In his excellent intro to Buddhism ‘The Road Home’ Ethan Nichtern uncovers a different interpretation of Hīnayāna in relationship to Mahāyāna.
Let’s start with the most common interpretation to set the context.
Hīnayāna is most often translated as the “the smaller vehicle”, “the lesser vehicle” or “the deficient vehicle”, and used as a pejorative term for the Theravada school of Buddhism by the Mahāyāna school, which is translated as “the greater vehicle” or “the expansive vehicle”.
Vehicle here refers to the vehicle towards nirvana, in other word are do you take the deficient path or the expansive path towards enlightenment.
Being referred to as ‘the deficient path’ is obviously to be looked down upon and the use of the word Hīnayāna was banned by World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950 when they declared that the term Hīnayāna should not be used when referring to any form of Buddhism existing today.
The World Fellowship of Buddhists stated that the label Nikaya Buddhism should be used when referring to the earliest schools of Buddhism, the pre-sectarian era of Buddhism often referred to as between Buddha’s enlightenment around BCE 500 and the rule of Ashoka BCE250. They also state that the label Theravada Buddhism should be used when referring to the school based solely on the Pali canon.
To understand the use of the smaller/deficient/lesser path versus the greater/expansive path we need to understand a the difference between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, or to comply with the World Fellowship of Buddhists the difference between Theravada and Mahāyāna.
In short, Theravada is considered the orthodox school of Buddhism and only recognises the texts written in Pali as the original words of Buddha. The Theravada tradition is solely based on what is called the Pali canon, the suttas. The goal of a Theravada practitioner is to become an arahant, to end the cycles of rebirths and enter Nirvana.
The Mahāyāna school of Buddhism also recognise the later sutras, written mostly in Sanskrit and Chinese, as the teachings of Buddha. The goal of a Mahāyāna practitioner is reach near-enlightenment, to become a Bodhisattva, and stay in this realm to help others on their Buddhist path.
For sutta versus sutra see the dharma talk from meditation session one here.
Back to Ethan Nichtern’s explanation of Hīnayāna versus Mahāyāna.
The Theravada school is concerned with the practitioners enlightenment and evolved around the individuals practice to increase self-awareness, insight into how we deceive ourselves, and eventually cease our individual dissatisfaction by letting go of all ignorance, greed and hatred.
The Mahāyāna school argues that introspection as in Theravada is not enough to reach enlightenment but the path must be in relation to others.
It’s by testing ourselves in relationships, by sharing our teachings with others, by helping others to see the value of walking the Buddhist path, that gain true insight into our own nature and can reach enlightenment.
Ethan Nichtern’s perspective on this is that Hīnayāna should rather be understood as the “narrower vehicle”, narrow in that it doesn’t concern itself with relationships but only the enlightenment of the practitioner himself/herself.
In this perspective Mahāyāna is expansive as it is concerned with relationships and bringing the dharma off the meditation pillow into the world, live the dharma in our daily lives and relationships.
Ethan explains that the Buddhist path must evolve in spiral fashion between focus on self-awareness and being rubbed against the world, then focus on self to reflect and gain new insights from the interaction with others and upward the spiral of enlightenment goes.
I find this interpretation of Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna much more in the spirit of Buddhism, a compassionate perspective on the interdependence between nurturing self-awareness and bringing the dharma into the world.
I highly recommend Ethan’s book The Road Home. It’s a fresh perspective on Buddhism explaining how it is relevant in these times while rooting his thoughts in the traditional Buddhist texts.