Theravada and Mahayana stages of Buddhist development

There are three stages of training. Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, as well as within each of those, the outer practices and the inner practices. New Buddhists should understand the different approaches most clearly in the similarities and differences between the first two stages.

There were 18 original Theravadin schools in the earlier times, but none exists in the pure form anymore. They have evolved into Buddhism practiced in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, as well as other places. Hinayana is a term used by the Mahayana. Hinayana means small vehicle. Mahayana means greater vehicle. You can see who named it.

However, Hinayana practitioners call their tradition Theravadan or the path of the elders. The outer practices of the pure Theravadan emphasize a reduction in interest in samsaric or worldly involvement. We are calling this the first of three stages of training, which means that in Tibetan Buddhism, the Hinayana does exist, not as a process in and for itself. It is an element of the Mahayana.

The Hinayana is the entry into spiritual discipline based on the reproducible effect. It is not a final entry into the enlightened state itself. In the outer practices, it reduces interest in unhappy activities. You have all been there the first time you said “I don’t think I will go to the rock and roll concert. It hurts my ears. It didn’t use to, but now it hurts my ears,” and you have entered a kind of Hinayana. You have reduced your involvement in samsaric interests to a certain degree. You feel that that is not quite so interesting as it used to be.

However, this is done in a structured manner, not just staying away from bad company, but in fact, much more. Renunciation is important because worldly life is suffering. We do not emphasize the ascetic lifestyle in the Mahayana and the Vajrayana, or take vows of poverty, but it generally works out that way, and we are okay.

However, among the Hinayana outer practices is the option of taking and keeping vows such as monastic ordination. In all of Buddhism, when one becomes ordained vows are taken in the Hinayana system. Holding vows lessens interest in worldly involvement, which is important in the outer practices. One might also or instead, take a general vow of following the noble eight-fold path. They are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Almost all of the teachings of the Hinayana path are based upon upon this plan. These are important and valuable processes to keep virtue and to keep from harming others and ourselves. It is all very good. We have no problem with it, and we need to have structure.

In the inner practices of the Hinayana, are the energetic practices associated with thought processes and concepts, taught in the outer Hinayana philosophy. These cause us to turn away from grasping after suffering states as being pleasurable. In the past, the need to grasp after objects seemed nice or exciting. However, grasping and clinging as a general state of mind are actually suffering. If it is a person you are clinging toward, this is suffering for both you and the other; filled with anxiety associated with uncertainty of having clinging returned or potential loss of the object of our clinging. Even if the whole world tells you it is pleasurable, grasping and desire are suffering. The Hinayana portion of the path helps us calm down regarding how things mistakenly appear as pleasurable. It is not complicated, requires no philosophical certificate to understand that all created phenomena are suffering.

The Mahayana or greater vehicle is different in the outer and inner practices. In the outer practices of the Mahayana, one uses the gains after having achieved a certain level of calming of the mind with the Hinayana portion or first of three paths. It is structured and based upon the nature of all things being empty of inherent existence. What is based on the Hinayana is also based on the truth of cessation, that things do not exist in the way you think. They are empty.

Since we are doing an overview, I will not go into that, although I would enjoy that. I will not, because the outer practices of the Mahayana are rooted in a fresh interest in the welfare of others in an ultimate sense. Feeling better, the emerging Mahayanist turns this inside out saying, “Oh, I am feeling better. Well, what about others who are still suffering from desire and grasping?”

This is the essence of the Mahayana. If I was feeling so bad, all other living beings are like me. What about them? I was so occupied before with myself, but in a funny way. And then, in my earlier practices, I was really focusing on my development. Now I am feeling better, and I can see that all other living beings are suffering at least as much or greater than I was. Therefore, the outer practices are defined by philosophy as well as techniques, for the benefit of others.

Outer practices include holding the 18 vows of Bodhichitta. These are important to your emerging new relationship to others, and focus on compassion practices and training. Studying and meditating on the nature of non-inherent existence or the logical doctrine of emptiness is also emphasized in the Mahayana.

In the Mahayana inner practices, the actual energetic changes stimulate inner development, in preparation to reject lower states of entry into perceived safety from worldly grasp. What seems to be a logical progression of entering into this state of non-being of the lower Nirvana or cessation, the goal of the Theravadin practices away from the grasping nature of the world is now rejected. We say, “There is a better way. There is more.”

Therefore, those who have entered the Mahayana train to reject personal liberation. This is energetic training as well as philosophical or intellectual training. The goal of the Mahayana is the full development of correct compassion combined with wisdom of how phenomena exist, as a path to become a benefit being after enlightenment. As a Mahayanist, you are not encouraged to be attracted to cessation. For the benefit of all sentient beings we continue learning and training, entering into various stages of enlightenment.


  1. Thank you for this clear explanation on the first two vehicles Rinpoche

    I remember being completely overwhelmed by all these terms in my earlier days as a student. Perhaps the process may go more smoothly for others as a result of the clarity of this explanation. I look forward to the next edition :)

  2. Practicing buddhism sustain a wholesome life that brings good karma in our daily living. All positive enlightenment is attained if one focuses on right words, thoughts and deeds. Establishing the right mindset, anyone can live a happy and blessed life.
    Tools & Gifts For Your Spiritual Practice


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