Introductory Comparison of Hinayana and Mahayana

Alexander Berzin

Berlin, Germany, January 2002
[edited transcript] By kind permission of The Berzin Archives

The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana

The terms Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle or Modest Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle or Vast Vehicle) originated in The Prajnaparamita Sutras (The Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness, The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras). They are a rather derogatory pair of words, aggrandizing Mahayana and putting down Hinayana. Alternative terms for them, however, have many other shortcomings, and so therefore I shall use these more standard terms for them here.

[See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana.]

Hinayana encompasses eighteen schools. The most important for our purposes are Sarvastivada and Theravada. Theravada is the one extant today in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Sarvastivada was widespread in Northern India when the Tibetans started to travel there and Buddhism began to be transplanted to Tibet.

There were two main divisions of Sarvastivada based on philosophical differences: Vaibhashika and Sautrantika. Hinayana tenet systems studied at the Indian monastic universities such as Nalanda, and later by the Tibetan Mahayanists, are from these two schools. The lineage of monastic vows followed in Tibet is from another Sarvastivada subdivision, Mulasarvastivada.

[See: A Brief History of Buddhism in India before the Thirteenth-Century Invasions.]

Buddhas and Arhats

There is quite a significant difference between the Hinayana and Mahayana presentations of arhats and Buddhas. Both agree that arhats, or liberated beings, are more limited than Buddhas, or enlightened beings, are. Mahayana formulates this difference in terms of two sets of obscurations: the emotional ones, which prevent liberation, and the cognitive ones, which prevent omniscience. Arhats are free of only the former, whereas Buddhas are free of both. This division is not found in Hinayana. It is purely a Mahayana formulation.

To gain liberation or enlightenment, both Hinayana and Mahayana assert that one needs nonconceptual cognition of the lack of an impossible “soul.” Such a lack is often called “selflessness,” anatma in Sanskrit, the main Indian scriptural language of Sarvastivada and Mahayana; anatta in Pali, the scriptural language of Theravada. The Hinayana schools assert this lack of an impossible “soul” with respect only to persons, not all phenomena. Persons lack a “soul,” an atman, that is unaffected by anything, partless, and separable from a body and a mind, and which can be cognized on its own. Such a “soul” is impossible. With just the understanding that there is no such thing as this type of “soul” with respect to persons, one can become either an arhat or a Buddha. The difference depends on how much positive force or so-called “ merit” one builds up. Because of their development of the enlightening aim of bodhichitta, Buddhas have built up far more positive force than arhats have.

Mahayana asserts that Buddhas understand the lack of an impossible “soul” with respect to all phenomena as well as with respect to persons. They call this lack “voidness.” The various Indian schools of Mahayana differ regarding whether or not arhats also understand the voidness of phenomena. Within Mahayana, Prasangika Madhyamaka asserts that they do. However, the four Tibetan traditions explain this point differently regarding the Prasangika assertion. Some say that the voidness of phenomena understood by arhats is different from that understood by Buddhas; some assert the two voidnesses are the same. Some say that the scope of phenomena to which the voidness of phenomena applies is more limited for arhats than it is for Buddhas; some assert it is the same. There is no need to go into all the details here.

[See: Comparison of the Hinayana and Mahayana Assertions of the Understandings of Voidness by Arhats and Buddhas.]

Further Points Concerning Buddhas and Arhats

The assertions of Hinayana and Mahayana concerning arhats and Buddhas differ in many other ways. Theravada, for instance, asserts that one of the differences between a shravaka or “listener” striving toward the liberation of an arhat and a bodhisattva striving toward the enlightenment of a Buddha is that shravakas study with Buddhist teachers, while bodhisattvas do not. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, for instance, did not study with another Buddha. He studied only with non-Buddhist teachers, whose methods he ultimately rejected. In the fact that Buddha’s understanding and attainment did not arise from reliance on a Buddhist teacher, Theravada asserts that a Buddha’s wisdom surpasses that of an arhat.

In addition, bodhisattvas work to become universal Buddhist teachers; shravakas do not, although as arhats they certainly teach disciples. Before passing away, Buddha himself deputed his arhat disciple Shariputra to continue “turning the wheel of Dharma.” According to Theravada, however, Buddhas excel arhats in being more skillful in methods for leading others to liberation and in the breadth of their conduct of teaching. This is the meaning of a Buddha’s being omniscient. However, according to this presentation, a Buddha would not know everyone’s address and would have to ask such information from others.

According to the Vaibhashika school of Hinayana, Buddhas are actually omniscient in knowing such information, but they only know one thing at a time. According to Mahayana, omniscience means knowing everything simultaneously. This follows from its view that everything is interconnected and interdependent; we cannot speak of just one piece of information, totally unrelated to the rest.

Hinayana says that the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment in his lifetime and, like an arhat, when he died, his mental continuum came to an end. Therefore, according to Hinayana, Buddhas teach only for the rest of the lifetime in which they achieve enlightenment. They do not emanate to countless world systems and go on teaching forever, as Mahayana asserts. Only Mahayana asserts that the historical Buddha became enlightened in a previous lifetime many eons ago, by studying with Buddhist teachers. He was just demonstrated enlightenment under the bodhi tree as one of the twelve enlightening deeds of a Buddha. The precursor of this description of a Buddha is found in the Mahasanghika School of Hinayana, another of the eighteen Hinayana schools, but is not found in either Sarvastivada or Theravada.

[See: The Twelve Enlightening Deeds of a Buddha.]

Concerning Buddhas, another major difference is that only Mahayana asserts the three corpuses or bodies of a Buddha – Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya. Hinayana does not assert them. Thus, the concept of a Buddha is significantly different in Hinayana and Mahayana.

[See: Identifying the Objects of Safe Direction (Refuge).]

The Pathway Minds Leading to Liberation and Enlightenment
Hinayana and Mahayana both assert that the stages of progress to the purified state, or “bodhi,” of either an arhat or a Buddha entail developing five levels of pathway mind – the so-called “five paths.” These are a building-up pathway mind or path of accumulation, an applying pathway mind or path of preparation, a seeing pathway mind or path of seeing, an accustoming pathway mind or path of meditation, and a path needing no further training or path of no more learning. Shravakas and bodhisattvas who attain a seeing pathway of mind both become aryas, highly realized beings. Both have nonconceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths.

[See: The Five Pathway Minds. See also: The Sixteen Aspects and the Sixteen Distorted Ways of Embracing the Four Noble Truths.]

Both Hinayana and Mahayana agree that a seeing pathway mind rids both arya shravakas and arya bodhisattvas of doctrinally based disturbing emotions, while an accustoming pathway mind rids them of automatically arising disturbing emotions. The former are based on learning the set of assertions of one of the non-Buddhist Indian schools, while the latter arise automatically in everyone, including animals. The list of disturbing emotions that shravaka and bodhisattva aryas rid themselves of is part of a larger list of mental factors. Each of the Hinayana schools has its own list of mental factors, while Mahayana asserts yet another list. Many of the mental factors are defined differently in each list.

Both Hinayana and Mahayana agree that the course of progressing through the five pathway minds entails practicing the thirty-seven factors leading to a purified state. A “purified state” or “ bodhi” refers to either arhatship or Buddhahood. These thirty-seven factors include the four close placements of mindfulness, the eight branches of an arya pathway mind (the eightfold noble path), and so on. They are very important. In anuttarayoga tantra, the thrity-seven are represented by Yamantaka’s thirty-four arms plus his body, speech and mind, as well as by the dakinis in the body mandala of Vajrayogini. The thirty-seven are a standard set of practices. The specifics of each practice, however, are often different in Hinayana and Mahayana.

[See: The Theravada Practice of the Four Close Placements of Mindfulness. See also: The Four Close Placements of Mindfulness According to Mahayana .]

Both Hinayana and Mahayana assert that the scheme of stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and arhat refers to stages of an arya shravaka’s path, but not to the path of an arya bodhisattva. Thus, stream-enterers have nonconceptual cognition of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, which include nonconceptual cognition of the lack of an impossible “soul” of persons. We should not think that stream-enterer is a beginner level. So if someone claims to have achieved the state of a stream-enterer, be suspicious.

Hinayana does not provide an extensive explanation of the bodhisattva pathway minds. Mahayana, however, explains that an arya bodhisattva’s path to enlightenment entails progressing through the development of ten levels of bhumi-mind. These levels of mind do not pertain to the path of shravakas.

Both Hinayana and Mahayana agree that traversing the bodhisattva path to enlightenment takes more time than traversing the shravaka one to arhatship. Only Mahayana, however, speaks of building up the two enlightenment-building networks – the two collections – for three zillion eons. “ Zillion,” usually translated as “countless,” means a finite number, though we would be unable to count it. Shravakas, on the other hand, can attain arhatship in as short as three lifetimes. In the first lifetime, one becomes a stream-enterer, in the next lifetime a once-returner, and in the third lifetime, one becomes a non-returner, achieves liberation, and becomes an arhat. This is quite tempting for many people.

The assertion that arhats are selfish is like bodhisattva propaganda. It is basically meant to point out an extreme to avoid. The sutras record that Buddha asked his sixty arhat disciples to teach. If they were truly selfish, they would not have agreed to do so. Arhats, however, can only help others to a more limited extent than Buddhas can. Both, however, can only help those with the karma to be helped by them.


It is important to realize that the Hinayana schools do assert that before becoming a Buddha, one follows the bodhisattva path. Both Hinayana and Mahayana have versions of the Jataka tales describing the previous lives of Buddha Shakyamuni as a bodhisattva. Starting with King Siri Sanghabodhi in the third century CE, many Sri Lankan kings even called themselves bodhisattvas. Of course, this is a little tricky to untangle because there was some Mahayana present in Sri Lanka at the time. Whether this idea of bodhisattva kings preexisted a Mahayana influence is hard to say, but it did happen. Even more surprisingly, in the fifth century CE, the elders at the Sri Lankan capital Anuradhapura declared Buddhaghosa, a great Theravada Abhidharma master, to be an incarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya.

Mahayana asserts that there are a thousand Buddhas in this “fortunate eon” who will start universal religions, and there have been and will be many more Buddhas in other world ages. Mahayana also asserts that everyone can become a Buddha, because everyone has the Buddha-nature factors that enable this attainment. Hinayana does not discuss Buddha-nature. Nevertheless, Theravada does mention hundreds of Buddhas of the past. One Theravada sutta even lists twenty-seven by name. All of them were bodhisattvas before becoming Buddhas. Theravada asserts that there will be innumerable Buddhas in the future as well, including Maitreya as the next one, and that anyone can become a Buddha if they practice the ten far-reaching attitudes.

The Ten Far-Reaching Attitudes

Mahayana says that the ten far-reaching attitudes are practiced only by bodhisattvas and not by shravakas. This is because Mahayana defines a far-reaching attitude or “perfection” as one that is held by the force of a bodhichitta aim.

According to Theravada, however, so long as the ten attitudes are held by the force of renunciation, the determination to be free, bodhichitta is not necessary for their practice to be far-reaching and act as a cause for liberation. Thus, Theravada asserts that both bodhisattvas and shravakas practice ten far-reaching attitudes. Aside from the different motivating aims behind them, the other main difference between a bodhisattva’s and a shravaka’s practice of the ten is the degree of their intensity. Thus, each of the ten far-reaching attitudes has three stages or degrees: ordinary, medium, and highest. For example, the highest practice of generosity would be giving one’s body to feed a hungry tigress, as Buddha did in a previous life as a bodhisattva.

The list of the ten far-reaching attitudes also differs slightly in Theravada and Mahayana. The Mahayana list is:

  • generosity
  • ethical self-discipline
  • patience
  • joyful perseverance
  • mental stability
  • discriminating awareness
  • skill in means
  • aspirational prayer
  • strengthening
  • deep awareness

The Theravada list omits mental stability, skill in means, aspirational prayer, strengthening, and deep awareness. It adds in their place

  • renunciation
  • being true to one’s word
  • resolution
  • love
  • equanimity
[See: The Ten Far-Reaching Attitudes in Theravada, Mahayana, and Bon.]

The Four Immeasurable Attitudes

Both Hinayana and Mahayana teach the practice of the four immeasurable attitudes of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Both define love as the wish for others to have happiness and the causes of happiness, and compassion as the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Hinayana, however, does not develop these immeasurable attitudes through a line of reasoning, such as that all beings have been our mother and so on. Rather, it starts by directing love at those whom we already love and then extending it, in stages, toward a widening range of others.

The definitions of immeasurable joy and equanimity are different in Hinayana and Mahayana. In Hinayana, immeasurable joy refers to rejoicing in the happiness of others, without any jealousy, and wishing it to increase. In Mahayana, immeasurable joy is the wish that others have the joy of unending enlightenment.

Equanimity is the state of mind that is free from attachment, repulsion, and indifference. In Theravada, it is equanimity toward the outcome of our love, compassion, and rejoicing. The outcome of our attempts to help others really depends on their karma and their efforts; although, as with Mahayana, Theravada accepts the possibility of a transfer of positive force, “merit,” to others. We wish them to be happy and to be free from suffering, but have equanimity about what actually happens. This is because we know that they will have to do the work themselves. In Mahayana, immeasurable equanimity means wishing all others to be free of attachment, repulsion and indifference, because these disturbing emotions and attitudes bring them suffering.

Although reaching the liberated state of an arhat requires developing love and compassion, it does not entail developing an exceptional resolve or a bodhichitta aim. The exceptional resolve is the state of mind to take responsibility to help lead everyone to liberation and enlightenment. The bodhichitta aim is the state of mind to attain enlightenment oneself, in order to fulfill the goal of that exceptional resolve. Since Hinayana contains little elaboration on the bodhisattva path, it does not explain these two attitudes. Mahayana outlines in great detail the meditation practices for developing them.

[See: The Four Immeasurable Attitudes in Hinayana, Mahayana, and Bon.]

The Two Truths

Although Hinayana does not assert the lack of an impossible “soul” of phenomena, or voidness, it is not the case that Hinayana does not discuss the nature of all phenomena in general. Hinayana does this with its presentation of the two truths concerning all phenomena. The precursor to gaining an understanding of the voidness of phenomena is an understanding the two truths. In Mahayana, the two truths are two facts concerning the same phenomenon. In Hinayana, the two truths are two sets of phenomena. There are superficial or conventional true phenomena and deepest or ultimate true phenomena.

Within Sarvastivada, Vaibhashika asserts that the superficial true phenomena are physical objects and states of mind, ways of being aware. The deepest true phenomena are all the atoms making up physical objects and all the tiniest moments of cognition. It is important to realize that what we see are the superficially true phenomena, but that, on the deepest level, things are made of atoms. We can see how this leads to an understanding of the superficial level as being like an illusion.

According to Sautrantika, superficial true phenomena are metaphysical entities, our projections onto objects; whereas the deepest true phenomena are the actual objective things themselves. Here, one begins to understand that one’s projections are like an illusion. If we get rid of the projections, we just see objectively what is there. Our projections are like an illusion.

[See: The Two Truths in Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.]

According to Theravada, superficial true phenomena are imputed phenomena. This refers to persons as well as physical objects, whether within the body or external. The deepest true phenomena are what they are imputed on. The body and physical objects are imputed on the elements and the sense fields that we perceive. What is an orange? Is it the sight, the smell, the taste, the physical sensation? An orange it what is imputed on all that. Likewise, a person is what can be imputed on the aggregate factors of body and mind. The six types of primary consciousness and the mental factors are the deepest true phenomena, because a person is labeled or imputed on them.

Although none of the Hinayana schools talk about the voidness of all phenomena, they do say that it is important to understand deepest true phenomena nonconceptually in order to gain liberation. The flavor is thus very much the same as the Mahayana discussion.

Theravada also has a very different explanation of karma, which is not found in the Sarvastivada schools or in Mahayana, but we will not go into that now.

With this introduction, we can begin to appreciate how the Hinayana schools of Theravada and Sarvastivada really are in the full flavor of the Buddhist teachings. This can help us to avoid making the mistake of forsaking the Dharma by saying that any of Buddha’s teachings are not Buddhist teachings. When we understand different schools properly from their own point of view, we develop a great deal of respect for all of the teachings of the Buddha. This is very important.

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