Religion as a Vehicle
The Sanskrit word yana means vehicle. Buddhism is broadly divided into yanas. A yana may encompass a variety of denominations, orders or sects. Different yanas are characterised by some common broad orientation, so the term can sometimes be used for the attitude rather than for the grouping.
The two best known yanas are Hinayana and Mahayana. Sometimes a third, Vajrayana, is added. Ambedkar, leader of the untouchables, also spoke of a Navayana, or “new vehicle.
I will say something about the yanas in Buddhism and also extend the term to a more general consideration of inter-religious study.
Hinayana and Mahayana are are generally distinguished by the attitudes they represent and these are two of the fundamental options in the spiritual life, whether Buddhist or any other. These options are (1) salvation as purity and (2) salvation as altruism.
In Hinayana there is an emphasis upon the necessity to take personal responsibility and walk the path alone whereas in Mahayana there is an emphasis upon generosity of spirit and altruism. The latter has further developed into an emphasis upon being saved by the Buddhas rather than saving oneself. After all, if the aim is altruism and if the Buddhas are the supreme examples, then they must be busy helping us. In a way, this development represents a third attitude. One could, perhaps, consider the other power approach to be a distinct yana.
Vajrayana is basically Mahayana plus Tantra. Tantra is the idea that all human energies can be transformed into elements of the spiritual path. It is thus a yoga of sublimation. Navayana is the term given by Bimrao Ambedkar to the movement that started in the 1950s to convert untouchables in India to a new form of Buddhism that was as much concerned with social emancipation as with spiritual salvation.
This suggests at least five different basic orientations that a religion might have: purity, altruism, entrustment, sublimation and social emancipation. No doubt there are others, but not an unlimited number. There are, surely, only a certain number of options.
Classification of Schools
Buddhist schools are often classified as being either Hinayana or Mahayana. In this case, Theravada is the primary Hinayana school. It has as its ideal the arhat, a saint who has overcome all spiritual obstacles and thus gone beyond desire. In the orient, the Vinaya School and some other small schools are also classified as Hinayana. Thus there are Hinayana schools in all the Theravada countries: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, where they are the predominant, and also in China and Vietnam where they are less major. Hinayana in Japan and Korea is purely academic. Tibetan Buddhism is virtually all Mahayana (or Vajrayana, which can be seen as a sub-category of Mahayana) and most of the Buddhism of China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan is Mahayana. In India Buddhism of both types has been reintroduced in the twentieth century.
It can also be clarifying to classify schools as belonging to the Indian cultural world or to the Sino-Japanese. This would give us a broad classification as follows:
|MAHAYANA||Tibetan||Pureland, Zen, Hua Yen etc.|
Vehicle is a useful idea. Whatever system one follows, it is a vehicle. Some vehicles go faster than others, some are more comfortable than others, but most will get you there. This is quite a good way of regarding different spiritual systems, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Religions are artificial. Like cars, they are created by humans. They are human attempts to reach toward what is beyond our mundane, conditioned, materialistic existence. This is true even if one believes that at the centre of one’s religion there is an omnipotent power, still the religion itself is our attempt to reach, serve or worship that power.
The spirit attempts to go beyond. Certain individuals in history have become exemplars and each has spoken of their experience in terms more or less accessible to the culture that they lived in, Jesus among the Jews, Buddha among the Indians, Lao Tze among the Chinese and so on. Traditions then form around their words, different ones emphasising different dimensions, and these traditions become useful vehicles for later seekers and practitioners. Buddha no doubt taught purity, altruism, faith, sublimation and emancipation and for him they were all part of a single vision, but we followers tend to separate the strands of the plait out and see contradictions where he saw facets of a unity.
The words can never be more than an aid, a vehicle, but they are useful nonetheless. We may each be on our singular journey, but sharing travellers' tales is an essential element in the art of navigating the mountains.
In some Mahayana literature we encounter the idea of three vehicles called the shravaka vehicle, the bodhisattva vehicle and the Buddha vehicle. This approach is most developed in the Lotus Sutra, which is often seen as the pinnacle of Mahayana. Evidently, the shravaka and bodhisattva vehicles are Hinayana and Mahayana respectively. This then is an attempt to say that these two are only provisional steps toward a higher vehicle, that of the Buddha’s themselves. This idea then becomes the foundation for a theory of skilful means that suggests that everything that Buddhas do and teach is to be thought of as skilful means toward the liberation of beings.
My idea in this article is essentially the same. Extending it to all religions, we can see that each religion or each major section of any great religion, constitutes a yana. One could make such an analysis of Christianity, with its protestant, catholic and orthodox yanas. The tragedy has been that too often in history people have fallen to fighting and cruelty through a failure to see that these are all just skilful means.