On the Hînayâna
"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
Vaibhâsika & Sautrântika Schools
Salvation in the Lesser Vehicle
Criticism of the Hînayâna
or Individual Vehicle") is a rather derogatory designation used
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 :
: 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. ;
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. ;
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,
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").
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.
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
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"
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
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.
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
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
there after Buddhahood is achieved). This distinction eluded the
Sthaviravâdin schism : the Sarvâstivâdin School
Again in the 3th century BCE, under the
reign of Aśoka, another schism took place.
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
These doctrines established a precedent for the later
Mahâyâna. Indeed, the Sarvâstivâdin
School constitutes a transitional stage between the Hînayâna and the
The fact Arhathood is again questioned should be noted. It points to a
felt need to expand the salvic horizon.
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
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.
the Lesser Vehicle
The wish to attain
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"
Four stages mark this supramundane path :
"stream-enterer" ("śrotâpanna") : has eradicated the first three fetters. He
has only seven rebirths in the human or god realms before liberation ;
"once-returner" ("sakridâgamin") : reborn once more, has weakened the fourth &
fifth fetter ;
("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
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
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
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.
Although the method of Hearer & Solitary Realizer differ, the resultant
state is one of liberation with remainders, not
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
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.
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
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
Returning to Early Buddhism, note two important facts :
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",
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
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.