Hīnayāna (Chinese: 小乘 Xiǎochèng; Korean: 소승 Soseung; Japanese: Shōjō; Vietnamese: Tiểu thừa, Tibetan: theg chung, Mongolian: бага хөлгөн, baga kölgen) is a Sanskrit and Pali term literally meaning, "the low vehicle," "the inferior vehicle," or "the deficient vehicle," where "vehicle" (yāna) means "a way of going to enlightenment." It is a polemical term coined by Mahāyāna Buddhists to denigrate their opponents. The term appeared around the first or second century C.E. Its use in scholarly publications is controversial. There are differing views on the use and meaning of the term, both among scholars and within Buddhism.
The legitimacy of using the term Hinayana to refer to the early Buddhist schools, including the contemporary Theravada, is disputed. In the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese languages, the term is not pejorative (小 meaning "small," 乘 meaning "vehicle"), and in the Tibetan language (theg chung) the word is only slightly pejorative (chung meaning "small" or "lesser")
Some writers prefer to use the more respectful term "Theravada" rather than Hinayana because it has no pejorative connotations. However, this term is also problematic as a substitute for Hinayana because it is not historically accurate to denote all the groups that were once labeled as Hinayana. Nevertheless, the term Hinayana is generally avoided today in quality scholarship on Buddhism.
Hīnayāna is used by Mahayanists as a name to refer variously to one or more doctrines, traditions, practitioners, or thoughts that are generally concerned with the achievement of Nirvana as an Arahant or a Pratyeka-Buddha, as opposed to the achievement of liberation as a Samyaksambuddha, wherein the Samyaksambuddha (according to Mahayana lore) is deemed to operate from a basis of vowing to effect the spiritual liberation of all beings and creatures from the suffering of samsara (not just himself/herself or a small number of others). Hīnayāna is sometimes said to be corresponding solely to the Early Buddhist Schools, and not to the current Theravada school, while sometimes it is held to be also cognate with the modern Theravada tradition. Many hold that the term was coined to be purposely pejorative, while others do not.
Within Buddhism, the differing interpretations of Hīnayāna have consequences that are sometimes quite far-reaching. It is primarily the interpretation of Hīnayāna as a tradition that has led to the most concern, especially as many people have seen the term as a slur against Pre-sectarian Buddhism, Theravada and the other Early Buddhist schools (the Nikaya Buddhism–schools). These schools solely follow the sutras that are included in the Pali Canon, and which are aimed at helping to achieve the extinction of suffering, as attained by the Arahants.
It appears that the distinction between vehicles and paths arises in early Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, where it is stated that there is one path—the path to Nirvana—but there are different vehicles. The vehicles are described (by Mahayana) as representing the fruit of the two types of Buddha found in the Pali Canon, plus the path of the Arahants.
For instance, in Chapter three of the Lotus Sutra, there is a parable of a father promising three carts to lure sons out of a burning building, where the goat-cart represents the Sravaka-vehicle; the deer-cart, Pratyeka-Buddhahood; and the bullock-cart, Samyaksambuddha-hood. According to early Mahayana (as found in the Lotus sutra), it is the vehicles that are taught as a method for journeying on the path to enlightenment. It is here that we can see the basis for term being used to indicate differences of doctrine. The Lotus Sutra declares that the bullock-cart is "supremely restful," implying that the goat-cart and the deer-cart are inferior to the bullock-cart. This is where we begin to see the terminological origins for the term Hīnayāna: The Sravakayana and the Pratyekabuddhayana as vehicles inferior to the superior bullock-cart of the Mahayana.
The Dharmakshema Mahaparinirvana Sutra also speaks of the inferior nature of the Hinayana when compared to the higher level of the Mahayana.
The term first appeared in the Mahayana Prajñāpāramitā literature. Possibly the earliest instance appears in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines (Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra), believed by scholars to have been composed some time between the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. Chapter 11 ("Mara's Deeds") depicts a conversation between Buddha and the Bodhisattva Subhuti, where in Buddha admonishes those Bodhisattvas who disavow this sutra in favor of certain unnamed Buddhist sutras.
Mahāyāna Buddhists sometimes refer to all forms of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, past and present, including the Theravāda school, as members of the Hīnayāna grouping. This term relates to those Buddhists who were deemed by Mahayanists to have rather narrow aspirations: Instead of vowing (as the Mahayanists ideally did) to strive for the liberation both of themselves and all other sentient beings from samsara, the "Hinayanists" were viewed as being excessively concerned with their own individual release into Nirvana. The term, "Hinayana," is now widely regarded as unhappily derogatory and inaccurate (at least in reference to the Theravada, but also to the other, already non-existent, schools).
In the Mahayana tradition (in certain sutras) the label Hinayana is used by the Buddha himself (for example, in the Lotus Sutra). The label of Hinayana also does accurately label a polemical category that existed in the minds of Mahāyāna Buddhists. Some of the alternatives which were coined in order to find a less denigratory label have difficulties. Among the terms that have been used as substitutes for "Hīnayāna" are the following:
There remains an open and active debate regarding the issue of whether Hīnayāna was coined to be pejorative or merely classificatory. The arguments for the term as being pejorative largely depends upon the etymological roots of the prefix 'Hīna': Hīna- is defined as such: "Inferior, less, low, base, mean, incomplete, deficient, wanting and so on." Since the meaning of "hina" covers both a pejorative and non-pejorative meaning, it is difficult to come to a definite conclusion. The term could have been chosen because it provided both meanings.
Those who assert the idea of Hinayana as a pejorative logically also are among those who subscribe the idea of an early (historical) Mahayana schism, and who believe that there was a history of polemics between the early Mahayana and other early Buddhist schools. An argument used by those who consider Hinayana to be pejorative is based on the fact that if the term was to mean only "Small or Lesser vehicle," then the term chosen would have been, "Culla" or in Sanskrit "Ksulla-ksudra" giving Ksudrayana—though "ksudra" has also had a history of being used in a somewhat pejorative manner.
Those who assert that the term was coined in a merely classificatory manner (denying the histrical Mahayana schism and a history of polemics) believe that the usage of "hīna-" as a prefix represents those "inferior" because they do not lead to the attainment of full Buddhahood.
They point out that we can find Mahayana Sutras and traditions that repeatedly admonish the trainee Bodhisattva not to criticise any of the Buddhist schools. The mere fact that there is such a strong admonishment against criticising the Hinayana indicates that is was either a common attitude, or that there was a degree of defensiveness within Mahayana regarding this issue. By the 3rd Century CE, in the ethics chapter of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi, we find an explicit injunction not to criticise or reject the Hīnayāna texts or traditions, where Trainee Bodhisattvas are instructed not to "disparage the Hīnayāna, or over-encourage others to learn Mahayana." Candragomin wrote a very influential twenty verse summary of Asanga's Ethics, written or summarised as a set of vows to be taken by a trainee Bodhisattve. The 15th Verse (derived from Asanga's chapter on ethics) cites "rejecting the Sravakayana" as a root downfall. Candragomin's vows were adopted by the Indo-Tibetan Mahayana tradition via Atisha, and are still used today by the Gelugpa and Kagyupa schools.
In the early centuries C.E., the Mahayana tradition was making efforts not to criticize or condemn the Hīnayāna vehicles:
Lotus Sutra (Ch.14): "A bodhisattva […] does not hold other Buddhists in contempt, not even those who follow the Hinayana path, nor does he cause them to have doubts or regrets by criticizing their way of practice or making discouraging remarks."
However, the Buddha also emphasises that the Bodhisattva should only preach the Mahayana in response to queries, not the Hinayana:
"If there are objections or queries, one is not to answer them by resort to the Dharma of the Lesser Vehicle [Hinayana], but one is to explain only in terms of the Greater Vehicle [Mahayana], causing persons to gain knowledge of all modes"
The 18,000 verse perfection of wisdom sutra (an early Madhyamaka Mahayana sutra) indicates a progression of training and an all-embracing approach: Bodhisattvas should practice all paths—whatever is a path of a sravaka, a pratyeka or a Buddha—and should know all paths.
However, it should be noted that the form given in the recently published Sanskrit edition of the Vimalakirti Sutra (Institute for Compreghensive Studies of Buddhism Taisho University 2004) is different. It merely has namaḥ sarva-buddha-bodhisattvebhyaḥ, with no reference to anybody else. The salutation, as given above, derives from the Tibetan translation. Furthermore, it is not found in any of the three Chinese translations.
All links retrieved December 24, 2017.
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