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Mahayana verses Hinayana

March 13, 2005

By the contemplative recluse monk Arahatta Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

As we unpack Buddhism for ourselves as western people who are embracing a foreign religion we must be willing to scrape beneath the surface of Buddhism if we are to move beyond the nave phase of faith to actual insight and attainment.  It is this unpacking of Buddhism that has caused me to reflect upon a number of concepts in the Buddhism that is being imported here.

I have been confused for a very long time by a rhetorical device that is commonly used by Mahayanists and Vajrayanists.  This essay is a reflection upon the possible reasons why Mahayanists and Vajrayanists resort to placing their philosophical framework within a context of superiority to Theravadan Buddhism?  In Western philosophy it is considered an error in logic when one resorts to defaming the character of one's opponent.  In the Western school of philosophy it is seen as better logic to simply present one's arguments in a cohesive fashion using logically truthful and valid statements.

Here is some research on the dictionary translation of the term 'Hinayana'

search `hiina' in `Apte Dic'

Entry  hIna

Meaning  a. left, forsaken; excluded or shut out from, fallen short

of (abl.); devoid or bereft of, free from, without (instr., abl.,

loc., --- or ---); inferior, less (opp. {adhika}); low, base, mean;

incomplete, deficient, wanting. Abstr. {-tA} f., {-tva} n.

Mahayanist Buddhists typically translate the term "Hinayana" as the "lesser" or "inferior vehicle." When a Mahayanist or Vajrayanist refers to Theravadan Buddhism as 'Hinayana' they may not realize that to call someone's philosophy 'inferior' or 'lesser' is most clearly an offensive gesture.  Theravadans of course never refer to themselves as "lesser," or "inferior" or 'Hinayana,' so why do Mahayanist and Vajrayanists do so?  The interesting thing is Theravadan Buddhists do not refer to the other vehicles of Buddhism in any other terms other than those traditions use for themselves.

I do find it strange and odd that some Mahayanist traditions consistently have to construct their dialog based upon a fictitious conflict between Theravadan (Hinayana) Buddhism and themselves.  I believe the source of the conflict began with the Mahayanist name for themselves, which means the 'Greater,' 'superior' or 'Big' Vehicle, and they consistently refuse to use the word Theravadans use for themselves.  Instead they use a derogatory term for Theravadan Buddhism which means the 'lesser,' 'inferior' or 'little' vehicle (Hinayana). 

The ironies in this whole imagined conflict are: First Theravadans do not seem to recognize that there is a conflict; Secondly, they seem to have no interest in a conflict or sectarianism within Buddhism; Third, I have never heard a Theravadan monk speak of such a conflict; Fourth, I have never heard a Theravadan monk disparage or speak ill of a Mahayanists in any way; Fifth, Buddhism is a contemplative tradition in which less is more, so any tradition that is based upon "mine is bigger than yours" has to be so fundamentally misinformed about the essential nature of Buddhism as to be laughably confused.  If it is an essential teaching to not create division or mistrust within the Dhamma, then why do Mahayanists construct a rhetoric of division as the basis of their theology?

In the case of the Thirty Seven Bodhisattva Practices, a Mahayanist liturgy, the thirty-second practice states "If, influenced by disturbing emotions, one points out another Bodhisattva's faults, oneself is diminished.  Therefore, not speaking about the faults of those who have entered the Great Vehicle is the Bodhisattva's practice."  Since the "Great Vehicle," which means Mahayana, is used in this line does this mean that it is OK for a Mahayanist practitioner to speak ill of the other two vehicles?

How is it that referring to Theravadan Buddhism as the "Lesser Vehicle" is not pejorative?  At least when a racist refers to an African American by using the Anglicized Spanish word for 'black' it is only the pejorative tone and reference to slavery that is offensive, but by referring to Theravadans as the "Lesser Vehicle" (Hinayana), it is obvious and offensive.  So, why do it?

I think Tibetan priests and monks, who resort to the pejorative use of the term 'Hinayana' have spent too much time in isolation in the Himalayas.  There perhaps the use of the Hinayana construct to build a platform of faith in Vajrayana's "superiority" from which to teach was no doubt used for a simple hill-people, who might have felt a bit insecure compared to the peoples of lowland origins of Buddhism. I do not believe, however, that this rhetorical device any longer serves the greater good.

While Tibet is a landlocked and primitive nation it is one thing to present one's teachings as superior to all other teachings when one is teaching to isolated hill people who do not have the choice to leave their province.  But, these days we have Buddhist teachers from all four Vehicles of Buddhism passing through our towns and cities on a regular basis, even to remote outposts.  And, to expect us to reject the teachings from previous teachers is too much to expect.

Each time I confront these naive Tibetan priests and monks on their disrespectful and provincial attitudes toward other Buddhist traditions, especially Theravadan Buddhism, someone in the audience comes up to me afterwards and says, "I am so glad you brought that up, because I have been (or was) a Vipassana or Zen practitioner for (x) years, and I have been afraid to even mention it in this sangha (organization) for fear of being completely dismissed. And, I really resent having the work on myself of so many years dismissed."

Since few Buddhist communities in the USA are homogeneous, as they are often in Asia; and many Western Buddhists don't often have resident teachers, causing many of use to be somewhat eclectic, then my recommendation to dharma teachers, priests and monastics within Buddhism is to avoid ever speaking ill of any other tradition of Buddhism, and to avoid at all possible using the term "Hinayana."  That way one will avoid offending Theravadans who might be in one's audience, and thus lose their respect and attention.

It must be understood that using the term 'Hinayana' is clearly an example of wrong speech, which violates both the precepts and Noble Eightfold Path, which are the core of Buddhist principles.  Therefore I could not ever take refuge, let alone ordination, from any monk who does not observe the Noble Eightfold Path and basic precepts.  Taking refuge from a person who resorts to defaming other traditions of Buddhism, by calling them inferior or lesser (Hinayana), would of course be meaningless.

Secondly, since I have been practicing within a context of Theravadan Buddhism for almost 30 years, when a Buddhist monk or priest who uses a pejorative term, such as 'Hinayana' for my tradition, as well as to speak of his own tradition as "superior," would only cause me to conclude one thing from this otherwise fine dharma teacher, and that is that my practice is being disrespected.  Therefore why would I want to take refuge or ordination from such a person?

Thirdly, Buddhism is a tradition that is based upon cessation through relinquishment.  Therefore, the adherents are supposed to be intent upon effacement through reflection upon anatta, which means "no-self identification," because they seek cessation (nibbana).  Therefore, anyone who presumes to teach the dhamma should know not to places him or herself, or their tradition, above any other tradition.  Such actions and speech would imply superiority, and therefore any Buddhist monastic or priest who resorts to using the pejorative term 'Hinayana' must be so misinformed about the central principles of Buddhism as to be considered less than a novice in that religion or tradition.

In conclusion as we unpack Buddhism for ourselves as western people who are embracing a foreign religion we must be willing to scrape beneath the surface of Buddhism if we are to move beyond the nave phase of faith to actual insight and attainment.  So, I hope the members of the Great Western Vehicle never resort to using the term 'Hinayana' except to reflect upon its obvious racial and religious stereotyping.

I can only hope that I have been of some small benefit to you and others.  I seek not to cause harm, but only to benefit all beings with every thought word and action.  And, if I have inadvertently caused harm, then I only seek your forgiveness and the forgiveness of the others I may have harmed.

May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda  (Jeffrey S. Brooks):

This article may be retrieved at this URL:

http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/hinayanvsmahayana.htm


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