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Yāna (‘path, course’, ‘journey’, ‘vehicle, carriage’). A ‘way’ of progress, especially in Buddhism. The term is best known in Mahāyāna Buddhism, but it occurs in early Buddhism as well. Texts in the Pāli canon refer to the eightfold path as yāna (Therīgāthā 389). The locus classicus for the later use of the term is ch. 3 of the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra), which relates the parable of the burning house. In order to entice his sons (all beings) out of an old and decaying house (saṃsāra) that is engulfed by fire (suffering), the father (the Buddha) offers three kinds of cart (ratha) pulled by goats, deer, and bullocks. Wishing to have these toys, the children rush out of the house. But the father gives them all the third and best kind of cart, the one drawn by great (mahā) white bullocks. This cart is the great vehicle (mahā-yāna). (The other two are vehicles suited to people of lesser spiritual aspirations.) It is explicitly stated in this chapter that the Buddha's action is skill-in-means (upāya-kauśalya). He offers three kinds of yāna but only actually gives one—the mahā-yāna or buddha-yāna or eka-yāna (‘single vehicle’)—which leads all beings to become Buddhas (Lotus Sūtra 3. 89–91).

This running together of the terms upāya and yāna is crucial to understanding the meaning of yāna in Mahāyāna texts, and it has a number of far-reaching consequences that totally transform its usage (compared with early Buddhism). First, yāna refers to the various means (upāya) that are used by the Buddha to bring beings to enlightenment.

Secondly, because these devices are really only modifications of the one truth, yāna also means that one truth or liberation itself.

Thirdly, because this eka-yāna is the same as the Buddha, it can never be limited or defined or even pointed to. Here we enter the paradoxes of Mahāyāna metaphysics. One cannot get at the beginning, middle, or end of this one great vehicle (Aṣṭasāhasrikā-Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra 23); hence in the last analysis, there is no yāna and no one who rides it (Laṅka 135). It is just like space, which contains all forms but itself has no form and can never be got hold of. In typical Mahāyāna style, therefore, we are offered everything and nothing at the same time.

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