Philosophy 502 "World Religions"


by Dr Ron Epstein

These comments are meant as a supplement to the material in The World's Religions. It also offers some alternate views which you should compare point by point with those in Smith's chapter on Buddhism.

I. Some Differences between Hinduism and Buddhism

The Buddha denied the divine authority of the Brahmins, the Hindu priestly class. He set up a system of taking refuge with the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) in which a member of the Buddhist monastic community becomes the representative of the Three Jewels and the teacher of individual lay Buddhists. He also set up lineages of enlightened masters, who were entrusted with the task of carrying on the authentic teachings.

The Buddha also criticized all of the mere ceremony in Hinduism, especially ritual bathing and mortification ceremonies. He did, however, establish some rituals of his own. The Buddha set up rituals that could act as aids or vehicles in the inner journey towards the discovery of one's own true nature.

The Buddha was not interested in setting up a religion filled with religious dogma and metaphysical stances. He wished merely to give practical directions for people so that they could themselves permanently end their suffering. See the famous analogy of the arrow, which is quoted in Smith.

Since the Buddha was the historical founder of Buddhism, of course there was no tradition, but he was not anti-tradition. He did not believe in tradition for tradition's sake, but taught that one should take for one's own the Truth wherever it is found and discard that which is not the Truth. The system of lineage mentioned above was a way of ensuring that the Truth which the Buddha had discovered would not be lost.

The Buddha encouraged people of all classes and of both sexes to seek for enlightenment in this very life.

Although the Buddha did not deny the supernatural and stated clearly that there were gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, etc., that spiritual powers could be developed and that all enlightened beings have them, he did not recommend the worship of the gods, etc. and condemned fortune-telling and the display of spiritual powers without good reason.

II. Mahayana and Hinayana Compared

"'Mahayana' means 'great vehicle'; 'Hinayana' means' 'small

vehicle' or 'lesser vehicle'.

The modern representatives of the Hinayana belong to the Theravada School of Buddhism, which is found in Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia. Because Hinayana is a pejorative term, it is sometimes referred to as Southern Buddhism, while Mahayana is called Northern Buddhism because it came to be found in China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet.

Mahayana and Hinayana began not as separate schools but as alternative goals which were a matter of personal choice. The adherents of each lived and practiced together. Over the centuries they developed into different schools and eventually spread into different geographic areas.

What then are the different goals? The goal of the Hinayana is that of ending attachment to self and, thereby, becoming an Arhat, who undergoes no further rebirth. The Mahayana teaches that Arhatship is not an ultimate goal; its adherents follow the Path of the Bodhisattva, which leads to Buddhahood. The Bodhisattva is reborn voluntarily in order to aid all living beings to become enlightened. The realization of Buddhahood includes not only realization of the emptiness of self but also of the emptiness of dharmas, that is, of the entire psycho­physical world. [Emptiness is a Buddhist technical term that refers to the lack of real, permanent, inherent nature in any one, any thing, or any concept. Roughly speaking, it means that there are no real essences of people (i.e. selves) or of 'things' (dharmas).]

The Mahayana accepts all of the teachings of the Hinayana; however, the Hinayana rejects the Mahayana Sutras and does not recognize the "expansive" teachings of the Mahayana about Bodhisattvas and about the Buddhas of the other directions. The Hinayana primarily discusses the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, while the Mahayana in addition mentions Buddhas stretching infinitely into the past and Buddhas in other world-systems. However, the scriptures of the Hinayana do mention Buddhas prior to the Buddha Shakyamuni and Buddhas in other world-systems.

III. Further Comments on Mahayana and Hinayana

Western scholars often analyze the two in Western historical and social evolutionary perspective, an approach that makes little sense from a Buddhist point of view. (It is true that the two schools did develop historically and evolve socially, but that is not central to the Buddhist way of looking at things.) A Buddhist analysis has to do with alternate choices for pathway to enlightenment and different levels of enlightenment. As mentioned above, the main choices of the Hinayana and Mahayana are respectively:

1) Path of the Arhat--individual enlightenment with no consideration of others after entering nirvana. The Arhat

discovers that the self has no reality.

2) Path of the Bodhisattva--enlightenment of the Arhat not ultimate and not perfect wisdom. Therefore, one should strive for Buddhahood and in the process strive to enlighten all living

beings. The Bodhisattva is the one, who, after having escaped from the burning building (i.e, the conditioned world), rushes back inside to drag out all the others who are still inside. The Bodhisattva knows that not only is the self unreal but so too are the categories of the 'objective' world.

Although Buddhists of some schools sometimes talk about self effort and other power, according to Buddhist teaching the

distinction ultimately does not hold up, because the distinction between self and other is unreal.

The Buddha is not a savior in Mahayana. In both Mahayana and Hinayana enlightenment is not contingent upon others. If the Buddha had been able to grant enlightenment, he certainly would have enlightened all living beings.

Although in Mahayana there is no grace, there is the aid of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but we must remember that Buddhists do not consider them to be separate, ultimately, from themselves, from their own true (enlightened) minds.

Mahayana emphasizes compassion more than the Hinayana and recommends that it become universal. Mahayana also advocates a higher level of wisdom, that of the Buddha. Therefore, the Buddha is replete with perfect wisdom (not the imperfect wisdom of the Arhat) and universal compassion.

Mahayana is not primarily a religion for laymen as opposed to a monastic religion as some Western scholars have erroneously tried to claim. Originally both Mahayana and Hinayana had as their foundation strong monastic communities, which were almost identical in their regulations. Both Mahayana and Hinayana also provided a clear and important place for lay followers. Later in some Buddhist countries some independent lay movements started. They were atypical.

Both Mahayana and Hinayana have little use for intellectual speculation. The cosmologies of both are identical, except that in Mahayana the realms of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are described in greater detail. Also in Mahayana there is no clear dividing line between prayer and meditation.