Introductory Comparison of Hinayana and Mahayana
Berlin, Germany, January 2002
The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana
The terms Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle or Modest Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle or Vast Vehicle) originated in The Prajnaparamita Sutras (The Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness, The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras). They are a rather derogatory pair of words, aggrandizing Mahayana and putting down Hinayana. Alternative terms for them, however, have many other shortcomings, and so therefore I shall use these more standard terms for them here. [See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana.]
Hinayana encompasses eighteen schools. The most important for our purposes are Sarvastivada and Theravada. Theravada is the one extant today in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Sarvastivada was widespread in Northern India when the Tibetans started to travel there and Buddhism began to be transplanted to Tibet. There were two main divisions of Sarvastivada based on philosophical differences: Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. Hinayana tenet systems studied at the Indian monastic universities such as Nalanda, and later by the Tibetan Mahayanists, are from these two schools. The lineage of monastic vows followed in Tibet is from another Sarvastivada subdivision, Mulasarvastivada. [See: A Brief History of Buddhism in India before the Thirteenth-Century Invasions.] Buddhas and Arhats
There is quite a significant difference between the Hinayana and Mahayana presentations of arhats and Buddhas. Both agree that arhats, or liberated beings, are more limited than Buddhas, or enlightened beings, are. Mahayana formulates this difference in terms of two sets of obscurations: the emotional ones, which prevent liberation, and the cognitive ones, which prevent omniscience. Arhats are free of only the former, whereas Buddhas are free of both. This division is not found in Hinayana. It is purely a Mahayana formulation. To gain liberation or enlightenment, both Hinayana and Mahayana assert that one needs nonconceptual cognition of the lack of an impossible “soul.” Such a lack is often called “ selflessness,” anatma in Sanskrit, the main Indian scriptural language of Sarvastivada and Mahayana; anatta in Pali, the scriptural language of Theravada. The Hinayana schools assert this lack of an impossible “soul” with respect only to persons, not all phenomena. Persons lack a “soul,” an atman, that is unaffected by anything, partless, and separable from a body and a mind, and which can be cognized on its own. Such a “soul” is impossible. With just the understanding that there is no such thing as this type of “soul” with respect to persons, one can become either an arhat or a Buddha. The difference depends on how much positive force or so-called “ merit” one builds up. Because of their development of the enlightening aim of bodhichitta, Buddhas have built up far more positive force than arhats have. Mahayana asserts that Buddhas understand the lack of an impossible “soul” with respect to all phenomena as well as with respect to persons. They call this lack “voidness.” The various Indian schools of Mahayana differ regarding whether or not arhats also understand the voidness of phenomena. Within Mahayana, Prasangika Madhyamaka asserts that they do. However, the four Tibetan traditions explain this point differently regarding the Prasangika assertion. Some say that the voidness of phenomena understood by arhats is different from that understood by Buddhas; some assert the two voidnesses are the same. Some say that the scope of phenomena to which the voidness of phenomena applies is more limited for arhats than it is for Buddhas; some assert it is the same. There is no need to go into all the details here. [See: Comparison of the Hinayana and Mahayana Assertions of the Understandings of Voidness by Arhats and Buddhas.] Further Points Concerning Buddhas and Arhats
The assertions of Hinayana and Mahayana concerning...
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