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.
How, then, does one go about referring to the many important non-Mahayana schools of Indian Buddhism? Some of the terms used by contemporary scholars in place of Hinayana include Sectarian Buddhism (because of the eighteen schools, or “sects,” a term that has its own pejorative connotations in English), Nikaya Buddhism (using the Sanskrit word for the eighteen sects), and Conservative Buddhism (which, problematically, makes the Mahayana liberal). In recent years scholars have noted how much of the doctrine and practice of the “Hinayana” remained central to Mahayana Buddhism, countering the widely-held but mistaken impression that the earlier traditions were superseded and eclipsed with the rise of the Mahayana. The reports of Chinese pilgrims to India in the seventh century indicate that followers of the Mahayana and the “Hinayana” lived together in monasteries and maintained the same “Hinayana” monastic vows. (There are no monastic vows specific to the Mahayana, such that all Buddhist monks are in a sense Hinayana monks.) The reports further indicate that in many monasteries adherents of the Hinayana outnumbered those of the Mahayana. Thus, as an alternative to the polemical term Hinayana, Paul Harrison has suggested “Mainstream Buddhism,” and Jonathan Silk, “Background Buddhism.” Recently, in the introduction to a book I edited, Buddhism in Practice, I used the term “Foundational Buddhism” to refer to the Buddhist monastic communities and their supporters who did not accept the legitimacy of the new scriptures composed by followers of the Mahayana. Such a distinction was very clear to the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Yijing, who observed so succinctly about India, “Those who worship bodhisattvas and read Mahayana sutras are called Mahayana, while those who do not do this are called the Hinayana.”
There is no problem in calling the modern-day Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia Theravada. Nor will its followers (Asian or Western) take offense at being called Theravadins. They should not be called Hinayanists, however, both because it is a denigrating term and because the historical links between the modern Theravada and those schools once referred to as Hinayana (schools now long extinct) are nebulous. But what do we call those schools? Derogatory terms have often entered into common parlance. Members of the Society of Friends are called Quakers, members of the Millennial Church are called Shakers. So . . . what about Hinayana?
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your five free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.