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One Buddhism - Many Vehicles


Scholars of Buddhism generally divide its various schools into three main categories – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Sometimes Vajrayana is considered a type of Mahayana vehicle, and for the purposes of this essay I will treat it as such.


Theravada, “path of the elders,” has faithfully preserved the scriptures of the Pali Canon, which many believe contain the most authentic words of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gotama). While Mahayana schools follow these basic teachings, they also rely on various Sanskrit scriptures, which Theravada does not consider authentic. Theravada is a very precise vehicle for reaching enlightenment. It is well-suited for those who prefer method and an individual emphasis, rather than a group minded devotionalism or a grand metaphysics. Today people usually equate Theravada with Vipassana, but it is more than that. I would encourage any student of Buddhism to be familiar with these teachings, which is why I included a Theravada website on my links page.


The Mahayana, “great path,” vehicle contains many different schools, all sharing the basic premise that enlightenment is open to all, since we all have Buddha-nature. Vajrayana (tantric) Buddhism, “path of the diamond/thunderbolt,” utilizes a rapid method of reaching enlightenment. The point is to get your own enlightenment out of the way as fast as possible so you can spend more time benefiting others. It considered a difficult, but powerful, way to speed up our evolution. In Vajrayana, the path is divided into three stages. First is the Hinayana, “small vehicle,” path (not to be confused with Theravada). The practitioner must first work on themselves and acquire self-discipline. Second, the Mahayana path switches the focus towards others, and one develops compassion. Lastly, one realizes that enlightenment is already the inherent quality of everything. Reaching the “end” means that one delights in this perfect awareness, effortlessly living in joy, and automatically spreading joy to all. This should be seen as the fruit of understanding, not the attitude of the beginner, obviously.


In theory, Mahayana should respect Theravada, since the teachings of the historical Buddha form the basis of all subsequent schools. Theravadans, rightfully, might take issue with the notion that the Mahayana path is more complete. However, this does not mean that the Theravada vehicle is more valid either. One Buddhist monk I greatly admire, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, unfortunately seems to take this line of reasoning.


In an otherwise great essay called “No-self or Not-self?” he writes that “No matter how you define the line between ‘self’ and ‘other,’ the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress.” This much I completely agree with, but it continues … “This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no ‘other,’ as it does for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree.”


Parts suffer, not the whole. A self that has no other is really not a self at all. Furthermore, this trivializes compassion. Understanding the pain of others allows us to accept the law of karma.


In his view of emptiness he downplays Mahayana insights. He writes “If … you see emptiness as the ground of being to which we’re all going to return, then what need is there to train the mind in concentration and discernment, since we’re all going to get there anyway? And even if we need training to get back to our ground of being…” There is no need to comment here, because he answers his own question, but it continues … “what’s to keep us from coming out of it and suffering all over again?” The goal of Mahayana goal is not for individuals to leave the cycle of existence. What matters is that we realize, and help others realize, that there is an indestructible consciousness that is never born and never dies. You can call it a “ground of being” if you wish. Coming out of it temporarily is not a big deal because it’s inexhaustible.  


In his essay on samsara, he makes some good points on the need for transcendence, but I don’t agree that creation itself is a bad thing, or that it always involves unnecessary suffering. “Instead of a place, it’s a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them.” It is helpful to view samsara as a process. But there is a sphere in which suffering is created - the physical/mental realm. It's like a house that we live in. If you are aware of what's outside the house, and you have the means to do so, you can leave whenever you want. An enlightened person understands how we got trapped in the house. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says - “the further shore has no ‘here,’ no ‘there,’ no ‘in between.’ ” We are not stuck, we are already free. Creating the house is not the problem, forgetting about our freedom is.


He does acknowledge that “The play and creativity in the process can sometimes be enjoyable.” Where I would go further is in asserting that if one is enlightened, one can fully enjoy the world and not reject it. As the Yoga Vasishtha puts it “For the ignorant person, this body is the source of endless suffering, but to the wise person, this body is the source of infinite delight.” In a tantric sense, non-duality means you enjoy the eternal bliss of enlightenment, and you are also in touch with the temporary ups and downs of the world. I agree with Thanisarro Bhikkhu that our spiritual goal should involve not exploiting others or creating more suffering. “When you learn the skills needed to stop creating your own worlds of suffering, you can share those skills with others so that they can stop creating theirs. At the same time, you'll never have to feed off the worlds of others, so to that extent you're lightening their load as well.” This is actually the ideal of the Bodhisattva vow.


Literally, Bodhisattva means “essence of awakening.” A Bodhisattva is a being who is real close to nirvana. In Mahayana belief, a Bodhisattva should not to go all the way until everyone else has the same realization. If one enters para-nirvana, the state of nirvana after death (bodily death, not just ego-death), that person never enters the world again. Though we have the teachings of the historical Buddha to guide us, they will eventually be forgotten. To reach nirvana we need the example of a living Arhat (liberated being). If they’re all gone, the world will have to wait, maybe millions of years, for another being to evolve into Buddhahood. Therefore, we need Bodhisattvas to preserve the Dharma. This idea degenerates into superstition if you take it too literally, as though a Bodhisattva is a magical being flying around saving people. I think it is more likely that a Bodhisattva would be a person who spends each life-time working towards enlightenment. What makes them special is that their spiritual practice benefits others over and above whatever mistakes they make. In the popular notion of reincarnation, it is our personalities that are reborn, but according to the esoteric traditions, what remains are the deeper lessons we learn in each life. Our preferences are relative, depending on our specific culture, mind, and body. At some point we’ve probably been members of every race and culture. The best thing about this world is its potential for furthering our awakening, and it provides endless opportunities if we open up to it.  


While some might view the Mahayana movement as a regression, I see it as a rich tradition. Buddhism has never been completely static, and even Theravada, which took root in Sri Lanka, came from schools in India that have died out. What all schools of Buddhism have in common is a focus on awakening and mental purification. There are many different people, and there are many different methods of reaching each personality.


Let me reiterate that I have a lot of respect for the Theravada vehicle. My purpose is to show that there is room for other approaches, not to prove who is right or wrong. The Buddha used his teachings in the context of health versus illness. One analogy he used was that of a man being shot with a poison arrow. If you were in that situation, you would not be concerned with what material the arrow was made of, what town the archer was from, or how fast the arrow traveled. Instead, you would focus on how to pull the arrow out. Similarly, we should feel the same sense of urgency in reaching enlightenment, rather than concerning ourselves too much with esoteric questions. However, to continue with the analogy, the Buddha did not say what the man does after the arrow is pulled out. One response would be to feel gratitude towards those who helped him, analogous to religious expression. Another response would be to help others in the same situation, analogous to the Bodhisattva vow. For this reason, I do not think the path ever really ends, but like everything else, it just changes.