THE THREE VEHICLES
"The difference between the wise Buddhist and the sectarian Buddhist
is like that between the vastness of space and the narrowness of a vase."
"Somebody once asked how one could fit together various traditions
that represented the Buddha's teaching. One can think
of Buddha's Dharma as a wonderful seed planted in the
earth, out of which has blossomed a tree with deep roots,
great branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits.
Sometimes a person might point to the roots and say that it is just
here that we can find the real Dharma, while someone else
might say, "Oh no it is in the flowers," and
still another will say that it is to be found in the fruit.
But, of course, these different parts cannot really be
separated; the roots sustain the tree in their way, and
the fruit depends on the roots and leaves and branches
In order to clarify the variations between the many different schools and
traditions of Buddhism, the schools are often divided into the three Yanas
(Skt.), meaning 'Vehicles' or 'Paths'. These three are; the Hinayana,
Mahayana and Tantrayana.
Within the various vehicles, much variation can still exist, which is further
explained in the pages that deal with the traditions, like Zen
and Tibetan Buddhism.
A major reason for this development of different schools within Buddhism may
be that the Buddha taught for decades. Given the vast amount of teachings
it is not easy to unanimously decide what the exact interpretation of all
teachings should be, or even how to summarise hem logically.
Depending on who the Buddha would be teaching to, the explanation would be
quite different and sometimes seemingly contradictory. This can be understood
as skilful means; a satisfying explanation to a learned philosopher is probably
too complex for an uneducated person. On top of this, the Buddha clearly stated
that he did not just intend to teach a doctrine, but intended to show the
path that people can follow for their own development. This intention ultimately
leads to the point where every individual has to decide which practices to
follow and how to interpret the teachings, rather than adhering to a fixed
THE THREE COUNCILS
Below explanation of the councils is mainly derived from Ven. Dr. W. Rahula's
of Buddhist Wisdom", also: from: Asian
Sasana and "A Concise History of Buddhism" by Andrew Skilton
The First Council
Three months after the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana (passing
away), his immediate disciples convened a council at Sattapanni Cave Pavilion
at Mount Vebhara near the city of Rajagaha (Rajgir). Maha Kassapa, the most
respected and senior monk, presided at the Council. Two very important personalities
who specialised in the two areas of the teachings:
- The Dharma: Ananda, the closest constant companion and disciple of
the Buddha for 25 years. Endowed with a remarkable memory, Ananda was able
to recite what was spoken by the Buddha.
- The Vinaya: Upali remembered all the Vinaya rules.
Only these two sections - the Dharma and the Vinaya - were recited at the
First Council, which lasted seven months. Though there were no differences
of opinion on the Dharma (no mention was made of the Abhidharma yet) there
was some discussion about the Vinaya rules. Before the Buddha's Parinirvanana,
he had told Ananda that if the Sangha wished to amend or modify some minor
rules, they could do so. But Ananda forgot to ask the Buddha what the minor
rules were. As the members of the Council were unable to agree as to what
constituted the minor rules, Maha Kassapa finally ruled that no disciplinary
rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones should be
introduced. No intrinsic reason was given. Maha Kassapa did say one thing,
however: "If we changed the rules, people will say that Ven. Gautama's disciples
changed the rules even before his funeral fire has ceased burning."
At the Council, the Dharma was divided into various parts and each part was
assigned to an Elder and his pupils to commit to memory. The Dharma was then
passed on from teacher to pupil orally. The Dharma was recited daily by groups
of people who regularly cross-checked with each other to ensure that no omissions
or additions were made.
The Second Council
According to the Theravadin school (Rahula), about one hundred
years after the Buddha's passing away(approx. 443 BCE), the Second Council
was held at Valukarama monastery, near the city of Vesali to discuss some
Vinaya rules, and lasted eight months. No controversy about the Dharma was
reported, but some monks insisted on modifying some monks rules, and the orthodox
monks (Sthavarivada) said that nothing should be changed. Finally, a group
of monks left the Council and formed the Mahasanghika - the Great Community.
(The Mahasanghika should not to be confused with Mahayana.)
According to another version (Skilton), the Second Council may have had two
parts: initially in Vaisali, some 60 years after the Buddha, and 40 years
after that, a meeting in Pataliputra, where Mahadeva maintained five theses
on the Arhat. The actual split may have occurred at Pataliputra, not Vaisali
over details of the Vinaya. In the non-Theravadin version of events, the Mahasangha
followed the original vinaya and the Sthaviravada (the Elders) wanted changes.
What exactly happened is unlikely to be ever revealed, but the first split
in the Sangha was a fact.
The Third Council
During the reign of Emperor Asoka in approx. 308 BCE, the
Third Council was held at Asokarama Monastery in the city of Pataliputta to
discuss the differences of opinion among the bhikkhus of different sects (some
reports speak of 'Sixty thousand ascetics infiltrated into the Sangha Order,
polluted the Sasana by their corrupt lives and heretical views. That is the
main reason why the Third Council was held by one thousand arahats.') At this
Council differences of opinion were not confined to the Vinaya, but also concerned
the Dharma. The President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book
called the Kathavatthu which refuted the heretical, false views and theories
held by some sects occurring at the time. The teaching approved and accepted
by this Council became known as Sthaviras or Theravada, "Teaching of
the Elders". The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included at this Council.
After the Third Council, King Asoka sent nine missions to Sri Lanka, Kanara,
Karnataka, Kashmir, Himalaya region, Burma, even nowadays Afghanistan. Asoka's
son, Ven. Mahinda, brought the Tripitaka to Sri Lanka, along with the commentaries
that were recited at the Third Council. These teachings later became known
as the "Pali-canon".
For more on the great councils, visit
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THERAVADA AND HINAYANA
As mentioned above, the Theravada tradition is based on
the set of teachings decided by the Third Council to contain the teachings
of the Buddha.
Lanka has played a central role in preserving the Theravada scriptures and
practices. After the Third Council, the Tripitaka collection of sutras were
taken to Shri Lanka. Most of these were originally in the Pali language, but
some were compiled in other languages. Through the centuries however, all
teachings were translated into Pali (around 35 BCE). Initially, most ordained
Sangha were known as parivrajahas (wanderers). They would assemble during
the rainy season when travelling became problematic. Gradually, buildings
were donated and the Sangha became more static. Just a century after the Buddha
passed away, monasteries became the main mechanism for preservation of the
teachings. Also extra monastic rules were introduced. Only during one short
period in history Buddhism was banned in Shri Lanka, but it was later restored
with teachings from Thailand which in turn had originated in Shri Lanka. The
main countries where the Theravada tradition is currently alive and well in
Shri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.
The teachings on the Four Noble Truths and meditation form the basis of Theravada
The term Hinayana (smaller Vehicle) appeared only much later,
around the first century CE, when teachings of a different nature appeared
which were called Mahayana (greater Vehicle).
In India, non-Mahayana or Hinayana sects developed independent from the form
of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka. Today, there is no Hinayana tradition in
existence anywhere, although Theravada could be called the tradition most
like Hinayana. The ultimate goal of the Theravadin and other non-Mahayana
practice is to attain the state of an Arhat, as Buddhahood is considered
practically unachievable for nearly everyone within this aeon.
Although helping other sentient beings is accepted as an important Buddhist
practice, the main motivation for following the spiritual path is to achieve
liberation for oneself - Nirvana.
Due to the negative connotation of the term Hinayana, the World Fellowship
of Buddhists decided that the term Hinayana should be dropped to refer to
Buddhism existing today, and the term Theravada should be applied, also because
the term Hinayana has a negative connotation.
The Mahayana appears to have developed between the 1st Century
BC to the 1st Century CE. About the 2nd Century CE Mahayana became clearly
defined. Master Nagarjuna developed the Mahayana philosophy of Sunyata (emptiness)
and proved that everything is 'Void' (not only the self) in a small text called
Madhyamika-karika. After the 1st Century CE., the Mahayanists took a definite
stand and only then the terms of Mahayana and Hinayana were introduced.
Around the first century CE, teachings of a different style
appeared. The terms Mahayana and Hinayana appeared in the Saddharma Pundarika
Sutra or the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law. Of great influence to the
development of the Mahayana was Master Nagarjuna (2nd Century CE) who is known
for his profound teachings on the philosophy of emptiness. About the 4th Century
CE, the Masters Asanga and Vasubandhu wrote enormous amount of works on Mahayana.
The Mahayana teachings were mainly written down in Sanskrit, and are now called
the Mahayana Sutras.
A clear division arose between the schools following the traditional teachings
and Mahayana. Although the main philosophical differences may be small, they
have profound consequences for the practices involved.
The Mahayana philosophy is based on the older tradition and fully accepts
these teachings, but not all traditional interpretations. One of the most
important aspects is for example the traditional interpretation that Buddhahood
can be achieved only by very few people. The Mahayana teaches instead that
every sentient being (being with a mind) can become a Buddha, the only thing
preventing our full enlightenment is the failure to improve one's own actions
and state of mind. The Mahayana tradition claims that all their sutras have
been taught directly by Shakyamuni Buddha or have at least been inspired by
The main Mahayana motivation is to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment.
Liberation from cyclic existence (Nirvana) and Buddhahood for oneself are
regarded simply as fortunate by-products of one's efforts to help all beings.
In fact, the only possible motivation with which one can become a Buddha is
the altruistic wish to lead all sentient beings away from suffering.
This motivation is reflected in taking an additional set of vows, known as
Bodhisattva vows on top of taking Refuge. The main vow is to free all
sentient beings from suffering. These vows are not taken for this life only,
but for all future lives as well, until this goal is achieved. The main practices
of a Mahayanist are summarised in the 6 perfections: the perfection
of giving, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom.
The Mahayana tradition mainly developed in North India, and spread further
North into China and Tibet. In China, Buddhist philosophy and practice was
often mixed with Taoist and Confucian aspects. Via China, Mahayana Buddhism
also spread to other countries like Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Japan.
Also, in China the Ch'an tradition evolved, which was introduced into Japan,
and there developed into Zen. Also, the very popular Pure Land Buddhism developed,
which focuses on being reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha, mainly through
recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name. Pure Land Buddhism is known as Jodo
In contrast to the current very clear division between Theravada
and Mahayana schools, it must be noted that for many centuries, monasteries
in India were filled with monks of both traditions. It was considered a very
personal decision to choose for individual liberation or Buddhahood. The monastic
and ordination rules are virtually the same, and the teachings overlap to
a great extent. See for example this important
text from the World Buddhist Sangha Council convened by Theravadins in Sri
Lanka in 1966.
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the 6th. century AD, within the Mahayana tradition the tantras or tantric
texts emerged. Based firmly on the Hinayana and Mahayana tradition, the actual
philosophy differs only slightly from the Mahayana, but the practices can
be quite different.
Prior to engaging in tantric practices, a proper understanding of the Hinayana
and Mahayana philosophy is considered essential. Only then should one obtain
initiation or permission from a qualified tantric master to do a specific
Tantric practices are psychologically very profound techniques to quickly
achieve Buddhahood. This is considered important, not for oneself, but because
as a Buddha one has the best achievable qualities to help others. The motivation
is: 'the faster I can achieve Buddhahood, the sooner I can be of maximum benefit
Depending on the class of tantra, extra vows may need to be taken on top of
the Refuge and Bodhisattva vows. Also, specific commitments may be required
like doing a specific retreat, daily recitation of mantras or a daily meditation
practice. (For more details see the page on Tantra.)
In the 8th. century, the Mahayana and Tantrayana (or Vajrayana) traditions
of (North) Indian Buddhism were introduced into Tibet. In fact, only in Tibet,
Bhutan and Mongolia a virtually complete set of tantric teachings was preserved.
The Tibetan tradition can also be found in the Himalayan range of Ladakh (Northwest
India), Sikkhim (Northeast India) and Nepal, and in Mongolia (which is virtually
identical to the Tibetan tradition). In China and countries like Korea and
Japan, remnants of Vajrayana can be found.
The term Sutrayana is used within the Mahayana to indicate the non-tantric
DO THESE TRADITIONS CONTRADICT?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama noted the following in the book 'The Heart
"It is very important to understand that the core teachings of the
Theravada tradition embodied in the Pali scriptures are the foundation of
the Buddha's teachings. Beginning with these teachings, one can then draw
on the insights contained in the detailed explanations of the Sanskrit Mahayana
tradition. Finally, integrating techniques and perspectives from the Vajrayana
texts can further enhance one's understanding. But without a foundation
in the core teachings embodied in the Pali tradition, simply proclaiming
oneself a follower of the Mahayana is meaningless.
If one has this kind of deeper understanding of various scriptures and their
interpretation, one is spared from harboring mis-taken notions of
conflicts between the "Greater" versus the "Lesser"
Vehicle (Hinayana). Sometimes there is a regrettable tendency on the part
of certain followers of the Mahayana to disparage the teachings of the Theravada,
claiming that they are the teachings of the Lesser Vehicle, and thereby
not suited to one's own personal practice. Similarly, on the part of followers
of the Pali tradition, there is sometimes a tendency to reject the validity
of the Mahayana teachings, claiming they are not actually the Buddha's teachings.
As we move into our examination of the Heart Sutra, what is important is
to understand deeply how these traditions complement each other and to see
how, at the individual level, each of us can integrate all these core teachings
into our personal practice."
Along the same lines, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, from Parting from the Four Attachments, Kathmandu, Nepal 2009
"Buddha said in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, that the bodhisattvas should never abandon the dharma. By this he meant that if a bodhisattva were to think, 'Oh, this person is only teaching the Shravakayana, that person is teaching only the Pratyekabuddhayana,' then even that can be considered as abandoning the dharma, which is one of the most hideous nonvirtuous actions. Thinking in this way means you have developed an attitude, considering Mahayana as the supreme and all the other vehicles as lesser. An ecumenical or nonsectarian attitude to the teachings of the Buddha is so much required—especially if you are practicing the Mahayana path."
Click for a web site with an extensive history
and philosophy of Buddhism.
Just for fun
There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.
George Bernard Shaw
Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized
I was talking to myself.
May 11, 2015