics and laypeople. In recent decades, Theravada Buddhists have been prominent among supporters of an "Engaged Buddhism" that links spiritual discipline with positive involvement in the wider society. Theravada monks have participated in numerous political opposition movements and activities during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, particularly in Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. The tradition has seen growth and revival in other world regions as well, including India, the United States, and Western Europe.