The name given to a branch of Buddhism primarily by its opponents. Between the first centuries b.c. and a.d., a new set of movements in Buddhism coalesced and came to refer to itself as the "Mahayana," or "Greater Vehicle," and designated its conservative opposition the "Hinayana," or "Lesser Vehicle." Thus, it should be clearly understood that this is a pejorative term that no Buddhist group ever adopted for itself.
The groups so labeled were found objectionable to the newly-arisen Mahayana on both moral and philosophical grounds. On the moral level, they were faulted for a lack of compassion for allegedly teaching that an individual's practice directly benefited only that individual, and that enlightened beings, or buddhas, simply escape the cycle of birth-and-death when their lives end. Mahayanists held that the merits gained from one's religious practice could be transferred to benefit others by an act of intention, and that to withhold such a transfer indicated a lack of concern for others. They also argued that a buddha, having perfected the virtue of compassion, would not simply abandon other suffering beings, but would remain in the world to assist them.
Philosophically, the Mahayanists objected to the "dharma" theory of earlier ontological works. The "dharmas" posited within these systems were much like "atoms" in ancient Greek philosophy: they were indivisible, eternal units that combined and recombined endlessly to create phenomena, thus demonstrating that all things were in flux and so could not be grasped. However, the Mahayanists felt that even these dharmas were not permanent and independent from their surrounding conditions, and so they promoted a philosophy of radical impermanence, stating that everything, even the dharmas of their opponents, were "empty" of any claim to self-existence or independence.
In the past, western scholarship has uncritically accepted the label "Hinayana" as a way of describing the eighteen (or sometimes twenty) schools of early Buddhism, from the Sarvastivadins in the north to the Theravadins in the south. However, in recent times scholars have sought a less offensive designation. One alternative is to use the term "Theravadin," the name of the only surviving school of this group; another is to refer to it as "southern Buddhism" and to call Mahayana "northern Buddhism." All proposed solutions present problems, and so some scholars continue to use the term "Hinayana," at least when referring to the constructed, straw-man opponent of the Mahayanists.
See Also: buddhism; mahayana.
[c. b. jones]
Hīnayāna is a pejorative term meaning "Lesser Vehicle." Some adherents of the "Greater Vehicle" (MahĀyĀna) applied it to non-Mahayanist schools such as the TheravĀda, the Sarvāstivāda, the MahĀsĀṂghika, and some fifteen other schools. This encyclopedia uses the term mainstream Buddhist schools instead of Hīnayāna.
John S. Strong