The Comparison between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism

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 Mahayana is Superior to Hinayana Buddhism

Daisho sotai: The Second Level of the Fivefold Comparison

Nichiren Daishonin established the principle of the fivefold comparison as a means to judge the correctness and superiority of a religion. It is expounded in the Gosho, “The Opening of the Eyes” (“Kaimoku-sho”). The first level of the fivefold comparison compares Buddhist and non-Buddhist teachings. In that comparison, the superiority of Buddhism over the teachings of other religions is discussed and verified. However, within the realm of Buddhism itself, the teachings can be further broken down and critically compared, in order to arrive at the most superior teaching. The second level of the fivefold comparison is between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism.

Mahayana means “great vehicle” and Hinayana means “lesser vehicle.” A great vehicle is like a large ship that can carry many people over the ocean. A lesser vehicle is like a little boat that can carry only a few people across a river. The word vehicle is used to describe the Buddha’s teachings, since the ultimate purpose of the teachings is to carry people from the shore of this impure world to the other shore of enlightenment.

 Conflict between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism 

After Shakyamuni’s passing, the Buddhist order split into two groups, the Theravada school, which literally interpreted Shakyamuni’s teachings and doctrines and strictly followed traditions, and the Mahasamghika school, which tried to understand the true meaning of the words to reveal their true spirit. These two groups eventually divided into twenty schools.

In the process of shifting from Shakyamuni’s fundamental Buddhism to sectarian Buddhism, the Theravada school and its branches started to adopt non-Buddhist teachings. Seeing this, the people from the Mahasamghika school reconsidered their position on non-Buddhist teachings adopted by earlier schools and voluntarily went back to fundamental Buddhism. The Mahasamghika school was the forerunner of the Mahayana movement. Gradually, Mahayana Buddhists differentiated themselves from the earlier schools of Theravada, calling them Hinayana. The Daishonin discusses this in his Gosho, “The Teaching, Capacity, Time and Country”:

 The references to the teachings of the Agon sutras as Hinayana come from the various Mahayana sutras such as the Hodo, Hannya, Lotus and Nirvana sutras. 

(Gosho, p. 270; cf. MW-4, p. 8) 

 After the Mahayana movement started to grow, the majority of the Mahasamghika schools became part of Mahayana Buddhism. Thus, Mahayana Buddhism, which arose from the conflicts between the Theravada school and the Mahasamghika school, actually comprised both teachings. In other words, Mahayana Buddhism was not newly formed with new elements but rather, the Theravada School and its branches decided to reconsider their non-Buddhist views and sought to restore the original spirit of Buddhism. 

Furthermore, if the differing views on Buddhism are classified into orthodox and unorthodox based on their evolution from the fundamental Buddhism of Shakyamuni to Mahayana Buddhism, it becomes clear that the Mahasamghika School was the orthodox school and the Theravada School was unorthodox. Also, Mahayana Buddhism, which emerged to unite the orthodox and unorthodox views at a higher level, was widely practiced for the enlightenment of all humanity, transmitting the fundamental spirit of Shakyamuni’s Buddhism.


(Note: This chapter can be read in its entirety in the book: The Doctrines and Practice of Nichiren Shoshu. For more information, please contact your local temple.)