In 1987, the Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor, Michigan, sponsored a conference on “World Buddhism in America.” The title was meant to convey the fact that representatives from various Buddhist traditions had gathered to talk about the current problems and prospects for their respective traditions in the United States. There were representatives from the Buddhist Churches of America, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, and the Vajradhatu Buddhist Church, in addition to various…In 1987, the Zen Buddhist Temple of Ann Arbor, Michigan, sponsored a conference on “World Buddhism in America.” The title was meant to convey the fact that representatives from various Buddhist traditions had gathered to talk about the current problems and prospects for their respective traditions in the United States. There were representatives from the Buddhist Churches of America, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, and the Vajradhatu Buddhist Church, in addition to various Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Korean, Sinhalese, Thai, Tibetan, and Zen groups. An unusual feature of the conference was the presence of both Asian and Western Buddhists, as well as American scholars of Buddhism. Thus, there were both Buddhists and Buddhologists (some inhabiting the same body).

In one of the early sessions, a distinguished scholar of East Asian Buddhism was discussing some of the polemical strategies employed in the Lotus Sutra, such as the ways in which Mahayana Buddhism attempted to assert its superiority over what it called the Hinayana. During the question-and-answer session, a woman rose to speak, sobbing. “I don’t appreciate being called a nigger.” The woman was white.

It eventually became clear that she was a student of a Theravada monk and had taken offense at the scholar’s use of the term Hinayana. There is much to ponder here, such as the ways in which Americans identify with their Asian teachers. But what I would like to consider briefly instead is the vexed question of what to do about Hinayana.

Hinayana is indeed a pejorative term. The new movements that arose in India some four centuries after the Buddha’s death came to designate themselves as the Mahayana, the “Great Vehicle” to enlightenment, and disparaged those earlier Buddhist schools who did not accept their new sutras as authoritative (that is, as the word of the Buddha). Members of these earlier schools, of course, never referred to themselves as Hinayana, a term often rendered euphemistically as “Lesser Vehicle,” “Individual Vehicle,” or “le Petit Véhicule.” In fact, the Sanskrit word hina means “inferior,” “base,” or “vile,” making Hinayana a put-down, a term of disrespect.

It has been common for Westerners to avoid the term Hinayana by replacing it with Theravada, thus dividing the Buddhist world into Theravada and Mahayana. That may work for describing the contemporary world scene, but in any discussion of Buddhist history, the division remains unacceptable because the terms Hinayana and Theravada do not designate the same groups. Of the traditional list of some eighteen Indian Hinayana schools with diverse doctrines, only one has survived to the present—the Theravada of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Thus Theravada cannot simply be substituted for the H word.

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