Which Yana?

There were a couple of points I wanted to make in my previous post about my decades-long flirtation with Buddhism, but which I totally forgot.  That’s just as well; it’s grist for a new post, and it will allow me to expand at greater length on what I was going to say there.  In order to do that, I’ll need to do some groundwork and unpacking of just what I mean.

All major religions consist of numerous sects.  Many faiths claim to be universal, the One True Faith, the only accurate portrait of reality, the great path meant for all mankind.  Mankind, however, is a contentious thing, and one of the very most characteristic traits of human beings is their tendency to disagree.  This is as much true in the realm of religion as in politics, culture, language, and any other areas of human life.  As much as religions may preach a message of unity, in actuality they all manifest, to various degrees, disunity.

In the case of the more familiar religions, the divisions are well-known.  Christianity, for example, consists of the Catholic Church, the various branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the various Protestant churches, as well as a few other smaller groups (those who are into mind-numbing detail as to the various divisions of Christianity may go here for quite a bit of religious inside baseball, if they so wish).  Judaism is divided into Orthodox, Reform, and (in the US) Conservative branches, as well as some smaller groups (Reconstructionist, Karaite, and so on).  Though Islam is less familiar in the West, the politics of the Middle East have given Westerners at least a passing awareness of the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam.

Buddhism is a bit of a paradox in this respect.  Though sources vary, Buddhists probably represent no more than one percent of the population of the United States.  Despite this, it has become highly visible in the U.S. since the 80’s.  This is partly because of increased recognition of the plight of Tibet along with the concurrent popularity of the present Dalai Lama.  Moreover, many high-profile celebrities, not least of them Richard Gere, have embraced and promoted Buddhism.  Also, secularized forms of Buddhist meditation, such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (among others), have come to be widely practiced even by people who do not consider themselves Buddhist at all.  Despite all this, the denominations and divisions of Buddhism are not very well-known in this country.  That, then, is where I’ll start.

Back in the early 80’s when I was first studying world religions–including, of course, Buddhism–the books I read described Buddhism as having two major branches, Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna.  Later on, I learned about Vajrayāna, formerly often subsumed by Western scholars under Mahayana (henceforth I drop the diacritics).  At this point, I should make it crystal clear that I am quite aware that “Hinayana” is a term not considered appropriate in polite company these days, having in fact discussed this in the past.  I will shift over to another usage later in this post.  I need to point out, though, that it wasn’t until the 90’s, at least, that I was even aware of the issue with the name.  There are in fact some organizations that in some contexts still use “Hinayana” (though they are usually at pains to interpret what they mean by the term).  In any case, I do not in any way, shape, or form, intend to offend any of my readers here.  I am rather developing the concepts involved in discussing the divisions of Buddhism, including why they have been called by certain terms, why certain terms are no longer seen as acceptable, and the difficulties that this produces. Thus, let us put aside the appropriateness of the term “Hinayana” for just a bit.  We’ll get there–I promise.

These names derive from an important concept in Buddhism.  In the Alagaddūpama Sutta, the Buddha said, “In the past, monks, and also now, I teach dukkha [suffering] and the cessation of dukkha.”  This is sometimes less accurately rendered as something along the lines of “I teach only suffering and the cessation of suffering.”  The difference is not great, and it displays quite well the Buddha’s pragmatism.  I tend to disagree with the modern tendency to present Buddhism as a philosophy instead of a religion–though that is a a topic for a future post.  Still, there is definitely a flavor to Buddhism that is substantially different from other religions.  In the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha has this to say (my emphasis):

Monks, I will teach you the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.

Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him…”What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft…?” Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, and leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore…. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, “How useful this raft has been to me!

Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying it on my back, go wherever I like?”

Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?

And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, “How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that…I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?” In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.

It is clear from this that the Buddha is a supreme pragmatist.  Rather than proclaiming the Dharma (his teaching, the Buddhist religion, given in the quote above in the Pali form “Dhamma”) as the One True Faith, something to be held for all eternity, he is very clear that it is purely of instrumental value.  Most religions, explicitly or implicitly, present themselves as the One True Faith, valid from age to age.  The Buddha, by contrast, presents his teaching in terms of its usefulness.  The Dharma is to be used to escape the cycle of suffering in the wheel of birth and rebirth (samsara) and enter into cessation of suffering (nirvana).  After that, though, it has achieved its purpose and is of no further use–just as dragging a raft along with oneself after one has used it to cross a river would be pointless and stupid.

For this reason, in Buddhism, the teaching of the Buddha is often referred to by the term yāna, “vehicle”.  As with a raft, the Dharma is a means to get from point A to point B, after which it is of no further use.  The major divisions of Buddhism, therefore, have come to be referred to in this light.  “Hinayana” means “Small Vehicle” or “Lesser Vehicle”.  “Mahayana” means “Big Vehicle” or “Greater Vehicle”.  “Vajrayana” means “Thunderbold Vehicle” or (as it is far more frequently translated) “Diamond Vehicle”.

An agonizingly brief description of these three yanas would be as follows:

Hinayana is the form of Buddhism prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma, and some parts of Southeast Asia.  The Insight Meditation movement in the West is generally affiliated with Hinayana.  Hinayana is strongly monastically-oriented.  Study of the Buddhist scriptures, ceremony, and meditation are almost exclusively the function of monks.  As a general rule, only monks are considered to be capable of attaining nirvana.  The main spiritual practice of the laity is to cultivate moral behavior in order to accrue good karma to insure a favorable rebirth (the ultimate hope is to someday be reborn as a monk), and to support the monastic community with alms.  In return, the monks perform ceremonies for the laity (these are generally simple and usually consist of chanting sutras) and give them basic instruction in religion.  Hinayana Buddhism accepts only the Pali Canon as valid scripture, and tends to view itself as the oldest and most authentic form of Buddhism.  The Hinayana ideal is the arhat–the individual who perfects himself through life after life until finally attaining nirvana through his own effort.

Mahayana Buddhism is the main form of Buddhism of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of East Asia.  The various branches of Pure Land Buddhism account for the largest number of believers of any Buddhist group; and Pure Land Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana.  Zen (Chán in Chinese, Seon in Korean, and Thien in Vietnamese), the best-known and most popular form of East Asian Buddhism in the West, is also a branch of Mahayana.  Traditionally Mahayana, while maintaining a robust monastic tradition, has a much greater role for the laity.  Some Mahayana denominations, such as the Japanese denomination Soka Gakkai, are completely lay movements.  Even in more monastic denominations, Mahayana laity often meditate, chant mantras, and participate in various activities that would be more characteristic of monks in the Hinayana tradition.  Mahayana Buddhism is characterized by ceremonies and liturgies of much greater complexity than those of the Hinayana.  The Mahayana canon is much larger, too, consisting of hundreds of sutras, commentaries, and other scripture outside the Pali Canon, some of it written centuries after the death of the historical Buddha.  The Mahayana ideal is the bodhisattva–a being on the path to enlightenment who renounces nirvana for itself until, through compassionate action, it can assist all other beings into enlightenment along with it.

Vajrayana Buddhism is the characteristic form of Buddhism of Tibet, the greater Tibetan cultural region (Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and other areas), and Mongolia.  Some smaller Chinese and Japanese sects, such as Shingon, are sometimes classified as Vajrayana, though they are substantially different from Tibetan Buddhism.  Because of the activism of the current Dalai Lama, and the conversion of many high-profile Western celebrities, Vajrayana is probably the most visible form of Buddhism in the West.  It is also the most organized, with many large groups, such as Shambhala International, active in many countries.  The most characteristic feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is it use of tantra.  Defining and discussing that fraught term is far beyond the scope of this post.  A thumbnail description would be that tantra involves esoteric rituals traditionally passed down by word of mouth with the goal of rapid development of spiritual powers and quick advancement to enlightenment.  There are both monastic and non-monastic tantric lineages in Vajrayana Buddhism.  Like Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism has many complex and colorful rites and rituals–probably even more.  There are also shamanistic aspects of the indigenous Tibetan religion that have been absorbed into Vajrayana Buddhism.  The Vajrayana ideal is to become a buddha, thus attaining enlightenment, as is the case with an arhat, as well as attaining the ability to help liberate others, as is the case with a bodhisattva.  From the Vajrayana perspective, it combines the ideals of both the other branches of Buddhism within itself.

The point of this somewhat lengthy discussion of the branches of Buddhism is to give context for the discussion of my relationship to them.  I first began to learn about exotic religions beyond the Baptist and Methodist churches (the only religions I had known existed when I was a young child!) in my senior year of high school in the course of doing research for a term paper on Islam (the Iranian Hostage Crisis was still ongoing at the time, and I thought the topic was relevant).  I obviously had several books on Islam that I was reading, but I also had books discussing various world religions in addition to Islam.  The most noteworthy was Huston Smith’s classic The Religions of Man (revised and update several times, and later retitled as the more gender-neutral The World’s Religions).  In any case, I ended up reading about all the religions in the various books I’d checked out from the library and then and there formed the resolution to learn as much as I could about all of them.

As I noted above, the religion that interested me the most at that time was Buddhism, which I’ve been reading about and studying (and to a certain extent practicing–more on that below) ever since.  Many of the books that were available to me at that time were somewhat outdated even then–as I’ve written before, books on Buddhism that were accurate and current were much less available then; moreover, the libraries of my youth tended to hold on to older books much longer than is the norm now.  In large part because of this, I subtly absorbed the older Western perspective, somewhat colored by orientalism, of Hinayana as being the older, “purer” form of Buddhism, with Mahayana being a later corruption, and Vajrayana hardly being on the radar at all.  This, combined with my romanticized view of asceticism–tough, fearless monks braving everything to attain nirvana and arhatship, not at all like those decadent ceremonialists!–gave me an strong initial preference for the Hinayana.

Before I move on, I should address the terms straight on.  “Hinayana”, as noted above, means “small” or “lesser” vehicle.  However, hīna can also have the connotation of “small” in the sense of “lower”, “lesser”, “inferior”, or even “base”.  It is thus obvious why the members of this branch of Buddhism dislike the term!  “Hinayana” has never been used as a name by members of the groups to which the term has been applied.  The term appears solely in Mahayana polemics directed at these groups (or other groups–it’s not always clear that the groups being criticized are the same ones that Westerners later referred to as “Hinayana”).  For both of these reasons, members of non-Mahayana, non-Vajrayana groups have long objected to the term “Hinayana”.

The problem has been to find a replacement term.  “Theravāda”–the name of the school of Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Thaland, Burma, and some other places–is often suggested.  Alas, that won’t do.  Theravada is only one of at least eighteen different schools that would have formerly been classified as “Hinayana”.  To use “Theravada” as a synonym for “Hinayana” is no more correct than using “Presbyterian” as a synonym for “Protestant”.  Admittedly, the Theravada school is the only surviving “Hinayana” school, so in the present day, the two terms in effect are synonymous.  Still, for historical reasons and greater accuracy, it is not correct to replace “Hinayana” with “Theravada”.

“Mainstream Buddhism” has been suggested, but this is inaccurate and tendentious.  The Mahayana branch has more than twice as many adherents as Theravada, so if anything is “mainstream”, it’s the Mahayana.  Moreover, “mainstream” subtly implies that the Theravada/”Hinayana” tradition is more authentic than the other branches.  There is no doubt that the Pali Canon, the sole scriptures accepted by the “Hinayana” schools, is the oldest Buddhist canon, and that Mahayana and Vajrayana scriptures were by and large written centuries later.  Still, there is evidence that the Mahayana version of the Vinaya (the part of the Pali Canon dealing with monastic rules) is actually older than the version used in the Theravada school.  Additionally, modern scholarship has found the origins of Mahayana much murkier and more complex than had been initially thought in the West.  Many Mahayana doctrines are now thought to be at least latent in the older writings, and some scholars now think it was the “Hinayana” that initially schismed off instead of the Mahayana.  Certainly, no matter what the exact history of the Mahayana, scholars would no longer characterize it as a “corruption” of an earlier, pristine Buddhism.

The best alternative that has come down the pike is to use the term Śrāvakayāna (or without diacritics, “Shravakayana”).  This literally means “The Vehicle of the Listeners”, that is, those that first heard the teachings of the Buddha.  This term is not altogether satisfactory, not least because it is much longer and more exotic in appearance, as well as relatively unknown in the general public.  Still, for lack of something better, it’s the term I’ll use from this point on in the discussion.

In any case, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, after my initial fascination with the Shravakayana school, I became enamored of Zen, and thus moved into the Mahayana camp.  Of course, the view of Zen I had at that time was a somewhat distorted one.  The way D. T. Suzuki and others presented it to Westerners, it was totally antinomian, having no reliance on scriptures or traditions (if anything, it thumbed its nose at these), and it relied solely upon meditation and the interaction of masters and students.  This would have been somewhat surprising to those in Japan and East Asia more generally who actually practiced Zen; but at that time, I knew nothing of this.  I do have to say that I found the Mahayana emphasis on compassionately deferring enlightenment for the sake of others–which does appear in Zen, though it’s not always sufficiently emphasized–to be very attractive.

Despite all my reading and sympathies, however, I never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.  Partly this was a matter of a lack of Buddhist communities; partly it was a matter of my native reluctance (at least at that time) to commit to any religious system, and partly the latent Evangelical Christianity deep within my mind, which proclaimed, “You’re gonna go to HELL if you follow that!”

Long time readers know that in 1990 I entered the Catholic Church.  My study of Buddhism had become dormant three or four years before that, and remained so for another year or two.  I remember that sometime in the early 90’s Centering Prayer began to be publicized, and I bought one or two of Thomas Keating’s books on it.  I gave it a try on and off for a year or so.  It didn’t do a lot for me, really.  In retrospect, and with twenty-five years of age and experience behind me now, I’d say that the claims made by Father Keating in regard to Centering Prayer are a bit inflated; and that as taught, it’s not enormously different from shamatha (peaceful abiding) meditation with support or the Soto Zen practice of shikantaza (just sitting).  In any case, I drifted away from it.

I moved downstate in the mid-90’s, and began, for whatever reason, reading Buddhist literature again.  Much more was available by now.  I got books by Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and others, and I began to develop an interest in Buddhist meditation again.  I decided, after trying Centering Prayer, that I preferred my Buddhism straight up.  I tried doing shamatha using the instructions given by Kornfield and Goldstein, both of whom were trained in the Theravada tradition, but given the subtly obsessive-compulsive bent of my mind, their version of the labeling method never worked well for me.  I discovered a Zen temple a little over an hour away from me, and visited it a couple of times; but they never had meditation instructions at times that I was available, and the travel time was a bit much.

About the same time I had become aware of a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center a more reasonable thirty minutes away from me.  It was actually, as it turned out, the same one I’d heard of (but never attended) back in the 80’s.  I began attending the regularly scheduled meditation sessions.  These were open to all of any religious background, and did not involve specifically Buddhist ritual or taking refuge.  The meditation was śamatha (shamatha), and the presentation of it was mainly from a Kagyü perspective.  I attended regularly for about two years until leaving because of some issues I had with some of the center’s policies, which I won’t elaborate here.

It was interesting that I went to begin with, because I had long had a prejudice against the Vajrayana tradition.  I was a bit put off by the rather garish and colorful art style typical of Tibetan Buddhism, and I was quite aware that there is more than a little disturbing imagery, as well as some practices that are rather bizarre, at least to Westerners.  I mean, Vajrayogini, with her necklace of skulls, drinking blood from a human skull, and brandishing weapons while spouting flames is a bit off-putting:

The sexual practices associated with some forms of tantra–a major aspect of Vajrayana Buddhism, as mentioned above–were also disturbing to me.  I was also aware that many of the early writings on Vajrayana by Westerners dismissed Vajrayana as a degenerate form of Buddhism, marred by black magic and general weirdness (although that, too, is partly a colonialist perspective), and that this view was shared by many Shravakayana Buddhists.  All in all, I had a–well, if not quite negative, at least skeptical outlook on Vajrayana.

After I disassociated myself from the meditation center, I did a brief meditation course at a yoga center, and then lapsed from meditation for several years.  Over the last five to ten years, I’ve thought, though, that a return to a meditative practice of some sort might not be a bad idea.  I’ve done occasional meditation in various forms on and off, but not systematically.  The last two or three years, I’ve started a fairly regular practice, going for months at a time, lapsing, then restarting.  Currently, I’m in the sixth consecutive week of my practice.  The irony is that I’m doing Tibetan practice again.

I waffled a bit as to meditating again at all, since recent research has shown that while meditation can have great benefits, it can also have negative effects, these latter being much less widely publicized.  I have had negative experiences myself on a few occasions, albeit mild ones.  Then again, to a certain extent, those come with the territory.  It’s no different from any other area of life–if you exercise regularly, you’ll have sore muscles at times.  There is a difference, however, between the ache and tiredness after a good workout, and tearing a tendon because of bad form.  Likewise, there’s a difference between the natural tendency of meditation to bring up negative emotions at times, on the one hand, and, say, a psychotic break, on the other.  As with exercise, it’s a matter of being careful and doing it right.  There’s a Russian saying to the effect, “If you drink, you’ll die; if you don’t drink, you’ll die.  Might as well drink!”  So I’ve decided that if I meditate, I’ll have problems in life and eventually die; and if I don’t meditate, I’ll have problems in life and die; so I might as well meditate.

I’ve discovered that the shamatha I learned over twenty years ago is the most workable for me.  Thus, I’ve found some online meditation courses from a Tibetan perspective.  It’s Nyingma this time, but there are significant similarities between the Nyingma and Kagyü approaches.  I still find certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism a bit creepy and off-putting, though I think I see the context better.  It is also very clear that there are many practices that I can’t take up, because they’d be incompatible with my Catholic faith.  Still, at the level of compatible practices, there is still a lot on offer, and I think they are of use to me.

Essentially, I realized that despite my interest in it as a young adult, Shravakayana is really very much monastic-oriented, and thus not ultimately workable for me.  As this site notes about the sutra path (Shravakayana and Mahayana, but principally the former), my emphasis:

The base of Sutra (which includes most forms of Buddhism) is recognition that there is something wrong with our understanding of worldly satisfaction. That makes most Westerners qualified for Sutra. The path is renunciation. One withdraws from the world to prevent its pleasures and pains from roiling one’s emotions. Accomplishing this project is generally incompatible with having a family, job, or non-religious interests.

As I’ve already noted, that’s certainly not where I am.  True, the Insight Meditation movement and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program are based in the Shravakayana tradition, and I think that especially with the latter, there are useful aspects of these forms of meditation.  Still, as I’ve noted before, I have tried Insight Meditation version of shamatha, and have found that it doesn’t work for me as well as the Tibetan form, for whatever reason.  Some of the stress reduction methods are useful, but I haven’t really committed to them that much yet, and I don’t think that they’re enough for a full meditation practice by themselves.

As to the Mahayana, most forms of it involve direct devotion to Buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Having become more inclined towards bhakti in my middle age, I find I resonate with this in a way I didn’t as a teen or twentysomething.  Of course, it’s also totally out, as it is obviously incompatible with my faith.  There is one form of Mahayana that does involve meditation with little emphasis on ceremonial or devotion, and that, of course, is Zen, with which I’ve had a long flirtation.

I should say it’s Zen as presented to Westerners.  I was a D. T. Suzuki fan in my youth; but as I’ve noted above and elsewhere, Suzuki has been criticized for presenting a distorted, or at least incomplete, version of Zen to the West.  Zen traditionally has, in fact, integrated many devotional practices into its daily routine–chants, devotions to Amitabha Buddha, just as do other branches of Mahayana.  Meditation was traditionally the focus of the monks, not the laity; and so on.  The Zen that has largely taken root in the West was strongly influenced by the Sanbo Kyodan, and has shed many of the traditional Japanese cultural forms and practices in order to be more palatable to Westerners.

There’s  nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course.  If any religion is to survive in a culture vastly different from the one in which it originated, it must inculturate to at least some extent.  On the other hand, there are no easily accessible Zen centers where I live (there is one, actually, but I’ve heard of issues with the founder, so it’s a non-starter to me); and Zen meditation, more than other forms, perhaps, requires a teacher or preceptor.  I’ve done a bit of shikantaza now and then; but it’s not enormously different from some of the variants of shamatha that I’ve been doing.  With the latter, I have at least a better chance of eventually finding an instructor (given the availability of some online Tibetan meditation organizations, and a few in the area near where I live) if I get to that place.

Thus, oddly enough, I am currently pursuing–at least in an introductory or lower-level way–the Vajrayana path of meditation, something I’d never have imagined as a younger man.  Where that will lead, I don’t know, and as ever, I reserve the right to change my mind.  For now, though, the answer to the question in the title of this post is “Vajrayana”!

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany

Also part of the series “Buddhism

Posted on 22/07/2019, in Buddhism, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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