Hinayana – NOTE

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Western academics generally identify Hinayana (Sanskrit lit. Lesser Vehicle) as a term used to identify ancient Indian schools of Buddhism that are now mostly extinct; they go on to say that none of the schools originally designated as ‘Hinayana’ survive today, but the Theravada School of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand is descended from the Sthaviravādin School (see below) which ‘was Hinayana’.

However, according to Tsongkhapa (Lamrimchenmo -Snowlion p130) many Mahayana schools (who, after all, coined the term) do not identify Hinayana in this way at all. The term indicates two of the three paths and three classes of liberation. These three classes of liberation are all identified as freedom from samsara. These are:

  • Shravakayana: The Hearer vehicle; practitioners are liberated as Shravaka Arhats.

  • Pratyekayana: The Solitary vehicle; practitioners are liberated as Pratyeka Arhats.

  • Bodhisattvayana: The Buddha-mind vehicle; practitioners are liberated as Buddhas.

The Mahayana schools group the first two paths together, as the result is a state of Arhat. Whereas the last path is identified as distinct, because the result is a state of Buddha. The usage of ‘Hina-‘ as a prefix therefore covers those paths that do not result in Buddhahood. So the reason why the paths were called ‘low’ was that Buddhahood was not a result; (though some schools say that after an inordinate period of time, Arhats then ‘wake-up’ to follow the Mahayana path).

Many Mahayana texts say that there are many followers of Mahayana schools who are actually following Hinayana paths. This is not bad in itself – these followers will still achieve liberation.

Also, the 18,000 verse perfection of wisdom sutra (a mahayana sutra) states: “Bodhisattvas should practice all paths – whatever is a path of a sravaka, a pratyeka or a Buddha – and should know all paths.” Tsongkhapa goes on to say (LRCM) “Mahayana followers must practice all those things taught in the Hinayana scriptures, with a few exceptions, such as diligently seeking blissful peace for ones-self alone.”

Moreover, several Mahayana teachers say that there are Theravada practitioners who are following Mahayana paths. This shows us that the terms Hinayana and Mahayana are NOT to do with historic schools, but are to do with the personal intentions of practitioners.

However, certainly at a political level, Hinayana is thought of as pejorative by the Theravada school – the word hina has several different connotations, and can also mean low, poor, miserable; vile, base, abject, contemptible, despicable” (Pali Text Society Dictionary) as well as “inferior, humble”.

So Western academics have now got themselves into a pickle: They used a term that they didn’t really understand (in terms of it’s original usage) to mean something that suited their current research. Now, unhappy with the consequences of their actions, they are having to find an alternative that meets their requirements.

Up until recently, there wasn’t a widely accepted, or understood, alternative. Early Buddhism is frequently used, but is not entirely accurate because some of the ‘early’ schools arose later than the Mahayana schools. The use of Theravada is not correct either as the Theravada are not representative of the other early schools; and indeed almost every modern school has roots that go back to those early schools.

Shravakayana is another term that has been used and initially appears to be a useful one in that it appears to indicate the earliness of most of the schools (Shravaka means hearer [of the Buddha]), and it has no unfortunate connotations in the dictionaries. But of course, it doesn’t actually mean what academics would wish it to mean; the Buddhist schools who coined Shravakayana have already defined it in an alternative manner as above.

The recent explosion of research into early Buddhism has found out that these early schools had many Mahayana practitioners in them, especially in the final centuries of their lifespan. Scholars are beginning to realise that both Mahayana and Sravakayana monks could co-exist in the same monastaries, under the same monastic Vinaya, in the same ‘school’.

Shramana is a term that can be used to indicate early Buddhist schools. It does not attempt to divide the schools according to doctrine or path, but identifies the split between Buddhism and Brahmanism (proto-Hinduism). Most modern Indian historians use the term Shramana, and it works well as a means of describing all the early traditions of renunciation. Therefore, if we really wish to indicate just the Buddhist Shramana traditions, we can say.. Buddhist Shramana tradition! So the term Shramana meets the criteria of academics and historians whereas the terms Hinayana and Sravakayana continue to lead them into a misdirected and politicized arena.

Regardless, regarding the Theravada, nowadays most Tibetan Schools, as well as many Chinese and other Mahayana schools, are adopting the term “Shravakayana” when referring to the Theravada, as it is more accurate than ‘Hinayana’ to describe them (because the Theravada themselves assert that they follow Hearer vehicle sutras). Moreover, it demonstrates that Mahayana schools are not trying to assert superiority over their Theravada brothers and sisters. (It is true that many Mahayana scriptures warn against ‘falling’ into the hinayana path, but this has nothing to do with schools! This is to do with developing a strong intention for Buddhahood).

Some remnants of the schools (that academics have labelled hinayana) do still exist: the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism still use a Sarvastivada vinaya, and Chinese schools use one from the Dharmagupta school. Fragments of the canon of texts from these schools also survive such as the Mahavastu of the Mahasanghika School. Other texts survive only in Tibetan and/or Chinese translation. Although it is claimed that the Theravadin Pali Canon survived intact in the language in which it was originally written down, recent academic research suggests that there are indications of other languages used.


Although some texts mention eighteen ‘hīnayana’ schools in India, by the time the Chinese Pilgrims Hsuan-tsang and I Ching visited India in the medieval period there where five that they mention far more frequently than others.

Around 100 years after the death of the Buddha the first division of the Sangha occured. This resulted in the Sthaviravādin and Mahāsanghika schools. Opinions differ on the cause of the split with the Theravadins recording that the other party were lax monks who had ceased to follow all the Vinaya rules. The Mahāsanghikas however point to the Sthaviravādin wishing to include more rules into the Vinaya. The Mahāsanghikas split into several sub-schools of minor importance.

The Sthaviravādin School had, by the time of King Asoka divided into three sub-schools. The Sammitīya School later became known as the Pudgalavādin but died out around the 9th or 10th century CE. The Sarvāstivādin school, was most prominant in the North West of India and provided some of the doctrines that would later be adopted by the Mahāyana. It split into two major sub-sects, the Vaibhāsika and Sautrāntika Schools. Finally there is the Vibhajyavādin school which had a particular interest in the analytical approach to the Dharma and produced a voluminous Abhidharma tradition. From the Vibhajyavādins we get the Theravādin School which was founded in Sri Lanka, and the Mahīshāsika School in South East India.

See also: Theravada and Mahayana

External links


  • [Early India from the Origins to AD 1300] Romila Thapar, Penguin, 2001

  • [The great treatise on the stages of the path to enlightenment] Tsongkhapa, Snowlion, 2000