The myth of Hinayana
Kåre A. Lie
In the centuries around the birth of Christ there was a radical development going on in Buddhism. A new school was born, and its adherents called it Mahayana. How this new school differed from the earlier schools, can be found in any history of Buddhism. Here we will concentrate on one of the results of this schism: the term Hinayana.
The adherents of the older schools criticized the Mahayanists, especially for creating new sutras, forging the word of the Buddha. The Mahayanists on the other side reacted to that critique by accusing their opponents of not understanding the teaching of the Buddha at all and for beeing narrowminded egoists. The debate got heated, and accusations flowed from both sides. Then some brilliant person at the Mahayana side of the debate created the word pair Mahayana/Hinayana, and it stuck. They called their opponents Hinayana, and this word worked excellently as an insult with a simplicity and a parallellity to Mahayana that any fool could grasp.
Hinayana, or, more correctly, hiinayaana, is a highly derogatory term. It does not simply mean "Lesser vehicle" as one often can see stated. The second element of hiina-yaana that is yaana means vehicle. But hiina very seldom has the simple meaning of "lesser" or "small". If that had been the case, the Pali (or Sanskrit) texts would have used it in other connections as an opposite of mahaa big. But they don't. The opposite of mahaa is cuu.la, so this is the normal word for "small".
The term Hinayana is an echo of a debate long dead or rather a debate where the one party is dead and the other one is shouting to the winds.
Who were the opponents who were labeled Hinayana? Theravada? Probably not. At the time when Mahayana was born, Theravada had mainly "emigrated" to Sri Lanka, and could hardly be counted among the dominating schools on the Indian mainland where the Mahayana/Hinayana debate took place. Theravadins are only sporadically mentioned in Mahayana works. In Karmasiddhiprakarana Vasubandhu respectfully calls them "the honorable Tamraparniyas" (Tamraparni was a name for Sri Lanka), and he does not call them "Hinayana". The most influential of the old schools at that time, was Sarvastivada, so they were the most probable but hardly the only target for the "Hinayana"-invectives.
Now the Sarvastivada and the other early schools of India at that time are long dead, except Theravada, but the debate and the arguments found their way into the Mahayana sutras, as for instance is apparent from the anti-Hinayana propaganda in the Lotus sutra and keep echoing in the Mahayana and Vajrayana teaching.
Today there is confusion, for the Mahayanists/Vajrayanists use the term Hinayana in three different ways:
1) In the historical sense: Pre-Mahayanist schools are called Hinayana.
2) Modern Theravada is confused with Hinayana.
3) The term Hinayana is used for an internal part of the Mahayana/Vajrayana teaching.
Let's have a closer look on these three usages.
1) Some assert that the word Hinayana as a term for the earlier schools is a usage that belongs to the distant past only. This is not correct. It can be found in several modern reference works, and in more specialist literature it can for instance be found in H.V. Guenther, Buddhist Philosophy In Theory and Practice, citing Tibetan works from the 18th and the 20th century.
2) As an example of confusing Hinayana with Theravada, I will quote from the Bibliography of Jane Hope (Jane Hope studied with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.), Buddha for beginners, printed in 1995 (I only have the Norwegian version available, so I hope my retranslation back into English will not be too inaccurate): "Hinayana Buddhism. A good introduction to the traditional Hinayana Buddhism is What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula ... From a present point of view and written by two Westerners trained in the Theravada tradition, is ... Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, by Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield ..."
3) Now for a persistent confusion that has its basis in Tibetan Buddhism. Some say that Hinayana and Mahayana from very early on are two terms used to describe two different spiritual attitudes, and quote from the 7th chapter ("Loving Kindness and Compassion") of the Tibetan classic The Jewel Ornament of Liberation written in the 10th century, where the author, Jé Gampopa refers to Hinayana as "lower capacity" ("theg pa dman pa"). The paragraph reads as follows: "Clinging to the well-being of mere peace(1)' signifies the lower capacity attitude(2) wherein the longing to transcend suffering is focused on oneself alone. This precludes the cherishing of others and hence there is little development of altruism. [...] When loving kindness and compassion become part of one, there is so much care for other conscious beings that one could not bear to liberate oneself alone. [...] Master Manjushriikiirti has said: A Mahaayaana follower should not be without loving kindness and compassion for even a single moment', and It is not anger and hatred but loving kindness and compassion that vouchsafe the welfare of others'."
The footnotes to this passage read as follows: (1) The Tibetan zhi.ba means "peace". It is translated as "mere peace" in this section of the book, since it is used by Gampopa to denote the relatively compassionless peace that results from developing only concentration meditation. (2) Hinayana: "lesser capacity" often translated as "lesser vehicle". The term implies the ability to carry a burden. In this case the burden is oneself since one's commitment is to bring oneself to liberation, not everyone (as is the case in the Mahayana, the "greater capacity").
The problem and confusion here is of course that this analysis does not refer directly to the Pali/Sanskrit word hiinayaana, but to its Tibetan translation "theg pa dman pa". This is a key issue, as will be shown below.
The word Hinayana is not Tibetan, it is not Chinese, English or Bantu. It is Pali and Sanskrit. Therefore, the only sensible approach for finding the meaning of the word, is to study how the word hiinayaana is used in the Pali and Sanskrit texts.
The second element, -yaana, means vehicle. There is no dissent about this.
How then is "hiina" used in the canonical Pali texts?
Every Buddhist knows the first recorded sermon of the Buddha, the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta spoken to the five ascets who became the first five bhikkhus. There the Buddha says: "These two extremes, monks, are not to be practised by one who has gone forth from the world. What are the two? That conjoined with the passions and luxury, low (hiina), coarse, vulgar, ignoble and harmful ..."
Knowing that the sutta style often use strings of synonyms this way, so that they strengthen and define each other, one can regard "coarse, vulgar, ignoble and harmful" as auxiliary definitions of "hiina" in this case.
Here the Buddha clearly denotes the path not to be practised, as hiina.
In other Pali texts and commentaries hiina often occurs in the combination hiina-majjhima-pa.niita, that is: bad - medium - good. In the context of hiina - majjhima - pa.niita (or sometimes only hiina - pa.niita) the word hiina is always used as a term for undesirable qualities, like for instance hatred, greed and ignorance. It obviously means "low, undesirable, despicable" and not "small" or "lesser".
The commentary Mahaniddesa-atthakatha, one of the texts where this triad occurs, defines the word thus: hiinattike hiinaati laamakaa (In the hiina-triad "hiina" is "laamakaa"). Now laamaka is defined by the PTS Dictionary in this way: "insignificant, poor, inferior, bad, sinful. The usual synonym is paapa". And paapa means "bad, evil". So it seems the definitions go from bad to worse here. The commentary then gives examples, and explains that desires that cause rebirth in niraya (hell, purgatory) are hiina.
Now for Sanskrit texts. In Lalitavistara we find a version of the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta, where the word "hiina" is used exactly as in the above citation from the Pali-version of that sutta.
In Mahayanasutralankara by Asanga, which is a very representativ Mahayana text, we find something of interest for our quest. Asanga says: "There are three groups of people: hiina-madhyama-vishishta ...(bad medium excellent)." This expression is parallell to the Pali: hiina-majjhima-pa.niita, and goes to show that the Mahayanists who coined the therm "hiinayaana", regarded "hiina" as a derogatory term, with the same meaning as in the Pali texts.
A very interesting text is an edition of the Catushparishatsutra where the text is presented in four parallell columns: Sanskrit, Pali (Mahavagga), Tibetan and a German translation from a Chinese version. Here, again, we find the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta. We have already looked into the Sanskrit and Pali. The German version from the Chinese says: "Erstens: Gefallen zu finden an und anzunehmen die niedrigen und üblen Sitten der gewöhnliche Personen ..." It is a little unclear wether it here is "niedrigen" (despicable) or "üblen" (evil, bad) that corresponds to "hiina". But it at least is clear that the strongly negative connotation of "hiina" was carried over into the Chinese translation. So far nothing had changed from the Pali and Sanskrit meanings.
In the the Tibetan column, we find that the Tibetan word "dman-pa" takes the place corresponding to the Sanskrit "hiina", matching the above quote from Jé Gampopa. And here we have the cause of later confusions and misunderstandings of the term hiinayaana. Let us see what Tibetan-English dictionaries say about "dman-pa": Sarat Chandra Das' Dictionary says: "dman-pa: low, in reference to quantity or quality, little". Jäschke's Dictionary is even more enlightening: "dman-pa: 1. low, in reference to quantity, little. 2. in reference to quality: indifferent, inferior (Ssk: hiina)."
It thus seems that the Sanskrit word hiina, which without any reasonable doubt means "of low quality", came to be translated by the Tibetan word dman-pa, which has the double meaning "low quality" and "low quantity". And the above quote from Jé Gampopa seems to indicate that many Tibetans henceforth read only the latter of those two meanings into it, as "lesser capacity", "lower capacity", so that the meaning was distorted from "low quality" to "low quantity".
Thus we see that the confusion arose from the fact that dman-pa has two meanings in Tibetan. Hinayana originally meaning "vehicle of despicable quality" thus acquired the new meaning "vehicle of lower capacity". But this is a result of a wrong method. It is of course wrong to project the new Tibetan meaning back onto the Sanskrit/Pali word, and say that "this is the meaning of Hinayana, because this is how the Tibetan masters explain it." What the Tibetan masters explain, is the Tibetan word dman-pa, not the Sanskrit word hiina.
Therefore it is clear that one can not assert that Hinayana has the "mild" meaning that the Tibetan tradition has given it, via the Tibetan word dman-pa. Hinayana is not Tibetan, it is Sanskrit/Pali, and its harsh, derogatory meaning is unchanged by any attempts of mitigation.
What then, is Hinayana? Is it Theravada buddhism? No, that is both insulting and probably also historically wrong. Is it a spiritual attitude inside the Mahayana and Vajrayana system? No, that is the Tibetan "theg pa dman pa", the lower capacity attitude, and not the Sanskrit Hinayana, "the inferior vehicle". Therefore, there is no Hinayana. Hinayana is nothing but a myth, although a confused and disruptive one, and wise Buddhists ought to lay that word at rest on the shelves of the Museum of Schisms, where it rightly belongs, and find other words to denote those spiritual attitudes that they wish to define.
Copyright @ 2006, Kåre A. Lie. All rights reserved.