The Three Vehicles of Buddhism

The subject today is the three vehicles. Within Hinayana there are two traditions, the hearers and solitary realizers. Within the Mahayana there is the vehicle of the bodhisattvas and Mantrayana. The best vehicle is the one which suits your capabilities, which may not be the highest vehicle.

According to Hinayana teachings, Mahayana teachings are not authentic teachings of the Buddha. But the Mahayana holds that Hinayana teachings are authentic and foundational. The final goal of the Hinayana is the state of the arhat, who overcomes all the afflictive emotions. Arhats attain a state where they dwell in bliss for thousands of eons until a fully enlightened Buddha rouses them and tells them they must attain full enlightenment. To gain the state of full enlightenment you must not only overcome the afflictive emotions but also all forms of ignorance. Then you attain the enlightenment of a Buddha and can teach all beings appropriately, according to their capabilities. Some individuals go straight into the Mahayana teachings, others first practice the Hinayana teachings and then later practice the Mahayana. All the practices of the Hinayana are referred to as common practices since they are also practiced by the Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners.

Both the Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners follow five levels of realization to reach their ultimate goal. For Hinayana the goal is nirvana and for Mahayana the complete enlightenment of Buddhahood. The two traditions have the same names for these five stages. The most important practice for Hinayana practitioners is the realization of selflessness. This is because what binds us to samsara is belief in the self.

When one realizes the self is merely imputed, one gains enlightenment. This is also practiced by Mahayana practitioners but it is complemented by great compassion. So selflessness is the common practice of both traditions. Intuitively we think the self is permanent, that is not dependent on other things, existing in itself and not just as a concept. But our idea of what the self is changes with time, which shows it is a mere imputation. We are not trying to eliminate the conventional sense of self. When we examine external phenomena, we also see they lack a self. The path of meditation for the Hinayana practice has nine stages. The first eliminates the gross concept of self and the others progressively subtler notions of a self. When all are overcome one obtains complete enlightenment.

Yesterday we talked about the teachings of ethics, concentration, and wisdom. These are the common practices of Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners. The Buddha taught the three yanas to suit different dispositions and intelligences. For people who practice the Mahayana, the Hinayana forms the support for their practices. There is no contradiction between the two and they complement each other. There is no point practicing the Mahayana if you cannot understand it. Buddha did not classify his students as Hinayana or Mahayana. We should check ourselves and see which practices make sense. The difference between the two is the degree of compassion for all beings. Without great compassion one would not practice for eons in order to attain full enlightenment.

Within Mahayana there are the Sutrayana and the Mantrayana. Some people see the two as contradictory, which is a great mistake. In Mahayana we train in renunciation, great compassion and emptiness. Renunciation is understanding one’s own suffering and having the wish to attain enlightenment. It is necessary so what can develop compassion, which is the wish for all beings to attain enlightenment. Renunciation leads to bodhicitta, or great compassion, because it is applying the same logic to all sentient beings. The most important method to attaining enlightenment is understanding emptiness, because it is not understanding it which binds us to existence. So the Mahayana is the basis of Tantric practices. There are four levels of tantra. In all of them we need renunciation, compassion, and wisdom.

The reason why all levels of teaching are not contradictory is that Buddha used skillful means, because to a lot of people the higher teachings would not make sense. Selflessness is a technical term. We have conceptually inferred a self which is not there. When we understand it is our mental creation, that is termed selflessness. Renunciation, great compassion, and emptiness are called the three principal paths. In Tantra one engages in deity yoga practices, and to perform these practices one must understand these three paths. Otherwise one cannot will not be successful in one’s practice.

Q: I have known some people who claim emptiness means there is no good or bad karma. Thank you for explaining this.

A: It is very important to understand that emptiness and cause and effect are not contradictory. Understanding emptiness leads to understanding cause and effect. Shantideva praised Nagarjuna for explaining this. Emptiness teaches things do not exist in and of themselves. Because they are not independent, they must be dependent and exist as a result of cause and effect. The moral ethics that evolves from this is nonviolence and compassion, because you understand harming others also harms yourself.

Q: How does Dzogchen fit into the three vehicles?

A: it is categorized as Vajrayana. But some aspects are Mahayana teachings.

Q: How are the six perfections practiced in the context of emptiness?

A: Shantideva said the first five perfections are taught in order to understand the last, the perfection of wisdom, which understands emptiness. Then when understand them, one goes back and practice the other five in the light of emptiness.

Q: Did Buddha become an arhat when he became enlightened and only became a bodhisattva when he started teaching?

A: From a Mahayana point of view the Buddha was enlightened before he took birth as a Buddha. His activities were to show others that it was possible to become enlightened. You first gain enlightenment in a pure realm. The Buddhas in sambhogakaya form cannot be seen by ordinary beings, so they come to this world as a bodhisattva when the time is appropriate.

Q: I thought that Hinayana practitioners acheived enlightenment by practicing the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. What’s the relationship between the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and selflessness?

A: The two are different perspectives of the schools. All the lower schools say one doesn’t have to realize emptiness in order to attain liberation as an arhat. But the Prasangika believes that one must realize emptiness in order to attain liberation at any level. The subtlest level of attachment to a self is not overcome only through practicing the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths.

Q: How can one practice if one lacks the wisdom to realize emptiness?

A: By accumulation of merit and confession of faults.

Kensur Lobsang Chojor
December 11th, 2005
Susquehanna Yoga Center