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Hinayana (Skt. hīnayāna; T. theg pa dman pa; C. xiaosheng; J. shōjō; K. sosŭng 小乘) is a term used in traditional Mahayana Buddist texts to refer to non-Mahayana Buddhist texts and practitioners. As the Mahayana tradition developed in India, the Mahayana adherents began to refer to themselves as followers of the the "Great Vehicle" (mahayana). And they referred to the those Buddhists who rejected the Mahayana texts as follower of the "Lesser Vehicle" (hinayana).

Some Mahayana texts divide the Hinayana ("lesser vehicle") into two separate groups:

Thus, the term is used in two senses in Mahayana texts:

  1. in a general sense, to refer all non-Mahayana Buddhists
  2. to refer specifically to the two "lesser vehicles" of the sravakas and pratyekabuddhas

Note that term Hinayana is simply a designation within Mahayana texts to refer to earlier texts and traditions. The term was not used by those Buddhists who did not follow the Mahayana texts.

Traditional descriptions of hinayana

Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche described Hinayana as follows:

The Small Vehicle [Hinayana] is based on becoming aware of the fact that all we experience in samsara is marked by suffering. Being aware of this engenders the will to rid ourselves of this suffering, to liberate ourselves on an individual level, and to attain happiness. We are moved by our own interest.

Renunciation and perseverance allow us to attain our goal.[1]

The Chinese monk Yijing who visited India in the 7th century, distinguishes Mahāyāna from Hīnayāna as follows:

Both adopt one and the same Vinaya, and they have in common the prohibitions of the five offenses, and also the practice of the Four Noble Truths. Those who venerate the bodhisattvas and read the Mahāyāna sūtras are called the Mahāyānists, while those who do not perform these are called the Hīnayānists.[2]

Thrangu Rinpoche emphasized that the "hinayana" should not be considered "inferior". In his translation and commentary of Asanga's teaching "Distinguishing Dharma from Dharmata" it is stated

"...all three traditions of hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana were practiced in Tibet and that the hinayana which literally means "lesser vehicle" is in no way inferior to the mahayana."[3]

Modern usage and Theravada Buddhism

Contemporary scholars understand that the term was used in reference to members of the Early Buddhist schools who chose not to accept the validity of the Mahayana texts.

Some early Western scholars used the term Hinayana to refer to Theravada Buddhism, the form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia that developed independently of the major Mahayana traditons. However, contemporary Theravada Buddhists opposed the identification of Theravada with Hinayana, as it can be understood as a derogatory term. As Walpola Rahula noted in his Gems of Buddhist Wisdom:

We must not confuse Hīnayāna with Theravāda because the terms are not synonymous. Theravāda Buddhism went to Sri Lanka during the 3rd Century BC when there was no Mahāyāna at all. Hīnayāna sects developed in India and had an existence independent from the form of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka. Today there is no Hīnayāna sect in existence anywhere in the world. Therefore, in 1950 the World Fellowship of Buddhists inaugurated in Colombo unanimously decided that the term Hīnayana should be dropped when referring to Buddhism existing today in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc. This is the brief history of Theravāda, Mahayāna and Hīnayāna.


The word Hīnayāna is formed of hīna (हीन):[4] "little," "poor," "inferior," "abandoned," "deficient," "defective;" and yāna (यान):[5] "vehicle", where "vehicle" means "a way of going to enlightenment". The Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary (1921–25) defines hīna in even stronger terms, with a semantic field that includes "poor, miserable; vile, base, abject, contemptible," and "despicable."

In the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese languages, the term was translated by Kumārajīva and others as "small vehicle" (小 meaning "small", 乘 meaning "vehicle"), although earlier and more accurate translations of the term also exist. In Mongolian (Baga Holgon) term for Hinayana also means "small" or "lesser" vehicle,[6] while in Tibetan there are at least two words to designate the term, theg chung (Tibetan: ཐེག་ཆུང་) meaning "small vehicle",[7] and theg dman (Tibetan: ཐེག་དམན་) meaning "inferior vehicle" or "inferior spiritual approach".[8]


According to Jan Nattier, it is most likely that the term Hīnayāna post-dates the term Mahāyāna, and was only added at a later date due to antagonism and conflict between bodhisattvas and śrāvakas. The sequence of terms then began with Bodhisattvayāna, which was given the epithet Mahāyāna ("Great Vehicle"). It was only later, after attitudes toward the bodhisattvas and their teachings had become more critical, that the term Hīnayāna was created as a back-formation, contrasting with the already-established term Mahāyāna.[9] The earliest Mahāyāna texts often use the term Mahāyāna as an epithet and synonym for Bodhisattvayāna, but the term Hīnayāna is comparatively rare in early texts, and is usually not found at all in the earliest translations. Therefore, the often-perceived symmetry between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna can be deceptive, as the terms were not actually coined in relation to one another in the same era.[10]

According to Paul Williams, "the deep-rooted misconception concerning an unfailing, ubiquitous fierce criticism of the Lesser Vehicle by the [Mahāyāna] is not supported by our texts."[11] Williams states that while evidence of conflict is present in some cases, there is also substantial evidence demonstrating peaceful coexistence between the two traditions.[11]

Hīnayāna vs Śrāvakayāna

Scholar Isabelle Onians asserts that although "the Mahāyāna ... very occasionally referred to earlier Buddhism as the Hinayāna, the Inferior Way," "the preponderance of this name in the secondary literature is far out of proportion to occurrences in the Indian texts." She notes that the term Śrāvakayāna was "the more politically correct and much more usual" term used by Mahāyānists.[12] Jonathan Silk has argued that the term "Hinayana" was used to refer to whomever one wanted to criticize on any given occasion, and did not refer to any definite grouping of Buddhists.[13]

See also


  1. Kalu Rinpoche (1995) Profound Buddhism From Hinayana To Vajrayana: p. 16
  2. Williams, Paul (2008) Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations: p. 5
  3. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. Distinguishing Dharma and Dharmata. 1999. p. 113
  4. "Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit". Retrieved 2010-06-29. 
  5. "Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit". Retrieved 2009-04-15. 
  6. It is also certain that Buddhist groups and individuals in China (including Tibet), Korea, Vietnam, and Japan have in the past, as in the very recent present, identified themselves as Mahayana Buddhists, even if the polemical or value claim embedded in that term was only dimly felt, if at all., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 492
  7. "Rangjung Yeshe Wiki - Dharma Dictionary:theg chung". Tsadra Foundation. 
  8. "Rangjung Yeshe Wiki - Dharma Dictionary:theg dman". Tsadra Foundation. 
  9. Nattier, Jan (2003), A few good men: the Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra: p. 174
  10. Nattier, Jan (2003), A few good men: the Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra: p. 172
  11. 11.0 11.1 Williams, Jane, and Williams, Paul. Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Volume 3. 2004. p. 43
  12. Isabelle Onians, "Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm," D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 72
  13. Jonathan A Silk. What, if anything, is Mahayana Buddhism? Numen 49:4 (2002):335-405. Article reprinted in Williams, Buddhism, Vol III, Routledge, 2005


External links

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