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Home >> Buddha Tourism India >> The Three Vehicles of Buddhism

The Three Vehicles of Buddhism

The very concept of Buddhism is such that a cursory glance is not enough to understand it fully. In fact, Buddhism is made up of many schools and traditions that add more to its meaning and character. To understand them better, these schools are often classified into three Yanas ('vehicles' or 'paths') - Hinayana, Mahayana and Tantrayana. However, many variations still exist and they have been discussed in detail in the pages related to the Buddhist traditions like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

What is the reason behind the presence of so many schools of Buddhism? As we try to search answers, we will note that Buddha was someone who preached his beliefs for many a decade. Going by the vast amount of knowledge he imparted to his followers and disciples, it was not very easy to decide on the exact interpretation of his words. The significance of his teachings varied from situation to situation and formed very contradicting theories. Besides, Buddha always reiterated that he did not intend to preach a doctrine but help his followers discover the path they needed to follow for their own development. He wanted people to decide for themselves the practices they wanted to follow and independently interpret his teachings without harping on a particular doctrine.


This tradition has based itself on the set of teachings decided by the Third Council to help it propagate Buddha's beliefs. It must be mentioned that Sri Lanka has played a major role in preserving the Theravada scriptures and practices. After the Third Council, the entire collection of the Tripitaka sutras was taken to Sri Lanka. Most of these were originally in the Pali language though there were some compiled in other languages as well. With the passage of time, all the teachings were translated into Pali (around 35 BC). Initially, the ordained Sanghas were known as "parivrajahas" or "wanderers" who used to assemble during the rainy season when traveling became difficult. However, with the donation of buildings and shelters made by philanthropists, the Sangha acquired a sense of stability and began to grow steadily. A century after the passing away of Buddha, the monasteries became the main custodians of his valuable teachings. Besides, many monastic rules were introduced and followed strictly.

Buddhism was banned for short while in Sri Lanka only to be restored with teachings from Thailand that had previously originated in Sri Lanka itself. The Theravada tradition is still alive in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.
The teachings on the Four Noble Truths and meditation form the basis of the Theravada school of Buddhism. The term "Hinayana" or "smaller Vehicle" appeared only much later, around the first century BC, when teachings of a different nature came into being and were collectively called "Mahayana" or "greater Vehicle."
In India, the non-Mahayana or Hinayana sects developed independently without being influenced by the school of Buddhism that flourished in Sri Lanka. Presently, the Hinayana tradition doesn't exist anywhere, though Theravada could easily be compared to Hinayana. The ultimate goal of Theravada and other non-Mahayana practices is to attain the state of Arhat since Buddhahood is considered practically unachievable for nearly everyone within this aeon.
Though service to fellow human beings and creatures is considered to be an important facet of Buddhism, the main motivation for treading the spiritual path is to achieve ultimate liberation for self, namely Nirvana.

It has always been believed that the term Hinayana carries negative connotations. Therefore, the World Fellowship of Buddhists decided to drop the term and refer to the form of Buddhism existing today as Theravada.


The Mahayana school of Buddhism supposedly came into being sometime during the 1st Century BC and 1st Century CE. Around 2nd Century CE Mahayana became clearly defined. At this point of time, master Nagarjuna came up with the Mahayana philosophy of "Sunyata" or "emptiness" that said, "everything is void". Nagarjuna's text called Madhyamika-karika explained this concept in quite a detailed manner. After the 1st Century CE, the Mahayanists took a definite stand and only then the terms of Mahayana and Hinayana were introduced.

Teachings of a different nature came into being around the first century CE. The terms Mahayana and Hinayana appeared in the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra or the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law. In the 4th century CE, masters Asanga and Vasubandhu wrote a lot about the Mahayana school of Buddhism. It must be mentioned that the Mahayana teachings were mainly in Sanskrit and are now called the Mahayana Sutras.

Over the years, a clear division arose between the schools following the traditional teachings and Mahayana. The main philosophical differences were small but they had profound consequences for the practices involved.

Based on the older tradition, the Mahayana school fully accepts these teachings but not all the traditional interpretations. For instance, the traditional interpretation says that Buddhahood can be achieved by very few. But Mahayana believes that every sentient being (every being with a mind) can become a Buddha. It is only the failure to improve one's own actions and state of mind that comes in the way of full enlightenment. The Mahayana school claims that all its sutras have been taught directly by Shakyamuni Buddha or have at least been inspired by the Buddha.

The main objective of Mahayana is to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. Liberation from the never-ending cycle of life (Nirvana) and Buddhahood for oneself are regarded simply as fortunate consequences of one's efforts to help all beings. In fact, the only possible motivation through which one can become a Buddha is the altruistic wish to lead every sentient being away from suffering.

This grand motivation is reflected in taking an additional set of vows, known as the Bodhisattva vows. These vows are not taken for this life only, but for all future lives till this goal is achieved. The main practices of a Mahayanist are summarized in 6 forms of perfection: the perfection of giving, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration and wisdom.

The tradition of Mahayana was mainly developed in North India and later spread to China and Tibet. In China, Buddhist philosophy and practice was often mixed with Taoist and Confucian aspects. From China, Mahayana Buddhism spread to other countries like Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Japan. It was in China where the Ch'an tradition evolved and was introduced into Japan where it later developed as Zen.

There is a very clear division between Theravada and Mahayana schools today but it was not so in the preceding centuries. But at that point of time, the monasteries in India were filled with monks of both traditions. It was considered very personal a decision to choose for individual liberation or Buddhahood. The monastic and ordination rules were quite the same with their teachings often overlapping to a great extent.


During the 6th century AD, many tantras or tantric texts emerged within the Mahayana tradition. Based on both the Hinayana and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism, the actual philosophy of Tantrayana differs only slightly from Mahayana though the practices can be quite different.

Before engaging in the tantric form of Buddhism, a proper understanding of the Hinayana and Mahayana philosophies is a must. Only then should one obtain initiation or permission from a qualified tantric master to engage in a specific tantric practice. Tantric practices are psychologically very profound techniques and are a swift means to achieve Buddhahood. This is considered very important, not only for the self but because as a Buddha one has the best achievable qualities to help others. The motivation is: 'the faster I can achieve Buddhahood, the sooner I can be of maximum benefit to others'.

Depending on the class of the tantra, one may need to take extra vows besides the Refuge and Bodhisattva vows. Specific commitments may also be required like daily recitation of mantras or a regular meditation practice. In the 8th century, the Mahayana and Tantrayana (or Vajrayana) forms of (North) Indian Buddhism were introduced in Tibet. As a matter of fact, it is only in Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia that a virtually complete set of tantric teachings has been preserved till today. The Tibetan tradition can also be found in the Himalayan range of Ladakh (Northwest India), Sikkim (Northeast India), Nepal and in Mongolia (that is identical to the Tibetan tradition). In countries like China, Korea and Japan, the remnants of Vajrayana can still be found. The term Sutrayana is used within the Mahayana to indicate the non-tantric Mahayana teachings.

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