I have been thinking lately about the words Mahayana and Hinayana. I was doing some research for one of my blogs when I read that many people object to the term Hinayana and don't feel it is appropriate to apply it to the Theravada school. They think it is a demeaning term and not just a historical demarcation between schools, a very understandable point of view.
As a historical demarcation we only have the Theravada school existing today as an example of a Hinayana school though I understand that until the fall of Buddhism in India there were many different Hinayana schools. There are significant differences between Theravada Buddhism and the Mahayana schools of Buddhism but there are also significant differences between the many schools of the Mahayana. Theravada Buddhism is undeniably closer to the Buddhism that the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, taught then any of the Mahayana schools. Their primary literature is the Palli Cannon written in the language that the Buddha spoke and probably very close to the very words the he spoke. This purity is undeniably one of the attractions of the Theravada school and the Western derivative, the Vipassina school. I know, many Western Vipassina practitioners would call themselves Theravada Buddhists but there are enough differences, mostly cultural, between the way it is practiced in the Asia and the way it is practiced in the West that they really are different schools. One example is the large number of lay practitioners in the West, many who are woman including many woman teachers. And then much of the religious formality has been stripped out of the Western Vipassina practice. The same could be said about Western Zen.
One of the most interesting aspects of the American Vipassina School is that many of the teachers are also psychologists and there is now a movement in psychology based around Mindfulness Meditation. I also know of many psychologists practicing Zen and it is probably also true of the other schools of Buddhism in the West. It is only natural seeing that Buddha emphasized happiness and pointed a way towards happiness and therapeutic psychology is also about making people happy. The early teachings of the Buddha, the Four Fold Truths and the Eight Fold Path emphasize the personal search for happiness and individual salvation. This is why it is called the small or individual vehicle, Hinayana. One may think that the term Hinayana is disparaging but it is an accurate descriptor. This emphasis on the individual runs throughout the so called Hinayana schools. The great thinkers of these schools focused on individual psychology and the psychology of meditation and produced a great body of literature called the Abhidhamma, which is worth some study. Even the large number of vows that a Theravada monk takes points to this individual emphasis. To disparage this approach would be to disparage the teachings of Shakyamuni. The so called Hinayana approach is an important leg upon which the Dharma stands.
At some point some people thought that this individual emphasis had some problems, that this individual approach was not enough. They viewed Buddhism from a more philosophic (maybe ontological is a better word) and a more cosmic perspective. From their concerns grew a whole new body of Buddhist literature the Mahayana Sutras. Though it is most likely that Shakyamuni Buddha did not speak the Mahayana Sutras we can see the roots of the Mahayana in his original teachings. These are: One, the Non-Atman doctrine that we humans have no soul which transmigrates from body to body, or gives us special status as a special creation. Two, that all things, including humans, result from causes and conditions ( an early idea of causation). Three, that everything is in a process of constant change. One can see the whole Mahayana as an elaboration of these three original teachings. And because these are part of the original teachings they also are part of Theravada Buddhism, just not emphasized like in the Mahayana, And of course the Mahayana does not ignore the original teachings of the Four Fold Truths and the Eight Fold Path so really the Mahayana and Hinayana result from differing emphasis but contain each other.
In my reading I came upon a teaching from a Tibetan teacher that we should not classify different schools of Buddhism as necessarily Hinayana or Mahayana but should understand that it is the individual's approach to Buddhist practice that is either Hinayana or Mahayana. Within a Mahayana school one can practice with a Hinayana attitude and within Theravada Buddhism one can also practice with a Mahayana attitude. Now I am getting close to the point I want to make but first let me tell one of the classic Zen stories.
The 5th Patriarch of the Zen school in China wanted to appoint a successor. He asked his students to submit poems showing their understanding so that he could choose one of his students. Shen Xui the head monk submitted this:
The body is the Bodhi Tree
The mind a mirror bright
Diligently polish the mirror
Don't let the dust alight
Hiu Neng the future sixth patriarch submitted this:
There is no Bodhi Tree
Nor is their a mirror bright
Not a thing exists
Where can dust alight?
The understanding reflected in these two poems is vastly different. Shen Shui's poem is about the individual practice of meditation and mindfulness. As the fifth Patriarch noted, if you successfully practice this way you will ward off suffering. But Shen Sui did not become the sixth Patriarch because he had not gone beyond a Hinayana point of view. He still only saw things from his own individual perspective. Hui Neng did receive the robe and bowl as the Sixth Patriarch because he had a deeper understanding which transcended the individual perspective. In his poem he expresses a perspective in which not a thing exists. In the Mahayana we say this is the perspective of emptiness which is nothing other then the perspective expressed by the Buddha's three teachings of non-Atman, causation, and impermanence. And with the last line of this poem "where can the dust alight? ", he is saying that this perspective is where suffering ends, that in some sense it never existed, and if we understand this we can't be touched by suffering. Hui Neng's perspective was from the other side of the river, enlightenment This is the Mahayana perspective.
Now it may seem that that I am touting the superiority of the Mahayana but what I am trying to say is that whether you practice in the Theravada tradition or one of the Mahayana traditions it is important that you don't get caught in an individual perspective, a Hinayana perspective, but rather see beyond our individual perspective with at least a little bit of a Mahayana perspective. What I mean by a little bit of Mahayana perspective is to take seriously those three teachings of the Buddha, non-Atman, causation, impermanence, and try to understand their implications. Ask the questions: What do these three teachings mean for my understanding of my self? What do these three teachings mean for my understanding of reincarnation? What do these three teachings mean for my understanding of free-will? What do these three teachings mean for my place as an individual in the greater Universe? What do these three teachings mean for the Dharma's place in the Universe? What perspective do these three teachings give us on the nature of the Universe? How does this understanding effect practice? With a careful examination of these questions maybe we can take ourselves a bit out of the individual Hinayana perspective and give ourselves something of a cosmic perspective.
The motivation for writing this blog is my experience that many people come to Buddhism with a personal obsession over their own suffering. This is perfectly understandable for those who experience deep psychological suffering and many of us do. They think practicing Buddhism will relieve their suffering and it does to some extent but then after years of practice most people discover that for them Buddhism is not a miracle cure When I ask myself how they can be more successful in their practice I think they some how need to have more of a Mahayana perspective. Somehow they need to step over the seemingly impenetrable barrier of self.
Many people think that the Mahayana is all about the Bodhisattva Ideal of the individual who dedicates him/her self to helping others overcome suffering. The Bodhisattva Ideal is important. It helps us overcome the self through dedication to others but if one does not see beyond the individual perspective it can also create deep suffering as the suffering of others, through compassion and empathy becomes our own suffering. We are still caught in an individual perspective. More important then the individual version of the Bodhisattva Ideal is the cosmic perspective of the Mahayana. This cosmic perspective can take many forms which depends on the insight and experience of the individual but has to begin with a certain faith. What is this faith? It is a faith in the teachings and more then a faith in the teachings it is a faith in the Universe. It is a faith that the Universe is manifesting in a way it must with a certain perfection. It is the faith that though we humans are just small ephemeral beings we are part of and take part in this great perfect Universe.
It is difficult for us humans to see this perfection of which I write. We see only a small slice of time and our concerns are based around human wants and desires. We see lots of things that seem very bad. This is how our small human perspective sees the world. There is a larger perspective. In the Pure Land sects of Buddhism there is a faith in the vow of the cosmic Bodhisattva Amitaba to save all sentient beings. This is a personification of the the type of faith I am writing about. Amitaba represents the Universe and a recognizable compassion that exists within the Universe. This compassion manifests through friend and family, strangers, the society, and the events that teach us the lessons we need to learn. It manifests through our own individual Bodhisattva practice. It manifests through the very nature of life. It manifests through the very nature of the Universe. Like a growing child this perfection is an evolving ever changing perfection. Now I am going to say something that is very out there. Human suffering is part of this perfection. We might say it is the price of our human consciousness, the price of our potential to manifest as Bodhisattvas and Buddhas.
In our secular society many of us have faith only in our selves in our own intelligence in our own desires. Many of us come to Buddhist practice with only this faith because Buddhism seems like the one truly rational religion. But we human beings are not perfect, not fully rational, certainly not smart enough to figure it all out A long time ago it was recognized that faith in just ourselves was not enough and the various religious traditions filled this gap. Religion gave us a sort of cosmic perspective which soothed our suffering and fears especially our fear of death, But, in today's world with the explosion of science based knowledge it becomes more and more difficult to have faith in these old religious traditions and so Buddhism presents itself on a rational foundation, without a faith in any Gods, with the personal psychological discipline of meditation, and is very attractive. Buddhism appears as a sort of secular religion but still it asks for faith because in the cosmic perspective of the Mahayana it is trans-rational, and trans-individual. Initially only faith has the power to help us let go of our individual perspective, our individual worries and concerns and especially our fear of death. Eventually this faith may become something more, through experience transformed into wisdom.