This is the question of my week, for three reasons:
(1) I have been reading the recent book of this title, edited by Peter Skilling et al. It is a great read – a wonderful mix of styles and subjects, yet all (or almost all) somehow striving to answer this question. It also has a multitude of gorgeous colour pictures. A great reminder that the term “Theravāda” has only recently become the descriptor of choice, and that it is an umbrella term for many different varieties of Buddhist tradition.
(2) I have been writing a course proposal on Theravāda Buddhism. At one stage I was asked to think of an alternative title for a partner course at Masters level, and really struggled. For all that “Theravāda” might be an invention of the early 20th century, it does serve a useful purpose!
(3) In his review of my book Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism, Alex Wynne writes: ‘Despite its title, it has little to say about Theravāda Buddhism. For like most of the Theravāda canon, the core of the Pali Jātakas were composed before the formation of the Theravāda tradition in Sri Lanka, and indeed before the earliest evidence relating to the formation of Buddhist schools (or sects) in India.’ I confess I am thrown by this comment. I readily admit that “Theravāda Buddhism” is somewhat anachronistic when talking about early Pāli scriptural traditions, but since we have no evidence to suggest that any of the other schools of early Indian Buddhism had a jātaka collection anything like that preserved in the Theravāda tradition, I don’t think we can see ‘the core of the Pali Jātakas’ as a pre-sectarian text. And since my book examines the development of the genre within Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, my chosen title is an appropriate way to communicate the parameters of my study.
What Skilling’s edited collection suggests is not that we should run screaming from the term Theravāda, but rather that we should reflect on what we mean when we use it, and acknowledge its history and limitations. I might add that such an attitude is also usefully adopted towards “Buddhism” and “religion” and all those other terms that we would struggle without. We need these words, but we should not use them unthinkingly. I for one will be more careful how I employ “Theravāda” in the future.