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Critical Studies
in Buddhadharma

On the Hînayâna

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"While still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness".
Madhyamâgama (Majjhima-nikâya), 26:14.

The Original Buddhist Community
 Mahâsanghika versus Sthaviravâdin
The Pudgalavâdin School
The Sarvâstivâdin School
 The Vaibhâsika & Sautrântika Schools
Salvation in the Lesser Vehicle
A Criticism of the Hînayâna

"Hînayâna" ("Lesser or Individual Vehicle") is a rather derogatory designation used by Great Vehicle Buddhists for Early Buddhism. Today, the Lesser Vehicle refers to its teachings as "Theravâda" or "Teaching of the Elders of the Order", regarding itself as the school closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. In terms of fundamental teachings, both Lesser & Great Vehicle are not to be distinguished.The core difference lies in the central importance of Bodhisattvahood in the Mahâyana.

The Theravâda was one of the "eighteen schools" within the Lesser Vehicle, and the only one still in existence today. These schools developed out of the original community of the Buddha ("Sangha") and the texts make reference to many more schools than this traditional number. It is also called "Southern Buddhism" because of its prevalence in southern Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Kampuchea).

In 1950, the World Fellowship of Buddhists, inaugurated in Colombo, unanimously decided to drop the term "Hînayâna" to refer to the Buddhism existing today in southern Asia.

To grasp the meaning of historical events or texts, critical hermeneutics studies three interdependent contexts :

  • the immediate context : phenomena touching upon the original, direct spatio-temporality of the object (for a text : the status of the original text, the genesis of the text, the biography of its author, etc.) Here : the life & teachings of Buddha, organization of the original Sangha etc. ;

  • the historical context : these middling phenomena encompass the geographical, social, political, economical etc. conditions surrounding the immediate context (for a text : the history of its linguistic features, typical expressions, the historical events preluding the protagonists of the text, the culture expressed, the direct influences, its direct audience etc.). Here : the culture of Magadha, the relationships between the original Sangha & Brahmanism, their interaction with the rulers, etc. ;

  • the cultural context : the general condition of the civilization(s) directly influencing the middling phenomena (for a text : the importance of its message, diachronically, over time, and synchronically, in peer-review). Here : the overall situation of the religions of India at the time, the impact of Vedic culture on Buddhism, etc.

 The Original Buddhist Community

Not unlike the original Jesus-movement, the original Sangha consisted of a body of wanderers ("parivrâjakas"), touring the hills and town of Magadha, Kośala and beyond. They came together in larger numbers for the annual retreat during the rainy season, when travel was not possible. For the rest of the year, they wandered about, keeping clear from the Eight Worldly Concerns : gain & loss, fame & disgrace, praise & ridicule, elation & sorrow. As long as the Buddha was around (for a period of 45 years), this peripatetic life-style persisted, much in tune with impermanence and renunciation.

After Buddha entered "parinirvâna" (483 BCE), the Sangha became more static. First, the ordained "bhiksus" wandered during Spring and Summer, returning each rainy season to the same place. Then, many ceased to wander at all and decided to settled at a single dwelling place permanently. By the end of the first century after the Buddha, the ordained Sangha was no longer peripatetic but residential !

At this point, the life-style became "monastic", causing specific monastic rules ("vinaya") to evolve. A tendency towards static, permanent structures & systems rose. This was due to the impact of more regular retreats (the rise of a spirito-communal sense) and numerous endowments of land and buildings to the community by wealthy lay supporters. The original Sangha seemed to turn into a worldly organization of sorts. These increasing monastic communities trained in the oral preservation of the teachings of the Buddha (to become the "Sûtra Pitaka"). And because of the lack of wanderers, lay followers increasingly were left with no other choice than to go to the monasteries to hear a monk recite the teachings. As a result, the monopoly of the monastic regime increased.

This stasis gave rise to distinct communities and new rules. Once four or more monks agreed with each other in a dispute, they could separate and form their own "sangha", becoming legally independent. Hence, they would hold separate fortnightly "upavasatha" meetings, and no longer co-operated for the purpose of ordination, resulting in distinct ordination lineages to appear ! These "nikâyas" became an outstanding feature, and each protected their boundaries ("sîmâ"). These determined who would and who whould not recognize each other's ordination and who could or could not use a particular residence. Not only disagreement but also geographical separation caused these divisions. A new ordination procedure saw the light. Public Declaration of Refuge was replaced by a new ritual, involving request, questioning, formal confession, ritual recitation of the rules, etc.

Untill the second half of the 4th century BCE, the spread of Buddhism was largely provincial. The rise of powerful monarchies in the Ganges basin resulted in the supremacy of the kingdom of Magadha in the region. This was the core territory of the subsequent imperial dynasty, of which Aśoka (269 - 232 BCE) was the third emperor. His "conquest by the Dharma" was intended to really touch his people, stretching across much of the subcontinent. It was characterized by complete religious tolerance. He is associated with the controversial Third Council (Pâtaliputra, ca. 250 BCE), leading to the refutation of non-Buddhist views (cf. the "Kathâvatthu" or "Points of Controversy" in the Abhidhamma).

Very likely Buddha was peripatetic, as was the original Sangha of ordained disciples. The cherised "monastic" life-style of today may well be a later adaptation. A similar process of institutionalization can be seen at work in the formation of the other world religions, entailing codification and alteration. This is a very important point.

Monasticism was not the way of the historical Buddha !

In the case of the Buddhadharma, these developments do not influence the ongoing practice of study, reflection & meditation, generating new insights and new texts. Especially today, when the Buddhayâna has entered the West, a more critical, scientific and functional view is possible.

 Mahâsanghika versus Sthaviravâdin

The conceptual beginning of what would lead to the first serious "formal" schism in the monastic Buddhist Sangha (the council convened by Mahâpadma Nanda, the king of Magadha at Pâtaliputra in ca. 308 BCE) is associated with the famous bhiksu Mahâdeva (ca.320 BCE), who maintained five new theses concerning the Arhat, involving a serious reduction of salvic scope, pointing to remaining afflictions & delusions.

The Worthy One could :

(1) be subject to temptations ;
(2) might have a residue of "avidyâ" ;
(3) may have doubts ;
(4) may gain knowledge through another's help ;
(5) may enter the path by means of an exclamation like "Duhkha !", or may even fall away from the path !

For the "Elders" (the "Sthaviras"), this was a deprecation of the Worthy One, and hence unacceptable !

As the king had no expertise in the matter, he decided by majority vote and found the "Mahâsangha" or "greater community" to favour Mahâdeva's ideas. The Elders claimed this was a distortion of the original teachings. However, no mention of Mahâdeva is made in connection with the schism, but he appears in an account of another split occuring within the Mahâsanghika itself, again between parties disagreeing about the status of the Arhat.

What exactly happened is not clear, for partisan accounts of the events cause a blur. The majority wished to live by the old, original Vinaya rules, while the Elders, a minority, wished to revive certain minor monastic regulations. The whole conflict also reflects the difficulties with which the Sangha interpreted the Buddha's injunction some minor Vinaya rules could be ignored (although nobody was certain which rules were "minor"). The Elders saw the Mahâsanghikas as a lax, breakaway group and this view was adopted by the Theravâda. The scene was set for partisan conflicts, sectarisms and fragmentation.

The teachings of the Mahâsanghika School involved the doctrine of the "lokattaravâda" or "supramundane", transcendent Buddha. They described the career of the Buddha as a Bodhisattva prior to his last life as Siddhârtha Gautama. He progressed through ten "stages" ("bhûmis"), elaborated at length in the Mahâvastu, later integrated in the Mahâyana, albeit in modified form. They also maintain a Bodhisattva can choose to be reborn in the lower realms to soothe its torments and to awaken wholesome factors. These notions are considered to have prepared the ground for the Mahâyâna view and its remarkable Buddhology. Opposing the realistic theories of the Elders, the Mahâsanghikas claim everything (both "samsâra" and "nirvâna") are rooted in the mind.

The Sthaviravâdin School of Elders survived into the modern period as the Theravâdin School of Sri Lanka and South-east Asia. The Pâli "thera" is the equivalent of the Sankrit "sthavira", "Elder". However, these two groups are not identical, for by the time of Aśoka, the Sthaviravâdin School had itself split in three sub-schools (Pudgalavâdin, Sarvâstivâdin, Vibhajyavâdin). This last subschool, the "Defender of What Is To be Differentiated" also split into two, namely the Mahîśâsika School and the Theravâdin School. The prominence of this last school is defined by its preservation of the only complete Buddhist canon. The Theravâdin School, with reservation, can be said to be a representative of the Sthaviravâda as a whole.

A few of its conservative ideas are :

(1) the Buddha is an ordinary human being (while in the Mahâparnibbâna Sutta, the Buddha states he could live for an aeon were he asked to do so) ;
(2) Arhats are perfect in all respect ;
(3) Arhats are incapable of regression ;
(4) Arhats are identical to the Buddha in their attainment ;
(5) there is only one Bodhisattva, namely Maitreya and
(6) in the present degenerate age, no one can gain Arhatship.

This school also favours the cultivation of insight achieved by analytical meditations.

The importance of the Mahâsanghikas can not be underestimated. Their ideas clearly prove the presence of discontent in the early Sangha, and in a way anticipate the Mahâyâna revolution. It can therefore not be said the Great Vehicle was a new invention. Rather, the idealism and scope of the Mâhayâna contrasts with the narrow, realist & reduced vision of the Elders. The limited salvic vision of the latter is countered by the idea Arhathood is only a stage on the way to Buddhahood, and should not be identified with it. The liberation of the Foe Destroyers is not to be equated with the enlightenment of a Bodhisattva realizing Buddhahood. Although these ideas later received full attention in the Mahâyâna, their embryonic presence in the Mahâsanghika is beyond despute.

 First Sthaviravâdin schism : the Pudgalavâdin School

In the 3th century BCE, a doctrinal division in the Sthaviravâdin School led to the Pudgalavâdin School, originally called Vâtsîputrîya, after its teacher, Vatsîputra. It survived until the 9th or 10th century CE and had a large following. In the 7th century, Chinese pilgrimes claimed the majority of non-Mahâyâna monks were Pudgalavâdin !

This school had sixteen special theses, but a balanced picture of them has been lost. Only a few survive in Chinese. The core idea was the "pudgala" or "person", deemed indeterminate in relation to the "skandhas", neither outside nor within them and only perceptible to the Buddhas. Without this concept, so they claimed, Buddhism would be open to the charge of nihilism and immorality. Nihilism, because without the "pudgala" there is nothing permanent. Immoral, because the "pudgala" guarantees "karma" to affect the next life. This caused a violent reaction, for the notion of a "person" was deemed in conflict with the "anâtman" doctrine of the Buddha.

However, the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma seems to introduce a similar position, namely the "tathâgatagarbha", part of the view of the Vajrayâna, of Ch'an & T'ien t'ai and of Dzogchen. It is also present in the Fourth Turning, i.e. the Tantrayâna and the "indestructible drop" at the heart-wheel. In Tantra, although the very subtle consciousness of an individual does not exist as an independent, substantial entity from its own side, the continuum of the individual mindstream is everlasting (it was there from beginningless time and will remain there after Buddhahood is achieved). This distinction eluded the Pudgalavâdins.

 Second Sthaviravâdin schism : the Sarvâstivâdin School

Again in the 3th century BCE, under the reign of Aśoka, another schism took place.

The Sarvâstivâdin School, prevailing primarily in Kashmir, questioned the status of the Arhat and like the Mahâsanghikas maintained the possibility of his regression. The name of the school was probably derived from the phrase "sarvam asti" or "all exists", pointing to the notion past "dharmas" still existed, albeit in the past "mode". As such, they were able to exert influence at a later time. They maintained the "Buddha Jewel" (the first of the Three Jewels of Refuge), consisted of all the pure "dharmas" making up the Buddha as an enlightened being practicing the Six Perfections (generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, concentration & wisdom).

The Sarvâstivâdins were the originator of the "Wheel of Life", depicting the six realms of "samsâra" and the twelve "nidânas" or links of the doctrine of dependent origination ("pratîtya-samutpâda").

These doctrines established a precedent for the later Mahâyâna. Indeed, the Sarvâstivâdin School constitutes a transitional stage between the Hînayâna and the Mahâyâna.

The fact Arhathood is again questioned should be noted. It points to a felt need to expand the salvic horizon.

 Two Sthaviravâdin offschoots : the Vaibhâsika & Sautrântika Schools

The Vaibhâsika School, the late phase of the Sarvâstivâdin School, placed emphasis on comprehensive commentaries. This "abhidarmic" trend produced vast manuals & treatises. Around 150 CE, as a reaction to this scholarly approach, the Sautrântika School, meaning "ending with the sûtra" rejected these treatises as the word of the Buddha and focused on the Sûtra-patika of the Pâli Canon.

This school rejected the idea the "dharmas" existed in the three modes of past, present & future, claiming they had only momentary existence. Hence, no direct perception of any object is possible, for one perceives only mental images which lag behind the momentary existence of the objects themselves (for the image is produced by contact and therefore later in time than the objects). These insights will influence the epistemology of the later Mâhayâna Middle Way School.

Actions "perfume" one's mental continuum and determine particular results. Seeds ("bîjas") "planted" by an action "sprout" at a later point when secundary conditions allow this, giving rise to a "fruit" appropriate to the original action. The Sautrântika School points to a persisting very subtle consciousness (not an entire "person"), in which the remaining four aggregates are absorbed at the time of death. This influenced the Mahâyâna Yogâcâra or Mind-Only School (cf. the "âlaya-vijñâna" or storehouse consciousness) as well as the "bardo" teachings.

 Salvation in the Lesser Vehicle

The wish to attain liberation from cyclic existence for oneself alone lies at the heart of the soteriology of the Lesser Vehicle. Hence, the mode of cultivation and the eventual effect of training will depend on this. The methods of the Lesser Vehicle do not focus on compassion (but on equanimity), nor are they dedicated to help all sentient beings. Only enlightened beings can do this and so one focuses on entering one's personal "nirvâna". This ends in Arhathood, equated with the state of the Buddha. Only a Buddha is effectively of benefit to all sentient beings. Renunciation, equanimity & emptiness-of-self are the three pillars of this Individual Vehicle. Hence, there was, is and will be only one Buddha.

Technically, liberation or enlightenment (the two cannot be distinguished in the Lower Vehicle), involve the breaking of a succession of "fetters" ("samyojana"), ten in number : (1) separate selfhood, (2) sceptical doubt, (3) attachment to rules and rituals for their own sake, (4) sexual desire, (5) ill will, (6) desire for existence in the world of form, (7) desire for existence in the formless world, (8) conceit, (9) restlessness and (10) ignorance.

The stages of insight are marked by the eradication or weakening of these fetters. The practitioners are identified according to the resultant degree of liberation achieved. Prior to this insight, one walked the "mundane path", while Buddhists are on the "supramundane path" ("lokottaramârga").

Four stages mark this supramundane path :

  • the "stream-enterer" ("śrotâpanna") : has eradicated the first three fetters. He has only seven rebirths in the human or god realms before liberation ;

  • the "once-returner" ("sakridâgamin") : reborn once more, has weakened the fourth & fifth fetter ;

  • the "non-returner" ("anâgamin") : has broken all the first five fetters and is reborn in the god realm from where liberation is attained ;

  • the Arhat or "Worthy One" : has broken all ten fetters and has won liberation in this life.

Together, these four stages define the "Ârya-Sangha", the Sangha Jewel of Early Buddhism.

The Śrâvakayâna or "Hearer Vehicle" is equated with the Lesser Vehicle. It refers to those students of the Buddha, who, in contrast to the Pratyekabuddhas, seek personal enlightenment and can attain this only by listening to the teachings, gaining insight in the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Two Truth and the identitylessness of persons. The supreme goal is "nirvâna" without remainder, corresponding to the level of the Arhat.

By contrast, the Pratyekabuddhayâna, or path of the "solitary awakened one", refers to a Buddha who attained enlightenment -due to insight into the twelve links of dependent origination- on his own and for himself alone. However, omniscience ("sarvajñatâ") and the Ten Powers ("daśabala"), characterizing a fully enlightened Buddha, are not ascribed to him. The term is also applied to enlightened ones living in a time without a Buddha.

The Mahâyana equates the Hearer Vehicle with the Lesser Vehicle, ending in Arhathood. The Solitary Realizer Vehicle, standing between the Lesser Vehicle and the Great Vehicle, implies Buddhahood for one's own sake (cf. the "triyâna"). Although the method of Hearer & Solitary Realizer differ, the resultant state is one of liberation with remainders, not full enlightenment or Buddhahood. The absence of a method to generate vast merit more rapidly hand in hand with their limited take on emptiness, explains the personal aim of their spiritual thrust. In that sense, both Hearer & Solitary Realizer Vehicles are part of the Lesser Vehicle.

 A Criticism of the Hînayâna

As in Christianity and Islam, Early Buddhism, adapting to new spirito-communal circumstances, moved from a loose group of people dedicated to the teachings of their founder (Buddha Śâkyamuni, Jesus of Nazareth, Muhammad), to an organized, institutionalized system of lineages, schools, subschools and sects. In the case of Early Buddhism, the shift from a life of begging wanderers to an increasing number of wealthy residential lineage "monasteries", called for the canonization of a variety of codes of conduct. Doctrinal differences only rose a century later.

Early Christianity offers an interesting parallel. After the crucifixion (ca. 30 CE) and before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), the Christian Jews of the Church of Jeruzalem still went to the synagoge for the rituals of the "Old Convenant", practicing circumcision. The Didaché records a mixture of Jewish & Christian rituals. The universality of Christianity was not yet at hand. Only when Paul came along (ca. 49 CE), did the question of how to adapt the "Jewish" practices to a "gentile" ideal rise. Circumcision had to be dropped. But the gentile churches would pay a tribute to the "mother" Church of Jeruzalem ! Only later did matters of doctrine become central (cf. the rise or heresy at the beginning of the second century CE). First eat, and then philosophize ...

Also in Islam comparable patterns emerged. For some, the death of the prophet of The God (632 CE) was reason enough to leave the "ummah" or community. It was unclear who the rightful successor ("khalîfa") of the prophet was ("khalifah rasul Allâh" or "successor of the Messenger of The God"). Those who's interests had been purely political, argued the death of Muhammad meant the end of their allegiance with the community of Allâh. This shows the historical community was not the unity Muhammad had projected it to be (the rejection of hypocrisy is often repeated in the Qur'ân). Most Muslims gathered around Abu Bakr, the first calyph, or successor of Muhammad as spiritual leader of the Islam. He died two years later and was succeeded by 'Umar & 'Uthman, responsible for the redaction of the Qur'ân. In 656 (only 24 years later), 'Ali became the last of the founding calyphs of Islam after Muhammad. 'Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law who married Fatima, Muhammad's only daughter, stressed the leader should in all cases care for his people. But 'Ali never quite received the allegiance of all Muslims. He had to wage increasingly unsuccessful wars to maintain himself in power. He was murdered in 661, and Mu'awiyah, his chief opponent, became caliph. 'Ali's second son, Al-Husain, later refused to recognize the legitimacy of Mu'awiyah's son and successor as caliph, Yazid. This eventually led to the schism between Sunnites and Shiites (the "party of 'Ali"). By contrast, to record doctrinal differences we have to wait until the 9th century (cf. the rise of Sufism).

Returning to Early Buddhism, note two important facts :

  • the way of the original Sangha : like the Buddha himself, the original community of homeless, world-renouncing mendicants ("bhiksus" or "beggars") were wanderers, joined later by residential house-holders or lay followers ("upâsaka"). These laypersons could not attain "nirvâna" ; 

  • the status of the Arhat : the importance of Mahâdeva, the earliest reference to certain obstructions related to the Arhat, and of the difference between the state of the Buddha and the Worthy One can not be stressed enough. The Mahâsanghika schism opened the debate on the status of the Arhat. This had major salvic consequences.

The identification of the "bhiksu" as a residential monk and the salvic goal of the Lesser Vehicle are both problematic. Buddha's disciples were clearly world renouncers, and -not unlike the "gnostic" Jesus portrayed in the Gospel of Thomas- "by-passers", wanderers.

The residential monastic system, with its separate codes of conduct and ordination lineages, is more in tune with a spirito-political intent than with the spirit of the Buddha (likewise, the Christ of the Church is not the Jesus of the source of the Gospels).

The introduction of laypersons solved the economical problem : the ordained Sangha could focus on spiritual matters and assist the lay followers to accumulate merit and stay on the path of virtue. In return, the latter provided the Sangha with shelter and food. But because of their worldly preoccupations, "nirvâna" was not for the non-ordained followers.

Perhaps the Hînayâna is best defined in terms of the scope of its methods. Although the seeds of major Mahâyâna ideas are present, they do not sprout by lack of proper intent, namely the mind of enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings ("Bodhicitta"). This focus on a personal "nirvâna" brought about uncertaintly regarding the salvic goal itself ; could the Arhat relapse ? Without a universal dedication, merit can always be lost.

The focus on concentration characterizing the Lesser Vehicle cannot be underestimated. Meditation brings about great mental clarity and special knowledge ("gnosis"). Among other things, these were harnessed to memorize the canon and guarantee the survival of Buddha's core teachings like the Four Noble Truths.


© Wim van den Dungen, Antwerp - 2017
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.


initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 15 X 2013 - version n°1