It is common to use the term Theravāda as a synonym of Pāli Buddhism as a whole, or as a name for the Buddhist of South East Asia; or even as a alternative and more polite substitute for the term 'Hīnayāna'.
We can be easily convinced that the last usage is incorrect, simply by noticing that non-Mahāyāna schools in India were much more than just the Mahāvihāra tradition; and that the latter, in turn, seems to allow for the possibility of taking up the bodhisatta path (at least in some sub-traditions) – which makes its description as ‘Hīnayāna’ inaccurate even from a Mahāyāna perspective.
On the other hand, calling the Buddhism of, say, Thailand and Burma 'Theravāda' may seem unproblematic. In effect, the situation seems to be more complex, and the somewhat artificial construction of an ideally uniform tradition common to all areas of Pāli Buddhism has sadly resulted in a neglect of texts and practices that had been an integral part of the monks' daily life in South East Asia until not many decades ago.
I write this post mainly to point out some recent publications that may be of interest to readers of this forum, and which relate to the topics I just discussed.
The first one is an article by Prof.Peter Skilling:
Skilling, P. (2009) ‘Theravāda in History’, Pacific World, Third Series, no. 11: pp.61-94
Prof. Skilling questions the assumption that the term ‘Theravāda’ should be uncritically used to describe the entire history of Buddhism in South East Asia, or of Pāli Buddhism in general. He does so by pointing out that the remarkable currency of the term is a relatively recent phenomenon and can only apply retrospectively to the pre-modern periods.
In respect to Thailand, it is to be noted that (if I understand correctly) the first introductions of Pāli Buddhism into Siam did not depend on a Mahāvihāra lineage, but were likely to come from South India; from a form of Pāli Buddhism, therefore, of which we know very little – but which was possibly different from the Mahāvihāra tradition as epitomized by Buddhaghoṣa.
To my mind, this makes the Pāli and vernacular Buddhist literature of Siam, Lanna and so forth particularly interesting. Rather than looking at it as a sort of ‘second-class’ Pāli tradition, it may be better to think of it as a different expression of Pāli Buddhism, with a different relationship to the Mahāvihāra tradition than what one may find in Śrīlaṅkā.
Similarly, I would wonder about the relationship that some of the meditative traditions of Thailand may have to pre-Mahāvihāra traditions of Pāli Buddhism (although of course I realize it may be impossible to ascertain). The fact that they may not rely so heavily on a scheme derived from Buddhaghoṣa or from the commentarial traditions of the Mahāvihāra does not in itself prove that they may be less authentic or less ancient – especially since it is very difficult to prove of disprove the continuity of an oral tradition.
Another important text I would like to bring to your attention is the following:http://books.google.com/books?id=tlfNSA ... CCcQ6AEwAA
Here the author describes, in a very well-informed and clear manner, how Buddhism reached South-East Asia and Thailand in particular. This is the description of the text found in the net:
The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism is a comprehensive study of the advent of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand during the first millennium CE. The author, Prapod Assavavirulhakarn, presents new ideas about the ancient cultural geography of South and Southeast Asia, bringing fresh insights to the perennial problem of Indianization -- the translation of ideas, ideals, and technologies from India to societies across the Bay of Bengal. Prapod examines existing theories and finds them wanting. His presentation of the early Buddhist period challenges established opinions and offers alternative views of the complexities and uncertainties that uniquely shaped Buddhism. His interpretations are grounded in primary sources, including Sanskrit, Pali, and Chinese inscriptions. The Ascendancy of Theravada Buddhism is a welcome advance in the study of the neglected field of early Thai Buddhism.
If you do happen to read one or both of these works, please do let me know what you think about them.