From New World Encyclopedia

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.[1] The term appeared around the first or second century C.E. Its use in scholarly publications is controversial.[2] 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.[3] 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")[4]

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.

  • Hīnayāna as doctrine would (from a Mahayana perspective) include the Sutras taught by Buddha that admonish the practitioner to follow the Sravaka path or strive for Paccekabuddhahood. In such teachings there is no emphasis on pledging to emancipate the totality of sentient beings from the pain and bondage of samsara—the focus is more on practice for individual liberation. However, the Buddha did not teach in this manner according to the Pali Canon. In the Pali Canon the Buddha never admonishes his disciples to strive to become a Paccekabuddha, and "sravaka" just translates as follower or disciple: any disciple of Buddha would be a savaka.[5] There is thus no mention of a "Savakapath," as "savaka" refers to all disciples, not to a limited class of disciples.
  • Hīnayāna as a tradition in general would include those schools who solely follow the sutras of the Pali Canon or the Agamas (being, Pre-sectarian Buddhism and the Early Buddhist Schools). Some recent Mahayanist scholars have also used the name Nikaya Buddhism to refer to these schools. Some of these schools actively rejected the Mahayana sutras during the time of the rise of the Mahayana, around 2,000 years ago.
  • Hīnayāna as practitioner would be an individual of any school (including Mahayana) who practices to eliminate suffering according to basic Buddhist teachings; if successful, he or she is called an Arahant. (Similarly, a follower of a bodhisattva path in any school would be Mahayana in this sense.) As a follower of what Mahayana terms "Hinayana," he or she will not strive to become a Buddha, nor will he or she take the Mahayana Bodhisattva-vow of pledging to come back into samsara countless times in the future in order to liberate all other sentient beings from suffering. T he 'Pratyeka-Buddha' is regarded by Mahayana as being Hinayanist. Mahayana only considers the ideal of a Samyaksambuddha "Great;" the other enlightened ideals are considered by Mahayana orthodoxy to be (depending on the translation) either "inferior," "degrading," "base" or "low."

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.

Origins of Hīnayāna: Vehicles and paths

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.

Substitute terms for Hinayana

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:

  • Early Buddhism—refers to the variations within Buddhism (both Pre-sectarian Buddhism as the Early Buddhist schools) that were current before the Mahayana movement emerged.
  • Early Buddhist schools—This term properly covers all the schools that existed before the emergence of the Mahāyāna. The arising of the Mahayana school of Buddhism (first/second century C.E.) went together with the adoption of new (previously not-existing[6]) sutras, and introduced new philosophies such as the Bodhisattva and having the intention of liberating all sentient beings. Since this constituted a serious break with the previous traditions and customs that the earlier schools had in common, the Mahayana is seen as a "reformist," or revolutionary, movement, and not included in any lists of the early schools. Thus, there is a large correlation between the earlier schools and the label "Hinayana." Also, the Mahayana itself never groups itself with the previously existing schools. Some of the later "early schools" might have arisen (meaning: Split off) from another, older, early school, and might have come into existence at about the same time as the Mahayana. However, these schools kept to the larger framework and attitude of the earlier schools.
  • Eighteen Schools (or Twenty Schools)—This term is historically oriented, based on the lists of the various Early Buddhist schools. However, the list itself is numerically inexact since the exact number and the names of the schools differ between the various lists. These were the schools that the emerging Mahayana-movement was familiar with because they were existing at that time. Subsequently, these eighteen schools split up further into a larger number, and the Hinayana label could have also been applied to those later split-offs. Also, the Mahayana writer Bhavya (Bhavaviveka) says in the Tarkajvala that Mahayana is included in the eighteen schools.
  • Southern Buddhism—This frequently used geographical designation is applied to the Theravāda, whose centers in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia are located south of the centers of Mahayana (China, Tibet, Japan). In its early period, however, there was significant overlap between the geographical regions of Mahayana and the early schools.
  • Pāli Buddhism—This term only applies to the Theravāda, whose scriptures (the Pāli canon) are in the Pāli language. The other "Hīnayāna" schools wrote either in Sanskrit, in other Prakrits (notably Gāndhārī) or in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, a mixed language with both Sanskrit and Prakrit elements.
  • Śrāvakayāna Buddhism—This term, referring to the "śrāvakas" meaning disciples, followers or hearers. They who followed the Buddha and sought solely to eliminate suffering, thus culminating in Arhatship. This term originates (like the term Hinayana) from within Mahāyāna Buddhism, and thus faces some of the same objections as "Hīnayāna," though it is less obviously derogatory. Savakayana is a bit different in that it does not refer to any actual school but purely to a tendency or intention to be found in the individual; one might be a member of a Mahāyāna school, but be personally following a Śrāvakayāna path. Furthermore, it contrasts with "Bodhisattvayāna."
  • Nikāya Buddhism—This recently invented term was intended to cover the same ground as Hīnayāna, referring to the nikāyas or "schools" into which Buddhism was split by the beginning of the Common Era. It may be interpreted as "Buddhism as taught in the Nikāyas," the five primary divisions of the Tipiṭaka. However, this term is only used among the Theravāda; other schools used the term Āgamas.
  • Theravāda—This term properly refers to only one school among many non-Mahāyāna schools that once existed, many of which espoused philosophical notions contrary to those of the Theravādins. It would be altogether inaccurate to refer to such Buddhists as the Sarvāstivādins as Theravādins. Some scholars, such as Dr. Walpola Rahula, have pointed out that there was small contact between early Mahāyānists and Theravādins, and have suggested that the term "Hīnayāna" was never intended to include the Theravāda. Judging by the content of Mahāyāna polemic, it seems certain that other sects of northern India were the primary targets of the "Hīnayāna" critique.
  • Conservative Buddhism
  • Mainstream Buddhism: This term might be considered derogatory by Mahayanists, as it seems to suggest they are fringe (when in fact they are the majority).
  • Sectarian Buddhism
  • Non-Mahayana Buddhism
  • Abhidharma Buddhism

Hīnayāna as a pejorative

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."[7] 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.

Quotes from Mahayana Sutras

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"[8]

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.


  1. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Encyclopedia of Buddhism (MacMillan Library Reference, 2004), 840,
  2. Ibid., 840.
  3. Ibid., The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1993).
  4. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Encyclopedia of Buddhism (MacMillan Library Reference 2004), 492
  5. University of Chicago, The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary: Sāvaka. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  6. A.K. Warder (1999), 335.
  7. University of Chicago, Pali Text Society Dictionary. Retrieved June 24, 2008.
  8. Leon Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (Columbia University Press, 1976), pp. 213-214.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Buswell, Robert E. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. MacMillan Library Reference 2004. ISBN 9780028657189.
  • Cohen, R.S. "Discontented Categories: Hinayana and Mahayana in Indian History." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (1):1-25, 1995.
  • Hurvitz, Leon. Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma. Columbia University Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0231039208.
  • Kimura, Ryukan. A Historical Study of the Terms Hinayana and Mahayana and the Origin of Mahayana Buddhism. Indological Book Corp., 1978.
  • Lopez, Donald. "The H Word." Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Fall 1995): 84-85
  • Skilton, Andrew. Concise History of Buddhism. Windhorse, 1999 ISBN 978-0904766929.
  • Thapar, Romila. Early India from the Origins to AD 1300. Penguin, 2001. ISBN 978-0520242258.
  • Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Snowlion, 2000. ISBN 978-1559391528.
  • Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism. Routledge, 1989. ISBN 978-0415025379.

External links

All links retrieved December 24, 2017.


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