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yāna (T. theg pa ཐེག་པ་; C. sheng 乘) is translated as "vehicle," "way," etc. In ordinary usage in the early sutras, yāna refers any means of transportation.[1] In the Mahayana tradition, the term is used to refer to a mode of transportation on the path to enlightenment.[1] According to Andrew Skilton, in the Mahayana context, a broader translation of "way" or "path" is preferable.

The term yana is also used to refer to different sets of teachings that enable one to journey to enlightenment (e.g. Sravaka-yana, Maha-yana, etc.).[2]


Yana is most commonly translated as “vehicle” or “conveyance”. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism states:

...a common Sanskrit term for any means of transportation (in Pāli materials...the term is generally used in this literal sense). In Mahāyāna literature, the term takes on great significance in the metaphorical sense of a mode of transportation along the path to enlightenment, becoming a constituent of the term Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”) itself. In Mahāyāna sutras and shastras, this rhetorical sense of the term is often put to polemical use, with the followers of the Buddha being placed into three or two vehicles.[1]

Andrew Skilton states:

The term yāna is often understood to mean ‘vehicle’, which it can do, but in an early Mahāyāna scripture, the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra, it is clear that the broader sense of ‘way’ or ‘path’ is intended. The confusion appears to have arisen in the Chinese translations of the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra.[3]

Alak Zenkar Rinpoche states:[4]

[Let us consider] what is meant by the term ‘vehicle’ or yana. It is said in The Condensed Sutra:
This vehicle is the supreme of vehicles for reaching
The vast sky-like palace of happiness and bliss.
Riding in this all beings will reach nirvana.
This refers to the literal meaning of the Sanskrit term yana, a vehicle or means of conveyance, since it is that which carries us along the paths and bhumis, bringing us ever greater enlightened qualities.

The relationship of Dharma and Yana

The relationship between the dharma (the teaching of the buddha) and the yanas (vehicles or paths) is described in the following passage from the the Innumerable Meanings Sutra:

      "Good sons! The Dharma[5] is like water that washes off dirt. As a well, a pond, a stream, a river, a valley stream, a ditch, or a great sea, each alike effectively washes off all kinds of dirt, so the Dharma-water effectively washes off the dirt of all delusions of living beings.
      "Good sons! The nature of water is one, but a stream, a river, a well, a pond, a valley stream, a ditch, and a great sea are different from one another. The nature of the Dharma is like this. There is equality and no differentiation in washing off the dirt of delusions, but the 'three dharmas', the four merits, and the two ways§ are not one and the same.

      "Good sons! Though each washes equally as water, a well is not a pond, a pond is not a stream or a river, nor is a valley stream or a ditch a sea. As the Tathāgata, the world's hero, is free in the Dharma, all the Dharmas preached by him are also like this. Though preaching at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end all alike effectively wash off the delusions of living beings, the beginning is not the middle, and the middle is not the end. Preaching at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end are the same in expression but different from one another in meaning.[6]

§ The 'three dharmas' are the Four Noble Truths, the Twelve Causes, and the Six Pāramitās...; the four merits are srota-āpanna, sakṛdāgāmin, anāgāmin, and arhat...; and the two ways the Great-vehicle, or Mahayana, and the lesser vehicle, or Hinayana.

Enumeration of yanas in Mahayana texts

Within the Mahayana traditon, there are a variety of different schemes for classifying yanas.

One yana (ekayana)

One yana (Sanskrit: ekayāna) or one vehicle, refers to a single vehicle or conveyance that carries sentient beings along the path to enlightenment.

The doctrine of the one vehicle is set forth in certain Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra. These sutras assert that the three vehicles of the Sravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana and Bodhisattvayana are actually different aspects of the one vehicle (the Mahayana). The three vehicles are different skillful methods adapted for beings of different capacity.

The one vehicle doctrine is highly influential within East Asian Buddhism. For example, this doctrine is influential within the Tiantai/Tendai schools, which subsequently influenced the Chán/Zen schools.

Two yanas

The expression two vehicles (yanas) is used in the following contexts:

Three yanas

There are two different classifications of the three yanas:

Three yanas within Mahayana

Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra present three vehicles as different skillful means to reach the ultimate goal of enlightenment. This classification scheme is emphasized in East Asian Buddhism.

  • Śrāvakayāna ("the vehicle of the listeners and hearers") - this vehicle is for those motivated by renunciation; it leads to the state of arhat
  • Pratyekabuddhayāna ("the vehicle of the solitary realizer") - Pratyekabuddhas do not depend on a teacher and can discover the Dharma even if they do not encounter a buddha.
  • Bodhisattvayāna ("the vehicle of the bodhisattva") - for those motivated by the wish to attain liberation for the benefit of all sentient beings. This path leads to complete enlightenment.

Three yanas within Vajrayana

Within the context of Vajrayana, the three vehicles are:

This classification scheme is emphasized within Tibetan Buddhism.

Four yanas

Mahayana Buddhists sometimes refer to four yanas that subsume the two different schemes of the three yanas:

Five yanas

This is a Mahāyāna list which is found in East Asian Buddhism.

Six yanas

The five yānas plus the Vajrayāna. This schema is associated with Shingon Buddhism in Japan. It was invented by Kūkai in order to help to differentiate the Vajrayāna teachings that he imported from China in the early 9th century. Kūkai wanted to show that the new teachings were entirely new.[7]

Nine yanas

The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism categorizes the path into nine yanas. In this system, the first three yanas are equivalent to the three yanas of the Mahayana (Sravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana, and Bodhisattvayana). The remaining six yanas are based on the Buddhist tantras.

Yana within the Theravadan Pali texts

Pali texts (e.g. the Pali Canon) generally use the term yāna in the literal sense.[1]

For example, yana is one of ten suggested gifts (dana) that a lay person can appropriately give a monk or recluse, in the sense of providing a vehicle or transportation (e.g., see DN 7.33/PTS: A iv 59 and DN 10.177/PTS: A v 269).

Yāna in a metaphorical sense of a journey to awakening is found in the use of the term dhammayānam, "dharma vehicle" (SN IV.4), where the vehicle itself serves as a metaphor for the Eightfold Path. Various parts of the chariot represent aspects of the Path (magga), e.g. axles represent meditation, the charioteer represents mindfulness, and so on.

According to Fujita Kotatsu the term Three Vehicles does not occur in the Pâli tripitaka, however corresponding terms (trîni yânâni, triyâna, yânatraya) are used in the Ekottara Agama, the Mahavastu, and the Mahāvibhāṣa Śāstra. In these texts the Three Vehicles include the srâvakayâna, pratyekabuddhayâna, and buddhayâna.[8]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. yāna.
  2. Rangjung a-circle30px.jpg Vehicle, Rangjung Yeshe Wiki
  3. Skilton 1997, Chapter 11.
  4. LotsawaHouse-tag.png A Brief Presentation of the Nine Yanas by Alak Zenkar Rinpoche, Lotsawa House
  5. Note: EOB has substitured the word dharma for law in the original translation.
  6. Tamura, Yoshirō (translator); revised by: Schiffer, Wilhelm; and Del Campana, Pier P. (1975, 2004). 'The Sutra of Innumerable Meanings' (Wu-liang-i-ching-hsü) in: Katō, Bunnō; Tamura, Yoshirō; and Miyasaka, Kōjirō; with revisions by: Soothill, W.E.; Schiffer, Wilhelm; and Del Campana, Pier P. (1975, 2004). The Threefold Lotus Sutra: Innumerable Meanings, The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law, and Meditation on the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co. ISBN 4-333-00208-7. pp. 14-15
  7. Abé, Ryûichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kûkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. p. 196. ISBN 9780231528870. In short, Kukai presents his transmission as unique and in sharp contrast to all the other forms of Buddhist teaching known to the Buddhist communities of early Heian society under the conventional classifications of yanas as described in Mahayana texts: the "three vehicles" (Skt. triyana; Jpn. sanjo), the three separate teachings prepared by Sakyamuni Buddha for the sravaka (sravaka-yana) and the pratyekabuddhas (pratyekabuddha-yana) and the bodhisattvas (bodhisattva-yana); the "five vehicles" (Skt. panca-yana; Jpn. gojo), the expanded version of the three vehicles with the addition of the teachings for humans (manusa-yana) and for celestial denizaens (deva-yana) by the Sakyamuni Buddha; and the "Buddha vehicle" (Skt. buddha-yana; Jpn. butsujo) expounded by a Buddha of Nirmanakaya or Sambhogakaya manifestation to communicate his enlightenment to other Buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas destined to attain Buddhahood. In the Tendai (T'ien-t'ai) and Kegon (Hua-yen) doctrines, the Buddha vehicle is often identified with the "one unifying vehicle" (Skt. ekayana; Jpn. ichijo), the ultimate Mahayana that integrates within itself all the three and five vehicles. Kukai, however, presents his transmission not even as the ekayana; his transmission defies all these categorizations within the established framework of Hinayana and Mahayana; it has to be classified as a new category, that of the Vajrayana, the lightning-fast vehicle for those who are endowed with the Dharmakaya's adamantine vajra-like quality of enlightenment. 
  8. Kotatsu, Fujita; Hurvitz, Leon , trans. (1975). "One Vehicle or Three?". Journal of Indian Philosophy. 3 (1/2): 92–93. 


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