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Big vehicle and small vehicle

To: talk.religion.buddhism
From: (Jack Carroll)]
Subject: Re: Big vehicle and small vehicle
Date: 5 Nov 1994 02:30:43 GMT

Quoting: |Sherry Mayo ( wrote:

|A friend of mine started studying buddhism during a visit to Nepal. He told
|me the style of Buddhism he encountered there was 'big vehicle' buddhism. 
|I have heard of 'big vehicle' and 'small vehicle' buddhism but don't
|fully understand the difference between them....

The terms are Mahayana (big vehicle) and Hinayana (small vehicle), 
Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism are part of Mahayana but are different 
enough in practice that they are often described as Vajrayana.

Unfortunately the origins of the terms Mahayana and Hinayana are 
polemical.  The term Hina, I have read, is a demeaning one in many 
contexts, meaning lowly, or mean -- that sense of small.  I believe that 
the distinction first cropped up in connexion with the Lotus Sutra, which 
is very dismissive and abusive in its picture of what is now termed 
Hinayana.  The tradition referred to as Hinayana once had several 
distinct schools within it, as does Mahayana, however the single 
remaining example of "Hinayana" is Theravadan Buddhism.  Because Hinayana 
is historically a derogatory term nowadays the Buddhism it refers to is 
usually termed Theravada simply because it is the sole remaining 
school representative of that tradition.	
Hinayana is probably a good term to avoid.  It may be compared to calling 
Roman Catholics "papists."

|As I understand it small vehicle regards buddhism as an entirely personal
|journey. i.e. your progress etc is entirely up to you and it is unconnected
|with the outside world. Whereas 'big vehicle' is more outward looking.

Theravadan Buddhism does teach that you work on your own awakening, 
however this process is not unconnected with the outside world, even 
the mendicants in this tradition have strong relationships with the world.
The teachings and practice strongly emphasize ethical conduct, and of 
course this is vis a vis other human beings for the most part.

The various traditions within the Mahayana seem to share the belief that 
one can become awakened and keep postponing nirvana until you have helped 
other human beings to achieve awakening.  I think originally this idea 
was limited to certain traditional virtually superhuman bodhisattva 
figures, who functioned almost in saviour type roles.  The concept has 
become extended over time, and especially in the West, to include the 
concept of all laypersons helping each other to achieve awakening.  
Practically speaking this seems to come down to practicing exactly the 
same forms of ethical conduct as one finds in Theravada, with the 
additional emphasis of some degree of what we in the West would term 
social activism.

In point of fact, the day to day ethical concerns and practice of both 
traditions seem very much the same. 

|I realise I am totally ill informed and would like to understand this better.
|Perhaps someone here can set me straight.

I think the question is a good one, as we don't come from the historical 
tradition within which Buddhism arose and has thrived it can be pretty 


Jack Carroll

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