Afterthoughts About Mahāyāna & Hīnayāna

Because I am a Mahāyāna priest ordained in several lineages it all the propaganda regarding the Mahāyāna movement comes to my eyes or ears almost daily. It seems that many have personal definitions of what Mahāyāna is. The word has almost become meaningless in and of itself. These definitions are most often juxtaposed to another word that is just as meaningless — Hīnayāna. When studying under one Zen “master” the words were bandied about with nuanced meaning, Mahāyāna = good, superior, vast and authentic; Hīnayāna = bad, inferior, narrow, small, corrupt and inauthentic. 

What do these words mean? Because the words seem important they ought to be examined.

In the Mahāyāsütrālaṅkāra of the famous Asaṅga (circa the 4th century CE), co-founder of the Vijñāvāda or Yogācā school of Mahāyāna Buddhism uses both terms. In his work the school called Theravada (Pali) or Sthaviravada (Sanskrit) was identified as the Hīnayāna. Asaṅga possibly had the Indian Sthaviravadin in mind when he formulated this label and applied it to another Buddhist school, although this is far for certain. It is hard to tell exactly at whom this pejorative appellation was directed. Of all the nineteen (19) Sthaviravadin schools existing in Asaṅga’s lifetime, only the Theravada still exists. We know much about a few of the schools and little about the rest. It is possible, though unlikely, Asaṅga was ever in contact with the Theravadin school as it was still during his lifetime isolated in Sri Lanka and not much known in India. It is also seems odd that Asaṅga would have made a sweeping blanket political statements regarding the existence of a Hīnayāna as such. He was a master logician and well aware of the power of labels. Unfortunately, he seems to have done just that and this label Hīnayāna still haunts us today even when it can no longer be said to apply to any existing Buddhist group.

The term hīnā was used in Pali and Sanskrit long before Asaṅga, Buddhists used the related term hīnāya āvattati to describe one who has to turned to the “lower” life, given up monastic orders and return to secular life. In other contexts it could mean anything from inferior, low, poor, miserable, vile, base, abject, contemptible, to even despicable. Hīnavāda was a term applied to someone whose doctrine is defective. (SN 827; Nd1 167 and Hīnaviriya meant to be lacking in energy. It 116; DhA i.75; ii.260. Hīnavāda was mainly used as a label for a non-Buddhist sects or a Buddhist sub-sect that had corrupted the doctrine. 

As a label, the Sthaviravadin could just as easily called the Mahāyāna a Hīnayāna movement just as easily as Asaṅga applied the label to the Sthaviravadin. The Buddha himself taught that the world spins on the eight worldly concerns beginning with gain & loss, status & disgrace, censure & praise, and pleasure & pain. A person involved in these concerns is unworthy of being a disciple of the Buddha because he believes they are real and unfabricated. They are merely temporary. No one escapes praise or blame and a wise person, disciple of the Buddha, ignores them. (Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World, AN 8.6) Unfortunately, Asaṅga did not choose to ignore the labels or censure some group of practitioners, but instead spewed heaping censure on sects other than his own, bringing to doubt at least the level of realization he had attained, or the sincerity of his own practice, at worst. This was, after all, not a simple slip of the tongue but a sustained and protracted slur on what he might have seen as a competitor sect.

For Asaṅga and members of his sect, the Hīnayāna was a rival sect that was itself limited in scope. He makes the claim that the Pali Canon is incomplete and lacking in the finer points of the Buddha’s teaching. He goes out of his way to condemn Hīnayāna as the “little” vehicle and praises his own movement as the Mahāyāna, or “great school (literally — the “Great Ox Cart”). He calls the Hīnayāna narrow and orthodox. 

He condemned the Hīnayāna, whoever he had in mind, as narrow because of its five (5) point differences with the Mahāyāna as he understood it.

  1. The narrow aim of self-liberation,
  2. The narrow teachings deigned to realize that aim,
  3. The narrow method applied to realize that aim,
  4. The insufficiency of equipment (scripture, ritual or paraphernalia), and
  5. The shortness of time within which final liberation is guaranteed. 

At this point Asaṅga might have been talking about the Dhyana sect (popularly called Zen today) gaining momentum in India and China at the time. It was exclusive & exclusionary, had one primary meditation practice, no scripture, and in some commentaries, guaranteed liberation even in a single sitting. It is unknown if the founder of that sect, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, was a Mahāyānist or a Sthaviravadin. His meditation method appears Sthaviravadin in that t relied on the jhanas (dhyanas) but his decedents are certainly Mahāyānist in sentiment.

Mahāyāna, in contrast, viewed itself as having an expansive outlook and a spirit of liberation. It relished freedom of thought, rejected scholastic study and saw itself as a sublime religion for a suffering humanity. Mahāyāna was seen, at least for Asaṅga, as saving Buddhism from the narrow limits of self-liberation. On the other hand, because of this extreme liberalism, the Mahāyāna also contained the germs of indiscipline and revelry of wild thoughts. These would later become responsible for the incorporation of a whole genre of non-Buddhist practices into Buddhism.

In Aśvaghoṣa, however we find a somewhat different view of Mahāyāna. In his opus “Awakening of faith in the Mahāyāna” (Mahāyānaśradhotpāsūtra) the very word “Mahāyāna” meant the highest principle or reality. It denoted a knowledge that is the primordial source of the universe as a whole. All objects, whether animate or inanimate, are nothing but the manifestations of the one unchanging and immutable principle he called Mahāyāna. It is only through Mahāyāna that final salvation was possible. This idea was later picked and renamed Buddha-nature. For Aśvaghoṣa, Mahāyāna was a synonym for shunyatta, that s “emptiness” itself. His definition comes very close to the idealism Nāgārjuna showed when describing conditional arising which he termed “emptiness” (shunyata).

All this aside and without going into every specific event, historically, however, Mahāyāna refers to the school of Buddhism styled by its adherents to be the great way to salvation because of the universality and generosity of its tenants. The tradition is that after the Buddha’s parinibbana there arose a great controversy among the disciples as to the correct interpretation of the Master’s sayings and about the rules for the monks. The Buddha had said the minor regulations could be changed but he wasn’t asked which of the rules were to be considered minor. Under the circumstances the Buddha made the statement, it was understandable that Ananda and others neglected to ask — Gotama was dying. The Second Council at Vesāli was convened to address these issues. On the surface the issues seem minuscule and hardly worth noting, but apparently tempers flared. During this council the dissenters walked out in a huff feeling they were not being taken seriously. This is known because both sides kept records of the proceedings. The dissenters then formed a council of their own called “the great assembly” (Mahāsaṅgha). It was here that it was decided to form a separate entity of their own that entity Mahāsaṅghikas.

As time passed, as it is want to do, the controversy between the two schools escalated resulting in two new schools being formed: the self-styled Mahāyāna and the notoriously obscure Hīnayāna. Theravada, interestingly enough, has rarely voiced an opinion on the two school issue except to say association of Theravada with Hīnayāna is a “case of mistaken identity.” Seemingly asking the question, “Who are these Hīnayāna guys, anyway?” Nonetheless, the Mahāyāna referred to anyone who adhered to canonical and doctrinal tenants of the elders as Hīnayānists.

The stated final goal of the Mahāyānists is based on the belief that every man, women and child — indeed, every being in the universe — is a potential Buddha. Every being, even animals and presumably microscopic ones, has within themselves all the possibilities of becoming a samyaksambuddha, “The perfectly enlightened one.” It seemed to have been forgotten that the Buddha had implied that not everyone could attain enlightenment. (SN 35.204,AN 7.63, AN 10.95, DN 16, MN 125, AN 4.111) Perhaps it was also a convenient loss of memory that allowed the early Mahāyānists to forget that the very samyaksambuddha they thought every living thing could become, had defined exactly what a Buddha is and how a Buddha was unique and differentiated from all enlightened beings. The Tathāgata, this same samyaksambuddha, is the originator of the path, the producer of the path, the one who declares the path. He is the knower of the path, the discoverer of the path, the expounder of the path. His disciples dwell following the path and become possessed of it afterwards, but they both walk the same path and attain the same final goal. (SN 22:58)

It seems that on this point the Mahāyānists redefined the term “Buddha” and even samyaksambuddha. Somehow there was no more “the Buddha” but simply “a buddha.”

The Mahāyānists saw the Hīnayānists as attaining to “only” to the Arahant level, by the Buddha’s definition, and enlightened  being. The Mahāyānists redefined and denigrated the position of the Arahant in spite of the Buddha’s own teachings on the subject. Rejecting the path to Arahantship the Mahāyānists replaced him with the ideal of the Bodhisattva. In the original Canon there was only one Bodhisatta, Buddha to be, and that was the Buddha prior to his enlightenment. In Sanskrit this would transpose to bodhisakta, one driven to be a Buddha. Bodhisattva, however, has a different meaning than the Pali bodhisatta. A Bodhisattva is an “enlightening being,” that is one who enlightens others, though he himself is not yet enlightened. 

In this rather paradoxical arrangement can be seen the issue of universal compassion (mahākarunā) as one of the primary principles of Mahāyāna and practices of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva never accepts nirāvaṇa, even though he becomes entitled to it through his meritorious & righteous actions. He deliberately postpones his own salvation until the whole world of suffering beings is saved. The Bodhisattva pledges his whole being to the salvation of the suffering living in the world, as described in the Kāraṇḍavyyūh

So who are the suffering of world? The Buddha defined “the world” by saying, “Yet I do not say that there is ending of suffering without reaching the world’s end. Rather it is in this fathom-long carcass with its perceptions and its mind that I describe the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”(SN 2.36) We don’t have to go to the ends of the world to find an end to suffering; we need look no further than right here, in this very body. (SN 2.26) If we take this statement to its logical conclusion, then, the suffering we see is squarely within us.

If the Mahāyāna conception of “emptiness” is true then the teaching of the Buddha regarding the ending of the suffering in the world should then resonate with the Mahāyāna construction of Buddhism. In this sense an Arahant is exactly what one would want to be. This is because of interdependence: if one person attains enlightenment universal conditionality would have to mean that everyone would also be elevated by it. The enlightenment of one necessarily benefits the many. The Bodhisattva, however, still wants to wait until every suffering being is liberated. Ordinary people of little merit can take refuge in the mahākarunā of the Bodhisattva. The most famous example of this is Avalokiteśvara’s renunciation of nirvāṇa in favor of suffering humanity. (Kāraṇḍavyyūh) The whole of Mahāyāna literature is permeated with the idea of universal compassion. Nearly all of the metaphysical and religious discourses are introduced with a devout avowal of the Bodhisattva commitment to help all who are afflicted get rid of those affliction, while the Bodhisattva does not necessarily getting rid of their own.

This feature of universal compassion was one of the important factors allowing Buddhism to become both popular and popularized in Northern and Eastern Asia. There was an expansive and deeply humanitarian tone to the teaching. With this emphasis on compassion, which was coupled to devotion, Mahāyāna Buddhism could very easily attract the attention and sympathies of millions of people. It also allowed Mahāyāna to harmonize and blend indigenous religious trends of the cultures it entered.

In couching Mahāyāna in these terms of compassion, openness, expansiveness, broad mindedness, reformation, transcendence, and the rest, it could become readily available to all peoples for all times. The deviation from the original teaching of the same Buddha Mahāyāna aspired to be, didn’t matter anymore. Casting non-Mahāyāna schools as selfish Hīnayānists created, in the popular mind, a boggy man of sorts, something one didn’t want to aspire to be. In later placing the appellation of Hīnayāna on Theravada, Mahāyāna could immediately demonize its only “competitor” in the spiritual marketplace. Theravada had but one Buddha, and he was dead, his relics available for all to see; Mahāyāna, could claim thousands of Buddhas who were alive and well in their own Pure Lands accessible to anyone. These Buddhas also had the benefit of junior partners or assistants, if you will, called Bodhisattvas who lived both in the cosmos at large as well as on earth. Hīnayāna had only a rag tag group of “imperfect” monks and nuns.

One more aspect of the Mahāyāna campaign was also very simple and worthy of Madison Avenue. Hīnayāna, by the 5th century CE was firmly identified with Theravada and labeled as an “incomplete teaching.” New sūtras were composed and said to have been the original words of the Buddha. The Buddha is said to have hidden them at the bottom of a lake and asked the Nagas (dragons) to guard them until the time was right and men were capable of understanding them. This implication had impact. Somehow the Elders were now not only “inferior” (hīna) spiritually but people generally were seen as less intelligent in the Buddha’s day, that is, the Buddha spoke to people too dumb to understand the “real” teaching of the Buddha. Only the hearers of the Mahāyāna doctrine were smart enough to truly understand the teaching of Buddha. That has to be an ego lifting experience. Suddenly, every living being was more capable than were Sariputra, Ananda, Maha Kassapa (the founder of the Sangha), and the rest who gained enlightenment in the Buddha’s lifetime, persons which the Buddha himself proclaimed as enlightened. This logically leads to the assumption that historical Buddha was somehow lacking, hīna.

All these myths are alive and well today in many quarters of the Buddhist community. Many otherwise intelligent people still believe the Pali Canon to be somehow incomplete in spite of the Buddha’s own statement that he had taught everything and hid nothing from his disciples. (DN 16) Many people believe that Theravada is selfish and lacks compassion ignoring the fact that the Buddha’s own words and those of Theravadins maintain that without universal compassion enlightenment is impossible. (SN 46.54) In Theravada one becomes enlightened precisely because it benefits all beings. In Mahāyāna, the original suggestion is that one avoids enlightenment to the benefit of all beings. The suggestion that the Buddha hid teachings after explaining that he had hid nothing makes the Buddha a liar at worst and a con artist at least or senile at best. Is this the samyaksambuddha one would wish to be?

Perhaps it is time that we review the terms Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna, abandon them and simply practice the core teaching of the Buddha. This, of course, assumes that we can even agree on what those might be.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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