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Mahayana, Hinayana, Theravada

The issue of naming "Mahayana-Hinayana-Theravada", Big and Small Vehicles, always appears in Buddhist discussion forum.

I found the recent message posted on the alt.religion.buddhism.theravada newsgroup quite insightful and repost herewith for your information.

Binh Anson
November 1998

Author: Kaare Albert Lie
Email: alberlie@online.no
Date: 1998/11/09
Forums: alt.religion.buddhism.theravada

On Sun, 8 Nov 1998, Maurice George, mauriceg@mauriceg.demon.co.uk , wrote:

(...) Having recently read the 'Lotus Sutra' for the first time, I was struck by the number of apparently anti-Hinayana messages in the text. Am I right in supposing that the Hinayana is still alive and well in Theravada areas of the Dharma ?

Reply by Kare A. Lie, alberlie@online.no :

Sorry. You are wrong.

Hinayana is an echo of a debate long dead, and the word should not be used about any Buddhist tradition - living or extinct. It is a most derogatory term. It does not simply mean "Lesser vehicle" as one often can see stated. It is worse than that. The second element of Hiina-yaana - that is yaana - means vehicle, OK. But Hiina very seldom has the simple meaning of 'lesser' or 'small'. If that had been the case, the Pali (or Sanskrit) texts would have used it as an opposite of Maha - big. But they don't. The opposite of Maha is Cuu.la, so this is the normal word for 'small'. How then is 'Hiina' used? It signifies bad quality, and is found in quality gradations as "Hiina - Majjhima - Pa.niita" - that is: bad - medium - good. Hiina also means despicable, etc.

Hinayana thus means 'The despicable vehicle', and has approximately the same value as calling an afro-american person a 'nigger' (according to an American person - as for myself, I am no American, so my sensibilities on this matter may be wrong).

No sane Buddhist would profess following 'a despicable vehicle', and no polite Buddhist would say that a fellow Buddhist is doing so.

The term Hinayana is an echo of a debate long dead - or rather a debate where one of the debaters is dead and the other one is shouting to the winds. To make a long story short: When Mahayana developed, the adherents of the older schools criticized the Mahayanists, especially for creating new sutras. The Mahayanists on the other side reacted to that critique by accusing their opponents of not quite understanding the teaching of the Buddha. The debate got heated, and accusations flowed from both sides. Then some brilliant person at the Mahayana side of the debate created the word pair Mahayana/Hinayana, and it stuck. Hinayana became an excellent insult - with a simplicity and a parallellity to Mahayana that any fool could grasp (and still do).

So who were the opponents who were labeled Hinayana? Theravada? Probably not. At the time when Mahayana was created, Theravada had already 'emigrated' to Sri Lanka, and could hardly be counted among the dominating schools on the Indian mainland - where most of the Mahayana/Hinayana debate took place. The most influential of the old schools at that time, was Sarvastivada, so they were the most probable - but hardly the only - targets for the 'Hinayana'-invectives.

Now the Sarvastivada school is long dead, but the debate and the arguments found their way into the Mahayana sutras, as is apparent from the anti-Hinayana messages you found in the Lotus sutra.

But since the obsolete term Hinayana was deposited in the Mahayana sutras, the Mahayanists seem to feel obliged to use it. I have seen them use it in two ways.

One of these is that they mistakenly think that Theravada - as the only of the old schools that still exist - is equal to Hinayana. This can be found in quite recent Mahayana literature.

The other is that the term Hinayana is reinterpreted in a most unhistorical way. Some say that it means a certain stage in the path of training, a stage to be respected, but also to be transcended. This is a highly unhistorical interpretation, but by using the term Hinayana in this way, Mahayanists in fact make Hinayana a part of Mahayana. How anyone can assert that 'a despicable vehicle' forms a part of their own training, is beyond me ... but I will leave it to those who so assert.

Theravada is alive and well. Hinayana belongs to an old and long dead debate that ought to be buried and forgotten a long time ago. (...)

Kare A. Lie, alberlie@online.no

(See also Kare Lie's full article at: http://home.sol.no/~karlie/hinayan1.htm
and also "The myth of Hinayana")

Other misconceptions:

Below are some other common misconceptions which need clarification, edited from a thread of discussion in the dhamma-list@quantrum.com.my mailing list in August 1999.

1.   Buddhism is divided, mainly, in Hinayana (literally, the  "inferior vehicle ") and Mahayana (the "great vehicle"). Vajrayana  (the "diamond   vehicle") is a subsequent unfolding of Mahayana and appeared  together with the development of Tantra. Buddhism in Tibet, in reality, is a combination of the three vehicles...  The Hinayana way, also called Theravadin or "the path of the elders", is a continuation of Primitive Buddhism. It emphasizes renunciation, ascetic purity and meditation on awareness. Its central concept is "impermanence".

-- "Literally", Hinayana means "small or mean vehicle" and consequently there  is no school that accept that. There are here vestiges of regional disputes coming from the beginning of the millenium (even before year 0), that unfortunately remains till today due to ignorance and  geographical distance. Hinayana was the name given by some within the Mahayana movement to designate some schools that preceded them.

After the 2nd council (around 100 years after Buddha's demise), the original monastic Sangha underwent a process of successive division till it was split in around 18 different schools. They spread as much in doctrine as geographically, till, centuries later, a new doctrinal approach started to arise. Unfortunately, some people more enthusiastic within this new approach started to denigrate everything that have preceded them as being inferior while, at the same time self-applauding themselves. It's not the occasion here to consider how far they were right or wrong in their criticisms, however, the fact is that the Theravada, one of the 18 ancient schools wasn't even significantly present in the region where those enthusiastic followers started to compare themselves with others (we should remember that maana  -comparison with other - is one of the samyojanas that bind people to the samsara). Theravada was already established in Sri Lanka, while only in mainlaind India, schools like the Sarvastivada were the target of Mahayana attacks. Therefore to call Theravada as Hinayana is not only depreciative, but also historical ignorant.

It should be clear that technically neither mahayana nor vajrayana are "schools", in the same sense that Theravada is a school. You can't compare them. As their names tell, they are yaanas and not vaadas, that is, they are vehicles, or as I rather would call them, they are "movements", independent of such and such "school". One can attend UCLA and be communist and another can attend New York University and be fascist. School are something different than philosophical affiliation. Zen, Gelug, Nyingma, Pure Land are schools, and within them we can find many hinayanists, mahayanically speaking. Besides, "impermanence" (anicca) is not a central concept of Theravada, but of all Buddhist schools.

2. The spiritual ideal of Hinayana is to reach liberation for oneself. It is exemplified in the Arahat figure, that attains the tranquility of nirvana and does not come anymore to the realm of birth and death, however it is not the complete Buddhahood but rather a state of saintity.

-- Well, this is somehow funny to hear. The basic teaching of Theravada and of the attainment of arahathood is anatta (no-self). No-self means exactly that there is no absolute distinction between "me" and "other". Then, someone comes and says that the arahant search for liberation for himself! So he finds no-self being very clear about his self! In reality, there is a large quantity of words whose original meaning were changed by the Mahayana schools. Words like arahant, buddha, bodhisattva, nibbaana (skr. nirvaa.na) have not the same technical meaning in the ancient schools (and therefore in the original Canon) as they have in mahayana works. That is a source of endless misunderstanding between the two, Mahayana and Theravada.

(Ricardo Sasaki, rsasaki@letterbox.com , 19-20 Aug 1999)

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