The monastic lineage behind Dhammapala Monastery belongs to a branch of the two original Southern schools of Buddhism: the so called Sthavira and Mahasanghika, two groups who separated from each other already shortly after the second Buddhist council – which took place approximately 100 years after the passing away of the Buddha. Both groups represent the forerunners of all the southern schools of Buddhism, among them the Theravada tradition, which appeared on the scene under this name not until a hundred years later.
‘Theravada’ means ‘the way of the Elders’, which has been the constant ethos of this tradition right from the beginning. Their basic attitude could be described as: ‘This is the path, which the Buddha had laid down. And so that is the path we are going to follow.’
Already during its origins – and especially as the main religion in Sri Lanka – Theravada Buddhism was maintained as well as renewed during the years, so that it could expand eventually in South-East Asia and later on from there to the West. Whilst Buddhism became established in these geographical regions, the respect and veneration for its original teachings was preserved. This also included an appreciation of the lifestyle, how it was embodied by the Buddha and his original Sangha, i.e. the ordained monastics of the early period.
Of course there was rise and decline during the course of the development of this tradition. It evolved, became wealthy, then corrupt, and finally collapsed under its own weight. After a decline a splinter group very often appeared and returned to the forests, in order to return to the old standards: observing the monastic rules, the practice of meditation and the study of the original teachings. This was a pattern, which was applied again and again over the centuries.
In more recent times – around the middle of the 19th century – the orthodox understanding of the scholars in Thailand was, that in this age it was neither possible to realize full awakening (nibbana) nor to reach profound meditative states (jhana). The revivers of the forest tradition could not accept this statement, which was another reason why they were considered troublemakers and eccentrics by the Sangha hierachy of the time. Therefore many of them took a clear distance from the majority of the study monks of their own Theravada school – Ajahn Chah included. They were of the opinion that genuine wisdom cannot be gained through book learning.