Theravada as Mahayana

Is Theravada really Hinayana?

Progress & Conservation🔰
7 min readDec 5, 2023
A Buddha, generated using AI

I believe that Theravada Buddhism, as it exists today, is not the same thing as the “Hinayana” that was criticized in historical Mahayana texts. In this essay, I want to demonstrate that Theravada Buddhism teaches basically the same thing as Mahayana Buddhism. Even though it uses terms differently and has a different vocabulary, the fundamental teachings are identical, such that it makes little difference whether one practices their Buddhism within the framework of a Zen Buddhist community or a Theravadin community.

The One Vehicle in Theravada

The core doctrine of the Mahayana’s Lotus Sutra is the “one vehicle,” but this idea can be found also in Theravadin literature. Take the following passage, for instance:

“In what sense is this the path? In the sense that it is leading to nirvana, and that it is sought after by those who search for nirvana. . . . Including many samma-sam-Buddhas, from Tanharikara, Medhaiikara, Saranarikara, and Diparikara, who were born in one single aeon one hundred thousand and four immeasurable aeons before the present era, up to Sakyamuni [Gautama], and also several hundred paccekabuddhas, and also innumerable noble sravakas — all these beings, by this path itself, washed their defilements and attained the supreme holiness.” — Buddhaghosa (The Sumangala-Vilasini, Vol. III, as translated by Shanta Ratnayak in “The Bodhisattva Ideal of Theravada”)

This passage comes from Buddhaghosa. Notice here that he says that completely enlightened buddhas like Shakyamuni as well as pratyekabuddhas and sravakas all follow a single path to attain supreme holiness. This passage isn’t from the Lotus Sutra or from some Tendai or Nichirenist writer but straight from Buddhaghosa, the chief expounder of Theravadin doctrine. He says that the three vehicles are one. Compare this to what the Lotus Sutra says:

“At that time, there were twelve hundred shravakas in the great assembly who were undefiled arhats, including Ajnata-Kaundinya, as well as monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen aspiring to be sravakas and pratyekabuddhas. They all wondered, ‘For what reason does the World-Honored One extol skillful means so intently and assert that the Dharma attained by the Buddha is so extremely profound and difficult to understand, and why is the meaning of the words he speaks so difficult to grasp that not one of the shravakas or pratyekabuddhas can do so? The Buddha taught us a single principle of emancipation, and moreover, we attained this teaching and reached nirvana….
Therefore, Shariputra,
For their sake, I devise skillful means,
Teaching them about nirvana and showing it to them,
As the way to end their sufferings….
When these children of the Buddha have completed the Way,
They become buddhas in a future lifetime.
By the power of my skillful means
I reveal to them the teaching of
the three vehicles.
All the world-honored ones
Likewise expound the One Vehicle Way….
For there is no discrepancy between any of the words of the buddhas,
As they
are all the One Vehicle, and no second exists.” — The Lotus Sutra (Second fold, Chapter 2)

When the Lotus Sutra says that “the three vehicles are all one vehicle,” it is saying exactly the same thing as Buddhaghosa, the chief expounder of Theravadin doctrine, was saying in the passage we cited above. Even in modern Theravada, maha bodhisatta sila (“great bodhisattva conduct”) is the highest virtue. And the standard Theravadin formula for the transfer of merit includes the wish, “May all beings attain nirvana!” This means that, technically speaking, all Theravadin’s are on the bodhisattva path — i.e. they are Mahayanists. (Cf. Shanta Ratnayak’s “The Bodhisattva Ideal of Theravada”) There are technical differences between the ways in which terms like “bodhisattva” and “arahant” are applied in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions but, when we put aside semantics, the fundamental teaching is the same. The Hinayana sects criticized throughout historical Mahayana literature are not modern Theravadins but rather various sects that no longer exist.

The Mind-Only Idea

One may also be surprised to learn that Bhikkhu Bodhi, the foremost modern authority on Theravada, espouses Buddhism in a way that accords with the teaching of the Yogacara school and the Lankavatara Sutra. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:

“To free ourselves from suffering fully and finally we have to eliminate it by the root, and that means to eliminate ignorance. But how does one go about eliminating ignorance? The answer follows clearly from the nature of the adversary. Since ignorance is a state of not knowing things as they really are, what is needed is knowledge of things as they really are. Not merely conceptual knowledge, knowledge as idea, but perceptual knowledge, a knowledge which is also a seeing. This kind of knowing is called wisdom (panna). Wisdom helps to correct the distorting work of ignorance. It enables us to grasp things as they are in actuality, directly and immediately, free from the screen of ideas, views, and assumptions our minds ordinarily set up between themselves and the real….
“[W]e render dhamma as ‘phenomena,’ for lack of a better alternative. But when we do so this should not be taken to imply the existence of some noumenon or substance behind the phenomena.
The point of the Buddha’s teaching of anatta, egolessness, is that the basic constituents of actuality are bare phenomena (suddha-dhamma) occurring without any noumenal support.” — Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering)

What’s this?! Bhikkhu Bodhi is teaching that phenomena as we perceive them are projections of our mind! It seems that one of the foremost modern Theravadin authorities is espousing Yogacara abhidharma. This whole passage would feel right at home in a book on Zen or alongside some prajnaparamita text but it is actually coming from a Theravada source. This passage reads like something right out of the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra.

Two Truths and the Emptiness of Things

While the two truths doctrine and the idea of things (in addition to selves) as empty is usually associated with the Mahayana tradition in general and the Madhyamaka in particular, these ideas are also present in Nagasena, who is widely studied by Theravadins. Nagasena was technically a Sarvastivadin rather than a Theravadin. Sarvastivada and Theravada both emerged from the Sthavira Nikaya faction of early Buddhism, with Sarvastivada taking hold in northern India and using the Sanskrit translation of the Buddha’s discourses while the Theravada took hold in the south and used the Pali translation. The fact that Sarvastivada was a sister of Theravada coupled with the fact that Nagasena is widely used within Theravada makes Nagasena a relevant source for understanding Theravada.

In Nagasena’s Questions of King Milinda, a dialogue between Nagasena and Menander I, Nagasena is asked by Menander (Milinda) who he is — who is the person with whom Menander is interacting? His response is that people use the name “Nagasena” as a convenient designator or counter for him but that “there is no person here to be found.” Nagasena then goes on to argue for the lack of person (the Buddhist doctrine of not-self or anatman) in the familiar manner that the Buddha did throughout the Pali Canon, showing that each of the “five aggregates” of which the person is constituted is not a permanent or abiding controller, agent, or self. Menander then concludes, “‘Nagasena’ is a mere empty sound. What Nagasena is there here?…there is no Nagasena.” Nagasena then contends that Menander’s conclusion is wrong. The designator “Nagasena” is meaningful — it’s not a nonsensical “empty sound” — even though there is no concrete thing that is designated, it is a “convenient designator” for something. The person or self that is designated by the name “Nagasena,” he argues, is like a chariot. The “chariot” is not synonymous with the axle, the frame, or the wheels. At the same time, it is not just the collective name of the parts, for one could place all of the component parts in a random pile without it constituting a chariot. The term “chariot” is the name we use as a convenient designator of a particular arrangement of the axle, frame, wheels, etc. When we say “chariot,” we are actually saying something meaningful. We are using the term as a convenient designator for a particular arrangement of things that is meaningful or useful to us as a mode of transportation.

Nagasena’s argument here relies on the fact that ordinary things, like chariots, are empty of essence or “self-nature” in the same sense in which the person lacks self-nature. So we see here a broader application of the concept of emptiness, an application that applies to things other than the self. Furthermore, implicit in Nagasena’s argument is a notion of two truths. Nagasena and Theravadins may not formally state a “two truths” doctrine the way that Nagarjuna and Mahayanists do, but such a thing is very much implicit. When Nagasena says that there is no person, he is speaking of ultimate reality. Nagasena says, “In exactly the same way [as with the chariot], your majesty, in respect of me, ‘Nagasena’ functions as just a counter, an expression, a convenient designator, mere name… But ultimately there is no person to be found.” Nagasena is distinguishing between what is convenient or conventional truth and what is ultimate truth. If Nagasena’s argument here can be accepted by Theravadins, then this might somewhat bridge the gap between Theravada and Mahayana.

Conclusion

While Theravada and Mahayana schools do differ significantly when it comes to semantic matters regarding how terms are used, it should be emphasized that there is no substantial difference between modern Theravada and modern Zen in terms of their understanding of the Buddha’s teaching.

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Progress & Conservation🔰

Buddhist; Daoist, Stoic; Atheist, Darwinist; Mystic, Critical Rationalist; advocate of basic income, land value tax, and universal healthcare.