Distinguishing the Vehicles of Therevada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism
This will be done largely to help situate the reading of Tibetan Buddhism provided in my two most recent posts.
Today Mahayana is the most widely accepted form, with the most practitioners. Theravada Buddhism, largely confined to contemporary Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, is a somewhat smaller branch in terms of numbers of adherents, even though it claims it has deviated the least from the original teachings of the Buddha himself (a claim which has been contested, for more on this, see Kate Crosby’s excellent book Theravada Buddhism).
Because it seems likely that there are differences between contemporary Theravada and the earliest forms of Buddhism, many scholars today differentiate these, referring to early Buddhism by this term, or sometimes using the term Nikaya Buddhism (a Nikaya is a grouping, such as an ordination lineage, or grouping of texts such as sutras).
While Therevada claims great similarity to early Buddhism, there are differences, and in many senses, the series of “reforms” which occurred throughout the history of Theravada (such as Buddhaghosa’s formation of an organized canon for scriptures during the 5th century CE in Sri Lanka, or various reforms made in the 17th and 18th century in places such as Burma and Thailand) are often seen by scholars as having given rise to contemporary Theravada as much as reforming it, particularly in regard to negotiating the relation between the most conservative form of Buddhism and its past,
and Vajrayana Buddhism which grew from it, has a more flexible relation to the past, and particularly the past teaching of the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gotama, in that they see this as only one aspect of the revelation of Buddhist truths, allowing for greater flexibility in regard to negotiating with the past in regard to everyday practices.
In all it’s forms, however, it is important to note Buddhism has blended with a variety of religious practices that were there before it arrived, and with which it continues to have a relation. Buddhism found many ways to cohabitate with the worship of various deities,
often so long as these were seen as less perfect spirits and beings than the Buddha (or in the later Mahayana tradition, the many Buddhas and high level Bodhisattvas), and equally in need of liberation as less powerful beings such as humans.
This lead to a great amount of mutation and local variation, and this is why the practices of all contemporary forms of Buddhism are full of rituals and practices that are likely quite different from early Buddhism,
even if in reality many temples, particularly outside of larger cities, may be shared between Buddhist and local practices, or be right next to each other on the same grounds, with many practitioners making use of both traditions for various needs.
and many of the earliest written scriptures not organized and standardized until about another 500 years after that.
While there were councils which supposedly standardized the oral story early during the history of Buddhism, many scholars feel the first two were likely legendary, with the first one that many scholars agree occurred having happened by around 300 years after the death of the Buddha.
And so, there is a great deal of reconstruction in likely any attempt to base contemporary practice on early forms which may have shifted greatly since ancient times yet leaving few reliable traces for potential comparison (for more, on these issues, see Crosby, above, and Donald Mitchell’s Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience).
While Buddhism is largely a minor practice in India, many of its ideas seem to have blended with aspects of the forerunners of Hinduism in a relation of mutal influence in India during the premodern period.
With the influx of new scriptures from seemingly diverse corners of the Buddhist world in India, starting to reach a critical mass around 0 CE, monks in Indian monasteries seem to have been divided on whether to accept the new scriptures,
until there was a gradual and then more pronounced split between those who accepted the new scriptures, who called themselves the Mahayana (or “great vehicle”) and those who only believed in the older scriptures, the Theravada (or “the way of the Elders”).
The new scriptures were more accessible, and found favor with the majority in India, particularly in the North, and it is Mahayana Buddhism in this form which was exported to China, where it eventually gave rise to Cha’an Buddhism (exported to Japan and renamed Zen), and from there to Japan and Korea.
While Mahayana Buddhists often refer to Therevada Buddhism as Hinayana Buddhism, or the “minor vehicle,” a term which views this more traditional set of practices as less complete understandings of the Buddha’s teachings, this is generally seen as a less than complimentary term, particularly by non-Mahayana.
While Mahayana Buddhism flourished in the North, Theravada found its heartland in the south of India, and particularly in the island of Sri Lanka, and from these south Indian strongholds Buddhism then spread to contemporary Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia where it thrives today.
Distinct from Theravada, and a distinct sub-branch of Mahayana, is the Vajrayana branch, which is dominant in Tibet, Mongolia, and parts of contemporary India and Nepal which are in frequent contact with the Tibetan world.
While Theravada Buddhists see the Mahayana as having strayed into some heterodox teachings from scriptures not derived from the original speech of the Buddha, and Mahayana Buddhist see themselves as having both the teachings of the earthly Buddha and the deeper and fuller teachings which come from the heavenly Buddhas
Vajrayana was a product of the breakdown of the Gupta dynasty in India, a period of social chaos and warfare, in which a variety of magical practices were often deployed by mystics in the forests, and later, for the courts of the kings, often to help in warfare.
Vajrayana Buddhism, spurred by the Mahayana doctrine of “skillful means,” saw these practices as potentially quite powerful tools to help achieve Enlightenment, and so many of these techniques were altered and integrated into Buddhist teachings,
Many of the new practices and texts were seen as revealed in a manner similar to the Mahayana scriptures, or were seen as passed down in secret from earlier times, only to be more directly taught when the world was ready to hear them.
While the from a Western, linear conception of time it may seem strange that the newer teachings were seen as deeper and even potentially older, since the teachings were felt to originate in a timeless time beyond time and place,
Mahayana: Compassion, the Bodhisattva, and the Philosophy of Emptiness
What are the doctrinal differences between these? Most students of religion see the advent of the Boddhisattva in Mahayana scriptures as one of the primary shifts between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, but there’s more to it than just that.
The word Mahayana, which means “greater” vehicle can also be understood as “more encompassing” vehicle, and in this sense it is the Buddhist path that opened Buddhism beyond the monasteries and gave it a wide popular appeal.
Beyond this newfound path for the laity, Mahayana scriptures emphasize compassion, with the Bodhisattva as the new spiritual goal which embodies this, for the Bodhisattva is conceived as a being of compassion who delays full Buddha-hood to remain in this world and teach to relieve the suffering of other beings.
Furthermore, Mahayana Buddhism argued that it was impossible to achieve enlightenment without compassion, for if enlightenment means selflessness, a notion present since the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings,
But since Buddhist practice aims to deconstruct the self, the suffering of others becomes my suffering as well if I have no-self, and hence my own enlightenment and compassion in regard to the suffering of others becomes necessarily intertwined.
While these notions are in some sense implicit in earlier Buddhist notions, Mahayana Buddhism makes them central to its approach to the world. There are other crucial shifts in emphasis, however, such as the notion of emptiness.
While frequently misunderstood, emptiness is not the notion that there is nothing in the world, but rather, that anything we encounter is simply the manifestation of the influences, contexts, and processes which bring it about,
From the perspective described by emptiness, everything is dependent upon its continual recreation within the processes that make up the world, and so, we should not distinguish out any particular aspect of the world as fully distinct, for this is a manifestation of and fosters our craving, namely, that which keeps us from enlightenment.
When we examine our consciousness, we see that various sense impressions flow by, or thoughts or feelings. But which one of these is the self? The self seems to be the awareness of these things, a deeper type of entity.
Rather, there are interactions between parts, wholes, contexts, influences, processes, etc. But there aren’t transcendental essences that require that things stay the same, or only change in particular ways.
Freedom is the realization that everything can change, doesn’t need to remain fixed to an essence, and in fact, the illusion of permanency is what keeps us trapped in limiting worldviews and habits, because we cling to and desire a permanency which is ultimately impossible.
Desiring a new car, for example, we fail to realize that really we are desiring the fact that others desire such a car, which is really desiring to be liked or respected by them, when really what we desire is to not feel empty, lonely, or incomplete, a problem which only occurs if we think there is a fullness out there we need to somehow acquire.
But when we see that things and persons are ultimately empty, we stop craving, and this cuts the cycle and all the habits to which it gives rise, and allows us to imagine moving beyond the cravings which keep us attached to the play of mirrors which is samsara, or cyclic existence, simply going around in circles without ever knowing any sort of deeper peace.
rather than see nirvana as some other or transcendent state potentially beyond this world, notions dominant in early Buddhist and Theravada practices, Mahayana scriptures reframe nirvana as simply a different way of looking at samsara.
That is, nirvana is here and now, we just do not realize it. Rather than turn nirvana into a possible object of craving, it is rather viewed as what happens when we stop craving, including craving nirvana, leading to a cessation of suffering.
If Buddhism was originally described by the Buddha as the “middle way” between asceticism and hedonism, this development is in many senses a new form of this, in that the binary between nirvana and samsara is deconstructed, made empty, and hence, nirvana is less likely to be craved, paradoxically making it more attainable.
While early Buddhism often says very little about nirvana, other than that it is beyond our experience and hence very little can be said about it other than that it is the extinguishment of the suffering of endless cycling in karmic samsara, Mahayana Buddhism makes clear that nirvana is a blissful experience.
In English then it perhaps makes sense to say that desire only leads to suffering when it becomes craving, or that craving is desire gone wrong, when desire becomes obsession, addiction, fetishism, fixation, etc.
Beyond mainstream Mahayana, Cha’an/Zen Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that is particularly influential today in Japan. Originally, it came about as an attempt to develop an more down-to-earth Buddhism, one which dispenses with complex arguments of academics or complex tantric rituals.
Cha’an/Zen, a term which is an attempt to translate one of the Sanskrit terms for meditation, dhyana, into Chinese, emphasizes meditation above all, whether in the form of sitting meditation, or other forms such as walking or doing physical labor.
Cha’an/Zen often views reason and overthinking as hindrances upon this path, and particularly in the Japanese traditions, make use of paradox to help shock students beyond traditional forms of conceptuality.
In many senses Cha’an/Zen are radically anti-academic, with many of its earliest teachers being illiterate, yet today Zen has a reputation in the West for being highly cerebral, precisely because it revels in paradoxes which seem to deconstruct reason with its own tools.
The rationality of the irrational remains at its core, and it’s likely that the fascination of the West with this approach has to do with the West’s own emphasis upon particularly rigid forms of rationality.
It’s also worth noting that the Mayahana tradition, particularly as it moved to China and especially Japan, makes use of the term suchness (tathata or dharmata in Sanskrit, chen-ju in Chinese, and shenyo in Japanese.)
This is the flip-side of emptiness, or rather, the integration of emptiness and appearance. Suchness is often described as an attempt to see the world without preconceptions of the way it must be, similar to Freud’s notion of even-hovering attention.
While this term became influential relatively late in the development of the Mahayana, it became highly influential, particularly in Chinese and Japanese thought on Buddhism, even if, as with many Mahayana notions, it can be seen as developing notions implicit in the basic ideas articulated early in the tradition, such as no-self, interconnectedness, cessation of craving, etc.
Vajrayana Buddhism, an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism which in many ways became a distinct third branch, extends and radicalizes many aspects of the Mahayana Buddhism from which it developed, even if it transformed these with the integration of a variety of new tantric practices.
If Therevada largely concentrates on exploding the suffering/non-suffering binary, Mahayana the self/world binary, and Cha’an/Zen the reason/unreason binary, then Vajrayana focuses on the reality/fantasy binary.
According to Vajrayana Buddhists in Tibet and elsewhere, Theravada limits the Buddha’s message to the few, Mahayana opens it up to the many, but Vajrayana makes it possible to envision an entire Buddhist society.
Only after the advances of Mahayana, bringing Buddhism out of the monasteries and to the masses, was it possible to imagine constructing Vajrayana. As is to be expected, the other two branches view Tibetan Buddhism as a step away from Buddhist orthodoxy.
From the perspective of Mahayana and Therevada orthoxies, Vajrayana Buddhism goes much further than Therevada’s agnostic relation to local gods, and Mahayana’s attempt to incorporate them as being enlightened by the Buddha and having become his disciples.
For mainstream Buddhists in Theravada and Mahayana traditions today, Vajrayana is often seen as having absorbed too much of the Indian religions of the Indian medieval period and the local Tibetan religions.
Vajrayana Buddhism makes use of sets of practices which go beyond traditional Buddhist meditation, and employ intense and intricate visualizations of virtual worlds, practices aimed at transforming the body by meditation, and series of difficult rituals which have spiritual meanings yet go far beyond those in many other forms of Buddhism.
Tantric Buddhism sees every aspect of the world as having a potential role to play in producing a path to enlightenment, and hence, rather than leave the world behind, it is transformed into the path.
Building upon this, Vajrayana Buddhism sees two approaches to enlightenment, namely, sutrayana, or the approach of using written verses and traditional meditation, and tantrayana, or the use of special techniques, known as tantra, to speed the process up.
While Mahayana and Theravada practitioners may view this as unorthodox, Varjayana practitioners view this as the set of secret techniques that the Buddha could only reveal privately at first, or teachings which emerged in visions and dreams which could only be made public later, and even then only in full form to a select few.
And anyone who has studied Tibetan Buddhism knows that its meditation exercises aren’t traditional forms of meditation, such as meditations upon an object, one’s breath, the notion of impermanence, or many of the other more traditional topics.
Going beyond this, the visions themselves become more real to the initiate than everyday reality, liberating the practitioner from cravings related to the everyday world, by means of visions which, as practitioners are reminded frequently, arise and are decomposed back into luminous emptiness.
they increasingly come to see their envisioned dreams as having influence on their sensory embodied lives, and the everyday world becomes more and more like the virtual realities of these meditations.
And as initiates increasingly control their visions, they then begin to work to control ever more precise parts of their bodies with these visions. This is where physical yoga practices start to play a role.
And in all this, our own desires, our intentions often inmixed with cravings, are essential. If sutrayama is the path of the sutra, then tantrayana is the path of desire, and often in Tibetan literature these are described as the right hand path, and the left hand path, respectively, of the Buddha’s teachings.
The desire for the mentor to embody perfection produces an intersubjective situation similar to psychoanalytic transference, in which the desire of both analyst and patient is actually the engine of the cure.
Likewise, the mentor relationship, in which the mentor’s imperfect self is seen as a conduit to the inner enlightened self of the practitioner to be that they are, provides the relational network between subjects which allows them to pull each other up the chain by their desires into mutual self-transformation.
Likewise, the visions are supposed to become self-fulfilling prophecies of a sort. Rather than feel defeated, one imagines oneself as a deity of enlightened qualities, if one that we can only partially recognize because we have layers of illusion that we are only learning to see through.
In all of these Vajayana practices, the goal is for individuals to learn to separate from clinging to limiting self-conceptions, objects of desire, narratives of what one “should do” in the world, etc., and replace this with what is often called in Buddhist practice non-duality.
The goal is freedom to act in the world with less compulsion, for in the liberated world described in Buddhist visions, there is complete freedom from having to take any form, combined with the freedom of luminous emptiness to take many.
Tibetan Buddhism is an attempt to give this a concrete form that the maximum number of people can latch onto, by means of visualizations, introductory rituals, and a wider Buddhist society structured around these notions.
A Fourth Vehicle? Social Activism and Buddhist Practice
While this might seem like an oversimplification of the Buddhist message, the use of colorful picture stories to water down Buddhism for the masses, the fact is that the visions, meditations, and bodily exercises are carefully constructed,
And if we see this in the context of compassion, which is to say, the fact that it is impossible to achieve enlightenment without pointing the path out to the world, we see that the dream of a Buddhist society is in fact the very transformation that Tibet has tried to put into practice with its collective tantra.
it misses many of the liberatory potentials of what Buddhism could be, and is out of sync with the relative democracy and equality of early Buddhist societies as described in the early Buddhist scriptures.
Within all this, there remains however, and in all forms of Buddhism, a certain emphasis on quietism and individual liberation over activism and collective liberation. Tibetan Buddhism, like all Buddhism,
the more one will be a model that will inspire others to follow, in that, at least in theory, one will radiate bliss, and this will draw the desire of others to your path. In this way is it possible for the world to be transformed.
Nevertheless, without changing society as well, one liberated person meditating all day is likely to change very little of the world beyond themselves, and even though Buddhism, particularly in Vajrayana form, aims to dissolve the distinction between virtual and concrete, reality and fantasy, it often only does this within the individual mind.
Unless this is done collectively, it is likely very little of the world beyond the individual will change, and for a belief system which prizes the notion of no-self, this would seem to be an emphasis on the self which does not quite fit and is ultimately a major limitation.