BuddhaSasana Home Page
English Section

Mahayana and Hinayana

Ven. Abhinyana

TWO WORDS -- Mahayana and Hinayana -- cause much confusion among Buddhists, I would like to offer a different way of looking at them. They concern the Buddhist approach to life.

Mahayana literally means "Great Vehicle" (of Liberation from Samsara, or the "Wheel of Change"), somewhat like a jumbo-jet, that carries many people. Hinayana is a derogatory term meaning "Small Vehicle" or "Inferior Vehicle" (like a skateboard, which carries only one), used by people who claim to follow the "Mahayana" to refer to followers of the Theravada school or "Way of the Elders", as if they themselves have already passed that stage. They say "Hinayanists" are selfish, thinking only of their own salvation, instead of -- like them -- the salvation of "all beings". There is tremendous egoism underlying this claim, and we can be sure than anyone making it has not understood much at all! Actually, the word "Hinayana" is a misnomer and should not be used to refer to people at all, for both "Mahayana" and "Hinayana", as I will show, are not schools of Buddhism, but attitudes of mind.

Nowadays, Buddhism is little more than a thing of tradition in most parts of Asia, and "Mahayana" has degenerated into a system of worship and prayer to numerous Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that hope, fear and superstition have populated the cosmos with. Ignorant of the Buddha's Teachings about Karma and the importance of developing spiritual self-reliance, people weak-mindedly turn for help and salvation to celestial beings. They imagine Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as remote from them -- somewhere in the sky, perhaps -- similar to the deities of other religions. And so, they miss the whole point of the Buddha"s parting injunction: "Work out your own salvation with diligence". Enlightenment is an intimate inner experience, not something that comes to us from outside.

All Buddhists -- regardless of the sect or school they might follow -- acknowledge the Bodhisattva-ideal as being the highest path, as it is the way of the aspirant to Buddhahood. Upon reaching his goal and becoming a Buddha, he then has the capacity to help others become Enlightened (not to forgive their sins and save them, but more in the sense of a school-teacher instructing his pupils and helping them wherever possible, so they might pass the exams and graduate; he can't pass the exams for them). Reaching Enlightenment he is a Bodhisattva no more, but a fully-fledged Buddha. While he is a Bodhisattva, as in the case of Prince Siddhartha until he was 35 years old, he is not yet fully-enlightened; indeed, he doesn't even know that he is a Bodhisattva. An Arahant is someone who, by following the Dharma of a Buddha, reaches Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment he reaches is the same as that of a Buddha (it being unconditioned and without grades or divisions). He, too, may assist others, but his capacity to do so is less than that of a Buddha. A Buddha is an Arahant, too, but an Arahant is not a Buddha, just as every doctor is a man (or woman, of course), but not every man or woman is a doctor. Both Buddha and Arahant are free from the chains of Samsara (phenomenal existence); they no longer have a sense of separateness and selfishness. (All this, of course, is from the scriptures, and not from my own experience).

Far from being a way of petition and prayer for help from superior or celestial beings, Mahayana is a way of tremendous effort. A person on that Way does not pray to the Buddha or Bodhisattvas, but, by using the Dharma, strives to become a Bodhisattva himself. He does so, not by rejecting the world, but by understanding that he is the world, and that he does not -- cannot live by and for himself alone. Self-interest and fear for self decrease in direct proportion as to how much he sees himself as others, just as a sense of separateness and ego increase the fear for, and pain of, the self.

As an illustration, let us say that there are three kinds of people in the world: (1) Blind people; (2) Selfish people; and (3) Selfless people. Blind people -- spiritually blind, that is -- wander aimlessly through life, knowing and caring nothing about Dharma, infatuated with themselves, but acting in ways that are inimical to themselves and that only result in suffering; they think they love themselves, but actually they don't. They are not bad, or selfish, but foolish; selfishness is something above and beyond them, because selfish people know how to take care of themselves, at least, while blind and foolish people do not, and only hurt themselves. There are so many blind people in the world; the world is sinking beneath their weight. If they woke up, they would change their ways.

Selfish people have seen something of Dharma, and try to live by it, but their insight is not deep, and they are motivated by self-interest. Though they would try not to hurt anyone, and do what is right and good, it is either out of fear of suffering or from desire for gain materially and/or spiritually. But if the world had more people of this kind, it would be a much better place, for real selfish people do not kill, steal, lie, cheat, start and perpetuate wars, etc.; it is the foolish people who do such things. Abstention from doing evil, and the goodness of selfish people, though motivated by thoughts of self, benefits the world in many ways, and keeps it afloat. Like the bud of a flower, however, goodness at this level is not full or complete, but it is a necessary stage of the Path; we must begin with self in order to understand and go beyond it.

Of course, selfishness here is not as generally understood, as something negative and anti-social; not at all! This kind of selfishness recognizes others and feels for them, even though it puts itself first. It may be called the Hinayana stage, and it shouldn't be looked down upon, but respected and praised, as it is already a high level. Often, we find that people claiming to be Mahayanists, and who look down on others they consider Hinayanists, have got little more than silly and empty names.

Going beyond self, to the third stage -- that of Mahayana -- is accomplished through seeing, clearly, that we do not live alone, by and for ourselves. Life is a Whole, with many parts, like a multi-faceted diamond; we are not separate and alone, but inter-exist with everything that is. And whereas, before, we were motivated by thoughts of self -- fear of suffering, old age, sickness, death, of not attaining Enlightenment, and of therefore remaining in Samsara indefinitely -- now, through insight, we have power over the vicissitudes of life. We see that most of our suffering comes from ignorance and stupidity, and so can be avoided -- a discovery of tremendous importance! Instead of looking for the causes of our problems outside ourselves, we find them inside! It is then within our capacity to communicate this to others who might be ready for it, to shout it from the rooftops, to proclaim to others that the only chains that bind us are of our own forging. This -- and not a Buddhist sect or thinking with a separatist mind is Mahayana; it is the essence of Enlightenment, and available to all.

We can follow the Mahayana, but nobody with any modesty would say that he does so; indeed, he would probably not be aware of it, and might even deny it! There are no outward signs by which a Bodhisattva might be recognized; certainly, he would not float around on a lotus-flower, as depicted in popular but misleading Buddhist art. And if a Bodhisattva can help someone, he will help; it is not necessary to pray to him, but only necessary to put oneself in a position where one can be helped by first helping others. If one does not prepare oneself in this way, one will have no basis for receiving help from others. We must first give out before we can receive, sow the seeds before reaping the harvest.

Conclusion: Mahayana and Hinayana are attitudes of mind or levels of consciousness, not sects or schools of Buddhism./.


Source: "Against the Stream",  https://members.tripod.com/anatta0/

[Back to English Index]