There are two main branches of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhism is based on a collective notion of enlightenment, where people help each other get there. Theravada Buddhism, which is considered the older of the two schools, is more individualistic — holding that each person must reach enlightenment on their own.
Theravada Buddhism holds that the aspirant or seeker gains spiritual insight only from his or her own experience and investigation, not from blind faith, or from another person's experience and investigation. The scriptures in the Theravada tradition, however, also emphasize heeding the advice of the wise. Therefore, it is actually a combination of one’s own experience and investigation, along with consideration of wise counsel, which will eventually lead to spiritual growth and enlightenment.
Seekers of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism are required to follow and practice the Noble Eightfold Path, which was taught by Buddha, in order to realize ultimate truth. The Eightfold Path consists of right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. When this Path is faithfully followed, it is believed that the seeker will be led to spiritual awakening.
In Theravada Buddhism, the cause of all human suffering is craving, or dukkha. This craving can take the form of many types of defilement including anger, ill will, greed, jealousy, hatred, conceit, fear, obsession, sensual desire, vengeance, irritation, depression, and anxiety. Theravada Buddhism holds that not only do the cravings harm the individual, but fellow man as well.
In order to free ourselves from suffering and gain enlightenment, the aspirant must meditate. This is the best and only effective technique for achieving a spiritual awakening. Only in meditation can the defilements be investigated and understood, and in that way obliterated. In time, the meditator will come to realize enlightenment and Nirvana, the ultimate goals of Theravada Buddhism.
Nirvana refers to a state of perfect bliss, which is accompanied by liberation from the repetitive cycles of birth, illness, aging and death. Each individual is responsible for achieving his or her own enlightenment and liberation.
Theravada Buddhism is currently practiced around the world including Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. It is also practiced by certain minorities in parts of China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Today there are over one hundred million adherents worldwide, and in recent decades, it has attracted followers in the West as well.