Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism: Ships to Cross the Sea of Suffering

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Lectures on Basic Study Materials (11)
from Dai-Byakuho, issue no. 376

Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism
Ships to Cross the Sea of Suffering

Up to this juncture, we have explained some of the basics of
Buddhism, but to unify everything covered so far, we would like to
touch upon the Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana Buddhism) and the Greater
Vehicle (Mahayana Buddhism). “Vehicle” means “something that is
ridden.” In that sense, the Buddha’s teachings are metaphorically
spoken of as “vehicles,” because they are something on which people
cross from this shore of delusion (the world of suffering) to the other
shore of enlightenment (the Buddha’s Land).

Hinayana Teachings

The Hinayana teachings are also known as the “Inferior Vehicle,”
referring to the fact that the vehicle to be ridden is small and
inferior. These are self-serving teachings that aim for the
enlightenment and benefit of the practitioner only, and are therefore
called lesser vehicles. According to T’ien-t’ai’s interpretation, the
Hinayana teachings refer to the teachings that Shakyamuni taught
during the twelve years of the Agon period. These teachings
comprise the three divisions of the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka), and
include sutras, rules and commentaries.

The Tripitaka sutras include the four Agon sutras. The rules include
the Shibun Ritsu, Makasogi Ritsu, Gobun Ritsu, etc., and the
commentaries include the Rokusoku Ron, the Hatchi Ron, the
Daibibasha Ron and others. There are three denominations in Japan
founded on the Tripitaka the Kusha, Jojitsu and Ritsu sects.

Mahayana Teachings

Mahayana refers to a large or superior vehicle. Unlike the Hinayana
teachings, which aim only for personal enlightenment and salvation,
the Mahayana teachings aim for the salvation and Buddhist practice
of the masses of people. These teachings aim for both personal
enlightenment and the enlightenment of others.

As the Daishonin indicates in his Five-fold Comparison, Mahayana
teachings are further divided into provisional and true teachings. But
for our purposes here, we will only discuss the Mahayana teachings
in general.

Opposition between Hinayana and Mahayana

After Shakyamuni’s death, his disciples were at variance as to how
the Buddhist teachings should be taught and transmitted, and split
into two schools, the conservative Theraveda school and the
progressive Mahasamghika school. The former stressed a tradition of
literal interpretation and transmission of the teachings and precepts,
while the latter, not fettered by literal interpretation, grasped the
true meaning of the teachings and attempted to reveal that spirit.
They were known generically as the “Factions of Buddhism,” and in
time, both became skeletal institutions due to the loss of Buddhism’s
original religious stature. Amid this mutual opposition, the
Mahasamghika school became central in its effort to elevate
Buddhism to the highest possible level and restore it to the place that Shakyamuni had originally intended. This effort was the precursor of the Mahayana school, which refers to the Theraveda school as the “Lesser Vehicle.”

Difference between Hinayana and Mahayana

We would now like to present a slightly more detailed discussion of
some of the main differences between the two schools.

I: Vehicle for People in the Worlds of Learning and Bodhisattva
Another name for Hinayana Buddhism is the “Vehicle for People of
Learning,” while Mahayana Buddhism is also called the “Bodhisattva
Vehicle.” In Hinayana Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciples
were to listen to and practice according to his teachings, but they
were not able to become Buddhas through this practice. At best, they
were only able to achieve the highest level of enlightenment
attainable by people of Learning, the stage of Arhat.
It is further said that the Hinayana teachings are centered on the
self, and that the practice of those teachings is ultimately for
personal perfection and emancipation only.
In contrast to this, Mahayana Buddhism explains that all living
beings possess the Buddha nature, that anyone who yearns to attain
enlightenment can become a bodhisattva, and that any person who
consciously promises to practice the six paramitas or other such
teachings can attain Buddhahood. Further, even though one does not
attain Buddhahood during his current lifetime, he will certainly be
able to become a Buddha in the future. Mahayana Buddhism is
therefore also referred to as a group of universally beneficial
teachings that can save all mankind and purify and elevate our
entire society.

II: Existence and Non-substantiality

The splinter schools of Buddhism at this time researched the detailed
doctrines of the Abhidharma teachings. The word “Abhidharma” is
translated as either “theory” or “about the Law,”and refers to
commentary on the Buddha’s Law. Here, the word “Law” indicates
the sutras that the Buddha expounded about the Law. Therefore,
“Abhidharma” refers to such works as explanations, commentaries
and research on the sutras.

Shakyamuni had forbidden arguments on the question of “existence”
because human suffering can not be resolved through such theories
as the “Theory of Existence” or the “Theory of Actual Existence,”
which non-Buddhist factions during his day had been arguing.
However, the Abhidharma do argue such matters.
Buddhism originally focuses not on whether we exist or not, but on
the changing phenomena of birth and extinction that concern our
human lives. This concern is two-fold; how those phenomena exist
(situations), and how we should react to, or deal with such
phenomena (attitudes). Such fundamental Buddhist principles as the
Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path and the Twelve-linked Chain
of Causation all explain this concern, called the theory or doctrine of
dependent origination.

In this way, Mahayana Buddhism refuted the Hinayana teachings,
which were attached to a partial idea of “non-substantiality.” While
Mahayana Buddhism is not as profound as the Lotus Sutra’s perfect
teaching of the three truths, which illuminates the true aspect of the
middle way, it does emphasize the provisional Mahayana concept of
“ku,” and resuscitated Shakyamuni’s teaching of the original, correct
doctrine of dependent origination.

Significance of the Establishment of Mahayana Buddhism
As we can understand from the above, the Hinayana teachings
include many theories for the sake of theory, which are removed
from the original purpose of Buddhism. In contrast, while the
Mahayana teachings are oriented more towards faith and practice,
the substance of the tenets expounded in Mahayana Buddhism is of a
higher level that the Hinayana teachings do not nearly attain.
Observing the ideological development during the period after
Shakyamuni’s death until the establishment of the Mahayana school,
it could be said that the alleged Hinayana teachings of the Theraveda
lineage represent a partially fixed view of Buddhism, while the
Mahayana teachings, which flourished among the masses and aimed
for the salvation of all living beings, convey Shakyamuni’s true

The Daishonin’s Comparison of Hinayana and Mahayana
Although there are few documents in which the Daishonin makes a
general comparison between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism,
there is a passage in the True Object of Worship which clarifies the
three stages of preparation, revelation and transmission of the seed
of enlightenment found in the depths of the Lotus Sutra and states:
“All teachings other than the one chapter and two halves are
Hinayana.” (M.W., Vol. I, p. 70) As this passage indicates, the
Daishonin explains that from the standpoint of the Lotus Sutra’s
teachings on the true gate to enlightenment, even Mahayana
teachings are in a class with Hinayana teachings.

Furthermore, viewed from the standpoint of comparison between the
Buddhism of Harvest and Sowing, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, the seed
of enlightenment found in the depths of the Juryo Chapter of the
Lotus Sutra, is the only supreme vehicle. Therefore, both the
provisional Mahayana teachings, the first fourteen chapters of the
Lotus Sutra and even the essential teachings of Shakyamuni’s
Buddhism are considered to be Hinayana or provisional. Because of
this, it can be said that mankind had to wait until the advent of the
Daishonin in the Latter Day of the Law for clarification on the
teaching of the True Supreme Vehicle.

©1995 Nichiren Shoshu Monthly. All rights reserved