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Hinayana, Mahayana, Theravada – the old chestnut

Every now and again a discussion boils up on Internet fora, the gist of which is that it is unfair to say that Theravada followers are narrow, uncompassionate followers of the hinayana.

Indeed it is unfair, but the confusion is slow to go away.

The problem may well go back to late 19th and early 20th century reports of Buddhism, in which it is suggested that since the “northern” schools describe themselves as followers of the mahayana (the “great way”), the “southern” schools, it seemed by logical extension, must be hinayana (“lesser” or “narrow way”) schools. Not so.

First, the three key terms:

  • Mahayana, literally the “great vehicle”. But the term is applied in two quite different ways

to refer to those various and varied schools found in Tibet, China, Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia who accept the validity of the mahayana scriptures. They rather pinned the flag of mahayana to their mast.

to refer to a “higher” segment of the teachings and practices taught by those schools.

  • Hinayana, the “lesser vehicle” refers to a lower segment of the teachings and practices taught by the schools mentioned above.
  • Theravada, unlike the first two, is actually the name of a school rather than a general description. It means “Way of the Elders”, it is practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and a number of other south-east Asian countries. It did not and does not accept the validity of the mahayana sutras.

Let’s get this out of the way: it does seem to be true that some followers of the great vehicle accused rival schools, schools who did not accept the validity of the mahayana sutras, of being “hinayanists”, and they meant this harshly. That was unfair and unpleasant, and should be left back in the history where it belongs.

Technically one of the key differences between the hinayana and the mahayana is said to be that followers of the lesser way are primarily or exclusively interested in their own liberation, whereas followers of the great way are motivated by compassion. It is thought that this narrow vehicle is a good thing, but a limited thing, and that people must grow beyond it sooner or later. These are differences in the way people can approach the path. They are not distinctions between schools.

This whole business is one byproduct of the Buddhist love of classification: the lesser vehicle is also divided into the hearers’ vehicle and the silent buddhas’ vehicle, the great vehicle is divided into the vehicle of the perfections and the vajra-vehicle. The lesser vehicle and the vehicle of the perfections are then lumped together as the sutra-vehicle, and so on. Believe me, it gets a lot more complicated than that!

On the logical level, the mistake is to think that because the Theravada does not accept the mahayana sutras it must be a hinayana school. This is like saying that because Microsoft Windows makes use of, yes, windows, Apple operating systems do not make use of windows. Clearly not true.

Anybody who says that the Theravada schools only teach and follow the hinayana – and I will grant that there are such people around, some of whom should know better – is quite simply wrong. The hinayana/mahayana distinction is largely irrelevant to Theravada teachings, which may perfectly well encourage and rejoice in the development of compassion.

In summary:

  • Theravada is a school, a group of identifiable institutions and people.
  • Mahayana, the great vehicle, is either a vague term labelling a number of other schools, or a relatively precise term for a particular part of the teachings of this second bunch of schools, where it is a path that looks for the liberation of all beings.
  • Hinayana, the lesser vehicle, does not label a school or group of identifiable people at all. It refers to the path of renunciation and to an attitude that looks only for one’s own liberation. It does not refer to the Theravada schools and their followers, and should not be used as such.